In 2015, a fire erupted at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, immediately killing 27 people. In the weeks that followed 37 more would die from their injuries due to inadequate medical treatment and hospital infections.
This tragedy, which led to widespread protests, would become an emblem of the incompetence and corruption of Romania’s Social Democrat government, exposing a healthcare system rife with medical malpractice and pharmaceutical corruption.
In the days that followed the fire official statements from the Minister of Health Nicolae Banicioiu insisted that Romanian hospitals were capable of treating the 180 burn victims despite the absence of a single effective burns unit.
Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau follows in real time the investigation that would expose the lies of the state. Unfolding like a journalistic thriller, headed by journalist Cătălin Tolontan a team of journalists at sports paper Gazeta Sporturilor uncover the source of the deadly bacterial infections – disinfectants and antiseptics supplied to Romania’s hospitals diluted up to 10 times and containing only 1% of active ingredients. Nanau’s observational style provides a glimpse into the notoriously secretive space of the newsroom, following the investigation on the ground, capturing every break in the story and every moment of hard-won truth.
In Collective’s second act our perspective on the scandal shifts –following the resignation of Health Minister Banicioiu, a former patient activist Vlad Voiculescu is instated pledging transparency and reform. With access to Voiculescu’s private meetings and briefings Nanau takes us behind the scenes of government. Through meetings with victims and whistle-blowers alike Nanau reveals a man struggling against profound legacies of institutionalised corruption.
Urgent, chilling and totally engrossing Collective is an important reminder that dysfunctions of the state are life or death for vulnerable citizens – a message made all the more poignant by a global pandemic coinciding with the film’s release.
Tipped to win big at this year’s Academy Awards watch it now on demand in all the usual places!
The opening moments of Honeyland (2019) are astonishing for their breath-taking natural beauty. In this forgotten corner of North Macedonia, vast mountains stretch uninterrupted across the horizon and the land, Eden-like, is wild and untouched. A lone woman, Hatidze edges along a rocky cliffside. From a crack in the mountain, she removes a section of rock to reveal a mess of hidden beehives beneath. With her bare hands she gently removes giant slabs of honeycomb. As bees swirl around her, Hatidze sings the mantra ‘Half for them-half for me’. Returning home, to a stone hut amongst the ruins of a long-abandoned village, Hatidze tends to her sick mother Nazife. The pair survive on jars of honey Hatidze sells in the nearest city Skopje, trips that puncture their almost total isolation. It is a life of hardship and of beauty, lived in delicate communion with the natural world.
But with the sudden arrival of cattle farmer Hussein Sam and his family on the land nearby, comes sudden disruption to the delicate balance of life here. Despite their differences Hatidze forges connection with the family, even beginning to teach Hussein and his sons how to keep bees guided by the tradition of always leaving the hive with half of the honey. But this harmony is short lived, when the allure of profit and pressures of poverty find Hussein disregarding Hatidze’s advice. Hussein becomes a chaotic force upon the landscape with consequences that put Hatizde’s entire way of life at risk.
Drawn initially to the region by a commission to produce a short film on the conservation efforts in the area surrounding the river Bregalnica, Directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska saw their focus shift upon meeting Hatidze one of the last of the nomadic beekeepers in Europe. Shot in verité style over the course of three years, the pair would go on to capture with great sensitivity, four seasons of Hatidze’s life. Through a single figure, Stefanov and Kotevska create a visually poetic film, a personal epic which forms a captivating allegory for the modern relationship to nature, the dangers of over-farming and capitalism’s exploitation of the natural world.
Every inch of Honeyland is visually stunning. Stefanov and Kotevska’s portrayal of the natural world provides a window into a land untouched. Nature feels ever-present as the region moves from the warm colour palette of the summer months to the cool white snow which descends in the winter. Hatidze’s practice of wild beekeeping naturally forms Honeyland’s heart – amid the hum of hive, honey glistens and bees disappear into honeycomb.
Stefanov and Kotevska also find beauty in the social sphere. The many candlelit scenes which find Hatidze caring for her mother are striking both for their visual beauty and their intimacy. Even amid the bubbling chaos of the Sam family’s make-shift home nearby the camera is totally invisible, creating a level of intimacy that makes it hard to believe the film is not scripted. Honeyland’s protagonist Hatidze is magnetic. Brimming with natural charisma and warmth – she is as Stefanov and Kotevska term her ‘a born star’. Her gentleness and vulnerability are a pleasure to watch but it is her weather worn face, with its deep creases and expressive eyes that hold the attention of any scene.
Despite Hatidze’s optimism, life on the edge of society has cultivated a sense a deep loneliness that emerges as speech strays into the profound. There is often a Beckettian quality to Hatidze and her ageing mother Nazife’s conversations found in moments where Nazife asks ‘will there be spring?’ or says ‘I have become a tree’. In one particularly memorable scene Hatidze meditatively admits to the Sam family’s eldest child ‘if I’d had a son like you, things might be different’.
Beyond the fates of Hatidze, her bees, and the Sam family, Honeyland finds unique power in its potential for allegory. In Hussein’s wilful compromise of Hatidze’s ancient beekeeping principles lies an almost fable-like account of capitalism’s effects on the natural world. In this light, Honeyland becomes a timely portrait of man’s relationship to nature – both our potential for communion and modernity’s tendency toward destruction.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
Honeyland is available on On Demand for a few £ in all the normal places.
‘When I ate his sushi, I felt like I was listening to music’. Renowned food critic Mashuhiro Yamamotos’ description of dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro captures the heart of David Gleb’s 2011 exploration of Tokyo’s most celebrated sushi restaurant and its master chef Jiro Ono. If eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro is like listening to music, Gleb’s portrayal of its preparation is like watching ballet. He offers a mouth-watering glimpse into the kitchen of a ‘shokunin’ or ‘master craftsman’, where hands dance and food glistens. Widely acknowledged as the greatest living sushi craftsman, Jiro Ono’s innovative methodology and minimalist style won his restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro three Michelin stars, the first of this coveted honour to be awarded to a sushi restaurant. In his study of Sukiyabashi Jiro Gleb presents a culinary practice deeply connected to notions of perfection, obsession and legacy – an ode to a true master as he approaches the end of an illustrious career.
The journey from ocean to plate (or more precisely, from Tsukiji fish market to plate) emerges in Jiro Dreams of Sushi as Gleb’s central narrative force. This structure, which focuses on sourcing, preparation and service at Sukiyabashi Jiro, reflects the value of detailed preparation found at the core of Jiro’s culinary method. Most compelling is Gleb’s depiction of Jiro’s apprentices who train (often for free) under Jiro for ten years in pursuit of the title of ‘shokunin’. With quasi-religious dedication apprentices must prove their total commitment to the craft by repetitively mastering Jiro’s techniques, beginning by hand-squeezing hot towels and only after ten years is one trusted to cook an egg. The ultimate value of precision and detail in Jiro’s kitchen is expertly captured by long stretches of montage which inspire an almost sensual pleasure as shots follow hands expertly stroking, slicing and pressing.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s most entertaining moments are found in scenes accompanied by the eccentric characters who surround the aging chef. We meet for example Jiro’s ‘anti-establishment’ tuna dealer who expertly navigates a tuna filled warehouse as it descends into a chaotic vision of a trading room floor, and later, a ‘rice dealer’ who refuses to supply other clients with rice only Jiro knows how to cook.
Above all Gleb cultivates an understanding of Jiro’s craft as an artform. The principally classical score of Richter and Glass lend a balletic quality to movement and crisp shots see single completed pieces of sushi appear like minimalist sculpture. If Jiro’s sushi is art, it is perhaps performance art, for these moments of aesthetic perfection are by design fleeting, their value is found instead in the process itself and lives on in the more abstract experience of taste.
At the age of eighty-five the spectre of retirement looms over Gleb’s portrait of Jiro Ono. In interview, an anxious awareness of legacy seems to underpin contributor’s discussions of Jiro’s future retreat from professional life, no one more than for his two sons Yoshikazu and Takashi. Jiro’s eldest son Yoshikazu works alongside his father in the kitchen of Sukiyabashi Jiro and is set to take over the restaurant upon his retirement, whilst Jiro’syoungest son Takashi heads up a new branch Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills. In one striking conversation Yoshikazu and Takashi briefly touch on the traditionally Japanese cultural expectation that the eldest son must exceed the achievements of the father, saying ‘when the father is too successful, the son can’t surpass him’.
The figure of Jiro himself adds an almost philosophical dimension to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Elderly and slight, he often moves silently through frames as a calming but authoritative presence. There is a consistently poetic quality to Jiro’s speech which sees him reflect upon his career, creativity, work ethic, sacrifice and skill. He describes for instance ‘visions of sushi’ appearing in his dreams and in almost proverb-like wisdom dictates ‘You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success and the key to being regarded honourably’.
These personal and familial aspects of life at Sukiyabashi Jiro are undoubtedly of secondary concern for Gleb as explorations of complex familial dynamics and Jiro’s emotional life and childhood are often left wanting. And yet there is an authenticity to Gleb’s structure which like Jiro, privileges the craft above all else. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is ultimately a celebration of a culinary philosophy and of an artist totally consumed by his craft. The lessons of Jiro Dreams of Sushi reach beyond the world’s finest restaurants, for what is more inspiring than the endless pursuit of perfection?
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you watch it?
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available for free to subscribers to Mubi and is available to rent for a couple of ££ in all the normal places.
For so many, no film genre defines their teenage years like the romantic comedy. With their aesthetic idealism, warmth, and promise of a fairy-tale ending, rom-coms often forge lifelong relationships with their viewers, to be watched over and over from adolescence and throughout adulthood. This is true for Elizabeth Sankey, who begins Romantic Comedy (2019) by confessing to her ‘obsession’ with the genre. She describes an infatuation ‘so powerful’ that it would become part of her identity, informing her experiences as a young woman and providing reference points for love, fulfilment and success. Sankey’s ‘uncomplicated’ relationship to romantic comedies would endure until her marriage, the point to which all rom-coms aspire but also end. Without the guidance of the films she loved, Sankey began to reflect on the imperfections of the genre that had so shaped her life. In response, she created Romantic Comedy, a comprehensive meditation on the genre’s history, problematic gender politics, and why it is that we just can’t stop watching.
As a genre romantic comedies are incredibly formulaic. Even the casual viewer will recognise well-worn tropes like the declaration of love, the big white wedding, and the Hollywood kiss but to name a few. What Sankey is interested in are the equally present, but decidedly more subtle, themes of misogyny, heteronormativity and whiteness. Romantic Comedy’s structure, consisting of over 100 moments from romantic comedies aided only by voiceover is essential to the persuasiveness of her argument. At every turn Sankey supports her analysis with carefully selected moments from well-known and highly popular romantic comedies creating a strikingly didactic style.
Sankey begins her exploration of female representation in romantic comedies with the films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, a moment which saw the genre explode in popularity thanks to the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Pretty Woman (1990). As such, it is the female characters from this period that provide Sankey with her the most effective material. She argues that women in romantic comedies can largely be understood as belonging to one of the following categories; The Clumsy Career Woman (see Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Proposal etc), The Muse (see Garden State, Forgetting Sarah Marshall etc), and the most enduring of all The Cool Girl (see Miss Congeniality, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days or any Cameron Diaz movie). Within these character tropes, which Sankey demonstrates are commonplace within the genre, she finds the troubling reinforcement of gender roles built upon misogynistic ideals.
Sankey’s acknowledgment that romantic comedies are often written by men, produced by a patriarchal industry, and marketed almost exclusively to women and young girls, prompts a turn to the history of the genre. Is misogyny part of the DNA of romantic comedy? Her brief exploration of romantic comedy’s history forms perhaps the films most interesting segment. She traces the ebb and flow of liberalism and conservatism in gender roles from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the present day, armed with rich moments of archive. Her momentary discussion of the progressive impact of Marilyn Monroe on sexual politics and the effects of her comparatively chaste successor Doris Day is particularly thought provoking.
Sankey’s analysis of male characters, although less extensive, is also fruitful. Here she presents only ‘The Tenacious Man’, a character whose sexual aggression and relentless pursuit of women is rewarded and coded as a willingness to ‘do whatever it takes.’ What is common to both male and female characters however is their whiteness. Sankey exposes the overt absence of non-white characters in romantic comedies and suggests that their exclusion implicitly signals an incompatibility with the Hollywood ideal. The same can be said for LGBTQ+ characters through the lack of same sex love stories, and the presence of dangerous stereotyping. Romantic Comedy’s exploration of the issues of sexuality and race gain strength from Sankey’s acknowledgment of her own white, heteronormative perspective, as well as the film’s diverse set of contributors which include the likes of Cameron Cook, Simran Hans and Eleanor McDowall. Where Sankey’s analysis is self-consciously wanting is on the representation of Trans identities in romantic comedies. This makes the documentary Disclosure an important companion to Romantic Comedy through its comprehensive exploration of Trans representation on screen.
So why then do we continue to watch? The answer, for Sankey, is simple. Because it is pleasurable. Because beneath the genre’s flaws she finds an opportunity to watch characters fall in love, to escape the everyday and forge human connection. The coexistence of both critique and celebration within Romantic Comedy form perhaps Sankey’s most effective reflection on the genre. Despite the film’s lecturelike quality and sharp criticisms the magic of romantic comedies manage to endure. Romantic Comedy emerges, like its subject matter, as a warm and pleasurable watch. In more practical terms, Sankey also extends her analysis to the popularity of the genre. She argues for the powerful influence of romantic comedies upon some of the most commercially and critically successful films of recent years (citing La La Land and God’s Own Country) and looks to the growing diversity of contemporary rom-coms like The Big Sick for the promise of a more progressive future for the genre. Romantic Comedy is then not an instruction to stop watching, but a reminds us of the power of film to inform our reality.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
You can watch Romantic Comedy for free by signing up to Mubi’s 7-day trial.
More like this?
Sam Feder’s Disclosure which is available on Netflix tackles a full history of transgender representation in Hollywood.
As governments around the world struggle to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, attentions turn to the healthcare systems on the front line. The effects of the virus on regions with weak public health services and endemic poverty rates have been inevitably catastrophic. The soaring death rates in countries like Brazil and Mexico have underlined the importance of universally accessible healthcare and further exposed the devastating impact of historically underfunded healthcare infrastructure. In Mexico City alone, 8,253 deaths have been reported, with the true figure likely to be much higher. In May, The New York Times found that the government had failed to report thousands of coronavirus related deaths in the city. Luke Lorentzen’s 2019 exploration of Mexico City’s private ambulances Midnight Family, serves as a timely reminder of the fragilities of the city’s health care system- fragilities that would come to characterise its response to the coronavirus.
Midnight Family opens with a sobering statistic, we learn that only 45 state ambulances service Mexico City’s 9 million citizens. In the absence of the state, private ambulances ferry the injured to hospitals for a fee. Director Luke Lorentzen follows one such team of paramedics, the Ochoa family, comprising; the patriarch Fer and his sons, Juan (16) and Josque (10). We follow the Ochoas across 85 nights spent racing to trauma led by tip offs from private insurance firms or police radio. In moments, Midnight Family appears as a heart pounding ride-along, whilst at others it seeks to interrogate the moral issues at play in the Ochoas work and the lives of a family struggling to overcome poverty.
Midnight Family’s journey into the private ambulance system makes for a strikingly visceral and chaotic viewing experience. Lorentzen’s observational style crafts an adrenaline-fuelled ride filled with countless scenes to rival those of a Hollywood car chase, only here the stakes are much higher. The film adopts a captivating rhythm of stillness punctuated by lurches into chaos, mirroring the erratic nature of the Ochoa’s work. Rare moments of relative quiet found in hospital admissions or in deserted streets are routinely interrupted by news of trauma unfolding across the city, heralded by a cracking police radio. Deafening sirens, and flashes of blue and red light follow as the Ochoas screech through the city racing competing ambulances to sites of violence, accidents and traffic collisions. In some of the film’s most compelling scenes they attend a victim of a gunshot wound and resuscitate an unconscious baby. Lorentzen meets these moments of acute crisis with compassion, choosing to focus on the faces of the emergency team rather than the injured.
For much of Midnight Family we are encouraged to view Mexico City’s healthcare crisis through a distinctly personal lens. The film’s dual focus on the Ochoas as both an emergency response team and a family unit enable Lorentzen to contextualise the effects of privatisation on an economically unequal society. We are witness to their struggle to survive, to meals foregone and nightshifts worked without payment. It is this awareness of the family’s financial situation that informs our perception of the various ethical issues at play in their work. The transactional quality of the care the Ochoas provide weighs heavily on many of the scenes in Midnight Family. Most memorably in the film’s climax, the Ochoas attempt to transport a woman who has fallen from the sixth floor of a building to hospital. Accompanied by her mother, she passes away during the journey. In the following scene we hear audio of Fer asking for payment, which is met by the mother’s claim that the family had transported her daughter not to the best or nearest hospital, but to one where they could expect a higher fee. In moments like these, our relationship to the Ochoas is tested and uneasiness creeps into our perception of their work. And yet Lorentzen resists absolute moral judgement and instead presents the family as imperfect actors operating within a broken system, where their moral choices are coloured by their own struggle to survive. In one scene, Juan tells Lorentzen ‘this city would be a mess without private ambulances’ and in some respects Midnight Family reinforces this statement as state ambulances are noticeably absent from every single incident the Ochoas attend. But importantly Lorentzen’s film also exposes the real potential for private ambulance services to exploit those who are in need, and it’s the coexistence of these two truths which makes Midnight Family’s depiction of private ambulances so compelling.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
Midnight Family is available to rent or buy on various streaming platforms. Rent it on Google Play for 2.99, with Amazon Video for 3.49 or on Dogwoof’s platform for 3.50.
Roxy Rezvany’s short film Little Pyongyang tells the story of Joong-wha Choi a North Korean defector now living in the South London suburb of New Malden. Joong-wha’s subtle and stylised portrait sheds light on a notoriously secretive refugee community, revealing a shared plight of North Koreans searching for new life. In its sensitive portrayal of refugee experience on our own doorstep Little Pyongyang emerges as the antidote for Western visions of North Korea that sensationalise the regime and dehumanise its citizens. Rezvany instead chooses to tell less familiar North Korean tale, one of childhood, family, loss, and home.
Rezvany’s desire to reinvent a North Korean narrative is matched by her innovative take on interview form. Through stylised set design Rezvany allows space in Little Pyongyang to act as an essential storytelling tool. Rezvany situates Joong-wha’s testimony within a curiously pink walled room. Its 1980’s furniture and rigid colour scheme combine to create a scene reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s distinct visual style. From the rooms centre, seated on a comfortable chair Joong-wha speaks directly to camera, his aqua marine shirt completing the colourful aesthetic.
Joong-wha sighs, closes his eyes for a moment and murmurs ‘well, that’s a baffling question.’ The question that provokes Joong-wha’s contemplative answer is, perhaps, surprisingly commonplace-‘where is your home?’ But it is in this exchange that Little Pyongyang discloses its thematic heart. In Little Pyongyang Rezvany asks us to question the complex and myriad meanings of ‘home’, seeking to expose how they are formed and reformed as ‘home’ collides with the realities of life as a refugee.
It is fitting then, that we find Joong-wha in this strange quasi-domestic space. As we explore in interview Joong-wha’s complicated relationship to his homeland, Rezvany encourages the viewer to understand the pink room as its spatial manifestation. As a home now only accessible in memory, the pink room appears suitably frozen in time, recognisably domestic and yet abstract. As Joong-wha speaks the pink room’s furnishings are revealed as the relics of a life left behind. These objects anchor Joong-wha’s testimony and ensure their full emotional impact is felt without the need for dramatisation. Memorably, as Joong-wha describes the food shortages that caused his brother’s death the camera remains fixed on a single bowl of rice illuminated under a spotlight. Animated by Joong-wha’s memory this formerly familiar object is transformed into a haunting symbol of life and death. Rezvany’s creation of such visual language is testament to her deeply compassionate approach to storytelling. In Little Pyongyang Joong-wha appears in control of his own narrative as the meanings of his memories remain authentically ambiguous and are guided only by the symbols that accompany them.
Little Pyongyang’s exploration of home is equally compelling when we venture beyond the pink room into New Malden. Through Joong-wha we glimpse life amongst the largest community of North Korean’s outside of South Korea in the world-a fact that has earned the suburb the nickname ‘Little Pyongyang.’ As a human rights activist and prominent member of the community, Joong-wha is well positioned to provide real insight into the practical challenges facing the community. But far more difficult to overcome than access to housing or language, we learn, are the profound psychological challenges that accompany forced dislocation from your homeland. In its articulation of these struggles Little Pyongyang is masterful. Joong-wha’s testimony captures the daily reckoning with trauma, guilt and fear that are so common to refugee experience without positioning the viewer as a voyeur to suffering. But Joong-wha’s is not a despairing tale. Whilst it is defined by a longing for connection with his homeland, it bares witness to a community actively forging a new legacy for their children.
Speaking on Little Pyongyang Rezvany recalls her desire to ‘make a film that would genuinely bring something new to the table, and that would also contribute to the North Korean community for future generations too.’ I find with this tender and deeply human film she has done just that.
It is November 9th in 2016, the now infamous night of the American election and the date from which Moore takes his title, one that calls back to his Palme d’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11. Armed with the distance of years in Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore guides us through the circus of election night in his characteristic ‘all knowing’ narrative style.
Moore transports us back to Washington DC, a journey accompanied by the soundtrack of countless news outlets decrying the possibility of a Trump victory and asserting with certainty Hilary’s accent to presidency. We return to Hilary’s ‘victory party’ an extravagant glass venue filled with her supporters anticipating the metaphorical smashing of its glass ceiling. Looking back in this way there is a striking sense of unreality to the evening. Is it the slick corporate theatre of American politics. What kind of absurdity is Moore referring to when he asks ‘was it all a dream?’ Because of course it wasn’t a dream.
2016 saw the election of a president few, not least Donald J Trump, had expected. It is here that Moore lays out Fahrenheit 11/9’s central premise, an attempt to answer the question ‘HOW THE FUCK DID WE GET HERE?’
For a film dubbed ‘Moore’s Trump Movie’ Fahrenheit 11/9’s focus on the Trump administration and the man himself, is surprisingly fleeting. Moore skates quickly over depressingly familiar ground, citing Trump’s ties to Russia, his misogyny (with particular emphasis on his inappropriate behaviour toward Ivanka), and his blatant racism. Moore does however recast this information in his own distinct style, by boldly injecting humour and highlighting farce. It is our sense of familiarity that drives Moore’s pacing and motivates the political satirist to keep the figure of Trump at the film’s edge. Moore instead desires to probe the causes of our familiarity. Trump, Moore states, has ‘always played the media for suckers’ and Fahrenheit 11/9 aims to expose Trump’s tentacle-like control of American media. Moore most effectively points to the complicity of the press through the damning audio recording that sees the President of CBS say ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…the money’s rolling in it’s amazing.’
There are of course some less familiar themes, like for example Moore’s claim that no one ‘is more to blame’ for Trump’s Presidency than (you guessed it) Gwen Stefani. Most memorable is Moore’s comprehensive comparison of the Trump era to Nazi Germany. It is not however the lazy and worn Hitler/Trump comparison you might expect, although there is plenty of material for that avenue of thought (“there were very fine people on both sides”). Instead, Moore sketches a decidedly historical argument. He cites the status of 1940’s Germany as a cultured and educated democracy that too fell victim to a charismatic, autocratic leader promising jobs. He finds further similarities in the reaction of the media and Hitler’s use of ‘states of emergency’ to efface democracy. Moore’s argument is well researched, and even includes interview with the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor. But, of course no Moore/Trump/Hitler comparison would be complete without footage of a Hitler rally clumsily dubbed over with a Trump speech- a moment that elicits Moore’s distinctive brand of laughter, that mixture of horror and humour.
Fahrenheit 11/9 then, isn’t really a ‘Trump movie’ at all, choosing instead to focus on what brought us here. The film takes a somewhat surprising turn for those expecting a liberal love song as Moore lays the blame primarily with the Democrats and not the Republicans. America, Moore argues is an essentially leftist country citing that 71% of Americans are prochoice, 75% think immigration is good for the US and 74% want stricter climate change actions among other powerful statistics. So if liberals make up the American majority Moore asks, why has conservative politics consistently dominated American government? Fahrenheit 11/9 persuasively makes a case for the historic failure of the Democratic Party, finding them guilty of bowing to profit, upholding established seats of power, and even rigging the 2016 democratic primary. His argument is most successful in its use of the 2014 Flint Michigan Water Crisis, which saw a city in the poorest state in the country knowingly poisoned with contaminated water in pursuit of private profit. Moore draws telling comparisons between Trump and Michigan’s Governor and demonstrates how democratic governments (even under Obama) where actively paving the way for the politics we see today. The testimony Moore collects from Flint’s residents is utterly heartbreaking, and as a Michigan native himself Moore can be forgiven for allowing the issue the largest portion of the film’s attention to ensure those affected gain a voice.
Despite the decidedly bleak picture Moore paints, Fahrenheit 11/9 is not without hope. Moore finds it in the various pockets of activism and grass-roots political movements across the country. We spend time with the West Virginia Teachers and The Parkland High School Students, who each provide an exciting prospect for change. Moore should also be given credit for highlighting several rising stars in the Democratic Party in his film. By including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib prior to their election to congress, Moore anticipates their energising effect on the political landscape. But perhaps ‘hope’ is the wrong word. Hope in Fahrenheit 11/9 is not assured. In interview Moore confesses ‘I don’t know how much hope I have left’ and that is certainly felt in his film. What Moore does seem sure of however, is the urgency of the change needed and the necessity to understand just what is at stake if that change fails to come, American Democracy.
Reading the critical response to Moore’s latest film I am struck by how much of a polarising figure he has become. Many take issue with Moore’s very particular style of storytelling, one that keeps himself as protagonist and guides the viewer with at times painful simplicity through his chosen anti-establishment topic. Particular venom is reserved for Moore’s ‘stunts’ that have become a regular feature of every film (In Fahrenheit 11/9 he attempts to put Flint’s governor under citizens arrest). But it is this style, which turns off so many, that makes Moore such an effective political filmmaker. He is able to condense vast swathes of information into only 2 hours. 2 hours that desire not only to inform but also to entertain. What you cannot question is Moore’s commitment to understanding the American politics, after all he was one of the few that saw Trump coming…
More like this?
As I mentioned, Moore’s films are all very distinctive in style, so if you enjoyed Fahrenheit 11/9 I would encourage you to take a look at the rest of his catalogue.
Some of my favourites are:
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Available on Netflix)
Where to Invade Next (Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)
Bowling for Columbine (Also available on Netflix)
Where can you find it?
It is availableon netflix and to rent via Amazon Prime and Sky On Demand
McQueen (2018) documents the extraordinary life and career of the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. Born to a working-class family in 1970’s London, McQueen would go on to become one of the most influential and globally recognised fashion designers of modern times. McQueen, co-directed by Ian Bohôte and Peter Ettedgui, charts a meteoric rise to fashion stardom. From his start working as an apprentice tailor on Saville Row, we follow McQueen as he becomes the creative director of Haute Couture fashion house Givenchy, and establishes his own iconic company Alexander McQueen. McQueen is at once a celebration of genius and a study of the mind behind the clothes. We glimpse in McQueen a man of singular magnetism struggling with the darkness that would lead to his untimely death, when at the age of 40 McQueen took his own life. It is through Bohôte and Ettedgui’s holistic and supremely sensitive approach, that this documentary comes to act as a mode of reckoning with the profound loss of McQueen’s death, both to those who loved him most and to British cultural life.
McQueen’s co-director Peter Ettedgui describes Documentary as a process of collage, the purposeful collection of various materials to craft a larger picture. This is certainly true of McQueen as a comprehensive portrait of the designer is constructed through the skilful balance of never-been-seen archive footage, interview, and his own work. The centrality of archive footage in McQueen is particularly effective as it creates the impression that Lee’s story is being told in his own words, in conversation with the contributions of friends and family. The figure that emerges from these elements is fully formed -a man of striking light and dark.
As the son of a cab driver from London’s east end, by simply being himself McQueen broke with fashion’s status quo. Straight talking, mischievous, funny and sensitive Lee’s character is felt in every inch of this film and yet it escapes final definition. In this preservation of the complexity in Lee’s character I locate one of McQueen’s real strengths. It avoids the temptation to define McQueen, preferring to allow definitions of the designer to remain as mutable as the unpredictable creative energy that seemed to swirl around him.
McQueen is most successful in its portrayal of Lee’s talent. The moments of archive that see McQueen at work in the studio are mesmerising. Wielding scissors fiercely whilst cutting and tearing fabric he appears to balance a raw instinctual talent with skill, seeming more like a sculptor than a fashion designer. But it is McQueen’s shows that are the film’s centrepiece. They were, and are, totally visionary. The highly concept driven collections and elaborate set design where models are transformed into actors allowed McQueen’s clothes to become stories and the catwalk the stage for revolutionary performance art.
Bohôte and Ettedgui’s focus on McQueen’s creations not only showcase his skill but also become an essential part of the documentary’s exploration of McQueen’s identity. The autobiographical quality found in McQueen’s work is structurally signalled by the use of his catwalk shows as a means of separating the film, and thereby Lee’s life, into five acts. We are encouraged to understand McQueen’s work in this light by the designer himself as he states ‘if you want to get to know me look at my clothes.’
But to ‘get to know’ McQueen is to enter into dialogue with his demons. Famously troubled, McQueen drew heavily on a tortured psyche in his work, understanding his creations as ‘the horrors of his soul.’ For example, Lee’s experience of childhood trauma in the shape of violence against women finds expression in the language of fetish and violence in his ‘Highland Rape’ show. McQueen’s willingness to use his clothes to explore dark subject matter combined with an almost anarchistic desire to challenge fashion’s conventions would forge a seductive ‘bad boy’ persona in the press. Accordingly McQueen’s struggles with drug addiction, body image, depression and ill health have all been covered extensively in the headlines. Bohôte and Ettegui do not shy away from these difficult issues but what is so brilliant about McQueen is that it peels back the hard exterior of persona and reveals the romantic, flawed and sensitive soul beneath. And so encouraged as we are by Bohôte and Ettedgui to see McQueen’s clothes as an extension of self they become vested with real emotional power, an element that makes for a truly unique viewing experience.
The late designer’s life has recently been described as ‘fashion’s dark fairytale’ and this sense is certainly present in McQueen. His life is in some ways a ‘rags to riches’ tale; a young man who once upon a time used unemployment benefit to buy his fabric is suddenly catapulted to the very top of the fashion world. Fitting for the designer that would come to adopt the emblem of a skull we find in this tale more than a shade of the sinister. McQueen is cast as the tragic Gothic protagonist haunted by an inescapable darkness while he creates at night when ‘his eyes turned black.’ With its decidedly unhappy ending however I begin to think that if McQueen’s life is to be a fairytale it is certainly one akin to those of The Brothers Grimm.
I don’t confess to be particularly engaged with the world of fashion and yet this film played on my mind for days. I was left thinking about the nature of talent and fashion’s relationship to art, but most of all I kept thinking about Lee.
An interest in fashion is by no means necessary to enjoy this documentary, an interest in people is more than enough.
In 2019 Rayka Zehtabchi became the first Iranian woman to win an Oscar for her documentary short Period. End of Sentence. Set in the rural Indian district of Hapur Period. End of Sentence explores the deep-rooted stigma surrounding menstruation and charts the extraordinary impact that the arrival of a sanitary pad-making machine has on a community.
Zehtabchi’s film swiftly sketches the pervasive effects of the stigma around menstruation, highlighting how each month periods profoundly limit and even endanger the lives of women and girls across rural India. In the Hapur District, where Period. End of Sentence finds its focus, menstruation is a great source of shame. Women are deemed unclean, are unable to enter temples to worship, and due to limited access to sanitary products often resort to unhygienic and ineffective alternatives. Menstruation can even act as a barrier to education, as young girls often remain at home each month, causing them to fall behind with their studies, or even drop out of schooling altogether.
But a revolution is forming in the Hapur District. The arrival of a pad-making machine funded by the organisation The Pad Project signals the arrival of change to this community of women. Through producing and distributing their own sanitary pads the women of Hapur redefine the social meanings attributed to their bodies and gain financial independence and respect from the men in their community.
In just 25 minutes Zehtabch captures with sensitivity and warmth a community of women overcoming period stigma to find the power in the feminine, whilst the critical recognition Period. End of Sentence has since received marks a symbolic step toward the global community’s own rejection of the menstruation taboo. Period stigmatisation is a global issue and on receiving her award Zehtabchi reminds us of this fact, when through her tears she said ‘I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything’.
Known as La Porta D’Europa (The Door of Europe), the small Italian island of Lampedusa marks Europe’s southernmost point, lying 120 miles from Sicily and only 70 from the Libyan coast of Africa. Situated on Europe’s edge Lampedusa has become a key point for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. In the last 20 years over 400,000 people have attempted the crossing despite the UN Migration Agency deeming it ‘the most deadly in the Mediterranean.’ Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 film Fire at Sea is a portrayal of life on Lampedusa, both for its residents and the waves of people arriving on its shores.
Visions of Lampedusa might take form as an island where resident and migrant interact and integrate. Lampedusa’s residents, and particularly the island’s fisherman, have a long history of compassionate support and rescue. (The island has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.) However, in 2013 in the midst of the migration crisis an invisible line is draw around Lampedusa. This new southern European border becomes militarised and patrolled by Frontex, the Italian Navy and the Coastguard. Overcrowded boats carrying hundreds of refugees are intercepted at this pre-emptive border, given medical attention, taken to Lampedusa’s Hostpot Centre for registration, and within 72 hours are transported onward to Sicily or Italy. Lampedusa is therefore an island of two worlds-the world of the migrant and that of the resident. Rosi’s portrait of the island captures this unique dynamic where two realities exist in extreme proximity but fail to touch.
Life on the island is seen mainly through the eyes of 12-year-old resident Samuele. Poised in a moment of boyhood that is both full of innocence and newly acquired knowledge Samuele makes for a deeply captivating protagonist. He is, as Rosi so affectionately calls him, ‘a young kid with the head of an old man.’ His identity seems to be forming in front of our eyes. We find Samuele wrestling with the expectation that he will become a fisherman like his grandfather as he struggles to learn how to row, and is made sea sick by a strong swell. Through tracing Samuele’s developing relationship to the water, and in turn to his future, Fire at Sea can be understood as ‘a coming of age’ film as well as one that is deeply concerned with migration.
Juxtaposed with Samuele’s narrative are the scenes of chaos unfolding just out of sight along Lampedusa’s coastline. Fire at Sea brings us face to face with the humanitarian crisis at Europe’s border through its devastating account of the migrants’ journey. The distressed phone calls pleading for rescue, chemical burns caused by spilt fuel etched over bodies, and figures that are limp from dehydration pulled from the boats, all powerfully announce the suffering inherent in the Mediterranean crossing. Unlike Rosi’s depiction of life on land which uses a single voice, his portrayal of the migrant’s experience works to powerfully signal both the volume and pace of movement. Watching the registration process however, which sees those rescued by the border authorities have their picture taken holding a number, I began to wonder if Rosi’s collective focus meant something more. What if this journey requires a sacrifice of individual identity? Who you once where is lost somewhere at sea, you assume a new name-‘migrant.’
Seeing these two narratives side by side in Fire at Sea creates a strange sense of unreality. How can normality coexist with tragedy? There is something unreal in the institutionalisation of these rescues, the anticipation of suffering at this scale and the ability for the procedures of rescue to become routine. There is something alien in the Hazmat suits worn by the Coastguard making them appear like ‘phantoms’ policing an invisible border to another world. And yet this is reality. It is our reality, as Rosi finds in the uncomfortable duality of Lampedusa, a microcosm of Europe.
Despite its undeniably political subject, Fire at Sea is not didactic in its message. It emerges as a film of great sensitivity, lyricism and beauty. It is poetic in its approach, fostering an interior mood that allows the language of cinema to sketch its argument. Fire at Sea is a witness. It is a call to action.
Fire at Sea is the first non-fiction film to win the Golden Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival. In his acceptance speech Rosi recalls a particular conversation with a resident of Lampedusa. He asks ‘Why for 20 years has Lampedusa been alone in welcoming people? What makes this island so special?’ to which the man replies ‘you have to understand that this is an island of fisherman, and fisherman always welcome whatever comes from the sea.’ To this Rosi adds ‘maybe we should all have a little of the soul of the fisherman…’