Little Pyongyang

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 17.43.37Roxy 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. Roxy instead chooses to tell less familiar North Korean tale, one of childhood, family, loss, and home.

Roxy’s desire to reinvent a North Korean narrative is matched by her innovative take on interview form. Through stylised set design Roxy allows space in Little Pyongyang to act as an essential storytelling tool. Roxy 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.

sccene.pngJoong-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 Roxy 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, Roxy 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. Roxy’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.

rice bpwl .pngLittle 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 Roxy 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.

Watch it now:

Fahrenheit 11/9

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The opening moments of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) provoke an uncomfortable sense of the Freudian uncanny- The recognition of the familiar in a strange new context which inspires an often difficult to define sense of dread.

It is the 9th of November 2016, the now infamous night of the American election and the date from which Moore takes his title, one that poetically calls back to his Palme d’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11. Armed with the distance of years, Moore guides us through the circus of election night in his characteristic ‘all knowing’ narrative style. He 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. Just down the road, we observe a comparatively sombre almost empty assembly for the Trump campaign. Looking back in this way there is a striking sense of unreality to the evening. Is it the slick corporate theatre of American politics? Or is it the cringe-inducing dramatic irony of watching Hilary’s supporters triumphantly sing the campaigns’ anthem ‘Fight Song’ full in the knowledge of their defeat? What kind of absurdity is Moore referring to when he asks ‘was it all a dream?’ Because of course it wasn’t a dream. The 9th of November 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.’

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Scenes from Flint Michigan

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.

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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 available to rent on Amazon Prime and Sky On Demand

McQueen

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Where can you find it?

You can rent it on Amazon.

 More like this?

Amy

Dior and I

Period. End of Sentence takes the Oscar for Best Documentary Short

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“I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”

Last night Rayka Zehtabchi became the first Iranian woman to win an Oscar for her short documentary Period. End of Sentence. Her film, which is set in the rural Indian district of Hapur explores the effects of deep-rooted stigma surrounding menstruation, and the extraordinary impact that the arrival of a sanitary pad-making machine has on the community.

The social stigma attached to menstruation in India Zehtabchi proves to be both intensely powerful and dangerous. For the women of the Hapur District menstruation is a great source of shame. Each month women are deemed unclean and therefore are unable to enter temples to worship and due limited access to sanitary products resort to often unhygienic and ineffective alternatives. Menstruation can even act as a barrier to education, as young girls often remain at home each month, fall behind with their studies, or drop out altogether. Zehtabchi most strikingly illustrates the influence of this insidious social stigma through the word ‘period’s decided absence in speech. The word is banished to the realm of the unspeakable, its presence in conversation is instead signalled by the embarrassed giggles of young girls, feigned ignorance, and eyes that are inexplicably drawn to the floor.

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But a revolution is forming in the Hapur District. The arrival of a pad-making machine funded by the organisation The Pad Project also signals the arrival of profound change for this community of women. Through producing and distributing their own sanitary pads women redefine the meanings that are attached to their bodies. It is truly inspirational to witness these women gain financial independence, respect from the men in their community, and discover that there is power in being female. The beauty of this story is utterly matched by Zehtabchi’s cinematography as she expertly captures the vibrancy and colour of life in the district and the warmth and sensitivity with which she treats her subjects fills each frame.

The critical recognition Period. End of Sentence has received feels like an important step in combating the taboo that surrounds menstruation, but it is important to acknowledge that this issue is by no means exclusive to developing countries. Despite more than 800 million women worldwide having a period each month period stigma remains a persistent part of our vernacular. On receiving her award last night Rayka Zehtabchi reminds us of this fact, when through her tears she said ‘I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything…’

If you haven’t already head over to Netflix and give Period. End of Sentence just 25 minutes of your time.

 

 

Fire At Sea

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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. We explore the sleepy fishing island by joining him at school, at his grandmother’s dinner table, or on the rugged cliff tops where he is so often in pursuit of an imagined enemy armed with his trustee slingshot. 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.

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Samuele is diagnosed with a lazy eye and must wear a patch.

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.’

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The Doctor that Samuele and the Migrants share acts as the only bridge between worlds.

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.

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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…’

Where can you find it?

It is available on Amazon prime.

The Confession

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The Confession documents the life of Moazzam Begg a British Muslim who has been detained without trial on terrorism charges in Britain, Pakistan and Cuba. Director Ashish Ghadiali shows his recognition of the power of Moazzam’s testimony though a strikingly simple extended interview form. The Confession sees Moazzam powerfully recount a life that has been so tragically affected by the War on Terror. Through Moazzam’s story, the personal provides a lens with which to comprehend the political. From the voice of a single victim of the Global War on Terror comes a plea for a more compassionate understanding of modern terrorism, one that demands an admission of the West’s instrumental role in its emergence.

For a documentary that is almost exclusively interview The Confession makes for unexpectedly gripping viewing. This is primarily owed to its focus on a life that is truly fascinating. Moazzam’s experiences stretch across the world and seem to touch every recognisable landmark of modern terrorism. Through his testimony we adopt a global perspective and are able to understand the galvanising effects of the conflicts in Kuwait and Bosnia, life under the Taliban in Afghanistan and the chaos of rebel fighting in Syria and Egypt. Moazzam’s persecution and detention is equally as global and takes us to places few have ever been, from Bagram (the famous American Detention Camp in Pakistan) to Guantanamo Bay. His accounts of imprisonment and torture at the hands of allied security forces here are devastating in their detail. And yet The Confession is a film that feels decidedly local, even essentially British. It is rooted in Moazzam’s home of Birmingham, and in an identity that was forged by his experiences of British society. It is this dynamic of the global and the local, the vast and the particular that underpins why I think The Confession is so powerful-it showcases the potential for an individual story to illuminate an entire conflict.

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But it is not just Moazzam’s extraordinary experiences that command our attention; it is how they are told. Moazzam is everything you could want in a storyteller. He is intelligent, sensitive and articulate. His memory appears unfailing as his descriptions brim with detail. He even seems to have a certain instinct for the cinematic. I felt I was with Moazzam at each knock at the door in the middle of the night, by his side on a three-day ‘odyssey’ as he trekked through the mountains to cross the border into Pakistan. His recollections also possess a striking emotional literacy. Moazzam is able to pinpoint formative moments from his past and recapture his frame of mind. This quality adds fullness to Moazzam’s memories and also causes The Confession to appear deeply concerned with questions of identity. At several key moments however, Ghadiali challenges Moazzam’s version of events. ‘You’re kind of withholding some critical details, so I’m interested in why you would spin it that way.’ With this one sentence the relationship between viewer and narrator is utterly changed. Our grasp on truth is suddenly more fragile, and our relationship to Moazzam and to the story he is telling becomes infinitely more interesting…

Through Moazzam’s retelling of a life so thoroughly entangled with the War on Terror, and aided by the inclusion of his appearances on countless political talk shows, he begins to craft an argument. Moazzam rejects the supposed innocence of the West in the formation of modern terrorism and instead exposes a broken system. He finds in the disastrous foreign and internal policy that sanctions violence and torture, a driving force for radicalisation. Memorably he cites the fact that 17/25 ISIS leaders were imprisoned at Bagram Detention Camp and ISIS hostages now appear in the same orange jumpsuits the American’s had forced them to wear. Moazzam’s argument is complex, compelling and full of nuance. I hesitate to reduce it to only a few sentences here. Instead I encourage you to watch for yourself a documentary that absolutely defies the popular and reductive view of modern terrorism. You may not agree with his politics but in Moazzam’s words ‘there must always be space for dialogue.’

Where can you find it?

It is available On Demand for a few $$ on all the normal platforms.

More like this?

Jihad: A Story of Others

Ten Meter Tower

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In 2017 Swedish filmmakers Maximilien Van Aertryke and Axel Danielson paid 67 people who had never jumped from a 10 meter diving board the equivalent of $30 to climb the tower and walk to the edge of the platform. But would they jump?

A psychological battle is set. One where the diving platform of Ten Meter Tower becomes the stage and two fears collide. Participants must weigh the intensely physical fear of leaping from a great height and plunging into the water below, with the distinctly social fear of humiliation if they descend the long ladder back down to the poolside. Through their mere presence the filmmakers heighten the social pressure acting upon each participant, but this is also consciously increased through the very visible microphones surrounding the platform and the waiting participants below.

On the platform, participants appear incredibly vulnerable, almost naked and often alone. Thoughts and emotions appear equally exposed. We glimpse startlingly honest portraits of psychological conflict, of mind and body in direct opposition. Many participants visibly wrestle with fear-as they prepare to jump and fail, peer over the edge and withdraw. There is however a real sense of triumph when someone does take the leap, we witness a moment of courage however fleeting. In several beautiful moments we too leave the platform as we watch participants falling in slow motion through the air.

Ten Meter Tower is an unexpectedly funny, and intensely compelling, psychological study that ultimately leaves you thinking could I jump?

Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QMlIjSnt_E

I Am Not Your Negro

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In a letter to his editor in 1979 James Baldwin wrote of his desire to begin ‘Remember This House’ a book that would revisit the American South in order to capture through personal recollections the lives of his three murdered friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro provides the cinematic resolution to the book Baldwin was never able to finish. One that envelops the viewer into Baldwin’s consciousness in order to explore American society, race, identity and their fundamental interconnection.

I Am Not Your Negro can be understood as an extension of Baldwin’s work because the author’s presence is profoundly felt in its every moment. With the exception of archival footage, every word is Baldwin’s original prose. Peck’s removal of an interpretative framework speaks to his desire to act only as ‘the messenger’ of Baldwin’s work. I Am Not Your Negro establishes an uninterrupted relationship between Baldwin and the viewer, whilst Peck’s use of Baldwin’s prose (brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson) as the film’s only guiding force situates us inside the mind of the author.

From here we enjoy a singularly privileged perspective. Baldwin’s analysis of American society is both intellectually expansive and intensely personal. His relationships with Malcolm, Martin and Medgar illuminate these figures in a light rarely glimpsed. Peck sculpts holistic identities. Men who often loom over history as the orchestrators of radical change are shown as fathers, husbands and friends. We are able to see their very public deaths through an unusually private lens. This is most memorably achieved by the inclusion of Baldwin’s immediate responses to the deaths of each of his friends. For Medgar he writes; ‘The blue sky seemed to descend like a blanket. And I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t cry. I just remembered his face, a bright, blunt, handsome face and his weariness that he wore like his skin.’

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Peck’s unique prose driven form creates a striking and meaningful relationship between image and word- a visual language. Baldwin’s work remains unaltered, but Peck’s careful layering of voice and image, which allows each medium to inform the meaning of the other, moulds our experience. The film gains an atmospheric poeticism as archival footage, photographs, and more abstracted visions of American landscape blend to ensure the full impact of Baldwin’s work is truly felt. I am reminded of a scene where we move with eerie stillness down the course of a southern river where the sky is obscured by trees with words that recall ‘how the tatters of clothes from a lynched body hung flapping in the trees for days.’

Although violence is an undeniable part of I Am Not Your Negro’s fabric it does not appear gratuitous. By framing moments of violence with Baldwin’s analysis Peck locates their catastrophic consequences. We are forced to confront devastating images of prejudice, racist violence and police brutality. Such viewing is disturbing but essential, as Baldwin famously wrote ‘nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Violence in I Am Not Your Negro serves yet another essential purpose. Peck’s careful positioning of historic violence alongside distinctly modern and disturbingly familiar footage works to forcefully announce just how urgent Baldwin’s work remains to contemporary society.

To write only on the form of I Am Not Your Negro as I have done is to only scratch the surface of this film. I resist writing further to treat Peck’s 10 years in the making project with the same sensitivity he gave to Baldwin’s. I conclude then to preserve the generosity of this film, which appears like a work of art, allowing meaning to exist freely and belong to whoever stands before it.

Where can you find it?

It is available on Amazon Prime and American Netflix. You can rent it for a couple of $$ on the other platforms.

More like this?

OJ: Made in America– A 7 hour in depth examination of OJ Simpson and his iconic murder case.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle

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Paul Sng’s 2017 documentary Dispossession is a detailed study of the increasingly urgent social housing crisis in the United Kingdom. It provides an unflinching account of the policies and concealed ideologies that led to the statistic that last year a mere 8% of the population had access to social housing, whilst 1.4 million remain on the waiting list.

Dispossession begins by clearly tracing the history of social housing in the UK. From the post war 1950’s boom under the Attlee government, to the introduction of Thatcher’s incredibly popular 1980’s ‘right to buy’ policy. Sng finds in the disastrous effects of this policy a genesis point, from which he charts decades of neglect as both Labour and Conservative governments fail to replenish the 2.2 million council homes that were incorporated into the private sphere. Arriving in the present day, Sng uses our consciousness of social housing’s history to survey the profound effects of this legacy of neglect.

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The film’s scope is expansive, outlining the destructive effects of permitting ‘free market economies to rule the housing market’ through the testimony of professors, historians, housing campaigners, politicians, journalists and residents. By interconnecting these accounts only with repeated still images of social housing Sng fashions a form that is itself intensely thought provoking. Sng allows an awareness of the physicality of the buildings to contribute to his portrayal of the crisis and its causes. The viewers’ repeated confrontation with images of social housing that appear consistently stagnant and decaying inspires an interrogation of the social meanings inherent within these structures. These buildings appear as relics from the past, acting as the literal embodiment of the ‘managed decline’ of their occupants. The sheer volume of images Sng includes spanning recognisable social housing in London, Nottingham, Leeds, Glasgow and beyond, creates an uncomfortable proximity between the viewer and their pre-existing relationship to the highly visible evidence of the housing crisis. This issue Sng suggests surrounds us. It is a humanitarian crisis residing on our collective doorstep.

The definition of ‘swindle’ is ‘the use of deception to deprive someone of money or possession.’ To understand the social housing crisis as a swindle is to cut to the core of Dispossession. Sng exposes the myriad deceptions at the centre of social housing policy, as councils become property developers and the Conservative government employs Savills as their housing policy consultant. Deception is so pervasive that the status of language can no longer be trusted as ‘regeneration’ in fact means ‘demolition’, and ‘affordable housing’ costs not 1/3 of your income but 80%. To characterise the social housing crisis as a ‘swindle’ is to understand the fragmentation of communities, the systematic removal of human agency and dignity as a calculated human cost in the pursuit of capital. It is to see this crisis as ‘conscious social cleansing.’

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The cumulative emotional effect Dispossession has on the viewer is in direct contrast to the skilful and balanced way it draws its argument. Dispossession coolly holds a mirror to British society and finds something truly grotesque. Anger comes not from a distorted image but from a confrontation with true reflection. Unfortunately, I can cite numerous reasons why this film is so incredibly important. You need only look to increasing homelessness, to the blackened shell of Grenfell Tower, or to a generation where home ownership is near impossible. The social housing crisis is an issue that effects all of us and makes Dispossession essential viewing.

Where can you find it?

You can rent it on Amazon or iTunes for 99p.

More like this?

Brexitannia: A film concerning another ‘swindle’ of sorts. This interestingly simple and effective film hears why people up and down the country voted as they did in the 2016 referendum.

Three Identical Strangers

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Last week I saw an early screening of Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers ahead of its cinematic release later this month. The film tells the incredible true story of three identical brothers (Eddie, Bobbie and David) who after being separated at birth would meet by chance 19 years later. In 1980, on his first day of college Bobbie walked onto campus and was greeted as a familiar face by people he didn’t know. His identical brother Eddie had attended the college the year before but had decided not to return. When confronted by the double of his best friend, Eddie’s former roommate rushed to reunite the brothers. The story was covered extensively in the press. One such article would reach David, the third brother, who saw under the headline of ‘twins reunited’ boys who looked exactly as he did, even down to their distinctive ‘pudgy’ hands.

The film movingly captures through interview and archive the total euphoria of their reunion. Documenting how instantly and selflessly the brothers fell in love with one another. The film takes a decidedly dark turn however when the brother’s adoptive families begin to examine the cause of their separation. What the film discovers is unexpected, sinister, and sparks a fundamental consideration of what governs human behaviour. Entangled in these philosophical questions we might not like the answers we find.

It is not only the extraordinary narrative at it’s core that suits Three Identical Strangers to the cinema. It is also Wardle’s expert blending of documentary styles, guiding us so seamlessly between memory and testimony that makes viewing this film a distinctly cinematic experience. It is a story that demands to be seen to be believed. Give some of your time to this film, you won’t be disappointed.