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.

WEINER

scandIn June 2011 Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted a picture of his bulging crotch from his official Twitter account. The scandal that followed which revealed numerous online interactions of a sexual nature with several different women, caused Anthony to resign, disgraced, from Congress. In 2013 Anthony made an unexpected return to the spotlight when he announced he would run for Mayor of New York. Weiner traces Anthony’s unsuccessful mayoral bid as fresh scandal dismantles the campaign.

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner grants unprecedented access behind the scenes of Anthony’s 2013 mayoral campaign. The film insightfully captures the controlled chaos that exists in temporary office spaces, the scrambling for financial investment and the often bizarre circus of the campaign trail. But perhaps more interestingly, we witness in extreme proximity a campaign team in crisis as further scandal strikes mid race. Weiner finds a great deal of its humour in the crisis management we see played out on screen. It possesses more than a hint of political farce as in several The Thick of It-esque scenes we see Anthony taking calls with his head on the desk or practising how best to pronounce ‘I am profoundly sorry.’

Part of what makes Weiner so simultaneously compelling and uncomfortable to watch is that it’s central character is such a strange amalgamation of virtue and vice. Our perspective on Anthony is constantly shifting. The film showcases qualities that both attract and repel us. Anthony is a great political talent. He was the youngest member of the New York City council in history, and was viewed as a real rising star in the Democratic Party. He is a charismatic and gifted orator determined to effect real political change. And yet the portrait Weiner builds inspires us to question the cause of this determination. Is it instead rooted in Anthony’s narcissism, egoism or delusion? Anthony’s compulsive self-sabotage and insistence on occupying the spotlight makes watching Weiner like watching a car crash you cannot quite tear your eyes from.

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Weiner post #MeToo is a decidedly different experience to my first viewing in 2016. A depressingly ironic reminder of the times we now live in enters the film in the form of Donald Trump’s statement on the scandal; ‘We don’t want perverts elected in New York’ (but in Washington it’s fine right?) On second viewing I found myself more intently focused on the scandal itself and particularly its representation in the Media. In so many ways the scandal is the perfect news item. It concerns the sex life not only of a public figure, but the kind of public figure that we reserve a particular disdain and scrutiny for, the politician. The story satisfies both our appetite for the titillating and our insatiable desire to see those who claim to be in some way morally or intellectually superior to us dragged through the mud.

The Media’s portrayal of Anthony documented by Kriegman and Steinberg inspires a consideration of the strange position that sex occupies in our society. The visibility of sex in modern culture could be seen as representative of sexual liberation. And yet sex appears again and again closely tied to feelings of shame. The Press’ treatment of Anthony’s scandal is a powerful example of how the Media acts as a key enforcer of this shame, violently dictating what expressions of sexuality are acceptable. The pleasure the Media takes in portraying Anthony as ‘disgusting’ and ‘perverted’ appear to me as incongruous with his behaviour. I absolutely agree that the Anthony’s betrayal of the trust of his wife, son, and the voters is deplorable. But I struggle to apply this same judgement to the acts themselves, which exist only online between consenting adults. To criticise the Media’s coverage is not however to absolve Anthony. It merely articulates the film’s interesting portrayal of a deeply flawed man and a distinctly flawed conservative press. I left this film feeling surprisingly unsure of where I stood on Anthony’s behaviour. Perhaps it is an achievement of Weiner that I felt this way, or perhaps I too found myself caught up in Anthony’s spin.

breaksAn aspect of Weiner that inspires this kind of thought is its concern with the private and personal. Through this film we discover what is at stake beneath the headlines, namely Anthony’s relationship with his wife their baby son. Weiner has astonishing access to the couple’s private life. We witness a marriage under intense strain and public scrutiny. Anthony’s wife Huma (long-term aid to Hilary Clinton) is incredibly intelligent, poised and stunning beautiful. She is a fascinating enigmatic presence. In a memorable scene following the second wave of scandal we find Huma impeccably dressed preparing breakfast for her son in a sleek and modern kitchen. Josh asks her how she is feeling to which she replies ‘its like being in a nightmare.’ Huma’s words said without emotion, juxtaposed against her manicured appearance and surroundings make for a very poignant moment.

humaWhen I think about Weiner something I keep coming back to is why. Why did Anthony allow this documentary such invasive access to the scandal in 2013? Why didn’t Huma leave Anthony? And ultimately why did Anthony do it? Weiner does not give us final answers to these questions. We certainly approach answers, but the film gives us space to make our own judgement. Personally, I like to think of Anthony Weiner as a tragic hero of the classical kind. A man of real talent with a fatal flaw, unable to escape the destiny of his name: Weiner.

The questions raised by this film perhaps find more concrete answers in the press of recent times. In 2016 Huma left Anthony following even more revelations of sexual interactions with women on the Internet. In May of 2017 Anthony was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for transferring obscene material to a minor. Despite these developments I would encourage you to think and watch this film with an awareness of what it is: A powerful record of 2013 and a study of Anthony, his family, and the Media at that time.

Where can you find it?

Netflix

More like this?

Get me Roger Stone

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

LIFT

 

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Lift (2001) is Mark Issacs’ debut in Documentary film. It appears remarkably simple in its form, as it remains almost exclusively within the confines of a lift in an East London tower block. Issacs filmed the block’s residents in the lift over the course of two months for sometimes 8 hours a day. The resultant film forms a captivating glimpse into the social fabric of Britain in the early 2000s, and through Issacs’ puncturing of a lift’s societal imperative of silence reveals a wealth of human stories.

The film opens with an invitation to laugh, a moment that foregrounds the centrality of comedy in Lift. Lily an eccentric old Jewish woman incorrectly introduces Issac as a ‘reporter’ whilst she rudely bars a fellow resident from joining her in the lift. The film’s humour is partly aided by the social space of a lift’s pre-existing potential for comedy. Issacs’ film captures the all too familiar awkwardness of sharing this intimate space with a stranger through the residents’ awkward glances to camera and in the moments where the silence feels uncomfortably palpable. The ability of lifts to comically enclose discordant characters Lift also memorably exposes when a young headscarf-wearing girl awkwardly joins an incoherently drunk man. Issacs’ timing and directness of speech make his interventions in the lift equally comedic.

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It is not only Lift’s portrayal of a characteristically British observance of social etiquette that allows this film to comment on British society. The residents seem to exemplify Britain’s, but more specifically London’s, multicultural identity. The film beautifully captures the coexistence of various cultures, nationalities, races and religions in one building. In a particularly touching moment Issacs shares a traditional Bengali delicacy with one of the residents. Lift avoids sentimentality on this subject however, as it also records a certain angst amongst the older white community as we overhear Jean (an older Jewish resident) say ‘I counted the white people last night when I couldn’t sleep.’ The lift space also attains a microcosmic status in more subtle terms. Lift hints at a certain absence of community in modern urban life, exposing how even those who literally live side by side and on top of one another remain isolated.

Whether Issacs chooses for his subjects the residents of a block in East London, lorry drivers bedding down for the night, or men of The City, what remains constant is how his projects compelling engage with universal human experience. Issacs seems to possess the rare ability to sensitively but without sentimentality provoke real emotional honesty and insight from his contributors. Issacs is not interested in documentaries that retell a pre-existing story. His filmmaking is instead a mode that focuses on what is universally human, searching for ‘a sense of discovery’ and reaching for “truth.” As in Etre et Avoir questioning facilitates the film’s introspective aspect. Issacs asks the residents questions like; ‘have you ever been in love?’, ‘what have you been thinking about today?’ and ‘what did you dream about last night?’ The answers are unexpected, funny and often moving, like when Issacs asks ‘what is your best memory from your childhood’ to a drunken resident who replies ‘seeing a golden eagle.’ It is through these questions that notions of love, loneliness, death and faith enter the lift, a turn inward that is signalled by shots that take us inside the lift shaft. The interiority that the lift seems to foster comes in part from its character as a transient space. Issacs favours these types of spaces in his films, the kind that exist just outside of the everyday and which people occupy only fleetingly. This consciousness of space permits the lift to become confessional, an element that enhances the thoughtful quality of this film.

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Although Lift is the shortest of the films I have collected so far, its impact by no means reflects this. As a film that documents the effects of ‘a stranger appearing one day in a lift’ its simplicity is deceptive. Issacs powerfully finds human complexity within the familiar in this captivating film that is full of humour.

More like this?

I would really encourage watching more from Marc Issacs, especially When Night Falls or Calais.

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

ETRE ET AVOIR (TO BE &TO HAVE)

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“Very often people consider that documentary can’t have a metaphoric dimension or a symbolic way of telling about the world. You can make, I think, a great film with a tiny subject, it’s more of a question of a way of looking at reality, much more than the subject which is important to me”.

In this brief statement filmmaker Nicolas Philibert captures the restrictive lens through which documentary is often viewed – characterised as a space of objectivity and didacticism. For Philibert, subject is secondary. His sensitive style, which privileges subjectivity and crafts unfamiliar worlds from the everyday speak profoundly to the human condition. Etre et Avoir, Philibert’s 2002 portrait of a single class school in the rural province of Auvergne, is the striking manifestation of this creative philosophy.

Etre et Avoir invites its viewers to join Mr Lopez’ class in rural France where children ranging from the ages of 4 to 11 are all taught in the same classroom. Over the course of a year Philibert follows the children’s development as they learn to read, count, form relationships and construct a view of the world and themselves. Despite its seemingly small subject Etre et Avoir reaches far beyond the classroom, emerging as a warm and thought-provoking portrait of childhood.

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George Lopez, the children’s simultaneously authoritarian and gentle teacher acts as a compelling centre to Philibert’s exploration of childhood. His traditional teaching methods which are guided by discipline and delivered with a softness of voice, see Lopez build meaningful relationships with his students. The strength of these student-teacher relationships are fruitful for Philibert, yielding insight into the emotional lives of the class and fostering the film’s sense of interiority as Lopez encourages the children to understand the causes of their behaviour in the classroom.

When two of the older children Julien and Olivier are caught fighting, Lopez calmly and collaboratively questions the boys to discover ‘what it means’. The scene seems to beautifully capture boyhood. The boys desire to ‘show one another how strong you are’ speaks to a newfound aggressive energy, whilst Oliver’s clear distress reveals a masculinity not yet trained to conceal emotion. The emotional honesty of this moment among numerous others makes for truly compelling viewing.

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That Philibert was once a student in philosophy feels ever present in the quietly thoughtful quality of Etre et Avoir. This aspect is partly facilitated by Lopez’ adoption of a loosely Socratic method to teach even the youngest children. He often asks the children questions that feel very abstract; ‘What are nightmares? What do teachers do? What do you learn at school? What is work?’ School becomes a space where the children are prepared for the wider realities of the adult world and Lopez does not shrink away from confronting life’s big questions.

Etre et Avoir even flirts with notions of utopia as we glimpse an idealised vision of what education could be like -a classroom in the heart of beautiful farmland where the older children nurture the younger. This sense is harnessed by the dream like quality of many of the scenes, as we watch tortoises slowly moving across the classroom floor, see Lopez calling a child’s name in a tall field of wheat or hear the hushed whispers of the younger children.

In his study of a single class Philibert forges an insightful exploration of childhood, finding truths that reverberate across the wider human condition and see Etre et Avoir morph into an epic of sorts, one that is played out on a small and familiar stage.

Watch the trailer:

Where can you find it?

For French speaking viewers, you can watch Etre et Avoir for free on YouTube. If you need the subtitles you can find it on Amazon and Curzon Artificial Eye for a couple of £’s.

THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

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Eugene Jackeri’s ‘The House I Live In’ (2013) is a comprehensive meditation on the failures of America’s war on drugs. Filmed over 5 years across 25 states, the film’s scope is expansive. It interrogates every aspect of a destructive, amoral and essentially ineffective system. Jackeri traces the origins of the war on drugs, from its conception under Nixon and its escalation under Reagan, discerning how political rhetoric morphed a public health issue into a national criminal justice imperative. He exposes the war’s casualties, revealing the system as a human rights crisis where minority groups and the poor are fed into a vicious cycle of mass incarceration. Finally, ‘The House I Live In’ examines ‘the prison industrial complex’, the sinister machinery that sustains this endless war waged against America’s own people. The war on drugs has failed. That much this documentary makes starkly clear. But ‘The House I Live In’ achieves more than this. It sparks a consideration of the war on drugs as a hideous reflection of a society where the primary value is capital, causing us to darkly question whether this war waged against ordinary people is in fact ‘a success only not on the publicly stated terms…’

Jackeri builds his case for the failure of the war on drugs upon the testimony of countless experts spanning numerous disciplines coupled with incredible access to individuals in the system itself. Testimony from; medical professors, addiction experts, historians, civil rights scholars, journalists, academics, prison guards, narcotics police and a federal judge (the list goes on), provides an aerial view of the socio-political landscape that shaped America’s destructive drug policy and its catastrophic effects. ‘The House I Live In’ is so powerful because it achieves a careful balance between the demands of holistically addressing such a large issue and keeping human stories at the film’s heart. Its origins are intensely personal. In Jackeri’s youth his family, who had fled persecution in Russia and Germany, employed an African-American housekeeper Nannie Jetter (Nannie is her real name). Their families grew close. Over the years Jackeri noticed poverty, joblessness, crime and suffering in Nannie Jetter’s family. When he asked her why she thought this was, her surprisingly simple answer of ‘drugs’ provided the starting point for Jackeri’s film. ‘The House I Live In’ is shaped by Nannie Jetter’s experiences framing the film as a personal journey of discovery.

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Nannie Jetter watching Obama’s inauguration

Keeping Nannie Jetter at the film’s core foregrounds how expertly Jackeri allows real people to make his arguments. A particularly moving instance is the case of Anthony Johnson, a non-violent 24 year old arrested for drug trafficking and facing a potential 5-40 year sentence. He is one of many in this film who fall victim to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It is through Anthony’s situation that we are able to see how mass incarceration in minority communities forms a ‘vicious cycle [that] spans generations.’ The statistic that ‘2.7 million children in the US have a parent behind bars, these children are more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children’ is made tragically real by our meeting Anthony’s baby daughter who he has never met, and later Anthony’s estranged father Dennis Whidbee.  Dennis was also consumed by the trade, spending much of Anthony’s childhood selling drugs out of public housing to support his own addiction. In a moment of striking vulnerability Dennis reflects on his struggles with fatherhood. Speaking directly to camera, his frustration and pain is palpable as he says ‘ I didn’t know how to really be their Dad…I knew I was supposed to…I didn’t have one…I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was doing to be their Dad.’ Moments like those we spend with Anthony’s family movingly locate the human cost of America’s drug policy.

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Anthony’s daughter

Not only is The House I Live In’ incredibly informative, it is beautifully made. The cinematography is captivating, often expressing wordlessly the documentary’s central concerns. In one of the film’s most memorable shots the camera slowly zooms in on an inmates face pressed against the glass of small rectangular window. His face is the only sign of life in a silent sea of white locked cell doors. It is a powerful portrait of isolation. Describing this shot Jackeri mentions ‘you can feel the camera man’s hand trembling.’ The way shots like this are interwoven with interview and archival footage, alongside a carefully curated soundtrack including the likes of Bill Withers and Lou Rawls, makes the film’s form masterful.

‘The House I Live In’ primarily addresses the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs on black Americans. It identifies; how drug laws from their very conception are rooted in the threat of Otherness, how structural impediments perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration, and how policing both targets and destroys minority communities. At the film’s coda however, David Simon (Journalist and creator of The Wire) introduces a chilling hypothesis. What if the war on drugs is the true expression of our capitalist society? Where the poor, without the protection of the minimum wage, unions, or access to proper housing are no longer seen as legitimate citizens. What if drug policy provides a convenient and deliberate means to ‘get rid off the bottom 15% of the country’ and ‘make money off locking them up?’ Simon’s words, ‘at what point don’t we say kill the poor?’ made me consider in a new light just how pressing this film still feels 5 years after its release. The current opioid crisis predominantly effecting poor white Americans seems to prove Simon’s claim that ‘in the end capitalism is pretty colour blind.’ But looking beyond drugs to the socio-political climate in both the US and here in the UK, this film has given me pause to think about what kind of house it is that we live in.

 

Where can you find it?

Amazon (You can get a free 7 day Sundance subscription which includes this film)

Also YouTube and Google Play for a few $$

 

Want more on this topic?

If you interested in mass incarceration/prison reform I would also encourage you to watch:

Time: The Kalif Browder Story (4 part series)

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The Central Park Five

Into the Abyss

 

 

THE SQUARE

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I hesitate to call The Square (2013) one of my favourite films because the word ‘favourite’ doesn’t quite feel right. A ‘favourite’ film to me implies that I could watch it over and over again, I couldn’t. This documentary is demanding, and at points difficult to watch. But it is without question the most moved I have ever been by a film of any genre. The Square has left a lasting impression on me. It encapsulates why I think documentaries truly matter, through collapsing difference and distance and replacing these with compassion and connection.

In 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for the removal of their president Hosni Mubarak. Vowing to remain in the square until their demands were met, the revolutionaries called for freedom from a regime that for 30 years had imposed state of emergency law under which human rights were routinely violated. This documentary follows the Egyptian people’s struggle to redefine itself, capturing history as it happens, at street level. It documents Mubarak’s fall from power, the introduction of a military fascist regime and its replacement by a religious equivalent. Calling for the people of Egypt to repeatedly return to the square to demand change. What remains constant, and what this film captures so beautifully is the power and resilience of the Egyptian people hungry for revolution, justice, and the establishment of a new ‘conscious’ era for Egypt.

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Egyptian-American Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim‘s verite style is totally immersive. You are transported to Tahrir Square, seeing through the eyes of the six revolutionaries. It is this style that makes the documentary so moving. You share in the exhilaration of revolutionary change, and the fear and pain of violent oppression. It forces you to witness in uncomfortable proximity the atrocities inflicted by the State on the Egyptian people. It casts an unflinching eye on electrocutions, brutal beatings and murders. It may be hard to watch, but it must be watched. A camera, this film proves is a tool of revolution. (Noujaim herself was arrested three times during the film’s making). Footage of the atrocities, like those this film captures, reaching an international audience through social media was instrumental to Mubarak’s removal. By viewing these scenes without censor you are playing a part in memorialising the innocent lives the State claimed.

The six revolutionaries; Ahmed, Magdy, Khalid, Ramy, Aida, and Ragia are all captivating. Noujaim crafts the film expertly, thrusting the realities of war upon us more forcefully by inviting deep and personal investment in the fate of these revolutionaries. Magdy, a father and member of the Muslim Brotherhood is a particularly interesting figure. The Muslim Brotherhood’s part in the revolution is complex. Violently persecuted under Mubarak, The Brotherhood too called for his removal. However, Brotherhood leadership would later cut deals with the military and establish their own regime under a Brotherhood presidential candidate. We find Magdy torn by his deep commitment to his faith, and his desire to ‘follow his own conscience.’ His relationship to the remaining five interestingly represents the polarization of the Egyptian people, but more importantly it movingly portrays how friendship supersedes political principle.

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Magdy, talking about repeatedly waking up surrounded by secret police in his family home.

It is rare to capture true heroism on film, something that Noujaim manages again and again. A moment with Ahmed Hassan, a gifted speaker and filmmaker, has stayed with me since I first watched this film two summers ago. Amid a military attack Ahmed is sitting on the curb, washing his hands and face before he carefully winds a scarf around his head to cover his mouth. We then follow him as he joins the front line of revolutionaries, the panicked camera man calling for him to return back to a safer distance and to be careful. This moment of unexpected calm amongst chaos, powerfully makes you feel you have witnessed a decision to sacrifice everything for change, a moment that is unlike any other.

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The Square leaves you not with a sense of defeat but with hope that change will come. Although the Egyptian people’s fight for a new ‘conscious’ society continues, the revolution has firmly established a culture of protest. The people will continue to demand change. Ahmed calls the revolution’s greatest achievement ‘that the children now play a game called protest.’ This film is testament to the power of the people, an idea literalised by it becoming the first crowd-funded film to be nominated for an Oscar. Watching this documentary is intense, it is gripping, but most of all it is inspiring.

 

Where can you watch it?

It couldn’t be easier, it’s on Netflix.

THE WOLFPACK

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Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack (2015) follows the extraordinary lives of six brothers, the Angulo’s, whose childhoods were spent almost entirely confined within a New York apartment. Their eventual escape would come from an unexpected source – Hollywood.

Brothers Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh are the product of a Peruvian father (Oscar Angulo) and American mother (Susanne Angulo) who, after meeting on the trail of Machu Picchu, subsequently settled in New York with hopes of emigrating to Scandinavia.

On moving to New York, Oscar, who was heavily influenced by the teachings of Hare Krishna, was struck by the chaotic nature of the modern capitalist city he saw around him and fearing the dangers of socialisation for his children kept them for sometimes years at a time in their small apartment.

Their father’s influence on the boys is strikingly visual, they are a product of his desire to make his ‘own race’, a concept he partly enforced through assigning all of the children Sanskrit names. They dress in matching clothes and most strikingly all have long waist length dark hair. This documentary captures on film the brother’s survival, through film.

For many, film provides a temporary escape from reality, for the Angulos it functioned as much more. Hollywood movies not only punctured the insular world of their apartment but also allowed the boys to imagine new realities. As Mukunda says ‘movies opened up another world’. Enamoured by the worlds they find the brothers meticulously transcribe and create ingenious costume to enact Hollywood classics like ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’

Film would also foster literal escape as The Wolfpack sees the brothers begin to explore the city using Hollywood’s tropes as a blueprint to navigate the world beyond. It was on one such trip into New York that filmmaker Crystal Moselle, struck by their unusual appearance, noticed the brothers and formed an unlikely friendship. This relationship would produce 500 hours of film over five years and go on to secure the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015.

Despite the brother’s creativity, resilience and humour moments of considerable shade colour Moselle’s study. She captures the oppressive claustrophobia of the apartment and the ever-present spectre of an abusive and authoritarian father haunts many of the interviews. Within the apartment powerful images of loneliness and isolation are abundant, lit often by the light of the glaring tv.

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It is testament to Moselle’s relationship with the Angulos that she captures so many moments of authentic vulnerability and naivety. The Wolfpack is characterised by the rare innocence that can be found in so many scenes, like for example a ‘Dark Knight’ Batman costume made from cereal boxes or the brother’s first visit to the beach dressed in the style of ‘Reservoir Dogs’. In a subject with such potential for darkness, Moselle finds the light – creativity, brotherhood and hope.

Watch the trailer here: 

Where can you find it?

The Wolfpack is available On Demand through Sky and NowTV and it is available to rent on Amazon, YouTube and Google for a couple of ££.