THE CONFESSION

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The Confession documents the life of Moazzam Begg a British Muslim who was detained without trial on terrorism charges in Britain, Pakistan and Cuba. Director Ashish Ghadiali shows his recognition of the power of Begg’s testimony though a strikingly simple extended interview form. The Confession sees Begg powerfully recount a life that has been so tragically affected by the War on Terror. Through Begg, 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 film that is almost exclusively interview The Confession makes for unexpectedly gripping viewing. Begg’s experiences stretch across the world and seem to touch every recognisable landmark of modern terrorism. His testimony adopts a global perspective, allowing the viewer 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. Begg’s persecution and detention is equally far reaching and illuminates places few have 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 in these detention centres are devastating in their detail.

And yet The Confession is a film that feels local, even essentially British. It is rooted in Begg’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 The Confession is so powerful, showcasing the potential for an individual story to illuminate an entire conflict.

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But it is not just Begg’s extraordinary experiences that command our attention; it is how they are told. Begg is everything you could want in a storyteller. He is intelligent, sensitive and even seems to have a certain instinct for the cinematic. His recollections possess striking emotional literacy. Begg is able to pinpoint formative moments from his past and recapture his frame of mind. Such qualities adds fullness to Begg’s memories and causes The Confession to seem deeply concerned with questions of identity. At several key moments however, Ghadiali challenges Begg’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 Begg and to his story becomes infinitely more interesting.

Through Begg’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. Begg 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. Begg’s argument is complex, compelling and full of nuance. 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, participants must weigh the physical fear of leaping from a great height and plunging into the water below, with the social fear of admitting defeat and  descending the ladder back to the poolside. The social pressure acting upon each participant is deliberately increased through visible microphones surrounding the platform and the waiting participants below.

On the platform, participants appear vulnerable, almost naked and often alone. Thoughts and emotions are equally exposed as we glimpse startlingly vivid portrayals of psychological conflict. Many participants visibly wrestle with fear as they prepare to jump and fail or peer over the edge and withdraw. Moments of euphoric triumph come as participants take the leap- and we too leave the platform joining participants falling in slow motion through the air. 

But would you jump?

Watch it here

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 over 8 million people in the UK are experiencing some form of housing need.

Dispossession begins by clearly tracing the history of social housing in the UK. From the post war 1950’s boom, to the introduction of Thatcher’s 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  2017, 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. The viewers’ repeated confrontation with images of social housing that appear stagnant and decaying inspires an interrogation of the social meanings inherent within these structures. 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 -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. Dispossession coolly holds a mirror to British society and finds something truly grotesque in its reflection.

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Where can you find it?

Available on Amazon and google for about a £

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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Mark Isaacs debut documentary short Lift (2001) explores the lives of the residents of an east London tower block exclusively through encounters in the building’s lift. Filmed over the course of two months, inside the lift for sometimes 8-hours at a time, Isaacs provides a captivating glimpse of British society in the early 2000s through a series of transient encounters that reveal a wealth of human stories.

Isaacs’ deliberate subversion of the prescribed social etiquette of lift spaces underpins many of the scenes in Lift. He captures the familiar uncomfortable intimacy of shared space and prescribed silence, revelling in enduring silences and awkward glances toward the camera. Humour is found in briefly enclosing discordant characters in the lift, whilst Isaacs’ timing and directness steer scenes toward comedy.

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The residents of different cultures, nationalities and religions all passing through the same shared space see the lift assume a microcosmic quality, exemplifying Britain’s multicultural social fabric. Without sentimentality Issacs exposes both its cohesion and friction. One scene sees Isaacs share a traditional Bengali delicacy with one of the residents, whilst another finds Jean an older Jewish resident admitting to ‘counting the white people last night when I couldn’t sleep’. 

Although humour runs throughout many of Lift’s scenes, Isaacs also fosters an introspective aspect, puncturing moments of silence to ask residents ‘have you ever been in love?’ ‘what have you been thinking about today?’ and ‘what did you dream about last night?’. Responses  are unexpected, funny and often moving. 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…

More like this?

Mark Isaacs – When Night Falls or Calais

Watch it here:

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.