Friday, September 27, 2013

Film Review: Hank - 5 Years From The Brink (Joe Berlinger) 2013

5 Years From The Brink

If there is one thing that historians, politicians, economists and other cultural commentators can agree on, it is that everybody loves a milestone.  Five years after the financial quasi-apocalypse that reverberated around the world, documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (director of the epic Paradise Lost documentary trilogy) sits down with the man at the epicentre of the crisis to look back and explore what happened and why. 

Hank Paulson was the Treasury Secretary at the time and was part of the most exciting/terrifying moment in modern globalisation.  The only problem is: can he explain the mind-bogglingly complicated financial products in a way that audiences can understand? (Especially as the investment bankers themselves weren’t sure about them.)

The film has been created with two long interviews with Hank and his wife Wendy, surrounded with news media footage of the crisis as it unfolded.  Having made a lot of notes during this film, allow me to attempt to explain the narrative of the before remarking on the construction of the film:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Film Review: I Play With The Phrase Each Other (Jay Alvarez) 2013

I Play With The Phrase Each Other

There is nothing more special about the power of cinema than when you find a film that creeps up on you over and over again after viewing it.  Sometimes you may feel disconnected from a film when you watch it, but then afterwards the impact that has been made can stick with you for days.  This is especially enjoyable when the film was sprung upon you without any information about it beforehand – the latest film to work this magic on me was Jay Alvarez’s I Play With The Phrase Each Other, a film that is definitely not for everyone.

The film cuts between a number of characters constantly on the phone talking to each other about the minutiae of their lives and feelings.  Every single scene begins and ends with somebody answering or hanging up a phone call and only slowly as the audience eavesdrops on these conversations does a plot begin to take shape.

Jake is a socially awkward obsessive compulsive who is moving to the big city for the first time, having lost his job at a bookshop in a small town.  He is convinced by Sean (an existential poet-type who scams people off of craigslist) to move to the city with no job and no apartment.  There is also Erin, Jake’s ex-girlfriend, who hates her job and despairs of the rudeness of customers; Zane, a sexually curious hipster who has a disturbingly detached obsession with Jessica; Marcus, a criminal who has “heroin aspirations and Jake’s mum who mainly communicates with Jake via his voicemail that he listens to through headphones as he dangles his phone from his finger…

Friday, September 13, 2013

Interview with Yaron Zilberman (A Late Quartet)

The wonderful film A Late Quartet was released on DVD this summer (July 29th), from the director Yaron Zilberman. The film was, perhaps unfairly, marketed towards the so-called ‘grey pound’ alongside other films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The King’s Speech. All of these films were aimed at drawing an older audience back to the cinema, presumably to combat the haemorrhaging of younger audiences lost to digital (and illegal) filmmaking.

Zilberman’s film focuses on four middle aged musicians who have found international fame as a string quartet.  As they are practicing for their latest tour of North America, the cellist (Christopher Walken) one day realises that he may be getting to old to perform and that their next show may be his last.  The news begins to affect the performances of the others and the drama moves from the stage to their personal lives…  I managed to ask him a couple of questions:

You obviously have a background with string instruments, but can you explain a little how you came about writing this script? 
I've followed chamber music, in particular the string quartet repertoire, since my mid teens. I'm drawn to the intense musical dialogue and gamut of intellectual and emotional interactions between four like-minded musicians (with like-minded instruments). So naturally, this passion for the music brought an interest in string quartet ensembles and their interpersonal dynamics. 
Over the years, I've read a lot about a variety of ensembles from Haydn and Beethoven's time until today. It started as a form of music played in a family setting - very intimate. When I started thinking about what film I wanted to make after I finished my documentary, Watermarks, I realized that it was to explore family dynamics related to family themes I've experienced. And almost simultaneously, I saw the potential of combining the two obsessions - family and relationship psychology, and string quartet music/ensemble. From these elements, the script emerged.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Film Review: The Moo Man (Andy Heathcote / Heike Bachelier) 2013

The Moo Man

The new documentary film from husband and wife duo Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier is the ultimate signifier that the Kickstarter era is in full swing. The film was made as an obvious labour of love over a four year period about a subject close to their hearts and has then been marketed and distributed with a £20,000 boost from the popular crowdsourcing website (They actually raised over £25,000). Only in the age of the interactive Internet can a film about farming expect a cinema release.

The film follows Steve Hook, a charming milk farmer from East Sussex that owns Hook & Sons farm. He is passionate about fresh, natural dairy products produced on self-sustainable family farms. Steve is on a first name basis with all of his cattle and tries to talk to them and treat them like pets as opposed to livestock – especially his favourite cow ‘Ida’. Filmed over a number of years the filmmakers have captured the different seasons on the farm ranging from the icy winter and the hardships that are brought with the cold, to the glorious spring with the birth of the calves. The narrative also includes the upgrading of the milking system with a bottling plant, and the illness of Ida and the genuine sadness that Steve feels towards her in pain.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Film Review: When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun (Dirk Simon) 2013

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

History is full of shifting borders, colonialism and separatist movements and unfortunately the conflict between people is mostly either religiously motivated or over natural resources and topography of land – in other words, it is very difficult to take sides easily. The new documentary from Dirk Simon looks at the Tibetan movement to free Tibet from Chinese sovereignty and asks questions about who is keeping the movement from going forward.

The film was produced over a period of seven years as the filmmakers travel in and around Tibet to talk with dissidents and citizens in exile about the separatist movement and the negotiations (or lack of) with Chinese authorities.  The film features interviews with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Richard Gere (famously a practicing Buddhist) and 18th descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet as well as a number of Chinese artists and Tibetan dissidents. The narrative of the film takes in the aforementioned exiled young king who is currently living in India, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the protests that did, and didn’t, occur as well as numerous examples of Chinese violence towards the Tibetan people since 1949…

It is clearly the intentions of some documentary filmmakers to provides much needed context and insight into a land dispute and try to help ease tensions in a region, yet so often films such as these simply pick a side (almost always the perceived underdog) and highlight atrocities and injustices. This is, of course, admirable, yet it also means that the target audience will end up inevitably being people who already side with the separatists and wont be seen by anyone in the aggressor country, where change could occur.

The problem with When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is that it is so obviously geared towards a Western audience. The highest names on the bill are Richard Gere (who is on screen for all of 50 seconds) and then the musicians Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. Also, amazingly, the Dalai Lama is given totally unnecessary subtitles, presumably for the American audience.  The film therefore falls somewhere between a beautiful travel documentary, complete with montages of landscapes and landmarks, and a motivational promotional video aimed at advertising entrance into a non-profit organization, that dispenses of historical context.

There is a scene in which the Tibetan monks undertake some kind of a pilgrimage in order to consult their oracle figure. The oracle is dressed in a lavish costume and headdress and is surrounded by hundreds of monks and pilgrims as they watch him undergo a spiritual trance before making his declaration. The scene would be an incredible insight into an age-old and wise traditional ceremony, if it weren’t for the monks all capturing the spectacle on their smartphones. He is literally surrounded by glowing screens as he performs his miraculous divination.

This scene inadvertently summaries a potentially controversial argument that is never professed in the film: Do the Tibetans need saving from their own superstitions and religious dogma? Without taking sides in the wider arguments of Tibetan political autonomy, one thought that is never expressed in the documentary is that in one sense it could be in the Tibetans favour to be dragged into modernity – albeit without the violence that is perpetrated by the Chinese military. The only reason that it is possible to profess this as a conceivable statement is that the film does not provide enough context or history to fully explain the Chinese motives. The only Chinese voices on screen are artists who live outside the country and a few angry tourists that only voice a caricature of Chinese/Tibetan antipathy. The aggressors (or The Dragon) are not given any chance to explain themselves and the film takes for granted that the viewer will already sympathise with the Tibetans.

There are some interesting facts in the films that highlight the size of the problem. For example, the population of Tibet is only roughly 6 million, which is vastly different in comparison with their 1.4 billion Chinese neighbours, and occording to this film 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese government.  Another fact is that Tibet banished capital punishment in 1912, as opposed to the Chinese who still use it to this day.  These statistical figures have the most damning impact on the nature of the brutality and give the films its most legitimate moments of outrage and emotion.

In terms of filmmaking, the film is undeniably beautiful. The number of different film stocks and camera lens show the lengths and amount of time that the filmmakers spent trying to capture the country in all of its glory. Whatever the film struggles with in terms of narrative and contextual analysis, it is an incredibly competent piece of filmmaking that shows a beautiful country in unnecessary turmoil.

The problem is that the viewer is inevitably left with the opinion that the Tibetans are a mostly peaceful people (which they may well be) and the Chinese side comprises of evil overlords (which they in no doubt have been at times), which is almost certainly the opinion in which the viewer had at the beginning of the process.

(This review was originally posted on the now defunct

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Oska Bright Film Festival - Interview with Sarah Watson

Oska Bright is a film festival in Brighton that promotes films made by people with learning disabilities.  It has been going for nearly a decade and is the only festival of it's type.  I love the idea and can't wait to see the films so I got in touch and asked a few questions.

This is the response I got from Sarah Watson (OB committee member and Carousel chair)

  • What is the mission statement of the festival in your own words?

Oska Bright is a film festival managed by people with a learning disability, showing films to anyone and everyone. Oska Bright is a festival, spread the love about Oska Bright, all you need is love! We want to spread great films made by people with a learning disability. We celebrate learning disability culture, we promote it and make sure people take it seriously as good quality art work. We work hard to connect with people who have learning disabilities and give them the chance to show their films.

  • What was the genesis of Carousel?

Carousel is an award winning learning disability led arts organisation. Founded in 1982 Carousel works to promote the active involvement of people with a learning disability in the arts, teaching new artistic skills and developing existing talents. In 2000, Junk TV, a youth and community film production company, and Carousel, a learning disabled arts charity began working together to support learning disabled people to make their own films. The films that were made were animated films and were very colourful and fun to watch.
By 2003 quite a few films had been made but it was very difficult to find any cinemas or film festivals to show the films to people. After speaking to Screen South, Arts Council England and a number of local production companies, Carousel and Junk TV decided to organise a small scale event to show the new films.They supported a group of learning disabled artists and film makers to set up the Oska Bright Festival steering committee – that’s us!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Film Review: More Than Honey (Markus Imhoof) 2013

More Than Honey
Documentaries are normally split into two categories: cinematic or televisual.  Television mainly serves current affairs (obviously), whereas political polemics are saved for the big screen to try and get some visibility above the crowd (think Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore etc.).  It is refreshing when a film manages to combine the best of both worlds to make a memorable take-home message with a televisual subject matter – in this case, nature.

Markus Imhoof is concerned about the unexpected and mysterious decline in honeybee populations around the globe.  His film is an exploration of bee pollination, food manufacturing and genetic science in order to investigate what the problem seems to be.  He and his team (narrated by John Hurt) travel from California to Switzerland to China and finally to Australia to see how different cultures are reacting to the problem.  From looking at how and why bees pollinate flowers; how they mate and create hives; how they act together as a super-organism in order to protect themselves; and finally how they are used by humans, Imhoof has managed to create a nature documentary that would normally be found on television and made it worthy of the big screen.