Monday, September 26, 2022

FRAGMENTS OF PARADISE - BFI London Film Festival 2022

K D Davison's documentary of film-critic and avant-garde director Jonas Mekas is deferential to the point of banality.  This is frustrating given the level of access she had, and the sheer volume of self-diarised film footage.

The man is, however, fascinating. Mekas was an immigrant from a World War Two Nazi labour camp in Lithuania, and came to New York with his brother. He set himself up as a film critic for Village Voice, archivist and distributor, influencing and encouraging generations of American auteurs and artist from Ginsberg to Jarmusch to Scorsese. But behind the gregarious one-man social movement was the trauma of loss, migration and never quite knowing oneself, captured most movingly in the film where he returned home to Lithuania 25 years after leaving it, and in footage of Mekas in old age disturbed as to who he is.

I wasn't familiar with Mekas' work before I watched the film and I can't say I'm tempted to go back and revisit it. I was far more fascinating by Mekas as a complex man with a conflicted past as emblematic of the late twentieth century European experience. It's true that Davison doesn't shy away from the controversies but I wish she'd interrogated them more: the teenage pro Nazi sympathies under the guise of being anti-Soviet - retreating to German territory at the end of the war - the homophobic tone of his early criticism.  

The result is a documentary that washed over me rather than truly engaging me - something workmanlike rather than compelling.

FRAGMENTS OF PARADISE has a running time of 98 minutes. It played Venice and Telluride 2022 and will play next month's BFI London Film Festival and tickets are available here


If you've listened to track by The Sugarhill Gang, The Fugees or Soul 2 Soul you've probably heard Cymande sampled.  Their sound is cool jazz, soul, funk, unique.  What you might not know is that they came together in early 1970s South London, first generation immigrants from the West Indies, and despite being ignore at home, discriminated against by society, they rose to be the first British band to play the Apollo, before splitting up in 1975.  After that they might have slipped into obscurity were it not for generations of hip-hop artists that discovered and sampled their work, resulting in a mid-2010s return to touring.  

This documentary is a labour of love from documentarian Tim Mackenzie-Smith and benefits from interviews with five band members, including leaders Steve Scipio and Patrick Patterson. (The latter too became lawyers which helped in actually getting paid for all that sampling!) It also benefits from a lot of interviews with famous musicians talking about how they went on their own journeys to find the band behind the sound, and were inspired by Cymande in their own work. 

Even more consequentially, we see how Cymande's refusal to conform, and refusal to be held back by societal discrimination, spoke to kids experiencing just that - not least a young Craig Charles.  

The result is a film that will speak to fans of Cymande who didnt even know they were - people like me who instantly recognise their sound from endless reinterprations. But it deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in the post-war British immigrant experience and remains shockingly relevant to our time. What I really loved was its message of getting on with it anyway, refusing to be pigeonholed and ignored, and carving your own path.

GETTING IT BACK - THE STORY OF CYMANDE has a running time of 89 minutes. It played SXSW 2022 and will play the BFI London Film Festival in October.

WHAT ABOUT CHINA? - BFI London Film Festival 2022

Trinh T. Minh-ha's WHAT ABOUT CHINA? is a meditative, lyrical documentary that uses archive footage from rural China in the early 1990s to talk about China's cultural heritage, the difficulty of navigating its complex politics, and role of women in society. The director - a UC Berkeley polymath - lulls into the film with her soft quiet voice but the topics are raw and profound.  We are also treated to folk singing that speaks to the richness of a culture that is being "harmonised" into an obedient flatness from the centre.  There is somethng defiant but also disturbing about contrasting these images of people still living in a traditional society when we know that at the same time China's great cities were being industrialised, "modernised" and turned into the capitals of entrepreneurial wealth that they are today. In watching a film like this you realise what has been left behind, or possibly erased, in that process. For many of us, this will be the first and only images we have seen that give a candid look at rural Chinese life, and for that reason alone, this is a must-watch film. 

WHAT ABOUT CHINA has a running time of 135 minutes. The film won the New Vision award at the CPH:DOX festival and the Persistence of Vision award at the San Francisco Film Festival earlier this year and is nominated for the Grierson Award at this year's BFI London Film Festival. Tickets are available here

Sunday, September 25, 2022

GOD SAID GIVE 'EM DRUM MACHINES - BFI London Film Festival 2022

Kristian R Hill's kinetic, fascinating documentary tells the forgotten story of how a group of talented, innovative black men invented techno in 1980s Detroit, years before white DJs started making bank playing to thousands of bourgeois white folk in Ibiza.  

I love documentaries like this - documentaries that are rigorously researched; fast-paced; and feature pretty much everyone who was important to the story barring the late lamented Frankie Knuckles - in particular The Belleville Three of Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.

For those of us who grew up dancing to Inner City and 808 State it's a total nostalgia kick - but more than that - like learning about the roots of the genre that you saw in its later, commercial state. I had no idea that techno was named in a business meeting, prompted by a London distributor. I had no idea that it had its roots in George Clinton's Funkadelic and Kraftwerk with a side order of the Motown rhythm section. And I loved seeing how each iterative technological change - from the 303 to the 808 to the... 909 - allowed for further innovation.

The only problem with the doc is its focus on Derrick May and then the final scene revelation that he has been accused of sexual assault and dropped from gigs, but denies the accusations and has not been charged. It left me breathless - like, wait, what, that's just what we're getting - a line of text? and no way of now working out what this means for his legacy. I know this doc is probably not where to litigate these claims but still this felt.... casual and cursory.

GOD SAID GIVE 'EM DRUM MACHINES has a running time of 92 minutes.  The film played Tribeca 2022 and will play the BFI London Film Festival. Tickets are available here


Film director Nina Menkes' documentary is an angry, urgent, meticulously researched piece of agitprop designed to alert the casual cinemagoer to the prevalence of the misogynistic male gaze in mainstream and arthouse cinema.  So far, so expected. But Menkes goes further, marshalling in excess of 200 film clips from a century to a year ago to show how that male gaze has not changed, even when the director is a woman, or in the wake of the Me Too movement.  Instead, as one of her academic interviewees posits, cinema merely hoovers up whatever is toxic in pop-culture and gives it back to us, amplifying it in the process. Finally, Menkes argues that by normalising sexual objectification and sexual violence, cinema actually creates an industry in which women are radically under-represented AND serially exploited, whether in front of or behind the lens.  The statistics are horrendous and show no signs of amelioration.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film as a kind of illustrated lecture.  Its central thesis is well argued even if I didn't go all the way with it. Sometimes a scene has to be shot a certain way to get the point across - I thought the criticism of Bombshell, for example, was misplaced. But even if one isn't entirely signed up to the more extreme arguments, there's a real pleasure in seeing someone with such a deep command of cinematic history marshalling clips and analysing lighting, camera angles and framing to give us the meta-narrative.  In that respect, it reminded me of Mark Cousin's superb Story of Film series.

BRAINWASHED: SEX-CAMERA-POWER has a running time of 107 minutes. The film played Berlin and Sundance 2022 and will play the BFI London Film Festival 2022. Tickets can be purchased here. 


MCENROE is tennis legend John McEnroe's raw, honest and ultimately uplifting account of his own life and career, as directed by sports documentarian Barney Douglas. 

Douglas made his name with a couple of cricket documentaries and applies his deeply empathetic and well organised interrogation of the psychological pressures of elite sport shown in THE EDGE to the world of tennis. The result is a captivating mix of archive footage and contemporary interviews with McEnroe and his kids that reveals a troubled perfectionist, fully aware of his mistakes and yet still open to love. That hopefulness and honesty takes this way beyond a typical sports documentary and into the realms of basic life advice from a guy who's seen a lot and lived to tell the tale.

The movie opens with a puppy fat teenage McEnroe full of ambition and driven by a father who comes across as a bit of a nightmare.  He blazes into the elite world of tennis but is cold-shouldered by Connors - something that only drives him further.  Surprisingly - charmingly - despite his on-court antics he forms deep personal friendships with his heroes of tennis cool, Vitas Garuleitas and the near-silent Bjorn Borg. The best testament to that friendship is that the publicity-shy Borg agrees to be interviewed in this film.

McEnroe doesn't hide the conflict of those years: and what it was like to dominate tennis but to do so at the expense of a friend who then took early retirement because he couldn't cope with the defeat. It's still regretful that we missed potentially years of on-court rivalry, and one senses that McEnroe never quite recovered from not having Borg as a foil.

Meanwhile, in his personal life, McEnroe married Tatum O'Neil, hoping that their shared celebrity would lead to empathy.  But few marriages survive addiction and infidelity and both Mack and his kids speak honestly about the self-destructive behaviour on both sides.  

The great news for Mack is that while his tennis never really recovered, a second marriage to rock musician Patti Smyth gave him a second chance at being a husband and father, and it genuinely feels like he's in a good space with his kids now, and insofar as he's a man at peace with himself, he is that. For someone to come through tortuous elite sport, addiction, and a brutalising divorce and get to this place of honesty and acceptance, is really hopeful and makes for an inspiring film. 

MCENROE has a running time of 104 minutes.The film played Tribeca 2022 and is currently available to rent and own.