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I Am Not Your Negro (MIFF)

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The title of Raoul Peck’s fine documentary contains just the right note of provocation and of rebuttal to the patronising aspects of a racially-divided America. It centres upon the work of the novelist and writer James Baldwin who died in his sixties back in 1987. What is so shocking, and Peck knows this only too well, is that the film’s themes, and Baldwin’s stance, are still so relevant and contemporary. It reminds one a little of a recent much-discussed book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. Peck uses Baldwin’s unmistakable clarity of thought to have one last tilt at the racial antagonism that is still the stain on the whole American project.

Baldwin, who grew up in a very large family in Harlem in the 1930s was both gay and black and he was so disgusted by some aspects of his home country that he went to live in Paris. He remained connected to the black struggles and was a friend of three important black intellectuals and leaders. These were; Medgar Evers (who headed up the moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The film, which is based on Baldwin’s partially unpublished recollections, deals with the ideas and lives of these three men. He does not simply idolise these men but he gives them and their ideas the critical seriousness they deserve.

As noted, Peck doesn’t find it hard to intersperse footage from more recent times that illustrate the continuing racial problems. The Rodney King beating for example, used with deadly economy here, is still unwatchably brutal. And, as we know, from such recent events as those in Ferguson Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to resonate and motivate.

If all this sounds merely grim, or like a history lesson lecture that people would shy away from, then that would be to do the film a profound miscarriage of justice. Baldwin (who appears in sparkling form in 1960s televised debates at the Cambridge Union) is always an engaging voice and presence. The narration of his prose by Samuel L Jackson is also beautifully done. It is tragic that there hasn’t been more progress but this film is more than just a howl in the wilderness it is a finely constructed piece of filmmaking and a riveting watch in its own right.

 
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Tokyo Idols (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Japan often seems a strange country. It is similar enough to English-language cultures to feel familiar, yet different enough to seem a bewildering mess of contradictions and oddities. Take idol culture: teenage girls singing and dancing to cloyingly upbeat pop music, all the while developing frighteningly dedicated fan bases keen to pay regularly for photo opportunities and meet-and-greet sessions. They are the subject of Tokyo Idols, a fascinating but flawed new documentary by Kyoko Miyake.

The film primarily follows 20 year-old Rio Hiiragi, who is among more than 10,000 aspiring singers attempting to succeed as an idol. Rio sings and dances at small-scale concerts, holds Internet live chats with her fans, sells photographs of herself in various outfits, and regularly meets her most ardent fans at so-called ‘handshake’ sessions. Those fans are almost entirely middle-aged men. It is an immediately discomforting set-up that Miyake then explores over the course of her documentary.

It initially seems like some appalling sort of legalised paedophilia, with idols starting their careers as young as ten years old and with a seemingly endless array of nervously obsessive men following their every move and gesture. As the documentary unfolds, however, it begins to reveal a much more complex cultural phenomenon at work. Through a combination of fly-on-the-wall observations and interviews with idols, commentators and self-professed ‘otaku’ (the middle-aged obsessive fans), Miyake draws a picture of a generation of men failing to properly connect with the real world and electing to live a safe, non-confrontational fantasy instead. They find intimacy not in an adult relationship but in the momentary touch of a handshake and the security of worshipping attractive teenage girls who will never reject or argue with them.

It seems an odd combination of insecurity, sexual desire, romance and an almost paternal affection all at the same time. It would be easy to ridicule or even demonise these otaku, but Miyake carefully allows them to express and explain their lives in their own terms. For some it reveals quite disturbing pathological obsessions. For other it shows a surprising self-awareness; one man, who broke up with his girlfriend and started spending all of his money buying merchandise and access to Rio, openly admits he has effectively ruined his own life.

The film is an imperfect one: Miyake focuses her camera carefully on the otaku, and sidelines the broader audience that exists in Japan for the teen idols. You can see the women in most of the concert scenes, carefully framed so at to effectively render them invisible. As presented Tokyo Idols would suggest that middle-aged otaku comprise the entire audience for idols, yet while the otaku are clearly widely prevalent the documentary itself notes that idol culture is a billion dollar business. The most popular idol band, the pop culture juggernaut AKB48, regularly sells new songs and albums in the hundreds of thousands. By focusing so tightly on the most negative aspect of idol culture, Miyake creates an incomplete and slightly dishonest film. This is a shame, because the debate at the core of the film remains a fascinating and provocative one.

Idols – both male and female – already have a growing fandom in the English-speaking world. Those fans may be attracted to Tokyo Idols by its subject matter, but may come away feeling a little confronted by some of the truths behind the phenomenon. For anyone new to idols it does provide a strong and engaging insight; it is simply a shame that it displays an incomplete picture.

 
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An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

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Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, had been considered ground breaking within the discourse surrounding climate change and climate awareness, and the critical mass it gained played a monumental role in cementing climate change as one of the pivotal issues facing humanity in the 21st century. 11 years later, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power attempts to reignite that flame, as there is still much to be done.

The documentary opens with the dripping of glaciers, melting under the sweltering sun, as soundbites from various climate deniers play over these tragic and dooming images. “You don’t watch a film by Joseph Goebbels for the truth on Nazism and you don’t watch a documentary by Al Gore for the truth on climate change,” says one commentator. Great ice caps begin to literally explode from the heat, falling in great avalanches into the ocean. It is clear that apathy towards climate change simply isn’t good enough.

Soon, we’re in familiar territory, for those who have seen the original documentary, as Al Gore stands before an audience of “climate trainees,” people who are undertaking his classes so they can have the knowledge and research to back up their subsequent spread of climate awareness. Damning statistics are shown in layman’s terms, highlighting the continual heating of the planet due to carbon house gas emissions. But soon, the documentary becomes biographical. We’re treated to some insights into the personal life of Al Gore; the successes and failures of his attempts to rectify climate awareness.

From here, the documentary switches between personal biography and investigation into the contemporary effects of climate change. What works within the latter passages is that the documentary acts as a powerful synthesis for what we all know, but sometimes lack the ability to truly “see.” Having one colossal environmental disaster after another played in rapid succession drives home the most obvious contemporary effects of global warming and the dangers it can cause right now. Sometimes, as a society, particularly in our fast-paced, social-media-heavy present, we struggle to see the bigger picture. Other powerful sequences depict the power of renewable energies, as some cities in America have already gone 100% renewable to great effect.

One of the longest biographical passages in the documentary comes in the second half of the film, depicting Al Gore’s instrumental role in ratifying the Paris Accords that President Donald Trump has since swiftly thwarted in America. The point of this sequence could be assumed that Al Gore means to highlight our need to strive forth, despite whatever obstacles stand in our way, to combat climate change. It is not international governments’ sole responsibility, but very much ours as a society, at a grassroots level, to address this burgeoning issue.

However, those who Al Gore references at the beginning of his documentary, those that believe his documentaries to be egocentric propaganda to build up his own importance, will likely roll their eyes through the sequences where Al Gore saves the day at the Paris Accords (if they see it at all). Nor does this documentary spend the time its predecessor did on the actual science, framing climate change, many times, as being self-evidently true. And it probably should be self-evident, but the fact that someone such as the President of America can still consider it a hoax compounds the dangers of this thought process.

For those who understand the threat of climate change, this will be a timely reminder of its ever important place in contemporary society, as it depicts plentiful powerful examples of its chaotic power that will linger with you after the film ends. But for those who do not believe, this documentary may further push the divide, as perhaps too much time is spent on the man behind the campaign and not the campaign itself.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director

 
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78/52 (Revelation Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

American author E. B. White once said, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the end.” The same can be said of why anything in storytelling works. Many documentaries about director Alfred Hitchcock have attempted to explain the man and his films, but often talk of their influence rather than why they work. In Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52, a microscope is put over one scene from Hitchcock’s films: the shower scene from Psycho. Rather than a dead frog, audiences are left with a dead woman and the best analysis of Hitchcock’s talent.

The shower scene from Psycho is a cultural landmark. It’s been referenced in films, comics, and shows like The Simpsons. Even people who haven’t seen Psycho will know the shrill music accompanying the scene and what it means. 78/52 shows it wasn’t just a fluke it would become popular, with the documentary explaining how much thought Hitchcock put into it (the title of the documentary references the scene’s 78 camera angles and 52 cuts; a lot for a three-minute scene).

The documentary features over 40 interviewees, ranging from film directors, editors, writers, actors, and even Hitchcock’s granddaughter, with each bringing remarkable anecdotes and observations. Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro provides details such as how the only time in the scene we see a knife touch her body was filmed. A sound effect anecdote is enlightening, showing the amount of detail involved in getting the sound right led to Hitchcock listening to his crew stab up to fifty different types of melon.

Along with behind the scenes, interviewees discuss the cultural influences of the time and the impact it made. Director Richard Stanley mentions the film’s significant breaking of taboo by being the first film to ever show a toilet, while director Eli Roth talks of the scene taking place in a shower scaring audiences for invading what was considered a safe space. Academic David Thomson makes a particularly astute observation about the painting used to cover Norman’s peephole being more than just a nice painting; the painting’s subject foreshadows the scene about to take place.

The analysis goes in-depth, with the shower head being compared to God’s eye, the movement of Leigh’s hands, why some shots are blurry, the use of space, and much more. Every interviewee offers a piece of information that blows you away – even exploring how a fight scene from famous cinephile Martin Scorsese’s classic Raging Bull actually imitates the shower scene. The way Philippe films each interview is also impressive: black and white, in a room that’s straight out of the Bates Motel. It’s a wonderfully made choice, making the film flow smoothly without disorientating the viewer by constantly switching between b&w and colour.

There is a lot to take in from 78/52. Analysing a three-minute scene – one which wasn’t even significant in the original novel – could be considered overkill. But, this documentary shows just how brilliant a filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was. 78/52 is an entertaining film about a scene that not only completely changed the story in a film, but also completely changed cinema.

 
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Dead Hands Dig Deep (Revelation Film Festival)

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In the annals of shock rock, Edwin Borsheim, lead singer of Californian extreme metal band Kettle Cadaver, is a relatively unknown commodity. Now, thanks to the work of young Australian filmmaker, Jai Love, he is immortal. Whether that’s for the best is an exercise left to the viewer – suffice to say, once encountered, Borsheim is difficult to forget.

Combining to-camera interviews with archival concert footage, Dead Hands Dig Deep is a portrait of the artist as a young psychopath. A profoundly damaged man from an almost indescribably abusive background, Borsheim used his work with Kettle Cadaver to process and express his issues – which means, in this case, on stage self-mutilation of the most extreme kind, exhorting his fans to commit suicide, violence and, in one memorable case, sexual congress with a dead coyote. One concert got shut down after just 26 seconds, which is surely some kind of record.

However, that was back in the ’90s. When we meet the Borsheim of today, his band scattered, he’s a lonely, alienated figure, holed up in his desert compound, surrounded by grotesque memorabilia and horrifying artifacts (skeletons, animal parts, homemade weapons and torture implements) and largely abandoned by the world. Interviews with friend and former bandmates hammer home the impression that Borsheim’s insistence of always going to the most extreme lengths possible in his life, art and violence have left him with no travelling companions, even in the often shocking world of extreme metal. His current existence, alone in his hand-built house of horrors with only the effigy of ex-wife, Christian Death’s Eva O, for company, is a singularly sad yet strangely noble one; with the world holding no place for him, he has built a world of his own, and if no one would want to share it with him, then so be it.

There’s a lot to shock the audience here, and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to Dead Hands Dig Deep by the promise of extreme, outre imagery, but this is, at heart, a humane and sympathetic film. Edwin Borsheim is probably not a person you’d want ’round for dinner, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the depth of his pain and his clear inability to express it in any more socially acceptable form. Dead Hands Dig Deep could have been a shallow freak show; instead, it’s a perceptive look at a man in constant psychological crisis trying to make sense of what must be a torturous existence.