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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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It almost feels like the Golden Age of Documentaries we were living through a few years ago has ended – I do seem to recall that I was going to see something like Blackfish, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man, or Project Nim pretty much on a weekly basis at one point, but of course the memory cheats and it was more like one more-or-less unmissably brilliant documentary every few months. Still, that’s one every few months, as opposed to the one or two a year that currently snags my attention. Is there a deeper significance to this? Well, having given serious and lengthy thought to this, my main conclusion is: I don’t know.

Seeing a good documentary film does have its own special pleasures, of course, not least because most of these films are more interesting and surprising than mainstream narrative cinema. The stories have to have some kind of surprising quality to them, simply because they wouldn’t be noteworthy enough to have a film made about them otherwise. The ‘it has to be true because no-one would make up something so unbelievable’ quality is there in full effect in Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle.

In 1980, a young man from New York named Robert Shafran drove up to college for the first time; understandably a little nervous, he was startled by the warmth of the reception he received from the other students there – handshakes, hugs, and kisses. The reason for this soon became apparent – another student, who had attended the college the previous year, was Shafran’s exact double. It turned out that Shafran and the other boy, Eddie Galland, had both been adopted and shared the same birthday. In a state of excitement and disbelief, Shafran drove to Galland’s house and the two brothers were reunited for the first time since they were babies.

But the story got even more amazing. The tale of the long-lost twin brothers naturally attracted a lot of media attention in the New York area, and some of it reached the family of David Kellman, another nineteen-year-old boy who bore an astonishing resemblance to Shafran and Galland. Naturally, he made himself known to the families of the other two boys (‘Oh my God, they’re coming out of the woodwork’ was the response of one family member).

The three boys were indeed triplets (actually the three surviving members of a group of quads, the fourth of whom died in infancy, but the film skips over this), and when they came together the bond between them was obvious to everyone around. Minor celebrity in the New York area beckoned, with various magazine covers, chat show appearances, and so on (the triplets actually have walk-on parts in Desperately Seeking Susan, where they get to ogle Madonna for a moment). It seems like a charming and delightful story of a family coming back together through the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, it is not long before the film begins to touch on much darker issues, and the many unexplained questions surrounding the story. The main one being: why were none of the adoptive families told that their new sons were part of a group of triplets who were being raised separately? Who made the decision to separate them, and why? And were all the remarkable coincidences and parallels in their upbringings really just coincidence, or was there a more calculating influence at work?

Distribution duties for Three Identical Strangers are being handled by Dogwoof, who specialise in this sort of thing: this is the same company who were in charge of the UK releases of several of the other documentaries which have most impressed me in recent years, particularly Blackfish and Life, Animated. And so, even though these films are made independently of each other, it’s not much of a surprise that they share a good many features in common: none of them have a narrator as such, telling the story wholly through the testimony of the people involved and using archive footage, and using an arresting human interest story to explore wider issues.

And all that is true of this film, too. It does very much feel as if this has been crafted as a narrative in its own right, with the story presented in a way guaranteed to achieve maximum impact. Initially it is all about the shock and incredulity of everyone surrounding the triplets as they first became aware of each other, and the cheery craziness that ensued, with only the fact that only two of them are contributing their parts of the story to suggest that this story will eventually go to some very dark places. The volta, when it comes, is startling, and takes the film into places which almost lead it to resemble an episode of The X Files for a while: shadowy political bodies lurk on the fringes of the story, unethical scientific experiments are described by cheerfully unrepentant researchers, and so on.

It is, by any metric, a remarkable and moving story, and the film’s handling of it is mostly very good – everyone involved gets their chance to put their side of it across, even if in a few cases this means some of the contributors are given plenty of rope and invited to fashion their own noose. On the other hand, you could probably argue that this narrative is just a bit too orchestrated – it’s not quite as bad as Sonita, in which the documentary film-makers basically became a part of their own story, but it almost bears comparison with the way in which the makers of Searching for Sugar Man presented the story in a highly selective way so it would have maximum impact on the audience. In the case, the fact that (prior to their reunion) one of the triplets was briefly implicated in a murder (no charges were brought) is held back until it suits the film’s thesis, to which it is relevant; there are other examples.

I suppose it comes down to whether you think that documentary film-making is about crafting a narrative for the greatest possible effect on the audience, or simply trying to present the facts as objectively as possible. Certainly I think there is a case to be made for both approaches, and a balance to be struck. Three Identical Strangers works very well from both points of view – where I think it starts to struggle a bit is when it attempts to address more abstract issues concerning the competing influences of nature and nurture. This is quite philosophical territory and none of the film’s contributors really have much to offer that you could honestly call profound. It’s certainly less compelling than the story of the triplets and the truth about their lives. Nevertheless, this is another very accomplished documentary which is as involving and surprising as the best studio thriller; well worth a look.

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We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

 

There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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It has been somewhat slim pickings this week, as we are currently suspended between tentpole releases in an odd sort of cinematic dead zone, especially if heart-warming family entertainments about CGI bears are not the kind of thing that oscillates your coracle. Still, there’s nothing wrong with looking a little further afield than normal, and so while awaiting the doubtless unique results of Zach Snyder and Joss Whedon’s directorial collaboration, I thought it might be nice to check out a low-budget movie about the private school system in the Republic of Ireland. Rock ‘n’ roll!

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The film in question is Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life (aka, apparently, In Loco Parentis) from last year, an observational documentary recording a year in the life of the students and staff at Headfort, a boarding school for children between three and thirteen located in Kells, about an hour outside Dublin (it says here). A fairly unusual school, then: the student body is multinational, containing kids from as far afield as Tanzania and South Korea, and the curriculum seems a little eccentric, too.

Over the course of the film we see various small moments from the year – the school Olympics (some nations are rather better represented than others), the development of the school band, the school production of Hamlet being thrown into jeopardy when the actor playing the Ghost turns out to be having First Communion on the day of the performance, and so on. No-one seems to pay the cameras very much attention, and the events shown in the film are clearly quite unforced, consistently warm, and often very funny – the school band’s assault on Teenage Kicks turns out to be one of the unexpected comedy highlights of the year.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the stars of the film turn out to be John and Amanda Leyden, two of the teachers who have spent virtually their entire careers at Headfort: John teaches Latin, but also apparently metaphysics and applied rock and roll. A man with apparently infinite resources of sarcastic curmudgeonry and almost indescribable hair, John comes out of the film as a deeply endearing figure, which would probably really annoy him. He certainly provides many of the film’s best lines – ‘Don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like children,’ he mutters, as his rest is disturbed by the sound of his charges approaching. ‘Well, that wasn’t entirely awful,’ is his idea of glowing praise, while he also hits upon an innovative solution to handing out prizes at the end of a class quiz: ‘I have decided to give a cream egg to the children who I like,’ he announces. He sounds, and probably looks, like a figure from some lost age of boarding-school nightmares – or possibly the teacher from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall video, but what’s immediately apparent in the film is his utter dedication to his work and his students. He has, after all, spent 46 years at this school.

The same is true for Amanda, who teaches English and is also in charge of the school play. She is a rather more maternal and approachable personality, but once again you never for a moment doubt that her work is the absolute centre of her life. Amanda and John are not particularly expressive, either towards each other or their pupils, but in both cases their devotion is clear. They don’t appear to have grown particularly rich in monetary terms, and indeed their home is chaotically shabby, but you are still left with the overwhelming impression who have managed to find the sweet spot of life.

The same could also be said of Headfort’s headmaster, Dermot Dix. Dix is a former Headfort pupil himself, apparently (not to mention a former pupil of the Leydens) and his own reputation from his time at the school is well-known amongst the pupils. I know I run the risk of repeating myself when I say that he seems equally dedicated to getting the children off to the best start in life, but it’s true (even if his lessons in ethical thinking appear to go off at some odd tangents – one scene showing discussion on gay marriage concludes with a pupil  deciding that ‘sometimes it’s better to be gay than single’).

Of course, if you are the cynical type, you might well conclude that all this really is is a massive commercial for what is, essentially, an extremely exclusive private school. Sure, the kids get a marvellous, nurturing education from superb teachers, but this is predicated on the fact that their parents are paying up to around €18,000 per school year for the privilege. Tedious old lefty that I am, as a rule I object to the fact that the quality of a child’s education should depend on their parents’ income, and so there’s a sense in which Headfort represents many things which I don’t believe should have a place in a modern, civilised society. And yet looking at the place, I can’t help but agree that the world is better for having schools like Headfort in it.

This is one of those observational documentaries that appears deceptively artless: there are no captions as such, no voice-over, no interviews as such with the principles. It doesn’t appear to be making a case or arguing a point of any kind, it just seems to be presenting an honest picture of a very nice place.

Nevertheless, questions inevitably arise as you watch it: shouldn’t all schools be like this one? What does it say about our society that education often seems to be less than a priority? Isn’t the education of children one of the most important jobs in any society?

More personally, the film seems to be more widely about life in general. I don’t tend to go on about it much hereabouts, but I am a teacher of sorts, although in my case I generally stick to working with people in their late teens and early adulthood. Watching School Life made me think that I might be in the wrong game, though, and that it’s with the younger children that you can really make a difference. I don’t know.  I do know that seeing John Leyden almost felt like looking at a vision of the future – I do enjoy a bit of dark sarcasm in the classroom, though I draw the line at buying cream eggs for anyone. Unspoken in the film are John and Amanda’s feelings as they contemplate their looming retirement, and what they will do next: it’s clear that this is something they approach with some reluctance.

Again, I sympathise (though in my case the crisis point is still hopefully many years away). But I imagine most people would – this is such a humane film, that it will surely evoke that same humanity in a viewer. Is it about the Irish private education system? No, not really. Of course, it’s about one very unusual school, but it also does that weird thing of not being about anything, and yet at the same being about absolutely everything. But none the worse for that, of course.

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You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.

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This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.

 

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Like many other people, I have been keeping half an eye on the BBC’s latest wildlife extravaganza, Beneath the Planet of the Earth, and the privations of the people who spend six months up trees waiting for sloths to get jiggy never fail to impress me. And, also like many other people, I suspect, I do occasionally find myself wondering: do they ever get the urge to, you know, assist real life a bit? Tell the lions where the baby giraffes are? Or, conversely, give the poor dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert hippo a crafty trough of lemonade between takes? Documentarians are only human, after all.

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This was brought rather forcibly home to me by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita, undoubtedly this year’s leading documentary about the Afghan hip-hop scene. Centre stage throughout is Sonita Alizadeh, who as things get underway is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran, dreaming of her future as a musical superstar. This consists of her sellotaping pictures of her own face onto magazine photos of Rihanna and rapping to her schoolmates at the refugee centre she attends. (She appears to be rapping about scratchcards, but it’s still one of the top ten best Afghan-language hip-hop numbers I’ve ever heard.)

Sonita and her mate Ahmad are doggedly attempting to launch some sort of musical career in Tehran despite the lukewarm response of the industry professionals they meet and the numerous problems facing a young female refugee wanting to record American-style music in Iran. Things do not look rosy. However, they get even worse when news arrives from the rest of the family back in Afghanistan: her elder brother wants to get married, for which he will need $9000 to pay the bride-price on his intended. To raise the money, Sonita’s mum has decided to realise one of the family’s assets: by marrying Sonita off to a stranger, and receiving a hefty financial sum in return.

This is, if you will, the film’s hippo in the desert moment, summed up by a moment in which Sonita looks forlornly at the camera and asks Ghaemmaghami if she can’t stump up some cash of her own, effectively buying Sonita’s freedom from the demands of her family. There is a long pause and the director gently tries to explain that it is not her role to involve herself in Sonita’s life that way.

Many discussions ensue between the refugee centre boss and Sonita’s alarming mother, followed by an extraordinary sequence in which Ghaemmaghami, the centre boss, the cameraman, and the boom operator heatedly discuss exactly what their responsibilities are towards Sonita and whether they should pony up for what is effectively blackmail by her mother: two grand will buy Sonita another six months of life in Tehran.

In the end a caption reveals that the film-makers decided to pay the $2000. From this point on the film is effectively dead in the water as a conventional documentary, but remains weirdly compelling viewing anyway: Sonita persuades the crew to film a pop video of her performing a number about bride-selling, which they then put on YouTube. As a result, she gets offered a scholarship to a school in Utah, but this involves a frankly hair-raising gamble: Sonita has to return to Afghanistan, from where she may not be able to leave again, and secure the necessary travel documents without her family finding out. It’s very clear throughout that the director is basically egging Sonita on, utterly disregarding the concerns of her family, and possibly even Sonita’s safety. The code of ethics of (utterly non-)professional film critics prevents me from revealing how it all turns out (look on Wikipedia if you really must know), but many members of the audience at the screening I attended – primarily the young, American ones – were literally weeping as the film ended. Hmmm.

I mean, it’s not as if Sonita Alizadeh isn’t a winning screen presence: she’s as engagingly stroppy and self-obsessed as any western teenage girl, and, as far as I can tell, which is obviously not very far at all, she does have some genuine talent as a writer and performer – but the problem is that the film’s openness about how involved the crew were in shaping its events really makes you doubt and question the whole thing.

Even before the bit with the cash, I was slightly unsure this wasn’t some bizarre Chris Morris-esque spoof of right-on documentaries, played absolutely deadpan: there’s a scene in which a pair of stony-faced social workers get Sonita to use her classmates to recreate scenes of her family’s escape from the Taliban. Other bits just feel staged: at one point Sonita has to pop off down the benefits office to ask for an advance on that month’s money, and the scene is filmed from within the office itself, indicating the people there are complicit in having the documentary crew around. The same is true of a discussion of Sonita’s fate between her mum and the refugee centre boss – if this is a genuine conversation of such import, what the hell is a camera crew doing there? Even the subtitles to Sonita’s lyrics rhyme suspiciously well, given she’s supposedly singing in a foreign language.

In short, the impartiality of this documentary felt deeply suspect from very early on, and the questionable element is by no means limited to the director’s involvement in shaping the subject’s future. The axe that the film is grinding is a noble axe, a justified axe, an axe that I am broadly very sympathetic to myself. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a film with an axe to grind, and the clear intention of presenting Sonita as a sort of hip-hop version of Malala Yousafzai (or possibly Ms Dynamite, albeit with a background containing genuine explosives).

This probably isn’t the place to rake over my own first-hand experiences with the partly quaint but mostly just brutal match-making practices of central Asia – suffice to say that the traditions which the film (and Sonita) rail against so effectively are certainly not fictitious and still have the capacity to ruin the lives of young women. But how we deal with this subject is a complex and difficult topic which is not especially well-served by a film which is so obviously partisan on the issues involved (one completely unconnected scene, early on, has a young woman with a black eye being assured that ‘your brother says it won’t happen again’ – we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what’s been going on). Are we so utterly self-assured when it comes to the righteousness of our own principles that we are prepared to casually disregard and obliterate the traditions of Afghan culture? Isn’t the film basically presenting a very particular form of Americanism as the one true way forward? There is some troubling stuff here.

That said, what were they supposed to do? Let Sonita be dragged off to – essentially – domestic slavery as a drudge for a total stranger? I suspect I probably would have done the same in the film-makers’ position. I can’t argue with their choices, but they do colour the film and get in the way of it having the effect they no doubt intended. As a result, while Sonita is mesmerising to watch, it isn’t always for the best of reasons, and – in a very rare occurence – I am somewhat at a loss to say what actual merit it has as a film. It’s agitprop more than genuine documentary, and embedded agitprop at that. But at least it’s honest about its intentions, and constantly watchable as a result. Interesting soundtrack, too, obviously.

 

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Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.

What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.

There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.

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As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)

Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.

In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.

The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.

And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.

Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)

Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.

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In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?

In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.

 

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