Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Titicut Follies (1967, Dir. Frederick Wiseman) is a buried secret of a film. Once it’s uncovered, brought back to the living world every single time it’s viewed with new eyes, all of its life comes hurtling back through time with all the force of a fucking hurricane.

The film itself, is direct and simple to comprehend. Wiseman with a minimal crew (2-3) and a single camera, followed the goings on of a state penitentiary for the mentally insane for an extended period of time (29 days to be exact). After shooting a considerable amount of film, he extracted key sequences from his celluloid stock and placed them next to each other, fragments connected without regard for conventional notions of narrative, time or chronology beyond his own personal rhythms. And that covers what is in the film.

But of course, if that was all, I wouldn’t be writing this. Because much in the same way describing a film doesn’t really describe what’s in the film, the sights, the sounds, the emotions and thoughts it gives rise to, neither does my distant summation of Titicut Follies explain what awaits anyone who watches it. Because inside Wiseman’s rhythms and fragments, lays the most direct and brutal confrontation regarding the mentally insane I’ve ever seen. Not against them per se, but against the very nature of what it means to be insane and what it means to be someone who deals with them. There is a reason our asylums are places we build like prisons, to lock out and keep out of view and to be removed, isolated from the larger societal world. Because quite simply, we don’t want to see.

The rhythms of Titicut Follies contain in them many different movements and motions, and it’s people who were captured by its lens are ones which perform and unconsciously dance for us. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes disturbing in their engagement and sometimes mind-numbingly dull. If I’m talking about this film in opaque terms, it’s because the film confronts you with that idea. Wiseman offers no constructions to hang onto, no place to pin your tail on the donkey. The film is bookended and interjected by the performance of a musical put on by the inmates, and beyond that the film is a slate for you to inscribe your meaning on. Wiseman’s editing rhythms push the ideas he wants to communicate, but you may not always get them, you may miss them or they may go over your head. But your experience of the film and what you draw from it, this intense and visceral confrontation of those who hover between sanity and insanity, is still one which simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away.

I’ve gone over the waterfall on this film. It’s rooted itself so intensely into my mind, through personal reasons and filmic ones that I’m struggling to talk about it in more conventional terms. Partially because it’s construction is so subtle, sound blurring and separating between images to keep you from becoming completely disoriented, or camerawork by John Marshall which simply refuses to turn away, which completely focuses on its subject and never cuts away from the gruesome realities of reality.

It’s a relic of its time, but the fury Titicut Follies still provokes is that deep knowledge around you, that injustices and cruelties are perpetrated and accepted not even necessarily because people are evil, but just because people get used to things, people don’t want to confront difficult subjects, and people are often afraid. It’s a film whose power hasn’t degraded, simply because there’s about as little pretense as you can find in the medium of film, one which is so interested in fantasies. It’s a film which goes beyond that petty issue of “who’s really the mad ones, those inside or those outside?”, and becomes a film which is nearly punishing in its ability to crystallise the horrors of going mad, and the dangers of those who are ideally meant to take care of them. In any system of power, there are chances for its abuse. Very rarely have they been captured so honestly, power’s use and its’ misuse.

This film holds a truth, one which suppressed and held hostage by the United States government, one which they tried their best to bury. But it still lives, and every time it’s seen by another person, it’s a testament to the hope that one day things will get better. And since the release of it, the treatment of the mentally ill has improved and been raised considerably. It’s just important to remember what we could lose if we slipped backwards.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

leviathan_teaser

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Poster for Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) is a film. That much I am sure of. Beyond that, its all up in the air. That said, you could easily make a case for it being the greatest music video of all time.

That’s not meant to discredit the film in any way. Vertov’s use of music, rhythm and image in this film is just astounding.  It is rare to encounter a work of such guttural primordial force, combined with visuals which work only on the microscopic and the abstract, no brainwashing or brain-numbing occuring. He presents life, or represents life, or re-presents life, in a beautiful organised chaos. And he creates a vision of themes, machinery which has life and talks and sings, people who exist in a variety of forms, each inhabiting their own unique persona in the collage he’s crafting. The cityscape morphing into itself, or the camera operator being in turn captured by the camera eye. All this and much more, all in synchronisation to the dense conceptual symphony of the cityscape he builds, through music and imagery.An illustrious, multi-layered orchestral piece which is a force in its own right, not merely a backing soundtrack. The combination of the two creates this spectral force of cinema.

There’s a small part of me that wants to bring this film down to Earth, to try and help communicate to you just what is going on in the 6 segments of his self titled “experiment”. Because to those who might not be familiar with the historical context of the early Soviet film pioneers, and then also be familiar with Vertov himself, and his theory which underpins part of the ethos of these essays, that of the Kino-Eye, the idea that the camera  is more “perfect than the human eye for fathoming the chaos of those visual phenomena which evoke spatial dimension”, it can be difficult to even comprehend what’s going on. The filmmaking is just so radical, so deeply idiosyncratic and complex in it’s arrangement, that it becomes a vast gap to bridge just to even get on board with it. His experiment in pure cinema, with no script, no actors, no intertitles to provide context, nothing beyond the image and its manipulation, the music and its manipulation, and the interplay of the two to create a film.

This is cinema which exists on its own, cinema which is so deeply personal that the only comparison I can bring up is the work of M.C Escher, an artist who exists outside of the historical art continuum and the popular art continuum, but who is nonetheless an artist of profound depth who’s influence spread far and wide. This is said to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, ranked eighth in all world cinema in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, a documentary so far removed from any normal definition of documentary that we might imagine that it becomes either a dreamlike joyride or a crushingly boring betrayal slog.

The technical proficiency on display is blisteringly visionary, considering the level of expertise at the time in 1929 (and the three years before during its making), cinema’s existence only around for the last 30 years. The edits, the superimpositions, the splicing and re-orientation of the film itself, the literal film itself as he splits it, mirrors it, shows it being edited by his then wife. The camera becomes a subject of the film, itself being stared at by the kino-eye, as the filmmaker becomes just as important in the tapestry as the world he’s capturing. For that alone, the work is deserving of your time, time which is so precious these day, only clocking in at 69 minutes and managing to retain such a strong pace that most modern films can often lack. The symphonic ending sequence, it’s blindingly fast cuts and encompassing explosion of sound take cinema into the untranslatable, which can only be seen and heard to be understood. It felt ecstatic, revolutionary.

But it is only a film, and a rather curious one at that. Films can only do so much, and their makers even less. This film was Vertov’s call to arms for a (in his eyes) more visionary, a higher cinema. One concerned with poetic, intellectual, portrayals of life, not buried under fiction and lies and myths, what he termed “the opiate of the masses”. It did not take off, and maybe it is better that it did not take off, certainly easier. Vertov was like many visionaries, simply too radical. So consumed in its metaphysical nature, the work was not received well, certainly not with the sense of adulation and respect it holds today in cinematic history. If film had really become like Vertov’s work, imitators would have inevitably diluted the spirit of the entire project. It’s taken this long to properly appraise the work, imagine how it could have blown up if his ethos had become dominant.

I idolise Vertov, I make no secret of it.Half of this essay must read like a love letter to him as much as this film, but the truth that lies in this film’s kino-eye, is its ability to transcend its time and place to make a piece of art that touches on a level beyond words, language even. It is a work which carries a true incendiary spirit, one which I link in terms of true revolutionary cinema to Easy Rider. It is an extraordinary film in that is not like the Soviet contemporaries, nor the American “Talkies” who he reviled, nor like the films of today, it is out of the ordinary. It is not for everyone. The pioneering spirit is not for everyone. That does not mean that those who do not like it as much as me are wrong, or inferior in any way. Simply that I like to imagine I share a spirit with a man who pursued a cinema of vision, at the expense of support and acclaim which could have been granted to him if he had just fallen in line. It is his refusal to fall in line which makes the work great, but also condemns it.

Enough about Man With A Movie Camera. I have spent so long talking about it in the abstract, because that is what it provokes, abstract thought. It has lost some of its original meanings and intentions I’m sure, the passage of time erodes. But it is a work which shows just liberating cinema can be, freed from its conventions. Simply, it must be seen.

The ‘Kino-Eye’ speaks for itself, and it has so much to say.

-Alex

 

(A grand thank you to the folks at Eureka who have distributed a “Masters of Cinema” Edition of this film, which not only has a gorgeous restoration which I viewed for this, but also contains some of his other works, and an excellent collection of additional material and essays. I have not been endorsed by them in any way, I just strongly recommend picking up the special edition if you can find here , it would have made Vertov very proud.)

-Alex

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Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

54f9d0ce7bbd7.jpg

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

—————————————————————————

“SURVIVOR FOUNDED • SURVIVOR FOCUSED • SURVIVOR LED”

(The Dreamcatcher Foundation’s Motto on their website, which can be found here http://thedreamcatcherfoundation.org/).

Dreamcatcher is a 2015 documentary by Kim Longinotto, about former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell, who runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The aim of the charity is as follows (citing their website)

“The Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking in Chicago. Our not-for-profit organization works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and helps current prostitutes find confidence and stability beyond the limitations of their current lifestyle. The Dreamcatcher Foundation fosters confidence, courage, independence, and inner strength within young people in disadvantaged areas. Our harm reduction approach allows Chicago’s most disenfranchised young women take advantage of all of the mentoring services we offer and improve their lives through education, empowerment, and prevention.”

It’s very easy to read that paragraph and assume you understand exactly what the foundation is about. But lying behind it, is a timeless abyss of pain, sadness, degradation of the body and the spirit, and suffering. Everyone who appears in the documentary has been touched by this dark blanket, which coats and envelops their experiences since birth (some before). Babies born with crack in their system, abusive parents raised by abusive parents, sexual coercion and rape, abandonment of everyone and everything near and dear to you, including your children. The kind of stuff people not on the bottom rungs of society could only have nightmares about. The kind of stories that would make you wake up in the night in fear of your well fed, well-loved children falling prey to the “beasts of society”.

But as the film crystallizes, it becomes evidently clear that stories are the product of a much sadder fate, a lack of support, a lack of compassion, and a lack of care. The real catalyst of this comes, during an interview with a reformed/retired pimp, Homer who used to be best friends with Brenda’s pimp. As he muses on the trials that he endured as a kid which led to his distorted view of the world, he sums it all up by saying (paraphrasing) “No child is ever born a pimp.”

This is the real tragedy that lays at the heart of everyone’s story in this film, that somewhere along the line in their lives, they were failed by those who were supposed to protect them. The brutal waves of poor nurturing tumble from generation to generation, as we listen to young girls who explain they’ve been raped and molested and their parents did nothing or didn’t believe them, only to talk to those very same mothers and listen to the same stories come out of their mouths. Physical abuse which descends like a waterfall through families, filtering down from grandfather, to father to son, a son who becomes numb to abuse and sees it as the normal way of the world. The kids are not alright, and the adults are nowhere to be seen.

The way I’m writing it sounds like the film is very moralistic, but it is completely the opposite, it doesn’t demonise anyone. I am not familiar at all with Kim Longinotto’s previous work, but the film goes to great lengths to listen, in true cinema verité style, rather than dictate or present a certain case or understanding of the events. It is compassionate filmmaking, giving a voice to those voiceless, those trapped in silence for so long, because no one wants to listen, no one cares, or actively wants them to keep shtum. The camera floats in the world, no awkward air as people pretend to ignore the camera in regular documentary style, we are instead given a portrait, a window of honesty. These people do not perform for the camera, the camera is merely recording events in the most honest way it can. There’s no right or wrong way to solve the problem, the film and Brenda don’t have time to posture on what is the morally right stance on prostitution, because they’re too busy dealing with just acknowledging the silent pain these people carry with them. You’ve got to deal with the most serious injuries first.

Luckily, nothing is incurable, and Brenda  puts her entire being into promoting something these vulnerable girls and women lack, self-love, and self security. Girls who blame themselves for their rapes, who loathe themselves for being coerced into an untenable rock and hard place of poverty and slightly less poverty by being a prostitute. These women who pass through the frame are so broken, many not more than children. It comes as a shock to them, when they have taken on so much, far beyond what they should have, to relinquish their guilt and self-loathing, simply put, to be allowed to love themselves, to understand that it really isn’t their fault. It isn’t their fault that broken homes and poor social care damage the ones we seek to instinctively protect, the children. And those children grow up, and create more broken homes, like the tide coming in.

But this tide isn’t inevitable. Because what it takes to stem or change the flow of that tide is things we often take for granted. People who care for us, the basic human rights of shelter and food, a little self-love, and the expectation to not suffer violent abuses from those around us. Because the abusers often have experiences of abuse themselves, victims and perpetrators at the same time. Brenda recalls this in discussion with Homer, as she explains how she used to bring girls in to her pimp at times simply out of spite, just so he could fuck them instead of her. It’s easy to be cruel, but it takes so much effort to be kind. To be open, to be vulnerable and forgiving of life’s harshest, unjust realities.

It would also be a glaring omission to skim over the fact that almost everyone she deals with is Black. Inequality in America is still inexorably linked to race (as it is here in the UK) and the film opens up the world to someone who might have no direct experience of the black and/or female experience in this way, which is nothing short of a great social service, because anything that allows racial boundaries to be breached, crossed and simply dissolved is doing good, especially as the film goes to great lengths to show how the suffering, and the joy these women can experience is universal.

Brenda had two daughters by the time she was 16. She now helps other girl’s try not to land in the same position she was in. A girl she cares for Tameka, who is 15, becomes pregnant. The cycle continues, but it is not the same cycle, because there is Brenda, a vulnerable strong woman who cares, a woman who is strong because she is vulnerable and thus relatable. She truly has been through what these girls are going through, and so her words, her feelings are lent the authenticity and respect that most social workers could only dream of. Because when we suffer,  we look for support from people who we think have been through the same thing.

She helps to heal the part of us we often ignore, the spirit. Maybe she’s not catching dreams yet, but she’s taking the edge off of the living nightmares.

You must care and love before you can initiate positive change. She’s helping build a better future. Which I also noted in my “Black Panthers: Vanguards Of The Revolution” essay. I’ll leave you with this video essay which might help to explain this link.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino Pravda Docs: #3 – Dreamcatcher

“Sorry, Wrong Number”- Observations and Thoughts

Sorry-Wrong-Number

I’ve been watching a lot of film noir recently, mainly for this blog so I’ll be able to post some bigger piece on its general sensibilities later. But for now, having just come off of seeing this film, I thought I should see what I made of it.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) is a Paramount Pictures release, starring Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck directed by one Anatole Litvak, and captured by cinematographer Sol Polito. I mention the cinematographer, not usually given his fair due, because the film’s cinematography is exquisite. A stylistic trait of the director’s work, it roams and tracks like a wandering bird, underscoring and fleshing out the characters in this work with pure visual language. It wanders over the character’s houses, capturing their interiors, their mental spaces externalised so we can see their lives, their dreams, their fears without so much as a word being spoken regarding this. Sometimes its hard to recognise how much we can take for granted in our processing of visual information, how pictures can become shorthand for what would be lengthy and clunky to explain using written, or even verbal communication.

Secondly, it’s an incredibly taut slow burner. Like all good thrillers, it works on a level of less is more, meaning that the fairly innocuous nature of what is being revealed only really amps up in the last half an hour, as the vision of our protagonist-cipher finally becomes clear, the mist of all the mysteries dropping like the wool from over our eyes. The layers of dramatic irony (the plot is given away by the poster for chrissakes) only help to heighten the agony, in true Greek theatrical fashion, as our knowledge of the impending events only makes the seconds ticking by more excruciating. And so as it comes to its cathartic, climactic ending, an ending which seems as inevitable as one second ticks to the next, the only feeling left is one of profound agony, of a kind of psychological mourning of how things have happened, and why couldn’t they have changed to allow for a happier outcome. It seems that hindsight only magnifies our pain.

It’s a brutal experience that catharsis. In the film, as we come to understand [spoilers for a nearly 70 year old film] Leona (Stanwyck) comes to realise her husband (Lancaster) has plotted her murder, after being stifled and unconsciously betrayed by her, and having a huge debt to pay off to some offended mafia types after trying to screw them over. As the murderer comes up the stairs, in only a writer’s torment, he hurriedly admits to his crimes, and pleads with her to scream out to try to get help, while she hurriedly confesses and apologises for all of her wrongdoing, her obsessive need to own and control him. Finally, as the police come to arrest Henry, the husband, she is strangled, and the murderer picks up, simply saying “Sorry, wrong number.”

Do you see how explaining something using the word can be so pitiful in comparison to the image? Just watch the scene:

Of course in its own context, without watching the film before, the climax might seem too melodramatic, even hammy some might say. It is after a scene of great loud acting, agonising confessions and shrill terror. In the same way, if you simply plucked the scene in Oedipus Tyrannus where Oedipus tears out his own eyes, and showed that to someone outside of the rest of the story, they too might think it a little melodramatic.

It’s interesting, because only in the context of our lives’ more languid moments, in the moments where fail to pay attention, don’t know the whole story, go forth with actions when we don’t know where the consequences will lead, that we can more expertly make sense of moments like these, when the culmination of our acts forms into a conclusion, the train reaches its last station. Our curiosity can kill us (and the cat), but the recognition of both our ignorance and our curiosity to save us from circumstances we don’t want (Death by strangling for example)  is far more of a painful experience. I think that’s perhaps why stories such as these can be so viscerally affecting, why they speak of Aristotle’s catharsis.

Finally the film speaks as a testament to some very basic truths in our digitally enhanced hall of mirrors. The film spends no time enjoying special effects, no ensemble cast or high concept story elements. It contains the holy trinity of any great performative art, good direction, good acting, good script. The direction and technical elements, the editing is tight and subtle, the visual language is complex, intricate and gorgeous without being dense or confusing while no expense is spared on creating a believable visual and auditorial world. Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster both give impeccable performances here, actors who I will return to later (Stanwyck is much better here than the other film I saw her in, Double Indemnity). The cruelty in both of them envelops them like a swamp, mired in Stanwyck’s inability to cede any ground to Lancaster, while his wish to assert himself goes down the road to hell, along with any other good intentions he might have had.

The script, last of all, just functions in bringing this all to fruition. Starting life as a radio play by one Lucille Fletcher, Orson Welles referred to it as “the greatest single radio script ever written”. And when a work contains such rich thematic meat which you can sink your teeth into, and contains such esteemed elements of pure human experience, pride, arrogance, curiosity, foreboding, terror, horror and dread, well then its no wonder we still love our stories, regardless of how they end. Maybe even because of that, they end.

Stay tuned for a post coming soon about film noir, unless I get sidetracked.

-Alex

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“Sorry, Wrong Number”- Observations and Thoughts

Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

the-black-panthers-vanguard-of-the-revolution

 

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?

The word vanguard itself is a curiosity. It’s etymological root lies in “Old French” (9th – 14th Century), in the words avant = before and garde =guard. The before guard.  A cursory search of synonyms of for the word “guard” conjures up these examples.

protect, watch over, look after, keep an eye on, take care of, cover, patrol, police, defend, shield, safeguard, preserve, save, keep safe, secure, screen, shelter;fortify, garrison, barricade; man, occupy.

Now these words, these synonyms are words which we might think of as conflicting. The words “police” and “keep safe” might take on a cruel irony in light of both this doc, and the way in which the left spectrum views police forces. The words “look after” might seem distant from “occupy” even if they are two sides of the same coin.

If this seems dense, it’s because it is. The word vanguard is an incredibly loaded word. The vanguard comes before, to guard and protect what will come after. But just where are they coming from, and what are they planning to guard?

In October 1966, six black men created the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. By 1970 it had 65 chapters and thousands of members. By 1982 its membership had dwindled to 27 members, its leader was involved in embezzlement and was shot dead by a drug dealer. The history of the party, is absolutely brimming and overflowing throughout this piece, so I’ll waste no time sitting here recounting it to you. If you want to know the events which transpired in the Panther Party, than look no further for a piece which re-contextualizes our history by talking to the people involved, from those right in the heat of the fire to those circling its edges, snapping pictures and jotting the history down. The music snaps and bends throughout, the exhaustive footage chronicling many different facets of Panther life. It’s a damn good doc.

But underneath it all, runs a curious river of thought. The Black Panthers are something of a historical oddity, a loose collective bordering on a militia, committing both social care and terrorist acts whilst advocating the love of Black People, freedom from oppression, basic human rights seemingly denied to them, hounded and assassinated by the FBI, loved, hated, demonized, fetishised and all of this in a 1st World Country. We can often fall into the trap now of only seeing revolutionaries in a third world context, always overthrowing militaristic despots or corrupt inefficient third world plutocracies. But no, here we are, smack bang in the middle of America, one year after the assassination of Malcolm X, two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Well it’s a melting pot. The river then, is essentially this; Were the Black Panthers a force for good, and did they bring about change? When the revolutionaries lose, was their impact worth it?

I went to school in England, and we studied the Civil Rights Movement from 14-15/16 years of age, as a historical period. The Panthers showed up for all of one or two paragraphs in our history textbooks. Beside some cursory reading I’d done on them,  watching The Boondocks and reading Assata, I knew little of them. To see this egg prised open, in the most visceral way, watching Panthers recount their stories alongside real historical evidence and photographs and footage from all sides, media interviews, filming they did themselves, news clips and so on. In fact, in its most mind punching move, reads out and displays documents relating to the Panthers from the COINTELPRO FBI operation, specifically designed to dismantle and “put down” ideas of a Black revolution.

We have become incredibly saturated with general artistic content which reinforces our cynicism. We don’t trust our governments, or rather we don’t believe they have our best interests at heart any more. We see them exposed, in the media and in real life, in bed with corporations, corrupt and selling bribes to each other, only going up and up and increasing in scale. But we also consider them abstract, because, since they happen so often, we’ve come to expect them as second nature. When you see these figures, real life revolutionaries, admit that they had underestimated how insidious the FBI were, it shows just how far we’ve come, in a post-Snowden era, when we have an almost total lack of faith that our government ever wanted to help us in the first place.

The film also largely stays silent on any impact the Panthers might have on today’s social justice movements, the #BlackLivesMatter, the recent resurgence in socially conscious hip hop, the continued police killings. In fact there’s so much disentanglement needed just to work out exactly what happened to the Panthers, that it probably would have been overwhelming, and even unnecessary to try and establish links. After all, the film invokes a different era, and perhaps it might even be wrong to look back too closely to try and pull links into the present. The Panthers existed in a radically different landscape. They had endured no Ronald Reagan, no true collapse of the Soviet style Communism, no 9-11, no Iraq and Bin Laden. Instead they faced Vietnam, easily the country’s first truly demoralising conflict, and Nixon.

I mean, can we even compare ourselves in our paradoxical times to the counter-culture movements of back then? Now our marches are tweeted, our personal politics an everyday factor of life, not a bitter battleground, we see our activism in a negotiating sense, of trying to get more BME or LGBT accepted into the world, we’ve mostly completely dropped the fight for left wing Marxism that the Panthers originally held up. We have vague notions of disdain and distrust for “the government” or “big business” but a social revolution seems a bit dreamy in the state we’re in.  Sure we can draw lines, and see how they impact us now, but you can draw lines from anywhere. Their revolution can speak for itself, and that’s what the speakers do, they recount their experiences fighting for political and humanitarian justice, at the expense of everything else.

I mean it’s so tough to make any kind of headway into the group, for every right there seems to be a counter balancing wrong. They provided free breakfasts for the poor community, but they also held shootouts and were guilty of orchestrating assassination attempts. They were untied for their love of Black People, but were unsure how to proceed beyond their manifesto, and later the egos of its leaders bitterly divided the party. They were responsible for their own actions, but were also mercilessly sabotaged, harassed and dismantled by the covert forces of the United States Government. Every move they made was always under scrutiny, and like any radical, they were never particularly liked, only curiously watched or viciously hated, from the media by the former, and by the institutional racism on the latter.

If anything, the Panthers help to represent how curious a phenomenon it is to be morally steadfast in a world seemingly governed by moral relativism. The Panthers did not want to compromise, and many would ask how could they in the face of such insanity. Of the vicious, terrifying beatings, the physical beatings by the police, or when they were constrained in the courts by racist judges, of the beatings to the black psyche, the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness seemingly inflicted from the (white) on high. The Panthers is anything, were an expression of pure rage, an outlet of historical vengeance provoked by at least three centuries of Black humiliation and subjugation.

The Panthers have come before, to guard what will come after? Have they succeeded? Is the Black populations arguably less oppressed than they were 50-40 years ago? It seems so,and you can look around the world you live in for numerous examples of this.But the fight against capitalism has only become more diffuse and fragmented as time has gone on, and so has the fight the Panther’s picked up way back when. Now the infighting is everywhere, and identity politics runs so rampant because no one can trust their fellow-man or woman to ever properly support them, since it all seems to be predicated on unstable or potentially unconsciously discriminatory logic.Which is why the film takes on an oddly poignant tone. We watch in slow motion, only a small compression of the time the actual Panthers must have felt, how a revolution dies and fades. How when your very right to fight is compromised and undermined, how a revolutionary force can very quickly spiral downwards into an abyss. In that sense, it’s a cautionary tale. It says that real change can’t be achieved without harmony and unity in the cause, whether its violent or non-violent.

If anything, watching this helps to put the nail in the coffin of the existential manifesto of being responsible for your actions. It shows that even being responsible in the choices you make, the meaning you create for yourself, as the Panthers did by trying to be the vanguard of radical Black change, that there are forces at work which can be constructed to dismantle you, and actively crush and suppress you, channel you into streams you made no intention of going down.The joke being that we already believe in government conspiracy’s, find it far more trite than the Panthers would have done, as the extensive manipulation of a government intent on racial and social suppression was exposed to their horror.

My attempts to wrestle with this subject matter have not been particularly lucid, and for that I apologise. This film can be interpreted in many ways, a cautionary tale, a poignant memory, a historical time capsule, a curious peek into a radical movement, a deep psychological exploration of the black psyche in that time. The point is the film is there, and their story is here. The losers on history’s side do not disappear, they are just scrubbed out, pigeonholed and forgotten by the general flow of history. So to see this, to see people inspired into radical belief and action, not just a  curious way to think about the world. The Black Panthers believed in what they did, it was the right thing, not the relative thing at the time. There’s something incredibly admirable in that, even if their actions are ones you may find it difficult accepting. The lines are almost impossible to draw.

Seeing it gives me hope, for the future it may inspire, and fear, that history may repeat itself. But that is for the future, and this film is that of a past, so we’d do well to celebrate its memory. Celebrate the vanguard, for what they represent. Hope for a better future.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

 

 

Kino Pravda Docs: #2 – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution