Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

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?


‘Fragments of actuality’.

That’s the driving force often behind documentaries, to weave together the fragments of actual life and present them to us in only a way a film can. Life weaves its own path, with no regard for anything other than what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It can be frustrating though, to try and map the complex nexus of life onto a couple hours of experience.

Especially with a story such as this one.

Because sometimes stories in the real world, though they may not reach the operatic heights of fiction, matter and reveal a lot more to the world, simply because they’re true. They’re true, but more importantly they need to be seen to be believed. The story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran is one which should be logged in humanity’s ‘bizarre’ folder indefinitely. Three identical brothers separated at birth for reasons which rapidly are revealed to be ominous at best, who come to know and meet each other at the age of 19, before their lives take off into a media whirlwind and into a spider’s web of secrecy, pain and scientific investigations. The film circles deeper and deeper into an ethical maelstrom of human nature which eventually spins you out back into the world, drenched in the knowledge of a story which is real, and shocking.

But a documentary is not just a 1:1 representation of real life, and director Tim Wardle delicately sutures the entire story together, drafting and redrafting the story as it continues to unfold. Each interview is a Russian doll, exposing the secrets and the hidden figures lurking in the wings of the story. Archival news clips are strung together under a common narration, emphasising the audience to see what is necessary at the time, only for those same clips to be reconstituted later under a deeper layer of understanding. What is beautifully drawn out of the film’s subjects, not through any particularly intense interrogations, is the continued revelations of information becoming part of the story. The events and timeline of the case are not depersonalised, it is not a maze to be solved.

One of the reasons for this is simply because the film is so earnestly concerned with the real tragedy, the real existential story of the brothers themselves. Audiences love thrillers, and conspiracies are notoriously tantalising, but the film really only goes as far as to show how the mechanisms at work have so deeply affected and grown the colossal void or absence that being separated did to the brothers as a whole. More than anything, the film frames their experiences, their resilience and sense of loss as the centrepiece of the story. It’s documentary 101: show the humanity, whatever the form, and it pulls it off in a deeply moving, mind-boggling way.

But another reason for this, is that the film is also hampered by (and excellently shows) the process by which legal institutions and places of power protect themselves, not through any obvious displays of power, but simply by abusing the regulations and understanding of the law. The documentary process usually does its’ best to not make you aware of its inner skeleton, of all the boring record hunting and the other parts of the production process. Usually all the information is streamlined into the documentary, with some nice appealing visual aids and appealing narration. But a documentary is always limited by how much information the story and its participants will reveal, and the legal entrenchment of power and silence hurts the truth of many, many stories. So by Wardle displaying that process, that invalidation and silence and refusal to partake in the story’s necessary revelations, it takes the story and the film beyond that of a conventionally great documentary, and highlights a deeper, more disturbing truth of the world that is being reflected; that it doesn’t have to give you the answers you’re looking for.

With a story such as this it’s always best to take it with a pinch of salt anyway and not buy into it 100%, simply because it so complex, so tangled, and still open-ended. In fact Wardle does seem to encourage it, keeping the film more balanced towards to the human truths of the brother’s experience as opposed to any irresponsible speculation or hypothesis making. The indictments it makes are more delicate than damning, but the film doesn’t play down the colossal scope and weight of the story. Most importantly it speaks truth to power, it exposes the internal workings of a story too surreal not to be real, and it uses self-aware and acrobatic documentary techniques to sculpt the story into something stylistic, beyond just the straight raw material of life.

What more could you want from a documentary?

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #8 – Three Identical Strangers

Palindromes (2004)

Palindromes

Films are easy, but that’s only because they’re hard. They’re easy because you can put them on and no matter the film, whether it is a light piece of popcorn fare or an intense vertiginious dizzying rollercoaster through the very depths of human experience, everyone (with exceptions) gets the same assembled piece of film to draw from, the same well to drink from. Hundreds and thousands of individual choices; lines, shots, sound effects, takes and performances, they all sculpt a film from thin air, from a story inside someone’s head to a written, formatted text, to an audio-visual chain/superstructure which is packaged and shown and most importantly, seen.

But they’re hard, films are not the same. The eyes and minds of the world are many, and the films which are sculpted into being are not always of the same shape, the same order, the same schools of thought or design. Films are experiences which resonate with people, and the resonations that ripple outward from any film great or small affect people differently. And those affects are not simple and isolated, but films often evoke a great deal of perspectives, feelings, and movements simultaneously, engaging like an explosive rippling out onto the suspecting and unsuspecting alike.

So we come to Palindromes (2004, Dir. Todd Solondz).


 

I’m struggling already with Palindromes, simply because I always feel that no matter what I write about it, I’m not properly capturing the vertigo-inducing complexities of it. In short, Aviva (played by eight different actresses of race, gender, and age) is a 13 year old Jewish girl, who wants to have a baby, and falls into a dark Americana labyrinth, crossing the landscape and the people in a journey which stares unblinking into a world of abortion,  Christian evangelicism, and underage and pedophilic sexual encounters. Aviva travels down a polluted river, and stares innocently into it for most of the film’s runtime.

Having Aviva played by different actresses is the film’s mechanical wondershow for the audiences, forcing most people to interact with a constructed film world which people rarely encounter. The film’s construction forces you to keep Aviva constant even as everything about her physical appearance changes. It creates a relationship to the film which at once distances you and brings you closer. Watching different physical bodies portray the same character created more than just an internal resonance with Aviva, it pushed me to start thinking about how we can carry different versions of ourselves inside us. How our past selves can stay with us, old clothes stuffed inside the new ones. The film never does more than wryly comment on the technique once or twice, and by taking itself seriously it punishes an audience which would like to turn its head, to try and create some distance from the uncomfortable closeness to the dark heart of America.

Because portraying the world through Aviva’s eyes and truly being committed to it, means experiencing her world without the kind of moral stabilisers and framework that the adults would like to believe they possess (which sometimes they do, sometimes). Aviva is a child, and Solondz was never interested in constructing a how-to-guide for society why all of the things Aviva sees are wrong. In fact, Solondz stays truthful to Aviva’s point of view in that as a child, it is often hard to fully understand why adults do the things they do, and the consequences of their actions. This leads to what feels at first like a moral vacuum, as Solondz’s script doesn’t blink at how truly ugly life can be, but also leads to a perspective of life from inside what society has deemed evil as it is experienced in life. The unplanned pregnancy is an act which nearly tears Aviva’s family apart, and the ironic cruelty of events after is not a replacement for being confronted with the murky murky depths of human life.

Palindromes understands that everything stays the same, even if you think it gets different. But also everything is different, even if you think it stays the same. It is locked in its’ own paradox, just like films being both easy and hard. Because Palindromes is not the film you walk out of, raving about it’s obviously gorgeous cinematography, or any of it’s more conventional stylistic flourishes. It is uninterested in Hollywood stars, or facades of reality which cash in on cheap entertainment values. I’m not saying those things are inherently bad either, merely that the perspective it contains is one which travels a less well-trodden path. But it is a film anyone would come out of with lots to say, a film which provokes and presents the world around it in a light devoid of a romantic sheen. And the thing about Palindromes is that it might occupy the same space, the same time as many many other films. It’s only one hour and forty minutes, and there are hundreds of thousands of films which run for the same amount of time. Palindromes, like every film, is just a film. Palindromes, like every film, is so much more than just a film.

And that is the end of what I have to say about Palindromes. And it is also only just the beginning.

-Alex

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Palindromes (2004)

Girlhood (2014)

Girlhood.jpg

Céline Sciamma made Girlhood in a recent, but rich tradition of French films concerned with the reality of life in some of France’s sharper corners. It was my experience with La Haine (1995, Dir. Matthieu Kassovitz) in a French class at age 11 which first exposed my mind to the soulful, harsh worlds of French estate or banlieue life. But that style for a long time, has only been fully understood from the world of those angry teen boys, hyper charged and pinballing off the concrete walls of an oppressive, bleak world. Any moments of real joy, you had to look over your shoulder, because it wasn’t going to last.

But life goes on. Céline Sciamma knows that the real journey, is not just in an explosive climax, but in the moments in between as well, the moments where the sun peaks through the grey cloud cover and manages, just for a second, to shine ever so brilliantly.


Cinema has always been able to transport us. To pick us up out of our lives and replant us somewhere else, for a fleeting breath in time.  And so is the story in Girlhood, which plants us in the company of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, with all of the trappings and the preciously rare benefits of that transition. For the world that Marieme and her friends inhabit, is one which is spiky and filled with hard-edged falls. The concrete jungle is not just an environment, it is a maze to be navigated, filled with dead ends and dangerous obstacles to be overcome or at the very least to be sidestepped. Academia is unable to support her. The quietly punishing and grinding cleaning work is a path she does not want to walk, as she watches her mother walk quietly through empty office halls. But a life of crime has its own thorns to stick in her side as well, as she is forced to contend with her identity as a woman and the possibility of her being sexually objectified becomes a disadvantage to possess.

In short, and in long, life is tough. The journey which Marieme charts is one of fiction, but one which holds an uncomfortably close reflection of the atmosphere and choices available in a poorer environment in the city. If the poor have been voiceless throughout most of history, then Girlhood is a swing back at the narrative, as Marieme’s inner identity and external world take center stage, not in a way linked to the highest echelons of power, but in the real world and the real connections around her. She must slip between the hostile societal forces, omnipresent and invisible, and the hostile personal forces in her life, very real and very physical threats to her.

What propels the story forward, gently at first but with increasing urgency later, is her continuing to rise up underneath the weight of the world. Her conditions change like the tides, but she continues to ride the waves under the increasing stresses of life. And she refuses through stubborn persistence and self-respect, to be pushed under those waves and drown. Marieme finds moments of joy, moments of power, moments of love. And when each of those moments is undone by another moment of violence, of inequality, of pain, she absorbs it and continues to step forward. Uneasy, but definitely moving. And what is powerful about it, is that Sciamma’s direction does not engage in showing either of the moments gratuitously. There are no verbose speeches written about the power of friendship, and there are no extended sequences of replicating some of the brutal physical and mental violence Marieme endures at times. These forces are alluded to continually, in the looks friends give each other, the looks family give each other. Because meaning in this world is precious, and furthermore what is the point of intellectualising those feelings, when Marieme and her friends just want to feel them? The subtext churns under the sea of Marieme’s life, and its power to envelop your attention grows with each passing minute.

All of this is captured by Sciamma’s and Crystel Fournier’s camera, one which lets every scene breath for a couple of moments before it starts. The quiet, growing pace of the film can be a little low-key at the beginning, as Marieme segues through the environment we’ll become deeply acquainted with by the end of the film. But each scene, through these moments of silence and personal solitude, speak in a way which dialogue or more obvious/dramatic ways of staging might work. The drama in Marieme’s life comes from the world around her, not from the way she sees the events. There are no virtuoso flourishes of the camera, no distracting effects only there to induce sheer cinematic spectacle. But when the camera decides to synchronise with a moment of true resonance, such as the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond”, it sinks you under the murky seas of the world to show you the incredible, beautiful and dangerous human circus going on underneath.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of films I’ve seen like Girlhood, and that’s really refreshing for me. Different/original does not always equal good, but it would be foolish of me not to really accept or understand just how striking Girlhood is as a piece of art. To take a journey like Marieme’s, and show it to the world and have faith that it will resonate with people. For Marieme’s life is the life a lot of us would like to ignore, of a life which is slipping through the cracks of our supposed “civilised” societies. But the film is not an attack, it’s not a sharpened spear to cut through the bullshit like La Haine was, a volatile fireball thrown into the cinematic environment. Girlhood is something much more reflective, more soothing, and ultimately more hopeful. It is not a film driven by anger, but by love. Love, despite the sufferings of the world.

And that’s a beautiful message to wrap up in such a beautiful film.

– Alex

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Girlhood (2014)