Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

 
“War is partly madness, mostly insanity, and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”
– Don McCullin
 
McCullin
                                         Don McCullin, Grieving woman with young boy, Cyprus 1964
 

There were a variety of reasons to attend this week’s screening of McCullin at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA’s  preeminent reputation consistently draws in distinguished panels, in this case McCullin director Jacqui Smith and world-renowned photographer Rankin.

The film’s protagonist, Don McCullin, is hailed as one of the greatest war photographers of all time and the first photojournalist to ever be awarded a CBE – yet the subject’s credentials are only of secondary importance to the subject matter of this (undoubtedly soon to be award-winning) documentary.

For all the discomfort triggered by these photographs and their brutally vivid portrayal of humanity, the narrated montage delivers on the promise made by the beautiful and haunting opening credits: this is a film that will stay with you for a long time.

From his first time as war correspondent in 1964 Cyprus through to ravaged Vietnam and the Congo, via the Troubles and the fall of the Berlin Wall, McCullin has captured many moments that were to become seminal emblems of their time.

The exceptional editing skills of Andy McGraw and David Fairhead manage to tie together the abrupt rhythm of depicted events in a mellifluous fashion, and take us through history via McCullin’s own extraordinary history of being in the right place at the right time – an esoteric trick of the trade intrinsic to good photojournalism.

McCullin however never abuses this power: a video clip of his work in deprived areas of Britain (he himself was born in Finsbury Park in 1935) shows him tip-toeing around a man, making sure he’s not “bullying” him in any way before he snaps his photograph.

Throughout his career McCullin has shown the same sensitivity to the plight of the inner-city poor as to the victims of conflict and the soldiers ordered to carry it out. Representing atrocity is clearly as difficult a calling to him as it is one of tremendous importance.

His own on-camera musings, alongside an interview with Harold Evans (editor of the Sunday Times while McCullin worked for the broadsheet’s magazine), bear witness to this internal struggle and offer a first-hand account of war reporting amongst differently-minded peers and a changing landscape in journalism.

McCullin doesn’t come across as a comment on journalistic ethics, but if it were, McCullin’s own conclusion is that it is better to choose to be “on the side of humanity”.

The passion of the protagonist is reflected in the passion of the filmmakers. The incredible archive research – which took an entire year for only three days of shooting – results in a treasure trove of difficult-to-find photographs all available in the same place (for those photographs that didn’t make the final cut, they will be available on DVD upon its release in February 2013).

Such commitment may rightly be the product of McCullin’s own incredible dedication (which apparently outstripped his technical skills: he “couldn’t light his way out of a paper bag” according to Jacqui Smith) and his quest to “delegitimise war”, as described by Harold Evans.

Whatever the motivation the end result is the same: Rankin thinks McCullin is “the most anti-war film ever made” and his claim certainly holds weight. “I think we’re drawn to war as artists or communicators”, he says. “People forget that about photography: you need that element of humanity and empathy.”

It is perhaps lucky that the film was ever made at all, both on account of McCullin’s self-effaced privacy and his recent coming out of retirement to cover the conflict in Syria. All the more reason to watch it in cinemas while you can.
 

For news about ICA screenings and events visit their website. You can also follow @McCullin_Film on Twitter. 

Based on Domitilla Calamai’s eponymous book, Julie Gavras’ 2006 Franco-Italian debut feature film enchanted audiences at home and abroad, collecting several awards from francophone countries and featuring at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey, brilliantly, convincingly strong-headed)  is a 9 year old Parisian daughter of Spanish and French petite bourgeoisie. The film follows her story from the death of her uncle under Franco’s regime to the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende on September 11th 1973.

When Anna’s aunt and cousin find refuge in the family home in Paris, Anna’s tranquil, regulated life is thrown into a shambles. New terms such as distribution of wealth and communist, uttered by her increasingly reactionary parents, creep their way into her vocabulary alongside the familiar and reassuring teachings of the school nuns’ bible study.

Anna struggles to hang onto a reference point in a world that is many shades of grey: she witnesses wisdom within prejudice and prejudice hiding behind a screen of progress; she discovers her ancestors are torturers and their children self-styled freedom-fighters.

As a throng of bearded visitors and a succession of exotic nannies (from “countries where they burn children with napalm”) all but invade the downsized house her family now inhabits, Anna’s hunger to understand slowly takes precedent over her outright rejection of this drastic change in her traditional upbringing. Initially dubbed “la momia” by her father’s Allende-supporting friends, she learns to tolerate their late-night presence and increasingly seeks out their company. Her attempts at spying on her mother’s feminist meetings and secret recording sessions are met with strict rebuttal.

While the adults each fight their own battle, she tries to assimilate the concept of “group solidarity” which they make her experience first-hand in an anti-Franco demonstration. Her lack of understanding in the face of issues such as social mobility and abortion mirrors that of the older generation and her catholic schoolmates’ parents, but her curiosity and an incontrovertible sense of logic push through: she braves mistake after mistake in the pursuit of her own conclusions, under the sometimes benevolent, sometimes appalled eye of her parents. It becomes clear that even without all the pieces, this puzzle is less complicated to a child than to the adults who purport to redefine its shape.

As Anna completes her journey, from haughtily “cutting fruit properly” to switching off the boiler in winter to save electricity, we experience and celebrate her frustrations and moments of epiphany, and the puzzled apprehension and delight of newfound freedom.

This unpretentious film offers a brilliant portrayal of 1970s reactionary Paris through its fallible characters and the eyes of the child who watches them suffer and grow. The string of usual revolutionary clichés are mercifully not in abundance here, as Julie Gavras puts careful thought into demonstrating both the importance and futility of symbols and individual action. A few joyous moments of subtle humour complement the overall light-hearted treatment of a heavy historical subject. Armand Amar’s wonderful soundtrack, reminiscent of the more widely known Yann Tiersen, is a pleasure in itself.

Blame in on Fidel! is available on BBC iPlayer until 17th April.

One of my favourite films of all times couldn’t go without a review.

Marc Foster’s 2005 high-impact drama was very much overlooked upon release. Scripted by David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Game of Thrones), arguably one of the finest young writers out there, and starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Bob Hoskins and the more recently celebrated Ryan Gosling, the psychological thriller category under which falls this gem of a film belies the visually stunning poetry of its cinematography.

Sam Foster (McGregor) and his partner Lila (Watts) live a comfortable life in New York, each of them dedicated to their passion and career, psychiatry and painting respectively. When Sam takes on suicidal patient Henry (Gosling), unsettling thoughts, events and manifestations start seeping into his existence.

Is it a dream? Or a nightmare, more like. Is it madness we’re dealing with? Whose madness? The therapist’s? Or his patient’s, drawing the therapist into his own world? Or is it us he’s drawing in? We hear Lila call Sam “Henry”: is then she the one who’s mad? We, the audience, know she called him that, we heard it, with our very own ears. So is the therapist drawing us into his madness? But he’s not the patient…

All throughout the film, there are signs – apart from the all-round fucked-up narrative – subtle signs that there’s something deeper going on. Something we can’t make sense of and something the character probably only senses without ever getting close to identifying. There are visual clues – all the things happening in doubles – the two girls, with the brown bob and yellow raincoat, simultaneously exiting opposite sides of the car, opening the boot, and simultaneously pulling out two identical suitcases. This, in a remote corner of the overall street view as it’s shot; easily missable, nagging at our subconscious nonetheless. The twins (or clones) passing Sam in the corridor. The omnipresent symmetry. And the cinematography – the staircase!! Everything leads to an explanation of the truth behind the story that we’re not equipped to decipher or even grasp – and so we’re contrived to sitting back and enjoying the aesthetics of it. The beauty of it.

And the final scene – and it is only in the very final scene – when everything falls into place, everything we’ve seen, everything we’ve questioned, everything we’ve noticed and even things we haven’t – it all flashes before our eyes, and it doesn’t make sense but we understand it. Just as our character does. The absoluteness of the tragedy grips us, while the promise of redemption in the form of a new beginning leaves us wondering whether we’re choking back tears of grief or joy.

Now that is cinematic genius.

… or to be more accurate, Not A Review.

There are plenty of excellent reviews out there penned by people with a deeper understanding of Russian history, economics and politics than I can claim to harbour. This is to say, I know about as much about the subject as I do about analytical chemistry (though I am, somehow, familiar with the concept of mass spectronomy and the workings of Orbitrap technology).

What I can offer is a unique vantage point over a slightly disquieting (embarrassingly frightening, to be frank) experience of a Q&A session that left me wondering whether I’d stepped through a looking glass (the glass cage “protecting” Khodorkovsky during his trial, maybe?) and emerged into a thriller of my own.

Enter the protagonists: the audience. Oh, the audience! Due to my late arrival in an already-dark screening room I hadn’t taken in the assortment of spectacular fur-clad women whom I immediately decide are rich Russian exiles. Their striking profiles, an impossible combination of staid and fierce, mark them out against what must be the Lawyers and the Economists, their faces attentive and grave and their apparel very much fur-free.

Then: Cyril Tuschi, director. Upon introduction he smiles a withdrawn, maybe timid sort of greeting. His brief, unassuming way of first addressing the audience shows a preference to answer specific questions: we’ve just seen his work; he doesn’t need to promote or explain it.

The first question comes from a sharp, bald man in a black suit so remarkably lacking in features as to be incongruous. Tuschi has walked the length of the audience on the front row and handed him a microphone.

“Why do you think they haven’t killed him?”

A very good question, in point of fact, as to Khodorkovsky’s wellbein– well, being alive.

As Mr Tuschi works his way towards a hypothetical conclusion, Mr Suit works his way along the wall and towards the front of the audience, stopping a few feet short of Tuschi, his gaze locked on the director since… well, since we saw him picking up the microphone, at the very least. I’m doing some hypothesising of my own as to the nature of this gazing, when its nature becomes suddenly clear: a black object unmistakably identifiable as a gun has sleekly materialised in the Suit’s right hand; it’s pointing at Tuschi, and Tuschi is… walking towards it?

Why yes, he would, as he’s the one who handed it to him. The microphone, that is.

The fool’s shame I feel overrides any sense of relief, and if anything makes me more alert to my neighbours and my surroundings – a state of awareness probably aided by the fact that my heart rate has just enjoyed an impromptu pickup.

But of subtlety, there is very little to follow: a cordially opinionated lady hoards the microphone for a good while, as much for enquiry as personal comment, and proceeds to punctuate any further questions and answers (it’s necessary at this point to remember this is a Q&A) with exclamations that could be mirth and acquiescence as much as fury and disapproval. She’s doing remarkably well without the microphone.

Mr Tuschi, who is also doing remarkably well at being heard with the microphone, has just launched into a captivating and disturbing account of the film’s disappearance in Berlin. Speculation seems unanimous amongst the audience as to the culprits.

Completely unexpectedly yet somehow right on cue, a heavily-accented Russian voice at the very back of the audience, all the more authoritative for its low key and high volume, commands everyone in the room to “stay in your seats, you’re all under arrest!”

The joke won’t be on me, this time, and I patiently wait for something to break the palpable silence. The first uncomfortable chuckles come, I suspect, from the English amongst the crowd, who have rather mastered the art of Pretending Nothing Is Happening. It is soon overtaken by raucous and heartfelt laughter that reaches every corner of the room in different ways: for my share, this will always be the day I realised I don’t quite get Russian humour.

I don’t remember why Tuschi thinks his subject was never killed. I have the vague recollection that he might have admitted having no idea himself. Nor do I recall the exact circumstances of the film’s vanishment in Berlin. But the myriad intrigues depicted, surrounding a black-and-white animation of a character whose only appearance in the flesh fatefully happens in the last few minutes of the film, will leave me with the kind of sensations a film junkie lives to experience.

Perhaps one of the merits of Tuschi’s film is that the above divagations of my galvanised imagination made it possible to write this outlandish review at all: I never realised how drawn into this historical, political, and human work I was until I found myself incessantly pondering the fate of Khodorkovsky, or I felt a sudden and urgent need to devour every Russian history book available, or I mistook a microphone for a gun.