Spike Lee Joint 3: Four Little Girls (US 1997)

4littlegirls

Four children murdered in Alabama

I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.

Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.

Spike Lee and the history of Black America

By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.

Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.

As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.

The documentary form

Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.

The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.

American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.

Documentary and representations of social reality

Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:

There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”

For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”

And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.

Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”

It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.

Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98

Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003

Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.

The Bridges of Sarajevo (France-Bosnia-Herzogovina-Germany-Italy-Switz-Portugal-Bulgaria 2014)

An image from Sergei Loznitsa’s contribution

This compendium/portmanteau film features the work of 13 European directors who were asked to represent aspects of Sarajevo’s turbulent history. The film was completed for the centenary of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the First World War. Since then the city, which had been in Austrian-Hungarian control since 1978 after centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a period as part of the Kingdom of Serbia, occupation by the Nazis who set up a puppet fascist state during the Second World War, become part of the post-war Yugoslavian Republic and then experienced the horrors of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s with a siege lasting four years. Now it is the capital of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzogovina. Each director has around 8-9 minutes to say something about Sarajevo and its story and the separate contributions are linked by an animation featuring representations of Sarajevo’s bridges.

I need to confess first that my knowledge of the history of Sarajevo over the last 100 years is not what it should be and that the wars of the 1990s left me completely bewildered (having been a supporter of Tito’s Yugoslavia as a ‘non-aligned country’ in the Cold War). Perhaps because of this, I realised that I was drawing on my understanding of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo(UK 1997) in my attempts to understand these short films. I was surprised how much I’d absorbed from the script of that film by Frank Cottrell Boyce and how many of the incidents from that film were familiar in this new film.

The thirteen directors, as indicated by the production nationalities above, come from several different countries. The four names most familiar to me directed contributions clustered together in the middle of the film. They are each quite distinctive. Jean-Luc Godard’s familiar large ‘banner’ statements in white upper case type are presented against still images and a montage of clips (I recognised at least one from Eisenstein). Similarly, Angela Schanelec shows us big close-ups of a small group of characters translating the statements of the 1914 assassin Gavrilo Princip with an un-blinking camera eye. Cristi Puiu offers us a long shot of a middle-aged couple in bed reading at Christmastime from a book which prompts the man to make several prejudicial remarks about various ethnicities and national groups in the Balkans – apparently it’s all the fault of Hungarians. The most striking visual treatment is from Sergei Loznitsa who superimposes large still photographs of combatants over street scenes from Sarajevo (both images in black and white). These superimpositions are striking and provocative – see the image at the head of this posting.

I’m not going to go through all thirteen contributions (but see below for more details). Inevitably, in a compendium film, some contributions work better than others for specific viewers – not because they are necessarily superior in terms of aesthetics, emotional impact or political sensibility, but often because of how they are juxtaposed with other contributions and how the rhythm of the overall film works for the viewer. I found some of the simpler personal stories about memory and migration and about family relationships to be not only affective in helping me to feel the impact of war, but also to remind me of the ways in which the Balkan Wars made their presence felt elsewhere in the world.

The on-screen text at the end of Leonardo Di Costanzo’s contribution. It tells us that 240,000 of the 5.9 million Italians mobilised were either imprisoned or executed for desertion, indiscipline or ‘auto-mutilation’ in an attempt to get sent home.

If you want a detailed description and an analysis of all the contributions you could try this review by Jay Weissberg in Variety. Weissberg knows a great deal about the history (or he is a very good researcher). His explanations of each contribution are helpful but I found some of his judgements made me very angry. I was particularly interested in the contribution of Italian director Leonardo Di Costanzo. His film doesn’t mention Sarajevo directly in its focus on Italian recruits fighting in the Dolomites in the Great War. It features a harassed officer forced to send out men to eliminate a sniper, who kills each one in turn. At the end of his film Di Costanzo presents some text informing us about the young men drawn into war to fight for a nation state only 70 years old. Weissberg comments: ” . . . such a didactic, straightforward approach would be better in a film made for high-school students”. What a silly statement. I’ve always found the Italian involvement in 1914 difficult to follow and I found the text helpful. The Italians fought against the Austrian-Hungarian forces and this film sits alongside the Cristi Puiu film (that Weissberg maintains is the best contribution) in identifying the nationalist rivalries which erupted in the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire which together controlled the whole of the Balkans before the rise of Serbia in the 19th century.

I think this film is available on various online sites and it is certainly worth seeing if you want to learn more about the 20th century events in the Balkans which still reverberate with meanings today.

Trailer (with French subtitles):

Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011)

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

Anand Patwardhan is a major documentary filmmaker who since the 1970s has courageously produced a series of uncompromising films about the central political and social issues of contemporary India. Jai Bhim Comrade was 14 years in the making. The title is a salutation invoking the memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) who inspired the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. In 1997 a statue of Ambedkar in Mumbai was desecrated and in the aftermath of the discovery of this act 10 local people from the local ‘colony’ were killed by the police. Four days later a local radical poet and singer was so affected by the events that he took his own life. The police officer responsible for the men who committed the atrocity was suspended but it would take ten years for a hearing and a judgement from the court to come through. In the meantime, Patwardhan set out to put together a complex interweaving of witness statements, reportage, history lessons and, crucially, music performances to represent the persecution of Dalits, the corruption of police and judicial services, the hatred fostered by communalist politics, but also the incredible fortitude of the people forced to live in poverty and work in appalling conditions so that the Indian (upper) middle classes can have a comfortable existence.

‘Dalit’ (‘the oppressed’) is the preferred term used by those Indians who find themselves at the lowest level of the Indian caste system, deemed ‘untouchable’ by the brahmins (priestly caste), ‘warriors’, traders and skilled labourers. Statistics given in the film suggest that one quarter of Indians are ‘Scheduled castes’ or ‘Scheduled tribes’ – effectively second-class citizens. This means that a certain number of jobs are ‘reserved’ for them by the constitution but this quota treatment just emphasises the maltreatment of all the other SC and ST populations. Patwardhan puts all of these arguments before us in painstaking detail. But this doesn’t make the film depressing. He finds wonderfully articulate witnesses. Men, women and children discuss their situations eloquently and with fierce spirit and they are accompanied by wonderful singers and poets. I doubt any audience could fail to be impressed.

Not surprisingly perhaps, for much of his long career, Patwardhan has had to look outside India for the funds to enable him to keep shooting and keep editing. (When Channel 4 in the UK was committed to alternative political voices, it was one of Patwardhan’s funders via its purchase of films for telecasts.) He wields the camera, interviews his subjects and edits the footage himself in the main.

There is a great deal written about Anand Padwardhan. For instance, you can see a visual essay as well as a review of Jai Bhim Comrade by Catherine Bernier on the Jump Cut website. Patwardhan himself has his own website and he guards his rights carefully – the film can be purchased from this website. On Patwardhan’s website you can also find a range of reviews and interviews. I found the interview by John Akomfrah and Ilona Halberstadt very useful. But if you want to see and hear Anand Patwardhan talk about Jai Bhim Comrade, I urge you to watch the BFI interview conducted by the revolutionary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson at BFI Southbank.

(Jai Bhim Comrade is referenced at the end of Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.

We Come as Friends (France-Austria 2014)

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680I went into this screening with some trepidation. All I knew was that it was a documentary set in South Sudan. Would it be harrowing? Would I learn anything new? Could I cope at the end of a very long day? (Festivals can be a test of endurance – it isn’t always the best way to encounter films.) I needn’t have worried. This was the most surprising film I saw at LFF. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it started with Keith Shiri, the festival’s Africa expert, suggesting that the film might be about the “pathology of colonialism in Africa” – one of the topics that interests me most. The added bonus was that the director Hubert Sauper was present for the Q&A. He had several friends/’plants’ in the audience and he was on rip-roaring form. Eventually NFT2 had to throw us out as the building was closing.

The title ‘We Come as Friends’ is the age-old greeting of duplicitous invaders/occupiers/colonisers – whether in Africa or in an episode of Star Trek. It signals that this documentary is about the colonisers – though the science fiction angle is in there too. The linking agent in the narrative is the strange little ‘microlight’ aircraft that Sauper and his colleagues built with its “lawnmower engine” mounted on top of the parasol wing. This peculiar little aircraft is non-threatening and capable of landing virtually anywhere. (It flies slowly and not very high.) In this way Sauper and his crewmate Sandor landed in many unlikely places including a large Chinese oil installation as well as small villages across South Sudan. He also told us that he discovered that the trick was to have an official-looking pilot’s uniform with hat and epaulettes. Dressed like this, he was able to negotiate with military chiefs, politicians etc. – whereas in ordinary clothes he had previously been given the brush-off.

Sauper adopts a seemingly passive role as a documentarist, so that those he films and interviews allow their own arrogance/prejudicial views to come through without prompting. At other times he plants ideas and lets them develop (as in the Chinese oil base where he leads a group of Chinese into a discussion about science fiction films). His focus is always the colonisers and what they bring into South Sudan – and what they take away. Several remarkable scenes emerge. In one instance Sauper lands in a village where the local chief is about to sign away the community’s land rights in a lease lasting many years to an American-owned company for a paltry sum of money. The local man has no real idea of the value of the land or the quasi-legal status of the document. Sauper argues that these kinds of deals are being made all the time and it is very rare to see the actual documents which purport to legalise the theft of local resources. Sudan was the largest country in Africa before it was split in two in 2011 and South Sudan is still a country with rich reserves of exploitable resources and a relatively small population of around 8 million. It’s also a country where ecological damage is threatening wildlife habitats and rainforest resources.

In some ways the most terrifying group of people Sauper encountered were the American Christian evangelists who have arrived to ‘save’ the people with solar-powered talking bibles and clothing to cover the naked children! The European colonisers are still present in Africa as arms dealers and industrial developers but the Chinese and Americans are the most visible in this film and both these groups of neo-colonialists are as dangerous as the earlier European settlers and economic exploiters. This film should make any Western/’Northern’ audience uncomfortable about what we have done in the past in ‘underdeveloping Africa’. In the last couple of weeks ‘Big Pharma’ – the global drugs companies – have finally started to move on anti-viral drugs to fight ebola in West Africa. They wouldn’t move on this until the death toll rose to a high enough level to make the demand for drugs great enough to justify investing in research and production. The political crisis in South Sudan in December 2013 has led to 1.7 million displaced persons many of whom are starving as makeshift camps are ravaged by disease. So as agencies like MSF are trying to save lives and develop healthcare it is shocking to know that governments and major corporations are intent on stealing the resources of the poor. In one of the scenes in the film in a bar, a businessman/local politician is discussing the benefits of American investment while in the background the TV is showing Hilary Clinton making a speech about how American investment must ‘do good’ as well as earn profits. Sauper explained that broadcasts like this are repeated on a regular basis so it was relatively straightforward to have his camera available at the right time.

It’s very important that this film gets seen and talked about. It’s not didactic and its subtle approach worked for me. The film has won festival prizes all over the world and it has opened in cinemas in France and Austria, the two home countries of the production funders. I really hope it gets other releases. I presume that it will appear on some documentary television channels.

After the screening, the tiniest bit of research revealed my ignorance about Sauper and his colleagues. This is the third film made in Central Africa that Sauper has completed. Kisangani Diary (45 mins, 1998) investigates the plight of Rwandan refugees who fled to what was then Zaire. Darwin’s Nightmare (107 mins, 2004) is a film about globalisation and neo-colonialist exploitation of the resources of the Lake Victoria region where planes fly in with food aid and fly out with cash crops – and then return selling arms. If it is anywhere near as good as We Come as Friends I want to see it.

The excellent website for We Come as Friends is where you can begin to discover this remarkable filmmaker. There you will find this trailer and much more:

Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (UK/US 2013)

This Smoking Dogs production for BBC2 and PBS, directed by John Akomfrah, is perhaps the best television programme I’ve ever seen. There are three reasons why I say this. First is the political and historical importance of the material. I can’t say that I appreciated it at the time, but only a few years later I think I recognised the political import of Martin Luther King’s speech on that August day in 1963. Second, I was blown away by both the range of archive material that the researchers had found and by its quality. Here was film footage of every crucial moment of the story of the preparations for the march as well as the event itself – and mostly looking as if it was shot yesterday. And thirdly was the skill involved in the editing process which stitched together archive and contemporary interview footage with a subtle underpinning soundtrack of electronic beats and synths to accompany Denzel Washington’s expertly delivered narration.

If you missed this, look out for it on iPlayer and YouTube – I’m sure it will appear somewhere.

An excellent piece on the doc. as it appeared on PBS in the US and with comments from John Akomfrah:

http://buzzymag.com/john-akomfrah-on-the-march-pbs/

and here’s a clip:

Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.

BIFF 2013 #17: What Happened to This City? (Kya Hua Iss Shaher Ko, India 1986)

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site in 2013

BIFF19logoThere is a long story behind this film and watching it was a strange experience for me. I’m not sure what sense I made of it but the film was impressive formally and important as a historical document. What it means in terms of contemporary India is less clear and I would need a great deal of research to offer even an outline response. In his introduction, Festival Director Tom Vincent explained that he and his co-director had wanted to include a politically committed documentary as part of their 100 Years of Indian Cinema Anniversary and that when this film appeared at Berlin earlier this year, they sought it out.

This is a documentary, mostly in the form of eye-witness statements with a brief historical background and some ‘live coverage’/reportage of events in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in 1984. Over three summer months communal riots in the city left 41 dead, many critically injured and hundreds of shops and homes looted, wrecked and in some cases set on fire. The main conclusion of the film is that these riots were orchestrated by the various political parties in the state as part of their jostling for power. The police seemed to have either turned away from the trouble or simply established curfews which made it impossible for poor people to earn a living and who therefore suffered real hardships. Only a few of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted. Before the film, Tom read out a statement by the director Deepa Dhanraj who suggested that her film was prophetic about subsequent communal riots in Mumbai and Gujarat. It’s dispiriting to think that she was right. Even so there are some positives to take away from the film.

The poor archiving facilities in India mean that films have been lost. A healthy stock of archive film helps younger filmmakers to explore the past and the issues at stake in this film depend on knowledge of Hyderabad from its days as a princely state with Muslim rulers throughout the British Raj and how that change after 1947 with the absorption into the Union and the changes in power in Hyderabad city. The most devastating part of the film for me was the demonstration in the closing stages of the ways in which the different parties (from communist to nationalist to conservative) were prepared to instruct their supporters just to vote on religious/sectarian lines. Democracy becomes farce on this basis. Can social documentaries like this change opinions by exposing these kinds of issues. It’s interesting to reflect on the impact of popular cinema addressing similar issues and the ‘New Bollywood’ film Kai po che based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel approaches the issue with its references to the communal riots in Gujarat.

What Happened to This City? also has a value as a historical document about India in the 1980s. It’s a good-looking film. Shot on 16mm, it was , like many Indian productions of the period, not properly archived but a print turned up in the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin and this print along with a negative from India enabled a German project to produce a new HD digital print. The results are surprisingly good. For me, images of 1980s India came flooding back, especially with key landmarks such as the Charminar in Hyderabad. India in those days had few cars (and those mostly old-fashioned Ambassadors) and no US branded goods. It was a less materialist and supposedly more ‘planned’ society, but corruption was rife and the police didn’t have a good reputation. Deepa Dhanraj was a brave young filmmaker. In this interview in Jump Cut magazine in 1981 she describes the ecology of political filmmaking at the time and her own work in a group making socialist-feminist films. It’s sad to think that one of the films she was making then was about piecework for women working at home that paid low rates for beautifully made garments then sold cheaply in the stores of Europe and North America. Not much changes.

The question I can’t answer is whether the appearance of this restored film on the festival circuit has any relevance for politically-committed documentary films in contemporary Indian film cultures. The industry is now more corporatised, there are co-productions and filmmakers returning from abroad. There are dozens of television channels in a more pluralistic media ecology but are there enough committed filmmakers able to fund themselves to make films like What Happened to This City? It’s good that Anand Patwardhan is still very active but I don’t know enough about what else is happening. Seeing this film has energised me to look out for more documentary material. I found this document on ‘FilmIndia Worldwide‘ published to cover the Indian entries in both Berlin and Rotterdam Festivals this year useful in providing some more names and ideas.

Bravo to BIFF for screening this film. Can we have more like it please?