Category Archives: Documentary

BIFF 2013 #15: The Films of C. H. Wood

Filming at Listers Manningham Mill in Bradford. This shot shows a set-up in which Listers innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

Filming at Lister’s Manningham Mills in Bradford in 1955. This shot shows a set-up in which Lister’s innovative velvet seat coverings for buses are explored. (Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.)

BIFF19logoOne of the definite achievements of British film culture, typically not celebrated by the national UK media obsessed by success in Hollywood, has been the development of Regional Film Archives to complement the National Film Archive. The Yorkshire Film Archive is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and it has recently merged with the North-East Film Archive to preserve a total of 50,000 film titles across the two regions. Several thousand hours of film, now part of the collection, came from a Bradford photography and film company set up by C. H. Wood which operated over eight decades before closing in 2002. The event at BIFF was presented by Graham Relton of the Yorkshire Film Archive who introduced a selection of clips across the range of productions completed by the company. The two sons of C. H. Wood who effectively ran the company from the 1960s onwards were in attendance.

I arrived late for the show and discovered a packed Pictureville Cinema with around 300 in attendance. I was lucky to eventually find a seat and although I missed a couple of clips, I’m sure I saw enough to appreciate what a terrific event this was. I should have guessed that there would be a large audience – my previous experience of these kinds of archive screenings has always been very positive in terms of audience reactions. We watched an extract from Crikey! (1947) a comic sequence from a film about Bradford’s traffic taken from a Road Safety film. Later we saw a 1980s public announcement film about the Green Cross Code with David Prowse (aka Darth Vader). C. H. Wood was well-known for aerial photography (and helped train photographers in the Second World War) but one of the main types of films made in the 1940s and 1950s were concerned with motor sports including motorcycle trial racing on the moors (this part of Yorkshire has produced world-class trial riders) and also Formula 1. We watched clips from the first win by a British Vanwall car driven by Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss at the 1957 Grand Prix held at Aintree, Liverpool – with pistons designed and produced by a Bradford firm! Other clips took us on a Wallace Arnold bus excursion and showed us all the various sports featured at Bradford’s famous Odsal stadium, the enormous arena that once reportedly held over 100,000 fans for a Rugby League Challenge Cup Final replay in 1954.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

Shooting motorcycle trials. Image from the C. H. Wood collection at YFA.

My two favourite clips were from a ‘works outing’ documentary and a corporate film for Lister, the Bradford textiles company. The works outing was from Salts Mill to celebrate 100 years of operation in 1953 and the large party took a railway excursion to Blackpool for the day. I now frequently visit Salts Mill and in 1953 I was a small child living in Blackpool, so this was a very personal viewing for me – and that is what archive film is often about. What was remarkable was the high quality of the camerawork and editing. Graham Relton told us that C. H. Wood became something of a ‘holder’ of films produced elsewhere in the city and this seems to be one of those films. We don’t know who operated the camera or who did the editing. In 1953 the 16mm cameras was an expensive piece of kit and the camera operator must have been trained. You can see the whole film (and others mentioned here) on the YFA website. What do you think of the footage?

The Lister’s film struck me as very revealing. The mill, a replacement for an earlier mill destroyed by fire in 1871, was the largest in the North of England. The Samuel Lister company was one of the major silk textiles companies in the world and Lister was a major innovator, especially in the production of velvet. The C. H. Wood film is a corporate promotion for the company. It reveals that everything in the production process was contained within the mill – which at one time employed 11,000 workers. We saw parts of this process, including the weaving of velvet and the testing of new dyes produced in the company’s own laboratories. In 1976 the company supplied velvet curtains to the White House. The business began to decline rapidly in the 1980s and the mill finally closed in 1992. I realised as I watched this colour film made in 1955 (30 mins with sound) by C. H. Wood just how much Bradford has lost because of the decline of the textiles industries in West Yorkshire. It wasn’t just the jobs in spinning and weaving, but all those technician jobs in the laboratories – and the associated engineering jobs.

At the end of the event David Wood answered questions from the audience, finishing by pointing out that the National Media Museum had been in Bradford for nearly 30 years and this was the first time he’d seen his films on the Museum’s screens. It’s good that omission has been put right and another similar event would be a good idea in future years. Meanwhile there is another opportunity to see archive films ‘made in Bradford’ on Friday evening at the Cathedral. There will be a posting on that event as well.

BIFF 2013 #14: The Sound of Old Rooms (Kokkho-Poth, India 2011)

Sarthak's son looks up at the old house

Sarthak’s son looks up at the old house

BIFF19logoKolkata is a city steeped in memory and cultural history. The principal city of British India, it has over the last fifty years fallen behind Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in terms of economic development. But it won’t give up its self-image of ‘cultural capital’. 2011 marked 150 years since the birth of perhaps the greatest cultural icon in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore – the Nobel Prizewinning writer of poetry and prose and the great polymath of Bengali culture. The Sound of Old Rooms is both a celebration of Tagore’s influence and cultural legacy and an attempt to look forward to the future. Sandeep Ray’s film focuses on teacher-poet Sarthak Roychowdhury. The filmmaker made an earlier film about the poet’s family and here he uses some of the earlier footage to trace the life of his ‘character ‘ from his college days through to the publication of a book of his poetry and up to fatherhood in his early forties. The 72 mins film uses a variety of formats from 8mm film to contemporary digital video footage.

For anyone who became interested in the world of Bengali students and aspiring intellectuals as seen in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fascinating film. (But Sandeep Ray is not to be confused with Sandip Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.) But even without that background, audiences should quickly warm to the central character. Two of my favourite scenes concern the visits Sarthak makes to his literary agent/publishing broker. This wily character does a quick calculation on the margin of a newspaper page and agrees to find a publisher for Sarthak’s poems, confident that he will make a profit. Years later he appears to be hoarding the last few copies of the book which has nearly sold out its 500 copy print run and he tells Sarthak that Tagore didn’t have that level of success with his first publication. These are the kinds of scenes you don’t normally get in an arts documentary – the agent trying to open the bottle of booze that Sarthak has brought as a gift, Sarthak grilling the agent’s assistant to find out if there are secret copies. I like the reality of the writer’s life that the film presents. On the one hand, Sarthak has used up all his creative energy in producing this first book and faces the usual problem of how to follow it up. In the meantime he has to earn money giving home tuition and taking teaching jobs outside Kolkata. At one point he has to take empty beer bottles back to a shop and is dismayed that the return deposit rate has dropped. At other times he chides taxi drivers for trying to overcharge him by a rupee (a rupee is worth not much more than 1p in UK money).

But the film is also about Sarthak’s family and the old three-storey building in which they have always lived. We meet his parents and eventually his wife Ritu who Sarthak met at university. Sarthak’s father is mostly in the background but his mother and Ritu feature strongly. Sarthak’s relationships with the two women in his life are structured around tradition and modernity. At one point he reminds Ritu that she has come to live in Sarthak’s parents’ house just like his mother and his grandmother before her, but at another point he says “we got our Masters in friendship, now we’re working on our PhD in relationships”. Ritu and Sarthak’s mother are both strong characters and very likeable. The film is full of fascinating juxtapositions. In the cluttered old house with little more than a bed and some bookshelves, Sarthak and Ritu happily slurp bowls of Maggi instant noodles and in an old bar they discuss Gayatri Spivak (and Jacques Derrida in a taxi). At other times we see them taking train trips in much the same way as those characters in the earlier Bengali movies. Ritu teaches full-time up until the birth of her son. The birth changes the lives of Sarthak and Ritu and this is the film looking forward – even if the whole family will still be listening to the sounds of old rooms. Sarthak wants his son to be aware of the memories in the house even as he looks to the future.

This documentary has been very successful around the world and there is a useful Facebook page detailing its progress through various festivals. The filmmaker also has a website.

Here’s the trailer:

I found the film fascinating and hugely enjoyable. Sarthak is the filmmaker’s cousin and he participated in the production as well as being the subject. This relationship is only evident in the ease in which Sandeep Ray is able to present the events of Sarhak’s life on screen. There is never a moment when we feel that we are voyeurs or that the scenes are being manipulated for the camera. There are snatches of his poetry throughout and a music score by Sion Dey. I’d like to see the film again to get a full appreciation of both the poetry and the music. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.

BIFF 2013 #13 1913 Massacre (US 2011)

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BIFF19logoOn Christmas Eve 1913 in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan a group of miners and their wives and children were having a party in the Italian Hall when somebody shouted “Fire!”. In the ensuing panic, 74 people lost their lives, 59 of them children crushed and asphyxiated as they tumbled down the stairs. This happened during a strike at the copper mine. Ever since there has been controversy surrounding who started the rush for the doors and why so many died. In 1941 Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the events and called it ‘1913 Massacre’. In the documentary discussed here Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie plays the song in the town’s impressive theatre. A little later he visits the memorial for those who died which comprises a plaque at the sight of the last surviving brick arch of the Italian Hall (demolished in 1984). At the site of this memorial he tells us that he’s learned a great deal about American history over the years – not in a classroom or from a book, but from songs. The film turns out to be about the song, about the memories and about the narration of  history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day. Directors Ken Ross and Louis Galieri have put together eye-witness (or family memory) testimonies with home movies (what looks like 8mm and video footage), archive footage from the early twentieth century and even a corporate film from the mining company with Arlo Guthrie’s presentations to camera, his performances of the song and various statements by local historians. The filmmakers have worked on the film for many years, shooting hundreds of hours of interviews. Ken Ross is the filmmaker who has also taught film and Louis Galieri was first a university teacher of history and literature before moving into film production. The background to the filming of 1913 Massacre is covered on the detailed film project website.

I think I knew the name ‘Calumet’ but I certainly didn’t know the story and the film has resonated with me in many ways. Some years ago I remember being told about a similar incident in a Yorkshire coal-mining district during roughly the same period when 16 children died in a crush trying to leave a film showing in a public hall in 1908. This Wikipedia page also refers to an even worse disaster in Sunderland in 1883 when 183 children were killed in a crush at the Victoria Hall during a children’s variety show. Each of these three disasters took place in working-class communities in urban areas where the first mass entertainment venues were being developed. What was lacking was what we would now know as ‘risk assessment’ and specifically the development of ’emergency exits’ with doors opening outwards to allow crowds to ‘spill out’ in the event of fire or other emergencies. The direction in which the doors opened was a key issue in the Italian Hall disaster and discussion of this is supremely important in the film.

The filmmakers have found photographic evidence to show that the doors at the Italian Hall opened outwards, refuting what many of the townspeople have been told over the decades. Responses to the question “which way did the doors open?” are edited together with everyone saying “inwards”. It is then pointed out that it is suspicious when everyone trots out the same line. So, did someone block the doorway and then spread the rumour that the doors opened the ‘wrong way’? The film’s audience realises that the ‘disaster’ became a political issue.

Calumet was part of an extraordinary community in Northern Michigan in the 1910s. One of the biggest copper-mining regions in the world attracted migrant workers from Italy, Poland, Finland and many other parts of Europe. In 1913 workers began a major strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company – which didn’t want to see a unionised workforce and which persuaded the local authorities to send 2,000 armed National Guards to police the workers’ demonstrations. This was the context for the Italian Hall ‘massacre’ which the workers believed was started by a scab and exacerbated by deliberate police inaction/obstruction. The filmmakers present this material fairly dispassionately but in a key scene they record a group of supporters of the company who are then challenged by a previously ‘neutral’ speaker. In this way, the apologists are exposed. I wish I knew more about US labour history, but I’ve always thought that it was the brutality of the US capitalists and their hired thugs, especially towards migrant workers in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that prevented the development of democratic socialism in the US becoming part of mainstream political life and paved the way for the greedy materialist Amerika of the rest of the twentieth century. Imagine what a democratic socialist America might have done with all its wealth and the goodwill and hard work of its workers. Woody Guthrie had the imagination to promote that vision. “This land is our land” – for all Americans, not just the rich. That’s why he could see that the Italian Hall massacre was an important political-historical event.

Here’s the trailer:

and a short clip of the responses to the film after it was screened in Calumet:

The DVD of the film is available via the website. Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.

Five Broken Cameras (Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands 2012)

The 'no-man's land' where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

The ‘no-man’s land’ where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

Five Broken Cameras is an engaging and well-made documentary. It’s affective in making us feel the emotions of the filmmaker who was compelled to complete it and it deserves the praise it has received and the audience interest it has attracted. The events it portrays are shocking and in a civilised world they would be one of the catalysts for change. But we don’t live in a civilised world and as yet there seems little sign that enough people in a position to change things have the courage to carry out changes.

Five Broken Cameras is a certain kind of documentary and that may also be part of the problem – though it shouldn’t necessarily be so. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The cameras of the title were each used by a Palestinian farmer to document the theft of his land by Israeli settlers illegally occupying territory in the West Bank to the west of Ramallah from 2005 onwards. The film doesn’t attempt to fill in all the history or to run through all the questions surrounding the Occupation of Palestine and the building of settlements which contravene international law as well as being (as in this case) illegal under Israeli law. Instead, it appeals directly to the viewer in terms of the obvious suffering of the Palestinians when they try to resist the bulldozers which uproot their olive trees and the Israeli soldiers and police who attack them with tear gas, arrest them and occasionally kill them during attempts to squash their protests.

Emad Burnat, the farmer at the centre of the film and the co-director (as well as the principal cinematographer, using the five cameras) was himself wounded and arrested and recorded the arrest of each of his brothers and the death of one of his comrades in the village during their protests. The co-director, writer and co-editor of the film is Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who trained partly in Paris and who lived in the Palestinian village of Bil’in for three months in 2005 when Emad began filming. But just as the film doesn’t elaborate on the history and politics of the situation, it also doesn’t explain/explore the Israeli support for the village protests – i.e. the Israeli activists who fight against the Occupation. They are shown and occasionally referenced but not in any detail. The same goes for the international supporters who travelled out to the West Bank to show solidarity. I’m not suggesting that there is anything sinister in this, but that it adds to the overall feeling that this is a very ‘personal’ film about a man and five cameras (each of which is damaged during the filming or deliberately smashed by Israeli soldiers). I suspect that this ‘personal’ approach has helped the film reach a wider audience, especially in North America, and it has been nominated for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Oscars. What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.

Emad states at the beginning of the film that he is a ‘fella’ – a peasant attached to his land. The rough land which supports only olive trees and a few sheep/goats has been the property of the families in the village since before anyone can remember. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees or the sheer vandalism of setting the trees on fire, even before the barbed wire has staked out the land grab by the settlers, is contrasted with the almost comical tree-hugging of one of the villagers. This is one of the most affecting shots in the film. The destruction of Palestinian olive groves is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Occupation alongside the Dividing Wall.

The one absolute plus of the film is that it celebrates the resistance over five years of the whole community in Bil’in. I’m sure that’s what stayed with the sizeable audience in the cinema. I hope the film wins the Oscar, if only because that will help more people to see the film. The more exposure that these stories get, the more chance we have of putting pressure on the Israeli government. There is one scene in the film in which we watch someone from the Israeli security forces deliberately shoot a protestor in the leg from only a few yards away. I wonder if the offender was brought to justice?

Women of the Sand Brings Urgency to Timelessness

We received this piece from Andrea Swift at the New York Film Academy. It describes a film that may be of interest to our readers, so we decided to post it:

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Director Richard Wolf has produced more than 30 documentary films in his career, many for international television networks (CNN, BBC, etc.).  Much of his work focuses on the plight of women in third world countries.

As he puts it the, “humanistic values that are deeply reflected in our films… are simple yet gripping because they tap into universal emotions.” In short, Wolf’s vision touches the heart.  But his 2008 film,Women of the Sand, enthralls the eyes, the mind and the soul as well – at least according to the selection committee for Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.  Last year, the film became one of the select few to enter the museum’s permanent selection – and for good reason.

Women of the Sand focuses on the women at the heart of communities of Islamic nomads in the Sahara Desert, specifically in Mauritania.  An unmitigated, cinéma vérité experience of the women’s daily routines, carries filmgoers into the meager existence of this millennia-old culture and engages us in their struggle against growing desertification.  The visuals are stunning – a sculptural contemplation of wind blowing across shape-shifting dunes that rise and drop.  The occasional trees and bushes are as sparse as the humans who stand improbably against this arid climate. Those same winds also catch the thin fabrics of tents and lean-tos, and of the traditional fabrics worn by the men, women and children of these unsettled communities.  Heads peaking out from inside their moulafas, the women tell their stories of survival in this harsh climate, of the challenges they navigate just to feed, cloth and educate their children.  They also speak of the green plants that come forth in the rainy season – the basis of all that makes life worth living. Their focus is not on the dryness and the more frequent times when food is less plentiful, though to outsiders those stark climatic conditions make it impossible not to contemplate the fragility of life. These “women of the sand” are resilient people who speak of the friendliness of the desert and desert people.  One woman says she prefers that to the coolness she observes between people in the cities she, evidently, has visited.

We also learn that the desert expands by about six miles per year, challenging their beloved and centuries old nomadic ways.  Over a lifetime, that means 360 more miles of largely barren sand will overtake arable land, making those green plants a sparser and sparser presence in their world.  It is a losing battle against scarcity that drives more interaction with non-nomads, disrupting their way of life.  Long term, it threatens to seriously diminish, perhaps even end the nomad culture.

While MOMA selects films for its collection for a broad range of reasons, the unifying criteria, according to the institution’s website, is innovation. That innovation may come into play in the film’s structure, narration or in its success immersing the viewer in the subject.   One particularly striking example ofWomen of the Sand’s immersive quality gives us real insight into the nomad’s experience of modernity:  In a tent on a rug that are all that separates them from endless, depthless sand, flies walk on the women’s hands and wrists, as they type on the keyboard of a laptop computer with the same skill they later demonstrate creating traditional fabric on a loom.  Technology may or may not be useful to them.  One mother explains they do not consider it particularly impressive or important.  But will their children – who attend school in a tent, seated on the ground, feel the same way?  Through a string of such moments,Women of the Sand creates a compelling tension between its exploration of a vanishing way of life, and a simultaneously contemplation its abiding continuity.

Produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa, directed by Richard Wolf, Women of the Sand is available on DVD (see below). Wolf studied film direction at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Part of his signature style is to blend very candid, personal one-on-one testimonies with monstrously out-proportioned imagery that is said to provide a global context to a very intimate story. The production company is Lobo Docs.

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Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the ‘In the Life’ documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her ‘nuclear folktale’ Deafsmith was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.

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A free low resolution streamed presentation of Women of the Sand is available on SnagFilms (with some forced ad breaks). The film can be purchased from the same website on this page or downloaded/rented on this page. The DVD appears to be Region 0 and the film was made in 2003.

Trailer:

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

The Echo of Pain of the Many (El eco del dolor de mucha gente, Guatemala/UK 2012)

The women of Guatemala fighting for justice

It was entirely appropriate that the UK première of this film should take place at WFA Media and Cultural Centre in Manchester. For thirty years and more WFA has been the leading community film and video centre in the North West of the UK, hosting cultural events with visitors from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as producing and distributing all kinds of radical film material in the UK. The second reason why so many turned out for this screening is that the filmmakers, writer-director Ana Lucía Cuevas and cinematographer-soundman Fred Coker are based in Greater Manchester and both have worked at WFA.

The venue was as full as it could be with around 150 people and the doors closed to meet fire regulations. When the film began the audience quietened noticeably and well they might. This is a powerful and deeply moving film – not least because it combines a personal story and an important analysis of the political struggle in a Central American country.

The packed screening at WFA

Background

When I was a child I heard the term ‘banana republic’ and accepted it as a comical remark. It was a few years later before I understood what it meant in the politics of the Americas. The American writer O. Henry coined the term at the beginning of the 20th century in reference to his time in Honduras, but the term also refers to that country’s neighbour Guatemala. These two countries in particular developed a political economy in which a middle-class élite of military and business leaders colluded with American agrarian exploiters to grow bananas cheap and pay as little as possible to the workers. The principal company involved in Guatemala was the United Fruit Company which from the 1940s gradually began to masquerade behind the brandname ‘Chiquita’. United Fruit controlled the railways in Guatemala from the start of the 20th century as well as major land concessions for banana plantations. When workers attempted to unionise and the democratic government (a brief respite from military dictatorship in 1944-54) sought to take back some of United Fruit banana land to give to landless peasants, the business/military élite in Guatemala appealed to the US to halt the spread of socialism/communism. Throughout the twentieth century, American troops and later the CIA have interfered in virtually every country in Latin America. (This timeline on the United Fruit Historical Society website is an excellent resource that will surprise even the most cynical reader.)

The CIA engineered a coup to topple the ‘socialist’ President Arbanz in 1954 and a succession of Army Generals became President in what was effectively a CIA puppet state. Guerrilla groups began to form in opposition and a Civil War began in Guatemala which lasted off and on until 1996. In the midst of the war the Guatemalan security forces – army and police – refined a number of terror tactics which ‘disappeared’ some 45,000 people. In 1984 Lucía Cuevas was a university student in Guatemala and like the rest of her family she had joined one of the major opposition groups in the country. She felt that her situation was so bad that she had to leave the country. A few months after her departure, her older brother Carlos, a student activist who was married and had a young son, was ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Carlos was Lucía’s soul mate. Lucía came to Europe to complete her studies and she eventually settled in Manchester. With her friends and her surviving family she spent the next 25 years finding and trying to piece together evidence about what had happened – while at the same time struggling with the dilemma over remembering or trying to forget in order to be able to live your life. A few years ago when she was checking online for news from Guatemala she came across a report about newly discovered archives of material relating to the systematic ‘disappearances’ during the 1980s and 90s. She then resolved to go back to Guatemala to see if she could find more material evidence about what happened to Carlos. The film is a documentary record of her search – the title, from a poem, places her personal experience in the context of the many families who have experienced the pain of unexplained loss.

The film

The film narrative details Lucía’s research and is presented via new interviews and footage of her journey intercut with an impressive range of archive material. It is technically an ‘authored’ documentary, but unlike the filmmakers who ‘perform’ for their own camera, Lucía remains a remarkably composed interviewer and commentator – despite the shocking revelations she is witness to. The narrative is more or less chronological though some material is shifted back or forward to strengthen the engagement of the viewer. Lucía’s commentary stitches the material together elegantly. There is an unobtrusive and careful use of music and overall the film is beautifully photographed and edited. I’m not completely convinced by the decision to use fades to black at the end of each short sequence, but in his review Keith suggests that this allows the audience a moment to reflect on the import of what they have seen (and heard).

Lucía interviews Noam Chomsky

The pre-credits sequence introduces a woman who acts as a witness to the horrendous treatment of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the rural population subject to the tactics of genocide as a means of terror. We then see Lucia in Guatemala arriving at a newly opened mass grave with forensic archaeology in progress. The first sequences of the film proper feature Lucia’s visit to meet Noam Chomsky and to get access to materials held by the National Security Archive Project in New York. In these sequences the documentary uses archive material alongside the interviews to explain how the American state supported the Guatemalan regime in every way possible including the collection and collation of surveillance data gathered through US Embassies in Central America. Chomsky explains that the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s described any form of local social reform in Central America as ‘communism’.

The rest of the film is mainly concerned with Lucía’s investigations in Guatemala. What she finds is shocking and heartbreaking – particularly in relation to the fate of her brother’s wife Rosario and her baby son. Rosario and another of the young wives of the disappeared had formed a group to campaign for information about their loved ones but they were brutally dealt with by the authorities. Aspects of the history of terror are so horrible that the facts seem surreal. If I understood correctly the chroniclers of systemic terrorism kept meticulous accounts and didn’t destroy them after the 1996 Peace Accords because they assumed they had ‘impunity’. In 1995 an archive of a million documents was discovered!

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the number of resolute women, the relatives of the disappeared, who Lucía is able to interview. She concludes that for them, and for herself, the long investigations have two purposes. They must find answers to what happened to the disappeared because only then can they grieve properly (the terror of not knowing is the intended long-term consequence deliberately used by the security forces). But second, they must carry on the process of prosecuting the guilty parties in court. That process has produced only a small number of convictions so far, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, however, the ‘intellectual authors’ of the terrorism, the military commanders, are now politicians – members of parliament and presidential candidates.

Discussion after the screening

Fred Coker responds to a question about the film

Most of the audience stayed for a discussion with Lucía and Fred. We were told that the film had been screened in Egypt and very much appreciated in a country where similar terror tactics had been used against the population. Someone suggested that it should be shown in Spain where legislation giving rights to those whose relatives were disappeared under Franco was passed only a few years ago. Someone else remarked that the surveillance of the population in the UK was increasing – many connections were being made around the political issues raised by the film. The film itself was praised in terms of filmmaking and the suggestion came that it could inspire younger Latin American filmmakers to explore previous documentary films from the region and help to recover the practice of social documentary. But the most emotional and heartfelt responses came from two Guatemalan women. A younger woman said that she had been shocked by what she had seen and that the film had opened her eyes to the history of her own country. She was very grateful – but urged us all to go to the country and see what a beautiful country it is. The other, older, woman who was part of Lucia’s family said that she felt able to speak about the terrible things that happened for the first time after seeing the film.

This is an important film and must be seen. DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film are available and we’ll post here how to get hold of them and any other information about screenings. There are some other links on our previous posting here. The main source of information about the film is its Facebook page from where we have borrowed the first three images above, the fourth is from us.

Thanks to WFA, Lucía and Fred for an inspiring evening.