Raoul Peck | France, USA | 2016 | English | Documentary
Advanced screening @ Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), 11 September 2017
ACMI. A giant screen. A glass of red in hand. Drawn in at the beginning and let go only at the end. The story of James Baldwin. James Baldwin the writer, the visionary. He who dared to challenge racial divisions. Institutionally inbuilt racial discrimination. Along with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. One by one, we are presented with the stories of these assassinated men. We learn that James was not aligned to Black Panther ideology. He didn’t hate whites. He had a white teacher as a child who he talks fondly of. Nor was he with the black church. Who didn’t condemn racist acts against their people. James and the words from the 30 pages of his unfinished manuscript Remember This House are our window into the continuation of white supremacy and racism in the USA. This film is a blaring reminder of how art can reflect and propel attitudes and norms. With the series of historical clips it shows. From films, cleverly, eloquently selected and cut to pinpoint the sociopolitical climate of the day. From footage of direct state suppression where black people are injured and killed in various protests around the country over the decades. Racism distinguished articulately in the open forum afterwards. Interpersonal in the overt everyday and the historically created institutional racism that is structural. That pervades the systems under which we live. Baldwin articulates down forms of institutionalised racism on stage. At one point, we are shown an interview with Baldwin who is joined by a white philosophy professor from one of the ivy league institutions. The professor argues that we should be concerned about other categories rather than race, like the fact that as an academic he connects more with fellow academics than other people. Baldwin points out the race discrimination within institutions, for example the church being segregated into white and black, blacks not being part of unions, the way schools are run, the way history is taught. In Australia too. On this night, Nayuka Gorrie and vocal members of the audience raised that they should not have to give examples of experiences of interpersonal racism so that whites to believe it exists. Also how seemingly innocent images are given a depth in this documentary in terms of what they reinforce. Thin white women smiling and prancing around. The ‘perfect’ white family with their house, garden and picket fence. Because historical segregation has resulted in a gigantic ignorance. I am reminded of older generation white people of this country who tell me ‘we didn’t know’. And apathy. I agree, that it’s sad to think that it is necessary. To show images of hanging black bodies, as this documentary does in its final stages. In order to push a predominantly white audience into a silence of shame. That a display of such violence may be required. To reach people. But I guess if it does. If this time, whites talk to whites about it. People find words to explore these realities and the conversation really flows. Then art here is not to reinforce. To romanticise already indoctrinated ideas. It becomes about making change. So that we cannot dismiss it at the level of ‘oooo…ahhhh. That’s happening over there (but not here). How horrible, atrocious, shameful.’ But rather. Look deeply into our own backyard. And see how. And why. It is happening here. Very different historical events. But parallel underlying issues. How many more times will we hear the excuse, ‘but I am not a racist’. Well you are. We all are in a sense. As long as racial demarcation exists I see the inevitability there. And it’s not just about you. Or me. But what we as a collective say and do (the interpersonal). But besides that. What we do about the structures. The structures on which our nation has been established (the institutional). And how we can question them. How we challenge them. And ultimately change them. And we can start by facing up – as James says – to our history. Talking openly about our past and learning from it. In order to make a future to the benefit of fellow humans, the diversity of peoples in this country and especially the First Peoples, who continue to bear the brunt of the fact that we still have a long way to go.
Documentary | Germany | 2016 | Spanish, German, English
This documentary ultimately questioned for me how we behave at sites of mass atrocity, as well as the contemporary need to capture everything on one device or another. The camera is always stationary. It does not follow particular people but rather remains still at particular sites within the Auschwitz concentration camp. People move across the sites with their SLR cameras and mobile phones capturing the place and themselves left, right and centre. Perhaps these images are even more jarring because of the skin on display. Obviously this was filmed in high summer so people are roaming through in their shorts, t-shirts and singlet tops. Is such a site of mass atrocity being reduced to ‘the place to be’?
Sounds that we are given include overlapping spiels from tour guides. Amongst those we hear references to ‘the prisoners’ or ‘the bodies’, rhetoric that dehumanises the people who were subject to horrific forms of torture and mass murder. And I don’t recall hearing the word ‘genocide’. An example of the way stories are constructed to make them more digestable for audience. While I found myself cringing or gasping at certain displays of behaviour, this also raised greater questions of the tourist or visitor as voyeur and as a passive consumer of information and vistas. And perhaps how this differs from active engagement with such places or engaging in rituals of mourning for example. But at a greater distance, as we were sitting in a cinema as voyeurs watching this all transpire. It too interrogates how and what we consume as viewers. All in all an uncomfortable and hard-hitting multilevel interrogation.
Documentary | USA | 2017 | English, Hindi
Here’s a charming man. His name is Dr. Mahinder Wasta, he is in his 90s and has dedicated his life to sex education. He is a gynaecologist, a father and a widower. And he has been encouraging Indians to ask questions about sex for decades. Most recently via a column in The Mumbai Mirror. This is not a one-sided story though. We are presented with Dr. Watsa, who is witty and pointed in his responses to everything from voiced insecurities to the weird and wonderful. We are also introduced to those who oppose an open forum like this, such as Pratiba Naittani, who has filed cases against both Watsa and The Bombay Mirror, whose editor says, ‘Obscenity like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder’. Naittani’s main concern is that Watsa is promoting sex, which goes against the values of traditional Indian society. Dr. Watsa’s concern stems from the fact that if people are going to engage in sex anyway, it is better that they are educated in safe and respectful practices. For a while I thought Watsa was being glorified, put on a pedistool. But then he was humanised, when openly stating that he had sacraficed family time in order to give more to his work. He also questions whether what he is doing is right, considering that in the case of young people, the families are not engaged at all. The sensation at the end for me was one of behind-the-camera integrity to an intriguing and humble man as the central character as well as to the greater debates around sex education in India, a country with a hugely young population. A good dose of humour is the masala of this documentary. We are offered an urban perspective, with Watsa’s column reaching only those who can read English and it doesn’t explore the challenges faced by the largely rural population of the country. What it does present is a brief lesson on the development of sex education and its opposition as well as the passion that drives Dr. Watsa and those around him who remain dedicated to it.
It premiered at Hot Docs in Canada, but I’m wondering if and when it will be screened in India.
Documentary | Germany, India, Finland | 2016 | Hindi
A man shovelling coal onto the flames. We move inside with the camera and we are in the eyes of a person walking through a factory of Gujarat. It is disorientating and promotes dizziness. From white cotton moving off the reel guided by hands to patterned fabric and lace. The dying of fabric. The mixing of chemicals to create colours. Men sleeping in piles of fabric. A man who is carefully moving a 120 kg tub of chemicals tells us that this work requires either muscle power or brains or both. He tells us that he is in debt so has no choice but to travel 1200 km to this factory where he works twelve hours a day. Sometimes with a one hour break before another shift. That on that 30+ hour train journey all he has to eat is dried chickpeas. That he is doing it because how else will he pay for his children’s education? He does not see this work as exploitation. Exploitation, he says, would be if he were forced to be there. He points out that he has come voluntarily. Though he does articulate that poverty is harassment. The factory boss has a different view on things. He says that wages are higher than they used to be. And this has created laziness among the workers. This lies in stark contrast to the experiences of the workers presented here. In one striking scene, workers are questioning the camera, as to what we are actually going to do about their predicament. They comment that researchers have come, politicians have come. All have listened to their concerns, but no-one actually takes any action. They also articulate the crux of the problem. The fact that they are farmers. That they have to purchase their potatos for 20 rupees per kilo. And they sell them for only 5 rupees per kilo. So they have to earn the other 15 rupees per kilo plus money to live somehow, don’t they? There is not a lot of dialogue. A lot of shots took me into the rhythms of different machines or of the work these men are undertaking around the factory. But this still leaves us with the question. Once again, these people have voiced their concerns, but what is changing for them?
Documentary | Sweden, Denmark | 2017 | English, Hebrew
I find it a tricky thing when I encounter award-winning documentaries/films. I think because I automatically place expectations on them. And as soon as there are expectations, there is the possibility of disappointment. That was certainly my experience in the case of this one. While it presented some beautiful sequences from some rehearsals and performances of Tel Aviv-based company Batsheva, it gave little insight into the central character, US-born dancer Bobbi Jene Smith who abandoned Juilliard to dance with the company. The irony of this documentary is that while Bobbi Jene and partner Or Schraiber seem perfectly willing to expose their physical bodies, apart from some shots of tears, we are presented with few insights into the emotions or personalities of these people on the screen. In fact, a lot of the dialogues feel quite un-natural and almost staged, which made me as a viewer wonder if I should be seeing them at all.
Then again, perhaps I am looking for complexity in people who are just how they present here. Hard to know really. Bobbi Jene touches on the fact that she had an eating disorder which she was able to resolve when she joined Batsheva, where company director Ohad Naharin likes strong woman with curvacious bodies. That then brings into question who is dictating the bodily norms in this industry. Yet no deeper questions are raised here. We are also introduced to the fact that her family is quite conservative, with her mother explaining that when she was young, what they did and how they behaved was very much dictated by the fear for what others would think. We travel with Bobbi Jene into the construction of her solo carreer. However, the shots of her solo performances are not particularly compelling or insightful either. I guess what I will take from this is a lines from Bobbi Jene herself: Sometimes you have to find pleasure in what weighs you down. Apart from that, as an artistic piece or a biographical piece, it didn’t grab me. Or even give me a gentle pat.
Film | USA, Chile, Germany, Spain | 2017 | Spanish
Imagine you are a woman. A woman in great shock and grief for the loss of a loved one. Grief is a challenge, right? Now imagine you identify as a woman. But the hospital staff where your beloved dies, the police and your beloved’s family don’t respect your identity. In fact, they are so caught up in putting you into a category, naming what you are or what you are not, that they fail to treat you with basic human respect and decency. Fail to show sensitivity to the fact that you have lost your love. And to the fact that you are grieving. The hospital staff offer you suspicion rather than condolences. The police, in the name of protection, come with the idea that because you are transgender your story is singular, with only one possibility. One which couldn’t possibly include love. You are treated not as a fellow human, but as a something else. You are assaulted verbally and physically. At first, you take the blows. You stand before people who are taking out their hurt, pain and ignorance on you. You, on the other hand, channel your anger into a punching bag. You sing out your pain. And even as the behaviour of those around you becomes increasingly dispicable towards revolting, you hold your grace. Your honesty and decency exposes the vile behaviour of others. And you stand strong. The wind blows fiercely, but you stand your ground. You are not even given opportunity for goodbye to your beloved. But you persevere and pursue the closure that you are entitled to. You claim it.
That is where this film took me.
Documentary | USA | 2017 | English
This documentary was a joy to watch and provided a good her/history lesson about the origins of rock, jazz and blues in the United States. It highlights both promient Native Indian artists who made significant contributions to shape the sounds of music as well as contextualising the sounds on the social and political sides of things. Learnings for me included the fact that Indian slaves were gender segregated with the men being shipped to Africa, the ships returning with African men for the purposes of slavery. This led to children of African fathers and Indian mothers and today a high percentage of African Americans claim Native Indian ancestry. Native Indian people were historically locked up and punished for sharing their music. But as we hear from the singing group Ulali, it lives on today and many of the sounds we may associate as purely ‘African’ in their origins for example, we are shown have strong Native Indian influences. Pura Fe Crescioni of Ulali also reminds us of the connection of all these songs to the land.
We are first introduced to Link Ray, the man who invented ‘the power chord’ which was banned in New York and Boston for fear of inciting violence. A key figure who caught my attention further along was Mildred Bailey. She was a predecesor and key influencer of great jazz singers such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and grew up on a reservation in Idaho. The narrative links her style and ability to improvise back to her Indian roots. I was also interested to learn about the music and activism of Buffy Sainte-Marie who was blacklisted by the US administrations of the 70s. We are presented with a picture of supression of musical expression from earlier times by the Klu Klux Klan and later coming direct from the White House. We are also told a hopeful story of survival and cultural pride, as artists began and continue to talk about their Native Indian heritage and the influences it has on them and their music. There are a whole host of famous names interviewed and plenty of music in-between to enliven the words. The only down side was that it ended quite abruptly and perhaps too soon.