Zama

A film which starts out a Kafkaesque drama about an early coloniser of South America trying to get sent back home to Spain, and then descends into the Heart of Darkness, searching for a mythical Kurtz figure called Vicuna Porto. The sound and visuals in this film are great, really giving off a sweat and a smell. There is a mix of dreaminess and absurdity that turns from ludicrous and amusing to a horrifying nightmare.

Another News Story

A documentary about the refugee crisis and its media coverage. Really difficult in places, had me in tears, watching people desperately trying to throw their children across police lines, lifting them up and on to trains, trying in any way to save them. This is juxtaposed with the omnipresent media contingent, who maintain an invisibility in their reports but are very much there and part of this situation.

There’s a discussion throughout the film of the media’s role in all this, to what extent it is a noble throwing of light on an issue that needs public attention, and to what extent it is an exploitative business feeding the news cycle churn. As one reporter says, “It’s news. It’s TV. You’re not meant to think about it.” It called to mind the line from Natural Born Killers, “Media is weather, but it’s man-made weather.”

Some of the younger, newer reporters talk about how hard the stories hit and the responsibility they feel about making sure the story is heard. The older ones are more cynical, to them its a job. They are shooting all this horror, but they’re thinking about what they’re gonna have for tea, when they’re gonna get home tonight. Most acknowledge that what they are in is a business, and so exploitation will always be an issue, but what you bring to the table does not disappear because of that, your sincerity, your integrity, your desire to help.

In many ways this is a story about what you choose to do, help or hinder. This matters whether you’re reporting or policing or voting or simply speaking out for those in need.

A Fantastic Woman

A movie about a Chilean woman whose partner dies suddenly and who is forbidden from his funeral because his first family are a bunch of transphobic cunts. This movie is visually beautiful and the music is great. One thing I liked is that Marina is full of a quiet inner strength. She is neither a fragile, shattering victim, nor the snap-back cutting queer trope that is found so entertaining. She is simply a woman trying to survive her pain with as much dignity as she can muster. Good film.

This Is Congo

A beautiful, vibrant, colourful documentary on the armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I didn’t realise this, but a lot of these rebellions are just a grift for soldiers to raise their wages. If you’re sick of shit at your work, you go, “I want a raise or I’m leaving”. In the army, your employer’s got a monopoly on hiring soldiers, so they’re like, “Where ya gonna go?” So you set a rebellion faction, make yourself a pain in the arse, and then make it a demand of any ceasefire that you get your old job back with a higher wage, or with a promotion. A lot of this shit is a lot less ideologically motivated than you would assume.

However they all have a valid point to hang their hat on, which is that the president is corrupt, and the people of the country are not benefitting from the wealth of the country. There does need to be reform.

Into this morass steps Mamadou Ngela, a man so incredibly earnest and sincere he feels like he’s wandered into this documentary from a fable. He is a commander in the Congalese army, trying to maintain the country’s stability and security in the face of these numerous uprisings. He has such a profound degree of naiveity about the army and the government and how this game all works, that you assume he must be new to all this, but no, he’s been at this so long he has 16 bullet wounds across his body. He has the honest open manner of a child, still believing that it is his honoured duty to protect the people of the Congo from those that would drag it into war for their own personal gain. He is what he should be, unlike so many of us.

Yet he seems oblivious to the fact that the army is incredibly corrupt, that the army is as much the problem as the rebels, and that they are one and the same much of the time. He doesn’t seem to be living in the same reality where Congolese army soldiers rape women, massacre whole villages and contribute to the cycle of neverending misery in the country.

And watching Mamadou, you can understand how people come to follow and believe in a man like that, whose sincerity shines out him and whose devotion is mapped on his body in a series of scars. Over the course of the film you see Mamadou be appointed to the division in North Kivu, reform it to a much more professional body, lead the frontline attack on the local rebel group, and get a hero’s welcome from the townspeople who revere him as having saved their home. Then. What happens always happens. You can guess, or watch it for yourself.

But it is an excellent essay on how the richest resource a country has is its people, and how all and any solutions must come from them. If peace will happen, it will be because Congolese people make it happen.

P.S. Made me think I might see if I can’t get a job as an international peace keeper. It seems like a cushy job that mostly involves wearing a blue hat.

Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts

A gorgeous western set in Indonesia. Seven bandits arrive at the house of a widow with the intention to rob and rape her. They end up dead and she remains. It is an excellent turn of the damsel-in-distress trope on its head. Yet in many ways this is a film which glories in the tradition of classic westerns as well as subverts them, from the electric chords twanging the approach of the desperadoes, to the journeys on horseback over the dusty rugged landscape. Absolutely excellent, go see it if you have the chance.

Lean On Pete

A movie about youth homelessness. The film really begins when the main character, now without parents or a home, steals a racehorse called Lean On Pete that’s been marked for slaughter, and together they go on a journey to find his estranged aunt. The lead actor is convincing as this quiet, tall, skinny, silent kid who’s seen so much but doesn’t know how to say anything, how to ask for help.

Beast

Just out of Beast, which I really loved. Its the story of a woman who escapes her domineering family when she meets and falls in love with a man several rungs below her on the social ladder. So far so good, until he becomes the prime suspect in a series of child murders. What I loved about this film is how many twists and turns it went through, how you are constantly left questioning what actually happened and where all this is actually going.

The film starts with almost a twee drama in comparison to the very dark route it ends up taking. The first act is the main character Moll being swept off her feet by the dashing Pascale and escaping the clutches of her controlling mother who is played to absolute perfection by Geraldine James. Some of the professions of love border heavily on the melodramatic which only lulls you into a false sense of security for what’s to come.

The second act is when Pascale is taken into custody, and the false alibi that she glibly gave him, when the suspicions seemed to be nothing more than the work of her mother to disrupt her happy relationship through her friend in the police force, suddenly becomes the only thing standing between him being charged and her entire life coming crashing down around her ears. With shades of Maxine Carr, you understand how this lassie could have gotten herself into such a deep hole without even realising it. By the time she understands the severity of the situation, it’s already too late.

And it’s here the film really starts. This dark rollercoaster where you begin to question if she’s lying because she believes he’s innocent, or if she’s trapped in her lie even though she’s beginning to believe he’s guilty, or if she’s lying to protect him because she believes he’s guilty even though he is innocent. And all this opens up a door in her that cannot be closed, that protecting a potential child-murderer makes her fearful about what other things she might be capable of.

I loved Beast. It is definitely a slow starter but with definite pay-off by the end.

A Prayer Before Dawn

A biopic of Billy Moore, the British boxer who was incarcerated in Thailand and went on to become the first foreigner to fight in the national prison kickboxing tournament.

I do kinda feel this movie falls into the category of It Shouldn’t Happen To White People films. These are movies where you take events which happen to thousands of people of colour, find the one white guy who went through it, then tell his story.

It is excellently crafted for all that. The film relies on sound, rather than dialogue, to tell its story. Billy spoke little Thai when going in to prison, so very little that is said to him is actually subtitled. The audience, like the character, has to feel their way through the experience. Instead, the language of the film is the thump of a punchbag, the breath of the character, the whump of dance music, the bubbling of heroin in its foil, the knocking on the door, the clank of chains, the wash of noise from the body of prisoners.

You do route for this guy despite him being an incredibly ugly character. He is the kind of guy that makes you think about how the good seem to perish so easily and yet this guy who acts like nothing more than a vicious animal, beating people almost to death, despite all the heroin he does and all the fights he gets into, he survives. He is not a nice guy. And yet that is kinda the journey of the film, to take this very unsympathetic man and have him try to fight his way back to his humanity. He uses kickboxing to give himself discipline, to restore his dignity and keep himself off the skag.

Outside of the actual kickboxing scenes, which are excellent, violence proliferates throughout this film. There is a very prolonged and explicit gang-rape scene. In my own opinion, it did not need to be as graphic as it was.

On another note, given what I said about the previous film, this movie does appear to have trans women played by trans women. The characters serve primarily as love interests and sex objects, but at least they seem to be appropriately cast.

I’m not someone with an interest in boxing or kickboxing, but this a visceral movie, an attempt at redemption for someone who really needs it and that carries you through the whole brutal journey.

The Party’s Just Beginning

A movie about a woman struggling to cope after losing her friend to suicide. This film is positively seething with grief. It’s raw and brutal. It also manages to be blackly comic in a very Scottish way. I really liked it.

There are bits I was a bit hm on. At one point I did think, “Jesus, seems like nearly everyone she bumps into is thinking about offing themselves.” And then I thought about my own experience, and was like, yeah, that probably is about right. While suicide is billed as being rare, it and its close calls aren’t really. I stay in Glasgow, the suicide capital of Scotland.

There are other bits that I also wavered on. There is a scene towards the end with heavily implied sexual violence, which the film does do the right thing of stating outrightly as rape. Still, I could have done without it.

There is also a character who presents as a gay man for the majority of the film, then latterly comes out as a trans woman. The actor is a cis man and I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.” I grant that there are certain restrictions with making a low-budget movie with your mates that big-budget Hollywood movies have no excuse for, but it seemed like another example of a trans part going to a cis actor.

Other than that though, I thought it was excellent. Really moving and also funny and also hard to watch. A tricky thing to get right, but it worked.

Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?

“Trust me when I say this is not a white saviour story. This is a white nightmare story.”

I’m gonna hear about nothing but white people for 2 hours, aren’t I? Yes. Yes you are. Correct.

Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? is an achingly obvious self-indulgent documentary whose alternate title may have been I’m One Of The Good White People, I Swear. Its subject matter is the murder of Bill Spann by the filmmaker’s great-grandfather in the 1940s, which was allowed to go unpunished by the law. But it is the filmmaker who is the main character in this film, his journey, his identity, while Bill Spann remains an absence, a prop used to tell this tale.

Shot in an almost music video style, it has all the self-awareness of Kony 2012. The filmmaker narrates with the low growl of Rorschach from The Watchmen. He fills the almost total absence of content on what seems like a failed project with hours of artistically shot nothing while he narrates in a spiky whisper his own denunciation of racism like a first year college student discovering life is unfair for the first time.

The opening 10 minutes is cuts of To Kill A Mockingbird with an Instagram filter over it, setting the tone of lazy and obvious for the rest of this film. Visually, the film was full of stylistic choices that were irritating as fuck. Like having the title show on screen 4 times throughout the movie, once at the beginning, then about an hour in, then an hour and a half in, then at the end. At one point, the guy goes to film in a Klan-controlled town, where he shoots the sweeping branches of the trees, and then, just in case you missed his point, he transposes Billie Holliday’s face over them, singing Strange Fruit, but with the audio looped backwards, and I just thought, “FUCK OFF”.

But I didn’t just object to it because of the style of presentation. It is a surprisingly empty film. After 4 years of research, the guy uncovered virtually nothing about the crime or its aftermath. Now a valid point could be made with that – that oppression exists in silence and must remain invisible, so much so it can erase its crimes from history; that black lives matter so little they can not only be wiped out with impunity, but disappeared from history. But that does not require a feature length movie to say and it is not what the 2 hours of this film are filled with. It is a film that starts with a paper clipping and a death certificate, and ends 2 hours later with a paper clipping, a death certificate and a panning shot of the area where the victim is likely to be buried. So what the fuck are you filling your time with?

“This is the story of two families. One white. One black. One is murdered and buried in an unmarked mass grave. And one is filming it and being paid to do it. Is there any better definition of racism than that?”

How about making a movie about the murder of a black guy and still making it all about yourself?

I cannot begin to emphasise just how much the filmmaker centres this film on his own experience. There are interviews with precisely 2 black people in this feature-length documentary examining racism. Even if there was nowhere for Bill Spann’s story to go, the evidence just wasn’t there, it could have been pushed wider, given a wider context of the times by examining similar incidents in those years. Instead it collapses in on itself, becoming a slew of home movies and photos and footage of himself at Black Lives Matter rallies. In all this there is just a constant repetition of one desperately-made impression: This isn’t me. I’m not like this. I’m one of the good ones.

Despite the fact that one thing this film can definitely be said to say is that the South, and America at large, needs to own its past, needs to recognise that racism is a component of it and always has been, the filmmaker spends all his time distancing himself as far as he can from this racist great-grandfather, casting himself as the polar opposite to that which he is exposing. While it is good that he recognises the white privilege he has been born with – his great-grandfather was a murderer and his family suffered no adverse economic impact or social castigation or public shame – how he feels about that, his need to atone or apologise or purge or whatever, comes to eclipse the actual man who lost his life and what should be his place in the centre of this narrative.

“This is the story of two families. One white. One black.” he says in the voice of Bruce Willis from Sin City saying, “An old man dies. A young girl lives. Fair trade.” Yet this is not really the story of two families, it is the story of one. No relative of Bill Spann is ever found. No friend or friend of a friend. No one in the community where he lived, worked and died can recall him or is willing to speak about it. As a film, it largely fails in its stated intent.

The last 20 minutes of the film are of an uninterrupted shot of the drive down the road William Moore, a white martyr to Civil Rights cause, was murdered on. The invited comparison is wearisome. The filmmaker makes sure to tell us he’s being followed by the Klan now. He seems more validated by the experience than he is scared. While I understand that being followed by a car full of hostile strangers is intimidating, there is something offensively shameless about mentioning it in the same shot of the road where a man was not simply intimidated, but brutally murdered. Even at a murder site, the narrator needs the attention to be on himself.

Also in the last 20 minutes of this film is all the actual meat of the piece, what the other hour and a half should have been filled with. The filmmaker uses it to mention the rumours he came across, other things he heard but wasn’t able to establish facts or evidence for. With that attitude and as a footnote, he mentions that his great-grandfather molested and raped two of his granddaughters. He subjected his wife to a lifetime of abuse and treated her “no better than a slave”. This misogyny is almost held apart from the rest of the film, lest his polemic on race be contaminated with a secondary issue. Instead of perhaps the one issue, the right of white men to commit innumerable crimes and get away with it. And while the exercise of white privilege might have left him a well-off, professional, internationally recognised filmmaker, it left the women in the family raped and beaten.

I feel sorry for the victims, of his great-grandfather, of anyone. I feel sorry for the families left behind. But I also understand that sorry doesn’t change anything. It does not raise the dead. It does not heal the grieving. It doesn’t pay for a coffin or bury the dead.

And in many cases the need to say sorry is greater than the need to hear it. As with this film, the filmmaker fills all the space with his need for atonement until none is actually left for the victim himself.

To conclude, this movie is everything it sets out to deny, an exercise in white privilege to use Bill Spann as a vehicle for the filmmaker’s construction of his self-image. A disappointing lost opportunity.