No Data Plan

No Data Plan is a film depicting a train journey taken across America by the director, an undocumented resident. He and his family came from the Philippines as a kid, and he has spent his life living in America, but is still seen as an illegal immigrant. The permanent sense of the fragility upon which your life is based, and the ever-present threat of discovery by the authorities, is quietly conveyed in this normal everyday experience of travelling by train.

The film is mostly shots out the window of the train, as you listen to the sounds around you, the benign chatter of the other passengers, the hum of music from other people’s headphones, the sounds of the train on the tracks. It kinda has a soporific quality, that you get with things like those late night shows of real-time journeys on steam trains. The rocking sound of the train, the blur of the image, it kinda lulls you to sleep. Which is why it works when your ears prick up that a conductor is checking IDs along with tickets, or you see a Border Patrol van out the window. This sense of never being able to rest is what is being conveyed.

To See You Again

That was a hard watch. I cried throughout.

To See You Again is a documentary about women searching for their missing loved ones in Mexico. In Morales, the families of the missing band together and win the right to have government mass graves opened, and to exhume the bodies for identification. Not trusting the authorities, they fight for and are granted the right to oversee the exhumation, to take their own notes, gather any evidence they can.

In Mexico, corruption is so endemic, government graves, which are supposed to be for the disposal of unclaimed bodies, are also used as dumping grounds by organised crime gangs and cartels. Also, if the police want to make someone disappear, they can be stuck there. Or if they don’t feel like doing their jobs, like investigating why a corpse has turned up, they can save themselves the work and just chuck them in with whatever else is going in the ground. The horror and the callousness and the cruelty of these people is almost beyond comprehension.

You hear of them pulling bodies out this pit, still with ligatures on their hands and wrists, women bound and tortured, children stuffed inside the body bags of other victims, and you can’t believe the evil that men do. What people are capable of.

These mothers are searching for their daughters, and someone just lifted and used them like they were nothing, ended them like they were nothing, and the government dumped them like they were nothing, and they were everything to these women. Single mothers raising their kids, tshirts saying “Bring her home”, this wee lady holding up a picture of her trans daughter, saying, “She was my son. I called her Honey”, all of them doing everything they can for those they loved more than anything. They were the centre of their world.

Watching these women climb into white forensic suits, head down into a body pit, to take notes and bear witness, and know with every turn of the sod, that they might see the decomposed remains of the person they love, it takes a strength that is unimaginable. I’m not a religious person, but it makes you want to pray, “God look after them and grant them peace.” No one should ever have to go through that.

And yet, with everything they face, in the midst of this tragedy, and horror, and injustice, they remain good people. They look after each other. They are vigilant, collecting details of clothing and appearance, knowing it might not be their loved one, but it is someone’s loved one, someone’s everything. They do their best to gather as much evidence that might identify this person’s remains. They support other women there, hugging them, covering them if they if gets too much and they need to leave, doing for each other. That you could go through all that, have such a burden, and still think of others, do your best for others . . . The goodness of some people is also beyond comprehension.

This film is very matter of fact, and feels understated for the subject it’s covering. It just shows them heading off in the morning, climbing into their suits, and heading back at night, their arms full of notes. Yet the emotion of it is tremendous. You are just in awe.

Strike or Die

Strike or Die is an odd wee documentary. It’s very loose in its formation, and the story it tells is much more a watercolour of the sense of its subject, than a linear, stark polemic. It juxtaposes memories and footage of the miners strike in the French industrial town of Merlebach in the early 90s as the mines were being shut down, with the current inhabitants, living a generation on, and paints the impact, even indirectly, upon them.

This probably isn’t how I would have told this story. Strike or Die starts from the outside and winds in, whereas I would have perhaps started from the centre and wound out. Because the film seems a little disjointed to start. You have these separate, disparate stories. There is a boxing club, where the coach trains the upcoming generation of fighters. There are the teenage pals, who bum about the shows, eating toffee apples, and trying to figure out how they’ll make a living after school. There is an older couple sitting in their livingroom, coming to terms with the result of a work accident which has left the husband unable to play the guitar – his trade of 30 years. There is an ex-miner, trying to collect in a single room the history of the miner’s strike, filling plastic tubs full of tear gas cannister shrapnel that was shot at them. At first it feels quite disjointed, but slowly it grows together to show a portrait of a community, and while the miner’s strike seems quite removed from these random threads of everyday life, as they wind closer together a common theme appears – one of fighters, of those who endure, who insist on their own worth, their own dignity, their own right to a good life. This is their inheritance.

My favourite scene in this is when the two teenagers go to the official mining museum for a cheap day out. (This is not the one-room makeshift job being put together by ex-miners, but the tourist attraction that was made out the old mine, with beautiful glass displays and scrolling videos.) They ask the tour guide, “What about the strikes?” The tour guide tells them, “Well, of course, there were strikes but obviously the history of the mine is not one of conflicts, we wouldn’t put up anything about that.” The teenager asks, “What about the diseases the miners got? Black lung, emphysema, that sort of thing. Were they well paid because the work was so dangerous?” “Oh,” says the tour guide, “the contribution the miners made could never be paid enough, their contribution was always more than their wage could reflect,” he philosophises next to the oil paintings of the mine owners who never spent a day working in that mine.

It reminds me of how American plantations were often painted in U.S. histories, everyone working together happily for a common purpose, dignified industry. How ludicrous and transparent a lie it seems to outsiders, that one folk were doing the working, and one folk were making the wealth. That one folk had oil paintings of themselves in finery, and one folk had their backs broken. And all resistance and revolt erased, because there could be no such dissent when there could be no such reason for it in this harmonious idyll. The European version of erasure of history seems subtler to us because we are in it.

Throughout the film there is a visual motif. The skeins of smoke that blew through the streets in the 90s from 5000 tear gas bombs dropped by helicopter on striking miners, drift through the scenes in current day, through this community of people trying to carve out their piece of life. The message is clear: The smoke has not yet cleared. The dust has not yet settled. This battle is not over. And we have yet to see who will win.

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