Stray

A wonderful documentary following three stray dogs through the streets of Istanbul.

On one level this is just a lovely documentary about the lives of dogs. Istanbul had tried for years to get rid of the city’s stray dogs, with culls and inhumane tactics, until mass protests made it the first city in the world where it is illegal to put down or hold captive stray dogs. Thus the city’s strays now just wander free, and Stray shows us their world. It is beautiful. There is no narration or ‘interpretation’ for the audience. You just go where they go, see what they see. And it is beautiful. A city of lights, smells of food, the lap of the ocean in the harbour, green grassy parks, architecture both ancient and modern, awe-striking and derelict, a world replete with treasures. Unlike the complicated human drama they might wander through, the dogs care only if in this moment they are warm, they are dry, they are fed, they are safe, they are among friends. And they have all they need.

The tone of the film is a meditation, in following the dogs you are asked to see the world as they see it, to think not on any big picture, but to experience the world all around us. To look, without searching for purpose, upon the world as it is.

On another level, this film has a philosophical nature. Accompanied by quotations from Diogenes, who is known to have espoused the virtues of dogs, the film asks why human life is so contentious when dogs live among us as though the world were an untroubled bounty. As you watch the dogs walk along the water of the harbour, their life is undarkened by past memories, undisturbed by worries for the future, and unfettered by want in the present. Why can we not all live like a dog?

This perspective gives the film a unique viewpoint. The dogs occasionally hang out with a group of homeless refugee street kids, and whereas in any other documentary they would be portrayed as victims without agency on the lowest wrung of society, Stray shows them as rich with everything they need, sheltering in abandoned buildings, sleeping surrounded by friends, wrapped up together in blankets with the dogs, finding and sharing food together, and always glad to see each other, a endless wealth of kindness.

Just a lovely film.

GFF21 is over!

A mere 4 days after it officially concluded. Well, that was some year. 63 features and 4 shorts, that’s a record total for me. And as a proportion of all the films shown at the festival, it’s probably the highest I will ever get at 91%.

I mostly stuck to my schedule, but I was running late every day, which is probably why I finished late. Turns out it wasn’t any help with more regular eating and sleeping. I still mostly existed on cold sandwiches, and my sleeping was even more all over the place because there was no fixed times for me to sleep and wake. Still, loved every minute of it.

I thought I might feel as bit, you know, disappointed because we weren’t all together at the cinema with the same atmosphere, but in fact it was surprisingly well done, and the movies so well curated, I feel like I got 90% of the experience of a normal festival. All the wee Q&As, the introductions, the daily rundown on what was being shown each day, it did make you feel like you still getting that connection with the festival folk.

Thoroughly enjoyed myself. Off now to sleep for a week.

Spring Blossom

Spring Blossom is a film about a 16-year-old schoolgirl’s first love. It’s written, directed and starred in by Suzanne Lindon, so this is obviously her vision of a youthful romantic fantasy. Trouble is, the object of her affection is a much older man.

I guess in France there are different sensibilities about these things. Young love and age gaps are maybe not inherently viewed with suspicion the way they are here. But her love interest, Raphael, is never mentioned to be a specific age, which kind of strikes a note of wariness. I mean, he looks like he’s in his mid-30s. I wondered if they were trying to pass him off as 25, just as Suzanne’s character is obviously younger than she is. He certainly isn’t 20 or something approaching excusable. Certainly Raphael seems to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis, or lull, so you would expect him to be in his 30s at least. Looking up the actor who plays him on IMDB, I see he’s 36. So, yeah, over twice the age of this love interest.

While Lindon is obviously writing a romantic fantasy from the perspective of a na├»ve girl who finds the experience mesmerising and positive, I can only write from my own perspective, and it gave me the ick. The idea a man this age would take an interest in a schoolgirl, the fact he would pursue her even after he finds out how young she is, the fact he’s an actor and she’s his teenage fan, just yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. Also at one point she buys a 10-pence mix-up, and he says she looks cute eating sweeties. Boke. He at no point addresses the age difference or has any reservation or thoughts about entering a sexual relationship with a school-aged teenager. There is a scene where they dance together which is clearly meant to be a metaphor for her first time, and at one point she drops to her knees and he guides her head with his hands in visual metaphor for fellatio, and everything about the scene, the music, the way it’s filmed, the graceful, half-sleepy dance of the actors, is supposed to tell you this is beautiful, but it just made my skin crawl.

Spring Blossom is a film very much in the French tradition, it’s romantic, it’s carefree, it revels in discovery and coming-of-age, it’s more fantasy than reality. If that’s your thing, wire in.

If you like this…

Killing Escobar

Killing Escobar is a documentary about an operation by British mercenaries to kill Pablo Escobar in 1989. The film focuses on Peter McAleese, a Glasgow born ex-SAS soldier who took to mercenary work in various colonial and Cold War conflicts. His reputation was such that he was hired by Dave Tompkins, an arms dealer and soldier for hire, who had been commissioned by a rival cartel in Colombia to kill drug baron Pablo Escobar. There was a cartel war at the time, and so many innocent people were dying as a result of their bombings and attacks, that all authorities kinda turned a blind eye to the assassination mission, hoping that its success might bring about a cessation of hostilities.

Now, everyone in this is a bastard. There are no good guys in this. But it is nonetheless a remarkable story. There is a huge about of preparation, arms, and money poured into the operation. They go into detail about how it would work, with dramatic re-enactments. And they have interviews with a lot of surprising players, like the head of Escobar’s personal security.

A high-stakes tale of derring-do, fronted by a baw-heided Glaswegian and his massively shady mate.

Angelou on Burns

That was surreal. I love Maya Angelou, I read her poems and books. I used to sit in my wee part of the world and reach out through the pages to her world, and think on her extraordinary life and extraordinary spirit. So to watch Dr. Angelou step out of that world into mine, to visit my home town of Kilmarnock, and stand by the Burns statue at the cross, where I used to eat a poke of chips for lunch, feels deeply weird. From where she’s standing, she can turn and look up through the Burns Mall, towards Killie Academy, in whose library I first lifted a Maya Angelou book off the shelf. There’s a feeling to watching this like being brushed by a ghost.

How did no one ever tell me Maya Angelou visited the town? That would have been big news. And I wasn’t fully grown, but I was already a reader back in 1996, you’d have thought I’d be aware. Especially because she was here making a documentary about Burns, Kilmarnock’s only claim to fame and thus its favourite subject.

It is so weird to see THE Maya Angelou kick about Dundonald. And she visits the Burns cottage, boring school trip staple of every primary in Ayrshire. She sits reading the Kilmarnock edition of Burns poetry in the Burns room at the Mitchell Library, and I was like, I’ve been there!

I mean you have to understand, this woman worked with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and Malcolm X. She was part of history.

Yeah, so there’s almost an eerie element for me, watching this. Seeing her setting down in Glasgow airport, everyone in the background cutting about in their best 90s shellsuit. And listening to her resonant melodic voice, with its measured meter, wrap around Ayrshire Scots words. Rolling her Rs and roughening her vowels.

It’s great she finds such communion in the work of Burns. With this country’s teatowel obsession with him, you always wonder how he’s viewed from the outside, in the more global scheme of things. But Dr Angelou finds a universality to his work, and great sensitivity and brotherhood. She talks about him writing The Slave’s Lament, despite never being in either America or Africa, but just from being touched by the plight of those transported in the slave trade.

It’s unreal to me that this documentary doesn’t get shown and isn’t widely known. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.

Out of the World

Out of the World is about a taxi driver/serial killer who falls in love with a deaf dancer. Now, there are so many tropes in that description I can feel you shrinking back. I’ll be honest, I shouldn’t like this film. It’s one in a long line of sympathetic looks at poor misunderstood outsider men who do terrible, terrible things to women.

But I do. I do like it. It was its own rhythm, its own style, it is visually stunning. It is even beautiful. And while the female lead is contending with a very problematic framework, the choreography just lifts her out the scenes, giving a whole physical language to her performance. I loved the score and the way it was shot, like the outside world is just paint running down the wall, and the people in it just smears on your vision. Out of the World is dreamlike, occasionally descending into nightmare.

There is a floating quality to the film to match the protagonist’s disconnection, and a hallucinatory element to match his psychosis. As both he and the dancer begin to wordlessly draw together, the whole thing becomes a nightmarish ballet.

There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil is an anthology film with 4 short stories with the common thread being the impact of the death penalty in Iran on ordinary people.

The first, titular story is a little slice-of-life, following a guy getting off night shift, picking up his wife, going to the bank, trying to get parking, picking up his kid, getting the messages, going to visit Granny and getting her tea ready for her, coming home and unpacking the shopping, and getting a bit of kip before his next shift. Then he goes into work, makes a pot of coffee, and releases the trap door on that day’s condemned prisoners. The ordinary banalness of his life is sharply cut off with this stark horror, leaving the viewer feeling like the floor has just given out beneath them too. It’s the casual brutality to it, and the everyday routine of it. The fact it’s just woven into accepted life as if it was nothing.

The second story is called She Said, “You Can Do It”, which follows a young soldier as he tries to figure any way out of his executioner’s duty in the morning. See, in Iran, there’s national service, and you can get out of it, there is some wiggle room, but until you complete it, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a passport, you can’t leave the country, you can’t get a good job, you will struggle in just about every way. So most people roll the dice and do the 2 years, hopefully just get posted somewhere dull, and stand watch every night looking at nothing. This story is about what happens when you lose that roll of the dice. The main character has been posted into the executioners squad, and is facing his first kill in the morning. He spends the night trying various strategies to get out of it, trying to convince other squad members to take his turn, trying to buy his way out of it, trying to phone anyone he knows who might have a little pull. But the clock is counting down, and the film shows it as though it were he who were going to the gallows when time runs out.

The third story is called Birthday. Javad, one of the soldiers in the previous story’s squad, goes home for the birthday of Nana, the woman he loves. He decides he’s going to propose to her . . . and then everything falls to shit. Javad is far less conflicted than the soldier from the previous story, separating work from civilian life. But even in his countryside idyll, the horror of what he is involved in has a way of spilling out in unimagined ways.

The last tale is called Kiss Me, and follows a young woman coming to visit her aunt and uncle in Iran for the first time. Again, living up on the hills in a ragtag farmstead, you could not feel like that darkness could be further way. But old sins cast long shadows. And it shows how the impact these decisions that are being made are felt even generations on.

This film is just great. Gorgeously shot, it marries the mundane and the monstrous in an impressive and nuanced way. It never gets preachy. While obviously being anti-death penalty, it is not here to make an argument, but to explore the human heart, and how it copes when put in these life-and-death decisions. Powerful.

Tree Fellers

Tree Fellers is a documentary about the Belize lumberjacks who came to Scotland as part of the war effort during WW2. When bombs were falling on homes and factories, a lot needed rebuilding, but all the men were off at war, so they recruited men from Belize for the forestry. It was wonderful to see men in their 80s and 90s reminiscing about their contribution. Many felt like they’d hit gold because the work was easier than back home, the pay was better, and the women were desperate for company. Despite experiencing some racism, especially once they were in a mixed race relationship, many settled down and made Scotland their permanent home. And it is just lovely to see them with their families, being able to tell the story of their war work to their children and grandchildren. Such a nice look at a story that’s not as well known as it should be.

The Man Standing Next

The Man Standing Next is about the 40 days leading up to the overthrow of President Park of South Korea in 1979. This is some straight-up slick 70s spy shit right here. If you like John le Carre, this will be right up your street.

I have to admit, I’m completely ignorant about South Korean political history, but you don’t need to come to this with any previous knowledge to enjoy it. A lot of context is given in the film and a lot of it is pretty self-evident from the time period. There are communists to the north, and this is a right-wing military government being propped up by America, as part of the Cold War.

But things are not going well in South Korea of the film’s setting. All the main characters are veteran armed forces leaders who took part in the military coup that was supposed to be temporary, but has, by now, lasted 18 years. You have President Park, who has grown paranoid and more dictatorial in his autocratic reign. You have Director Kim, who is the film’s protagonist, the head of South Korea’s CIA, and who believes President Park has become unstable, and the government needs to move back towards democracy. And you have the ex-head of the Korean CIA, confusingly also called Park, who I’ll call Traitor Park, who is defecting to the US and outing all their secrets. This is really a story about loyalty and betrayal among old friends.

Set aside that everyone involved is an evil fascist bastard so you can actually enjoy the movie. Spy movies don’t have goodies, everyone’s hands are dirty. Director Kim is as close as you’ll get to a sympathetic character, and even he does a number of ruthless and appalling things over the course of the film.

But you do root for him. Obviously because he’s the only one talking sense in a room full of sycophants and toadies, but also because his is a deeply emotional journey, with very expressive but not overly verbose soul-searching. The film asks you to buy into the idea that here was the one guy who genuinely did think the military coup was temporary, that they were just there to restore order and ensure the North didn’t invade, and that there was meant to be a path to democracy down the line. It’s kinda the plot to Julius Caesar, the tragic figure among all the back-stabbing self-interested shits is Brutus, who genuinely believed Caesar was a threat to the republic.

Director Kim is shown as having possibly selfish reasons for his actions, as there will always be a mix to muddy the waters of the human heart, but it is more interesting a story if he is a true believer, that he is genuinely acting out of concern for his country. Because he does definitely seem torn, between loyalty to President Park, a lifelong friend, and loyalty to his country, who is suffering at his hands.

I think I enjoyed this more because I came with so little knowledge of the subject, every twist and turn I was on the edge of my seat, I genuinely didn’t know what was gonna happen next. A real tension-pounding classic style thriller.