The X in Scotland

The X in Scotland is a short film looking at what the life and words of Malcolm X means to young Black and Muslim Scots. Shot in the 1990s, many interviewees mention the racist murder of Axmed Sheekh, who was attacked and killed on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Nowadays it would be Sheku Bayoh’s name they would say, who died in police custody with a number of injuries. The film, unfortunately, has a timeless quality.

The interviewees often lament how Malcolm X’s name and image has been co-opted as a meaningless fashion statement appropriated by white people. He is a tshirt or hat to them, that edgy type of cool associated with interactions with objectified blackness. A symbol to signal some cultural capital that is completely divorced from actual anti-racism work. It’s depressing.

This film seeks to reclaim Malcolm and his message for the people it was intended for, and who it was life-changing for. And hopefully that will keep the flame burning for the next generation to see it. God knows, we still need it.

First Cow

Pleasant story of friendship on the frontier. Cookie teams up with King-Lu and they try to make a living out in Oregon in the 1820s. King-Lu is an ideas man and an entrepreneur, and Cookie is, well, a cook and a baker. When the rich English dandy in charge of the territory brings the first cow into the region in order to have cream in his tea, Cookie and Lu take to milking it at night in order to sell cakes at market.

First Cow is really a folk hero tale. It’s the little guy sticking it to the big guy. But anyone familiar with folk hero legends know they only end one of two ways.

When Lu is introduced, you really find out everything you need to know about this story, about who Lu is, about what kinda place this is. Also the movie overtly starts with the end, so there’s no surprises. Still a nice yarn. Got a warm and kindly feel to it.

Also, for Rene Auberjonois fans, he has a very small part in this, but it is lovely to see him in his last role.

American Badger

Boring. Like, almost criminally dull.

I mean, I can see what he was going for, a noir action/romance, like Sin City meets John Wick. But, ugh.

The gravelly voiced narration, a genre staple, is just cringey, feeling not like the main character’s inner thoughts but the filmmaker having to speak directly to the audience over his film, to explain or even apologise. The camera work is just another nothing. Like, if two characters are meeting outdoors, it feels like the camera just followed them there because it knew their meeting was part of the story. There’s no sense that a shot is deliberately set up in such a way as to convey something. There seems to be almost a total absence of visual language. I feel like if you asked the director why a scene was shot a certain way, he’d say to keep the actors in frame, and not much else.

There’s a hollowness to the film. Because the movie is working with tropes, it’s fair enough to not go into overly complex explorations of the central characters – he’s a hard-bitten assassin, she’s a vulnerable and loving prostitute – but at the same time, there does need to be some variance in how they’re presented, otherwise they become one-note, and the audience has no reason to care about them, understand them as an individual character beyond the archetype.

And the violence is just . . . Having seen the trailer, I had hoped American Badger was trying to move away from shaky cam multi-cuts to a more fluid, in camera choreography style of action. But it’s not. The fight scenes do look well co-ordinated, but there is still a lot of shaky cam and cuts on top of it, leaving you more queasy than excited. Plus also the obligatory sexual violence.

American Badger feels like one of those comics rated mature, that are so not mature. Like X-Men is dealing with life, death and identity over in the kiddy section, and Mark Miller or Garth Ennis has drawn a woman getting shot in the tits and it’s labelled mature. This movie is a 14-year-old boy’s idea of the movie he’d make.

I don’t want to get ripped into it, coz it’s a first feature and you always cut someone some slack on their first go, and also because diatribes usually just end up making a movie sound much more interesting than it actually is. So yeah, American Badger’s not the worst movie in the world, it’s just not got anything to it. It doesn’t fail enough to be interesting, it’s just dull.

Rosa’s Wedding

Rosa’s Wedding is a rom-com about loving yourself.

Rosa is the lynchpin of her family, holding everyone together and being taken for granted more than a little. She takes the lion’s share of looking after her lonely elderly father on behalf of her siblings. She helps out her divorcing brother with his child care. She does the bulk of work at her job. She is always running errands for her boyfriend or her sister, and struggling to support her daughter who has just become a mother for the first time while living abroad.

And one day, exhausted, she sits down and decides enough is enough. Someone has to put her first. Someone has to take care of her. And that someone is going to be her.

Rosa decides to marry herself, commit herself to her own happiness, to be true and faithful to herself, to listen to herself, to fulfil all her dreams. And the comedy comes in when word of the wedding gets out and misunderstanding ensues.

A warm-hearted story about family, and showing yourself as much care as you show others. Really sweet.

Yer Old Faither

Yer Old Faither is about the life of John Croall, a Glasgow native who emigrated to Australia, to the little town of Whyalla. It is a film which traces out the extraordinary impact of an ordinary life. Or not entirely ordinary, because Croall was a bit of a character.

The film traces his professions and passions, his love and concern for life. When he arrived in Australia, he was so impressed with the huge range of beautiful foliage. He had that immigrant’s ability to see with new eyes what everyone else takes for granted. He loved golf, but was unimpressed with the golf course in Whyalla, so he quietly began growing tree samplings, and planting them out on the golf course and surrounding areas. Over his lifetime he planted somewhere between five and six thousand trees.

He was an obstetrician, and delivered three generations of babies over his 40-year career serving Whyalla. Despite being seen as a bit of an eccentric, which was fair, he was very highly regarded. The nurses and midwives interviewed all spoke of him very highly, saying he had magic fingers, and was able to turn a breach when no one else could. He was dedicated and would come out any hour of the day or night when called, and would take all night turning a baby, no matter how long it took he had the patience. They said he was an expert in breach births, and could make successful deliveries other doctors wouldn’t even attempt. For a many years, he was Whyalla’s only obstetrician and was prepared to take on that work and responsibility solo. When he started working there, the mortality rate among mothers and babies dropped.

He was also the only doctor performing abortions outside of the cities in South Australia. He ensured women in Whyalla could get safe healthcare and terminations right there in their local hospital. And it was a bit of a discovery to his daughter, when putting the film together, that he had in fact studied to be a priest in the Vatican. He was raised Catholic in Glasgow, was sent to the seminary, then sent to study in Rome for 7 years. Then finally sacked it, and became a doctor. And this was never a point of conflict for him, because he disagreed with the Church’s view on reproductive health entirely. So he really led the way in reproductive care in his part of the world.

After he retired, the midwives lamented, they were unable to find anyone to replace him, as a small post-industrial town away from the city wasn’t a very attractive destination for a new doctor. They no longer had 24-hour care in the maternity unit, they were served only by a rotating locum, and they wouldn’t come out when off duty, and some even had to be flown in from Germany and America, with one obstetrician’s caesarean section rate well above 70%, when Croall’s had been at 8%. When Croall retired, his retirement party wasn’t thrown by management, but by the nurses and midwives. He was a doctor who was very well respected by women.

And in his free time, he made tables from recycled wood. Towards the end of the film, one of the trees in his garden has to come down, and he decides to turn it into a table, and it feels like a metaphor for the breadth of his impact, that here is this tree he planted 40 years ago, grown thick and solid, and now felled and also turned into something beautiful. It is like even with the trees in Whyalla, he cares for them cradle to grave.

As the film comes to the end of its story and the end of Croall’s life, they start playing Caledonia. And I, of course, burst into to tears. You can’t do that to us, you know that’s the Scottish kryptonite! The film just radiates with the love his family have for him, and he for them, and his love for his community, and the town’s love for him, and his love for nature, and these wide vines of impact he had for the better in his little corner of the world, in his garden. It’s just so moving, such a beautiful portrait, such a celebration of this quietly extraordinary ordinary man.

Surge

Surge is about a guy having a total mental breakdown.

Ben Wishaw is outstanding in this nerve-searing, idiosyncratic, spontaneous feeling performance. He looks like every interaction he has with someone in this film is using the last thread of his patience. In November, I got a wisdom tooth out, and the pain was white electric, throbbing through my jaw, it felt like every one of my teeth was about to burst, it snaked up past my temple and into what felt like a crease in my skull, spread across one side of my face, along my cheekbone, and it was too painful for me to open my eye or even my mouth. Ben Wishaw looks like he’s in that kind of pain in every single second of this film. He looks like what it feels like in a microwave right before your blood starts to boil.

The sound design in this is amazing, making you feel like he’s experiencing a full-body migraine. Every noise, every beep, every clang feels like this building crescendo, a complete sensory overload driving him insane. And the way it is filmed is very frenetic and too close, like the world is pushing in and in on him. It all feels very improvised and naturalistic, as though the story beats might be in place, but the journey is being led by Wishaw’s performance. It adds to this sense you don’t know what the character is going to do moment to moment, because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, because he’s losing his mind. Films that are about a character’s psychology, rather than narrative plot, tend to be slow because by nature they have to be introspective. This is the opposite of that. This is edge-of-the-seat gripping, because this is a manic spiral, and every moment for the character feels like a heart attack.

Teeth-grindingly tense film.

The Dissident

The Dissident tells the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It is gripping, enlightening, and moving.

This film was quite an eye-opener for me, going into a wealth of context I did not know. I followed the story in the news at the time, but my reaction was “Brutal regime murders journalist. No mystery there then.” I didn’t feel the need to dive much deeper into the details because it was so obvious that no explanation seemed needed.

But there is a huge amount of pertinent context to Jamal’s killing. Firstly, the idea of Saudi Arabia as a place that always has been and always will be as oppressive as it is now, is a reductive over-simplification. Reporting usually has slightly racist connotations of the ancient (and backward), brutal rulers of the ruthless and opulent East, this image of sultans chopping off hands, in an unchanging and unvarying stereotype from a timeless age. This obscures the truth of what is actually happening in the 21st century in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it makes it harder to tackle the reality of government oppression, and denies and erases the reality of activists and citizens who resist on a daily basis.

In Saudi Arabia, 8 out of every 10 citizens is on Twitter. There has been for generations a suppression of free speech there, but the boom in social media has overturned that in an extremely short time frame. With IRL speech dangerous, online is the only place to have open discussions about the state of the country. It reminds me of a joke in the movie Rosewater, another movie about a journalist being targeted by the state, where his interrogator accuses the protagonist of disseminating anti-government propaganda through newspapers, and the journalist replies that there would be no point doing that, it’s a dead medium.

The Saudi Arabian government has reacted quicker than most to the digital revolution, and has strategies to neutralise online dissent. They have a building with 1000 government staff all with multiple dummy accounts who flood Twitter with pro-government propaganda, to drown out the noise of any differing opinions. Like Russia and China, it has top-level hackers.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s government is changing. While yes, it is a monarchy, not a democracy, the king used to have a wide range of other royals as government appointees. To our ears this sounds worse, because then you’ve just stacked ever more of the same powerful family into positions of power, but it had the converse effect of dispersing power among a range of powerful individuals. Yes, not great, but what is happening now is worse. Because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) is wildly ambitious, and has been strategically removing from office other royals, and concentrating power solely on him. And up until Jamal’s murder, he was doing so with excellent spin. He was seen as a reformer and moderniser, purging corruption from within the royal ranks. He pushed through many popular policies, such as allowing women to drive, and allowing cinemas and concerts.

So where does Jamal fit in this story? Despite how he is seen now, as a martyr for free speech, Jamal spent most of his life in government reporting institutions, he was part of the establishment. He was a supporter of MBS, seeing his values and goals for the country as aligned with MBS’s espoused vision. He considered himself a patriot, and was not particularly bothered by the Saudi style of reporting, which he saw as basically telling the truth while not being disrespectful to the honoured institutions of the royal family. While he met with reprimand on some stories over the course of his life, he was considered a loyal servant of the state.

So how did he get from there to here? Step-by-step, and very much against his will. While speech was always limited in Saudi Arabia, MBS’s rise to power saw a crackdown. And several journalists, colleagues of Jamal, were arrested. Jamal, as someone considered friendly to MBS was let off with a warning, but even the intimidation he faced was enough to make him flee the country. Even then, he believed he would return, that things would calm down, that he would watch for the release of his colleagues. But things got worse, and he was now seen as a defector. His wife had to divorce him to protect her and their kids. He was fired from all his Saudi Arabian outlets, and he became targeted by trolls on Twitter. It was MBS’s overreaction that drove Jamal from someone content to see the country change little by little to someone who became an activist against increasing government tyranny.

And that was why Jamal was considered so much more dangerous. Because he had spent his entire career on the inside of the establishment, he knew how they worked, he had powerful connections, he knew MBS, and he had a large following because he had mainstream exposure. And now he was going rogue, using his platform and knowledge to speak about against MBS, and hiding behind the shield of American residency and employment at the Washington Post.

He was not just any journalist. And he was considered far worse than any protestor who was on the outside of things. MBS took Jamal’s defection and criticism as a personal betrayal.

And worse, when Jamal started to meet up with other dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, he became a mentor to the younger generation of activists, and they in turn radicalised him and educated him on how new technology was being utilised for surveillance and oppression. He learned of the government tactics on social media, the new frontier of propaganda, and started to organise an online resistance. And for the Saudi government, if you are trying to counter their cyber attacks, that means you are engaging in war against the state.

That is the big picture part of the story, but this film also has the very human part of this story. Jamal was a man, who at the age of 60, had the life he had built for himself taken away. And while he had his integrity, he facing a lonely life in a strange land. And then he met Hatice Cengiz, and fell in love. And they planned to marry and start a new life together. And while he had taken every precaution to stay clear of his government’s reach, if they were to wed, he had to get a marriage document from the Saudi embassy. So he and the woman he loved turned up in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he told her to wait for him outside while he stepped inside and got it. And she stood. And she stood. And she stood. And hours passed, and she began to worry, and she called the police, she called journalists, she called Jamal’s friends with political clout. And she stood there until 1 in the morning. And he did not come out. And that’s because she had stood outside on the street while he was being murdered in that building. It is a nightmare we cannot even imagine.

And now this is the future she has, trying to hold to account her fiancé’s murderer. It is not what she wanted, but it is what has come to pass.

It is a deeply moving story, showing the best in people, who act with love and integrity, and the worst in people, who act with cruelly and callousness.

Dreams on Fire

Dreams on Fire follows a young girl as she leaves her strict and sheltered home in the countryside to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer in the big city. Her journey takes her through the various dance subcultures of Tokyo, from contemporary and tap, to headbanging to heavy metal, to R&B and urban freestyle, to voguing, drag and ballroom, to go-go dancing in a S&M club. It is so interesting, and just a whistle-stop tour through the kaleidoscopic Tokyo nightlife.

The main character goes from a very naïve young girl, to a practiced, versatile dancer influenced by this eclectic mix of styles. She finds out that she needs more the just talent to make it, she needs savvy, she needs to build her brand, and know how to sell herself on social media and in person. She needs to learn how to take rejection after rejection, and preserve. Making it as a dancer is a marathon, not a sprint.

She makes lots of friends who help her on her way, but you really do feel for her, because she has such ambition and nothing comes easily to her. You watch her struggle and pray she doesn’t lose hope.

Really a beautiful film whose cinematography really captures the wonder with which its main character sees the city, and showcases the creativity of its people, and variety of its culture. Just gorgeous.

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Tina

Absolutely fantastic! What an inspiring, interesting, in-depth documentary.

Tina traces the life of Tina Turner, world renowned superstar. This is definitely one of the better music biopics I’ve seen, really doing a marvellous job of pulling together a wealth of sources to tell the story of an extraordinary woman’s life.

I knew Tina from her hits in the 80s and 90s, and I knew that was kinda the second chapter in her career, but it was weird for me to see her singing way back in the 50s. That seems almost too remote a time. Like, Tina Turner is basically as old as rock and roll. And she was in music from the age of 17 until she retired at the age of 70. I mean, that’s just incredible.

Also, she had so much tragedy that befell her early on. Firstly, she really came from nothing. Her family were dirt poor, picking cotton in the South. Her father was abusive and her mother fled the family without warning to escape him. She never really had a bond with her mother and that relationship remained strained their entire life. Her father also abandoned the family not long after, and she had to be put into the care of relatives.

Then at 17 she fell into the hands of Ike Turner. And you could see what a hold he had on her from the beginning. He was older than her at 25, he was her favourite musician, and he mentored her, giving her her first break in singing. He was like an older brother to her, which then morphed into having a sexual element, and eventually marriage. He worked her day and night in the studio and on tour. She was almost never out of his sight, and he controlled everything about their music. And for her, he was the only family she had in the world, the only person who wanted her, and had sworn never to abandon her, and who was desperate that she stayed with him. She was central to his life, so much that his personal and professional lives both revolved around her, surely that was love.

But that continual monitoring and control, disguised as attentiveness, love and loyalty, soon descended into abuse. It was physical, sexual, mental and emotional. And it last for over a decade. So to the world, they were the adorable couple singing love songs together on the tv or wireless. And that image was his shield.

She was approaching 40 when she finally got the courage to leave him. It’s hard to imagine, being a big music star, having sold millions of records, and she left in the night with the clothes she was standing up in, running across a motorway in the dark, dodging trucks and cars to make it to safety. In the divorce, he got everything. She literally got one thing, the trademark to her name. And in middle age, with 4 kids, and no money, she had to start all over again.

And it’s from here you really see was an incredible woman she is, because with nothing but hard work, and iron-strong belief in herself, she fights every uphill battle to, not just reclaim the ground she has lost, but to propel herself further, into a level of superstardom she had only previously dreamt of. Given her talent, to me as a kid in the 80s it was unremarkable and self-evident that Tina Turner was a star, but now I look at it years on, you see what she was facing. That a 40-year-old woman was able to launch a solo music career, with herself as a sex icon frontwoman, is just unheard of.

She did it, and she did it on her own terms. And it’s an enduring legacy. Her work is still being discovered by younger generations of audiences through the Tina! musical. She became an icon for music fans, an inspiration for women, and a beacon of hope for survivors. She was handed trauma and poverty, and what she gave the world was song and strength.

Just a great film.

A Brixton Tale

A guy gets a white girlfriend and everything turns to shit. A Brixton Tale is about Leah and Benji, teenagers from opposite sides of the city, who meet and begin a relationship. But the pressures of racism and class are present from the very beginning and threaten doom.

I spent the whole of this film waiting for disaster, from the very first shots you see exactly where this is going. Several of the other characters do to, and try to warn Benji, but all to no avail. It’s like slowly falling down a spiral staircase, and hitting the occasional landing hoping you’ve passed the worst, only to keep on reeling downwards.

Leah from the first is shown to have an objectifying gaze and be motivated by her own self-interest. She’s a white, middle-class lassie who wants to be a filmmaker, and she decides to film a ‘gritty’ subject by slumming it in Brixton. There she meets Benji, who she is drawn to both as a subject and a lover. Benji is genuinely smitten with her, but to be honest, Leah doesn’t even see him really. She sees the racist stereotype in her head that she can exploit for her film.

She films Benji smoking a spliff, snorting cocaine, getting into a fight, getting nicked by the police, and getting the crap kicked out of him in a rival neighbourhood. What she fails to show in the film is she gave him the spliff, she gave him the cocaine, Benji was only defending her in a fight between her and her ex, and she’s the one who talked shit to the police, getting them nicked, then dropped off in a rival scheme, primed for a kicking. She is moulding Benji into the racist stereotype she wants, both for her film and for her rebellion statement lover.

The worst thing about this is, Benji wants to be that for her too. He becomes ashamed of being a nice boy who plays video games in his room with his mate and goes fishing, steers clear of trouble, and really isn’t that tough. He wants to be this hypermasculinised idea she has of him. It’s fucking awful to watch.

And you don’t need me to tell you where this is heading. She exhibits her work, to rounds of applause from the wealthy, white, middle-class, art intelligentsia, for its unflinching look at the reality of urban youth, a reality they crave and have created for a narrative too narrow to encompass the full humanity of others. The whole thing is a circlejerk of patronising paternalistic self-congratulation on exposing themselves to the exotic and other, disguised as awareness-raising. Boke.

Meanwhile Benji is devastated. Horrified at seeing himself through her eyes. He’s ashamed for his mum to see it. It depicts him as just a string of criminal behaviours, with no thought to consequence of making something like that public with an uncensored identity. The whole thing is a shitshow.

And this was the first landing upon which I fell, bruised and hoping I’d come to the end of my descent. But no, this is about the halfway point of the film, and things just get worse from there.

This film is very much a rebuttal to delusions of a post-race world, or a new Britain, or the classless society. It kinda reminds me a bit of Blood Brothers, because everything Leah and Benji do, they do together, but the repercussions are very, very different.

It’s always a question for me to what extent Leah knows what she’s doing to Benji’s life, and if she sincerely cares for him at all. I think it’s kinda worse if she does, because then she is literally just a cat with a can tied to her tail, barrelling into Benji’s life with no idea of the carnage she’s dragging with her. If she is consciously manipulating him, it takes away from the inevitability of this demise.

In their own way, both characters are hopelessly naïve, and blind to the powder keg they’re dancing on. There is a mutual mirror there of their own hopefulness about the connection that is stripped from them as things play out. And where they end up seems like where they were always going to end up.

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