letter to a friend

In Israeli-occupied Palestine, when they come and smash down your house, turn your family out on the street with nothing, and pave over everything for a illegal settlement, if you want to complain, you have to prove you actually lived there. Get together documents and evidence. Prove your existence.

After decades of watching the occupation spread and intensify, the filmmaker sets out to gather the information she will need for the day she knows is coming – when the occupation takes her home.

In letter to a friend, she lays out the relevant information in the form of a letter. She is lucky, relatively speaking, as her family was wealthy in the past, so she has photos going back decades. The house sits on the Jerusalem to Hebron road in Bethlehem, an ancient trade route and the main artery of the city. It sits among cultural landmarks dating back thousands of years. Her great-grandfather was mayor of Bethlehem at the turn of the last century, and his family made a fortune in mother-of-pearl. He built an enormous mansion for his whole family, but then they went bust in the 1930s. The director, Emily, lives in a little house next to this palace, a more modest building set to the side. The main building is now a hotel.

As a filmmaker, Emily has taken numerous photos and film of her neighbourhood. The Jerusalem-Hebron road is a flashpoint for protests. It has two refugee camps on either side, Azza and Aida, and is reportedly the most heavily tear-gassed place on earth. The border wall snakes through the neighbour like a maze. She has recorded it all.

In looking through these photos in and around her home, you see the history of the occupation. You can watch the trees felled, the illegal settlements creep closer and closer. You can see the wall go up, clean and new, and then gather graffiti over the years. She points out the main collection bin the street uses, like a big bottle bank on casters, and shows its presence in protest after protest over the years, as people wheel it out onto the street for cover. The video of a shot protestor being carried through a hole in her garden wall, past her doorstep, and into an ambulance. The history of her living in this house is the history of the occupation.

Alongside the injustice, there is just a feel of strangeness, absurdity, at the mundane and everyday mixing and integral to the huge and historic. The banality of clearing up your garden, with the jarring image of a box full of gathered tear gas cannisters. And the unrealness with which all shock is fading even from that common occurrence.

letter to a friend tries to do what has been trying to be undone since the catastrophe, prove Palestinian existence.

Nitrate Kisses

Nitrate Kisses is archival footage and interviews about queer culture and history in the early 20th century, as well as an examination of how it was repressed and erased.

This movie was made in the 90s, and it kinda makes me realise what a road has been travelled from even that point. The notion of documenting the private as integral to the history of a people – not just queer, but especially women, who are always erased in the private sphere – was radical, but now almost all of us have our personal lives documented online. Not just gay men and women living out and openly, but trans people documenting their transition on instagram and YouTube, the understanding of queer pouring over the borders of straightness into poly and kink, pornography of every kind and combination available for free at the click of a button. It kinda begs the question, what now is private? Repression has now been countered with commercialised hypersexuality, but what is the unspoken now?

Interesting film.

Purple Sea

Purple Sea is an hour of ruined footage, starting from the moment the director goes into the sea when the boat taking her from Syria to Europe sinks in the Mediterranean. It is profoundly distressing to watch.

There is no attempt to make a story out of this. It is brings you into the immediacy of the experience of going into the water, and waiting there to see if you drown or not.

The director narrates what was going through her head. She believes she is facing her own death, and thinks back over her memories, speaks to her husband who is already safely in Berlin.

Nothing is done in the film to present anything other than what actually is. No musical score, no stylistic tricks. Just what the camera saw when it went into the water, which is mostly the side of an orange life jacket, the shadow of a hand.

You feel like you are holding your breath the entire time. And you just want them rescued immediately. Because fuck politics and fuck what you think about any of this, they are going to die, get them out the sea.

And you just think, “Please let them be ok”. And you know that’s not going to happen. Not for everybody. You know how many drown every year. Just because you are seeing this now, here, doesn’t mean it was any different.

At the end it tells you that 42 people died. Was it the woman clinging to driftwood? All you see of her is her wedding ring. The woman in the butterfly top, which billows out next to you in the water? Was it the baby you can hear crying?

A haunting film.

Bottled Songs 1-4

This was really interesting.

Bottled Songs 1-4 is four essays in the form of letters between the two journalist directors, on the topic of ISIS and their propaganda. I don’t know how to say this without it sounding like a back-handed compliment, but I kinda expected less from this, you know, more of the totally unproductive and unreflective hand-wringing we’re used to on the subject. Instead you have two people who know a lot about factual filmmaking taking it apart with their experience and expertise and trying, and in part failing, to explain it to themselves. It is fascinating.

The first essay is about a propaganda video of a forced march of captured Syrian troops, where the men are stripped to their underwear, jeered at, humiliated, and then executed. The filmmaker points out how the act of filming these men was an integral part of their torture, that the ISIS fighters used multiple cameras and made sure stand as up close and in the thick of it as possible. They wanted their prisoners to know that they were a spectacle. They wanted them to know that they would be seen naked not just by them, but the whole world. And that long after their deaths, all that would be recorded of them was their humiliating death, powerless to stop any of it, an insignificant extra in the saga of ISIS.

Is there any way to treat these images as anything other than the weapon of torture they were created as? Is there any way to show them without becoming culpable in the torture as it was designed?

As a horrific massacre, YouTube quickly pulled down the ISIS video, but it remains up on YouTube as a news story. Still the same video, just with a different logo in the corner. In fact, it has been proliferated many, many more times, more than it could ever have originally been shared, by churning its way through the mass media machine, iterated time after time with a new logo, new headline. The biggest propagators of ISIS propaganda is Western media. How is that possible?

A lazier response would be just to shrug and say irresponsible journalism, but a better way is to look at how both their interests align. ISIS want to look like big badasses. Our media wants to show them as all-powerful villains. ISIS demands attention. Our media needs stories that are compelling. ISIS want to be seen as important and not to be ignored. It’s pretty fucking hard to ignore them if they do stuff like this. In this way, ISIS use guerilla tactics to appropriate the machinery of their enemies’ mass media communications networks to their own ends, spreading their propaganda far wider than they could possibly reach on their own, and even turning it to their own use in the torture of their victims.

The second essay is a really interesting look at the editing of Flames of War, and comparison to both left and right wing propaganda films of the past. What are the stylistic techniques being used in the transitions to make the viewer feel like they are there alongside fighters, in camaraderie with ISIS frontliners? But also weirdly, Flames of War isn’t just trying to get the viewer to identify with the fighter, but make the viewer feel part of the propaganda process, like they are taking shots as a photojournalist, spinning through footage as an editor. It’s clear that that is now seen as just as big a part of the war as the fighting, and in doing so, sharing the film as important as firing a weapon.

The last two are portraits, one of an ISIS fighter who goes by the name Abu Abdallah Guitone, and one of British journalist and hostage John Cantlie. In both they struggle to separate what is there from what is being shown. The ISIS fighter is well publicised through social media and their own propaganda, and yet there are differing accounts on almost everything about him, from his name to his nationality. That is precisely what is useful about him, he is an everyman, whatever you need him to be. And this is used by ISIS but also those stoking Islamaphobia in Europe where his face is used to inspire the “he could be anyone” paranoia of their cause. The fact remains all we know is he is young, and so early in his life, he is enacting such horrors.

John Cantlie was a correspondent for the Telegraph when he was captured by ISIS. His colleague James Foley was abducted with him and beheaded. John has since appeared in a number of ISIS propaganda videos, not simply as a hostage, but a host of his own news show. The survival/defection speculation is always going to hang over a story like that, but instead it is more interesting to focus on what they would want John for. Why use him that way, what do they get out of it? If it was just to exhibit him as a trophy, they accomplished that with his hostage videos. With the news show, they can also do a bit of “He truly loved Big Brother”, as a conversion is always a crowdpleaser. But at one point, they show him staring up impotently at an American drone plane, begging to be rescued. So, that’s not it, not entirely. Again, it goes back to that guerrilla warfare tactic of using your enemies assets against them. John on his own is not a mass media network, but he has cultural capital that is useful. He has his RP English accent, he has the authoritative cadence of an experienced newscaster, he has the mannerism and gestures of legitimate information presentation. All of that can now be turned to distribute the message ISIS wants.

For essentially being four 20-minute videos run together, that mostly consist of a computer desktop and stuff pulled up on it, this is a fascinating, emotional and really worthwhile film. Really kicked my expectations for it out the park.

The Tree House

The Tree House is a strange wee movie. It is incredibly ambivalent about itself.

It has the feel of an old school anthropological ethnography, with all the negatives and positives that comes with. It focuses on indigenous Vietnamese folk, Ruc, Cor and H’mong. They live in the forests in the mountains of Vietnam.

During the American invasion, many Vietnamese folk ran to the mountains and forests to hide and stay safe. Some were forcibly relocated by the Americans. Immediately after the war, and for a long time after, the government encouraged people to come back down out of the mountains and rebuild. But this also included the indigenous people for whom living in the forests and caves was their way of life. This represented a major shift and a loss of culture.

The filmmaker interviews them and asks to be shown the caves where they stayed and hear about how life was there. It is only after all the footage is shot, he seems to regret what little consideration he went in with.

When the Americans came, there was a proliferation of film and photographs. It was described as the first televised war, and alongside that the propaganda for it was very high. This one-sided power exchange, of an invaded people being gazed in on, as an object for the use of others, is something the filmmaker sees reiterated in his work with the indigenous people, and haunts the project.

In Ruc culture, that which is alive is what is seen, and that which is dead is unseen. When the Americans came, they showed a woman a video of her deceased son. She was in hysterics, thinking this must mean he was alive, and asked them to return him to her. What consent had they from this man to film him? To show his image after his death? And what right had they to expose his mother to it?

All this percolates through this film of people describing their old homes, what they ate as a kid, how they played, what they missed. It is a film that feels like the camera has created distance between the subject and viewer, not closed it.

If you like this…

We’re Still Here

We’re Still Here is a film about the local community groups fighting gentrification and social cleansing in London.

This is kind of a weird watch for me. You watch all these documentaries from all over the world and you see things you identify with even in the most disparate experiences, then it’s the stuff closer to home that feels strange. I almost feel like I live on the other side of this struggle. Obviously I support the housing groups and the right to safe, social housing, obviously. But I feel like there’s a real generational difference here. My family all grew up in council housing, I grew up in a council house. Then my parents’ generation all bought their council house, and I and pretty much everyone in my generation have only ever lived in private lets. The idea of fighting for your council housing is something I obviously support, but here, for my generation, that battle is lost and over. None of us would expect not to have to rent from a private owner. None of us would expect not to have to move to a different area when the rent gets too high where we are. None of us would expect to have the same neighbours year after year, or even the same flatmates. Or even know who our neighbours are much of the time.

And I know I say this as someone who was lucky enough to find a benign absentee landlord, who let me stay in the same place for 10 years, water caving in part of the ceiling and riddled with mice though it was, and then 30 months ago was able to buy my first one-bedroom, ex-council flat thanks to a win on a scratchcard. But it feels like a fight from a different age watching this.

What is inspiring is seeing how much people rally together on this, and keep hope alive over years and years of struggle. They live daily with the prospect of eviction and demolition over their head, and yet they go above and beyond to continually keep pressure on decision-makers. I loved the Focus E15 group which was led by teenage and young mums, who were sick of being told that to be homed, they would have to move out of London entirely. They just went, no having it, you think you can walk all over us, but you can’t. And parked their prams in the housing office, and went, find us a home or I’m not leaving. Goan yersel hen!

It’s a tricky situation, because there’s no simple solution. Politicians of every party are gonna prefer money coming in from developers rather than money going out on council housing. Doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’ll always like money and power more than you. And time and again, the community can come out in force against these proposals, and whoever they voted for on the platform of opposing them will just nod, say we hear your concerns, and pass that shit anyway. Like with Otago Lane up here.

But you have to see the victories. Despite them having all the money and all the power, they have yet to evict these folk or knock down their houses. We’re still here motherfucker. Literally years later, the campaigns are still running, and the people are still giving a big fuck you to the developers. Those E15 mums are raising their kids in their communities, with dignity, an example of strength, and a knowledge of their right to be there.

Trouble

The thing I’ve quite liked about this Document film festival is how there are different ways to tell a story. Trouble is like that. It kinda has this absence at its centre, because it’s about the director’s da and he doesn’t want to be involved much, so you kinda have to get creative about how the story’s told.

It focuses on David Coleman, the estranged father of the director, and why he left Northern Ireland in the 70s. I mean, with a phrase like “why he left Northern Ireland in the 70s”, there’s not gonna be a great goddamn mystery to it. But his daughter is American, and didn’t meet her dad until adulthood, and has this need to understand him, which means understanding his background and the Troubles, and she’s largely clueless as to what this actually involves.

She has the American propaganda version of what the Troubles were about, the Captain Planet version. There are Catholics and there are Protestants and they knock lumps of shite out each other, and they need to just quit it. The nuance and complexity is not only overlooked, but that sense of Belfast as a real place, with real people, who are still living with the legacy of all that. And I think you see her going on a real journey of understanding, learning as she goes along, that it was not just a religious thing, or even just a political thing, but an economic thing, a social thing, and a real thing. Not a story, but real people dead, and maimed, and scarred.

The original plan for the film is that she would take her dad back to Northern Ireland and he would cut about his old neighbourhood pointing out all the old buildings and the history, and introduce her to his family and they would all tell stories about him and those times. By the end of the film she realises how totally naïve that was. His neighbourhood is gone, razed, and his family is scattered, a diaspora of displaced people who have no urge to relive the darkest days of their life with a complete stranger. Her father refuses to come with her. Politely but firmly. So she has to find a different way to tell this story.

She finds a news interview with her mum and dad when they met as teenagers. It was an upbeat BBC piece about love crossing the divide, her dad a Protestant, her mum a Catholic. She wants to show it in the movie, but it’s £40 a second for the rights. So she cuts and dies her hair, buys an old coat and re-enacts it with the original audio. This works so well, because she looks stunningly like her dad, she continues as his stand-in as she runs the audio of his interviews over the visuals of her outside Belfast landmarks. Doing the film she wanted with her dad in his absence.

At first it feels kinda creepy, because she does look uncannily like him as a young man. But it feels more natural as it goes on. She is literally trying to walk in his shoes.

Dislocation is a big theme in this film. Her dad now lives in Vienna, and when she first visits him, it’s awkward. They are these intimate strangers. And he speaks German fluently, while she doesn’t. And he is trying to describe these experiences of Northern Ireland to an American half a century on. She returns to Belfast, with its strong religious identity, as a queer woman, dressed as a man. Everything feels like a struggle for connection.

A really interesting film.

P.S. The Arlene Foster drag act is worth the price of the ticket alone.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange

That was great.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange is a documentary following a family as they make a movie about their experiences living through the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is incredibly warm and intimate, like watching a little boat, aglow with light, weather a stormy sea.

The film is set in Donbass, which was a city before the war, and now looks like a ragged collections of mostly abandoned neighbourhoods, giving it a feel more like a small town, since the people are so sparse. There is this strange straddling of worlds that pervades the film, because Donbass is at once a big city, and at the same time a small community. The signs of war are everywhere, yet the fighting has mostly now ceased. Yet the silence is not safety, and an occasional shell will fall, or shot fired, letting everyone know the war is not yet over. And yet, when the mum takes her eldest into the capital to get her into university to study cinematography, life there seems completely normal, as though there were no war at all. This unreal blend of how normal everything can be, when things are also chaotic and in peril, is a theme throughout the film.

You see it especially in the life of this little family, as Anna, a single mother, tries to keep this home a haven for her children, give them stability, normality, and inspire their creativity and humanity through art. I don’t know how she does it. There’s four weans, a house full of cats, and a tortoise cutting about, and she not only gets them fed and raised, but educated and in university, and painting and filming and photographing and singing and playing the ukulele and accordion and flute.

I don’t know if it’s just watching this off the back of To See You Again, but all I could think was, you don’t know how much love a mother has for her children, you can’t measure it or see the sides of it. A mother will do anything for her children. She will move heaven and earth. She will give them laughter and music and art even in war. She will make their spirits blossom even in the darkest times. You can not imagine what a mother will do for her children.

I gret, I’m not gonna lie. It was a happy crying, it just moved me to tears.

What I liked so much about this film was, by focusing on the family making a movie, it didn’t show Anna and her kids just passively experiencing the war, being done-to. It shows how they took their experiences, what they chose to do with them, how they had something to say about them, how they turned their hardships into a work of creativity, were given shells and bullets and made film and photographs, and how they shared their art with their community. That’s their story.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange is a film that gives agency to its subjects, and shows the indomitable spirit behind ordinary people, and how people need art to survive.

If you like this…

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.