Spread Through Inland

This is the kind of documentary I like to watch. A film about communities. So often cameras are pointed at the unusual, and that is usually something violent, destructive, anti-mundane. The predominance of this type of story, whether in news or documentary features, gives it a disproportionate place in our sense of the world, and I love to see that counterbalanced with genuine respect and equal awe at how things hang together, how we work co-operatively, how the good in the world is of just as much interest.

Spread Through Inland is a look at the communities of central rural Portugal. Life has changed there substantially in the past 40 years. Up until the 80s many communities still had no running water or electricity. There was very little monetary currency in circulation among villages, barter for staples like corn and bread was still a common mode of exchange between neighbours. People passed down knowledge through oral tradition, because communities were underserved with formal education and literacy rates were relatively low.

Depopulation has been one of the biggest impacts upon the region. It was not simply the draw of urban centres for jobs, but also emigration to other countries that drained rural communities of their people. When schools were established, they were not geared around promoting rural trades, but conveyed the dominant cultural contempt for folk knowledge and skills. All this left the region with an aging population whose valuable expertise and crafts are dying out.

But although this is a challenge that they seek to tackle, this is not a eulogy for a dying people, but a celebration at the myriad ways in which they build and rebuild their communities. Money from the EU has lead to the refurbishment of many villages, with new facilities and basic infrastructure, including internet. The old lives side by side with the new, with people sharing memories and histories online. We meet farmers, shepherds, potters, weavers, tinsmiths, artists, musicians, and clowns.

I found it really interesting to see all the secondary effects of depopulation that you might not immediately think of. Like food doesn’t taste the same, because there are fewer herds, the herds are smaller, and more likely to graze close to home, so the diet of the animals have changed, they are less likely to be eating the wild herbs on the hillsides, so it has altered the taste of the meat. Also, the abandonment of so many grazing areas has provided a hazard for greater forest fires, which combined with climate change, are becoming a more deadly danger. One fireman suggests that a substantial force of forest rangers is needed, to avert the likelihood of fires becoming a regular occurrence. That would be of huge benefit to the country both in terms of cost and lives, and could be an attractive occupation to keep people within their rural communities.

The farmer I think said it the best, about how this region was considered just “the countryside” or “out in sticks”. It’s as though outside of urban areas is just a void, pretty to look at, but otherwise empty. Spread Through Inland shows this to be utter nonsense. The region is full of sociable communities filled with vibrant people, who have an untapped wealth of knowledge, skill and creativity, and are as diverse in their worldviews and passions as people anywhere.

Really warm documentary.

Bolingo. The Forest Of Love

After seeing Barzakh, I was immediately eager to see the director’s previous film, Bolingo. Bolingo means love, and it is the name of a migrant camp in the forest on the border between Morocco and Spain. The film is composed of interviews with women of Bolingo, and animated illustrations of their journey to get there.

The film opens with a beautiful shot of the forest at dawn, the canopy of treetops stretching out to this iridescent gold and silvered sky. In the peace and beauty of this vista, small lines start to draw the outline of each tree, and suddenly the harmony of the forest is broken into borders. It is for as stupid a reason as this that all the misery you are about to hear happens.

This film is a hard watch. These women’s stories are brutal, and at times it is agonising to watch them relive the horrors they have endured. Too often when stories like theirs are portrayed in the media, it is of the observable aspects of the journey, a car or a boat too full, as if it were merely a matter of an uncomfortably crowded ride. What can’t be captured from the outside, is the state of sheer terror you are in the whole time you travel, to know that if you fall behind, if you get sick or injured and can’t keep moving, they will leave you to die out here.

Some set out from Nigeria, or Congo, or Cameroon. All are running from poverty, all see Europe as the possibility for a better life for them and the people they love. They sink all their money into being carried through the desert to Morocco, where there’s a chance of crossing into Spain. This means traversing the Sahara Desert by jeep or by foot, with limited food, limited water. It means trying set up a makeshift camp with just what you have on you, and sleep on the sand. It means dodging police patrols, crossing rocks and ravines.

But it is not only physical hardship. The trail is littered with the bodies of those who have not made it, those who fell or got lost or perished from thirst. These women relate so many moments they came within a hair’s breadth of dying, whether it is falling off the back of a truck, or almost slipping in a ravine. Some lost friends. They watched them die and had to leave them there, unburied, because stopping wasn’t an option.

The people smugglers don’t care if you live or die, only if they get paid and aren’t caught. You listen to these women’s stories and think, how could anyone fail to listen and break their heart for their hardship? But men like these smugglers, they only think about how they can make it worse. Rape was a constant danger. The smugglers and their contacts would simply pick women out and rape them as if it were nothing, a matter of course.

Many women found themselves pregnant. Alone, in the desert, short on food and water, dealing with the trauma of rape and having to live daily at the mercy of rapists, they find now that they must bring a child into the world on this journey.

Some women miscarry from the sheer physical strain of the journey. Some women die from a lack of proper medical care during attempted abortions. Those who remain pregnant must now travel all this way while carrying another human being inside them. Women describe being left behind, to give birth alone.

And after birth, they are now trying to make this hazardous journey, as silently and secretly as possible, with a newborn baby. The horrors they face are beyond imaging. Trying to keep ahold of a newborn baby as you go into the sea, trying keep them and yourself from drowning.

In Bolingo, they have set up a camp within sight of the goal they made so many sacrifices to reach. Children laugh and play, are bathed and fed by their mothers. They are innocent of all it took to bring them here alive. They only know how to be children. Their laughter beneath the shade of the trees is a balm at the end of these women’s tales.

And I just got so furious watching them. For a fucking visa. That’s all. All that suffering, all that horror, for the sake of a fucking visa to cross a border. It is so enraging, because it’s all so unnecessary.

Bolingo. The Forest Of Love is an incredibly moving documentary, incredibly heartbreaking. The strength of these women is overwhelming, and all you want from hearing their stories is to ensure they suffer not one minute more.

If you like this…

Ana. Untitled

Ana. Untitled starts with a quote from Virginia Wolf, “Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.” So you know this documentary will contain some artifice, you’re just never sure what, not til the very end.

Ana. Untitled is about Latin American women artists, and more specifically their erasure. I can’t remember who, but a female writer was once asked why there has never been a female Shakespeare, as if the fact we don’t hold women’s writing in such reverence was proof that it didn’t deserve to be. She replied that there has never existed the conditions to allow a female Shakespeare. That reply kept echoing through my mind while listening to the repeated accounts of different women from across a continent all speak to the same issues, state repression, racism, gender-based violence, and familial workload. At every stage, they struggled with a lack of support, to actively being prevented from creating art. And even when they did succeed against all odds, their work was still dismissed, erased and forgotten.

Ana. Untitled is an act of remembering. It is remembering Ana, but in the search for her, it interviews numerous women from across the continent about their lives and art. It highlights the often forgotten contribution to art and also to politics. These women were part of the huge political changes of their time, yet the history books will rarely record their participation. Ana is Black, and highlights the double likelihood of being erased even among women artists. She is also queer, something which necessitates you erase yourself, for safety’s sake. The film takes us on an archaeology of what is buried, both deliberately and passively, in the past.

The other thing about Ana. Untitled is, it is not simply about the past. It is a mirror to today. The director in the Q&A was very clear about the inspiration for the movie coming from the rise of Bolsonaro and the assassination of Marielle Franco. Fascism and the violent repression of women is absolutely here, right now. This is not a history lesson about the 1970s, it is a wake up call about today.

What I liked about Ana. Untitled is that it shows the documentary makers and interviews them on their experiences. The director herself was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship in Brazil. The guys doing the camera and sound were only kids and didn’t really understand the seriousness of things until after it was over. And the younger generation are living with its legacy, the racism which has not gone away, and the psychological impact of inherited trauma. When they get to Chile, the electrician talks about living through the assassination of Allende. This is a history they all live with one way or another.

In a world where the government was able to erase its own crimes, the official facts reveal less than a documentary with a little fiction. Really interesting film.

No Somos Nada

No Somos Nada is a documentary following the punk band La Polla Records on their farewell tour.

Gonna show my ignorance here, but I didn’t know much about La Polla Records before this film. They are huge in the punk scene throughout the Spanish speaking world. Formed in 1979, they are still going strong 40 years later. Their songs are basically fuck fascism, fuck capitalism, fuck the state, fuck the church. So, immediately likeable.

For me, what was funny was seeing how they came from this sleepy little village nestled in the Basque Country. A less likely place you cannot imagine. It looks the picture of rural idyll. But as Evaristo, the band frontman, points out, you don’t need to live in a city to know how people are fucked over every day. Fair enough.

He cuts an eccentric figure, a dozen piercings in each ear, covered neck to toe in tattoos, wandering around the countryside with a rambling stick. A born contrarian, he rants jovially and constantly about the absurd nature of the world, always with a gleam of mischief in his eye. Even now at 60, he seems full of restless energy, pulling him out on daily walks across the hills and fields.

In contrast bassist Abel just looks like any bloke you might see in a village pub, a guy who might be able to fix your motor for you. The film covers the band’s formation, sketches the lives of its current and previous members, and the overall philosophy of their music. Combined with that, it shows scenes from their world tour, fans going wild for their biggest hits, and the band giving it their all.

Enough to make anyone a La Polla Records fan.

La Alameda 2018

Wow, that was really interesting.

La Alameda 2018 is a documentary looking at the Alameda district of Seville, known for prostitution, drugs and music, which has underwent gentrification. It is a collective subjective remembrance of the neighbourhood by its current and former occupants. It is a life weaved out of many lives.

The filmmaker’s own life is part of that. She grew up there and loved it, but with the increasing drug addiction in the neighbourhood in the late 80s and early 90s, her parents decided to send her to a secondary school outside the area. This led to film school and travel abroad, and by the time she returned as an adult, gentrification had rendered the area almost unrecognisable. While teasing out what the Alameda was and how it changed, she’s also kinda tracing out the life she did not have.

The impression you get from the film is of Alameda as a place of women. It was where women earned money through sex work. It was where women made art in music, dancing, flamenco. Today it has women leading squatting activism and women keep the neighbourhood’s history.

I loved Deborah. From the first shot of her, all I could think was, “glamma gramma”. Flawlessly put together, her face done, her sunglasses giving her a touch of chic, she leads tours of the area, giving out the history she lived through as a resident there for 60 years. For her, Alameda was a sanctuary for trans women, where sex work could provide a life line, and the camaraderie of hooking women gave a sense of belonging.

One comment from a former resident rang true, that he’d felt safer before the place was done up. Because back then, you knew everybody, you knew who was maybe a bit erratic and why, what would might set them off and what to avoid. Now, gentrification has anonymised the area, to be like any other city street. That doesn’t make a place safer, for it to be filled with anonymous strangers. And the idea that crime is only crime if it’s visible, like with street prostitution and drug users, is bullshit. Now you just don’t know what’s going on, and what to be wary of. I get that.

What I like though is neighbourhood diehards are still there, keeping the light lit. Deborah’s still there, the musicians still play, and the squatting activists are still there, insisting on their right to the space. However sterilised they try to make the place, to milk the house prices, there will always remain someone to shout about who made this neighbourhood, to remember. Great film.

Isabel’s Independence

I love Isabel. She’s awesome.

After the 2008 crash, Isabel’s business in Spain went bankrupt. Although married to a husband who was still working, Isabel was determined to regain her financial independence, and set off for, of all places, Edinburgh. There she takes any work going, cleaning and, during the Covid pandemic, making deliveries.

Isabel is a tour de force. Her personality is bombastic. She is unapologetically herself. I loved it. Goan yersel hen!

You don’t see a lot of Spanish Scots in the media, and it’s kinda a punchline of, who the fuck would move from somewhere so warm and bright to come here? But Isabel loves the shifting tones even in a grey sky. She loves being busy, keeping working, keeping on her feet, and Edinburgh always has something happening. Her husband comments that she seems to have really found herself here. And in weird complement to that, when watching this, despite Isabel’s struggle with the language, she seems really Scottish. Being here suits her and she suits being here.

I even loved watching her crack up during lockdown. Like all of us, she went a little stir crazy, obsessively watching the news in her housecoat, playing games on the computer, and drinking some Tennent’s out in the garden when the sun came out. Before long, she couldn’t bare to sit still, and was up working as a delivery driver.

Great to see representation of parts of Scottish society that go unsung and underappreciated, Spanish Scots, older women, and non-fluent migrants. Isabel is all and she is amazing!

Extra

Great short film following Socorro, a 60-year-old man who, after losing his business in the 2008 financial collapse, became an extra.

What’s great about Extra, is seeing the seer joy and passion Socorro has for film. His dedication and enthusiasm is set alongside an explicit call for more recognition and appreciation for the work of extras. Extras have sometimes been pejoratively referred to as “props that eat”. Socorro rejects this, extras are simply actors without lines. They give performances just the same as everyone else. Their contribution helps to flesh out the world of the film, and give atmosphere and tone.

Perhaps like many extras, Socorro wants to develop his career as an actor eventually, but for right now, he feels like he is learning a wealth of skill from having to play parts to their fullest without speaking lines. As someone without a formal acting education, he feels he is learning his trade on the job, in his body, expression and gestures.

Socorro also joins other extras in campaigning for a basic minimum wage, something I was surprised they didn’t have. Then again, why should I ever be surprised at constant backdoor routes of exploitation? He also attends the Mutes, an award show recognising the work of extras. He is proud of what he brings to the table.

This film is so much fun, watching a guy finally follow his dream, and to see him express such passion for cinema. Loved it.

Ulisses

This short film tells the story of the life of the oldest male whale in captivity, Ulisses.

In the 80s he arrived at Barcelona Zoo. His trainer Albert taught him to perform for the crowds. Later he was transferred to Sea World in San Diego, USA, where he remains to this day.

There is a melancholic ambivalence in the tone of the entire film. All credit to the composer of the score for walking that fine balance. It manages to capture the sense of wonder and joy of the crowds seeing Ulisses back in the 80s. The children, in their innocence, feeling a genuine sense of awe at the astonishing creature, and inspiring gratitude and curiosity about the ocean’s treasures. That positivity sits alongside the reflections of an adult’s eyes, seeing the tragedy that this wild animal was robbed of its freedom. It was wrong. It still is wrong.

As the years pass by, you see the close relationship between Ulisses and his trainer. Albert has such a level of trust with the animal, he is able to hold fish in his mouth and let Ulisses surface to eat it right from his lips. When Ulisses is flown to America, Albert is there with him all the way, and he stays with him until he has settled in to his new accommodation. Despite the exploitative circumstances of their meeting, Albert’s love for Ulisses is real.

And yet, as the decades dance by, and the children who watched Ulisses grow up, and Albert grows older, and we change, our lives all change, there is Ulisses. Still in his tank, still performing tricks. Let him go. Hasn’t he given us enough? How long do we intend to perpetuate this injustice?

An empathetic and non-judgemental, unspoken plea for the freedom of captive whales.

La Bestia – Train of the Unknowns

Every year, thousands of people make their way from Central America, through Mexico, to the North. One massive freight train is known for being the best way to cut hundreds of miles of walking off your trip. That train is know as La Bestia – The Beast.

The Beast is a great big whore of a train, with carriages stretching back towards the horizon, the sides of its cargo holds as tall as walls. It rattles through the dusty countryside with a rumble you can feel in your feet as it approaches.

But despite the title, this film isn’t about The Beast, it’s about the men and women who risk their lives trying to jump onto it. They arrive from all over and for a variety of reasons. Some are from Honduras, some are from Mexico, some are running for their lives and seeking asylum, some are just looking for work to give their families the best chance in life.

Caring for these weary travellers are the good folk at the Casa del Migrante, a sanctuary in Huehutoca, a suburb of Mexico City next to the rail line. There they feed the hungry, give beds to the exhausted, and clothe those who have walked through their shoes. The Church hold services asking God to look after the travellers, and give them blessed rosaries, telling them that they will never be alone, even if they are injured or die on the tracks. Unlike so many who give Christianity a bad name, these people uphold the very best in Christ-like behaviour, in service to their neighbour.

By the time La Bestia comes, you have gotten to know the folk so well, you are terrified for them. As they looked for a place to grab on to this moving behemoth, I found myself mumbling under my breath, “carefulcarefulcareful”. I could hardly watch.

I’m not religious, but still, God watch over them all out there, on that perilous journey, alone and unknown in the desert. A very moving short film.

If you like this…

Barzakh

Barzakh is the Islamic realm of limbo. A fitting title for this film, showing boys living on the rocks around Melilha, a Spanish city on African soil. They wait for an opportunity to cross to Europe, in hope of finding a better life.

Firstly, this movie is called limbo, so take that as your queue for its pacing. This is not going to be a movie about events and conclusions, entirely the contrary. This film forces you to sit and wait with these kids, see how their life is slipping away in this nothingness.

It is entirely shot at night. The boys sleep or hide during the day, only to come out at night under cover of darkness. They live in this lightless world, always yearning, singing and praying about gaining passage to “the country of light”.

The film is set in the rocks and cliffs around the harbour, where these boys wait for a chance to sneak onto a boat. Melilha is an ancient city. Steps are carved into the rocks. A lookout tower rises like a Biblical obelisk. The walls are built of piled stone right on the cliff face. Watching it, I thought it looked medieval, but the city is actually thousands of years old. A place completely timeless.

The rocks are porous, brittle-looking, as though they might crumble in your grip. Everything is sea blasted, worn and weathered by the wind. The land looks like merely the crust of the sea.

The boys live in an endless night upon these rocks, trying to light fires to stay warm and fish with thread-thin string for something to eat. There, they try to keep their hope alive, singing and praying. Occasionally they will pass the time with a game if someone finds cards or an old football. But mostly they wait, counting down their time before they turn 18, the only currency they have is their youth, to reach Europe as an unaccompanied minor.

You look at these young boys and think of how you’ve seen them portrayed in the news. They are exactly who is held up an example of who ‘we’ don’t want coming here, young, Islamic, Arabic-speaking men, sneaking illegally into the country. The media portrays them with such suspicion, as potential threats.

They’re fucking kids. What were you doing at 17? Sitting your Highers? Trying to figure out how to get into uni? Trying to ask out your crush? That’s all these boys want, a normal life, with a chance of a good future. Instead they are huddled on barren rock, trying to kindle a fire to keep warm.

These silhouetted figures on this brutal landscape, it reminds me of nothing so much as Gustave Dore drawings. Barzakh really is an appropriate title. It looks like the last spit of land at the end of the world, haunted by lost souls crying out to God.