Splinters

Splinters is a documentary about the Rio Tercero explosion, something I was completely ignorant of before watching this film. It is made almost entirely from home movies shot by the filmmaker as a 10-year-old kid.

Natalia Garayalde lived in Rio Tercero with her family, her mum and dad, brother Nicolas, and sisters Caro and Gabi. Her mum was a schoolteacher and her dad was a doctor, and they lived a comfortable and happy suburban life. Rio Tercero was a small town, with a church, school, park, town square, and sports clubs. The major employers were two nearby chemical plants and a munitions factory belonging to the military. Natalia’s home movies speak to the fun and freedom of a 90s childhood in a middle-class home in a safe neighbourhood. Jumping in the backyard pool, playing with their new camcorder, making news reports while hanging upside down from their bunkbeds, so their hair stood straight up. It’s the kind of scenes that make you realise these are your best years, these are what you will look back on as the good old days.

Then on November 3rd 1995, the munitions factory exploded. All the bombs, explosives and shrapnel were thrown high in the air over the town. On videotape is a stranger who has bundled Natalia and her brother into the back of his car, driving them to safety at the outskirts of town. He scoops up a woman franticly running down the street with a baby in her arms, as metal rains down, and dogs run through traffic, seeking cover. The noise is like engulfing thunder and the sky has a black, sooty mushroom cloud. Everywhere people are panicking and the secondary explosions of falling bombs echo around them. From behind me in the cinema, I hear someone faintly whisper, “Fuck.”

The following scenes are surprisingly light, because they are shot by a kid, and are from a child’s perspective. Kids are like plastic, they bounce back from anything. Natalia’s reaction is that of most 10-year-olds witnessing a huge explosion . . . cool! Once it’s clear everyone is safe and sound, in her family at least, all she can think about is how exciting it is to be on the news. Plus, there’s no school, so wahhay! She and her brother tour the town doing their own news reports on the debris, barely able to contain their excitement.

The President even shows up in town. He’s here to quell any potential panic, assuring everyone this has been merely an unfortunate accident. He tells a press conference that the media should act responsibly and inform people of this fact, and not work against the government by spreading unfounded rumours. The chemical plants were not damaged, and there is no possibility of chemical contamination of the shrapnel and debris. Everyone should just go about their lives as normal, and funds would be made available for repairs.

If your bullshit senses are tingling, you’re not the only one. Natalia’s neighbour Omar is blamed for the disaster. Initial investigators’ tests concluded a spark had ignited explosive as a result of his work. At home Omar tried to recreate their experiments to clear his name. Setting up his camcorder, he placed a square of the explosive concerned on a table, then took his grinder and a piece of steel and stood over it raining sparks down upon it, like a fucking boss. He was so certain is was bullshit, he was willing to recreate it in his kitchen with no safety equipment, at not even arm’s length from his face. And sure enough, no amount of sparks caused it to catch fire.

The full story would not come out until decades later, and it was one of corruption, international arms trafficking, and flagrant disregard for human life. Another film might pull back to make the perpetrators and their dealings the centre of the story. But in Splinters, the film remains steadfastly on her family and her hometown. The lies that were told that day to keep everyone sedate had repercussions for everyone in Rio Tercero. Her family, like many others, saw the buried truth sprout dark flowers.

Splinters is such an interesting documentary, forcing the viewer into a state of vulnerability along with the innocent people of the town, completely dependent on outside explanation for why their world has suddenly upended. Right up until almost the end, you only know what Natalia and her family knew, living through it, and at the mercy of media reports for any perspective or protection.

An intensely personal window into the lives of those who are so often are reported only as numbers.

The Sacred Spirit

Cinemaattic are doing their Adrift season, so I went along to see The Sacred Spirit. A deeply strange film, it follows an ordinary family with extraordinary beliefs in UFOs, clairvoyance, and ancient Egyptian mythology.

Watching the film, it reminded me of an article I read on serial killers and abnormal psychology. Why can’t we spot them? the article asked. Because we’re all fucking weird, was the answer. The author wrote the piece from a hotel hosting a furry convention. Even an interest viewed by the majority as strange, has a whole culture in which it is affirmed as normal, where you can disappear into a crowd, be insignificant or even boring.

The spirituality of this film’s family is the same. It’s a minority form of religiosity, and a mix peculiar to this family, but it is by no means any stranger than dominant forms, or society in general. The main character, Jose, is not alone in his belief in extra-terrestrial contact, either in the film or in real life. His parents’ obsession with Egyptology is not unique to them either, as there is no end of kitsch tat mass-manufactured for a market craving it. Jose’s niece Veronica is able to watch any number of YouTube videos on the ancestral astral forms of humans, each promising enlightenment for a price, and each warning to download the video, lest it be removed by those hoping to hide the truth. From both within and without, there is a constant reinforcement of the reality of the magical as part of everyday life.

And that’s what this film’s about, the mystical and the mundane. Everyday life is full of such extraordinary things. For Jose and his family, aliens and psychic powers are a day-to-day reality as much as tables and chairs. Even outwith his family, in the community there is a woman seeking an exorcism of what she believes is her abusive husband’s ghost, a schoolchild talks about the smell of flowers being affirmations from God, and a neighbour constantly harps on about nefarious and clandestine gangs of Eastern Europeans who are spiriting children away to harvest their organs and sell them into sex slavery. And all of this is set in the run up to Easter weekend, when the dominant and normalised religious expression prepares to celebrate the dead returning to life, the manifestation of a God on Earth, on a date based on the position of celestial bodies, by eating bread and drinking wine which a spell has transformed into flesh and blood.

There is a bizarreness with which we watch the family in The Sacred Spirit, but as the film goes on, you find yourself questioning if this is all going to follow the reality of the characters involved. As a viewer, you can see how the conviction your beliefs are reality can make you vulnerable, but within the world of the characters, there are constant reinforcements and confirmations. The feeling of being sucked in transfers from the characters to the viewer at times.

The Sacred Spirit, in many places is very funny, but it almost feels too strange to laugh. Because the whole thing is played absolutely straight, you almost can’t let out your giggles at Jose and his UFO group standing in wee light-up pyramids, waiting to be beamed up. Throughout the film, there is a look at the weirdness of the forms of human spirituality, and while there is humour there, this is no contemptuous mocking. There is a sincere respect for ordinary people wanting to make sense of life and death.

A very strange film, with an edge of darkness bordering the playfully weird and wonderful.

If you like this…

Revolution of our Times

Another one for the All Cops Are Bastards file.

This movie blew me away. Really powerful and moving.

This film follows the protests against the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong in 2019. For those that don’t know a whole lot about Hong Kong, the film does a really good job of explaining it in about 5 minutes, while the rest of film watches the reaction to the encroachment of authoritarian power unfold.

Because everyone now has a camera in their pocket which can stream images online in real time all across the world that never disappear, these protests might be the best documented ever. Spontaneous, pivotal moments in the struggle are all caught on camera because there is always someone rolling.

As well as contemporary footage, the film is comprised of interviews with a broad range of protestors. They range from 11 years old to 70, from every walk of life, farmers, students, business managers, mums and kids. There’s a wide range of opinions on how to protest, yet all are united in the cause. I’ve also never seen such efficient division of labour, with people splitting into different groups to service a need, and organising to switch whenever someone needed a break. It’s really incredible.

You have ‘parent-cars’, which Nobody is. (Almost everyone in this has their faces blurred, and is referred to by their nom-de-guerre, to protect their identity). Nobody is a 22-year-old student and his job is to get protestors home safe. It tells you something about the average age of a protestor that 22 is considered old enough to take on a care-taking role. While many protestors have the support of their parents, there are still plenty of parents who are scared for their kids and don’t want them attending rallies. So you’ll get young people attending actions, but who need a way to get home on time safely. That’s where the parent-cars come in, people whose job is to find safe ways in and out of action zones. Sometimes this is ferrying people on foot through alleyways, sometimes it is literally driving up and getting folk to hop in the back of your motor to take them home.

32-year old business manager Dad goes out to just make sure everyone is ok, as does Mum, another volunteer. They do everything from comforting shook up kids after they’ve been teargassed, to hiding them in safehouses and playing videogames with them when they need a break from the madness. We meet one of the medics, and it’s a 14-year-old schoolboy first-aider. You are in awe of the bravery of this young kid, rushing in to tend to the shot and wounded right beneath guns and clubs of the police. There are the sentries, some on the ground standing lookout, shouting police locations to the protestors, and the map team back in a safe house, co-ordinating reports over Telegram, figuring out where police are converging and how many, to alert people on the ground. You’ve got the elders, like 70-year-old Uncle Chen, who go out to try to de-escalate things with the police and protect the kids. And you’ve got the Valiants, those at the most dangerous end of things, taking direct action, and coming under attack from the cops.

And people can change depending on how they feel. If you get injured, fall back and help the sentries. If you learn first aid, join the medics. If you feel the need to be at the front of a particular action, let the Valiants show you how. Everybody in turn finding a way they can be most useful. I’m used to groups that cannae organise 6 people who all agree to pull together in the same direction, or where the division of labour is hard and fast, and leads to power-hording. It seems incredible to see 2 million people work together, successfully, across a year.

And all without a leader, or a party, or an orator to unite them. The cause unites them. And while they are organised, they are not an organisation. They are just people demonstrating for their human rights and democracy. It is so effective, because you cannot cut the head off the snake. The police don’t know who to strike at. Almost a third of the population takes up action against them, and there is no one they can assassinate or arrest to stop it. There is no one icon they can break down to make the others lose hope. The fight will not be over until the last one of the 2 million are in jail.

And you think, surely these kids are shitting it about going to jail? And some are scared, I mean, no one wants to go to jail. But as one teenager puts it, regarding the 10 year sentence for ‘rioting’, “I’ll be in my 20s when I get out”. They’ll still be young, still be angry, and all vow they will simply return to the fight upon release. The mettle of these motherfuckers.

What I also loved about the lack of factionalism is the constant emphasis on this as an action for the people, for human rights. This isn’t about get one side or another in power. This isn’t about our nationalism being better than their nationalism. This is not about some administrative district. It is for the people of Hong Kong that they fight. This is about a place which has enjoyed relatively good human rights and civil freedoms, understanding with complete clarity what they will lose if they don’t fight. Despite the horrific images of violence throughout, what finally broke me and left me in tears, was when a schoolteacher, who had been sitting listening to what her teenage pupils had done over the past year, braving teargas, treating the injured, stopping the illegal arrest and torture of other protestors, she was moved to tears, and she said to them, ‘I feel guilty for not doing more. I’m so grateful to you’, and the kid replies, “No worries, Hongkonger”.

So moving, a must-see. Free Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times.

If you like this…

Jordi’s Letters

Really interesting documentary about Jordi, a man with cerebral palsy who experiences a crisis of faith after moving into a care home.

Jordi has lived at home with his parents his whole life, but they are getting older and are unable to care for him full-time anymore. Jordi is extremely close to his parents, and extremely close to God. He hears the voice of God. And this new separation is quite jarring and he has not heard God’s voice throughout. He asks the filmmaker Maider to go on pilgrimage with him to Lourdes.

The film foregrounds the collaborative nature of the film, eschewing the artifice of the unseen director with the omniscient eye of the camera. Its opening shots are of Jordi and Maider’s hands over the letter grid that Jordi uses to communicate. Jordi is unable to speak, but he can point to letters to spell out what he wants to say. In reality, he forms an abbreviated code with whoever he is speaking to; as Maider knows him well he can simply point to the first letter of the next word and she will be able to guess what he is saying. It’s like predictive text, but subjective. The subjectivity is very much centre-stage in these early scenes, as we are shown the working of their collaboration, that both Maider and Jordi are working together on what is said.

Maider is present in the film, in front of the camera, sitting with Jordi, gauging his expression and gestures as well as his letters to get his meaning. She shows herself positioning shots, and talking to Jordi about what she’d like to get out a scene, and listening to what he wants from it. There is an implicit acknowledgement of the inescapability of the power dynamics in which this film is being made, and rather than deny it, Maider chooses to show how it is negotiated. The audience can judge for themselves.

Jordi’s Letters is a journey following a big life change for Jordi, and how he deals with that emotionally, socially and spiritually. It is a film about faith, and the inner well of religious experience.

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Serranilla

A short documentary focused on Agustina, an elderly woman living in the Mexican countryside. She lives in a small home with her husband, tending to her flock of sheep. She tells the story of the three men she loved during her lifetime, the last of which is her husband beside her.

When one of the young ones asks her if, when you are older, love is still the same, she answers yes, that she still kisses her husband every time she comes home, still feels love in her heart at the sight of him again. Then, with the sun on her face, she distractedly sings a song about love and yearning.

Just a lovely film, like getting to sit at the feet of Agustina herself.

Mindanao

Marisol, a loveable but corrupt politician, is living up the last days before her arrest in a hotel room, partying, snorting coke and bevvying. An older woman with movie star shades, a coiffured do, and bling on her fingers, she’s like AbFab meets Del Boy.

Amparo is the only one not out her tits, and draws Marisol aside when the political staffer bros decide to take their circus outside for some food now the sun’s up. Amparo tries to plead with Marisol sincerely to run. She suggests a plan where Marisol can lay low in a friend’s hotel in Mindanao in the Philippines.

Marisol is hilarious, still talking shite while marockless. As she slowly comes round to face the subject, she demurs that she’ll have no one in the Philippines. Amparo says she’ll come with her. Marisol caresses her cheek tenderly and says she couldn’t destroy her life, ask her to give up everything to live in hiding with her.

Besides that’s not who Marisol is. And she wants to go on as herself, even if she is afraid of what’s to come. To that end, she asks Amparo to come downstairs and have breakfast with her in the hotel restaurant. Who cares who will see them? What does it matter now? They go down, arm in arm, as the lovers they clearly are, and Amparo faces what is to come with Marisol, both of them as themselves.

If you like this…

Lovebirds

Brilliant deadpan comedy about a man who checks into the Lovebirds Hotel at the height of the pandemic.

Beautifully underplayed to highlight the surreal situation, Nicola Pedrozzi stars as Francesco, the lone holidaymaker. This is clearly meant to be a couples resort, and while he tells the single remaining member of staff that he expects to be joined later on, it is clear that is either an outright lie, or an unlikely possibility.

The hotel has only 3 other guests, a tan-tastic, leopard-print clad, middle-aged couple, and a solitary fat man, whose eagerness for company only makes Francesco avoid him more. The hotel is cavernous for the few remaining guests. Without the sounds of other human beings, the background tweets of the namesake nesting lovebirds becomes a foregrounded cacophony.

The loneliness of the main character in this normally romantic setting is externalised in the alienating environment of the hotel. He eats alone in a vast canteen from a plastic tray wrapped in clingfilm. The bronzed couple always put on their masks whenever they see him, despite the wide distances that separate them in this huge resort. The staff has been reduced to just one chipper staff member who is desperate not to lose more revenue by having anyone leave, so tries her utmost to keep everyone engaged, despite how laughable that is under current circumstances.

Francesco is persuaded to go to the hotel’s club night, to tempt him out of his shell. There, a keyboard stands alone on an unmanned stage, cycling through programmed tunes. The solitary staff member overcompensates for the total lack of atmosphere by making quirky cocktails served in coconuts full of sprigs of tinsel and umbrellas. The same 4 people sit, not speaking to each other, as you can literally hear the sounds of footsteps across the dancefloor.

When the keyboard finishes its cycle, and clawing silence fills the company, Francesco finally stirs from his solitude and indifference, and mounts the stage to play something for the room. In doing so, he makes the night a little bit brighter for himself, and others.

Hilariously understated, reflective of the surreal and isolating nature of our times.

A Love Song In Spanish

A Love Song In Spanish is a portrait by the filmmaker of her grandparents.

Her grandmother lives in a simple but pristinely kept home. She carries herself with dignity as she cleans and tidies and shells beans for cooking. Although she is old and her body is now vulnerable with age, she still stands firm and steady. When she wants to dance, she puts on her face and pins a flower in her hair, makes herself presentable with sure and deliberate sweeps of blush. She seems solid and certain in who she is.

Yet there is always a sense of waiting. She is shown sitting alone at her table, as though she is expecting to be joined, but no one comes. She dances in her livingroom, but with no partner, and returns to glancing out the window when the song ends.

Their house is haunted by the memory of her husband, the filmmaker’s grandfather. Their story is not narrated in a detailed linear history, but told in flakes of monologue from her grandmother. The film uses archival and contemporary footage of military marching chants in place of her grandfather’s voice. He is silent in this portrait, just as he is absent, what speaks for him is what consumed him, the military.

For her grandmother, there is no need to tell or explain the Panamanian military dictatorship, she “lived it in my body”. Her husband went for training in Israel and came back traumatised. He was controlling, would fly into jealous rages, and could enact violence. Her grandmother tells how she wasn’t even able to sit outside, for that was seen as enough justification for his paranoia. When she took a ride home from the shops in a neighbour’s car, her husband had the man lifted and tortured.

Comparing the military dictatorship’s effects on the country, and the military dictatorship of her grandfather in his own home, this personal portrait speaks to a wider collective trauma. One which still struggles to be articulated.

What her grandmother describes reminds me of what the old school feminists called father-tyranny. The patriarchy enforced through the strata of large social institutions down to the nuclear family unit. The father as absolute ruler of the home and in complete control of the women therein.

And yet. The pain of these violences is in the ambivalence with which we endure them, the faith we place in the betrayer. As she whispers her prayers, she asks of her husband, her god, herself, “Why did I have to love you?” When she dances alone, it is him she reaches her hands out to. When she stares out the window, it is him she is looking for. When she sits at her table, it is him she is waiting to be seated.

The love between them has been warped, and abused, and truncated in abrupt and unresolved parting. It is a haunting. She is growing old together with his ghost.

If you like this…

Criatura

Criatura is the kind of short film you should feel, rather than figure out. Intense orchestral music, vivid colour, and shots evoking disjointed memory or dream, combine to give a sense of a character’s inner journey.

It opens with the narrator saying that a monster entered her, created a void within her, and thus “you were torn from my body”. The ‘you’ the narrator is talking about is open for discussion. Is it a part of the main character’s self? As the visuals show two women meeting, and falling in love, are they referring to their lover as the other half of their soul?

The mixed images add to that state of confusion, as the couple seem to break up, perhaps because the main character cannot tell if she is trying to interact with another person or a projection of her fractured self. The imagery and music seem to reach for a healing of one’s self after division being experienced both within and without.

An interesting sensory journey.

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Mikveh

This short film is about the filmmaker’s marriage, the part that is the struggle for government recognition and the part that is about loving intimacy. Only 6 minutes long, it features thousands of images of their joined life, snapshots, wedding photos, documents and paperwork, all frenetically flashing up on screen, like a strobing fast-forward effect. Breaking through this wall of never-ending documentation and justification, is a rotoscoped animation of him and his husband immersing themselves in water, their gestures gentle, loving, and intimate.

Mikveh is a ritual bathing done by brides-to-be. It is cleansing and purifying. The husbands’ bathing is similar, providing breaks from the helter-skelter stress of the bureaucratic merry-go-round that seems set on doubting and invalidating their relationship. They float, freed from the weight of having to prove anything. The reality of their love self-evident. And these intermissions are restorative, grounding, and bring peace.