Tag Archives: BFI

Coming of Age Docs Shine at BFI LFF

During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.

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Ginger, from All This Panic

All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.

Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.

Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.

 

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Starless Dreams

 

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.

Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.

While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.

This article also ran on www.documentary.org

Sean McAllister on his Syrian Labour of Love

British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film  turns into a larger story about lives in exile.  Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage,  whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.

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Sean and Bob
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:

It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?

Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.

That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?

I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary.  Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.

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Amer and Bob speak to imprisoned Raghda
There’s no Greece film, huh?

There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.

The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.

I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”

A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.

NFTS Documentary 2015: The Ones to Watch

Last week, after years of wanting to attend, I finally made it to the NFTS Show, the National Film and Television School’s showcase of films made by their Directing Documentary MA graduates.  I took my documentary students to see the eight films at the BFI Southbank – an impressive venue which also played host to some outstanding fiction and games student projects.

There’s every reason to keep an eye out for NFTS documentary students: graduates include many of the UK’s top doc makers, including Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Kim Longinotto and Sean McAllister. Kim Longinotto’s own NFTS graduation film, Pride of Place, about the boarding school she loathed as a student, was so successful at showing up the school’s shortcomings that it closed shortly afterwards.

Long after my own students filtered out, I sat mesmerized. Despite tiny budgets of £4,000, not one of the films was based in the UK – shooting locations included Cambodia, Thailand, California, and Brazil.  A couple films followed a strong observational narrative, including a senior citizen on an overseas mission, and a drug addict on a Buddist detox. But as the NFTS’s head of documentaries Dick Fontaine noted whilst compering the afternoon, those students without a strong narrative worked intensively to develop a cinematic language of their own in these films. It showed. In an age of formatted television, where action is heavily narrated, and follows a predictable storyline, as a whole these stories were beautifully told without titles, narration, presenters or archive. Although made on a shoestring, the directors had the support of the abundant resources at the NFTS, and a sizeable crew of fellow students, introduced by the directors after each screening.

Here are my favourite films from the day:

The Archipelago

This portrait of the Faroe Islands, as it struggles to hang on to its traditions in the modern world, is not for the squeamish. Following an unnamed character known in the credits as “the young man”, director Benjamin Huguet sketches the community through his daily life as a butcher, capturing him scratching the cows behind the ears, and in the next scene carving them up into steaks. Huguet was also along for the ride when the community turned out for a practice bringing them international condemnation: pilot whale hunting. By filming the blood drenched slaughtering of the whales, and the allocation of their parts to local families within minutes, Huguet’s immersive camerawork shows how close to nature the Faroese continue to live.

Esta Vida (This Life)

Director Lyttanya Shannon’s at times heartbreaking film shows child advocate Rita as she works to encourage a group of vulnerable young girls in rural Brazil to fight against a cycle which sees them all too often the victims of drugs and sexual abuse. Shannon’s cinematography places her in the center of these girls’ worlds, as they perch on the edge of a frightening adulthood.

Pioneers

Grace Harper takes us onto the streets of the eccentric Pioneertown – a former Hollywood film set now inhabited by a number of characters carrying abundant personal baggage. It’s a beautifully shot ensemble piece, which paints a portrait of a town as unique in its populace as its history.