Tag: Documentary

Interview: Andrea Luka Zimmerman (Erase and Forget)

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a German-born, London-based artist, filmmaker and activist who has become known for her essay films on gentrification, Taskafa, Stories of the Street and Estate, A Reverie. At first glance her new film, Erase and Forget, seems to inhabit a different universe, that of James ‘Bo’ Gritz, the Vietnam vet and alt-right hero who is best known as being the model for Rambo.

However, Zimmerman has been working on this film for more than a decade, and what links all her films is a concern with the deeper structures that create these characters and situations, such as in Taskafa, where a film ostensibly about street dogs in Istanbul becomes a eloquent exploration of the effects of gentrification and social class.

Zimmerman certainly sees a consistency in her work. “With Estate, a Reverie gentrification became the context, but it was on a deeper level about the structures that determine how we are able to live within them (or not), and everyday refusals to accept a prescribed way of being. In this way it is an inquiry into how people negotiate and navigate power. Power is quite slippery and in disguise until one is affected by it, in the case of Estate the prolonged making invisible of a community in the public eye (the rhetoric of sink estates, benefit fraudsters, deprived communities, all these ideas lead to a sense of the abject that can then be ‘fixed’ by either demolition or large-scale displacement like on the Haygate estate), with eventual demolition of the estate. With Erase and Forget I am exploring again questions of power and structural violence, this time through the relationship between covert and secret military operations and Hollywood cinema based on or inspired by them, or even shaping them. So, public and private memory are at the centre of both films, who gets to remember, whose memories are visible, whose voices are heard and why (not).”

Certainly, Bo is a fascinating, complex, but deeply ambiguous character, but Erase and Forget is no mere character study. The Vietnam War was perhaps the biggest trauma to undermine the American national psyche in the twentieth century, as soldiers in the field and protestors at home came to lose faith in their government, and question both its and the media’s motives, effects which are still at play in American society today. Zimmerman explains, “I met him during research into US involvement in Indonesia during the 1960s. I found him at a time in his life where he seemed wanting to go on a journey to find out what he was part of. Initially I didn’t think of making a long film with him, and focused on research for a different film that would show many more people in it, but the more material I found that concerned parts of his history, such as Tudor Gates’ and Patrick King’s rushes to a (never completed) documentary about Khun Sa and the CIA, the Afghan training film, the hundreds of television clips, his presidential campaign, etc, I realised that through this one person I could explore the way in which we in the West, over the last 50 years, went on a journey that we today call post-truth.”

The visual texture of the film is a disorientating montage of verite, archive and Hollywood footage, combined with Bo enacting out aspects of his history, perfectly encapsulating the vertiginous slippage between fact, fantasy and mediated reality that Bo’s life has become. After all, not only was Rambo based on him, but Clint Eastwood and William Shatner financed the mission, where he may or may not have found American prisoners still held in Vietnam.

At first, the viewer believes Bo; as one commentator notes, his experience gives him authority in the field. But as the film progresses, the viewer’s incredulity becomes strained – did he really also inspire the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith, and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, a film Bo predictably, can’t stand?

Zimmerman concedes that “Bo is an unreliable narrator. When you look at covert operations, those that succeeded we usually never know about, so we can only study their effects. I think the spaces in between official and private memory are where we might find truth. The gestures, the inflections of the voice, the words masking what’s unsaid behind them, and the action movie genre that even the news adopt at certain times speaking about war. Hollywood told its story, and people heard it and felt it. For instance, First Blood is a work of art, it is also very much an anti-war movie. Then the character became another kind of Uberhuman killing machine for the sequel (then the highest on-screen kills at that time). This I think this is another kind of fact, the making of myth, and cinema has a key part in that, which is of course used by governments all over the world, and why there is also direct support to works that are deemed favourable of certain positions. The betrayal of that myth is what is almost impossible to bear. Hollywood has always been part of the making of a truth (ideology), since Pancho Villa, Birth of a Nation etc, it is persuasive and powerful. The news tells us one story, Hollywood another, and Bo is the interlocutor, and in no way more stable. Then there is the devastating archive where he trains Afghan mujahedeen or films drug running with Khun Sa. So instead of finding out ‘what really happened’ we collated these different strands together into one montage to allow the viewer to see the way in which they all have different agendas and tear at each other, and that truth is ultimately something we need to ask for daily and rigorously, and not expecting to be told by one ‘stable’ narrator.”

While Bo enjoys the limelight, playing up to both public attention and Zimmerman’s camera, there’s a dark side to him, and a sense that his covert actions for the government have completely undermined his faith in the American state. His activities here have made him a beacon for the alt-right, as Zimmerman explains. “All of us are part of a system that makes enormous profits out of structural and political violence. Bo is really a witness to the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Given the enormous rise in alt-right activity in the US and elsewhere, it is crucial to understand where such ideologies come from, and how they express themselves over time, both among citizens, and within government and state structures.”

This puts him at odds with his devotion to the military life, where he tried to live up to his father’s memory, and the myth of machismo he attempts to emulate, trotting himself out at gun rallies, and encouraging young recruits to follow a military life. One kills himself the next day; Bo himself eloquently describes his own suicide attempt as, “You shoot yourself in the head, but that’s not where the pain is. The pain is in the heart”.

As Zimmerman notes, this is prefigured in the very first Rambo film. “In the original ending of First Blood, Rambo shoots himself in the heart (which is in my film). That ending was rejected by test audiences and instead Rambo lived on to become the segue to Rambo II, the most violent movie to date then. Sebastian Junger in Tribe writes about how in the US the suicide rate mirrors that of the unemployment rate. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 22 a day. It is addressed through medicalisation and pathologising, not as a national crisis, which it is.”

While Zimmerman may have begun making the film over a decade ago, it has, if anything, become even more relevant over that time, with the rise of the alt-right, the increasing belief in conspiracy theories, the prevalence of fake news and the spiralling levels of gun violence which continually dominate American news. “Gun culture is a myth that is tightly guarded and protected. And myth is more powerful than reason, so we need to look at the big picture of structural violence, and to have a genuine dialogue around power and privilege. The statistics on mass shootings are shocking, and gun control needs a broader dialogue on why people feel the need to have them. I worked in one of the poorest places in the US to make this film and witnessed a suicide by gun, and it took a couple of hours for the police to arrive. Why are people so against their government – many of these people served in the US army, and many are very poor. Why do we think killing is acceptable at all?

“In this sense I genuinely believe that Erase and Forget provides a useful, personal, and socially relevant framework for understanding the complexity of these issues. Because it focuses on one public figure, someone who embodies all the contradictions of post-war American society, audiences can follow the choices such a character makes, and the ‘lines in the sand’ that each of us is required to draw, beyond which we won’t go, beyond which morality and ethics start to break down.”

Brian Beadie


Erase and Forget screens at Document, Saturday 21/10 at 6pm.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Erase and Forget producer Ameenah Ayub Allen will join Director of LUX Scotland Nicole Yip after the screening for a Q&A and for a SUPERLUX Masterclass on Sunday 22/10 at 12pm.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman will also take part in the Truth and Power 2: Ethics of the Documentary Filmmaker panel discussion on Sunday 22/1o at 4pm.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900

NB the screening and masterclass are free to all SUPERLUX members. Booking through LUX Scotland website.

Erase and Forget

Document 2017 Festival Passes now on sale!

Weekend and day passes for Document 2017 are now on sale! Festival passes can be exchanged for tickets to any screening or event, subject to availability. NB All tickets are free to refugees, asylum seekers, OAPs and those on income support.

Weekend Passes: £20 (£18) + £1 booking fee
Day Passes: £10 (£8) + £1 booking fee

Weekend pass: Buy now

Friday pass: Buy now

Saturday pass: Buy now

Sunday pass: Buy now

Document 2017 takes place at Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Glasgow, 350 Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3JD, 0141 352 4900. 

If you have any queries about festival passes, contact us: info@documentfilmfestival.org

Browse our full 2017 programme here: documentfilmfestival.org/programme

Browse our brochure:

Director’s Statement: Why Is Mr W. Laughing?

The film started out as a cinematic experiment: I wanted to portray three members of an atelier community of artists with different disabilities in an open collaboration. I wanted to dissolve the common power structures between the documentarist and the portrayed subject and chose to assist the artists in presenting themselves and their work in their own words, sounds and images. Without making a film about the socio-politics of participation through art, I wanted to make the film socio-politically, to dismiss conceptual coherence by indulging in the anarchic serenity of the artists, filming in an inclusive and empowering manner, rendering homage without advertising, so that the protagonists wouldn’t be subjected to preconceived aesthetics.

The project originally emerged from my interest in anti-psychiatry and progressive notions of dis/ability, like in the experimental psychiatric clinic La Borde in France under the direction of Jean Oury where Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze developed some of their concepts like “schizoanalysis”, or in the project of the poet Fernand Deligny who lived and worked in a silent community with autistic children in the French mountains.

The atelier community of the three protagonists Horst, Bernhard and Michael is singular in its organization because neither social pedagogy nor art therapy is involved. There is no rigid methodology, just spontaneous manners of interaction. The artists work autonomously and are assisted by other artists upon their own request. Many advantages like compassion and solidarity are much better developed in their community than in the art world of the free market.

Although I knew of several great documentaries both on dis/ability and outsider art, I was missing a cinematographic reflection of the naturalised distinction between the observed, supposedly disabled Other and the observing, allegedly sane and sovereign filmmaker. If inclusion should succeed, supposedly abled people are required to develop an understanding of disability that is neither patronising nor spectacularising, but a different original access to reality. That’s why I tried to integrate different perspectives that would not rule each other out but co-exist in an open conversation. It’s also why we produced the film in a collaborative process, co-wrote and co-filmed together with the protagonists and allowed ourselves to repeatedly drop our preconceived ideas about beauty, film, art and love.

Jana Papenbroock


Why Is Mr W. Laughing? screens at Document, 20/10 at 8pm.

Jana Papenbroock will be joining us to introduce the film and for a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900

Why is Mr W. Laughing?

Director’s Statement: Left On Purpose

It’s true—some will say that I caused the death of Mayer Vishner. That by telling his story, I gave him permission to take his own life. Others—his doctors and his close friends—tell me that the filming kept him alive, giving him a reason to carry on. Sadly, I believe that both are correct…I extended Mayer’s life while ensuring his death.

I first met Mayer when I was shooting the documentary No Impact Man—the story of a family trying to live in New York City with no environmental impact. Mayer was the only member of the local community garden growing vegetables. In his words, the other gardeners were bourgeois flower growing narcissists. Mayer was a true Greenwich Village character, and to him, everything was political.  A lifelong radical, he grew up resenting the 1950s post-war conformity he was born into and then switched his focus to the fight against the draft and the Vietnam War. Mayer wasn’t content to just march—he organised, strategised, and made his home in the activist community. One of the original Yippies, he was mentored by the legends—Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Dave Dellinger. But unlike many, Mayer never stopped protesting. He never stopped fighting with the world.

The mantra of Mayer’s youth was “never trust anyone over 30.” When I met him, he was pushing 60 and struggling with a world in which the revolution never came. I proposed a documentary profile and he opened his life to me. As our friendship solidified, it became clear that Mayer was engaged in serious battles with depression and alcohol. It was six months into filming when he confided to me that he was preparing for his “last political act”—his suicide. Suddenly, this was no longer a short documentary profile—it was life and death.

I had never before been faced with the tragedy of a potential suicide victim, and I was in no way equipped to handle it on my own.  I went with Mayer to his physician and psychiatrist and witnessed as he tried to make the case for his own death to them. Knowing that he was in the care of professionals was essential to my continuing with the project. But I had become part of the story. We’d become close and I didn’t want him to die, but I also understood that he was in tremendous psychic pain. To force him to live in that pain also seemed cruel. The film he wanted me to make had a sad ending, yet the act of filming was keeping him alive. I was stuck. 

I did some research and learned that, although Mayer suffered in his isolation, he was in no way a rare case. The suicide rate for men Mayer’s age has increased almost 50% in the past decade. His generation, the baby boomers, a generation that has had such an impact on the way they’d lived, were now choosing, more and more, to take this unconventional outlook to the way they approached death. As Mayer said: “My suicide is part of a lifelong quest for agency for the species and for myself. And as we grow older, more and more baby boomers will feel the way I do.” 

It is my hope that Left on Purpose can serve as a point of departure for discussions of the issues at the heart of the film that are so often spoken about in hushed tones—if at all. How do we care for a loved one who doesn’t want to live? What does it mean to help someone in pain? There are no easy answers, but it is important to ask the questions. 

Suicide is a tragedy that is never simple and straightforward. For Mayer, I believe there were a number of factors that came together to make ending his life a viable option. Perhaps the most operative factor was his lifelong depression. As a young man he persevered through the difficult times, aided by a close working relationship with his psychiatrist and the support of the community he found in the anti-war movement. By the mid 1970s, the war ended and Mayer’s therapist died in a car accident, leaving him without the support system on which he had so depended. Unmoored, Mayer began to rely more on self-medicating through drugs and alcohol; providing temporary “anesthesia,” but leading to a cycle of depression and dependence that lasted until his death.

Psychologists have long regarded suicide as being contagious — that is, it is a behaviour that is prone to being copied or imitated. Quite a few people in Mayer’s life made the tragic decision to end their own lives. In the late 1970s Mayer’s friend and legendary troubadour of the anti-war movement, Phil Ochs, succumbed to his mental illness and alcohol addition. More impactful in Mayer’s trajectory perhaps was the well-known photo taken in 1971 of young Mayer sitting between Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and High Times Magazine founder Tom Forcade. Mayer referred to that photo as “two suicides and a procrastinator,” as both Forcade and Mayer’s close friend and mentor Hoffman took their lives. Hoffman’s first wife, as well as his daughter—both of whom Mayer knew well, also killed themselves. I believe that the suicide of these people he was so close to made his decision a real possibility.

Similarly, I believe that Mayer’s politics, while not the cause of his decision to end his life, were clearly a contributing factor. As stated in Left on Purpose, Mayer looked at everything from a political perspective. Mayer defined himself through his freethinking and his rebelliousness. (There was a time when the Hippies in San Francisco tried to “rebrand” themselves as “freemen.”) The fact that suicide is a taboo of church and state no doubt made it more than a personal act for Mayer and turned it into a statement.

Lastly, Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Thought he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organiser. Greenwich Village was just that—a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced, Mayer felt more and more disconnected.

Justin Schein


Left On Purpose screens at Document, 22/10 at 4pm.

Tickets from CCA: Book online / 0141 352 4900

Justin Schein will also be taking part in our panel event, The Ethics of the Documentary Filmmaker, 22/10 at 5.30pm.

Left on Purpose

Document 2017: Full Programme Online

Our 2017 programme is now online! There are over 50 screenings, workshops, panels and special events taking place during our main festival weekend from Thursday 19th October until Sunday 22nd October. Full details of those can be found here. Tickets for all screenings and events at CCA Glasgow are available here. Day and weekend passes will soon be available.

We also have special free community screenings across Glasgow in the weeks leading up to our festival weekend. Full details of those here.

Women, Native, Other, part of our Trinh T Minh Ha retrospective, opens at The Pipe Factory, Glasgow on Saturday 7th October. Details here.

Our brochure can be found at locations across the city and Scotland now. You can browse our brochure online at Issuu:

 

Screening 05/11: Action Kommandant

This Saturday, we team with our good friends Africa In Motion Film Festival for a special screening of Action Kommandant (Nadine Angel Cloete, 2016). Action Kommandant is the untold story of the South-African anti-apartheid freedom fighter, Ashley Kriel. Known as the ‘Che Guevara’ of Cape Town’s notorious Cape Flats, Kriel became an icon of the 1980s youth resistance before being murdered by apartheid police at the age of twenty. Through a mix of animated sequences, previously unreleased archival footage, and intimate testimony from family, comrades, and his closest friends, this captivating biopic offers a necessary confrontation with South Africa’s fraught past that finds particular relevance today as a new generation of young activists – both in South Africa and beyond – demand historical redress.

This screening is part of AiM’s newly inaugurated documentary competition, sponsored by Scottish Documentary Institute, which aims to encourage and support young and talented African filmmakers. The winner is selected by their jury of acclaimed film practitioners and academics and will be announced after the screenings on the second day. The audience will also have the opportunity to vote for their favourite film with the Audience Award winner announced on AiM’s website at the end of the festival.


Action Kommandant | 05/11 | 8pm | CCA Glasgow |  Tickets here, or by phone: 0141 352 4900.

Document 2016

Journalist Patrick Harley was our roving reporter at Document 2016. Here he recounts his experience through the weekend.

This time last week, the Document International Human Rights Film Festival had just called time on its 14th edition, one that chairman of the board David Archibald described as being “one of the best, if not the best” years for the festival he’d ever seen. The chairman, of course, has no input on the programming side of things (that having been overseen by co-ordinators Eileen Daily, Sam Kenyon and Sean Welsh), but if that still seems too biased, I can give my own opinion: this year’s Document was the strongest and most thought provoking I have attended, both as cinematic showcase and call to action.

When planning this write-up, I originally considered separating it into distinct parts, each with its own theme, thread or angle. Yet the more I thought on my experience of the weekend, the more I realised the overarching heart of this year’s programme – and that, simply put, is freedom.

Because I still love a subheading though, let’s look back and break things down a bit.

The freedom to have a safe home

Before the festival’s opening film played to a near full house in the CCA Theatre, co-ordinator Sam Kenyon emphasised how Document seeks to expose people not only to socials issues, but also to the “poetics of documentary” itself, and just how powerful it is for us to be able to receive these images at all. Kings of Nowhere could not have followed this mission statement more perfectly.

kings-of-nowhere

Beautifully and hauntingly shot, the film tells of the waterlogged Mexican village of San Marcos. With the few remaining occupants transporting themselves around the half-destroyed settlement by boat or by mule, the decaying and overgrown buildings lend the visuals a dreamlike quality, yet their quietness also betrays a sense of loss. For those villagers still living there, San Marcos is a literal ghost town. Flooded by the government’s construction of the Picachos dam in 2009, the population has shrunk from 300 families to three, and the ones that remain live surrounded by both the spirits of the past and the dangers of the present.

Fearful of any passing vehicle, the exact nature of the threat plaguing the villagers’ psyches is never clarified (and with the line between police force and cartel in parts of Mexico becoming increasingly blurred, it’s unlikely to make a difference), but statements like “they chopped Ricardo into little pieces” leave us in little doubt as to its seriousness. “When it gets ugly, it’s scary,” one woman tells the camera, “locked doors won’t do you any good.”

Yet perhaps what’s most striking in Kings of Nowhere, is not what its subjects have lost, but what they have retained. In one moment, a woman affectionately argues with her rancher husband about his ability to lasso wandering souls in the town’s moonlit graveyard. In another, a second couple explain their mission to fix up the local church, showing thanks to God for letting them survive. “What we went through isn’t so bad,” they say. It seems that, despite everything, one thing the people of San Marcos will always have is their humanity.

But holding onto that sense of self can be struggle, particularly in the face of constant displacement – a battle the festival’s focus on the ongoing refugee crisis often showed. In Dreaming of Denmark, director Michael Graversen follows the journey of Wasiullah. An Afghan native who has spent his formative years awaiting asylum in Denmark, when he turns 18, Wasi’s request is rejected, leaving him no choice but to accept deportation or travel illegally to Italy in hope of better fortune. With post-traumatic stress disorder clouding memories of his birthplace and neither European state making his resettlement easy, Wasi’s past ties him to multiple nations, yet he can safely be citizen of none. He is quite literally homeless.

dreaming-of-denmark-poster

With Wasi finding himself reliant upon the kindness of strangers, the film showcases the power and importance of human connections: ones that transcend borders and, at times, laws (indeed, Graversen admitted during a post-screening Q&A that his time spent travelling with Wasi often placed him in those grey areas of legality where being humane becomes a crime). Moments where Wasi and his Ethiopian-born friend Mussa simply act like teenagers on camera are beautiful to watch, yet with the latter having been granted right to stay in Denmark, there is always a sense of sadness in the air. As his stresses grow, the effects of Wasi’s PTSD worsen. Suddenly he forgets Denmark and even forgets Mussa. To see that bond severed is tragic: how can a young man feel accepted by society when he has not only no home, but also no memory of ever having had one?

A fact brought home by Wasi’s story as well as the short films presented by GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network) is that isolation and dehumanisation can often go hand-in-hand. In Frederik Subei’s Transit Zone there is a heart-breaking progression in which a young Sudanese man, Teefa, moves from an idealisation of England to hatred of its very being. Having dreamed of living there his whole life, his struggles to leave Calais leave him reflective and angry. “Why would I want to go somewhere that doesn’t want me?”, he announces in frustration. Meanwhile, in Anne-Claire Adet’s Bunkers we find ourselves plunged into Geneva’s subterranean refugee camps. With the structures originally built to withstand nuclear war, we hear from one resident who was a journalist in his native Sudan and now isn’t even deemed deserving of a home with a window. It’s difficult to retain a sense of belonging when your life is so hidden, it has literally been pushed underground.

The freedom to be who you are

That feeling of forced concealment was a major theme in this year’s films, with Micah Fink’s The Abominable Crime shining light on two stories from Jamaica’s LGBTQ community. With anti-gay discrimination woven so deeply into the nation’s fabric, the title is taken directly from Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law – the only one in which the crime is given moral judgment within the wording of the document itself. There is no “ghastly crime” of murder, no “fiendish crime” of rape, but there is the “abominable crime” of homosexual sex. With this as a starting point, it’s no wonder that Jamaican MPs such as Ernest Smith feel comfortable standing up in parliament to express concerns that “homosexuals have become too brazen”.

the-abominable-crime-poster

With 82% admitting that they are prejudiced against homosexuals, much of Jamaican society agrees with him, Fink’s film telling the stories of Simone Edwards, a lesbian single mother forced to flee the country following an attempt on her life, and Maurice Tomlinson, a lawyer and activist whose principals have spurred him to put his own safety aside in order to return. Also appearing at this year’s festival In Conversation, Tomlinson’s inspirational work has seen him spearhead the first ever legal challenge to this discriminatory law – but with some of Jamaica’s most influential religious bodies registering themselves as “interested parties” in the case, he’ll have his work cut out. After all, it’s difficult to argue against an opponent that believes their position is ‘essential to avoiding the potential extinction of the human race’.

As remarkable as such statements may seem to those of us on the outside, however, Tomlinson was keen to emphasise that an air of high-and-mightiness is never the most productive route. Using the acronym “ARE”, he encouraged Document attendees to consider that, if we want to help constructively, we must first:

  • “Acknowledge” that Britain and America are responsible for importing homophobia to Jamaica through religious and cultural colonisation;
  • Show “Respect”, treating both Jamaica’s local authorities and its activists with manners, not Holier-than-thou haughtiness, and accept that they can do the work themselves. Help is appreciated, a saviour complex is not.
  • And finally, “Engage” with the positives by realising that Jamaica is successfully moving toward such things as a reduction in homophobia and a decrease in HIV. Do not focus on what you might see as “backwards” – nobody likes to be patronised.

Indeed, the fight against belittlement took a central role in one of the weekend’s other standout black queer films, Marlon Riggs’ seminal Tongues Untied. Originally released in 1989, it plays as a statement of empowerment: a call to arms by a group of men no longer willing to accept the idea that to be both black and gay is somehow laughable. Through a mix of spoken testimonial, poetry and potent editing, Riggs’ film states that no black gay man should feel a need to prioritise just one of either their race or their sexuality, and that nor should they remain silent, bottling up their sadness as if agreeing that their two-fold marginalisation makes them the lowest of the low.

Tongues Untied

Closer to Tomlinson’s sentiments still is Tongues Untied’s central message that black gay men should not be reliant upon their non-black counterparts for salvation. Fetishised by the homosexual community, several contributors state that their first open sexual encounters came from white men with less obstacles to contend with. “To trust passion again: what a joy,” one speaker relates, “that it should come from a white boy with grey-green eyes: what a curse.” Bookended by its repeated refrain of “brother-to-brother”, Riggs’ film is structured as – and calls for – a progression from silence to acceptance, not just of oneself, but also the unique community these men form. As a result, an extended sequence of uninhibited group dancing toward the film’s close feels not just like an act of enjoyment, but also one of defiance. A statement that carries us toward what should be the most prevailing of all human freedoms…

the-other-side-poster

The freedom to be part of the world

The most admirable thing about this year’s Document programme was its diversity. On the festival’s final day, I watched Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a controversial American docu-fiction hybrid exploring the lives of both drug addicts and Second Amendment defending militia men, as well as Closing Gala film, Plaza de la Soledad, which provides voice to Mexico City’s ageing prostitutes. They were, of course, entirely different, yet what stands out about both is the complete absence of judgement. Despite dealing with topics as difficult as violence, abuse and childhood sexualisation, Plaza de la Soledad is at points joyous to watch, taking its tonal cues not from the directorial outsider, but from the strength and positivity of the women onscreen. In The Other Side, meanwhile, many viewers would likely experience revulsion as they witness a man inject drugs into the breast of a pregnant stripper, and bafflement as they listen to a gun toting conspiracy theorist offer legitimately insightful commentary on American interventionism. What Minervini deftly captures, however, is one universal truth – these people are human beings, just like us.

Tempestad Poster

Whatever our experience, all of us have the right to exist. Perhaps this is partly why Jury Prize Winner, Tempestad, left such an impression. Though not my personal favourite film of the festival, its story of two women caught in Mexico’s invisible war is an essential one. Imprisoned without reason or trial – Miriam Carbajal’s ordeal reminds us of the horrifying fact that many still live in a world where somebody can say the words: ‘we know you didn’t do anything, but somebody has to be punished’. There is no better illustration of humanity’s innate fear of freedom, a word still frequently seen as a synonym for disobedience, or even disorder – a threat to some perceived sense of harmony.

To borrow once more from the words of chairman of the board David Archibald: “Document stands not in that tradition, but absolutely swims against it.” Long may it continue.

Patrick Harley

Picks of the Programme

Film Journalist Patrick Harley on his picks from Document 2016’s programme.

With over 40 events taking place across three-and-bit days, the Document 2016 programme is as densely packed as it is varied. Document, of course, is a festival that reveals facts and, sadly, one fact is that it’s just not possible to see everything. So, if you’ve browsed the brochure, but circled all of it, or scanned the website, but found too many favourites to count, here are my personal festival picks. I can’t promise you a list with zero overlap though; some decisions are so difficult, even I haven’t made them yet!

When We Talk About KGB Fri 12:40 | CCA Theatre

Bringing together seven separate stories, Maxì Dejoie and Virginija Vareikytė’s film deals with unanswered questions, unresolved pain and life-changing decisions. From freedom fighter to KGB officer, exiled writer to former interrogator, this examination of a difficult and complex past is conducted from both sides – something mirrored by the contrast of archive and new footage; the stories told during the Soviet Era are markedly different from the stories told today.

A Brilliant Genocide Fri 13:00 | CCA Cinema

When news of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s 20-year reign of terror became a viral sensation in late 2012, the world seemed certain it had uncovered a modern monster, hiding in plain sight. What, then, does that make Yoweri Museveni, the dictator that has overseen the displacement and destruction of Uganda’s Acholi people, yet regularly rubs shoulders with both US presidents and UK royalty? Engrossing and important viewing in its own right, the film will also serve as a keynote for Document’s critical forum discussion, Looking for Truth: Programming Documentary Film Festivals, which will follow directly afterward.

The Hard Stop Fri 20:00 | CCA Cinema

With the need for America’s Black Lives Matter movement currently seeming to be demonstrated on a weekly (if not daily) basis, there is no better time to address Britain’s own problems with discrimination and law enforcement. In 2011, riots tore their way across London – The Hard Stop traces things back to the moment that sparked it all: the murder of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police and the atmosphere that allowed it to happen.

Tempestad Fri 20:30 | CCA Theatre

Though opening and closing galas Kings of Nowhere and Plaza de la Soledad might bookend festival, it would be remiss of me not to draw equal attention to their Desaparecidos strand stablemate. Reflecting on the nightmarish inescapability of a system that allows those in power to act with impunity, Tempestad gives voice to the haunting and human journey of two women struggling against the tides of corruption.

The Abominable Crime Sat 12:00 | CCA Theatre Kiki Sat 17:45 | CCA Theatre

One telling of Jamaica’s fierce anti-gay laws and the other of New York’s fiercest teen subculture, in some ways The Abominable Crime and Kiki may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both revolve around concerns of prejudice, identity and equality for LGBTQ people-of-colour. With black queer voices still vastly underrepresented, this year’s Document finds multiple opportunities to place them at the forefront. Indeed, I could have filled most of this list with the festival’s Marlon Riggs: Freaky Free retrospective, but some things go without saying: see everything you can.

Activist Maurice Tomlinson will also be attending the festival In Conversation following Saturday’s screening of The Abominable Crime.

Behemoth  Sat 20:00 | CCA Cinema

Literal fire and brimstone fuel this meditation on the destructive effects of the Chinese mining industry. Viewing both society and the environment as under threat, director Zhao Liang’s visual poem draws directly on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, seeing both the flames of hell and the never-ending toil of purgatory in his country’s grimly insistent march toward industrialisation.

Dreaming of Denmark Sun 16:15 | CCA Cinema

Two years ago, Document hosted a screening of Nowhere Home. A festival highlight, it shone heart-breaking light on the situation facing Norway’s underage asylum seekers, often kept in a state of perpetual waiting until they reach 18, before being sent home to a near certain death. Despite unfolding in a different part of Scandinavia, Dreaming of Denmark seems a natural companion piece: the story of what happens to those 18-year-olds that would rather disappear than die.

The Other Side Sun 18:10 | CCA Cinema

Something of an anomaly in the programme, the latest from Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini has been openly described by its creator as treading “the fine line between documentary and fiction”. A mix of observation and re-creation, Minervini employs a level of cinematic technique he deems necessary to tell a story that is testament to the lives of his subjects – drug addicts and militia members who inhabit the fringes of society. Surely an intriguing and provocative way to round-off a weekend where the conveyance of truths promises to be just as captivating as the truths themselves.

Patrick Harley


Patrick Harley is a freelance film journalist who has written for TVBomb, VirginMedia and the Directory of World Cinema: Scotland.

Peter Watkins on La Commune (Paris, 1871)

We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history – where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered “old fashioned.” Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm – to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia – which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.

In February 1998 I met with Paul Saadoun of 13 Production, a documentary film company based in Marseilles, and we agreed to produce a film on the Paris Commune. During sixteen months of intensive research and pre-production, with the exception of La Sept ARTE in France, all of the major global TV associations which were approached, refused to participate in funding for the film. “I do not like Peter Watkins’ films,” said the Commissioning Editor for the BBC in London. Early in 1999, one of the major art centres in Paris – the Musée d’Orsay – learned of our film, decided to organize an exhibition on the Paris Commune (consisting of contemporary photographs, and the works of Corbet, a member of the Commune), and allocated 300,000 francs to our film budget.

The filming of La Commune took place in July 1999, in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris. Working with Agathe Bluysen, one of our main researchers, and our casting crew – principally my elder son Patrick, and Virginie Guibbaud – I enlisted over 220 people from Paris and the provinces to take part in the film; approximately 60% of them had no prior acting experience. Among the cast were a number of people from Picardy and other regions of France, with specific dialects and accents (since many migrants from the provinces took an active role in the Commune). Through the conservative press in Versailles, and newspapers like Le Figaro, we also recruited people from the Paris area to join the project specifically because of their conservative politics (to act in roles opposed to the Commune).

La Commune

The set in the disused factory was designed and constructed by Patrice Le Turcq as a series of interconnecting rooms and spaces, designed to represent the working class 11th district of Paris, a centre of revolutionary activity during the Commune. The set was carefully designed to ‘hover’ between reality and theatricality, with careful and loving detail applied for example to the texture of the walls, but with the edges of the set always visible, and with the ‘exteriors’ – the Rue Popincourt and the central Place Voltaire – clearly seen for what they are – artificial elements within an interior space.

Cinematographer Odd Geir Saether filmed Edvard Munch in 1973. To implement my plan in La Commune for long, highly mobile uninterrupted takes, Saether and chief lighting technician Clarisse Gatti covered the ceiling of the factory with regularly spaced special neon lights, to give an even luminescence to the whole area, and to prevent the use of traditional lights on the floor obstructing the path of the hand-held camera. Jean-François Priester developed an equally ingenious method for the highly mobile and flexible recording of the sound, using two boom operators with radio-microphones and portable mixing system, which moved around the labyrinthine set.

Broadly speaking, our ‘process’ manifests in the extended way in which we involved the cast in the preparation for, and then during the filming, and in the way that some of the people continued the process after the filming was completed. Our ‘form’ is visible in the long sequences and in the extended length of the film which emerged during the editing. What is significant, and I believe very important in ‘La Commune’, is that the boundaries between ‘form’ and ‘process’ blur together, i.e., the form enables the process to take place – but without the process the form in itself is meaningless.

Before the filming we asked the cast to do their own research on this event in French history. The Paris Commune has always been severely marginalized by the French education system, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is a key event in the history of the European working class, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process. The French education system is definitely one aspect which is not functioning in this regard; its marginalization of the Paris Commune is only one part of a bigger problem – which includes an almost complete absence of critical media education.

la-commune-de-1871

The cast research on the Paris Commune in the months prior to the filming supplemented over a year of intensive investigation by our own research team (led by Agathe Bluysen and Marie-José Godin, with Laurent Colantonio, Stéphanie Lataste and Laure Cochener, and working with such eminent historians as Alain Dalotel, Michel Cordillot, Marcel Cerf, Robert Tombs and Jacques Rougerie). Our work necessitated a very broad and at the same time detailed sweep through dozens of different aspects of the Paris Commune and of this historical period in France – ranging from the personalities of the Commune and the Versaillais government, debates in the Hôtel de Ville and in the National Assembly, the role of women and of the Catholic Church and its education system, the problems of sewerage, drinking water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc. etc.

At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; the soldiers of the National Guard; the officers and men of the Versaillais forces; the elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect on the links between the events of the Commune and society today. In this way, we were asking the cast to contribute directly to the manner of telling their own history – as opposed to the usual hierarchical and simplistic process of TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.

During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing – between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen – what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed. Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed – or emerged spontaneously – within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune. Most of the cast really liked this method of filming, for they found that it offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the preplanned and prescripted manner of making most films. This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society – which they had to confront on the spot.

La Commune

There are also a number of scenes in the film in which the FORM was entirely different again: when the camera is static (except for a few gentle moves left or right), i.e., when it covers extensive discussions among various groupings of Communards – during which time the cast speak with each other (with no intervention by myself or the TV Communale) – recorded non-stop, sometimes for up to 30 minutes (the only pause being to change the magazine in the camera). These scenes occur for example when the women of the UDF speak in the cafe, first about organizing as if in 1871, and then about conditions for women today, and when the National Guard heatedly discuss the pros and cons of centralizing decision-making during a revolution.

In both the ‘static’ discussion scenes and in the mobile sequences, people are rarely, if ever, framed in close-up as individuals – usually there are at least two or three people in the frame at the same time. This, and the manner in which people speak with each other, allows for a group dynamic which is very rare in the media today.

Our society, in this new millennium, will desperately need filmmakers, TV producers, and media-workers in general who are willing to resist, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the nightmarish hierarchy and centralization of media power. And to take up the anti-globalization struggle. It should be clear now that the world is in an intolerably dangerous situation, with a hopelessly inefficient, totally exploitative, morally corrupt free-market ideology sweeping aside everything before it – even, apparently, the education system. The mass audiovisual media are not only supporting, they are driving this catastrophe – and clearly need to be challenged by many people both within and outside the profession.

But even more, we need an active and critically conscious public, who will forcefully debate, and finally resist media corruption. Who will seek alternative forms of creative, more open and collective processes to replace the synthetic and divisive experience of the existing audiovisual media. For this to happen, we also need critical (media) teachers, who will equally resist and expose what is happening within the education systems which are allying themselves with the onslaught of consumerism.

Peter Watkins


The full, 5hr 45m cut of La Commune (Paris, 1871) screens during Document 2016 at 12pm on Friday 21 October in the Andrew Stewart Cinema at University of Glasgow. The event is free but ticketed.

This article is excerpted, with permission, from a series of Watkins’ writings on La Commune, which can be found here.