Uncertain (2015) Dirs. Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

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World premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 20, 2015

3-1.5 stars

Alexandra Sage

Uncertain is set in a strange limbo-land town of the same name on the border of Texas, bang up against Louisiana. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated town with breathtakingly beautiful overhung, misty waterways – wetlands of international significance.

These waterways, home to a myriad of wildlife are fighting a terrible battle with the encroaching weed Salvinia, initially introduced to provide greenery for fish tanks. And now, having upset the natural balance, it’s causing an eco-disaster. Covering the water’s surface in an undulating green carpet, light can’t penetrate and fish can’t thrive. Spray it away with weed killer and it’s back just as strong a month later, doubling its leaf number in 2-3 days.

Now come our main characters, seemingly stuck in Uncertain, amongst 94 inhabitants, entwined with the land and the water. All are waging wars, against past crimes, remorse, ill health and addiction. As Wayne, hog hunter, and convicted felon, says: “I was living asleep. People showed me value and love and I worked with it… It took me years to sleep through the night.”

Zach represents Uncertain’s youth, and tells himself not to dream or his reality will become more unbearable. He clearly needs to escape to thrive and he shows the audience how difficult this is to execute.

Henry, who was convicted for murder without malice, effectively self-defense, struggles after the death of his wife of 47 years. He, like the others, carries unique surprises. And all exemplify the tragedy of throwing your life into a downward spiral as a result of a grave error of judgment.

The film is study of remorse and rehabilitation. Nobody, it seems, is harder on these characters than themselves.

Filmmakers Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol could have sensationalised these stories but they leave them to quietly unravel. The filmmakers are empathetic, and characters express themselves without judgment. Uncertain is a film that suggests trust between the filmmakers and subjects. This view is supported by the relatively small, multi-tasking crew.

The storytelling interweaves nature’s battle with the struggles of its main characters. This poses an editing challenge that is met by some strong connections between the various strands. The editing reaches great heights but Uncertain still at times feels fragmented; the connections between the encroaching weed and the town’s inhabitants sometimes not quite secure. There are some deeper themes that seem just out of reach, and some conclusions not quite reached.

Sandilands and McNicol were awarded the Tribeca Best New Documentary Director award. In my book, this is because Uncertain seeks out stories, lets them breathe, and offers an intuitive, restrained approach to filmmaking. It doesn’t pander to commercialism but rather offers a deeper storytelling sensibility.

Let’s hope the filmmakers maintain this grassroots storytelling, free of agenda. Their next film will be something to look out for.

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Very Semi-Serious (2015) Dir. Leah Wolchock

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World premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 19, 2015

3-1.5 stars

Alexandra Sage

Very Semi-Serious is a highly entertaining, insider’s look at The New Yorker cartoon commissioning process, the cartoonists, and the cartoons. Alongside this is a semi-profile of current Cartoon Editor, Bob Mankoff, and a sprinkling of history.

Hundreds of cartoons are submitted to the magazine every week, from the old guard of artists to an emerging group that Mankoff is committed to support, including a growing number of women.

The cartoonists are shown to be hugely original thinkers, and comic visionaries, who Mankoff says, look at the world as alien but also see it as theirs. In the mind of a cartoonist, cartoons and real life become superimposed. Mankoff is looking for: “A grain of truth. We don’t want the real truth.”

Representation of these imaginative, insightful, clever and hilarious drawings on screen is done to perfection; the camera works in harmony with the words and images to deliver punch lines at exactly the right moment.

These wonderful visual jokes and observations form a guide to US and New York culture since The New Yorker launch in 1925. They make it look easy but it’s a sophisticated talent. Readers see their world drawn with humour, and also use the cartoons to navigate their way through the magazine. Dogs, desert islands, angst, neuroses, married life, organic food and school choices are amongst the infinite topics. The magazine reflects and respects the public mood. In the first issue after the fall of the twin towers, there was only one cartoon, a woman seated in deep thought or prayer, with her violin set out at her feet and her cat, head buried.

The creators are of course humourists, and give quirky, funny and insightful interviews. Roz Chast, Mort Gerberg, Farley Katz, Emily Flake, George Booth and Ed Steed to name a few. They are funny, interesting and odd on screen. Observational footage of meetings and decision making reveal the nurturing but sometimes bluntly critical relationship between Mankoff and his cartoonists. But they all understand each other. Mankoff is himself a prolific cartoonist with thousands of cartoons published in the The New Yorker to date.

Cartoons are ever-present, and where there are cartoons to view and critique, laughter is never far away. Along with his regular meetings with the cartoonists, Mankoff presents the weekly selection to David Remnick, Editor in Chief, who laughs out loud as every suggestion is put in front of him. This of course, is the intention.

This is a well-resourced first feature-length film made by a filmmaker relatively early on in her directing career. Production values are high, the crew list long. Leah Wolchock’s core production crew are all women, which is a wonderful feat. And Wolchock has made a good job. But it’s worth reflecting on the power balance between Wolchock and the revered institution that she is documenting. There is evidently trust between Wolchock and Mankoff, evidenced in the sensitivity of some subject matter. But it would be interesting to know if she had final editorial control, and how the dynamic between filmmaker and subject influenced the finished content.

A comparable film is The 50 Year Argument, directed by Martin Scorsese. These two films would make the basis of a marvellous trilogy about New York cultural life.

Very Semi-Serious brings the spirit of the magazine and the artists to life, and for most people with any attachment to New York, these cartoons have touched us at some point. As Ed Steed, a new talent, says: “I feel like The New Yorker is inside of me.”

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In Transit (2015) Dirs. Albert Maysles, Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu

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World premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 18, 2015

3-1.5 stars
Alexandra Sage

The cinematography is triumphant in Albert Maysles’s final film, In Transit, premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s subjects are the passengers on the three-day journey between Chicago and Seattle on the Empire Builder line. And the passing landscapes, the patterns, light and shade, and telling details that form the basis of subtext and great cinematography.

The characters are filmed inside the train, often with their gaze turned outwards or upwards towards the land or sky. It is a setting and circumstance that encourages contemplation, and brief, but sometimes intense, encounters. The long journey time allows a bond to form between filmmaker and passenger, tangible in the interviews that mix with Maysles’s tradition of observation.

One young woman reflects that her life is full of endless possibilities; and the many passengers and their circumstances provide similar for the filmmaker. A series of vignettes introduce us to journeying oil workers, a mother seeing her daughter off to college, a single mother travelling to build family bridges, and a pregnant woman overdue by three days leaving an abusive partner to go home to her family and best friend.

Travelling from intense heat, to several feet of snow, the train traverses huge swathes of the US, through the Big Sky country of Montana and the plains of Dakota, following the route of pioneers. The storyline moves through several day to night transitions. The soundtrack makes a wonderful melody of wheels on tracks, mournful whistles, the murmur of conversations, and songs.

Maysles, who saw a fine cut a week before his death in March this year, passionately believed in the power of human beings to connect and communicate. He aimed to capture this with In Transit, a germ of an idea for many years, but executed in the last year and a half of his life. He, and his several collaborators, have evoked the dual intimacy, and intransience, of the train. And the viewer contemplates the human condition alongside the passengers.

It is a mosaic film, and offers a lasting impression of this microcosm. The treatment of the characters mimics the train journey experience. The editing doesn’t hang onto any one character and at times ironically, this reduces the viewer’s ability to connect. The encounters are constantly shifting. Out of the journey, themes rise and fade, along the lines of parenthood, reconciliation and risk taking.

For the filmmakers, the train is a complicated and dynamic space. Passengers come and go, and around one hundred were edited down to a handful. Technically it’s a demanding setting, with much unwanted noise and backlighting.

The film finds a rich metaphor in the train journey, and the passengers, in transit. As one character puts it: “What waits for me is just a huge mystery”. And we can all relate to that.

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School of Babel (2014) Dir. Julia Bertuccelli

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Introduction to a screening of School of Babel, Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton, March 24, 2015

Alexandra Sage

School of Babel, released last year, follows the tradition of several documentary movements. It tips its hat to ethnographic documentary. It pays homage to Nicolas Philibert, the observational approach, and his seminal film Etre et Avoir. And it involves reflexivity in the wake of Cinema Verité.

Director Julia Bertuccelli trained as a documentary filmmaker at the Atelier Varan in Paris and has worked as an Assistant Director for amongst others Rithy Pahn, documentary director of The Missing Picture, which also deals with the subject of displacement, albeit from a more singular perspective.

Her two recent drama feature films, Since Otar Left and The Tree, demonstrate her fictional storytelling capabilities. And the former spins fiction using a backdrop of economic immigration to France that is straight out of non-fiction. Previous documentaries include Bienvenue au Grand Magasin, a very engaging reportage of everyday life at the Galeries Lafayette.

Bertuccelli’s affectionate, empathetic and unassuming attitude to various areas of French, and in this case, Parisian society, is a thread running through her work. And what a shifting and eclectic society it has become…. Bertuccelli’s classroom introduces heroes and heroines from China, Serbia, Ukraine, Guinea and Morocco to name but a few. The effects of economic austerity within the EU prompt the arrival of characters from Ireland and England.

Through them, we are drawn into themes around language and identity, the benefits of welcoming and tolerating diversity, and the gruelling determination required to adapt to a new society. And we are enlightened about the lives of children and young adults who are put under the care of distant relatives, who live nine together in a one-bedroom flat and who are persecuted because of their religions.

The film’s viewpoint is multiple and the pace constantly shifts as the classmates react to their circumstances and each other. The teacher, Brigitte Cervoni, is a key figure. We attune to her voice and feel her personality but rarely see her. She is encouraging and quietly in control and has a disproportionate offscreen power.

Perhaps her strong screen presence is because she is the one common denominator between these multifarious characters. She treats and teaches them with an equal equanimity. We only see her in the classroom but in this environment she becomes a personification of the national values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, and is the singular French subject responding to the class pluralism. She is our guide, and her serenity is a foil to clearly reflect these turbulent pupils.

Of course, the class is a microcosm, and the response outside the classroom in wider French society often does not mirror that of the teacher.

During his quest for re-election in 2012, presumably when this film was at an embryonic stage, the then President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “We have too many foreigners in France”. He pledged to almost halve the future intake of immigrants. A survey published by Le Monde carried out by Ipsos found that 70% of the population believed there were too many foreigners living in the country. Perhaps encouraged by the fact that nearly half those surveyed also believed that unemployment levels could only be cut by reducing immigration.

62% of the French according to the pole, no longer felt at home in France. And on the political right, Jean-Francois Cope of the opposition party UPM, said in 2013, that he wanted to end the right of immigrant children born on French soil to claim citizenship.

Our subjects are segregated from the rest of the school by language. They remain in a sub-group of French immigrants, set apart from the general student population, visually confined to their classroom setting. The camera rarely goes into or beyond the courtyard. The rest of society remains outside and so do society’s views.

What happens outside the classroom is referenced in a series of meetings between the teacher, the children and their families or guardians. These meetings are an important storytelling mechanism for bringing in the surrounding context on a local and global scale. And it can feel like opening a door to cold drafts of unpleasant realisations, as well as exposing moments of pride and familial closeness in adversity.

Staying inside the classroom allows the filmmaker to focus down to a purer form of observation, unsullied by another level of interactions. And this in turn increases the intensity. These children, some of whom have fled volatile situations, demonstrate a huge range of reactions and responses in line with their disparate stories. Moods and atmospheres can change quickly and the narrative has a bumpy ride following the storyline of the children working towards inclusion into the main school.

I referred to reflexivity before and would like to draw parallels with Chronicles of a Summer, directed by Jean Rouch in 1961, who used a group of young Parisians as his subjects. As Philip French wrote in The Guardian: “They discuss their own lives as students, factory workers, young marrieds, immigrants, and they argue about race, class and the current wars in Algeria and the Congo. …. In perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence, one of the contributors speaks of her experiences as a death camp survivor.” First person accounts of these subjects were unusual at the time, even by adults.

Central to Chronicles of a Summer is the belief that provocation results in greater truth. At the core of this is the trust established between the director and the participants. Without trust such revelations aren’t forthcoming. School of Babel has similarities. The teacher works to build trust with the pupils, who in turn are striving to trust each other, particularly after harsh experiences have made them wary. The teacher sets an example to the children by clearly placing her trust in the filmmaker. And so the lines of trust are established that lead to the priceless intimacy and spontaneous behaviour that opens the way for the film’s revelatory moments.

Bertuccelli carries on this tradition but for the most part these type of reflective discussions are part of the natural life of the classroom and not obviously staged by the filmmaker.

The students reflect on their circumstances, their emotions and their aspirations as well as responding to each other on a visceral level. Their reflections extend to the making of a film within a film, and one assumes that this is not only a revealing mechanism but also an opportunity taken by the filmmaker to transmit some storytelling power to the children themselves.

As the biblical story goes, the Tower of Babel was built following the great flood, by a united humanity, to reach into the heavens. In an attempt to curtail this, or simply to provide an explanation for our variety of languages, God was said to scatter the people over the earth, generating a “confusion of tongues”. And the people divided into linguistic groups that were no longer able to communicate with each other.

In the film, the impact of loss of language is an analogy for loss of status and power. It physically removes the children from the wider school, becomes a justification for withdrawal in some cases, and poses endless frustrations, and problems at an almost physical level in terms of speech and writing.

However the need and desire to communicate generally transcends, and the film is a joyous testimony to the powers of imperfect, animated, expressive language to make even the most nuanced point.

 

School of Babel unpicks the idea of multiplicity and communication and shows that, in this classroom at least, the lines of communication are open. And that optimism and a delight in human diversity provide a springboard for growth, self-improvement, learning and friendship. The world outside the confines of this classroom should take note.

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