I heard on Radio 4 once that trade-platers and train drivers are susceptible to depression because their tunnelled routes mean frequenting in and out of darkness on a regular basis. That flickering light switch occurs with film festivals, although, for me, the 57th London Film Festival was a hugely enjoyable experience and a lot more fun than steering a vehicle.
For evidence, look no further than known miserablist Morrissey. His autobiography, also named Autobiography, hit shops three days before the festival ended. So, when waiting for screenings to start, I was engrossed by his whiny prose, with page 19 having this quotation about his childhood: “Gasps of colour can only be found at the Odeon… where the cinema screen gives you the hope of other people’s happiness.”
But is that ever the case with documentaries? It’s also harder to ignore the growing trend for high-profile films based on historic events. The festival’s six most high profile screenings included four such examples: Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena and 12 Years a Slave. In response, documentary makers face a new hurdle, in addition to Twitter’s omniscient reporting, as more probing and deft presentation is necessary than before; a story is not enough when Wikipedia and a Hollywood adaptation are available.
That’s one area where Aatsinki: the Story of Arctic Cowboys falters. Jessica Oreck’s footage of snowy reindeer has potential as a screensaver, although further insight is hidden in the white hills. Long takes are presented with minimal interruptions, aiming to present Finnish reindeer herders behaving naturally, including gruesome shots of animals chopped up for meat. There’s little sense as to which scenes are worthy of a final cut, considering the hours upon hours that were filmed. In addition, with that editorial eye, it could easily be cut down like a tree, despite a blink-and-you-miss-it length of 85 minutes.
A similar approach is applied to At Berkeley, except extended to a remarkable 244 minutes. With a geographical shift, the snowy reindeer are now Berkeley students – the extended takes follow their reactions to public funding cuts and subsequent protests.
Admittedly, I was motivated to watch At Berkeley so that I could bring it up in conversation: “Hey, I watched a four-hour documentary on the education system. By the way, you have toothpaste on your shirt.” I’d have been more reluctant had it not been the universal praise the film received at other festivals, particularly in Toronto.
At Berkeley is undeniably tackling a hefty topic with enormous insight, mainly through leaving the cameras rolling while the students verbally dish it out. However, I expect any 244-minute documentary to possess that much depth. I also suspect the numerous five-star reviews are a case of reviewers supporting the cause over the actual filmmaking itself.
The documentary, to its credit, feels more like three hours than four. It makes an extensive case for the importance of education by showcasing the university’s deep thinkers, scientific advancements, and snapshots of choir practice. Long, barely edited seminars reveal an ideology within the students who’d rather take a loan for lectures than buying a car. However, underneath lies an inability to subsidise this lifestyle, and cracks emerge whenever race relations are brought up. One black student suggests the new uproar is because the education system is finally hitting a new type of white middle-class group, that isn’t a minority and wasn’t there ten years ago on the picket fence. Another choice interview finds Asian students complaining that in a liberal enviornment they’re pre-judged for being “smart” and expected to raise their hands to speak in class.
Ultimately, I paid more attention to how At Berkeley correlates with its reviews, rather than its liberal arguments and logical counterarguments. I support the role of higher education in society, and can’t imagine anyone who thinks otherwise sitting through more than the first two hours. In the third hour, someone comments that politicians don’t want to be remembered as the person responsible for the demise of higher education; to an extent, I imagine reviewers feel the same way.
Staying on the topic, the festival offered some free screenings for what it called “education audiences”. I caught two of these, which I found mostly forgettable – although I will try my best now. Electro Shaabi was the lower profile film with minimal production values. Hind Meddeb collates footage of Cairo’s Electro Shaabi movement and focuses on a few prominent rappers. The music genre might be soulful to the documentary’s subjects, but all I heard was lousy poetry shouted over keyboard presets. If Electro Shaabi has any edge, it’s in the alleged free speech provided by the tunes. Not quite. The rappers are all male, spitting mostly misogynistic lyrics that question why girls won’t talk to them and should be punished.
The other educational film is Teenage, an ambitious documentary by Matt Wolf which portrays teenagers as a concept dreamt up by America as a result of World War II. Wolf shuffles archive images with specially created sequences, while narrators such as Ben Whishaw provide abstract voiceovers and fake letters. Neat idea, but muddled in execution; too many directs arguments are tangled up, with the modern footage proving quite an inauthentic headscratcher.
Teenage does boast a superb soundtrack by Bradford Cox (lead-singer of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound; renowned hater of Morrissey) which, on just audio terms, is more sonically invigorating than the simpler sounds of Saint Etienne in How We Used to Live. However, the French outfit’s soundtrack jigsaws into Paul Kelly’s film with nostalgic precision. In the third of a trilogy, archive footage of the 1950s turns London into an innocent stranger before a wave of ugly modernisation. I don’t have much to add on the collaboration that wasn’t already said in Reeling the Real’s excellent piece by Daniel Barrow, other than I sent him a Facebook message about it afterwards and he didn’t reply – when his article mentions London’s “historical betrayal” and “the pain of the past’s loss”, it’s possible Morrissey’s not the only one these days publishing an autobiography.
How We Used to Live could be a subtitle for Weekend of a Champion, an under-seen 1972 documentary recently restored with a new 15-minute appendix. Roman Polanski puts down the camera to play the role of an investigative journalist who shadows Jackie Stewart on the eve of a grand prix race in Monaco. The low-key approach is mirrored by Formula One’s then lackadaisical approach to safety: no barriers separate the crowd from the race track. Some POV shots demonstrate just how frightening it is from Stewart’s perspective; Morrissey’s lyrics for “There is a Light than Never Goes Out” spring to mind.
Weekend of a Champion was ignored upon release, but grows an extra edge through taking place before Polanski’s off-screen history. He bumbles around Stewart with untroubled innocence, and even picks up driving tips through a piece of butter pushed around a table. The newly shot footage is remarkable in that Stewart and Polanski are still friends, who watch the film in the same hotel that the original interviews took place. Looking back, Stewart reveals much of his bravado was a fake veil to cover up his educational insecurity. He also laments the friends who died during intermittent years, before more sufficient security measures were introduced. The coda is enlightening enough that I wanted to see the film again from this new perspective – but a wider release is yet to be announced.
A higher profile restoration was The Epic of Everest, which deals with past dangers of a different sport. Originally released in 1922, there are two impressive feats: the participants climbing the mountain, and the technical proficiency in filming the event. A meditative soundtrack fills the silences, not that orchestral percussion is needed for dramatic frisson. On a big screen, the lush visuals pinpoint the doomed explorers as small dots in the vast, steep snow. It’s beautiful, in a sense that it’s always perversely beautiful watching human nature’s existential need to set up arbitrary goals to make life seem temporarily meaningful.
Less ambitious is The Do Gooders, a scarily accurate parody of a Westerner attempting an investigative documentary without any prior knowledge or passion. The director, Chloe Ruthven, nails the satire in every aspect, right down to the missing punctuation in the title. Ruthven flies to Palestine with a camera to tackle the subject matter of Western aid. Her tactic is to film everything, except when the equipment malfunctions during key moments. Chris Morris would be proud.
Ruthven tries to speak to the locals, but is mostly told to piss off. After three weeks (where does the time go?), her biggest breakthrough comes through a Google search on a borrowed computer, and she cries packing her suitcase – via the camera she set up to film herself crying. The only setback is that it’s not a parody and embarrassingly real.
Unsurprisingly, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney is far more assured with The Armstrong Lie, a compelling breakdown of the Lance Armstrong affair. Gibney originally completed a film about Armstrong’s comeback before the drugs revelation broke out, making the original 2009 version obsolete. It’s hard to go further into the film without just listing the case’s fascinating twists and betrayals, which seem to all be included. There also isn’t much that casual viewers won’t already be aware of, given Armstrong’s vast newspaper coverage. However, Gibney’s vigorous examination is rapid, humorous and delves far deeper into Armstrong’s psychology than the RSS feeds I stumbled upon. On a large BFI screen, Armstrong’s repeated denials play out from old footage in such a tragic fashion, that cycling on a mountaintop dissolves into a rather melancholic passion.
For Armstrong, it’s not about doping, but about power, as the film makes out at a key moment. Some of the megalomaniacs in cycling are more absurd than a Christopher Guest mockumentary, that’s for sure. Afterwards, I tracked down Gibney with an interview request, and asked him if there was a “Timothy Treadwell gets eaten by a bear” moment that closes the Armstrong chapter. In other words, what was the bear that ate Lance Armstrong? The end of the film, he replied.
The Armstrong Lie was nominated for the festival’s best documentary award, but lost out to My Fathers, My Mother and Me. I’m a bit mixed. The film boasts frightening archive footage of Friedrichshof, a 1970s cult in which children were born into one big family without knowing their biological parents. Unfortunately, the commune has far darker aspects, ranging from paedophilia to bizarre forced musical performances that retrospectively echo The X-Factor. The director was one of the children and, although he wasn’t sexually abused, is still psychologically damaged from the unnatural upbringing. However, his personal retread of events – visiting past members, forcing his mother to watch video footage – doesn’t ring true. The present tense interviews aren’t that revealing, in that everyone unconvincingly pretends the camera isn’t there.
To end this piece, which is now as long as Morrissey’s autobiography, I’ll finish with Mistaken for Strangers. This charming documentary may ostensibly be about The National, but it’s really about sibling rivalries. I find the band’s popularity difficult to fathom, as they seem to be a rock outfit for listeners afraid to admit they like Bruce Springsteen. Tom Berninger, the lead singer’s brother, seems to agree. Tom directs the film without displaying any enjoyment of the band’s output, other than having something fun to do during his role as a roadie. He gets kicked off tour for incompetence, but there’s a deeper sadness in being stuck in a famous sibling’s shadow – especially when that shadow is belting out bland stadium rock every night. Worth seeing for the moment when Tom messes up one of his few duties by losing the guest list and has to explain who’s been left standing outside for 45 minutes: Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost.
Nick Chen is a screenwriter and journalist who can be found at @halfacanyon.