Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category


Director: Liang Zhao

Country: China / France

Runtime: 95 mins

The Behemoth in the title of Liang Zhao’s extraordinary documentary is a huge monster that must be fed from the mountains of China, in this particular case the supposedly autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. However, the area that Zhao concerns himself with, once covered in vegetation, now looks like a vast barren alien landscape. Where once there were grass-covered hills there is now a seemingly endless quarry, populated by coal miners, mechanical diggers and trucks. As we quickly realise, the real Behemoth is our apparently insatiable desire for fossil fuel.


There is almost no explanatory dialogue to guide the viewer, except for some occasional snatches of narrative based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The mining area is, for example, described as “a purgatory of a place”. The narrative typically accompanies scenes involving two Dante-type figures, one a naked figure usually shown curled up in a fetal position, and the other a “guide” who wanders around with a mirror upon his back. In essence, the film is a poetic meditation on the brutal reality underlying China’s economic transformation, using the power of the cinematic image to highlight the destruction of the environment and the harm caused to the miners.

Having first established the scale of the mining operations, Zhao takes us below ground where we watch dirt-caked men drilling into the rocks above them. The camera follows another miner as he walks through a tunnel, only to be almost rocked off his feet by the reverberations of a controlled explosion somewhere else. On the surface, we see men and women, simple pieces of cloth over their faces, shovelling dirt and coal into trucks or sifting through the earth with their gloved hands. On the outskirts of the quarry, trucks continually deposit their contents onto the edge of farmland, gradually encroaching onto the fertile areas where men and women continue to herd goats and sheep, even as the wind carries coal dust across them.


From the scenes of the mining operation, Zhao then takes us to one of the film’s most arresting images: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of coal-filled trucks lined up nose-to-tail as they snake their way down a long road to a power station. After this, we are inside a steelworks watching sweltering men in overalls bathed in the orange glow from furnaces and molten metal.

In the penultimate segment of the film, we are shown the impact of the coal mining operations upon the workers, many of whom are poor migrant workers from other parts of China. There are no interviews, but rather a series of extreme close-ups of their dirt-encrusted faces, followed by shots of people scrubbing themselves clean and picking the callouses from their hands. Most devastatingly, we are shown the reality for tens of thousands of Chinese workers: people fighting for breath in hospital beds, with oxygen tubes inserted into their noses. Pneumoconiosis is the main occupational disease in China, and exposure to coal dust through mining operations is the primary cause. Its prevalence far exceeds that of developed nations, due to lack of effective safety measures.

What paradise is being built upon the lives of these Chinese mineworkers? The answer is hundreds of “ghost cities” – brand new urban areas that the state intends to move rural populations into, but which currently lie empty, either because people moved in but left or did not want to go there in the first place.


Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5



Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.


Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival


Director: Asif Kapadia

Country: UK / USA

Runtime: 128 mins

A tale of a tragic downfall by the director of Senna

There are many popular musicians who have followed a drink- and drug-fuelled pathway to an early death but few, if any, who have done it as publicly as Amy Winehouse. In the same way that he did with his earlier film, Senna, director Asif Kapadia has woven a highly affecting picture from contemporary footage taken from a variety of sources, including home movies, news items, fans’ mobile devices and camcorders, and an ever-present video camera in recording studios, cars and hotel rooms. There is no commentary but the visuals are regularly overlaid by the voices of participants in Amy’s story.

At the time of her death there was much criticism of the paparazzi’s intrusive behaviour but Kapadia’s documentary makes clear that the causes of the star’s death were multiple and complex, and that the seeds of her destruction were sown much earlier. Winehouse appears to have been a wilful force of nature, even as a child. She describes herself as uncontrollable once her father had left home. As a teenager she was bulimic.

Winehouse cheerfully states that her real ambition is to be singing jazz in clubs. Fame, she says early on, is something she wouldn’t be able to cope with but the success of her first album and the touring that follows means fame is unavoidable. From this point on Winehouse’s life is complicated by a dangerous cocktail of negative influences, including an obsessive relationship with Blake Fielder, heavy drinking and drug-taking, and the reappearance of her father who becomes involved in her professional life in a not wholly helpful fashion.

What I found particularly disturbing is the way that, as both Fielder and Winehouse begin to fall apart in front of the world’s cameras, they are treated as a source of laughs by various popular television comedians (the guilty parties include Graham Norton and Jay Leno; by contrast, former drug addict-turned comedian Russell Brand tried to get Winehouse to rehab).

As someone who was only passingly familiar with the music of Amy Winehouse this documentary made clear what a huge talent and charismatic star she was. None other than Tony Bennett hails her as one of the all-time great jazz singers. Amy is a gripping tale of a brilliant life cut tragically short.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Country: France / USA / UK

Runtime: 180 mins

In Skyfall, James Bond sits at the National Gallery and studies Turner’s famous masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. Shortly afterwards he is joined by Q, who in this incarnation is a computer whizz. Even before any dialogue occurs between the two, the question raised by the scenario is clear: is Bond even relevant in the contemporary world of hacking and electronic eavesdropping? Or, like HMS Temeraire, is he only fit for the scrapyard?

As it happens, one of the paintings that features in Frederick Wiseman’s masterly documentary, National Gallery, is in fact a spy story. One of the gallery’s guides explains to her audience that Rubens’ picture Samson and Delilah depicts a crucial ambiguity in the countenance of Delilah as she holds a sleeping post-coital Samson. Delilah, a kind of female Bond in the Bible, has been paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson in order to discover the source of his strength. As Samson sleeps, a servant prepares to cut off his hair, whilst a group of Philistines wait at the door in preparation to arrest the weakened man. But Delilah herself, in her seduction of Samson, has developed feelings for him. This is reflected in the tender look on her face as she gazes down on him. One hand gently caresses his face, but her other hand – reflecting the duality of the situation – is more rigidly posed.

This is just one of many paintings whose inner meanings are revealed to us by knowledgeable gallery staff, one of whom explains to a group of children that all paintings tell a story. Some paintings are more mysterious than others in terms of their interpretations. One notable example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with its anamorphous skull (although this object itself we are told, unlike many devices used in paintings, only ever means one thing – death).

At three hours in length, National Gallery, requires the kind of patience with which one must explore a gallery or museum. But the film really is quite a revelation, displaying the working life of the gallery’s staff in fascinating detail. Most of the scenes fall into one of three categories: educational activities of one sort or another, restoration work being applied to damaged artworks, and business meetings of senior staff. In terms of education, this goes beyond merely guiding visitors around key works. We also see a class of visually-impaired people exploring touch-versions of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, groups of people attending life-drawing classes, and students attending lectures.

Elsewhere, restorers – often wearing special magnifying goggles – chip flecks off of damaged paintings and place them on slides to be inspected under microscopes. They dab away at tiny portions of artworks, adding either paint or varnish – and there is some detailed explanation of the effects of different types of paints and varnishes (apparently, different varnishes can affect colour differently, just like filters on a camera lens). We are told that some past restorations haven’t always been entirely helpful, but that the modern principle is that any additions by restorers must be removable. In one magnificent instance an X-ray of a painting reveals a second picture beneath the first.

Behind the scenes we get a few snapshots of the difficult decisions that need to be made, balancing the artistic goals of the gallery with the harsh economic realities that must be faced. At one point senior staff discuss whether they should allow Sport Relief to project an image onto the front of the gallery. Many such requests are received but are turned down, as the gallery -itself a charitable institution – attempts to maintain its distinctive character rather than be used as an advertising billboard for every worthy cause. However, in this instance it seems that Westminster Council has arranged for the square just outside the gallery to be used as a finishing point for a marathon (without consulting the gallery). Thus, the gallery staff debate whether they should just accept this as a fait accompli and go along with the projection idea as a way of advertising themselves. On the other hand, they are successful enough that they don’t really need to advertise themselves, the marathon itself will inevitably stop visitors coming into the gallery, and agreeing to the projection might set a precedent.

Another discussion revolves around money, as a budget for the coming year has to be set in the context of a substantially reduced grant contribution. At this point reality comes crashing in. Since National Gallery was completed, plans have been announced to privatise hundreds of staff – with the obvious implications for their terms and conditions – and the Director Nicholas Penny, and several other managers, have announced their resignations. The Director of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery has also announced his resignation. Of course, even the necessity for commercial sponsorship of exhibitions brings with it the risk of adverse publicity, and at one point we watch as Greenpeace activists scale the front of the gallery and release a banner protesting against sponsorship from Shell because of their role in oil exploration in the Arctic.

As if to emphasize the sense of foreboding aroused by the budget discussions, Wiseman takes us next to a discussion of Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, whereby a guide explains how the artist was concerned with the broader theme of empires rising and falling, which obviously included the British Empire. Decline in this picture is symbolised by a vivid setting sun. Sunset evokes change in the next painting considered, which is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

But rather than leave us on a negative note, the final third of National Gallery takes us through a range of other pictures, classes, and restoration activities without any obvious political connotations. Throughout the film the camera also roams across the visitors themselves: people lost in contemplation, sleeping, sketching, young men romantically nuzzling the cheeks of their girlfriends, and classes of schoolchildren listening attentively to the ever-knowledgeable guides. On the evidence presented here, the senior staff at the National Gallery have an enviable gender balance that is not matched in many organisations, although they are overwhelmingly white (I don’t think I saw any non-white faces). Similarly, the visitors themselves – like the subjects of nearly all the Gallery’s paintings – appeared to be mostly white, with the notable exception of some of the school classes who were visiting. One group of schoolchildren is actually told by a guide that the collection they are viewing was financed largely by the results of slavery, the one point in the film where any issue of ethnic diversity is mentioned.

There is no voiceover narration to National Gallery and none of the staff who appear are actually named. This is an approach that works well, as all the speaking that is needed is done by the people onscreen. Frederick Wiseman has put together a quite extraordinary documentary. I felt it was three hours well spent.

Rating: 5/5

Members of AP Films / Century 21 Productions gathered at the British Film Institute for the premiere of Filmed in Supermarionation

Members of AP Films / Century 21 Productions gathered at the British Film Institute for the premiere of Filmed in Supermarionation

Director: Stephen La Rivière

Country: UK

Voices: Sylvia Anderson and David Graham

A wonderful feel-good documentary about a unique slice of television history

It is not often that you get to append the term “feel-good” to the word “documentary” but that seems like the best way to sum up Stephen La Rivière’s wonderful two-hour film about the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. To most people who are old enough to remember shows like Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 the story of the rise and fall of this unique strand of television will no doubt be familiar, but it is enthusiastically retold here with great charm, verve and wit, and with contributions from many of those involved.

The various interviews and clips are introduced by Lady Penelope and Parker, voiced as they originally were by Sylvia Anderson and David Graham, respectively (an early laugh comes when Parker puzzles out loud about “a hexistential crisis”). The late Gerry Anderson appears in archive footage to tell of how he “nearly vomited on the floor” when he was first assigned the task of producing a puppet show. Anderson wanted to direct real people, but needed to earn a crust so took the work that came his way. But it was his very ambition that drove the improvements in the successive puppet programmes  (the word “Supermarionation” was coined to distinguish the lifelike marionettes whose lip movements were synched to speech from the puppets that went before them). The pinnacle, of course, was Thunderbirds, in which the puppets, the characterisations, the plots, and Barry Gray’s incredible music came together like never before.

Mary Turner, Puppetry Supervisor at AP Films and Century 21 Productions, demonstrates the Lady Penelope puppet at the British Film Institute

Mary Turner, Puppetry Supervisor at AP Films and Century 21 Productions, demonstrates the Lady Penelope puppet at the British Film Institute

We also get to meet many of the technicians, puppeteers and voice artists who contributed to the shows, including Nicholas Parsons who played Tex Tucker in Four Feather Falls. David Graham, who played the voice of Parker in Thunderbirds, reveals that the real-life inspiration for Parker went to his grave not knowing about his role in TV history; he was a proud cockney who had worked to better himself, but in speech he dropped his ‘H’s and inserted them in the wrong places. Graham thought the man might have been insulted to discover that his speech patterns were being used for comic purposes.

Filmed in Supermarionation tackles a few of the less happy moments, most notably the box office failure of the two Thunderbirds films and Sir Lew Grade’s cancellation of Secret Service, the final show that was made for ATV. However, at least for those of us who lived through this amazing period of television, the feeling that you are left with by the end of the film is one of joy. This is a fantastic celebration of some of the greatest television (not just children’s television) to grace our screens.

Rating: 10/10

Filmed in Supermarionation is on national release from 10th October and available on Blu-ray/DVD from 20th October

Director: Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

Writer: Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

Country: Denmark, Serbia and Montenegro, UK, Serbia, Belgium

Runtime: 58 mins

When newspapers first began to publish the revelations that had been passed to them by Wikileaks, there were many who remarked that international diplomacy would be impossible unless those involved could be assured of secrecy. However, in what must be one of the most important negotiations of recent times, the peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo, writer and director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen managed to obtain both fly-on-the-wall access and interviews with the key participants. The psychological warfare between the two sides, and the steady hand of EU Chief Negotiator Robert Cooper in steering them towards an agreement, make The Agreement a fascinating and gripping documentary.

The negotiations take place in a small office in Denmark, where Cooper wonders if it is best to sit looking towards the window where you can view Danish architecture, or to sit facing the wall upon which hangs a Goya painting of two cats engaged in a stand-off. Kosovan negotiator Edita Tahiri wonders, with heavy metaphorical intent, if perhaps one cat has not recognised the other. Serbian negotiator Borko Stefanovic wonders if one cat might end up dead.

It is the blond Tahiri who, superficially at least, presents the more friendly figure, but there is no mistaking the steeliness behind her smile. Stefanovic, for much of the time, is harder to read, rarely smiling, and is the more easily provoked of the two, at one point launching into a rant about how he objects to being lectured. However, at other times Stefanovic seems genuinely warm, and you wonder how much both negotiators must be feeling the weight of expectations on their shoulders. We get a glimpse into the backgrounds of Tahiri and Stefanovic, too. Tahiri, more directly involved in politics when she was younger, had spent a period of time hiding in the basement of a house during the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. Stefanovic had played in a rock band called Generation Without A Future, for which he has to put up with a certain amount of ribbing in the Serbian parliament.

Roger Cooper is every bit the experienced urbane diplomat, though not beyond displaying irritation when he considers that one side is behaving badly. He notes that at the point when important negotiations are settled, it is always late at night when everyone is tired and no-one cares anymore; thus, they don’t realise that they are making history.

It is quite an achievement that writer-director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen should have managed to capture this piece of history.

Rating: 8/10

Shown at the 2014 Raindance Film Festival

Directors: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

Writers: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

UK: 2014

Runtime: 83 mins

In defence of art: a scattershot blast at Michael Gove

Watching Art Party brought back memories of my own art master at Bexley & Erith Technical High School, now rebranded as BETHS Grammar School (skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if you aren’t interested in this personal digression!). To me, Mr Wilson was one of the most inspiring teachers, not just because of his obvious enthusiasm about visual art but because of the way he dealt with his disability. At some point in his life Mr Wilson had lost an arm. He didn’t talk about it and I never knew what had happened, but the story that had filtered down to us (true or false, I don’t know) was that Mr Wilson had lost his preferred arm and subsequently taught himself to draw and paint with his remaining arm. But to my young self, who had never encountered any form of disability (other than a neighbour with a glass eye), what most struck me was the matter-of-fact way Mr Wilson behaved in regard to his bad arm. He never tried to hide the stump. On the contrary, he would walk confidently around the classroom in short-sleeved shirts with the stump protruding, including a stringy flap of skin that hung down. When he was demonstrating aspects of painting or sketching to us he would tuck brushes, palettes, or drawing pads under that stump. Back then, in the 1970s, this struck me as quite bold and I think it seemed to represent the idea that art and artists have a freedom that isn’t apparent in other areas of life. 

Mr Wilson didn’t just teach, but he would also produce his own art. There was one year when structural problems at the school forced us to temporarily decamp to a recently-vacated convent. In the hall of this building Mr Wilson undertook a large mural depicting some sort of battle scene (as I dimly recall, it was a middle ages kind of thing, with swords and suits of armour). Once we had relocated back to the proper school buildings I used to walk past the convent, which was in my home town, and still see the mural through the window. Until now, I hadn’t really stopped to appreciate the incongruity of having a battle scene on a convent wall. I like to think that the picture hadn’t been commissioned by the headmaster and that Mr Wilson was driven by his own inner inspiration.

Although I didn’t end up pursuing an artistic career, several years ago I took up photography and didn’t need to be taught the rule-of-thirds because I remembered this from my school art class. All of which brings me to Art Party, a film made in response to the apparent downgrading of arts within schools by UK Education Secretary Michael Gove. In 2011 the artist Bob and Roberta Smith (real name: Patrick Brill) wrote an impassioned letter to Gove about the importance of arts in schools. This was followed, in 2013, by a large gathering of artists at Scarborough for an “art party”, described in The Guardian by Adrian Searle as “a continuation not just of Brill’s campaign, but of Bob & Roberta’s art. Everyone became unwitting accomplices. With its seminars and performances, films, lectures and comedy acts, stands, podium speeches and fringe meetings, the conference was at once the real thing and masquerade, serious and silly, amateurish and passionate. It was also part-exhibition, part cringingly bad craft fayre, part gig and am-dram talent night, part immersive installation”.

The Art Party film is partly a documentary account of the Scarborough event, including Bob & Roberta Smith reading out his letter to Gove, performances from musicians, and interviews with various participants about the value of art in schools and in society generally. There are several performances from one of my favourites, Flameproof Moth, a busker who can often be seen playing artfully ramshackle songs on the beach at London’s Bankside, even as the tide comes in and the waves start lapping around his legs.


This is all interspersed with fantasy segments involving a fictionalised version of the then Education Secretary, “Michael Grove” (played by John Voce), and his entirely fictional aid Hettie Nettleship (Julia Raynor). In truth, these scenes were a bit hit-or-miss, and the resolution of the Grove story wasn’t entirely coherent. During the Scarborough event there is a kind of redemption for Grove, as he suddenly sees the light and joins in the party. However, having struck this note of optimism, the writers then serve up a rather mean-spirited ending for Grove that seems to fly in the face, not just of his change of heart, but of the positive advice sung by Flameproof Moth (to Nettie) only moments earlier to “Reach for your best available thoughts”. Given that Michael Gove himself is also no longer the Education Secretary, having a fictionalised version of him in the film does make it already seem somewhat dated.

According to the final credits, several politicians – including Gove – were “unavailable” to take part in the film. This means that Art Party ends up being a rather one-sided affair, a piece of agitprop for art rather than a wider exploration of educational values. However, the spirited contributions by the various artists, in both interviews and performances, are by themselves pretty convincing arguments for the cause they wish to support.

Note: Just prior to seeing Art Party I discovered that I work at the same institution as one of the writer-directors. In addition, several students contributed to the film. As that might be construed as a conflict of interest I haven’t rated this film.


USA 2013

Directors: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

Writers: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

Runtime: 87 mins


A fascinating portrait of a ‘lost’ street photographer – but not the full story


One of the qualities of street photographers, notes Joel Mayerowitz – one of the great practitioners of the art – is that they are both gregarious and solitary. They are gregarious because they like to go out and be among other people on the streets, but they are also solitary in that they generally keep their distance and try to be unobtrusive. So it must have been for Vivian Maier, unknown in her lifetime, but now claimed by some as one of the great street photographers. In order to appreciate whether an expression is worth capturing, a photographer needs to have some understanding of the humanity behind it. Maier clearly had this understanding, but paradoxically she seems to have spent much of her life alienated from people, especially so as she grew older. Finding Vivian Maier tries to uncover who this woman really was.

Maier died in 2009, aged 83, and completely unheard of in the world of photography. Two years earlier, out of financial necessity, many of her belongings were auctioned off, including thousands of negatives and hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film. John Maloof, co-director of this documentary, was one of the buyers. Unfortunately, this film makes no mention of the fact that there were two other buyers, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow (in fact, they purchased various boxes and suitcases, not knowing that they contained any photographic works). This has given rise to some controversy, including the suggestion that Maloof is trying to glorify his role in Maier’s story. Maloof himself declined to take part in a BBC Imagine documentary last year, called The Vivian Maier Mystery.

Finding Vivian Maier is presented as a detective story, beginning with the discovery of the negatives and films and then following Maloof as he tracks down and interviews people who knew Vivian Maier. Her story is undeniably fascinating, though this is as much because of the unanswered questions that remain as for the things we now know. Maier was a tall woman with somewhat angular facial features, who wore figure-concealing clothes and large boots. She worked as a nanny, which seems to have given her the freedom she desired to obsessively pursue her photographic interests. One of the children she nannied says they used to refer to her as “the wicked witch of the west”, and in many of the photos of Maier – including her own self-portraits – she often looks quite severe. However, in pictures where she is depicted smiling her features seem to soften and she struck me as really quite beautiful. As far as we know she never had an intimate relationship.

Some of the mystery about Maier, as presented in this documentary, seems to be less about her and more about the faulty memories or differing perspectives of the interviewees. At one point, a big deal is made about the French accent that she had. Was this real or affected? One acquaintance swears it was real whilst another, a linguistics professor who wrote his thesis on French speech, assures us it was faked. Only after we are presented with this discussion do we learn that Maier in fact spent many childhood years with her parents in France. So even if she occasionally “turned up” the accent a bit, it was undoubtedly based on actual experience. What therefore was achieved by presenting us with the conflicting opinions, other than making a linguistics professor look foolish?

In another segment two sisters who had been nannied by Maier disagree about the way she took photographs in the street. One swears that she never posed her subjects, whereas another says she always posed her subjects. But a glance at her photographs shows that there is no mystery: some were clearly posed and others were taken surreptitiously.

What remains fascinating and unanswered about Vivian Maier, however, is the nature of her personality. There are differing accounts from the children she nannied; some found her delightful, others say they were bullied. She didn’t care for men and seemed frightened of them. One interviewee speculates that she might have been abused. Maloof reports that all the family members he traced were incredibly private people and disconnected from each other. Whatever laid behind Maier’s personality, it does seem to be the case that at some point mere eccentricity began to tip over into something darker. As Maier became more alienated from people she also became more lonely.

As a photographer who occasionally dabbles – mostly badly – in street photography, I became aware of Maier and her photographic work sometime last year. Shortly after, I spoke to a “name” street photographer who asked the question: “But is she any good?” He thought that she probably was, but he ventured that it was difficult to evaluate her work separately from the mystery surrounding her. A similar point is made by one of the interviewees in this film, who says “I find the mystery of it more interesting than the work itself”. Sadly, Joel Mayerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark are the only two photographers who venture any opinion on Maier’s work.

In many ways Finding Vivian Maier is a good documentary film. The pacing is good, the telling of the story works well, and the music unobtrusively suits the mood throughout. However, there is a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that comes from the knowledge that two other owners of Maiers photographs have been written out of this story.

Rating: 6/10