It’s easy to see why the reviews have likened Marshland, the Spanish noir directed by Alberto Rodríguez to the first season of True Detective. The film opens with a title sequence comprising stunning aerial shots of the marshes that provide the story’s setting before plunging down into the terrain and introducing the two detectives sent to this remote area of southern Spain to investigate the disappearance (soon revealed to be the brutal murder) of two teenage sisters. Continue reading “Marshland: Spain’s True Detectives”
The photography of humanity.
– Gabriel García Márquez
There’s a moment two-thirds the way through watching Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders’ stunning new documentary about the work of Sebastiao Salgado, when you feel crushed by the same existential despair felt by the photographer in 1995 when, after years photographing famine, war and genocide in Africa and Europe, he witnessed atrocious scenes in Rwanda and the Congo that left him shaken to the core, despairing of any hope for humanity. Continue reading “The Salt of the Earth: Sebastião Salgado’s own way of seeing”
I always struggle when friends ask me what a film by the Swedish director Roy Andersson is like. The conversation has usually started with me saying ‘I’ve seen this great film; you should see it too!’ Then they ask, ‘what’s it like?’, or ‘what’s it about?’ The trouble is, Roy Andersson makes films like no other that you have ever seen. As Robbie Collin wrote in the Telegraph:
The Swedish director’s Living Trilogy, which began 15 years ago and concludes with this sublimely ridiculous piece of film-making, stands apart from the rest of cinema at such a remove that trying to make sense of it in words is beside the point, and perhaps impossible. You just have to watch it, then grab a net and try to coax your soul back down from the ceiling.
I’ve just seen Andersson’s latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third film in what an opening title calls ‘the final part of a trilogy about being a human being’. It is as memorably absurd and disturbing as the previous two, but much bleaker in tone. Like the earlier films, it contains scenes that, days later, I can’t get out of my mind. Continue reading “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
Still the Enemy Within is a documentary about the miners’ strike of 1984-5. It begins in the middle of nowhere, in a desolate spot empty but for wind-blown weeds. A middle-aged man hoves into view, a former miner who once worked at this place. It’s South Yorkshire and this is where Frickley Colliery once stood, its miners the most militant in Yorkshire – only four out of 2,000 of them broke the great coal strike in 1984-85.
One of those miners was Paul Symonds who, in this opening sequence, recalls what the work was like underground: ‘It was brutally industrial in every single respect.’ The pit closed in 1993, still producing 20,000 tonnes of coal in a good week, about 7,000 tonnes going to Ferrybridge power station nearby.
At the film’s close director Owen Gower returns to the same spot with the same man, who insists he isn’t romantic about the dirty, dangerous work he used to do, but says he still feels the loss of the old place. Symonds realises now that he and his fellow-miners were on a hiding to nothing:
There was only one thing standing in the way of privatisation, market rule and free market capitalism, and that was us. We knew and they knew it, but we were still shocked at how far they were prepared to go.
The same goes for the splendidly-named Norman Strike, a former Durham miner, says near the end of this impassioned film: ‘We got beat. But we were right.’ However, being right didn’t prevent Strike’s life being ripped apart. By the time the last striking miners went back to work on 3 March 1985, he was out of work, his marriage had collapsed and he had left the home he shared with his wife and children.
Still the Enemy Within documents the strike which began more than 31 years ago with a walkout at Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire on 6 March 1984, and ended a year later on 3 March 1985, following a NUM vote to return to work. Owen Gower’s film tells the story of the strike through interviews with former miners and activists from Women Against Pit Closures, and superbly-edited contemporary news footage and still photographs.
One striking aspect of Gower’s interviews is seeing former miners recall how their knowledge of likely defeat dawned quite early, once it became clear that the government was mobilising every repressive power at its disposal. Yet, at the same time, the tug and pull of solidarity in the union and in mining communities urged them to keep faith – almost for the last time in Britain – with working class traditions. In this sense, the miners seemed to embody the combination of ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ to which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recommended all socialists should adhere.
This government had an idea
And parliament made it law
It seems like it’s illegal
To fight for the union any more
We set out to join the picket line
For together we cannot fail
We got stopped by police at the county line
They said, ‘Go home boys or you’re going to jail.’
– Billy Bragg, ‘Which Side Are You On?’, 1985
‘People will always need coal’ trumpets an NCB recruitment film from the sixties included here: it looks like an army recruiting ad, urging young men to join the industry ‘and get more out of life’, with shooting, skiing, and restaurant meals with wine and a pretty girl presented as enticements.
But by the 1970s, miners’ wages had fallen behind the industrial average, and Gower’s film reminds us that the roots of the 1984-5 strike lay in that troubled decade. Steve Hammill, who was a young underground electrician at the Silverwood colliery near Rotherham in 1984 says: ‘The Tories hated the miners. We humiliated them with two strikes in 1972 and 1974. Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election asking, ‘Who runs the country, the government or the miners?’ The answer came back, ‘not you chum’.’
Looking back, miners recall it was common knowledge that the Tories would want revenge, so when it came to strike action in 1984, ‘We were fighting for our jobs and communities; they were fighting to avenge their defeat ten years before and destroy the most powerful union in the land.’
Nor was this just idle talk in pit communities or far-left circles. In May 1978 the Ridley Plan was leaked to the Economist magazine which published details of its recommendations. The plan had been drawn up by right wing Tory MP, Nicholas Ridley, and detailed how a future Conservative government could fight, and defeat, a major strike in a nationalised industry. Among the suggestions were that coal stocks should be built up at power stations; plans should be made to import coal from non-union foreign countries; non-union lorry drivers should be recruited by haulage companies; and social security rules altered to cut off benefits to strikers. Most controversially, Ridley recommended that a large, mobile squad of police should be trained and equipped, ready to employ anti-riot tactics to break picketing.
Then, in 1979, Thatcher came to power. As Transport Minister, Ridley was responsible for overseeing the stockpiling of huge quantities of coal at the pitheads. As one miner remarks in the film: ‘The saying, ‘Digging us own graves’ were never so apt – that’s exactly what we were doing.’
But if the NUM made the mistake of beginning a strike when coal stocks were so high, few could have predicted the vicious nature of the policing of the strike. Joe Henry, a coal face worker at South Elmsall colliery near Doncaster, summed up the feeling in the coalfield after the first few weeks of picketing:
We’d seen the riot police deployed against black communities in the Brixton riots. We’d seen the police and army tactics in Northern Ireland. We didn’t expect to see the same thing on our picket lines and in our villages, but that is what happened. We were attacked by the police when we tried to talk to miners at other pits who weren’t sure of the reasons for the strike. The most scary thing though, was when later on in the strike the police invaded and terrorised our villages.
The film’s title is drawn, of course, from Thatcher’s famous characterization – in a speech to the Tory backbenchers’ 1922 Committee – of the striking miners as ‘the enemy within’. As the film demonstrates, through archive footage and interviews – that was exactly how they were treated by a militarized police force. Former Durham miner Norman Strike describes the battle of Orgreave coking works near Rotherham on 18 June 1984 (overseen by the same South Yorkshire police force whose behaviour five years later would contribute to the deaths of 96 people in the Hillsborough disaster). ‘Orgreave was a trap,’ he says:
The police had spent months stopping us picketing where we wanted, then suddenly we were all allowed to gather at Orgreave. It was soon obvious why. A few thousand lads in T-shirts and pumps were attacked by riot police kitted up with NATO helmets, shields and batons. They set the horses and dogs on us and then the BBC edited the film so it showed the miners attacking the police. In reality it was the other way round. Years after the strike the BBC admitted they’d made a ‘mistake’.
Unlike in the case of Hillsborough, the campaign for a public inquiry into the policing at Orgreave has yet to achieve success. On 12 June, the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced that it would not be conducting a full investigation into the events at Orgreave.
Still the Enemy Within not only views the miners’ strike through the eyes of the miners that were on the picket lines: we also hear from those who played a key role in supporting the strike as the hardship intensified in mining villages. Most importantly, there were the miners’ wives, who set up soup kitchens and local collectives to support the strikers and their families, and soon formed themselves into an organised support network. In the film, Joyce Shepard, in 1984 the wife of a striking miner from Bentley colliery near Doncaster, describes how women changed:
At first it was like hunter gatherer society. The men when out picketing and all the dangerous stuff while the women were supposedly doing what women do best – putting a pinny on and working in the kitchen. But it didn’t stay that way… for good reasons. People broke out of that. Women didn’t want to just be serving up the mince and the bread. This idea blossomed that women could go picketing.
We thought, maybe it would be different women went picketing, maybe the police would not be so violent but as it turns out they were worse. It opened a lot of people’s eyes about what were going on. I certainly changed, there was no going back to how things were before.
Then there were those beyond the mining communities who supported the miners struggle through street collections and donations, and those who saw the miners’ fight as linked to their own struggle – including students, feminist, Lesbian and Gay, and Black Power organisations and those in towns such as Liverpool where left-wing Labour councils were waging a campaign to force the Conservative government to withdraw measures to restrict council spending and taxation powers.
Here Still the Enemy Within overlaps with the recent feature film Pride, with Mike Jackson, who founded Lesbian and Gays Support The Miners, the group at the centre of that film, telling the true story behind the events depicted in Pride.
Empty trucks once filled with coal,
Lined up like men on the dole.
Will they e’er be used again
Or left for scrap just like the men?
There’ll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power;
They’ll never realise the hurt
They cause to men they treat like dirt.
– ‘Coal Not Dole’, written by Kay Sutcliffe, wife of a miner from Kent
As the film progresses its tone becomes increasingly elegiac, a lament for what was lost in the wake of the miners’ defeat. Owen Gower shows how the British coal industry was subsequently privatised and then decimated – though not because we use less coal. We still burn coal – but most of the coal that fires our power stations and steelworks today is imported from Russia, Columbia and America.
Communities were devastated, but most of all, the sense of solidarity that spurred people to pull together in a common cause was destroyed, perhaps irrevocably. The decimation of British industry destroyed working class communities, while membership of trade unions plummeted as legislation undermined their strength. Gower and his interviewees see these changes as having given birth to a more selfish, consumer-orientated society in which empathy for the vulnerable or disadvantaged is either discouraged or, in the eyes of many, has become an almost alien concept.
Still the Enemy Within – Owen Gower’s first documentary – is a powerful film, engrossing and tightly-edited. I would make two criticisms, though. The use, in certain instances, of dramatic reconstructions of events being described simultaneously on the soundtrack by an interviewee seems pretty pointless. More importantly, Gower allows his film to evade what remains the central, haunting issue of the strike: would things have turned out differently if Arthur Scargill had supported a national ballot as happened in both of the 1970s strikes? It’s a crucial weakness, particularly as Gower’s film makes plain that one of the key problems faced from the start was the decision by miners in certain areas – particularly Nottinghamshire – to continue working.
At the film’s end, surveying the site of the abandoned pit at Frickley where he once worked, Paul Symonds muses: ‘Who knows? Come back in a hundred years and it might be different. The future is still up for grabs.’
This place has changed for good
Your economic theory said it would
It’s hard for us to understand
We can’t give up our jobs the way we should
Our blood has stained the coal
We tunnelled deep inside the nation’s soul
We matter more than pounds and pence
Your economic theory makes no sense.
– ‘We Work The Black Seam’, Sting, 1985
I saw Still the Enemy Within at Liverpool Small Cinema: what might appear to be an unlikely new venture in the age of Netflix, Amazon and MUBI, situated in the old Magistrates’ Court on Victoria Street. I thought it was a local start-up, but I discovered that there are now three Small Cinemas – one in Manchester and another in St Helens – all of them instigated by Sam Meech with support from BFI Film Hub North West Central, and each venue dedicated to bringing specialised and independent British film to their local audiences.
In an article about the Small Cinema start-up in Liverpool, Meech is quoted as explaining how the project’s genesis happened not in Liverpool, but in Berlin:
The starting point was Berlin. Berlin has a lot of small cinema spaces … [it’s] partly to do with how they approach using space, and they have a film infrastructure there… I wondered why we didn’t have that in Liverpool.
The Small Cinema seats just 60 people in comfort with raked cinema seating and excellent digital projection – a world away from the back-breaking sofas in FACT’s Box. It’s probably unfair to make the comparison with FACT which, after all, is part of a commercial national chain, Picturehouse. Small Cinema, on the other hand, apart from its own programme, will offer space for other organisations to screen films as part of their own events.
Timbuktu, from the Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako is a stunning film and likely to be the best I’ll see this year. It’s a portrait of the country of the director’s childhood, and particularly of the city of Timbuktu, whose rich culture and traditional tolerance were trampled and its people terrorised when jihadi forces from outside the country swept in three years ago.
Beautifully photographed by Sofiane El Fani, Timbuktu is, in the words of Ryan Gilbey’s New Statesman review, ‘a film in which small pieces stand in for a daunting and horrifying whole’. Strangely, given its theme, the film’s sympathetic observation of individuals under pressure and their small acts of resistance leave the viewer feeling uplifted.
The film is Sissako’s response to the events in his homeland in 2012-13 when a Tuareg insurgency demanding independence for the northern part of Mali was hijacked by the Islamist group Ansar Dine which began to impose its ultra-conservative brand of Sharia law in captured towns such as Timbuktu: women were ordered to cover themselves, adulterers and other transgressors stoned to death, and thieves had their hands cut off. In an Islamic country renowned for its tolerance – a reflection of local Sufi traditions – video games, music, drinking alcohol and football were banned.
Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu by reading the news of an unmarried couple in Mali who were stoned to death by Islamic extremists for having children outside of marriage. Timbuktu remained a stronghold for Islamists from 2012 until 2013, when they were driven out by Malian and French troops.
The film opens as the Islamist forces arrive: heavily-armed men in 4X4s race through the desert sand dunes chasing a gazelle, seeking to tire out the animal. Then, in a series of constantly-shifting scenes and incidents, Sissako quietly portrays how the lives of city-dwellers and traders, fishermen and cattle herders are suddenly disrupted by dogma ruthlessly enforced at the point of a gun. ‘Roll up your trousers, it’s the new law,’ a jihadi with a sub-machine gun orders a passing man (the trousers keep unrolling, so the man – casually, but defiantly – simply removes them and walks off, tossing them over his shoulder). A woman selling fish in the market is ordered to put on gloves to conform to the edict that women must be completely covered. ‘How can I handle fish with gloves on’, she asks, before thrusting her knife forward and challenging the jihadis to cut off her hands.
Armed jihadis prowl the streets on motorbikes, issuing edicts: smoking is forbidden, music is forbidden, football is forbidden. Women who do not cover up are sinful. Infringement is mercilessly punished with a public flogging or stoning. ‘Where is the leniency? Where is forgiveness?’ asks the local imam when armed jihadis enter the mosque without removing their boots. Their response is: ‘We are the guardians of all deeds since we arrived in this territory.’
There are small acts of resistance. The local witch doctor, a wild and fantastical figure of a woman bedecked in multi-coloured ribbons and trailing a long black train behind her, halts a 4×4 full of armed fundamentalists simply by spreading her arms. Young men carry on playing football after football has been banned – miming the moves with an invisible ball.
This being Mali, music plays a central part in Sissako’s film. One of the most powerful moments comes after a group of young musicians – both male and female are caught, late at night, playing music in their own home. Jihadi fighters burst in to break up the gathering: music and the casual mixing of the sexes is banned. For this double transgression of the Islamist code, in a public square square the next day the female singer receives 40 lashes. As the woman (played by the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara) kneels and is whipped she lets forth an unforgettable howl of anguish and pain that becomes a discordant chant of defiance. (The music in the film is as beautiful as its imagery – an elegiac original score by Tunisian composer Amine Bouhafa, with snatches of songs by Fatoumata Diawara).
Central to the film is the story of the death of a cow affectionately named ‘GPS’, one of a herd belonging to the herdsman Kidane and managed by his young son. One day, as the herd is brought to the river for water, the cow becomes entangled in the nets of Amadou the fisherman who spears it to death. (Until the credits rolled with the assurance that ‘no animal was endangered during the making of this film’, I was convinced that this sequence was real; faked, it represents an astonishing piece of film-making – as does the ensuing fight scene with its tragic outcome). After Kidane’s gun goes off accidentally, Sissako and his cinematographer give us a breathtaking widescreen shot of Kidane stumbling across the river, fleeing the tragedy.
Like all the other transgressions, Kidane’s accidental killing of Amadou ends up in a Sharia court presided over by a judge who belongs to the Islamic jihadists who have taken control of the city. In several scenes such as this one Sissako makes a point of emphasising that the Islamist fundamentalists do not originate from the Timbuktu area or speak any of the local languages: not only are they above the local inhabitants, imposing their ideology upon them; they are also completely outside the locals’ understanding. The need to translate and failures in communication seem to be central to Sissako’s portrayal of the alien nature of the jihadists’ brand of Islam.
The treatment of women by the jihadists and their unremitting misogyny is a central focus of Sissako’s film. A jihadist who wants a local girl for his bride expects no argument: the girl is his by right and is forced into marriage. A couple, buried to their necks in sand, are stoned to death for living together outside of marriage. Young women walking the alleyways alone are accosted constantly by the jihadis and ordered to cover themselves or get off the street.
However, my only reservation about this film concerns the way in which Sissako depicts the jihadis. I can see that his aim has been to avoid simplistic characterisation, and to understand them. He emphasises their hypocrisy: their obsession with their mobile phones, their secret smoking and debates about the merits of different footballers. But at times the degree of empathy seems in danger of undermining his depiction of their petty totalitarianism and the viciousness of their code.
In an interview with the New York Times, Sissako argued that depicting your enemy as ridiculous renders him impotent:
To portray a jihadist as simply a bad guy, who does not in any way resemble me, who’s completely different, that’s not completely true.” The jihadist is, he says, is “a fragile being. And fragility is an element that can make anybody tip over into horror.
In a profile of Abderrahmane Sissako for Sight and Sound, Basia Lewandowska Cummings wrote:
If there’s a style or approach that links Sissako’s films together, it is his fragmentary storytelling, which allows him to broach difficult and at times dense and complex subject matter without presenting any grand conclusions. Timbuktu brings together interwoven stories of residents of the ancient Malian city – in recent years a restive region wracked by violence and Islamic fundamentalism. Here, he builds a portrait of daily life full of empathy and humanity, resulting in what is now known as “the film that dares to humanise jihadists”.
Despite this one reservation, Timbuktu remains for me a landmark of humanist film-making: a breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of a settled and tolerant culture overturned by fundamentalists. I will not forget the boys playing football without a ball, or Fatou’s howl of anguish as she is whipped for having been caught making music.
Interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, Abderrahmane Sissako said:
The world is wonderfully rich and diverse. It is what makes our humanity. We need to trust people, and avoid reducing them to things.
The music of Timbuktu
- Timbuktu – defiant song of a nation in peril: Guardian review
- Abderrahmane Sissako: the vanguard of African cinema (Guardian/Sight and Sound)
The other day I caught up with Frederick Wiseman’s epic documentary about the National Gallery, shown recently on BBC 4. In characteristic fly-on-the-wall style, Wiseman spent much of 2012 prowling the corridors, boardrooms and backrooms of the National Gallery, having been given exclusive access to film anything that took his fancy.
Myself and Fred Wiseman and I go back a long way. In the early 1970s, as an adult and community education organiser, I achieved the remarkable feat of obtaining packed houses for screenings of Wiseman’s documentaries on American policing, welfare and juvenile courts in Liverpool 8. Quite what relevance I thought these lengthy perusals of American institutions had to the local situation I can’t now recall – those who filled the room in the Rialto Community Centre on those nights presumably went home having gained something from the experience.
In fact, those early documentaries made by Wiseman – now aged 85 – were like nothing being made in Britain at the time. They were films that examined American institutions – a hospital, a high school, army basic training, inner-city policing, the New York City welfare system – in a way that gradually (over two hours or more) revealed the profound injustices and inequalities of American society. At the same time they reflected back to an inner-city Liverpool audience the reality in their own community. As Philippe Pilard has remarked:
Fred Wiseman is probably one of today’s greatest living documentary film-makers. For close to thirty years … he has created an exceptional body of work consisting of thirty full length films devoted primarily to exploring American institutions. Over time these films have become a record of the western world, since now more than ever as we approach the century’s close, nothing North American is really foreign to us.
If that makes Wiseman sound like a strident agitprop film-maker, nothing could be further from the truth. His films eschew any kind of argumentative structure or externally-imposed narration; no captions or spoken words explain what is going on or who people are. On first impressions at least, the approach appears to be one of complete objectivity. This is not John Pilger.
Wiseman has explained his aversion to narration in these terms:
I don’t like it. For me, I mean. It works perfectly well for someone else to have an interviewer or narration. But I like the idea of trying to represent what is actually going on. Of course, it’s not exactly that, because it’s edited and shot with different kinds of lenses. But when a film of mine works, it works because the viewer feels like they’re present. It’s my job to give them enough information so they can understand what’s going on.
But, although Wiseman’s films are often referred termed observational (or ‘fly on the wall’, there is a hand at work, selecting and shaping the material. Wiseman again:
What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned.
After his early documentaries – Hospital (1969), Law and Order (1969), Basic Training (1971) Juvenile Court (1973) and Welfare (1975) – I lost touch with Wiseman, though he has continued to produce films focussing on a particular American institution through succeeding decades. Sight and Sound’s review of National Gallery summed up his record:
Frederick Wiseman is something like the Methuselah prophet in this weft, a tireless, methodical monk inserting his camera into every quotidian alleyway of modern life for 47 years now, compiling a vast Alexandrian archive of the Way We Live Now – which of course has changed with the decades. Usually focusing on institutions and the subcultures that feed them, Wiseman has always neglected quirk and extravagance, looking instead at work, ageing, illness, commerce and personal catastrophe.
On first impressions National Gallery seems to share the characteristics of Wiseman’s early films – documenting the internal workings of a major national institution using the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach. It’s nearly three hours long, and scenes are presented in long takes. There is no voice-over narration, no captions or explanatory text outlining who is who and what they do, no interviews or talking heads.
But, we are in a new golden age of widescreen documentary films that regularly garner healthy audiences. While Wiseman began making his films only a few years after technical advances made it possible to shoot synchronised sound documentaries with available light, now National Gallery is filmed using high definition digital cameras, and – in common with present-day documentaries – has the glossy look of a feature film.
Another significant difference might appear to be the nature of the institution which Wiseman has in his sights: instead of the social or regulatory institutions of the earlier films (police, welfare, schools, courts) and the concern with inequality and injustice, with National Gallery the focus is on one of the world’s great cultural institutions and the frankly elite world of art appreciation.
In fact, several of Wiseman’s recent films (which I have not seen) have been concerned with cultural or elite institutions – the University of California at Berkeley, the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris, and the American Ballet Theatre, for example. Moreover, as National Gallery spools on (if that’s not an inappropriate analogue analogy), a critique of the gallery and the art world generally slowly begins to emerge. As Laura Cummings wrote in her insightful Observer review:
His film has no narrative, and apparently no structure in its steady flow of images. It looks at everything – the polished floor, the dazzling picture, the scalpel removing an iota of dirt from the surface of a canvas – with equal interest. It peers, gazes, homes in and moves on like the visitors circulating slowly among the paintings. It has not formed an opinion so far – or has it?
Because, of course, Wiseman doesn’t simply present us with raw footage: his authorship is in the editing. It’s what he chooses to show us (or, for that matter, leave out) that allows Wiseman’s themes or arguments to gently emerge.
The film raises a number of issues related to both the creation and consumption of art. Wiseman’s camera stares as Nicholas Penny, the director of the Gallery at the time, talks effusively about the Titians in the collection during a private audience with a silk-suited plutocrat, presumably a donor. It’s there when Penny hosts private drinks parties among the old masters, and there’s a memorable episode which takes us behind the scenes as the museum’s management team discusses whether to allow Sports Relief to advertise by draping a large banner across the front of the gallery during the London marathon.
Penny argues against advertising on the grounds that there should be some sort of link between what is being advertised and gallery’s mission, while others on his team are up for anything which raises the gallery’s brand profile among the public at large. The question of commercialization is a crucial one, and – although Penny comes across as decidedly elitist, you sense that Wiseman’s sympathies lie with the idea of the gallery’s essential role as the guardian of great art, and not with PR and marketing forces keen to popularize (or ‘dumb down’ in Penny’s view) the gallery’s mission.
The film doesn’t explore the political challenges of funding and maintaining such cultural institutions in a time of austerity and public spending cuts, though Wiseman does come at such questions tangentially when we observe a guide informing a class of ethnically diverse schoolchildren that the collection was founded by those who profited from slavery, and during scenes in which high-profile funders and donors (emphatically white and upper class) are given privileged access to the gallery and its experts.
Filming in 2012, Wiseman could not have anticipated the bitter industrial dispute now raging at the gallery. Since March there have been a series of extended strikes in which members of the Public and Commercial Services union are fighting the National Gallery’s plans to privatise 400 of the 600 staff – with a two-week strike beginning this week. Already a private company has been handed the services usually provided by in-house visitor services staff and the gallery has gone back on a promise to pay the London living wage this year and is now the only major museum or gallery in London not to do so. As Polly Toynbee put it in the Guardian two months ago:
The gallery is outsourcing all its 400 staff in visitor services, including the gallery assistants, many of whom have worked there for years, becoming steeped in knowledge about the paintings they watch over. Once outsourced, the staff can by law be dispersed to anywhere by their new employer: people with long experience of guiding visitors can be sent to guard a supermarket car park. New staff taken on in the gallery can be paid less, with worse conditions: that’s how outsourcing works.
I wonder how many of the guides who we see in Wiseman’s film – gifted communicators who inspire audiences of adults and children with their enthusiasm for the paintings – are now fighting for their jobs. Some of the best scenes feature these educators (without one in particular, a feisty woman wearing a Ruritanian cavalry jacket and immense belt, Wiseman would not have had a film). There is a tremendous sequence in which a group of visually-impaired people are given a Pissarro reproduction, printed in relief, which they can navigate with their hands, while one of the these gifted staff brings the image alive. Certainly, Wiseman dwells on these scenes long enough to show where his admiration lies.
But he is also drawn to the meticulous work of the frame makers, and those who clean, restore and care for the paintings. Watching these people at work, by the end of the film I felt I had learnt a great deal about the efforts that go on behind the scenes in a great gallery to protect and preserve the artworks.
One of the high points in this regard is a scene in which two Velázquez experts explain how, during the conservation of the painting, once old varnish has been removed, all their retouching is done on top of a newly-applied layer of varnish, just in case the next generation of experts happens to disagree with their interpretation.
Wiseman lingers over this dedication to detail and craft in scenes such as one in which a conservation expert speaks about the complex and fascinating history of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Hedel to a group of art historians, demonstrating with the aid of X-Ray scans the progressive stages in the painting’s development, and revealing how Rembrandt had painted over a previous image before turning the canvas sideways and beginning again.
Essentially, Wiseman’s focus returns time and again to the paintings: the film is punctuated by short sequences in which the camera gazes (all too briefly) at paintings and observes the varied expressions of visitors looking at them. For Laura Cummings, however, this was not enough:
Though practically every painting in the gallery has its moment, none holds the camera for long. And this is what weakens an otherwise superbly intelligent documentary: it never looks at the place in full swing, crowded with the faces of real and painted people, never shows the artists who are permitted to walk the rooms by night, the visitors who come every day, or fall in love with particular paintings. It takes no real interest in the public, which owns the National Gallery, or in our human responses to art.
In the end, Wiseman seems to suggest, the essential role of the National Gallery is to safeguard the work of great artists for succeeding generations, and to interpret and communicate their meaning to the public. In one interview Wiseman put it this way:
The point of the film is not to make a case about anything. But I would hope that someone watching the film would come away with the idea that the National Gallery is an important institution, and the critical importance to society of maintaining the heritage of the paintings. Some of the greatest painters in the world are represented there.
Sometimes Wiseman’s camera observes as another media team film before a painting – as when art historian Matthew Collings casts aside his notes and in characteristic style delivers an analysis of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
In a review of National Gallery written by Glenn Kenny on Roger Ebert.com, Kenny noted how the film begins with a series of shots of paintings that hang in the gallery – choosing to linger over Old Masters rather than the later works from the 19th century:
So immediately, as we perhaps recognize a Holbein or Rembrandt in the opening shots of the film, the movie draws us into an older world. But a familiar sound begins to break the silence that would create the ideal mood for contemplating these works. What is it? It gets louder, and soon Wiseman cuts to a wider shot of one of the gallery’s hanging rooms, and there’s a fellow operating a floor polisher.
This opening is a near-perfect encapsulation of Wiseman’s method. His camera work is as objective, or as “objective,” as it gets. […] Where he editorializes, or makes a point of declining to editorialize, is in his cutting. The opening invites the viewer into the realm of the sublime, then drops the viewer into the realm of the quotidian. This juxtaposition, Wiseman suggests, is a part of what makes the Gallery a noble institution.
Well, maybe. If so, it’s a nobility that is muddied by operating in less honourable contexts – paintings donated in the past by those who have grown rich from the profits of slavery, dependent now on money from companies that despoil the planet (there’s a short sequence in which Greenpeace activists rappelling down from the roof of the gallery to hang a large banner protesting at Shell sponsorship), and now contracting-out the jobs of front of house staff to a private company intent on imposing zero-hours contracts.
For a film that offers different kind of meditation on art and its meaning in everyday life I do recommend Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, the story of two strangers who meet in the gallery and gradually become friends as autumn turns to winter in the streets of Vienna.
- Zipporah Films: homepage of official distributor of Wiseman’s films
- National Gallery review – Frederick Wiseman focuses on the minutiae: Review by art critic Laura Cummings (The Observer)
- Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery: review for MUBI
- Film of the week: National Gallery: Sight and Sound
- Frederick Wiseman: ‘One common misconception is that I’m a muckraker. My films are more complicated than that‘ (Telegraph profile)
I’ve come to this late, but I must salute one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. Filmed in real time, Citizenfour documents the tense negotiations leading up to whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive state surveillance of British and American citizens. The film appeared last autumn, and I have just caught up with a recording of its Channel 4 broadcast some weeks back.
The film was made by Laura Poitras, the first journalist contacted by Snowden, and begins with their initial exploratory emails, text unfolding across the screen, as they agree the terms of their collaboration. Security is of the essence – both are familiar with the methods of deep encryption that will be essential if the project is to be successful and the individuals involved are to be secure from arrest and incarceration.
Once a safe channel of communication is established, Snowden outlines his plans to deliver a mass of classified NSA documents, proof of the routine mass surveillance of millions of people. He wants a team of journalists to work on the material, not only because the sheer volume of classified material he provides will require it, but also because he does not want the story to be about him.
If this all sounds dull, it’s not. Far from it. The film crackles with the nervous tension of a spy thriller. Although half of the film’s duration is shot within the tight confines of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room, there are other context-setting segments, filmed in high definition, which have the flair and polish of a Hollywood blockbuster.
But, leaving aside questions of technique, the true virtue of the film is its subject – the evidence that Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor with top-level clearance, released via the Guardian and the Washington Post to the world.
There has been almost universal praise for Laura Poitras and her film. In a review at Roger Ebert.com, Godfrey Cheshire wrote:
No film so boldly X-rays certain crucial changes wrought upon the world, and especially America and its government, by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No film so demands to be seen by every sentient person who values his or her own freedom and privacy. No film so clearly implies actions that need to be taken to prevent the 21stcentury from turning into an Orwellian nightmare in which technologically-enabled tyranny is absolute and true political liberty, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as a portrait of ‘that very remarkable man, the former NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden’, a documentary about ‘all the staggering things governments are doing to our privacy’:
Fundamentally, privacy is being abolished – not eroded, not diminished, not encroached upon, but abolished. And being constructed in its place is a colossal digital new Stasi, driven by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible, combined with politicians’ age-old infatuation with bullying, snooping and creating mountains of bureaucratic prestige for themselves at the expense of the snooped-upon taxpayer.
There is no doubt that this is a very personal film – Poitras repeatedly speaks of herself in the first person in text that unfolds on screen – and that it is also an authorised portrait of its subject. Poitras tells how the two of them first made contact in 2013 when Snowden, using encrypted email and the alias ‘citizen four’, contacted Poitras and the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, inviting them to meet him in Hong Kong.
Snowden told Poitras that she had been selected because of her previous work as a journalist and film-maker, including a short documentary about William Binney, an earlier NSA. whistle-blower who also appears in Citizenfour. Snowden must have known, too, that Poitras was already working on a film about government surveillance (some of its footage appears in Citizenfour). We also learn that after her 2006 film about the US occupation of Iraq, My Country, My Country, Poitras was placed on a secret government watch list and stopped and searched dozens of times as she tried to enter the United States, harassment that as she notes in the film, forced her to move to Berlin.
Once contact has been made, Poitras, Greenwald and another Guardian journalist, Ewan MacAskill, meet Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras sets up her camera and begins filming, cinema verite style. Two years after Snowden’s revelations were made public, it’s not so much the scale of state surveillance that they revealed which grabs you in these scenes but, as Godfrey Cheshire put it in his review:
The sense of watching a small group of individuals embarked on an enterprise that they know is of tremendous historical import, yet also potentially dangerous and with no guaranteed outcome. In such a context, every small gesture, pause and decision can seem to take on great meaning, creating a constant sense of tension and discovery.
But what Snowden did reveal, of course, was that the governments of the United States and the UK are engaged extensively in collecting data from every phone call, every email, every internet search we make. This pre-emptive mining of data extends way beyond those suspected of terrorist activity. As Snowden says: ‘We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind’.
Whilst the Snowden revelations have generated an enormous response in America and Germany, here in the UK, despite the Guardian’s extensive coverage, they have created barely a ripple. Such discussion as there is tends to be framed in terms of encroachments on our privacy. True, the surveillance powers now exercised by the state do invade our privacy, but fundamentally this is about monitoring – and curbing – dissent.
Reviewing Citizenfour in the Telegraph, Tim Robey averred that ‘everybody needs to see it’, concluding:
It’s a truism that nothing on the internet is private: to Snowden’s alarm, Poitras’s, and possibly ours, a revolutionary technology in the widening of intellectual freedoms is apparently being used as an all-purpose tool to shut them down.