Category Archives: Documentary

#214 – Nagarhole Elephant Dreaming

(1976, Ire/Fr/Ind, 64 min) Dir Daniel Dermot McBurton.

As he tells it in 1927 the struggling and wholly unsuccessful painter Daniel Dermot McBurton, then the same age as the century, had a dream in his decrepid Dublin basement flat. In his dream he was sitting outside a coffee shop in Paris having just sold his first painting. Upon waking and with nothing to lose McBurton promptly sold everything he owned bar the clothes he stood in and his paintings (which no one wanted anyway) and bought himself passage to France where his dreams promptly came true despite not speaking or understanding the language. Thus a lucrative career was born, first in painting and then in film. In 1972, when he was still the same age as the century and at a time of creative plateau, he had a dream of an elephant in India. When this elephant was hurt McBurton himself was hurt. Upon waking he decided that he no longer had anything to lose, left his third wife and sold all his possessions and moved to Western India close to what was then the Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary and is now Nagarhole National Park. Despite once again being in a country whose language he neither spoke or understood he assembled a film crew and recorded, without plan or narrative, the world he now found himself in. In the process of making the film he found Emai the elephant, who he claimed to identify from his dream and whose life he believed was inextricably bound to his own. Unfortunately the resulting film, Nagarhole Elephant Dreaming, wasn’t the success that resulted from his earlier dream – it showed in Cannes to overwhelming disinterest though years later it’s plotless exploration of the land proved an influence on ethnographical documentarians such as Pascal and Filipe of Access Road anti-fame. Either way McBurton didn’t care – he died happily ten years later, in 1986, still as old as the century. Coincidence or not and unbeknownst to McBurton, he also expired within an hour of Emai’s death in Nagarhole National Park.

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#201 – Cat Elvis

(1986, Bel, 75 min) Dir Benoît Poolberde.

Documentary set amongst the world of competitive cat shows where Remy Bescreay has an ace up his sleeve – his fat feline called Elvis, who will sing and dance to the songs of his namesake. Okay, so it’s not really singing – Elvis merely goes WAOW rhythmically to the music though he does, to his credit, wiggle his hips in a reasonable imitation of the King while appearing to tolerate the wearing of a white sequined jump suit. For the films’ first half it seems as though mockery is the order of the day with footage from the 1984 Belgian National Cat Championship in Ostend doing little to dispel this notion with the camera focussing exclusively on the strangest of the competitors in both looks and behaviour. The back half of the film though, with Remy and Elvis in Tokyo for the International Feline Showcase, digs a lot deeper when Elvis becomes ill and Remy’s love for his cat, which goes beyond his use as a performer, comes to the fore and what begins as a showcase for easy laughs becomes a vessel for heartbreak.

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#185 – Flex/Flesh

(1967, Wger, 14 min) Dir Nickolaus Müller.

Narrativeless German bodybuilding doc. Emboldened by a screening of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, reclusive law student Müller scratched up whatever money he could and shot this, his debut short, ultimately setting himself onthe road from reclusive law student to the flamboyant experimental filmmaker that shot across film history like a shooting star. But that was all in the future – what promise does this scant fourteen minutes show? Well, the first thing that jumps out at the viewer is the acknowledged debt to the Anger film in form though without Scorpio Rising‘s challenging iconography. In saying that the fact that the film is stripped down to just muscular men pumping iron works in the film’s favour as it becomes less about culture and subculture and more about the human body, both in the how of it’s sculpting and in reverence to it. Also evident is his skill in both filming and editing, how he has captured small but telling moments that he has integrated slyly into the finished product – I’m thinking here of the old man watching from a window as he passes, a snatched glimpse preserved in the film where it sits as a mystery of desire emblematic of the director’s own position. For completists only for sure but still rich in pleasures of it’s own.

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#184 – Empty Forest, The

(2015, US/GB/Fr, 102 min) Dir John Henry.

Campaigning doc about illegal wildlife trade. In the last couple of decades the amount of animals in the wild has declined massively and confrontational director John Henry wants to find out why – this is no disingenuous starting point question either, he wants to actually ask people why they are taking the animals out of their habitats and why the people who are buying them are doing so, even if it means being on the receiving end of some very angry men. The answer is depressing – the animals in question are either being kept domestically in cages thousands of miles from their natural habitat or else eaten for the status their meat conveys and the unfounded belief in it’s medicinal properties. An angry film that forces the viewer to bear witness to the animal markets of South East Asia, the piles of confiscated ivory in Africa and the animals caged outside restaurants in China or, as more recently exposed, in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. A barrage of statistics makes it plain that it’s not just elephants and tigers that are suffering – the loris, bears, pangolin, snakes, salamanders and many, many more now hover on the brink of extinction. That there is no solution or hope of a happy ending offered by the film makes it that much bleaker.

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#173 – Palm

(2012, Can/GB, 76 min) Dir Alice Werkherser.

Alice Werkherser’s follow up to Engineer Species is a very different beast to the earlier work which followed the traditional interview/narrative form of documentary and is very alike Peter Mettler’s Petropolis in execution. The main difference between the two films is that Mettler’s film, being an aerial record of the devastation wrought by industry on the Alberta tar sands, has visuals that are dramatic, terrifying and even beautiful if isolated from their context. Werkherser’s film is similar in many ways in that it is also about a great environmental devastation but one whose visual effect on the land is not as immediately shocking. Through a combination of helicopter and drone photography she has recorded the vast scale of the palm oil plantations that have irrevocably changed the once lush rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia (the world’s largest producer) into unending rows of farmed palm trees, straight line after straight line from one end of the film to the other, each area tagged at the bottom of the screen before rolling on for uninterrupted chunks of time in it’s bland, terrifying uniformity. He soundtrack is given over to a variety of people affected by this, from the purchaser of a multinational company (unnamed) who imports the oil about the surprising amount of products it is used in, to an indigenous person displaced by the plantations, to a representative from International Animal Rescue on the terrible effect on the local wildlife and environment, to a farm worker who relies on the plantations to feed his family and who was unemployed prior to that. A piece of vertiginous perspective.

#171 – Camino de Santiago

(2003, US/Sp, 104 min) Dir Emmanuel Pascal, Andrea Filipe.

The first in Pascal and Filipe’s four years in the making Walks Trilogy. The directing duos films are the very paragon of simplicity, following a process or – in the case of their Walks Trilogy – journeys. In Access Road they follow the construction of a mining road in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and with Camino de Santiago they turn their cool lens on the route and the walkers of the famous European pilgrimage. It’s simple – the film begins in Roncevaux and ends in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela recording the landscape along the way. To some it’s the very definition of cinematic wallpaper but to others the way they record the changing of the landscapes, the relationship of the people within it and the places where the modern world runs up against a path that has remained unchanged in hundreds of years all tells a story that no words could adequately convey. As you can tell I’m a fully paid up member of the latter camp. Still a stunning film on the small screen it plays all the better in the cinema. Pascal and Filipe followed this up with The Inca Trail and Shikoku Pilgrimage, both as stunning as this.

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#109 – Alan Messing, Side Two

(1967, US, 100 min) Dir D.A. Pennebaker. Cast Alan Messing, Tyrone Faith, James ‘Jimmy’ Josephth.

Documentary following one hit country wonder Alan Messing as he records his follow up to Two Roads to Reno, the LSD soaked epic of tunelessness Ecstasy and Enlightenment. Word is that Messing got Pennebaker himself after Don’t Look Back by phoning the man and declaring: “Well you’ve done Dylan and the Kennedy brothers, why not work with a legend for a change?” Certainly from the evidence on display here this doesn’t seem unlikely as Messing isn’t short of ego, bullying all and sundry with his outlandish demands and constantly referring to himself as ‘The Talent’ (and yes, you can hear the capitalisation there when he says it). A fascinating if toe curling record of total hubris which works especially well with it’s follow up, The Ecstasy and Enlightenment of Alan Messing, which was shot thirty years later with an apparently unrepentant Messing, who has been cosmetic surgeried to an unrecognisable degree.

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms

#107 – Engineer Species

(2006, GB, 88 min) Dir Alice Werkherser. Cast Anthony Beckett.

“If the world had’ve paid attention to us forty, fifty years ago then we wouldn’t be in the fix we are now,” is the opinion of the infamous Anthony Beckett. Once the head of the Anti-Life Brigade prior to its disbanding in 1975 he is recorded here, at the age of 82, as the head of a newer incarnation of the same idea in PopCon, the Population Control lobbying group. “Pollution, global warming, habitat loss, the massive extinctions we’re witnessing, food shortages, greater war and resource scarcity,” runs his argument, “The one thing that’s causing all of this is us, the engineer species of every Earth environment, and the only way that we could stop it is to reduce the stress we’re placing on those environments. That means at the least some form of population control and, at the extreme end, the liquidation of some of the population. It seems foolish to try and face down the world’s problems without acknowledging this.” The centrepiece of the film is his attendance at the World Population Forum where you get a chance to appreciate how much vitriol he and those of like mind are subject to, both from those who oppose his philosophy and those, like the scary Death for Life organisation, who don’t think he goes far enough. A dark and serious film about a man with very deep convictions that is leavened only by clips of Beckett’s own contribution to film, 1974’s unintentionally hilarious Is Your Life Worth Living?

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms

#85 – Transfer of Sovereignty Over Hong Kong

(1997, Fr, 47 min) Dir Remy Disco.

One of the shorter efforts of Remy Disco and his Institut de Réalisme Fictive (Institute of Fictional Realism), this is a reconstruction of the handover ceremony held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on the night of 30 June 1997 that takes place in the centre of a roundabout in Calais during heavy traffic. Its shortness is unintentional however – Disco hadn’t obtained the necessary filming permit prior to the event but decided to go ahead with the result that the police appeared about forty minutes in to disperse the performers. It’s testament to Disco’s cadre that they refused to stop with the planned event and remained spouting their vacuous speech-talk as they were led away with filming only ceasing when physically forced to by a particularly dogged officer. Incidental pleasures include the looks of the commuters trying to watch the actors representing Prince Charles, President of the People’s Republic of China Jiang Zemin and Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while negotiating a roundabout.

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#84 – Gulf War Speeches

(1993, Fr, 197 min) Dir Remy Disco.

Another of Disco’s restagings on the behalf of his Institut de Réalisme Fictive (Institute of Fictional Realism), this one a retelling of the first Gulf War through speeches delivered by all participant countries. The setting for this is a school assembly hall filled with children who grow understandably and aggressively impatient during the three hours plus it takes to get through the selection – they even, when an end to the conflict is announced, let up a half-hearted cheer though unknown to them there’s still another half an hour or speeching to go. On the stage in the hall is a single podium with all the participants lined up behind it, ready to take their turn and this is filmed in classic Disco style with a single fixed camera. Disco doesn’t take the easy way out either by hiring actors who look like George Bush, Saddam Hussein, John Major or whatever – all of them to a man look like suburban headmasters and deliver their speeches with the same lack of magnetic oratory. As with all of Disco’s restagings there are always elements of interest, despite his attempts to dull it all down, like being able to see the narrative of the war laid out condensed and the sparring that occurs (such as it is) between the principals speeches and counterspeeches.

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms