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What I watched at CPH:DOX, part 2

CPH:DOX said “Don’t just watch. Listen.” I really did that. There were so many messages to listen to in this years selection of documentaries. This post continues the list that I started in my part 1 post.

MLK/FBI

By Sam Pollard
This was a good refresher of some history, especially because I probably never got the right history lesson to begin with due to systemic racism, etc.

Basically, you could say this was about the FBI stalking MLK. Hoover had his sights elsewhere for a while, but then he became fanatical about digging up dirt on MLK. If you are alive in 50 years, you can read what they dug up. The files are locked away until then. There might be issues that would raise some MeToo issues, but there are definitely issues about civil liberty violations and extremely intrusive surveillance. I think King will still come out as an important person in the struggle for human rights, while Hoover is still stuck in the muck that he stirred up.
Watched 25 April.

Life of Ivanna

By Renato Borrayo Serrano
This was an intriguing film. We are right there in Ivanna’s life, and I have always felt a bit shy about being so intimate with a character like that. However, it is definitely with her permission as I learned in the Q&A with the direct Renato Borrayo Serrano after I saw the film. Ivanna has a strong personality and charisma. It is not overt, but as the film unfolds, you know that you don’t mess with her! This film made me look up the Nenets people. When a movie – documentary or feature film – makes me do some research to learn more, that is a good sign to me that the movie has truly piqued my interest and made me curious.

As the director tells us, there are no metaphors in this film. What you see is what you get. I thought about the lives of indigenous peoples and how power influences their lives. Russian gas and oil works in the area encroach on the traditional lifestyle with the reindeer, which is why many are leaving the tundra to live in the city, for better or worse. The area Ivanna lives in supplies a lot of the natural gas delivered to cemtral Europe, which immediately made me feel very guilty and complicit in the life that is available there.

Ivanna lives a life that is definitely alien to many of those watching this film. She looks like she is around 30, maybe just under, and living in a small cabin on the tundra with her five children. Cabin is what the translators call the home, but it is a wooden frame covered in plastic, reindeer skins, and perhaps other material. It seems so cold, yet they are not packed in layers inside this cabin. Sometimes the kids even tumble outside with just a t-shirt, although mom does yell at them then. I had to put on my sweater while watching those scenes! One night, the wind blew fiercely across the area where the little community was staying so other adults came over to help turn the cabin. Against the wind, I assume. We, the audience, would be utter wimps in this situation. Life in the city is not ideal, but regardless of where she is, Ivanna is aiming for something more and something better. You have to be made of strong stuff to survive this life. However, we see her husband doesn’t have that. He is disappearing into alcohol, but the clash of Russian businesses (and climate change) with the lifestyle of the indigenous people is a major cause of that problem for many people. Ivanna is the one with strength and resilience.

I liked how the CPH:DOX interviewer, Mads Mikkelsen (not that one), asked Renato Borrayo Serrano to send Ivana our greetings and thanks for this beautiful film. I liked that. I liked the few degrees of separation between us and Ivanna, and I liked knowing that Renato Borrayo Serrano would one day say hello to Ivanna again, and that greeting would contain my best wishes for Ivanna, too.

For anyone who sees this film, this quote from the CPH:DOX blurb about the film will certainly call up a visual memory that is hard to forget:

Four years in Ivanna’s life have become a formidable film created with an artist’s eye for the material texture of the world where an image of a sleeping child, three fish and a hungry cat almost become a cosmic motif.

Watched 26 April.

Ailey

By Jamila Wignot
This was achingly beautiful. It was so well crafted and framed. This is not a biopic, as you might think. The description calls it a portrait, and that is a much more suitable word. You see what inspired Ailey and how he slowly built up this amazing dance company, which I have had the pleasure of seeing live several times. There are small interviews with people close to Ailey scattered throughout the film. This is part of the huge value of documentaries. These stories are now captured for future generations to hear. In the Q&A after the movement, director Jamila Wignot said that movement drove all the visual elements you see in the film. That explains, to me, why all the dance scenes had such a powerful effect on me. We see film archives of dance performances in the past, but also a new dance being choreographed by Rennie Harris. Corny as it sounds, the dancers’ movements under Harris’ guidance made me want to move. It wasn’t just a desire to move my feet, but I could also sense my whole being wanting to move. That gave me an inkling of how powerful the idea of movement must have been to Ailey and all the dancers who met and worked with him. The storytelling through movement was also very evident. The wonderful archival clips of Ailey from the 50s or 60s (I forget if dates were specified) showed a powerful story personified by his body’s movements. It was breathtaking. I have seen his famous dance “Revelations” before, but somehow the clips from that dance that were shown here told me a more powerful story that I ever saw before. I think it was because I had now seens the roots from which this dance had grown. I have loved dance since I was a small child, and Ailey is a dancer I have always admired. Of course this movie went on my list of must-sees at CPH:DOX 2021!
Watched 28 April.

The Inheritance

By Ephraim Asili
I selected this movie as yet another step in learning more about Black history. It felt a bit like a play, interspersed with clips about the “militant black separatist group” MOVE based in Philadelphia, who I cannot remember ever hearing about before. (Of course I found articles to read later.) The movie is loosely based on the director’s own life, according to the blurb, so I am unsure whether the group of people in the movie really lived together as a collective in a house inherited from his (a?) grandmother. I think it is a beautiful idea, especially the part about holding poetry readings and talks for the local community. There were quotes chalked on the walls for various discussions, and I tried to capture a few like this one from Kwame Nkrumah:

Action without thought is empty. Thought without action is blind.

Watched 28 April.

The Psychedelic Love Story

By Errol Morris
I turned on the laptop, tuned in to CPH:DOX, and dropped out of the reality I know for one hour and 41 minutes. Strangenesses! (I’m not talking about quarks. Or maybe…) Heading into a snowstorm in Switzerland in a yellow Porsche and dropping acid! My mind was utterly boggled by this film. Was I tripping? The name dropping was wild. Joanna Harcourt-Smith was considered a big liar as a child. How much did that change as she got older? I am not saying that this story is a lie. Far from it. But did she ever manipulate the truth at times! Wow.
Some of the quotes from an interview with Leary while he was in prison were… unique. “…the law of gravity is a particular law that is imprisoning me…”
Watched 28 April.

In the Same Breath

By Nanfu Wang
This documentary gave me the chills from the first minute. This shows the early days of the pandemic we are sitting in right now, although we didn’t know it would become a pandemic then. The episode with the father being discharged from the hospital who wanted to check on his adult son who was still very sick was so frightening. The father had only a mask on. Several doctors or nurses around the son were in full protective gear: white suits, masks, visors, gloves – the whole thing. The father came close, and they told him he shouldn’t come in without protective gear. He came close anyway and suggested that he could get some water for his son!! As I watched, I was thinking that there will be a huge queue at the sinks where officials can wash their hands with a ton of soap, not for health and safety, but to absolve themselves of all wrongdoing in the disaster response to the pandemic. I am disgusted and frightened and angry all at the same time. The trauma of healthcare workers has been largely invisible to the world. I’d like covid-19 deniers to meet these healthworkers face to face and hear their stories. If they are still alive to tell them. I hope Chen Quishi is still alive and safe somewhere. He disappeared on 6 February 2020 after reporting critically about the outbreak of covid-19 in Wuhan. Peien Liu, whose father died early on in the pandemic, was visited by the police 10 times after speaking out about the situation. I captured a very telling quote late in the film:

Ordinary citizens becomes casualties of their leaders’ pursuit pf power.

Basically the pandemic has exposed a lot about our governments. Can we learn from these exposures? Can we recognise these revelations and discuss them?

Toward the end of the film, the camera pans through fresh headstone after fresh headstone in a local Wuhan cemetery. Many headstones have a photo or carving of the deceased person’s likeness. The effect of these images is so powerful. A small quote at the end of the film speaks volumes: “This film is dedicated to the victims of covid-19.”

Nanfu Wang was shortlisted for an Oscar for “One Child Nation”. I would like to see that after watching this powerful documentary from her hand.
Watched 29 April.

Sisters on Track

By Corinne van der Borch, Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
I am not much into sports, but I liked the theme of community and of empowering young girls. This film is coming to Netflix, and I confess that I wish I had waited for it on Netflix and used my time on a different documentary. I thought it was well done, and I think young girls should watch it and get inspired by the coming-of-age and against-the-odds themes. It was just a different type of documentary than some of the others I have on my list. The film has it own website.
Watched 30 April.

Behind the Headlines

By Daniel Sager
In the film’s Q&A, the interviewer, Mads Mikkelsen, asked about Sager’s attention to detail. I liked how Sager said that he has encountered people who are sceptical toward journalists and realised that they don’t know how journalists work. So the documentary does show a lot of the laborious fact-checking and the actual writing and editing process. This was excellent. I recognise that issue from my own world of technical communication (that fortunately doesn’t have the drama these journalists have) where people simply don’t know what the basics of the job entails, including the boring bits. You can see that things take time and that the work can be tedious at times. But the quality and precision does count.

Maybe the attention to what the job entails led to my initial confusion about the story in this film. The film starts out where two investigative journalists from Süddeutsche Zeitung are doing research about the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia. Then there is something about a mysterious arms dealer. Then the film covers their revelations about a scandal known today as Ibiza-Gate.

Ibiza-Gate was definitely huge news, but for a while I kept waiting to hear more about the other two stories. In a way, the film was not about any one story, but more about the need for free media and the rights and need for whistleblowers in the world. When I thought about the film that way, everything made perfect sense.
Watched 30 April.

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

By Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Recognise the last name of the two directors? Yup. William’s daughters. This is a film that grew from a presentation given by attorney Jeffrey Robinson, which grew from the responsibility he and his wife felt after talking care of her nephew for a short time. The film is indeed a chronicle of racism, or a necessary history lesson. Again, I feel I can throw all my school education out the window and start all over after learning how many lies and cover-ups I was taught! Watching this film would be a good starting point for anyone trying to learn about systemic racism and where do we go from here. The website for the Who We Are Project has loads of additional resources you can start reading.

If you think the documentary is tl;dr, then you can take away this equation that Jeffrey Robinson uses, which has one more element that I have seen previously – the legal aspect:

Racism = Predjudice + Social Power + Legal Authority

Watched 30 April.

The Dissident

By Bryan Fogel
This is such a painful and necessary documentary. It is an awful story, but that is where documentary filmmakers can help us to not forget. I remember when the news broke, but I didn’t read much about it. I shied away from the gory news articles, and I did believe the claims about the murder being ordered from very high up, and so on. Now I know they are not claims. Now I also know more than I ever wanted to know about this horrible murder of Jamal Khashoggi and how one individual and one government tries to control everyone as they see fit. The surveillance! The troll armies! Scary. Frightening. Horrifying. I hope this film is another way to amplify the voice of Hatice Cengiz.
Watched 1 May.

The Monopoly of Violence

By David Dufresne
The idea behind this French documentary filmed between November 2018 and February 2020 was rather brilliant. Show footage from street riots during the Yellow Vest protests to panels of different people and have them discuss their reactions to what they are shown. The resulting discussions are serious and sober, getting closer to the heart of the matter, although emotions did show through many times. I found lots of elements that could be the start of serious conversations about this topic. This was the “Don’t just watch. Listen.” in action!

Who has the right to say who is violent? Someone in the film says that demos show who has the power (meaning the police or the state). Is violence a right of those in power? Since when and why? Picking up pieces of destroyed property is wounding the pride of the source of the power! (I think that is something that was said in the film.)

One guy in the crowd shouts at the police that “we are the people. We pay you.”
“The power structure no longer decides what can and cannot be broadcast.”
“The police are there above all to protect institutions.”
One guy talks about the adjectives used with “violence” like “unprecedented”. He asks whether, if you just have the word violence to describe what is seen in the videos, how can you describe what happened at Bataclan? Good point!

I also liked an explanation given by Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, Emeritus Professor of Public Law, where she explained that democracy is often described as “instrumental formulas” – like a checklist. She says that is merely a means to democracy, but that they are not sufficient. “Democracy is not consensus, it is dissensus. If there is not dissensus, there is no democracy. If we all agree, there is something wrong.”
I caught some of the names of the panel participants: Alain Damasio, writer; Fabien Jobard, sociologist; Michel Forst, special raporteur to UN; Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, Emeritus Professor of Public Law;
Taha Bouhafs, journalist.

In 2014 France was degraded to a “Flawed Democracy” on the Democracy Index.
Watched 1 May.

When a City Rises

By Cathy Chu, Iris Kwong, Ip Kar Man, Huang Yuk-kwok, Evie Cheung, Han Yan Yuen, Jen Lee
This is a film about the 2019 protests in Hong Kong against the proposed national security law that has since been passed. The interview now in 2021 with 3 of the directors shows 2 of them with masks on and one of them with the camera off – all for security reasons. Very telling.

Evie Cheung said, “Freedoms are crumbling before our eyes”, and the moral is “don’t take your freedom for granted.” The directors hope for more eyes on Hong Kong. They don’t expect audiences to do anything, it is a Hong Kong story, but they hope it will help with more eyes on Hong Kong.

We see the protests in the streets, but we also see what is going on at home and on social media. In the credits, they thank the generous support of numerous individuals that enabled this film to be made. In the list of individuals, many are named “Anonymous” because naming them would endanger their lives. Stop a moment and think about that.
Watched 1 May.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

By Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott
You do not need to see the first movie (“The Corporation” from 2003) to watch this necessary sequel. Has The Corporation improved in the last 18 years? Now they all talk about corporate social responsibility and sustainability, but how sincere in that?

One scene early on got to me so much that I have to remark on it. Unsurprisingly, you see cleaning staff going around the Davos conference, as you might expect. However, at one point, the camera follows one cleaner using one of those trash picker-uppers to pluck cigarette stubs out of the snow piles outside one of the venues. I was furious. So you people who have massive amounts of wealth and power cannot put their cigarette stubs neatly into the trash bins themselves? What arrogant slobs! That speaks volumes to me.

There is no such thing as corporate social responsibility. – Robert Reich, economist, U.C. Berkeley

(The corporations don’t have the leeway to sacrifice shareholder concerns to do whatever they want.)
I am getting angrier and angrier as I watch this film. Oh, not at the filmmakers, but at their exposure of The Corporation’s playbook.

When they got to the topic of privatising education, for example, in the classroom (the example given was truly horrendous), I was suddenly reminded of the movie “To Live (“Huo Zhe”)”. There is a scene during the Chinese cultural revolution where all the older professors have been thrown out of universities and mainly into re-education camps where they were supposed to learn how to get off their high horse of thinking they knew so much. The students were supposed to become the teachers. A pregnant woman has a difficult labour and the students who are helping her freak out completely. They have no idea what to do. Someone fetches an experienced doctor from a camp to help save the woman, but he has no energy to think due to near starvation. An attempt to revive him with food and drink backfires, and the upshot is that the woman dies. It’s the disruption of the educational system that kills her.

Despite all the rage this film stirred up in me, it ended on a kind of happy note about people now actually pushing back and resisting.
I grabs some links to read in the film (don’t know if they are mentioned in the book):

This film also introduced me to journalist Anand Giridharadas whose book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” looks interesting.
The film is based on Joel Bakan’s book The New Corporation: How ‘Good’ Corporations are Bad for Democracy (book review). (Tip: Don’t buy it from Amazon.)
Watched 2 May.

Dear Future Children

By Franz Böhm
The film is by a 21-year-old filmmaker who introduces us to three female activists in Uganda, Hong Kong, and Chile. Their activism covers the climate crisis, democracy, and class struggle. Their willingness to fight against the wrongs in the world should make all in the older generations feel ashamed that they have let things go this far. These young activists will not shame their future children.

A language note. There are scenes similar to those in “When a City Rises” where the crowds have a chant that includes the Chinese words that literally mean “add oil”. This film uses the “add oil” translation. “When a City Rises” wrote a couple of more words, which I have forgotten, but I know they meant something like “keep on moving or progressing [with the struggle]”. I guess “add oil” is like oiling a machine – let’s keep the movement going. Without the explanation, the phrase can seem a bit odd.
You can read more about the film on its website.
Watched 2 May.

The Gig is Up

By Shannon Walsh
This is a film about the gig economy, and it left me feeling really, really uncomfortable.
We meet people working on Mechanical Turk (Amazon), Uber drivers, and bike messengers. Recent revelations about the conditions for delivery workers for an online grocery service make this film very timely. The film is so fresh that we also see the situation for an Uber driver during the pandemic – how does he pay his rent when he has no income because no one is going out?

Where do the workers’ rights go when we embrace this global gig economy. A scene where bike messengers are drilled in how to greet customers and thank them for using such-and-such a service gave me the shudders. Totally dehumanising (the way it was done). As the film blurb at CPH:DOX said, Shannon Walsh’s film makes you look your delivery people/Uber driver in the eyes and listen to their stories.
It makes me say RIP Mourad to the French bike messenger who had to speed down a steep street in the rain to make his deliveries on time, and ended up crashing and dying.

I captured a quote in the film, but I forget who said it:

Replacing the tyranny of a boss with the tyranny of an algorithm and as a computer scientist, I will tell you that that is much worse.

Watched 2 May.

Stay tuned for the third and final post about all the movies I watched at CPH:DOX.

2 Comments

  1. Chris
    Chris 14 May 2021

    Thanks for the tip about Life of Ivanna. I too hope Chen Quishi is alive, very brave guy. I must have missed the “anonymous” names in the credits of When a City Rises. The Gig is Up description reminds me of the superb drama Sorry we Missed You (2019), though Ken Loach’s film was set before covid-19.

    • Mardahl
      Mardahl 16 May 2021

      I really like Ken Loach. Like is an odd word. They certainly are not fun films! “Sorry we Missed You” has been on my To Watch list for ages. You do need to be in a certain mood to see his movies. I will now bump it up the list for the comparison, so to speak.
      I think everyone interviewed in “In the Same Breath” was extremely brave. The older woman who ran a clinic near the Wuhan market with her husband was very collected until she recounted how no one could help her husband. The crack in her facade came unexpectedly and was all the more poignant and heartbreaking because of that.
      For me, “Life of Ivanna” was also an exercise in making my prejudices shut up completely. Ivanna lives under circumstances where we in the West would typically say “I couldn’t live like that.” The thing is that we would fall apart in two minutes. Ivanna is made of much sterner stuff. I had humble respect for her by the end of the film. This was one of those films where you had to do what CPH:DOX said to do: Don’t just watch. Listen.

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