The Poetics of Lying: Notes on the 1st ‘Docs Ireland’

The more Belfast comes under the grip of modern city metrics of investment and hotel occupancies, the more important it is to champion alternative values like imagination, empathetic curiosity and aesthetic ambition.

In that vein, the Belfast Film Festival continues to be an asset to the city and its citizens. Hot off another successful year, and bolstered by the success of Pull Focus, last summer’s 3-day celebration of documentary, the BFF team staged the first Docs Ireland, their doc-exclusive spin-off festival. It comes at the right time. Irish documentary in particular is enjoying robust health: Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot was one of the standouts from last year’s BFF, and remains a key text for understanding the underworld pathologies of contemporary Northern Ireland. I was only able to attend a few events (full-time employment, the forever burden), and missed Alex Gibney’s talk (which provides the title for this post), but managed to catch a high-quality cluster of screenings.

Myself and a gaggle of uniformed schoolchildren eased into Day 1 programming with 2040, a skimmy, slick, cautiously optimistic climate change doc directed and hosted by Australia’s Damon Gameau. Apparently spurred on by fatherhood, Gameau tours a range of solutions to our present ecological panic, to see what future might look like for his adult daughter if these were actually implemented. Invited to the screening through educational charity Into Film, the kids were treated to basic science lessons in matters of carbon, heat and melting waters: the film’s slightly corny pedagogical vibe extends to cute little visual aides. There may have been a graph or two.

So, Gameau surveys a series of ideas and practices: decentralised solar grids, seaweed farms to combat ocean acidity, electric automated transport, plants to restore the health of farm soil and… feminism (educated women have fewer children). As suspect as the counter-programming instinct of making something that goes against “doom and gloom” narrative may be, there are things to learn, especially the necessity of large-scale plant projects to grab carbon from the air (there’s already too much) and, yes, reasons why opting out of the global meal supply system is probably something you should consider. Some will find Gameau’s golly-gee political head-scratching naive to the point of dangerousness. From The Thin Air:

There is a faint democratic edge to the themes of decentralised networks, controlled internal economies and the abandonment of Big Oil and Big Ag. As with any survey centred on innovation and individual changes, questions of politics or economies aren’t explored with the complexity and urgency they deserve. Gameau sits on his laptop “astonished” at the financial might of vested interests (really?), and briefly mentions the Tobacco-style misinformation tactics of fossil fuel corporations. The down-up solar grids he was so impressed by are illegal in most countries. Why is this? What can be done to change this?

A clanging warning against the worship of “innovators” and the reduction of politics to tech came in the form of Alex Gibey’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, a wild, wild tale of delusion and groupthink in Silicon Valley. The rise-and-fall arc is centred on Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, a company which promised to “disrupt” medical testing with a sleek, all-in-one piece of hardware that tests for every ailment under the sun with only needs a prick of blood. A vision of Jobsian minimalism: no needles, no red tape, no bother.

Despite (because of?) having no deliverable product ready, Holmes becomes a rockstar in the enterpeneureal press, a media ecosystem already vulnerable to godshittery. She is an inventor in the broadest possible linguistic sense: young, blonde and female, her multi-billion valuations are buoyed by the story she’s telling about herself and about a world that can be changed through sheer locomotive gumption. But blood, it turns out, is messy business, and reality delivers a boot to the face. Ethereal and distanced, Holmes is hard to nail down, which robs the film of some depth:

Through it all, Holmes remains unflappable and committed. She seems to permanently reside inside her own dream, untethered to ethical and financial logistics and to the grasp of the documentary itself. Without access to, or cathartic testimony from, Holmes, or a substantial treatment of what drove her, The Inventor feels incomplete. Still, it’s a fascinating test case of the cheery self-belief that sees success as just one failure away.  (The Thin Air)

A weird coincidence treated viewers at the Beanbag Cinema to a pair of documentaries set in Gort, a small Galway town near the Clare border. Treasa O’Brien’s Town of Strangers is the more immediately charming of the two, an assemblage of the town’s residents who find themselves, through birth, accident or chance, sharing the town. O’Brien herself is a casual presence in the film: she was in the town trying to cast non-actors for a scripted feature, but found herself drawn towards the energy and personality of the people who showed up at auditions, and decided to stick around, living out of her van.

What unites the cast is a sense of estrangement: the Afghan migrant who works at a pizza place, opening up about depression and loneliness and his primal awareness of outsider status. He’s cut off from his family, and physical and emotional distances between parents and children is a running theme.

Strangers is constructed mostly via interviews and observational footage of the town, but there are swerves. O’Brien digs into the cast’s unconscious, and actually gets some of them to act out recurring dreams, in awkwardly staged, curious segments. Joshua Oppenhiemer executive produced the film, and was O’Brien’s doctoral advisor, and there is an obvious connection there with The Act of Killing and its spectacular reenactments. But O’Brien is less pressing, and lets much go unspoken. What comes across, in a film interested in definitions of ‘home’, is the permanently unsettled nature of personhood.

The economic difficulties of the town are of more concern in Keith Welsh’s When All is Ruin Once Again, a stark monochrome meditation on time and nature which uses the local motorway, abandoned half-finished when the Celtic Tiger imploded, as narrative structure, and a potent metaphor for death, the ultimate ‘end of the road’. Ten years in the making, Ruin opens and closes with Thoor Ballylee Castle, or “Yeats Tower”, Yeatsian verse providing the title, with its suggestion of decay and cyclical return. There is a Malickian beauty in the weaving countryside photography, and an alienating distance in the portraits of the townspeople, playing cards or chatting in the pub. Rousing eco-moral audio about Creation’s ruin provide a contrast to the casual tone of 2040.

More breezy was Elizabeth Sankey’s film-essay Romantic Comedy, the Beyond Clueless director unpacking the now-thoroughly problematised genre, which acts as a repository for Hollywood’s weirdest assumptions about sex, love and gender. The class and race dimensions of Sankey’s critique are obvious enough, but there are good insights about the kind of masculinities the genre encourages. A section about the progressive rom-coms from non-English markets was intriguing and merited expansion, as were suggestions of how rom-com tropes and structures have been assimilated into other, more male-marketable features. I walked away convinced that film-essays need to be liberated from Youtube and brought to the big screen their clips were designed for, and more should come with a bopping original score.

Indian screen icon Aamar Khan was in the city in the spring for the BFF, and he appears again as a narrator and producer of Rubaru Roshni, a TV documentary directed by Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal broadcast this January. The movie relates three stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. The first is the murder of a Hindi politician and his wife by a Sikh radical and the grief of their orphaned daughter; the second the killing of a nun by a gullible sharecropper radicalised through religious paranoia; the third an American woman who lost her husband and daughter in the 2008 Mumbai bombings and shootings by terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Rubaru Roshi could have used a slimmer runtime, and has some of that special-report earnestness, but presents astonishing stories of big-hearted grace. The stories throw up interesting suggestions about the hidden role of economics and class in violence: when questioned by police, the only surviving perpetrator of the Mumbai attacks talks not about religion, but the indignity of poverty, and parental pressure to make money. Samandar Singh, the murderer of the middle story, essentially got groomed by landlords and moneylenders, who were pissed off at Sister Rani Maria (who was subsequently beautified by Pope Francis) for helping farmers get around their extortionate interest rates.

The most fascinating cast member is Singh. Rani Maria’s s/Sisters may have forgiven him, and extended the hand of love and reconciliation, but he says he will never forgive himself, because he doesn’t consider himself to have that right. Pausing in his small onion field to worry about rainfall, he breaks down, a picture of total desolation. Violence is short, and life is long.

The tricky gymnastics of forgiving and forgetting are examined in Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s The Silence of Others. Spain’s Francoist period closed with the officially-mandated amnesia of the ‘Pact of Forgetting’, but the survivors of the regime’s horrors – torture, mass graves, infant kidnapping – cannot forget. They want justice, and they’ll solicit foreign courts if they have to. It’s a disturbing but dignified film, and it’s easy to read local parallels in atrocity’s extended emotional fallout. From the review:

Some of those enlisted in the suit want justice, others want the remains of family exhumed for resolution going into the afterlife. All live with the brokenness of unacknowledged trauma, the long tail effects of state-sanctioned cruelty by people who got off scot-free, often maintaining their positions in the judicial or security apparatus. Visually and thematically, Silence echoes Northern Irish historical justice docs like Sean A. Murray’s Unquiet Graves: steady procedural rhythm, archive footage, dinner tables with folders and laptops, an uphill fight for recognition.

Religious life and its rhythms animate Anna Frances Ewert’s Lovers of the Night, an hour-long slice of spiritual satisfaction that centres on seven elderly monks of a small Irish Cisterian monastery. Lovers captures the gentle daily routines and introspective musings of monastic existence: a television for watching the rugby is the only intrusion of noisy electronic modernity. Thoughtful and cheerful, the men themselves are well-suited to talking to camera, reflecting on a life of devotion that’s facing an uncertain future. There is an inevitable Father Ted lightness – e.g. a monk trying to wrangle a wayward calf – but mostly it’s earnest and unpretentious, with a beautiful, wistful closing shot of stained-glass sunlight shifting in the chapel.

Religiously-enforced isolation is a rather more brutal arrangement in closing-night film Gaza. What does a modern siege look like? What are its material and emotional effects? And its coping strategies? Born out of Irish photographer’s Andrew McConnell’s “Gaza surfers” project, and directed by McConnell and Garry Keane, the film is a postcard from a desperate shoreline.

“There is a barrier separating the people of Gaza from life itself” muses a theatre performer, who provides poetic commentary on the struggle of those living in the ravaged Mediterranean enclave. Habitually designated as the world’s largest open-air prison, the Gaza Strip is locked in and sealed shut, the passageways to neighbours Isreal and Egypt closed, and a blockade patrolling the waters. There is no trade in or out, fishing is limited to the shallow waters 3 miles out, and there is little agriculture to speak off. The siege is essentially an act of slow-motion starvation.

Gaza, which gets a limited release this August, is a rare and moving insight into the psychologies of the 2 million confined Palestinians. From the flotsam most try to assemble something resembling a normal life, making money or making art. But there’s an essential hopelessness that suffocates any ambition. What comes through is the resilience of the Gaza citizens, and the sheer waste of locking them away from the world. (The film’s directors and producers are supporting an initiative for a Gaza Red Carpet film festival: donations can be made here.)

So, programming which began with hope ends on despair. Spectacular drone-eye vistas of conflict–fences, tear gas clouds, scattered masses–offer a bracing glimpse into a disordered present, and an approximation of likely futures.

‘The Silence of Others’ Docs Ireland Review: Franco’s Ghosts Haunt Spain

“Spain is covered in mass graves.”

Buried wells of grief and pain stir underneath Spain’s transition from decades-long dictatorship to holiday destination democracy in Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s El silencio de otros (The Silence of Others), a sobering, difficult documentary with deep resonance for our own state and its preoccupation with protocols of remembering and forgetting.

Mass executions, concentration camps, torture stations, stolen babies. Francoist Spain was a horror story, one that occupies less space in cultural memory than comparable collections of atrocities. Part of the reason for this is the so-called Pact of Forgetting, a bill passed following Franco’s death in 1975, which granted amnesty to all political prisoners and, crucially, the instruments of the fascist state itself. The Amnesty marked an official insistence on historical amnesia, which encouraged citizens not to dwell or pick at wounds, but to forget, move on and embrace Spanish modernity.

But legislative memory and emotional memory are different things, and it’s this tension that animates The Silence of Others, where the wounded are forced to confront the evils done to them, in the face of an uncomfortable establishment.

José María Galante lives across the street from the man who tortured him three times in his twenties, a slice of geography named after one of the regime’s high-ranked butchers. Galante, alongside the late human rights lawyer Carlos Slepoy, spearheads a legal project to achieve historic justice and see the perpetrators of terror brought before the courts to answer for their crimes.

Blocked by the Amnesty in Spain, the activists turn to the idea of Universal Jurisdiction, the concept that crimes against humanity can be prosecuted anywhere, by any judge, the same manoeuvre that saw Augusto Pinochet arrested at a London hospital in 1998 on order of a Spanish magistrate. The activists enlist a sympathetic Argentinean judge and begin the unwieldy process of organising testimonies and plaintiffs, many of whom have very limited time left. Like María Martín, whose mother lies in a mass grave underneath a highway, and bears the haunted look of someone who has been hurting and waiting for too long. When one woman is finally given the chance to look on, and claim, the bones of her father, the relief and catharsis is overwhelming.

Some of those enlisted in the suit want justice, others want the remains of family exhumed for resolution going into the afterlife. All live with the brokenness of unacknowledged trauma, the long tail effects of state-sanctioned cruelty by people who got off scot-free, often maintaining their positions in the judicial or security apparatus.

Visually and thematically, Silence echoes Northern Irish historical justice docs like Sean A. Murray’s Unquiet Graves: steady procedural rhythm, archive footage, dinner tables with folders and laptops, an uphill fight for recognition. It is a sad, angry, dignified film about the courage of articulation.

Originally published at The Thin Air as part of its Docs Ireland coverage

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ Review: A Titanic Bore

The world is ending. And even if politicians don’t know it, blockbuster cinema does.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the lizard king’s thirty-fifth film and the third in Legendary’s MonsterVerse (sigh) franchise, begins soaked in the visual vocab of disaster. Fire, rain, rubble, and parents screaming the names of buried children. In the background, skydiving trails signal the stand-out set-piece from 2014’s Godzilla, whose domestic drama has been swapped for Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chander’s estranged married couple and their daughter (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) dealing with the realities of a post-monster world. Sort of, but not really: King of the Monsters struggles to convert its big, abstract ideas into storytelling that feels as big as its beloved beasties.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla had its problems, but something it understood was the importance of communicating not simply size, but the impression of size. There’s a reason the juiciest parts of monster disaster drama tend to be the buildup, the glimpses, the hushed panic and, of course, the close-ups of people turning and looking off-camera at some spectacular impossibility.

There’s a lot of turning and looking in Godzilla: at the big man himself, at the Avengers-style assemblage of Titans, at important data on a screen. The Spielberg Face has become, by now, a well-mocked super-trope, but blockbusters like this remind you how hard it is to nail those moments of awe and revelation, and how skilful Spielberg was at managing the proportions of the big and the small, connecting pulpy horrors to ordinary people and their astonishment.

Michael Dougherty and Zack Shields (the former directs) populate the human element of Godzilla with basic, near-archetypal motivations, and leave them running on automatic. Emma Russell (Farmiga) has developed a kind of Titan sonar to help communicate with the proliferating giants— say hello to Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah — and gets wrapped up in Charles Dance’s plan to resurrect the old gods and “restore balance” to a chaotic, polluted world.

Chandler’s Mark Russell is a tough-talker who just wants his family back, and does table-banging outbursts about how Monarch, the monsters’ official wranglers, are playing God, dammit. Thomas Middleditch is a twitchy nerd. The always-welcome Bradley Whitford is a scientist with a dry Whitfordian tongue. Ken Watanabe says pseudo-profound things about having faith in Godzilla’s benevolence. Ziyi Zhang is an academic who pulls up info-dumps on the fly as if ever other scientist in the room is an idiot. Lacking even the faintest cadence of how people actually talk to one another, every looking-at-screens scene is peppered with boilerplate, scary number dialogue. 100 feet and closing! ETA 90 seconds!

Dramatically, King of the Monsters feels small, people in rooms hatching plans, then changing them, the story swinging this way and that. A bizarre extra-terrestrial details about the Titans is suggested, and everyone just accepts it immediately. There is over-explaining and under-reacting. When a character jumps ship to the bad guys and outlines her reasons — a fashionable Malthusean cynicism — the screen flashes up visual cues, like she’s giving a PowerPoint titled “Mankind is the Infection”.

There is something potentially interesting and relevant here. Born in the mushroom cloud, Godzilla is an ideal metaphorical conduit for climate change panic, and vaguer, nameless anxieties of humans vulnerable to hostile forces larger than themselves. But this is first-draft construction that cedes attention to the kaijus without giving them memorable visual personality. By the time we get to their inevitable twelve rounds, it’s a climax with the impersonal grandeur of the wind boxing the hail. And it’s hard to get excited about the weather. 

Originally published at The Thin Air

The Awfulness of Fancying People (Romeo & Juliet is a warning)

I was in love. For the first time.

I made her a collage.

??

Then I painted it.

(I can’t paint.)

Then I stole from Shakespeare:

Take her and cut her out in little stars,

And she will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Nice, right?

Except I wrote garnish sun.

Garnish, like mustard, or mayonnaise.

And pay no worship to the mayonnaise sun.

She took it home and put it up above her family table.

Every trip round for dinner was a reminder that I am:

1) a romantic

2) an absolute fucking glipe

Also, weird that the quote talks about mutilating your beloved. Violent, no? But we’ll get back to that.


Everyone thinks ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’ means ‘where are you Romeo?’. But it actually means ‘why are you Romeo?’

Why do I fancy the one boy that’s off-limits?

Names are a big thing in Romeo & Juliet.

‘In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge?’ wonders Romeo, ‘Tell me that I may sack / The hateful mansion’.

‘A rose by any other name’, and all that.

He doesn’t want to be Romeo. ‘Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d’. He wants to change.

And the thing is, he does. As much as the play insists on the iron bars of rival surnames, it freaks out about how feelings make us forget ourselves.

Eventually the Friar, who has to listen to the wailing and the whining, loses it and tells Romeo to GET IT TOGETHER. ‘Rouse thee, man!’

‘Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote / The unreasonable fury of a beast.’

He makes the case for counting your blessings and loving in moderation.

lolgoodluckbro

Romeo & Juliet is the most famous love story on the planet.

But it’s not a romance. It’s a warning.

It’s a play about how awful it is to be young and thirsty.

With its impatience, compressed time, messy dramas and final act of mutual relief, Romeo & Juliet’s form mimics the rhythms of the horny human animal.


Death, death, death. The thing’s soaked in it.

It’s not just foreshadowing. Loving means dying. Romeo’s a goner as soon as he sees her, because it’s impossible to carry on as before.

You can live your ~best life~, and you can love yourself all day long, but then, oh no, you actually fancy someone and there goes all of that.

Fuuuuuuck why won’t she text back?

Attraction is a kind of double possession. Your head is a haunted house.

There is a disintegration of whatever it is you’ve been carefully curating.

(Hence the cutting up.)

fall in

fall a part


Self-help influencers encourage us to massage internal fuckery with smooth, managerial care. Observe, label, detach. Don’t get your hopes up just yet.

Meanwhile, the poly crowd sing serenades to Google Calendar. So organised.

And all that’s better than dysfunction, for sure. It’s better than bad boundaries and projecting your shit and gulping down poison because Life Is Nothing Without Her.

When you don’t take drugs, and you don’t get drunk anymore, and you exercise and manage the mental health, what else is there?

I have brown sugar, nice sentences and getting my head melted. That’s it.

Isn’t it fun to tumble down the hole a little?

Maybe it’s good to forget your self.

Like,

what’s so great about how you are?

Originally published on Medium / follow on Insta for more over-sharing

‘Papi Chulo’ Review: Matt Bomer’s Sunny Queer Alienation

2016’s Handsome Devil, a minor hit and the second film from Irish director John Butler, turned on issues of gay estrangement and unlikely male friendship. It balanced melodrama and excesses — like Andrew Scott’s literature teacher and his ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ grandstanding — with a genuinely sweet consideration of the loneliness and alienation that comes with being young, gay and wayward. Butler channelled his own difficult queer history into a generally broad treatment, a heightening and blending of Irish cinematic tones. Papi Chulo takes Butler out of the island for the first time, but operates along similar thematic and tonal lines for its story of a heartbroken, isolated gay man (Matt Bomer) in the middle of a breakdown.

Sean is a Los Angeles weatherman (it’s always hot) with morning TV good looks, who is sent on “gardening leave” after he starts sobbing live on camera. With nothing to do, Sean sits alone in a shiny, modernist, soulless house on the hill, cradling his phone on his chest and dialling his ex so he can hear the voicemail message, the jittery, compulsive anxiety of a man not used to sitting alone with his thoughts. He’s a man in cheery denial, insisting to his colleague he definitely wasn’t crying, or he’ll definitely go talk to someone, or to strangers that’s definitely not that crazy weatherman from the viral clip. Sean has a resistance to vulnerability that feels partly American, partly queer: later he confesses to a casual, internalised homophobia, a sort of emotional under-girder for his polite repression.

Distracted by a bad job on his deck, Sean loads up on supplies and hires a middle-aged Mexican labourer named Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) for two days of painting. Ernesto basically doesn’t speak English, which is a plus: Sean can blather on about all his junk and his visitor just smiles, saying si, si. Ernesto becomes a kind of salaried companion to his lonely, bored employer; they spend his shift going on paddle boat rides and hikes (the title translates as “pimp daddy”). The painting is put off. When friends assume they are a couple, Sean, who apparently has a thing for Latino men, doesn’t correct them.

If this sounds exploitative, it’s because it is, and the film can’t quite grab the nettle of how creepy it is. It mostly plays the odd-couple dynamic for light laughs, Sean’s pseudo-romantic enthusiasm met with Ernesto’s softly worn obliviousness. Some small effort is made to give Ernesto personhood beyond the role of chubby, guileful Latino sidekick.— we see him travelling home after another day’s gig, or laughing with his wife about the bizarre activities with the Gringo — but this isn’t a complex character piece.

Sean is abusing his privilege and pushing boundaries, and when he goes too far, and Ernesto withdraws, the understandable but unsettling desperation, which has been lying just below the surface, in the awkward goodbyes when he has to get the cash out, suddenly ratchets up, into a near-frenzy. Bomer’s performance is essentially “what if a perfect doll had too much feeling”, projecting a restless, unshowy unhappiness that is accentuated, rather than negated, by his blazing handsomeness. Butler has a way of getting performers to bring moments of truth to slightly hackey setups. A self-hating gay man downing spirits in the shower is blunt and cliched, but the tense build-up and Bomer’s rawness make it work.

A compelling, moving final act, centred on rock-bottom grief, brings the film up a level, but even then Butler can’t resist clumsy story-telling. The weather’s hot spell breaks with Sean’s emotional fever, a catharsis you can see coming the moment a background radio starts talking about the city’s parched drought. A final reunion between the two men is too on the nose, as is a bow-tie narration from Sean, indulgences that slacken the story’s otherwise emotionally taut fallout. 

Originally published at The Thin Air 07/06/19