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.

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