Documentary Reviews: Blackfish / Grizzly Man / Searching For Sugarman

Last year I stumbled across some excellent documentary films through my generic film rental account and wanted to flag them up here. They encompass diverse subject matter and themes which are variously: fascinating, thought provoking, dramatic, entertaining and eminently watchable in their content.

Blackfish (2013) is a focus on the ethical issues involved in the capture of Orcas for performance show at parks such as SeaWorld. The film’s narrative chiefly follows the fate of one Orca in particular, Tilikum, but also situates the controversies and the concerns in its broader place within the entertainment industry. It is a very powerful documentary that involves interviews with several former SeaWorld employees, and one present. It shows how the animals were captured, separated from family members, trained and taught to perform for the entertainment of the audiences, and how the trainers bonded with the animals.  It also has footage of several trainers receiving serious injuries from the whales, in three cases leading to tragic deaths.  The trainers involved who were now testifying, clearly had great affection for the animals, and felt naively, in their own words, that they were forming positive relationships with the Orcas and weren’t subjecting them to any indecent cruelty.

The witnesses do come mostly from former industry insiders ( trainers ) and  long term critics; and  footage available from the 80s when the whales were captured and during the training certainly helps support and facilitate engagement with the arguments put forth by those most critical. Whilst there is a defending voice present in the documentary, a current employee who attempts to downplay the concerns, the general thrust is understandably polemic in it’s approach. That is not a criticism: from the  evidence and testimony put forth, it becomes a drama in which critics seek answers to the failings that led to multiple human deaths and also whale injury as a result of the practices. It tries to hold SeaWorld in particular to account for its actions, and for anyone watching it seems to hard to deny there is serious negligence and culpability involved to some degree. In doing so it also raises the ethical spectre of capturing wild animals for human amusement.

It is shocking, well narrated and very interesting, at the very least provoking further questions over the means by which animals in general  are utilised for human entertainment. Where is the ethical line which must not be breached? As a starting point, this film highlights at least one tragic case where this has already been crossed.  Ever powerful viewing, it leaves an indelible mark on the mind long after the film has ended.

Searching For Sugarman (2013) – is an altogether different film, removed from such controversial debates. Sixto Rodriguez was an early 70’s musician who after an initial fleeting success appeared to fade into obscurity, in western consciousness, but had become a huge success in South Africa during Apartheid amongst the liberal rock fan community.  After his success has ended there, the rock community has been awash with rumours that ‘the man-the myth’ had committed suicide in outlandish fashion, with the method of death varying from rumour to rumour.

The documentary is made by Malik Benjelloul, who came across Sixto’s story whilst travelling through Africa, and struck by the tales attached to this musician, he charts two particular fans efforts to discover the truth behind the rumours, with plenty of material and interview footage developed in the process. It is a film about music, obsession and questing, as much a reflection of the makers mindset as it is of the subject matter itself, if not moreso.

It is  clearly a very personal project, which is the film’s greatest strength charting the search by a pair of South African music fanatics, with their enthusiasm self evident as they discuss the impact of Rodriguez on their youth in the political climate of Apartheid, and the soundtrack is obviously full of the artists recordings which provide a wonderful rhythm to proceedings. It is worth noting that  the less you know about how the documentary unfurls the better, as it accentuates the enjoyment that little bit further, so I won’t reveal any more details, suffice to say it is a very heartfelt story that is knitted together so well by Benjelloul who ran his funds to the limit, requiring the use of his mobile phone camera for a spell to help complete the project.

Grizzly Man ( 2005 ): It’s a return to human-animal relationships here, with Werner Herzog’s documentary on the life of Timothy Treadwell – a man who has a clear love / obsession with Grizzly bears. The film meshes interviews with those who knew Treadwell with footage that Treadwell himself had taken whilst out filming the bears in the wild. What starts out as an innocent profile of a man with a very keen interest becomes a complex study of his personality entirely. It is clear that Treadwell fancies himself as an educator for children, of promoting an affection for animals in nature, he even believes strongly in the ability to form close bonds with the animals themselves – and these claims and the man himself are examined chiefly through his own words and images themselves. The footage he takes of the animals is clearly very impressive, he gets remarkably close up to the bears – and other animals whose paths he crosses – and is suggestive of a man who has found his calling, yet the portrait develops into an altogether more complicated image.

It is an extraordinary watch, and Herzog has had to go through many hours worth of reel to weave together a profile of the man, of what he – Herzog – believes he can conclude from this tale of obsession. It is an identity that is inevitably partially rooted in how Treadwell’s youth shaped him – interviews with family members suggest he had his struggles – whilst Werner as narrator vocally provides his own impressions too – but it is possibly the confessional nature of Treadwell’s own lens that often prove most revealing of a personality that becomes ever more disturbing and odd the more we see.  The nature of attention and a certain sort of fame he begins to attract, evidently takes hold in his psyche, and affects his own perception of his relationship with the animals.

That there is a tragic conclusion to the tale becomes inevitable after his repeat journeys year on year; he invites a friend up to join him one particularly fateful summer when food shortages have left the bears hungrier and bolder, leading to an unsurprising fatal attack.  We have the coroner marking the final moments of Treadwell in bizarrely detached fashion, whilst the sight of Herzog himself listening to the final moments of Treadwell – the recording equipment was on – heightens the impact further especially when Herzog then immediately warns anyone not to listen to the tape for their own good.

As is the norm with anything Herzog does, there is no set polemical judgement available but rather a profoundly complex distillation of a certain kind of life that reflects the many lights of a human spirit across its broad spectrum, and it leaves you fundamentally engaged and entranced in its encapsulation ( in my view ) of the limits of man’s relationship with nature.


Film Review – American Interior

I was going to plump this review in with a list of other films, as per the last few updates but I wouldn’t wish it to become lost among blockbusters that are already well known. This is a wonderful indie film that deserves more recognition, and so here gets some special privilege.

This is American Interior, a film that I was fortunate enough to see in a tent at the Green Man Festival in August 2014. The film is the creation of Gruff Rhys the Welsh singer of the band Super Furry Animals. It is a documentary that charts Rhys’ efforts to follow in the footsteps of an ancestral relative John Evans, who in the 1770’s was obsessed by the  apocryphal tale of a 12th century Prince Madoc who supposedly discovers America before Columbus. The legend continues on to suggest there remained a welsh-speaking native american tribe still in existence somewhere in the margins of the american wilderness.  In a literal sense then the film is about Gruff Rhys going to America to retrace the footsteps of Evans to see how far he got in tracking down this elusive tribe. It inevitably has far more strings to its bow. 

From the moment we are introduced to John Evans’ old home in Wales, we are following Gruff via both cut-aways of him hosting small solo gigs across town halls in America as well as the direct documentary footage of his trek across the American plains. Accompanying Gruff is a very sweet puppet representation of the old relative (a pretty useful indicator of the film’s tone ) as off they go across the seas in search of connection.

It is artistically shot, and accompanying some of the more expansive depictions of the vast geography of the route undertaken is a pulsating sound track performed by Rhys himself,  providing an equally enjoyable accompanying album also entitled American Interior. It is the meeting with and discussions he has with characters over there that are most interesting, particularly one with an elder of the Mandan tribe – for whom linguistic extinction is a very real threat. As a proud Welshman, this clearly resonates with the myth and Gruff himself, and makes for an engaging reflection on the inseparable relationship that connects, language, culture and collective identity. We also learn of the value that John Evans’ expeditions then gave to the mapping of the lands in the northern areas of America, and thus the boundary of the very young American territory, among many other snippets of wisdom, folklore and historical discovery.

It is funny, eccentric, and constantly engaging: journeying through a film full of american cambrophiles, somewhat potty local historians, eloquent Native Americans, and the diversely challenging physical terrains of the North American landscape, not to mention  the winding narratives of history. It is an ode to mythology as much as it is a biopic of Gruffs ( very) great uncle. It’s heart is so warm, it can’t fail to charm the pants of anyone watching it, whilst the musical accompaniment that helps tell the tale, invigorates the travelling soul and fires the curious spirit within,  challenging you reflect on what your old ancestors got up to too!

8.5/10 Strengths: A rhythmic journey of exploration, that is made so charming and entertaining by a slightly mad, proud Welshman, full of historical intrigue. Weakness’: I wanted to know more


Book Review – Defying The Nazis In Vichy France – Caroline Moorehead

Before moving on to more Camus, my latest library book to read was a new non-fiction book that was released this year, and oddly enough was about  the real world history that provided Camus with his allegory for The Plague (“La Peste”).



This historical account looked to explore the reality behind a world that saw  communities on a geographically – and in some sense spiritually –  remote Plateau in southern France save or assist the lives of hundreds if not a few thousand children from the violent fate of internment and deportation and subsequent death in the Polish camps.

Like many accounts of French resistance during the war, this event  has not escaped the mythologizing trend of the post-war generations and Moorehead is upfront about the challenges of discovering and re-constructing the ‘truth’ from a multitude of competing sources, and eye-witness accounts. She has travelled around the world interviewing survivors and has immersed herself in the documents of the period including several personal diaries of key protagonists. That these numerous accounts do not always match up is a fact the author ensures we are keenly aware of.  She further references a colloquium that was held in 1990 on the Vivarais-Lignon Plateau at Le Chambon,  attended by many inhabitants and survivors  that broke into fierce rancour over memory wars.

Certain memories have more favourable impressions of some of the german officers stationed there, such as Bach and Schmauling, whereas others are more cynical. In a world where secrecy and the ability to possess a deceptively deadpan grasp for duplicity, asserting knowledge of the motive for many of the actors here is naturally challenging. The capacity for resistance was not uniform,  and for some it was as simple as passively accepting the enlarged community, others it was a case of not informing the authorities, on a point of principle: this is our world, outsiders can sod off, including Vichy and Hitler. Moorehead, fronts up about the ambiguous recollections and representations of these, and other personalities, allowing as far as possible the reader to consider the reality for themselves.

With this in mind, Moorehead does exceptionally well to create a coherent thread that weaves through many of the key characters who helped rescue, shelter and protect the children in the villages upon the hill, whilst also deploying the typical caution of a historian wary of asserting a definitive truth where evidence is either limited or too conflicted.  The narrative unfolds along a broadly chronological strand, introducing initial victims of the internment camps at Gurs or Rivesaltes, with accompanying depiction of the appalling conditions those detained there endured.

The spectre of the Holocaust remains central to the narrative: this is in no way a focus on a secluded, detached world far from the horrors of persecution. There are numerous tales of those for whom the capriciousness of fate saw one set of children successfully escape a camp, whilst another did not, and died either at Drancy or in Poland.  However many Holocaust testimonies one may read, the power of reading emotive histories of the tragedy never fails to leave an impact, such as happens with that of the naming of little Sylvie Mancker… ‘who was gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, on her first birthday.’

Religion appears to play a significant part in this particular tale, with many of the resisters fiercely protestant in their devotion to resisting evil. And whilst the general community are mainly Protestant here – Moorehead includes an interesting account of the religious background of the locale – they are assisted by many other denominations, not least of all the very active Darbyists sect whose role is to be thoroughly commended, whilst there are Jewish groups ( where it is possible ) and some Catholic priests too who also provide assistance. Indeed, despite the rather sad and depressing decision making taken at the head of the Catholic Church during this period, at the ground level there were plenty who were revolted by the treatment of Jews.

The greatest strength in this book is in how Moorehead brings great depth to the Pastors, Abbe’s and individual lives of those who lived there; the impact of the magnetic Andre Trocme or the resilient spirit of Daniel Curtet for example;  those who ran the multitude  schools and homes that were established there to care for the effectively orphaned children by this point, and those who rescued kids from the internment camps and/or helped take some across the Swiss borders into safety, at extreme risk, and sadly not all were successful. It is also a complex web that links many of the characters together, and it is far from a clearcut depiction of simple heroism. As mentioned, there are enigmatic characters, for whom neither a characterisation of ‘collabo’ or ‘resisteur’ would be appropriate,  and many inhabitants who acted out of a sense of unavoidable duty rather than a pro-active direct warmth towards the voluminous guests that were imposed on their villages.

Lucid, evocative and informative it provides a fascinating historical narrative of a community for whom a natural sensibility for humility and quiet spirit has not been as broadly known as perhaps it should be. It touches on the memorial debates that have persisted for decades ever since the first challenges to the Petainist and de Gaullist myths of the immediate post-war world arose from the mid 1960s onwards, and invites the reader to examine the history with a cautious mind but throughout, the level research and engaging articulation successfully convey the tension and danger of the activity that was undertaken during the Occupation.

Furthermore, on a personal note it is interesting as a companion piece to reading La Peste previously There are frequent references to Camus’ stay in this region and it’s impact on his creation of his famous allegorical tale, and meeting characters who may well have provided the real life inspiration for characters such as Dr. Rieux – in Moorehead’s book we meet a Dr. Forestier – a deeply principled man – whose characterisation is humane, memorable and all more tragic for it’s fatal ending – he was one of the unlucky ones caught by the Gestapo and Milice and executed, but not before playing a hugely vital role in assisting the saving of many others. Forestier, like all the others named here, deserve their stories to be heard, for there positive model of human resistance, and affirmation of decency in a tremendously dark spell in European history, are welcome histories.

Film Review – “Come and See” ( WW2 Drama, Russia, 1985)

Remembering ones collective history’s more traumatic moments has always been a popular draw for film-makers and audiences alike. They act as cultural artefacts that can facilitate a group identity or memory in communal points of reference. Benedict Anderson utilised an image of ‘imagined communities’ that suggests we are bound to each other through various collective experience and reference points that those within our group will share and identify with.

This obviously isn’t merely a function of film, but any cultural representation, and its influence on the group dynamic is such that for example, any good authoritarian regime worth its salt is always quite concerned with how the history is told; to recall the oft quoted line that ‘history is always written by the winners.’  The ‘who’ of any author, director or artistic creator, ought to be considered regardless of broader political environments.

“Come and See” is an historical film set in Belorussia in 1943 during the German invasion and acts as a testament to the brutality of war, as seen through the experience of a twelve year old boy, Florya.  The film was made and produced in the 80s whilst the Soviet Union was still alive and kicking, yet the explicit war politics are subtlely diffused by a focus on the trauma and the suffering. The characterisation of the German soldiers is I suppose reasonably standard, but when one is dealing with the particularly horrific events that are portrayed here, it is difficult to mould a complicated image of a culprit spirit that systematically eradicates entire villages of its inhabitants through intolerably cruel methods.

However, the greater message is of the horrors of war in general. Through Florya, we are taken on a personal journey from an innocent boy playing with his friend, eagerly trying to find a gun buried in the sand in order that he can be allowed to join up with the other soldiers, to one who, alongside a young female companion who joins him early on, learns oh so quickly and graphically the reality that shatters the illusion. His performance is terrific, with eyes that age dramatically as the film goes on, indeed in one scene towards the end, a slightly blurred close up in the aftermath of  a tragic fire, paints an impression of a face that could easily be that of a 50 year old man.

The direction of Elem Klimov is masterful throughout, and he marshals a narrative brimming with a foreboding sense of doom so well that the long length of the film passes by unnoticed.  The sound is a particularly well done feature in my view, from the moment the first shells land near the young Florya, rendering him disorientated and for a time, deaf. It is contained within a brief couple of scenes yet it’s effectiveness is striking.  There are moments within the film which enable a viewer with prior-knowledge of the history of the period to guess what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t shy away from proving you right, leaving an haunting impression on the mind.

The film is a testament to the specific sufferings of communities in the East under the German advance but also the tragedy of the impact of war in general. In its cultural historical context, it sits well with other depictions of the period, offering another point of comparison to the suffering endured. As a companion to other offerings from the other side – such as the film based on an anonymous diary –   ‘A Woman in Berlin’ which charts the rape of German women by Soviet soldiers, it is an important part in reconstructing the tapestry of violence that was the Second World War.