Guth Gafa Review: A Cambodian Spring

 

Maria Flood takes a look at Chris Kelly’s award-winning A Cambodian Spring, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring examines a range of issues pertinent to global life in the present day: the failures of multi-national organizations, state corruption, uneasy alliances between Church and state, and the role of citizen resistance to power. Set in present-day Cambodia, the film took 6 years to make, and it offers what Kelly calls an ‘unapologetically subjective portrait’ centred around three individuals who were caught up in the land protests that came to be known as the ‘Cambodian Spring’: the Buddhist monk Venerable Sovath, and residents and activists Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny.

The fact that filming took place over six years allows Kelly to offer a teleological account of the protests, beginning with the initial resistance of the residents of Boeung Kak, a lakeside area in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. In 2007, the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen (in power since 1985), leased the land around the lake to the company Shukaku Inc., an organization with ties to members of Hun Sen’s political party. Land titles and land grabs have a long, violent and painful history in Cambodia. Following French colonialism, for several decades from 1930 onwards, land was owned privately and not distributed to the people. This changed in the 1950s, but when the horrific regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 they confiscated all lands through land grabs, the destruction of homes, military violence, torture, and executions. The traumas of Cambodia’s history, including the genocide of 1.5 – 3 million people, are never far from the surface in this film. At several points, protesters are seen facing off with the military and the police, and they compare these agents of the state with the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.

Yet this narrative is not specific to present=day Cambodia because the visual imaginary Kelly evokes speaks to global concerns. Kelly lends pathos to the images of vulnerable, unarmed civilians confronting faceless antagonists who are protected by helmets, shields, weapons, uniforms, and the power of a militarized state. These images conjure a global vocabulary of dissent, from Venezuela, to the Arab Spring, Ferguson, and the Parisian banlieue. The destruction of the natural environment of the lake, the theft of the villagers agrarian livelihoods, and the indifference of the bulldozers who destroy the residents’ homes all speak to the environmental chaos and greed that structure the current neoliberal communion between private profit and government indifference.

By highlighting how property, private enterprise and the state are connected in a corrupt web that disenfranchises the individual citizen, the film points to a worldwide issue: one only has to think of the recent tragedy in Grenfell Tower in London and the privatization of vast tracts of public land by local councils in that city to see that this is a larger struggle. Venerable Sovath also points to this interconnectedness when he refuses to exploit his position as a monk to ignore the villagers, saying, ‘if the people are poor, the monks will be poor’.

Kelly is firmly situated on the ideological side of the activists, evidenced through the use of their personal footage and the fact that any scenes of the government and officials are shot from the perspectives of the protestors. However, the style itself is less subjective: more ‘fly on the wall’ than the ‘fly in the soup’: we never see the filmmakers on camera, or have the impression that he is interviewing the subjects of the documentary. A graduate of the film studies programme at Queens University in Belfast, Kelly is an ardent fan of art-house cinema, citing French New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker, cinéma vérité documentary maker Jean Rouch and Russian Andrei Tarkovsky as inspirations. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic of ‘visual fugues’, abstract visual sequences overlaid with melodic, fluid musical strains that are repeated as thematic refrains, surface in A Cambodian Spring. Shots of torrents of muddied water, waving grass, leaping flames, and the sandy shoreline around the lake are accompanied by an ominous, throbbing score punctuate the political narrative.

A Cambodian Spring is a difficult film at moments, and the complex political and historical circumstances that led to the protests and to the intensity of feeling that surround them are not explored in great detail: there is no voiceover, and intertitles offer brief overviews. However, the film excels at capturing a sense of liveness, and the intense emotion and passion of the individuals in question. It also poses deep questions about how change and revolution come about in the world, and the personal cost of fighting for a cause you believe in. Venerable Sovath, who goes against the dictates of his religious superiors, is threatened, imprisoned, and ejected from the order but continues his activism both nationally and internationally. Tep Vanny, currently in prison on what appear to be trumped up political charges, says at one point that they have all lost homes, jobs, and been sent to gaol for fighting against the development and the government.

There is a tendency to assume that the marginal, the poor, those with nothing to lose are the first to stand up and fight. While this may be true in some circumstances, the case of Venerable Sovath shows that some are willing to give up their own privilege to fight for the equality of others. At one point in the film, activist Toul Srey Pov notes that ‘it’s easy to wake a sleeping person up, but you can’t wake them up if they’re only pretending to be asleep’. This film is a call to wakefulness and action, not only on the part of the desperate, but also from those who pretend to sleep, who have a lot more to give, and perhaps to lose. 

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University.

 

 
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August. 
A Cambodian Spring is screening in the IFI Documentary Festival, followed by a director Q&A on October 1st.

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Festival Report: Guth Gafa | International Documentary Festival

 

Maria Flood looks back on a busy Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, showcasing the latest award-winning International and Irish documentary films on thought-provoking subjects, and promoting the art of great story-telling, through film, to rural Irish communities.

 

Guth Gafa, meaning ‘captive voice’ in Irish, is a documentary film festival based in Headfort House, in Kells, Co. Meath. Now in its 11th year, the festival originally started in Donegal and moved to its current location in the heart of the Meath countryside four years ago. Guth Gafa (pronounced ‘guh gafa’) includes over 40 features and shorts, and unusually, 20 of the 23 directors screened are present at the festival to answer audience questions after screening and in the morning ‘Meet and Greet’ session, ‘Coffee with the Filmmakers’. The festival also includes several kids’ workshops, a masterclass on distribution, and a late-night Festival Club with live music.

City of Ghosts

“We believe in citizen power”, festival directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane state, and the selection of films highlight their commitment to confronting many of the challenges faced in the modern world. This year’s theme is ‘Messages of Hope’, but this should not give the impression that the films screened are in any way maudlin or simplistic responses to global events. Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring reveals the often-violent confrontations between citizens, the state, and the Buddhist hierarchy, and offers an eye-opening account of injustices in the region, while Irish-USA-UK co-production Eliàn (directed by Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden) highlights the heart-breaking plight of a generation of undocumented children in the United States, mostly from Latin America. Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts is a harrowing account of the ISIS occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the activists who try to resist the terror caused the terrorists.

Eliàn

Music is an important theme at this year’s festival and a major hit of the festival is Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, about the rise and fall of pop icon Whitney Houston.. Many of the works screened highlight the power of music to change social attitudes and give people optimism in troubled times, as well as how dangerous it can be to follow a musical passion in some contexts. Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley’s moving and uplifting Landfill Harmonic looks at Paraguayan children who have turned landfill waste into musical instruments, while German co-production When God Sleeps (Till Schauder) charts Irani rapper Shahin Najafi’s poignant and sometimes hilarious distribution of phallic videos to provoke of the religious authorities in his home country — who place a $500,000 bounty on his head.

School Life

There are many family friendly options at the festival, including the breath-taking The Eagle Huntress by Otto Bell and a daring animation about autism and Disney, Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams. By far the stand-out hit of this year’s programme was Ní Chianáin’s immensely popular School Life, an observational documentary about the life of the primary school age boarding students at Headfort School. Formerly known as In Loco Parentis but changed to School Life at the behest of American distributors, the film played three sold-out screenings, many of which included former pupils and teachers at the school. The principal subjects of the documentary, charismatic teachers John and Amanda Leyden, can also be found wandering through the grounds and hallways of Headfort throughout the festival.

The film has three screening areas, each more weird and wonderful that the last. The Adam Room, located in Headfort House, is named after pioneering neo-classical architect Robert Adam, and is a masterpiece of elegance and excess. The room is adorned with many fine examples of Georgian portraiture, and watching these contemporary films surrounded by the watchful eyes of denizens of worlds past is a unique experience. The Road House cinema is a bright-red mobile screening unit, offering comfortable cinema style seats, and the Hanger Cinema is located in a warehouse, converted to cinematic conditions, where the illustrious Lord Headfort himself would store his airplanes.

The festival is also committed to sustainability, and one of the food outlets is supplied by ‘Food Cloud’, who make delicious vegetarian treats like quiches and soups from produce that would otherwise be thrown out. All of the disposable food containers and cutlery at the festival are compostable, and the bar offers reusable drinks containers.

The festival is an annual event, and they are always looking for volunteers. The full festival programme and further detail are available on their website here

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
 
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runsruns 4 – 7 August. 
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Guth Gafa Review: ‘The Farthest’

Maria Flood enters a world of wonder in Emer Reynold’s The Farthest, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Irish filmmaker Emer Reynold’s second feature-length film, The Farthest tracks the genesis of the space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched by NASA in 1977. The mission of these satellites was to document Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune through photography and videography, and relay images back to earth for analysis. The satellites were programmed to continue their journey through the solar system, before finally exiting our galaxy and moving into the deep, dark regions of outer space. Both satellites continue their respective journeys through the ebony vastness of space: Voyager 1 exited our solar system on August 25, 2012while Voyager 2 continues to move towards its outer boundary.

The film plunges us into a world of wonder, and the tale Reynolds tells is one that touches on infinity, eternity, and the beauty of human aspiration. Indeed, it is surprising that the stories of the physicists, cosmologists, geologists and engineers who created and programmed the Voyager satellites have not been told on the big screen before. Reynolds constructs the documentary around a series of interviews with high-profile members of the NASA teams, and these interviews are interwoven with stunning, previously unseen and re-digitized images from the Voyager journey. Added to the breathtaking quality of the images (and this film should be seen in the glorious, grand screen darkness of the cinema) is an exquisitely curated soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Rose Royce, Chuck Berry, Bach, and Mozart.

The film is packed with startling images of the planets: the rich, humming ochre and orange whorls of Jupiter, the buzzing ice-cool crystals of Saturn’s rings, the delicate clouds of Neptune and the violent eruptions of its moon, Triton, the ‘disappointing’ blue and hazy uniformity of Uranus (‘poor Uranus’, one cosmologist notes). The experts interviewed also have a wonderful ability to transform potentially perplexing and highly complex facts and figures into wonderfully memorable, bite size chunks. They speak of lightning strikes on Jupiter that could go halfway across America, and of Uranus’ moon Miranda where there are cliffs so steep and high, if you were to fall you could finish your daily newspaper on the way down — that is, if you weren’t too busy focusing your rapidly impending death. One of the engineers describes the technology of Voyager as comparable to the devices we have in our pockets today, removing not his mobile phone – but his automatic car keys,.

The film takes the viewer on a journey, not only to the outer reaches of the Milky Way, but also back in space and time to a moment in the 1970s when communication with alien species became a credible, and sought-after, prospect. Most of the scientists agree that alien, non-human intelligent life somewhere in the universe is not only a possibility, but rather a probability. But finding it is the problem: we are looking for ‘needles in infinite haystacks’. The principal barrier is not space, but time. In the history of humanity, one scientist notes, there have only been 100 or so years when the human species had potentially evolved the technological capacity to intercept signals from other beings in outer space. More than this, the vast distances that such signals have to travel through the universe mean that by the time they reach earth, or by the time our communications reach other intelligent life, a civilization or species that would have been capable of interpreting or receiving them may have evolved, peaked, and been lost or obliterated.

The Voyager mission also included a medium that was designed to communicate with interstellar beings, an enterprise which evoked as much debate in philosophical circles as it did among the scientific community. Carl Sagan was a key figure in this respect, and he was responsible for the creation of the ‘Golden Record’, what Sagan described as a kind of ‘message in a bottle’. Modeled on a vinyl record but made of solid gold, the recordings therein contain 90 minutes of music, 12 minutes of earthly soundscapes, 115 images, and even brainwave recordings of a person thinking about Earth, the history of ideas and human social organization, and what it’s like to fall in love. The musical portion of the record aimed to capture the ‘sounds of the earth’, with music culled from a vast number of cultural contexts, from Chuck Berry’s ‘Jonny B Goode’ (The Beatles refused an offer to be included), to Japanese shakuhachi music and African percussion.

The record also contained a vast array of messages in 55 global languages, what Janet Sternberg describes as ‘proto tweets’ — short, concise greetings from humans to potential alien listeners. Nick Sagan, son of Carl, had his voice recorded and describes the feeling of knowing that his greeting ‘from the children of Earth’, is hurtling around in space somewhere: ‘some piece of me is a traveller on that ship and will keep going’.

The sense of wonder conveyed by the NASA scientists, many of them in their sixties and seventies, is infectious. As one of them notes, the whole Voyager mission was born out of an innate and intrinsically human capacity for curiosity: ‘it is a human thing, and a childlike thing, to ask questions’. The number of female researchers who worked on the mission and who Reynolds has interviewed is also striking, and reminds us of the egalitarian ideals of the community of scientists in question.

Though rudimentary by present day standards, given the current state of the global climate, overburdened resources, and ecosystem destruction, it is not improbable that one day the Voyager probes may become, in the words of one scientist, ‘the only evidence that we ever existed’. Indeed, it seems a not uncommon belief amongst this group that ‘continued human existence will depend on our ability to live on other planets’.

Yet in spite of such potentially gloomy prognoses, I was struck by the way the film evokes a moment of powerful optimism, when the flower-fueled idealism of the 1960s transmuted into scientific and philosophical inquiry. When Voyager had completed its fact-finding missions around the planets of our solar system, against the wishes of senior NASA administrators, Carl Sagan arranged for the camera of Voyager 1 to be turned towards Earth, in ‘the world’s first selfie’. What they depicted disappointed many: Earth was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, one member of the team spotted a tiny blue dot in a hazy, rainbow ray from the sun. In a deeply humbling manner, our planet was visible only as a tiny speck in the infinite vastness of space.

It is not only the striking images that dazzle in this film, or the feats of intellectual inquiry. It is also the film’s evocation of the relentless thirst for knowledge and communication that drives all of us on some level, and the human capacity to recognize, and perhaps sometimes celebrate, our own insignificance. The Voyager mission took place in the midst of the Cold War, in a bitterly divided world. Now, although we are more and more connected through global technologies of travel and the Internet, productive communication between different ideological belief systems appears more and more fraught. The Farthest reminds us of a time when people reached out in love and friendship not only to each other, but also to beings and creatures that may or may not exist, in the belief that other lives, and other worlds, are possible.

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
 
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runsruns 4 – 7 August. 

 
 

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Guth Gafa Review: City of Ghosts

Maria Flood visits Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts won the Guth Gafa ‘Human Rights’ prize for its depiction of the ISIS occupation of the Syrian city of Raqqa. The film recounts the story of the group of citizen journalists and activists called ‘Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered’ (RBSS), who launched a campaign against the fundamentalist group. The film opens with a black screen and a voiceover that states, ‘some situations are atrocious, but others are more atrocious’. Few would disagree that the war in Syria is of the most atrocious kind, from its beginnings in popular revolt against the Assad regime to the current state of murderous disarray, with rebel groups, the regime, ISIS, and an international proxy war battling for control in a conflict that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The film follows the lives and work of RBSS activists Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and other citizen journalists in Raqqa as they strive to constantly communicate ISIS atrocities taking place in the city to the outside world. Aziz, Mohamed, Hamoud, and others have had no media training, and they have mostly been moved out of Syria for their own safety, but they tweet constantly, updating their website and pages with live information fed to them by different people still living in Raqqa. These individuals take enormous personal risks to communicate with the outside world, and the members of RBSS have all lost friends and family members to ISIS terror. When ISIS could not find Hamoud, they targeted his father instead and we see Hamoud watching an ISIS video that depicts in dramatic, stylized form his own father’s execution: They make all of their content free, so that no one news outlet has exclusive access. In this way, they hope to reach as wide an audience as possible. The BBC, CNN, ABC, and others use RBSS as their principal source of news from Raqqa, because it is impossible to get journalists into the city: ISIS would kill them immediately.

The opening sequences of the film contrast life in Raqqa (known as the ISIS ‘capital’) before the occupation and after: shots of people dancing, swimming, and shopping cede to car and tanks rolling into town, with black flags flying as young men, some of them children, grinning manically at the camera as they carry guns. Some particularly disturbing scenes are drawn from ISIS propaganda, and are difficult to watch: hands being chopped off, mass executions in Raqqa’s ‘Paradise Square’, beheaded bodies lying on pavements, with the heads impaled on nearby railings. There is no doubt about the evil present in the actions of this group that co-founder Aziz Alhamza says is ‘beyond Taliban or Al’Quaeda’.

In an era where citizens in Europe and America seem to have less and less confidence in the so-called mainstream media, City of Ghosts is a powerful reminder of the important role that a free press can play in working against atrocity and injustice. ISIS actively recruit individuals who are proficient in social media, and Aziz told me after the screening that ISIS has had decreasing numbers of recruits since RBSS launched their media campaign: down from over 1000 in 2014 to 100 last year. More than this, a Google search of ‘Raqqa’ in 2014 would have produced a slew of articles from the mouth of the ISIS propaganda machine; now, RBBS newsfeeds dominate the top ten searches.

Aziz, the unofficial spokesperson of the group because ‘his English is not so bad’, reiterates at several times throughout the film that ‘a camera is more powerful than a weapon… we are sure that our words are more powerful than their weapons’. RBSS continue the war of information against the terrorist group, and they insist that rather than trying to defeat ISIS militarily, their ideology must be vanquished. Like the many headed Hydra, Aziz argues that ISIS will continue to spring up in new formations until what they appear to offer recruits (sex, money, power, prosperity) is no longer attractive — because people have other options, and hope.

The bravery of the RBSS group is astonishing, considering that Aziz acknowledges that ‘the more they [ISIS] are challenged, the more barbaric they become’. Many RBSS members have been killed by ISIS, including Ibrahim Abd al Qader and Fares Hamadi in Raqqa, and journalist Naji Jerf in Turkey. The courage of the RBSS members has all the more impact, because their lives before the revolution and their hopes for the future are so ordinary: born into middle-class families, they too want families, children, a home, and jobs.

But these ordinary individuals have faced extraordinary circumstances. Of the citizen journalists who risk their lives to send information to the RBSS members abroad, Aziz says ‘these are the people history should be written about’ — but this comment certainly applies to all of the members of their collective. About halfway through the film, the black screen returns, and it is momentarily illuminated by a solitary candle: a light in the darkness, and an image reminiscent of the Amnesty International icon. Next, a computer screen is turned on, flashing up with the RBSS homepage — two solitary symbols of light and of hope in an uncertain future.

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
 
The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

City of Ghosts will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime in the coming months.

 

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Guth Gafa Review: The Grown Ups

Maria Flood reflects on Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

Poignant, illuminating and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Maite Alberdi’s The Grown Ups tells the story of ill-fated lovers Anita and Andrés who meet in a bakery, part of a school for Down syndrome adults in Chile. Like any couple in the first blush of love, Andrès and Anita want it all: love, intimacy, sex, babies, and a home of their own. As Anita says, ‘my parents were happy and I want the same for myself’. But Anita’s mother and Andrès’ sisters (the ‘Grown Ups’ of the title) are against the match: they feel that the couple are not mature enough, and anyway, it is illegal for people with Down syndrome to get married in Chile.

Strong personalities emerge in the group. The irrepressible Rita hides chocolate in her pockets in defiance of her mother’s instructions to stay off sweets because she is on a diet. Rita’s impulsive sexual urges towards the shy Dany also have to be tamed. Andrès is a self-confessed reformed womaniser, who promises his eternal love to Anita after she emerges from a cardboard cake, in the manner of Debbie Reynolds in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for his birthday. Resident philosopher Ricardo bemoans his meagre pay from working in an old person’s home and the scenes in which he listens to the elderly and makes them laugh force us to question the view of those with Down syndrome as non-contributory in society, and the ways in which work and care are compensated.

Andrès perhaps sums up the main sentiment behind the film when he says, ‘we will open people’s eyes and they will see us having a normal life together’. The film certainly opens eyes by inviting us into the world of the school, and focuses almost exclusively on the adults with Down syndrome: their family members and the workers at the school are occasionally pictured in the background or heard in the voiceover. This is both the film’s most unique feature, and a potential criticism because it risks being somewhat idealistic about the challenges faced by parents and carers when Down syndrome adults embark on romantic and sexual relationships, contraception being a key issue (although it is mentioned in a group meeting).

But this is the point of the film: to give the members of the group their own voice without the interruptions of the ‘Grown Ups’. Documentary critic Bill Nicholas has argued that documentaries are about the play of the familiar and the unfamiliar: we want to see something we recognize and understand, as well as something new and eye opening. The film brings us into lives filled with familiar fun, friendships, conflicts, tensions, dreams, hopes, and unfulfilled longings. By opening windows onto ways of seeing the world that many viewers will have very little knowledge about, the film draws on the common concerns shared by humans all over the world and the neurological spectrum: how to love, how to belong, and how to find meaning. As Ricardo says, ‘what confuses me is how short and complex life is’ — a feeling of perplexity we can all share.

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University
 

 

The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

 

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Guth Gafa Review: ‘The Eagle Huntress’

Maria Flood finds an unlikely feminist icon in The Eagle Huntress, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.

An instant feel-good classic, Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress tells the story of unlikely feminist icon, the 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first girl in her community to become an eagle hunter in the wildernesses of Mongolia. Aisholpan’s father, her greatest supporter, trains her for the upcoming eagle-hunter championships, in spite of the reservations of the more conservative members of the tribe. Aisholpan’s Dad wells up with pride as his daughter learns the intricacies of the craft: placing the hood over the fearsome beak, feeding the bird, and teaching the eagle to return to the glove. While her mother is also supportive of her daughter’s ambitions, saying ‘I want her to love her life’, it is the father-daughter relationship in the film that produces the most intense emotional impact.

 

One of the most touching aspects of the film is how Aisholpan brings together her traditionally masculine training as an eagle hunter with an easy femininity: she wears her hair in pigtails and adorns it with bows and flowers, and loves wearing nail varnish, even on the hunt — one contrasting image sees two bottles of pink and purple nail varnish sitting beside an almost-bare rabbit leg, with a strip of flesh and fur still clinging to the bone.

 

In the land of the ancient Emperor Genghis Khan, Aisholpan carries on a tradition of fortitude, skill, and prowess; it is hard not to be awed by her physical strength. The film is full of high drama, with one particularly memorable sequence showing Aisholpan scaling a sheer cliff face in order to capture her very own eaglet from its mother’s nest, as her father manoeuvres the ropes that steady her form to the top of the precipice. She travels a full day on horseback through wind and rain carrying the 15-pound eagle on her outstretched arm, a fantastic creature who, with wings out-stretched, is almost as big as the teenager herself. Another sequence shows her navigating the snowy wastes of the mountains, waist-deep in the drifts, pulling her very reluctant pony over a pass and still shouldering the giant bird.

 

The cinematography is quite literally breathtaking: made on the bleak but beautiful snow-filled slopes of Mongolia, the camera captures seemingly infinite horizons, with undulating layers of mountains and crisp bright blue skies. The film captures so much of what attracts art house movie-going audiences today: grounded in a local context, replete with traditional costumes, nomadic traditions and a rich history, this is also a universal story. A young girl, buoyed by a proud father and mother, who overcomes social and physical challenges to achieve her dreams — what’s not to love?

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University

 

The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

 
 

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Guth Gafa Review: ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

 

 

Maria Flood takes a look at Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s review of Whitney Houston’s life, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, taking place at Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath.

 

Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me about pop superstar Whitney Houston’s life straddles a sometimes uneasy line between the tabloid theatricality of Houston’s public persona and the intimate tragedies that populated her private life. The film opens with a bang: a swooping overhead establishing shot of the Beverly Hills hotel where, on 11th February 2009, Houston’s body was found in a hotel room bathtub. The next scene cuts to a performance during Whitney’s last world tour in 1999. Houston’s face reveals what, in retrospect, could be signs of her increasing drug use: her eyes are half closed, her make up is smudged, and she is sweating profusely. Although she is performing in front of thousands of people, the extreme close up of Houston’s face makes this scene almost intimate – we feel we are right there with her, as she sings the final notes in a verse of the worldwide hit ‘I Will Always Love You’. The music stops, waiting for the big chorus – but Houston doesn’t rush it. Seconds tick by as she gathers her body, before exploding with the famous ‘And I….’ chorus.

It is impossible not to be blown away by Houston’s talent. Whitney: Can I Be Me charts its extraordinary genesis in the troubled streets of Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s where race riots were common and drug use rising among African American communities. Houston, daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of soul legend Dionne Warwick, and godchild of Aretha Franklin, accumulated an astonishing number of accolades and firsts: more consecutive number 1 hits that The Beatles, most awarded female act of all time, with all seven of her albums reaching diamond, platinum or gold certification. The height of Houston’s fame was the 1992 film The Bodyguard which Houston’s real-life bodyguard David Roberts suggests was just like real life, but with ‘no sex and no shooting’. Patti Howard, one of Houston’s friends, suggests that without the trailblazing of Whitney, African American female artists like Beyoncé would not be where they are today, noting ‘she changed history for us’.

The film is careful to avoid easy answers regarding Houston’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. Instead, Broomfield and Dolezal seem to suggest that Houston’s tragedy lay in the many internal conflicts she battled with: between white pop music and her roots in church gospel, between her controlling mother and her loving, but ultimately, disappointing father, between her image as a white-styled princess and the ‘hood’, and between her love of God and her addictions. Houston believed her talent came from God, and her abuse of it through drugs and alcohol was a source of deep shame for the singer.

However, most powerfully, the film suggests that Houston’s possibly romantic relationship with childhood friend Robin Crawford, and their later alienation in 2001, was the greatest contributing factor to Houston’s fatal addictions. Crawford, now an openly gay marketing manager who is married with two children, was by Houston’s side from the early days of her career and stayed through the troubled years of her marriage to Bobby Brown. After Houston’s death, Brown even admitted that he believed Houston to be bisexual, and suggested that if Robyn had been in her life, Whitney would still be alive today.

Houston, many of her friends agreed, never doubted her talent. What she did doubt, most tragically, was herself. We see Houston’s fragility in her frequent refrain, ‘Can I be me’ – when can she stop performing for others, and be herself. But this self fragments over the years – through fame, drugs, and the loss of love. As she said in an interview, ‘success doesn’t change you, fame does’ and Houston seemed fatally underequipped to navigate its vicissitudes. This film is a touching and sometimes uncomfortably intimate exploration of a unique talent that presents Houston as a sensitive and generous person, brought down by racial and sexual politics of the era and the exploitative workings of the star system.

 

Maria Flood is a lecturer in Film Studies at Keele University

 

The 2017 Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival runs 4 – 7 August.

 

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‘Anima’ Screens @ Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival 2017

Through conversations with scholars and health care professionals; Artist Marie Brett (E.gress) explores questions relating to death and care in contemporary Ireland. The conversations span medical, philosophical, folkloric and legal perspectives, offering an insight into the intimate and privileged moments of the artist/participant encounter.

Directed by Colm Mullen, Anima is based on Marie Brett’s research project Whispers and was in collaboration with St Francis Hospice, Raheny, UCD School of Social Sciences and Law and The National Folklore Collection.

The film was funded through the 2016 artsandhealth.ie Documentation Bursary.

The film is set to screen at this year’s  Guth Gafa International Documentary FIlm Festival in Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath, in competition as part of the Short Lens Documentary programme on Monday 7th of August at 12pm in the Hangar Cinema.

For further information visit: Short Lens Documentary Competition

 

 

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