Review of Irish Film @ IFI Documentary Festival: Elián

Naomi Shea reviews Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s film about Elián González, a five-year-old Cuban boy plucked from the Florida coast in 1999, and how the fight over his future sparked a flashpoint for simmering US and Cuban tensions.

A montage of blurred and pixelated archival footage moves us through a hieroglyphic narrative of human survival; handmade rafts struggle against the ferocious expanse of an unidentifiable sea; dozens of stooped figures emerge from dark waters onto unnamed land. Although the opening sequence of Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s latest documentary Elián (2017) reflects upon a particular time in the fraught history of the Americas, during which droves of Cubans fled their native land for the promise of citizenship and stability in the United States, these images uncannily echo the humanitarian crisis of our contemporary time, captivating the perilous and largely anonymous journeys of thousands of refugees and migrants today.

Elián’s story is at once wholly of its time—the metamorphosis of a five-year-old boy into the embodiment of US-Cuban relations at the turn of the century—and simultaneously a universal narrative that echoes our contemporary age, warning of the dangers and toxicity of political power and symbolism on individual human autonomy and self-determination. Elián deftly synopsizes the breadth of Cuban history in the aftermath of the Revolution, offering a journalistically sound insight into the tensions underlying the fledgling country’s break from its longstanding US affiliations, which prompted many Cubans to journey north to Florida, enticed by the prosperity and opportunities offered by America.

Elián begins with the reenactment of the eponymous child’s rescue by two fishermen off the coast of Florida following the death of his mother, who had attempted the journey from Cuba to America on a handmade raft. Elián was subsequently put into the care of his Cuban-Miami relatives, prompting a custody battle between them and his father, who lived in Cuba and requested his son’s immediate return. The familial tensions that played out between Elián’s relatives were refracted momentously throughout America and Cuba, whereby Elián rose almost instantaneously to become the symbol of each country’s respective political and national agenda. Crucially, the Elián case emerged alongside the contemporaneous American presidential campaign of 2000, in which the clash of political egos and patriotic extremism provided a vicious and ulterior backdrop to the child’s custody battle.

The documentary unfolds through an interplay between contemporary interviews with Elián himself, his family members and key figures involved in the case, as well as an extensive array of archival footage from the period surrounding the event. At the forefront of this archival material is the obsessive and penetrative presence of the American media, paralleled with campaign footage of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Bush and an uncannily prescient speech from Donald Trump, who each engage with the Elián case for their own respective political advantage. Ninety-miles from the North American coast Fidel Castro leads an alternative but no less propagandistic public campaign that uses Elián as a symbolic vehicle for Cuban patriotism and anti-American rhetoric. And caught between these two antagonistic and egocentric powers is a five-year-old child who has just experienced his mother’s death and remains forcibly separated from his father in the name of political and national identity.

Germinating across a period of five years, the making of Elián also traversed two momentous events in the political landscapes of both the US and Cuba—the death of Castro on November 25, 2016 and the election of Trump to office on January 20, 2017. These events inflect the documentary with an urgent immediacy, balancing the reflective and historicizing tone of the film with a pertinent relevancy for the political and humanitarian crises we face today. Most evocative are the interviews with Elián, now in his early twenties and living in Cuba, whose profound humility and collectedness belie the trauma and notoriety of his early childhood.

In the course of the documentary Elián admits that he is yet to tell his own story, because the narrative recounted by Elián himself and the many other participants in the film is not his own. Elián’s childhood became the embodiment of a particular moment in US-Cuban political relations, the narrative of an overwrought struggle for power between these nations and a mythical symbol for the Cuban population and Miami-Cuban community’s grapple to negotiate their respective cultural and national identities. The cult of personality and superstitious mysticism frame these chaotic scrambles for power and self-determination. Questions of fatherhood, nationhood, religious belief and media fame orbit around the various characters of the film, including Castro, an assemblage of American (male) political figures, and Elián himself, who simultaneously acknowledges his unequivocal symbolic power for the Cuban people, as well as attempting to live below the firing line of stardom.

Above all, Elián explores how the political is always personal, while warning of the dangers of subsuming the personal under the political. And within this, Elián attempts to renounce his status as the miracle, prodigal son that has been inflicted upon him by both American and Cuban society, in order to live freely and humanly.

 

Elián screened as part of the IFI Documentary Festival 2017 (September 27th to October 1st)

 

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Irish Film Review: Meetings With Ivor

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DIR:  Alan Gilsenan

Alan Gilsenan’s latest documentary feature, Meetings With Ivor, explores the dynamic and controversial career of Ivor Browne, one of Ireland’s most anti-establishment and progressive psychiatrists. Populated by a cast of some of Ireland’s most celebrated, and infamous, artists, including Tommy Tiernan, Nell McCafferty and Sebastian Barry, Meetings With Ivor is at once personal and national in its visionary scope of the Irish psychological and cultural landscape.

Meetings With Ivor is as cinematically striking and experimental as it is thematically pertinent. Deftly structured in both form and editing, the film negotiates the fraught arena of mental health and its concomitant exposure and representation in mainstream media with a real ethical honesty and transparency. The visual experimentalism of the film, which places Ivor in split screen opposition to the various patients and friends who are shown throughout, offers a visual field that is at once equalising in its representation of the doctor-patient divide (although this binary definition is strongly eluded in Ivor’s ethos), as well as emotionally distancing for the audience, who are placed in a position of active engagement and reflection. The film’s stylisation refuses to dictate the audience’s emotional responses to Ivor and his subjects; they are literally placed within a blank white frame, side-by-side, creating a continuous and fluid sense of equal interaction that denies mediation by a manipulating cinematic eye.

In a particularly veracious scene, Nell McCafferty turns the hierarchies of talk therapy on their head, and begins to critique and analyse Ivor in what becomes a humorous inversion of the traditional relationship between omniscient doctor and vulnerable patient. Ivor’s willingness to engage with this inversion, his playfulness and openness to McCafferty’s highly personal, albeit jovial assault, reveals many facets of his personal and professional character. Ivor admits at several points throughout the documentary that he was complicit first hand in a litany of psychiatric atrocities committed upon patients in Ireland, including asylum institutionalisation, electric shock therapy and lobotomy procedures. His willingness to speak about his involvement in the dark past of Ireland’s negotiation of mental illness, as well as his criticism of its present shortfalls, confirms him as a man committed first and foremost to his patients and their recovery over any professional or institutional affiliations. He mischievously recalls his experiments with LSD in California, and bringing marijuana back from the US to grow in his home in Ireland. He also admits to his personal shortcomings as a father, the breakdown of his marriage and his second partner, continually situating himself within a dialogue of openness, reflection and humbleness.

We see Ivor alone in many visually minimalist scenes in meditative contemplation, seated on a chair in the centre of an enormous and empty white-washed room. The details and contours of his face are revealed in striking close ups that show a man aged, vibrantly resilient and wholly human. He admits toward the film’s close that he has always thought that he resembles a monkey. Ivor’s boyish charm and playfulness, his humility and honesty, continually inflect and offset what is at times a deeply harrowing insight into mental illness in Irish society. The cultural, social and generational divides that Ivor’s career traverses speak of a man whose unconventional medical practices and beliefs are unconditionally grounded in the human. He has asserted that ‘the future of mental health must lie in the empowerment of the person,’ something that our culture and our health legislation continue to belie. We need more practitioners like Ivor, and we need more films like this.

Naomi Shea

81 minutes

Meetings With Ivor is released 10th February 2017

 

 

 

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Review: Uncle Howard

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DIR/ WRI: Aaron Brookner • PRO: Paula Vaccaro • DOP: Gregg de Domenico
André Döbert • ED: Masahiro Hirakubo • MUS: Jozef van Wissem • CAST: Aaron Brookner, John Giorno, Jim Jarmusch

 

Aaron Brookner’s documentary Uncle Howard is a gentle and intimate portrayal of his uncle Howard Brookner’s filmmaking career, focusing on the vibrant and tragic years of his uncle’s personal and public life in 1980’s New York and ending with his premature death as a result of AIDs at the age of 34 in 1989.

Howard was a central figure in the lively and somewhat underground indie New York filmmaking scene of the 1980s, making his debut feature during his time in film school about William Burroughs, the infamously intriguing and celebrated Beat writer. The first significant portion of Uncle Howard charts Aaron’s hunt for his uncle’s lost film Burroughs: The Movie (1983) in the almost windowless ‘Bunker,’ where Burroughs lived and the film is predominantly set.  The section intercuts between scenes of the film itself as well as expertly preserved footage of the crew on set, with innumerable shots of a youthful Jim Jarmusch on sound. Aaron speaks with Jarmusch in the contemporaneously set segments of Uncle Howard, where Jarmusch offers a fond and humorous reflection upon this period of filming with Howard. The combined voice-over narration by Aaron and the intriguing archival footage from the film set eschews any glorification or romanticisation of the crew and Burroughs’ precarious lifestyles- Howard himself spent a period of time using heroin alongside Burroughs- but still retains an honest warmth and respect for the artists’ work and passion. This atmosphere underpins the film’s entirety, offering the backdrop from which an array of Howard’s friends, family and partners give voice to their love and high regard for the young filmmaker in a series of contemporary interviews with Aaron.

Like many autobiographically impelled works, the film lacks an editorial succinctness. Yet the oversupply of archival footage and flashback sequences only reinstate the profound wealth of influence that Howard had upon the people in his life, and particularly Aaron’s awe and pride in his uncle’s work. What the film lacks in relation to formal tautness is made up for in terms of emotional impact and resonance. Aaron’s love for, and devotion, to his uncle is rendered both through the abundance of personal footage of the two at family events, as well as the film’s formal saturation in Howard’s documented life during the ’80s.

Uncle Howard functions on two levels. Firstly, it serves as a personal and tragically tinged homage to Howard, given life by the interviews with his mother, who humorously reflects upon her son’s decision to pursue a career in film over law, and recounts the moment Howard first told her that he was gay and the fear she had for him given the lack of understanding surrounding homosexuality at the time. Yet, the footage from Howard’s social life and career tells a very different story, placing him firmly within the realm of a progressive artistic community, with an array of recognisable faces including Madonna, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and many others. This serves as the second narrative of Howard’s life, and undercuts the tragedy inherent within the film’s structure, given its elegiac quality of reflective loss. It is reiterated by Howard himself in a letter he writes to his parents shortly before his death, and which Aaron reenacts in both voiceover and hand written script onscreen. Howard vocalises the profound contentment he feels, despite the tragedy of dying so young, because he pursued his life to the fullest and achieved a great deal in such a short time.

Aaron has brought his uncle to life through Howard’s vibrant and commanding presence in the film’s archival footage, as well as Aaron’s own subtle narration of the events in Howard’s life. Howard emerges as both a mythic figure, adored and respected by so many celebrated and renowned artists and filmmakers, as well as a very genuine and real person, whose premature death is symptomatic of a tragic moment in our world history. Aaron has proven that film not only tells stories and recounts the histories of our past, but can preserve life and eclipse the finality of death.

 

  Naomi Shea

96 minutes

Uncle Howard is released 16th December 2016

Uncle Howard – Official Website

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Feminist Film Festival: The Sea Between Us

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Naomi Shea was at the recent Feminist Film Festival to see Caoimhe Butterly’s The Sea Between Us.

 

The Sea Between Us, Caoimhe Butterly’s 2016 documentary short, screened on the first day of the Irish Feminist Film Festival at the New Theatre in Temple Bar this November. The opening scene pans in jagged close-up across the ruinous wasteland of thousands upon thousands of discarded life jackets, paradoxically connoting the bodily absence of innumerable lost lives, as well as the people  that may have been saved. The Sea Between Us, with a run-time of just under 50 minutes, packs a succinct, intense and necessary punch. With Butterly’s gentle direction, gritty, unpolished cinematography from Marcelo Biglia and documentary cinema’s overarching tendency toward verisimilitude, The Sea Between Us offers what feels like a real-time exposition of a singular instance in the current global refugee crisis, one that achieves an immediacy and an honesty that only the filmic image can provide.

Structured by a series of vignettes set on the shores of Lesbos in Greece, where refugees arrive after their journey across the Aegean Sea, the film juxtaposes scenes of the boats’ safe arrival to land with the aid of volunteers working on the island against interviews with a range of people, refugees and volunteers alike, whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the crisis. The interviews are often staged against the backdrop of the sea, the sound and image of which continually foregrounds the urgency and the peril of the journeys taken across the water.

Butterly offers a testimonial platform for the refugees interviewed, where the watershed in their lives, literal and figurative, finally gives way to a space of hope and security. Many speak of the shattered homes they have fled, the family members they have lost and the livelihoods that have been destroyed, but they speak also of the families and communities they will join in Europe and all speak of the hope and opportunities they can now provide for their children.

An elderly woman from Syria proclaims herself a hero, having raised ten children and her grandchildren, who she can now join in Germany. A sixteen-year-old volunteer from Sao Paolo, who has come to the island for 45 days with her mother, tells of a fourteen-year-old Afghan girl who has fled her home alone. Having described the young girl’s journey, the volunteer says that she does not consider her a victim, but just a girl, like many other girls throughout the world.

Butterly offers insights into the female experience of the crisis that are at once singular and universal. These instances reveal a profound female strength and resilience that is contextualised by the film within the broader celebration of human strength and resilience in all its multifariousness and diversity.

Butterly has offered up an enlivened and pertinent discourse on the refugee crisis that displaces the image of the refugee as helpless and pitiable. The film gently but boldly lays the groundwork for a reappraisal of the crisis as a fundamentally humanitarian issue, unfettered by the specifics of religion, race, gender or age. As the sixteen-year old volunteer succinctly posits, the immediate requirement now is for safe journeys to be provided for all those needing to leave their countries of origin. While the physical and psychological impact of their personal and political histories is irrefutable, the guarantee, and not the arbitrary chance, of a safe journey and arrival is a hopeful and necessary step forward.

However, experiencing The Sea Between Us as part of a film festival is disarming for the passivity that is so inherent within the cinematic experience. The film engenders both a celebratory hope and an intense anger in the audience, but if the film is, after the credits have rolled and the lights come up, simply something that has been seen and emotionally experienced then we have failed as viewers to engage with what cinema of this nature is driving toward; a refusal of things as they are, a refusal to depict the same stories time and time again, because real change must always push beyond the cinematic frame.

 

The Sea Between Us screened on 18th November as part of the Feminist Film Festival (18 – 20 November 2016)

 

 

 

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