Jonathan Victory spoke to Emmy Award winner Nuala O’Connor about her feature directorial debut,Keepers of the Flame, which tells the universal story of generations dealing with the consequences of war and civil war; of what is remembered and what is forgotten.
DIR/WRI: Alfonso Cuarón • PRO: Nicolás Celis, Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodriguez • DOP:Alfonso Cuarón • ED: Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough • DES: Eugenio Caballero • CAST: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
The whole concept of auteur theory has come under increased scrutiny. Auteur theory considers how the worldview and work ethic of a director shapes the film he makes (canons are almost always crafted to be exclusively male for some mysterious reason). This approach is limited in its gender bias and in over-simplifying the complexities of the film production process. Those two issues certainly became prominent throughout the #MeToo revelations, where it turned out placing some directors on a pedestal facilitated their abusive behaviour. Over numerous high-profile cases of such abuse, there is now less trust in the auteur.
Many auteurs also happen to do their most pretentious and alienating work when making more introspective films. So as a fan of Alfonso Cuarón, I was worried that Roma would become Cuarón’s notorious “personal film”. After winning the Oscar for Best Director for Gravity, he could do virtually whatever project he wanted next. Why did he want to make a black-and-white portrait of an indigenous Mexican housekeeper shot in locations from his childhood? I think I may know why. And it may have a lot to say about the role of film auteur in the modern world.
Roma is named from the middle-class neighbourhood of Mexico City where Cuarón himself grew up. It follows a year in a family’s life, from 1970 to 1971, based on memories of certain moments or images from Cuarón’s childhood. He brings a twist to this very auteur-sounding concept by not following the experience of the ten-year-old son who is presumably his own stand-in. In fact, the children of this semi-fictionalised family are background characters to the main story. Roma focuses on Cleo, an indigenous housemaid of Mixtec background, played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio. Her story is based on extensive interviews with the maid from Cuarón’s own childhood.
By placing a First Nations character at the centre of this story, Cuarón has found a form of self-reflection that feels very timely. It also anchors the story around a character arc that builds momentum. This gives Roma a sense of direction and payoff lacking in, say, Boyhood, even though the films have some similarities. Both address a quirk of narrative cinema, where moments are selected to convey a story’s significance. As we ourselves experience life, we don’t live through moments thinking of them as significant to a greater whole. Roma is deceptively mundane as it shows many seemingly inconsequential moments, only to pay off what they reveal towards the film’s moving finale. There is also a sense of dread built through bad omens and sudden dramatic surprises.
At times, Roma feels like the other side of the coin to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl. That 1966 black-and-white film follows an African maid in France and was notable for being one of the first widely-seen feature films directed by an African filmmaker. Black Girl explored how marginalised peoples struggle to articulate their own stories without the approval of privileged gatekeepers. In the case of Roma, Cuarón is part of the privileged ethnic group, when compared to the Mixtec maid Cleo. In recreating his childhood from her perspective, Cuarón brings a fresh and valuable approach to the tropes of the auteur’s semi-autobiographical film.
Roma explores Cleo’s relationship with the family becoming closer. The conclusion is ambiguous about the nature of her acceptance by the family. Whether or not it can truly be free of what the status quo dictates is an uncomfortable question from which Cuarón does not shy away. It’s hard to explain without revealing more of the story, but it appears to be an issue with which Cuarón has struggled. Is this Cuarón being honest about guilt over his privilege? About revisiting his childhood from a perspective that highlights his privilege? About how much is expected from certain marginalised groups for so little in return?
The relationship between personal and political is illustrated so much better in this film than when other filmmakers attempt such films. If this is what Cuarón does when given full creative freedom, then it reveals the rawest expression of the compassionate humanism present in his other work. The slow-paced tone of the story may be challenging for what seems set to be a mostly Netflix audience. I would strongly recommend either finding a cinema screening or at least committing to watching it through in one sitting.
Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer for the first time, holds a confident command of visual storytelling. There are also self-aware visual nods to Cuarón’s other films throughout, including a short clip from 1969’s Marooned for an on-the-nose reference to Gravity. Present also are many trademarks from Cuarón’s body of work; babies and young children, uprisings and Pietà poses, outdoor restaurants and hospital stairs, indigenous languages, infidelities among the middle class of Mexico City and of course, visually-stunning extended long-takes.
But wait, didn’t we begin by questioning the modern relevance of auteurs? Well, the perspective Cuarón brings to Roma, such as we can attribute this film to his vision, does something of value. It highlights how such projects can be used for self-reflection that’s actually relevant to society. If it can be used to examine privilege, then it can lead to striking, honest works of beauty such as Roma. Roma manages to take the audience in a time machine to 1970s Mexico, while being less of an exercise in escapist nostalgia and more of a fresh confrontation with pressing, modern issues.
So consider me relieved because I usually find this kind of film problematic. If any filmmaker was going to pull it off well, it would be one as skilful as Alfonso Cuarón. With all the caveats about how auteurs are constructed, it can sometimes help us identify when a truly special filmmaker is in our midst. We are lucky to have a filmmaker like Cuarón making films at a time like this.
An international day of remembrance for Holocaust Memorial Day was observed on 27th January 2018. Filmmaker Jonathan Victory released a short film to mark that day’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust.
The Other Anne Frank House visits the Frank family home in Merwedeplein, south of Amsterdam’s city centre. On the fateful morning they went into hiding, they walked for around an hour to reach the “Secret Annex” on Prinsengracht. This came to be known as the world-famous “Anne Frank House” for the two years she spent in hiding there.
Filmmaker and south Dublin local Jonathan Victory was filming in Amsterdam for his upcoming documentary “Why Do We Forget?” This film is still in production, exploring the preservation of historical buildings in Ireland. The Netherlands was visited to provide a contrast to Irish policy. Even in Merwedeplein, there is now a statue to Anne Frank in the square where she played as a child. Jonathan Victory explains the inspiration for his visit:
“After the moving experience of visiting the Anne Frank House, I was curious to see the home she was driven from. The statue in Merwedeplein is itself a touching tribute and the buildings have been preserved much as they were when the Franks lived there. I had seen a wedding film that briefly captured Anne Frank looking out at the celebrations from her apartment’s window. This is the only known footage of Anne Frank. On location, I was looking at screenshots of this footage, trying to match the original framing. The effect is quite eerie, not just for showing the community still living in this neighbourhood. It hits home how the Frank family were living a normal life in their community until persecution drove them into hiding. Holocaust Memorial Day is worth observing because it highlights how open societies could turn barbaric. This must never happen again.”
DIR/WRI: Alex Gibney •PRO: Trevor Birney, Alex Gibney • DOP: Stan Harlow, Ross McDonnell • ED: Andy Grieve • MUS: Ivor Guest
No Stone Unturned opens with a recreation of a massacre shot on the location where it happened. On 18th June 1994, The Heights Bar in the small town of Loughinisland, County Down, was showing the Ireland v Italy match in the 1994 World Cup. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force burst into the bar and sprayed it with gunfire. Six Catholic men were killed. Five other people were wounded, including the barman who works there to this day. The gunmen were never brought to justice and this new documentary from Alex Gibney sheds light on why.
The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney shot a re-enactment of the massacre and then began to research more into the mysterious circumstances surrounding it. Gibney is a good fit for this material as it addresses the psychology behind cover-ups that so much of his work explores. He is lauded for his exposés on the abuse of power in cults, be it Scientology in Going Clear or the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa. His documentary We Steal Secrets cast a critical eye on both the US military-industrial complex and on Wikileaks.
Gibney navigates murky subjects with clarity. He does not shy away from rattling cages. His interview skills allow him to be firm yet calm, drawing out insight and honesty from his subjects. Gibney is in his element with No Stone Unturned even though it deals with particularly sensitive issues. He is able to establish trust with interview subjects who have much cause to feel on-guard. He begins by interviewing family members of the victims of the Loughinisland massacre. It establishes not just their grief but the creeping realisation that the police investigation is stalling them. Years go by without leads being pursued, prompting the families to campaign for justice with a lawyer. This culminates in revelations captured in this documentary.
Gibney’s outsider status to Northern Irish politics comes across in clunky choice of language here and there. For the most part, he lays things out quite effectively, making excellent use of archive footage. Gibney establishes a sense of cautious optimism for peace in Northern Ireland around the time of the ’94 World Cup. The harrowing impact of the Loughinisland massacre is conveyed through its universal condemnation. British government ministers declare the attackers will be found and sent to prison. A widow is assured that no stone will be left unturned in police investigations.
Gibney ponders whether the broader political context of the time and the eventual pardoning of paramilitary combatants under the Good Friday Agreement, had an impact on the investigation. The investigation was quieting down, perhaps in service of making a peace agreement easier. There is a more chilling possibility that Gibney chooses to investigate. In the course of interviews with local law enforcement, it is revealed they actually had quite a lot of promising evidence. An abandoned car was found in a local field. So was a bag of weapons. These were not wiped down nor were they burned as would typically happen.
Leaving behind such abundant forensic evidence is suspicious. What’s even more suspicious is that the police had the car destroyed before fully examining it for DNA evidence. Reports begrudgingly released refer to suspects and their interrogators by letters and numbers instead of names. The police are not forthcoming with details on what happened in the investigation, even after a Police Ombudsman report. Journalists and whistle-blowers lay out more context around the restructuring of the police under the power-sharing government.
This matrix of interviews weaves together a suspenseful mystery that uncovers more and more political intrigue. It does this without losing sight of the loss to humanity at stake. Gibney is sensitive towards his subjects throughout. He does however raise an interesting ethical issue when he reveals new information about the case to victims’ family members. This is done on camera on the basis of his own research. After taking the chance they’d appreciate any and all new information, Gibney then has to set out the evidence for his case. Gibney names three suspects and reveals where they live, with one gunman still living in the Loughinisland locality. The chilling dread the locals feel about this is conveyed starkly.
Gibney captures a press conference that confirms his suspicion that the British government was involved in a cover-up. Shocking revelations ensue about collusion with UVF informants and the gun-running of the very weapons from Loughinisland. These are bold claims sure to have a very real impact on the investigation. No Stone Unturned makes it clear how uncovering one strange cover-up leads to uncovering another. There is most likely more of that to follow if more revelations emerge following this film’s release. After all, We Steal Secrets wasn’t out of cinemas for a week when the Edward Snowden revelations happened.
Stories like this keep evolving so if they are going to be captured for a moment in time, you want it laid out like this. You want a filmmaker like Alex Gibney, who understands that a documentary is a film, who understands that you need intrigue without being vague. Building suspense without coming up short on pay-off is a challenge for writers of fiction. Presenting true events in this fashion, Gibney delivers a suspenseful mystery with chilling twists, striking the balance between provocative and tactful that is his hallmark. Fearlessness and a commitment to truth is what’s needed for pieces demanding justice from power like this.
Jonathan Victory talks to director Gavin Fitzgerald and producer Jamie D’Alton about making Conor McGregor: Notorious.
Filmed over the course of 4 years, Conor McGregor: Notorious is an access-all-areas account of McGregor’s personal and professional journey from claiming benefits and living in his mum’s spare room with his girlfriend to claiming multiple championship belts and 9-figure pay packets. Featuring exclusive interviews, unprecedented access and fight footage, this is the ultimate behind-the- scenes look at a sporting icon and his meteoric rise.
You can listen to an audio podcast of the interview below:
In cinemas across Ireland from Wednesday 1st November 2017
DIR: Gavin Fitzgerald • WRI: William Nicholson •PRO: Jamie D’Alton, Graeme McDonnell • DOP: Gavin Fitzgerald, Darragh Mccarthy • ED: Andrew Hearne• MUS: Hugh Drumm • CAST: Conor McGregor, Dee Devlin, Dana White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jose Aldo
Going into this documentary on Conor McGregor’s phenomenal UFC career, I was on its side. I find Conor McGregor a more interesting and complicated figure than some give him credit for. I have mixed feelings about him, reflecting society’s division between his adoring fans and those who find him insufferably obnoxious. Notorious, following McGregor’s meteoric rise will not change anyone’s opinion of him. If he grates with you, Notorious will rub your face in his success and seemingly abundant happiness. If on the other hand, you’re a fan of his… You might not get anything new from this.
Director Gavin Fitzgerald and producer Jamie D’Alton have footage going back years of Conor’s early fights, leading up to his first fights with the UFC. Much of this formed part of an RTÉ series and seemed to have intimate access to McGregor and his family. The arrangement of footage here is edited so frantically, few moments are given time to sink in. It also doesn’t explore Conor as a divisive pop culture figure, which is surely part of his “Notorious” public image.
Notorious opts instead to take an observational approach, following press junkets, physiotherapy sessions and training. There is lots of great footage of McGregor training. It reveals the determination with which he physically pushes himself, even to the point of taking repeated punches to the abdomen to toughen up. It also shows the infectious positivity with which he influences the entourage around him. These two attributes inform his charismatic personality alternating from playful excitement to driven focus. McGregor is engaging to watch, it just might be ‘engaging’ in the wrong way for some viewer’s sensibilities.
This feels like a missed opportunity to produce something of more depth. The same free-spiritedness behind McGregor’s playfulness makes him insensitive towards others. This leads to backlashes of controversy around him using a homophobic slur in trash-talk or calling a black man ‘boy’ or so on. There is a context to trash-talk in which the narrow objective is the opponent’s emasculation. There is the broader context of the way words bring harm to people. Plenty to explore there in terms of this neurosis that makes Conor a divisive figure. It’s not the only thing a documentary should focus on but it’s notable by its absence here.
The thing is, I’m not sure if this was ever intended to be some deeper look at what it means to be a sports role model or whatever. It doesn’t even get that much into what it means to be a celebrity. McGregor’s journey here is depicted as rags-to-riches with few complications or setbacks. Don’t get me wrong. Notorious shows the sacrifice, ambition and focus McGregor needed to overcome challenges. But it runs through the highlights of a career you already know the progression of if you’re even a little interested in seeing this.
Notorious doesn’t really show much change to Conor’s personality from the impact of becoming a celebrity either. From living with his parents on dole money to being a global star, he acquires more garish tattoos but his gleeful anticipation for great feats yet to come remains about the same. He talks about how he feels so in his element while training, he needs it in his life, exercise being the healthiest addiction of all. There is a psychology to athletes pushing themselves to their limit and in Notorious we don’t get much more than surface-level examination. Likewise for any interrogation of McGregor’s values beyond his defence of materialism. Likewise for any impact his early life would have had on his values. The cursory glance here on his life before MMA doesn’t even get into the living conditions in his neighbourhood nor the fact he went to an Irish-language school.
Again, is that what Notorious was ever meant for? A lofty examination of cultures of masculinity, challenging the media image of a restless psyche with an uninhibited mouth? No. This is more like one of those WWF VHS tapes I got when I was little, where it told The Rock’s story or something. It is UFC material, executive produced by Conor McGregor. It is a celebration of his career and it’s not without its moments. It’s not just the bemusing cameos. The cage-fights themselves are imbued with cinematic life through good sound mixing and use of slow-motion. They somehow got clean audio of coach John Kavanagh’s ringside talks to McGregor. These moments are revealing about their bond. The pause Kavanagh gives before offering reassurance. The admirable dedication McGregor puts towards his goals.
Unfortunately, Notorious comes together flat. It rushes over the cultural moments around trash-talk and it skims over the Alvarez and Mayweather fights. The story of the Mayweather fight alone would have provided ample material for a feature documentary. Notorious begins with McGregor training with champions of sports where there’s no money to be made and no funding from the Sports Council. His fights attract enough buzz for the UFC to identify their eccentric superstar to bring more focus to MMA. The arc followed focuses more closely on the Jose Aldo fight and the two Nate Diaz fights. It’s possible you’ll find more insightful footage typing ‘Conor McGregor’ into YouTube. Though Notorious is fine to watch, it’s just not the fascinating documentary we could get some day.
DIR/WRI: Emer Reynolds • PRO: John Murray, Clare Stronge • DOP: Kate McCullough • ED: Tony Cranstoun • MUS: Ray Harman • CAST: Frank Drake, Carolyn Porco, John Casani
Winning the Audience Award at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this year says a lot about The Farthest. Many films were well-received at the festival, yet a science documentary is the one that left the biggest impact on the audience. This is not only because of the mind-blowing implications of its subject matter; the story of the farthest man-made object from Earth. The assured direction of Emer Reynolds (http://filmireland.net/2017/02/19/podcast-interview-with-emer-reynolds-director-of-the-farthest/) presented the story with cinematic presence. When documentaries feature impressive visuals such as those here, it commands its place on the big screen.
The Farthest tells the story of the two Voyager spacecrafts, launched into space by NASA in 1977 and currently leaving the outer boundaries of our solar system. In marking the 40th anniversary, The Farthest gathers an impressive assortment of interviews from people closely involved in the Voyager program. The purpose of the project was to send two spacecrafts on a reconnaissance mission of the solar system’s planets, transmitting new discoveries back to Earth before leaving the solar system and hurtling off into interstellar space forever. If not strictly “forever”, the spacecrafts were designed to last for billions of years and could potentially outlast planet Earth itself and be the only trace that we ever existed.
Not one to miss the bigger picture, Carl Sagan realised the Voyager program had an entirely unique but time-sensitive opportunity; sending a time capsule of Earth’s civilisation into space. With only months to go before the launch, Sagan received NASA’s blessing to lead a team producing a Golden Record that would be stored onboard with visual instructions on how to play it. It is virtually impossible that Voyager will ever be intercepted by an alien civilisation but IF one discovers it, they could transfer frequencies on the record onto a screen and see 115 images of Earth. They would also hear a selection of the Earth’s noises and human languages as well as a 90-minute selection of music from across the world’s cultures. It is worth listening to the record’s contents online and reflecting on humanity’s presentation of itself in the 1970s.
Since the chances of its discovery by extra-terrestrials are miniscule, the Voyager Golden Record is primarily a statement for ourselves; a reflection of our higher values and an invaluable thought experiment on how we would present ourselves to a galaxy many have yearned to explore. It was created during a very specific sliver of time in the 1970s; the threat of environmental destruction loomed, the threat of nuclear holocaust persisted. The world was being torn in all sorts of directions amid an unprecedented technology boom yet it was beginning to be perceived as a global community facing common responsibilities. Sending a message in a bottle to outer space was a bold statement for the time, suggesting a species optimistic enough that it would triumph over its problems.
So fascinating are the implications of the Golden Record that it often gets the most focus over Voyager’s scientific team and their amazing discoveries about our solar system. Emer Reynolds weaves these threads together, each given equal weight to the Voyager’s physical journey of mind-blowing proportions and to the stories of the people who worked on this incredible project. Candour is drawn from a diverse range of people involved in this project and distilled into a two-hour running time packed full of information presented with clarity and momentum.
The thrill of discovery that scientists felt about each planet is conveyed with great impact. The long stretches of travel between planets are when the focus shifts to broader issues at play or the contents of the Golden Record, whose selection could justify a documentary of its own. This narrative structure allows The Farthest to take a broader view of the project and build chronologically towards the stunning realisation that objects made by human hands are now outside of our solar system.
As incredible as this story is, a lesser director would not have made the subject come alive as a cinematic experience. Emer Reynolds crafts a strong audio-visual sensibility to The Farthest. A soundscape of radio frequency noises and an eclectic soundtrack engage the viewer. Ray Harman’s poignant compositions complement music taken from the Voyager Golden Record’s collection. Other licensed tracks, apart from the closing song, all come from 1977 or earlier, grounding the film’s vibe in the era during which Voyager left Earth never to return. This imbues the Voyager with a character insofar as it can be but the visual sensibility on display here is anything but dated.
Opening shots of the sky are beautifully sharp compositions by cinematographer Kate McCullough. That McCullough has worked primarily in documentary before illustrates that strong visuals needn’t be absent from the form of documentary nor should they be. Visual effects are refreshingly alternated between CG shots of Voyager in space and close-up footage of paints, chemicals and dyes mixing together in fabulous galactic tableaus. The latter technique was pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for stunning sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.
A particularly jaw-dropping visual accompanies the approach to each planet by showing the actual approach to each planet. Black-and-white photos from Voyager during their long approach towards planets are edited into an enthralling montage as each grey world looms out of the immense darkness. There are so many surprises from Voyager’s images and from rich archive footage precisely selected to build the story’s momentum.
This is all edited together into a superb cinematic experience and one with a far more global consciousness than any Irish film to date. The cosmic perspective it instils makes threats to the environment seem inexcusably reckless and national boundaries seem petty. It also makes space exploration seem daunting yet utterly captivating for its possibilities. The Farthest has a profound impact on viewers such that it would make them appreciate these words of Carl Sagan, “How lucky we are to live in this time, the first moment in human history, where we are in fact visiting other worlds”.
Actor Niamh Algar joined Jonathan Victory to talk about 3 films she features in at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival as well as her nomination for the 2017 ADIFF Discovery Award.
In Lorcan Finnegan’s debut feature Without Name, Niamh plays Olivia, the apprentice to a middle-aged land surveyor, who takes up a job in a remote forest. Deep in the woods, he becomes aware of a malevolent presence, an intelligence of sorts. A silhouette flits between trees. The place fascinates the fragmenting Eric as much as it disturbs him. Is his mind playing tricks on him or is there some ancient horror wishing him harm?
Niamh also talks about the short films she appears in, Gone and Pebbles, which are also screening at ADIFF.
In Patrick Maxwell’s Gone, Paul returns to his hometown to find that his ex-lover has a child with another man. As old sparks reignite, jealousy and revenge lead to fatal consequences.
In Jonathan Shaw’s Pebbles, on her 50th wedding anniversary, Ruby returns to the hotel where she spent her Honeymoon. Will her estranged husband return to honour a promise?
Niamh also talks to Jonathan about the craft of acting, the industry and loads of other lovely stuff, including Niamh’s favourite curse word (spoiler – it’s “bejinges”)
Without Name screens on Saturday, 18th Feb 2017 at 6:00pm at the Light House Cinema.
Gone and Pebbles screen as part of ADIFF Shorts 3 on Saturday, 25th February 2017 at 6:15pm at the Light House Cinema.
Without Name is released in Irish cinemas in April.