Day 8 then and we’re sticking with this new very post-modern technique of shunning chronology completely. Big day though, five movies covering a Gazan hair salon, an irascible outlaw in a van, a bunch of South African middle class kids doing lord knows what, a city embodied in a actor and a crazy new religion.
One of the joys of the London Film Festival is our once yearly chance to really see some movies we wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to view, or at least would never be brought to our attention. A chance to get inside other countries and other cultures and really see a world view that is completely removed from our comfortable London existence.
Identical twins Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s first movie Dégradé is set in the country of their birth and childhood - Gaza. I probably mean territory when I say country but you’ll forgive an ignorant westerner the lack of subtlety to know the difference because that is exactly what this wonderfully insightful black comedy is all about. Rather than hitting all the big themes, and to be fair the themes that were very much current during filming, of the larger conflict between Palestine and Israel, the film makers instead concentrate their gaze on ordinary life within the strip as seen through the eyes of thirteen very different women in an entirely innocuous hair salon.
Shot in Amman, the conditions with Gaza prohibiting any location photography and shot entirely within the walls of the hair salon, we spend an hour and half with a bunch of women as they await their treatments whilst gradually deconstructing the political and social situation sandwiched in a country between numerous warring factions. Whilst the women wait, it becomes clear that one of the employees is in an on / off relationships with the local warlord and sometime owner of a lioness stolen from the local zoo. As time progresses, the increasingly hostile security forces mount an operation to liberate the lioness and a violent fire fight develops outside the salon.
The result of all the activity outside the building is that the ‘sisters’ are barricaded into the salon and the power is cut, ramping up the tension between them as they discuss everything from relationships through to the political situation in the strip. Writing and directing, the twins’ dialogue is very naturalistic and is allowed to unfold in a way that you would expect between largely strangers from a wide variety of backgrounds forced into a very contained situation.
I mentioned subtlety at the top of this review and it’s this subtlety that gives Dégradé its impact. The characters are major players in any part of the conflict waging around them. They are as critical of the local warlords as they are of the local government as they are of the Israelis (mentioned only twice in the entire movie). One exchange has one of the characters describing how life is made difficult for them, describing the checkpoint situation to get into Israel along the lines of Fatah setting up checkpoint 555 within the Israeli checkpoint, only for Hamas to set up checkpoint 444 within that checkpoint. It’s grimly funny and superbly illuminating for an audience not used to this level of intricacy in a movie based in the Middle East. I hope that the twins go on to further bring their world to us.
One of the obvious standout movies at this year’s festival sees the irrepressible Dame Maggie Smith return to a role that she has played seemingly forever now in Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s mostly true play The Lady in the Van. Playing to a sell out (downstairs at least) crowd on a Wednesday morning at the Odeon Leicester Square, I clearly wasn’t the only one who had this near the top of their list.
As I am apparently an unstoppable philistine, I was only vaguely aware of the story behind this movie, let alone the stage adaptations that have apparently been selling out for years now. Telling the story of an old lady who appears in Alan Bennett’s street when he moves in to Gloucester Crescent in Camden during the sixties. Already a fixture in the street, the old lady, known as Miss Shepherd moved constantly largely under the instruction of the Virgin Mary. When Camden Council finally decided to make parking illegal along the length of the road, Bennett took pity on her and allowed her to park her decrepit old van on his driveway. Where it stayed for fifteen years.
Hytner’s movie opens with a somewhat younger looking Miss Shepherd apparently fleeing some kind of accident, something that is evident in the broken windscreen on her van for the years that follow. Bennett (a pretty much spot on take by Alex Jennings), something of a soft touch living alone and mainly having conversations with himself, soon allows or at least is forced to allow the strange woman into his life. Both characters harbour dark secrets (at least, Bennett’s secret was dark back then) and soon a weird, almost maternal bond develops between the two.
Hytner and Bennett are both too smart to let this become the standard Hollywood fare though (with the possible exception of an ending that borders on schmaltz, only to swerve off at the last minute into inspired weirdness) and we soon see Bennett scrubbing his toilet out after the old lady’s visit, Smith’s Shepherd rounding on Bennett for a list of perceived slights and constant references to the horrific smell in the van and entirely unsanitary method of disposing of…well, you can guess what.
The result is a wonderfully endearing but at times bruising movie that pulls no punches in its treatment of the old lady. And of course there is Maggie Smith, a supremely skilled actor who must have approached Miss Shepherd as you would an old friend you haven’t seen for years. Her Miss Shepherd is undoubtedly now mostly her creation and it’s an absolute delight to witness her charging around in a Reliant Robin and tearing apart anyone who gets in her way. Smith brilliantly plays her more vulnerable side too when dodgy copper Underwood comes visiting or when social services suggest she has a day in a centre to get cleaned up.
The Lady in the Van is a very English movie and for that alone it will no doubt raise some eyebrows during awards season next year. Outside of that though, Hytner has done a grand job in bringing Maggie Smith’s awesome Miss Shepherd to the screen.
Mark Cousins is a filmmaker who oddly I have read far more than I have ever seen on film. Looking at his filmography on IMDB, it quickly becomes clear that I haven’t seen a single movie of his. I even booked a ticket for and then completely missed Here Be Dragons at 2013’s LFF. on the basis of his latest, it’s an omission I should be rectifying with speed (can I borrow that The Story of Film boxset now or what?).
I am Belfast is a movie that is pretty difficult to write about so do not take the brevity of this review as any comment on the movie beyond that. A kind of visual poem (I hate myself for that inarticulate phrase), Cousins imagines Belfast as a woman (the serene Helena Bereen) and has we wander around the city as a kind of half conversational voiceover between Bereen and Cousins sketches out a history of the city. Archive footage is interspersed with footage of ‘Belfast’ walking in the city. Occasionally and at turns poignantly and hysterically we visit with residents of the city and spend time with them.
And that’s your lot really. Largely politically neutral in its view of Belfast, Cousin’s movie is a moving and engrossing and straggly intimate experience. Frequently transcending its media it is a faithful, honest and heartfelt love letter to a wonderfully flawed city, only now emerging from a history of turbulence, survived you have to think by the sheer will and warmth of its citizens.
As the words in I am Belfast wash over you, mingling with images and the beatific soundtrack (by the fellow Belfast born David Holmes) you will find yourself floating above it all, bought back into focus for occasional bursts of dialogue or specific events. I can't finish without mentioning Rosie and Maude - two people who very probably should have a documentary entirely to themselves. Gloriously foul mouthed friends from across the years and the political divide, their dialogue slams through the patient beauty set out by Cousins but still fits in perfectly with the movie. But then, isn’t that the point?
We all love Louis Theroux. One of this country’s most prolific and respected documentary makers, he is rightly lauded for his uncanny ability to ask even the most bare-faced bigot the most reasonable of questions. Rarely flustered and disarmingly charming, who else would be suitably to take on a modern mega-church / cult (depending on how you split those two things)?
Hold the phone! I have actually read the book! I’ll give you a moment to pick yourselves up off the floor before I qualify that statement. I’ve read Lawrence Wright’s bak Going Clear - Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Somehow I haven’t managed to get around to Alex Gibney’s adaptation of that book for the screen but, and here’s the issue with this subject, it pretty much covers exactly the same ground as Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. The issue with Scientology is that there is so little public information out there and such a restriction on current church members discussing it outside their own circle that we end up with many subjects being covered to saturation.
What Theroux does manage to do is produce one of the most overtly entertaining documentaries I’ve seen in some while. The material and the characters may be over familiar (Marty Rathburn features heavily but no sign of Paul Haggis) but with Theroux’s genial spin, the whole affair still has legs.
Refused access for years and having just watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Theroux decided that he would create a movie reenacting some of the material that is available out in the public domain. So we get Theroux and Rathburn auditioning young hopefuls for the roles of David Miscavage (Scientology’s rodent-like leader), Tom Cruise (Scientology’s diminutive A Lister of choice) and various other minor Scientology ‘victims’. This obviously attracts the church’s attention and very soon we’re faced with the surreal image of a camera crew turning up to film the camera crew….. Theroux is of course a past master at dealing with this kind of nonsense so we get no Mark Sweney - esque on camera breakdowns, just a very polite English guy attempting to make friends with hostile cameramen.
There is no doubting that Scientology is a subject worth making a documentary about, I’m just less than convinced that it’s as interesting as everyone makes out. Whether it’s a religion or a cult surely is only a matter of tax status (something the church litigiously guards) and the idea of people being trapped in an abusive religion only to be exiled on their departure is something that is entirely common with just about every religion on the planet. The main difference between ‘mainstream’ regions and this one seems to mostly be a matter of time.
There is interest here in the relationship between the Scientology view of progression within the church (there are a huge number of levels to ascend to depending on time and money invested) and American ideas of self progression but that’s something that none of the documentaries on the subject have approached so far. All have sought to get under the skin of the church itself and with access largely only to disgruntled ex-members, this is a very tricky area to convince.
My Scientology Movie succeeds then almost entirely based on Theroux’s perpetually watchable charm. It’s hugely entertaining and will no doubt get a large amount of hostile attention from the church but ultimately it uncovers virtually nothing new.