More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
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A : Hello, again ! What are you watching next – the Chinese epic, in Screen 1 ?
C : Oh - hi ! Sorry, I was deep in thought. You mean Mountains May Depart… ?
No, I’m not doing that one (or re-watching We Need to Talk About Kevin) – I’m going to see a documentary in the Catalan strand, Camera Catalonia…
So we might imagine these two, chatting in the bar for a while at Festival Central on Day 7 of #CamFF2017, and wondering what might draw one (A) to a film that, at 131 minutes, is nearly an hour more than the length of C’s - and bearing in mind that, curbing the time available to converse, C needs to be seated for a start that is fifteen minutes earlier than A's.
As we see, we say a documentary, or we ask what is the film ‘about’, but maybe (perhaps with C’s guiding ?) they might enter into talking about whether there is any one such thing as a documentary - any more, perhaps, than there is a Hitchcock film, or a film about the environment (although this one, as the title In the Same Boat implies, does touch upon such questions) ?
If we are reacting to John Akomfrah's use, in The Nine Muses¹ (2010), of snow and mountain scenes in Alaska (often featuring water, and vessels on it), and with or without one or more brightly-jacketed 'observers' (or 'sentinels') – how, for example, does that ice and the implied cold make us feel, and how do we imagine that the figures feel ? It is this that Akomfrah wants us to relate to.
By contrast, some reviewers might typically might call a film (or a piece of music) 'evocative' - which may well be so, but what do the key scenes (or what does the music) evoke, and why is it not useful and important to try to say it to the reader (and potential viewer / listener) ? (In truth, it may well be several feelings (or past experiences), so it is probably best to try to characterize the principal one(s).)
In Akomfrah's films², it is in the moments between the words - or in words translated, to footage that he shows from the 1950s and 60s, from Homer's The Odyssey, or from Dante - that the deep communication begins, of alienation and feeling awkward.
Here, in In the Same Boat, the soundtrack that director Rudy Gnutti has written (and including the closing song) is used to attend recurrent imagery, which overall suggests entering new territory, but which, in introducing the five sections (and then being reprised at the end), specifically makes us think of : hesitancy (at an audience left in awe) ; a suspensive quality (as of waves and the wind) ; of being carried away (by fast cello arpeggiation on a soaring string-base) ; and of the impulse of percussive-beats, high strings, and then arpeggios underneath.
The strength of Gnutti's score is not the least of those of this film, which has speakers crystallize thoughts and concepts for us :
From the outset, we have a suitably theatrical Master of Ceremonies in Àlex Brendemühl³, sitting behind his stagily-lit desk and microphone as if a radio-host, greeting us :
In a prologue to In the Same Boat (2016), Brendemühl recalls that John Maynard Keynes, in a speech to La Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid, in June 1930, predicted where we would be in a hundred years with the economy - complete with Gnutti’s clips from Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and from films by Georges Méliès (from 1898 to 1912).
Both unseen (whether giving us quotations from writers from antiquity, such as Martial, Seneca or Boethius) and seen (telling us the truth of the distribution of wealth in the States - as against what people thought ideal, or think is the case), we gather the impression that he is broadcasting to the whole world.
In shots - monochrome, but for a pinky red - of everyday life around the world, and everyday conversations in countries from Russia to Nigeria to Argentina. In all of these, we feel connected and included, as people converse about things that are familiar to us, such as what the value is of teenagers nowadays obtaining university qualifications.
The pervasive imagery, again, suggests that what we hear these and various economists and other theorists say⁴ is also for everyone to hear, whether it be to ask how we can continue to live on Earth when there has been a decoupling between the levels of growth and that of employment...
Or how the distribution of wealth looks back to that of The Pharaohs (according to economist Mauro Gallegati), and whether - which is widely discussed in the closing section, about 'a new way', and with the enthusiasm of economist Rutger Bregman - there is a solution.
Gnutti closes his film with a very powerful combination of showing us a disappearance into the unknown, and his strong lyrics, with an African singer accompanying, presumably, his own voice (with all that raw brittleness of Peter Gabriel at his best) :
I can change this crazy life
IMF: Higher income tax rates for the rich would help reduce inequality without having an adverse impact on growth https://t.co/7xNiioSb16— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) October 11, 2017
¹ Or, in Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation (2012), in the juxtaposition – across three screens at Tate Modern (until January 2018) – of a street-scene in London (with milk being delivered), a fairly static view of colonial Jamaica and, perhaps, shots of clouds and the dawn light, all overlaid with audio of footsteps and clinking bottles, and a reading – timed to early morning – from a text, in this case Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (but also from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, or from Blake, etc.).
² This preview started by mentioning Akomfrah, because it is relevant that there are elements in the two films referred to, particularly The Nine Muses, that lead some who write about film to describe them as essays. (Here is a link to a video of Akomfrah in conversation at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015 (www.sheffdocfest.com / Sheffield Doc / Fest).) :
This preview started by mentioning Akomfrah, because it is relevant that there are elements in the two films referred to, particularly The Nine Muses, that lead some who write about film to describe them as essays². Irrespective of the exact application of that terminology, though, what these films have in common with other highly meditative and powerfully affecting films such as Leviathan (2012) - one of many films, even in the same year of release, of that title - or Visitors (2013) is that they feel more poetic than many feature films, and also, precisely without spelling it out orally, to have more to say.
³ We may recognize him from Camera Catalonia in 2013 El bosc (The Forest) (2012), where he played Ramon (Dora's husband).
⁴ With the exception of José Mujica (President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015), and Professor of economics Serge Latouche, everyone is identified to us directly, and all (except Mujica) speak from within a conventional indoor interview set-up (where the answers imply the questions asked, which are sometimes points that other speakers have made). Some, such as Zygmunt Bauman, stray from looking at the interviewer to looking directly into the camera...
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)