Homemad(e)

Homemad(e) 2001

Directed by Ruth Beckermann

Thanks to Mubi streaming service I’ve been watching a lot of Ruth Beckermann’s documentaries the last few months. She has a very interesting way of telling extraordinarily big historical stories through the lens of the intensely personal.

Homemad(e) is a great example of this, where again Beckermann turns her lens on Vienna. This time, Marc Aurel-Strasse, where her parents ran a business and where Beckermann lives. The street is the heart of the former textile district, dotted now with cafes and a thriving nightlife but the whole is pervaded by the sadness of a dying culture. The title of the film alludes to the homemade quality of the piece as well as its themes.

She interviews particularly Adolf Dolf, the self-proclaimed last Jewish textile merchant who talks about how he survived the camps during WWII. Even at this late stage of his life, the man is clearly suffering survivor guilt but Beckermann is always respectful and gentle with him. Similarly, she talks with Rikki Goschl, the owner of Café Salzgries and her regular customers. Always the ghost of her husband Ernst, who was the heart and soul of the coffeehouse is present. His photograph is on the wall, while customers/friends reminisce about him and his importance in their lives. The majority of the interview subjects are older, mainly Jewish and WWII survivors but I found the Persian hotelier and the poet who owns five hundred pieces of jewelry but only wears about ten especially interesting.

One of the standout points to me about this film is it never wallows in melancholia or uses outside cues to trigger an emotional response from the audience. There is no soundtrack, just the sounds of the street. It made me want to rush off to Vienna immediately for coffee!

Highly recommended.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old 2018

Directed by Peter Jackson

One of the things about getting old is remembering when I was small.

I can recall old men who served in WWI, marching in ever dwindling numbers on Anzac Day and at services on Remembrance Day. Not one of them ever talked about the Great War and as I’ve grown older, and particularly after experiencing this film, I can certainly see why.

Directed and produced by Peter Jackson, this documentary opens with the usual WWI film footage – black and white, jerkily shot, uneven frame rates. About 10 minutes in, it changes to a smooth, full colour film, complete with audio and the effect is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Jackson had access to the British War Museum’s archives, which included footage from various sources and audio interviews after the war with surviving servicemen. Rather than make the usual war documentary, Jackson and his brilliant team took the footage, shot with hand-cranked cameras and therefore of varying speeds, and smoothed it out with a precision that is simply staggering. The adjusted footage was colourised and then, perhaps most astonishing of all, a team of lip-readers translated what the men were saying to each other and the camera. Voice actors with appropriate regional accents to the regiments depicted gave their images life again. Interspersed with archive audio interviews with survivors, it lends even more gravitas to the camaraderie between the men and the sheer horror of what they experienced. The sound design too is magnificent and relentless, with nearly constant gunfire and shelling but probably only a taste of what these men must have experienced.

The results are an incredibly moving film that really should be mandatory viewing for all adults and a technical triumph for Peter Jackson and his team. It’s caused me to think that Jackson should perhaps make more documentaries than narrative films!

While I cannot recommend this work enough, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Although I was well prepared, I still found some of the scenes difficult and was moved to tears more than once. However, this film in no way ever glorifies war. Rather, it humanises this brutal conflict in ways that I would not have thought possible. I saw this astonishing documentary on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day in other countries), the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and I’m very grateful to have seen it in a decent sized cinema with a good sound system – kudos to my local, the State Cinema. To say I was moved is a complete understatement, it was a far more profound experience.

Undoubtedly one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

 

Visages Villages – Faces Places

Faces Places (originally released as Visages Villages) (2017) Directed by JR and Agnes Varda.

I saw this French language documentary a few weeks ago at the end of its run at the State Cinema in Hobart and I cannot get it out of my mind.

Agnes Varda is well known to me as the sole female director of the French New Wave but I confess I hadn’t heard of JR, Varda’s young co-director. Apparently JR is a French photographer and muralist and I must say, very engaging in front of the camera.

The documentary was shot over 18 months, with the two of them travelling around France in JR’s wonderful photo booth van, which also printed large format photographs. Their core idea was to create ephemeral black and white photographic art works that would eventually be worn away by the elements, depicting people of the area. These took the form of oversized images pasted on the exteriors of buildings, bridges, factories and even shipping containers.

I loved this film at many levels. A good deal of it was shot in rural France and there was a beauty beyond the idyllic pastoral scenery that Varda and JR managed to elicit from the people they spoke to. I confess I shed tears too when Jeanine, the last occupant of the condemned miners cottages, saw her two storey image on the outside of her home.

Perhaps the most poignant scenes for me were with Varda talking frankly with JR about growing old, losing her sight (the cornerstone of her art), and the friends and loved ones who have died. I felt these scenes are the spine of the film and despite the sombre feel, Varda has a sense of humour and clear zest for life that at times matches the much younger JR. There is also sadness, particularly when Varda talks about her husband who died some years ago and (without giving too much away) the manner in which she is treated by someone later in the film.

All in all, this is a quiet yet spectacular and very moving documentary, which addresses questions about ageing, being completely in the moment and engaging fully in a life well lived. It’s stayed with me for weeks and although it’s only early days, I think come December it’ll be in my best films of  2018. I recommend it to anyone who has a beating heart.