HotDocs 2020 Part II

This article continues my reviews of films from the HotDocs 2020 festival. Part I is here.

Festival screenings run to June 24, and I will add reviews here as I work my way through the list. There is no way to see everything, but in these days when we have lots of free time, one can try.

Because the originally planned ten-day festival has run its course, the audience awards have been announced. The full list is on the HotDocs site and some of the top-rated films were already on my “to see” list. Those I have seen so far and reviewed in Part I are:

  • There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace (Number 5 in top 5 Canadian films, number 15 in top 20)
  • The 8th (Number 5 in top 20 films)

The top-rated film was The Walrus and the Whistleblower which aired recently on CBC and is available free on CBC Gem. For what my two cents are worth, I will review it later in the festival.

Bare

Directed by Aleksandr M. Vinogradov
Belgium

**½

In Bare, director Aleksandr Vinogradov explores the relationship between a choreographer and his dancers, as well as the taboo of the male nude.

Naked men were an ideal in ancient times as represented in countless statues, but over centuries, the focus changed to naked or minimally clothed women as an acceptable artistic form. Vinogradov sees nudity as the last bastion of personal freedom. This outlook fit perfectly into a chance to document a new piece by Belgian choreographer, Thierry Smits, which would use a troupe of eleven naked male dancers.

I came to Bare thinking this would be a chance to see the evolution of a new work and the challenges of making dance that was not sexual despite the obvious allure of bare bodies. That would have been interesting, but instead it was clear right from the audition process that Smits really had only a vague sense of what his piece might become, and he was improvising with the dancers to see what moves would be possible without any connecting thread.

Much of the film looks at the relationship between choreographer and dancers. They explore emotions, moves, maleness, but this is not always translated to the dance itself. Some dancers were uncomfortable with having a camera at an audition where they might not win a place in the company. For the most part Vinogradov works around this, but it is troubling that they did not know up front the context for what was only a tryout.

Early on, it is clear that Smits is using the dancers almost as an improv group to see what works, but he never articulates an actual story arc. One dancer remarks that “there is no life” in the work because it is movement with no connection to purpose. The dancers have no idea where Smits is headed even a few days from the premiere.

Bare has a lot of standing around waiting to do something, and far too little actual dance. Eventually some dancers reached a common point with me, the audience, asking “why am I here” and “what is the purpose of this dance”. Music already has been chosen, but parts do not serve “dance” per se being mainly bereft of rhythm or evolution of mood to which the choreography or dancers can relate.

At the point in Bare where the work should be complete, there is an extended pause with a mostly static camera looking down a corridor toward the dressing room. Fragments of conversation. Passing dancers with lovely bodies vamping for the camera. But nothing is really happening.

As Bare ends, the audience arrives, but we see almost none of the completed material for Anima Ardens (Burning Soul). I came away from the screening and a Q&A with Vinogradov struck by the self-indulgence of both director and choreographer, and a dance empty of the soul it claims to represent.

City So Real

Directed by Steve James
USA

****

City So Real is part of the HotDocs “Deep Dive” series for long format documentaries. Its four episodes clock in at 240 minutes, and I viewed it over two sittings.

The topic is Chicago, its neighbourhoods, contrasts and, especially, its politics. There are aspects that remind me of Toronto with a huge variation in city character from one place to another, but the politics and corruption are played at a totally different level. There is even a mayoral candidate with a broom to sweep City Hall clean, but he was nowhere near as well-organized or as successful as David Miller and his broom were in TO.

When the story begins, Rahm Emanuel is mayor. A major redevelopment, Lincoln Yard, draws the ire of residents because of its financing scheme and insensitivity to neighbouring areas. Like its namesake Hudson Yards in New York, this is to be a “TIF”, a “tax increment financing” scheme where the up front cost of making development possible with municipal services will be financed with future tax revenue. However, the city would be on the hook for $1.8 billion in spending at a time when schools (also run by the city, not by a separate agency as in Toronto) are closing, and the condition of those that remain is desperate with private schools scooping up children of affluent parents.

Two threads run in parallel through City So Real. One is the 2019 mayoral election which is a wide open contest thanks to Emanuel’s announcement that he will not stand for reelection. The other, a topic very much for our time, is the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Steve James begins with a series of neighbourhood vignettes, and the contrast reveals (at least) two very different Chicagos, to the point it is hard to believe we are looking at the same city. The mayoral race slides in later at a low key introducing some of the 21, yes 21, candidates as they organize and attend local political meetings. Some are scrambling while others give the impression of campaigns that will grow and strengthen.

James chooses to follow not just a few front-runners, but some who are polling at only a few percent. Even so, he does not fall into the trap of shooting too little, and forcing his audience to sit through the only footage he has. Each scene tells us something about a district, a candidate, an issue, but moves on without belabouring any of them.

Some candidates are protégés of the old guard, the political machine that has run Chicago for decades. There is even a third member of the Daley clan who gets an endorsement from former VP Al Gore, thereby reducing my opinion of Gore by several notches.

Dirty tricks abound including challenges to nominations. To get on the ballot, a candidate must collect personal nominations. Researching and challenging these on a line-by-line basis is a tactic aimed less at weeding out imposters than on wasting a candidate’s time defending their own nomination.

One candidate, a millionaire black Doctor of Divinity, Willie Wilson, is blatantly buying votes handing out money to people in the street and showing up at churches with large donations. He, astoundingly, is backed by Republicans because under the covers both because he is a fiscal hawk and because he could split the black vote. His campaign hassles another black candidate for months with nomination challenges, but eventually backs off probably because the political calculus works better with more rather than fewer candidates.

Of the many female candidates, two women are complete contrasts. Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, tries to look like an outsider, but she is really part of the white old guard. Lori Lightfoot, a former head of the Chicago Police Board, is a true reformer, but her campaign takes a long time to get traction in a crowded field. She is also a black, married lesbian, and this puts her well outside the political mainstream.

The city’s black-white divide is inescapable, and power within Chicago clearly rests with the wealthy whites. In one sequence, a group sits watching a strongly pro-cop, white candidate in a televised debate while making racist comments about black candidates utterly unconcerned that they are being filmed.

Two events will give Lightfoot a huge boost, although we don’t know this early in the story. One, inevitably, involves corruption. Long-serving (since 1969!) Alderman Ed Burke is charged with 14 counts of racketeering, extortion, and attempted bribery in a scheme to send contracts to firms from which he will benefit. The case is still before the courts, Burke was re-elected and remains in office to this day. Those around Burke are tarred by his reputation, including Preckwinkle, and this wounds her campaign.

The other, a huge and unexpected plum, is the Chicago Sun Times endorsement of Lightfoot. She would go on to win the initial vote in February 2019, and then sweep all 50 wards in the April runoff against Preckwinkle to become Mayor with almost three quarters of the vote.

James was both lucky and clever in following people who at the outset seemed to be minor candidates, and his film would have been very different if he had concentrated on only a few front-runners, all eventually losers. The candidates we do see show the variety of the city, and the breadth of political activity even if they don’t all succeed.

In the Q&A, we will learn that James did all of this with a tiny crew mainly of himself and his producer Zak Piper, and only hired extra crews to cover election day when he simply could not be everywhere at once.

This is a long film but it works because there are so many vignettes, so many different characters. Yes, it helps to be a political junkie, and keeping track of the players can be a challenge, but City So Real is a great portrait of a major evolving city and its politics.

In Your Eyes, I See My Country

Directed by Kamal Hachkar
Morocco/France

***

Neta Elkayam is a Jew whose mother’s roots lie in the Berbers of Morocco. Amit Cohen is also a Jew, but his family hails from Tangiers and a small mountain village far from the city. They are a couple living in Jerusalem, but with a strong desire to find the other halves of their background.

Both are musicians, and together with their family relationships, this will provide a link to their parent cultures. This is a road movie, and along the way they play with colleagues and for communities, delighted to find the common ground between cultures even in religious rituals.

Neta is first wary of walking in a market in an Islamic city, but also delighted to hear everyone speaking her mother’s language. In a telling line, she says “I don’t want my kids to be afraid to speak Arabic”. To no surprise, the linguistic thread wanders a lot with Hebrew, Arabic dialects and bits of French, a leftover of Morocco’s colonial days.

Stories about the middle East often present characters who are uniformly one race, one ethnic background, but the reality is that with hundreds of years of travel, marriage and cultural crossovers, things are not quite that simple.

In Your Eyes, I See My Country is a simple, hopeful film about a complex region.

Don’t Worry, The Doors Will Open

Directed by Oksana Karpovych
Canada

***

Yes, somewhere in HotDocs trust that I will find a story about trains, although they are the setting, not the subject.

Oksana Karpovych has lived in Quebec for seven years, but she grew up in Ukraine where trips on the elektrychka (electric suburban commuter trains) were common parts of her childhood. The system, built during the Soviet era, has lost a lot of its former shine while the country itself is at war in its eastern regions. Karpovych wants to see how this system and her home country have held up.

This is a film about faces, about people observed over months of filming. People going to work. People visiting. People off on a holiday. Railway workers who keep the whole thing ticking. Shopkeepers and vendors whose customers ebb and flow with the trains. Who knows where the are going, what they will be doing, what they are thinking as they gaze out of windows or doze in their seats. People wait for trains, they stream into and out of stations. They are all very ordinary.

The first half of Don’t Worry, The Doors Will Open begins before dawn with people making their way to a station by flashlight. The story follows an arc through the day, even though the footage was actually shot on many different occasions.

In the second half, Karpovych turns more to individuals including a magazine vendor who has worked the trains for 25 years since his factory job ended with the Soviet collapse in the 1990s. He sells everything, a recurring character if not quite a chorus, and Karpovych finally follows him home where we see more than the salesman.

Karpovych’s project lasted four years as she gained confidence as a film maker. She worked in very crowded conditions, and gradually her camera just became part of the scenery, a familiar presence to regulars on the trains. She has a wealth of material and does not have to stretch any one segment. Her subjects come and go.

These are little portraits that show the mood of a people far better than a big political piece might do. The title enigmatically speaks both of a fact of life for impatient train riders, and hope for the future of a country.

The Last Autumn

Directed by Yrsa Roca Fannberg
Iceland

**½

A more remote farming location than rural Iceland would be hard to find. Úlfar Eyjólfsonn and his wife Oddný are among the dwindling number of sheep farmers whose flocks go out to the hillside for the season. Come fall, they are tracked down and rounded up for sale, or to winter over in a barn.or the fall. Úlfar also fishes, and clearly has enough income to keep his farm in good nick, rebuilding barn walls even though he plans to give up his flock, and maybe even the farm itself. They do not talk much, and their relationship appears to be one of long familiarity and habit.

The Last Autumn is a farewell to this simplified small-scale farming life. This is not a fast moving story and its effect is as much from the cinematography of Carlos Vásquez Méndez as from the plot, such as is any. The aspect ratio is 16mm complete with camera flares and dirt on the “print” in places that suggests an older style of film making. We begin in black and white, and only grudgingly is colour admitted into the frame. The landscape is otherwise stony and harsh. Blue sky is rare. Isolation is at the heart of Úlfar and Oddný’s lives.

The problem they face is that small-scale farming is vanishing, and they are getting old for work with nobody to take over. As other neighbouring farmers also retire, the pool of help for shared tasks like herding disappears.

Úlfar sells most of his stock for slaughter, a few sheep go to a neighbour, and one black ram that seems to have been a favourite is remembered only by his hide.

In the final shot, a tractor disappears down a stony road in a barren landscape in the rain.

Lost Lives

Directed by Dermot Lavery & Michael Hewitt
UK Ireland

*****

“The Troubles” cast a long shadow over modern Irish history. Decades of sectarian and political violence, Protestant/Catholic hatred, unionist and pro-British factionalism left Northern Ireland with thousands dead. In 1999, the book Lost Lives chronicled every person known to die in or because of the violence. This is not just a list, but a detailed record of each life and circumstances of their deaths.

Directors Lavery and Hewitt had talked for a few years about making a film on this subject, but how could they approach what is basically a catalogue?

There are so many ways to die. Many deaths are simply “accidents” or “collateral damage” as we call them so euphemistically, victims of stray gunfire. Others are combatants on either side. Some die as buildings collapse. Some are blown to bits by bombs or mines. Some are chosen for execution simply because they have the wrong religion. Some commit suicide out of grief for a lost love.

Almost all are random victims.

Lost Lives is an eloquent and moving requiem for the thousands who died. This would not work if it were only a mix of newsreel footage and photos from family albums. The  memories, the people, are brought to life, if only briefly, with voice-overs by a few dozen very fine actors reading words by and about the dead. This is all intercut with calmer views of abandoned buildings, landscapes, water. A peaceful Ireland. All of this runs above a haunting, sensitive musical score performed by the Ulster Orchestra and Codetta Choir.

The editing and music throughout are superb, and they create a cumulative sense of the wasted lives and the trauma of violence. The end credits begin with a roll, in chronological order, of the more than 3700 people whose stories are in Lost Lives. The list goes on, and on, and on.

I could not help watching this film and thinking of the horrors of civil war and of state forces turned against ordinary people at a time our southern neighbours are so dangerously close to this on a scale that would dwarf The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

This is a deeply sad film with a glimmer of hope for a new generation at the end, but one of the best I have seen.

The Dakota Entrapment Tapes

Directed by Trevor Birney
UK

****

What, one might ask, is a film about police entrapment and violence in North Dakota doing in the “Northern Ireland” section of this year’s HotDocs?

Director Trevor Birney and Producer Mairead Kelly had worked together before on No Stone Unturned, a film about The Troubles and about police abuse of informants. They were interested in experiences elsewhere and picked up on the story of Andrew Sadek, a college junior caught up in the American “War on Drugs” and its perversion of police behaviour.

Sadek was just an ordinary teenager who, in a random dorm sweep, was caught with a small amount of pot. Under normal circumstances, this would only rate a small fine, but the police wanted someone to go undercover to find drug dealers. They threatened Sadek with a severe criminal charge, 40 years in jail and a $40k fine, to convince him to become an informant. His role was to seek out buyers and sellers, and he was to do this work as a complete secret from friends and family.

The cops faced one key problem. Whatever was going on in this small North Dakota town was all small time. They needed to manufacture a “drug crisis” because additional funding depended on getting “results”. Going after kids on campus was an easy way to boost the numbers.

Andrew Sadek went missing, and 58 days later his body was found in a river. He had been shot. Initial public support for a search and for his family was undercut by a police story that he was a drug dealer. Although the film doesn’t make this statement, no doubt for legal reasons, it is quite clear that Sadek was murdered by the police when he was no longer of use to them and could expose what they were doing. His parents have sued the county and police, and an initial ruling against them is under appeal.

This is a story of abuse of power and the perversion of policing by ill-conceived funding programs, yet another part of the fear and security industry rampant in America.

There is a telling quote from Andrew’s father : “They used to serve and protect, now it’s all about the money.”

The Dilemma of Desire

Directed by Maria Finitzo
USA

**

Trigger warning: This review contains sexual content.

The premise of this film, or at least the online description, begins by asking about the clitoris, how its role in sexual pleasure is ignored or misunderstood, and how activists want this to change. I was unsure how this could translate into a 107 minute documentary, but it looked intriguing. The description was the cinematic equivalent of clickbait.

I must confess that I watched this film in two sittings with a break half way through. The director seemed to have an agenda, but was following an odd path to her conclusion.

One track spends altogether too much time on Sophia Wallace, an artist who creates a clitoris sculpture and logo. Finitzo was clearly enamoured of Wallace and parts of Dilemma feel like an extended ad for Wallace’s works and products. What that might have to do with better knowledge and understanding is anyone’s guess.

The other major track takes us into darker territory on an arc that begins innocently enough with burlesque as a satisfying, empowering activity, through the question of sexual and societal roles for women, to arranged marriage and rape. This presents a big problem because most links in the chain are credible enough in their own right, but it is a long jump from anatomical ignorance to female abuse.

Along the way, we encounter familiar tropes: male sexual needs dominate social norms; pornography and, more generally, advertising serves a male view and market; female sexuality is suppressed and feared because it is powerful; control is more important than sex per se with women’s bodies subjugated by fundamentalist outlooks and the troubled father/daughter relationship.

In just one example of selective imagery, there is a shot of a collection of sex toys with the comment that they are all designed by men for what they think women want. I hate to break the news, but many of the toys shown are not aimed at that particular market. However, this premise sets up segments about two women who are trying to make vibrators for women. They face problems of how they could possibly advertise in social media where sexual products are taboo. One comes up with a clever design that can be sold and worn as jewelery.

There might be a film lurking inside all of this, a polemic about the role of women and the history of their position in various societies, but that is not how Dilemma was presented nor what it appears to be aiming for. That would have required greater breadth, the rigour of looking at, comparing and contrasting different cultures and histories, rather than simply indulging the filmmaker’s thesis. This is not a film about the clitoris except, sadly, as a marketing tool.

9/11 Kids

Directed by Elizabeth St. Philip
Canada

*****

Audience rating: 2nd of top 5 Canadian films, and 2nd of top 20.

On September 11, 2001, President George Bush was visiting a classroom in Sarasota, FL, to meet grade two students to learn about a program to improve reading. Part way through, he received a whispered message about the Twin Tower attacks in New York. From that point onward, what should have been a celebration of the students became a national tragedy. In 9/11 Kids, director Elizabeth St. Philip turns the camera around to refocus on the school, the students and the evolution of American society over the past two decades.

Two people act as chorus. Ronnie Phelps of WBRA radio broadcasts a retrospective of the events tracing the historical fallout of the day. Sandra Kay Daniels, or “Mrs. Daniels” as she is called by her students, recalls the events of 9/11 and the early lives of the 16 children in her classroom.

We meet the students as grown adults amazed to see their younger selves in a class photo. In that picture, they were all bright-eyed and proud, together with their teacher, that their school had the best improvement in reading scores in Florida. Many of them could not read when they started grade two. They are Black and Latino, and their school is in a poor, time-stood-still Black neighbourhood in their heavily segregated city. They have dreams and bright optimism.

9/11 Kids follows six students in detail and that early optimism survives one way or another in all of them despite troubles along the way. They are a microcosm of Black experience with police harassment and violence. One very bright boy who was always an outsider runs afoul of the law, a victim of the war on drugs. Others are successful in business, engineering and the military. They are clearly the outcome of schools and families that cared despite the surroundings.

The attack in New York reinforced a society obsessed with safety and a distrust of “the other” with racist stereotypes and anti-immigrant sentiment. The USA today is beset by a poisonous culture that culminated in huge protests of past weeks well after 9/11 Kids was completed. It is impossible to watch without sensing what is to come, another epochal event in American history and politics.

Director Elizabeth St. Philip and her producer Steve Gamester began working on their film in 2016 tracking down the class members and, one by one, winning over their co-operation. The time invested in research and getting to know the subjects paid off. Their stories coupled with the social and personal framing of Phelps and Daniels make a powerful combination.

For the Love of Rutland

Directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor
USA

****

Rutland is a small town of about 15,000 in Vermont. New England small towns were once prosperous, but have fallen on hard times since the 1970s as industry and people started moving away.

In this political environment, townsfolk fight over the crumbs of town spending and services. On top of this, like so much of America, Rutland has a major problem with drug addiction and overdoses.

In one main thread, director Jennifer Taylor follow Stacie Griffen, a poor woman with two kids and a learning-disabled mother who somehow manages to keep a bright outlook. She is big on volunteering to help her community. She is proudly clean for 13 years after addiction to pain killers prescribed for a broken arm, but her life is an ongoing battle to pay bills and rent.

Mayor Chris Louras comes from a Greek immigrant family that built a local business of a small grocery store and cigar shop. His politics are definitely left of centre in a state that is largely rural and conservative. In the pre-Trump era of 2016, Louras signs Rutland up as a potential host for 100 Syrian refugees arguing that this will show his town’s progressive stance and attract business.

The first family arrives in January 2017, but the program triggers familiar pushbacks about immigrants and Islam which we now see in full force under Trump. A local church is very supportive, but this is not enough to overcome the opposition.

The political debate, one that will eventually cost Louras his mayoralty in March 2017, turns on whether a poor town should be spending money on refugees (and all of the negative connotations they are portrayed as having) rather than on things people in the town need. Louras’ opponent, a Republican, runs on a “safe city” platform, a common code for taking care of the white folk. Never discussed is the question of whether the ever-so-concerned citizenry would spend money on people like Stacie who really need it, or on plums (including lower taxes) for the better off.

That election was not a complete loss, and one of the new council members is a black woman, a real oddity in a very white town. She hooks Stacie up with social services, and eventually Stacie gets a part time job in charge of a youth group.

Meanwhile, with Trump in office, the refugee program is shut down and only three families in total came to Rutland under the program.

Jennifer Taylor’s family moved to Rutland from Los Angeles when she was 8. This gives her a family link to the town, and she could draw on many people for material. Although she now lives back in LA, Taylor kept gathering material over a few years. People of varying  ideologies were willing to talk on camera despite varying ideologies because Taylor was in many ways a local, and she cares strongly for the town where she grew up.

The future of small towns all over the USA and Canada is uncertain, and For the Love of Rutland ends with a celebration of sorts, a small-town Hallowe’en parade, but this does not stir much excitement.

Tension Structures

Directed by Feargal Ward and Adrian Duncan
Ireland/France

***

Tension Structures began as something of an homage to Irish structural engineer Peter Reis, but the topic pulled the filmmakers, especially Duncan, himself an engineer, into a deeper story. Part of that is historical, and part social commentary. The history is interesting, but the social commentary feels grafted on.

The 19th century engineer Heinrich Gerber invented a style of cantilevered bridge used for a railway at Haβfurt in Bavaria in the 1860s. Duncan set out to visit the bridge in Haβfurt only to discover that it had been replaced decades earlier after the key central span was destroyed by the retreating German army at the end of WW2. However, an archivist gives him a lead on Paris, and that leads him to visit Reis’ works.

Reis built several modern structures in Paris, but he owes a debt to Gerber that he acknowledges in architectural details nicknamed “Gerberettes”. Gerber’s design underlies several Parisian structures including the Pompidou Centre (a floating floor that is structurally a bridge), “The Cloud” at the Grand Arch at La Défense, and glass walls of buildings in the Parc de la Villette. All are held in place, almost magically, by a set of structures or cables in a balance of tension.

As Duncan presents these buildings, they are odd places. Oversized and empty, they are almost devoid of people, like giant sculptures built to look at, not to work as inhabited spaces. It is ironic that the buildings at Parc de la Villette sit empty, unused, huge volumes completely enclosed by glass, but with no purpose.

From this mini tour, Duncan slips into footage of a bridge that went badly awry, one of those that self-destructed under wind load because it lacked stiffness. The news footage of the event is interesting as an object lesson for engineers, but this serves as a bridge into comments about society gone awry. We find ourselves on a square that has been taken over by a Yellow Jacket protest, but it is not immediately obvious that we are actually watching a video game version, not the real thing. There may have been a point here, but it was thinly argued and had little to do with most of the film.

Tension Structures, a mid-length documentary, was paired with the following short.

Speaking for the Dead

Directed by Peiman Zekavat
UK

***

After the Grenfell Tower fire in London, there was a media circus around anyone who might comment. Local politicians. Residents. Survivors. This is par for any disaster, and director Zekavat sets out to watch the watchers, to show us the media in action. They are aggressive. They are not always well-informed or sensitive. There is always the pressure to get one more comment, especially from someone who seems to be available for interviews. It can be trying (I know, I’ve been there although in less dire circumstances).

He even manages to get in the attempt to stage manage a “walking shot”. The somewhat frazzled subject comes down the street as if they are entering the scene, and this footage would run under an introduction. Locals walking their dogs meander into the shot adding to the confusion.

The residents are not amused because the building would never have met current fire code, and the council (it was public housing) saved £300k with a less expensive, but highly flammable cladding. They are appalled both at this treatment of the poor who would live there, and the much larger amounts available to support arts for the rich. Some regard the media as interlopers using their home, which is now a mass grave, as a prop for newscasts.

In the end, Zekavat becomes part of the problem, indistinguishable from the media whose intrusiveness he is filming. A lot packed into 14 minutes.

Trouble

Directed by Mariah Garnett
USA/UK

***

Mariah Garnett was just two when she last saw her father, David, in Belfast. Years later she meets him again in Vienna, his new home. This is not a father who abandoned his family, but a man who was forced to leave Ireland because he had done the unthinkable: a Protestant man married a Catholic woman. In 1971, the event was such an upheaval that it was covered by the BBC.

Garnett has lived for years in Los Angeles, and sounds American, not Irish. She travels to Vienna, her father’s home, to meet a father she has not known. It is a difficult relationship, and Garnett discovers that her father has a trove of letters written to  her but never mailed. Those letters, plus the old BBC footage and modern-day interviews combine to give David a voice in three eras: just before he left Ireland, the in between years, and modern days.

Little of this exists as David on camera reciting the texts, but as audio. When Mariah goes to Belfast to retrace her father’s steps, we hear and see him up to a point, but then Mariah takes over the on camera role lip-syncing to David’s voice. She is rediscovering both her own roots in Belfast and a father’s caring in absentia that she did not know as a child. This device of taking over her father’s voice is an interesting personal exploration, and avoids long segments of “talking head” narration, but I am not sure that it works on a sustained basis.

A parallel tale looks at “the Troubles” as the war between religious factions in northern Ireland born of outright hatred and systematic denigration of Catholics by Protestants when the Orange Lodge ruled. There are odd parallels here, not explored, with racist and class discrimination, and especially the violent role of the police. Mariah is surprised by both the violence of the past and the just-below-the-surface tension, the celebration of past victories, that remain. “There’s always a wee riot somewhere” is a line we hear a few times.

Trouble is an intriguing film about personal discovery, but I am not sure its two themes sit comfortably together.

Mother-Child / Niña Mamá

Directed by Andrea Testa
Argentina

***

Audience rating: Fourth of the top five mid-length films.

Mother-Child is a counterpoint to The Eighth which I reviewed in Part I. Unlike Ireland, Argentina is a country where abortion is still illegal and almost impossible to obtain.

The format is quite simple. Director Andrea Testa’s camera observes consulting rooms in a public hospital where women, some barely in their teens, come for care and counselling about their pregnancies. The attitudes vary hugely from woman to woman, but wild joy is not common. Stories vary from the comparatively simple problem of a woman with four children who cannot get a tubal ligation (legal in Argentina) because of operating room backlogs. Some women live in abusive relationships or are victims of incest.

The never-seen counsellors are unfailingly sympathetic and supportive. There is no sense of judgement, no portrayal of women as “bad” or “irresponsible”.

There is a common sentiment among the women that despite their circumstances, they would never seek an abortion. This is part social pressure and part from demanding partners. Oddly enough, the men responsible never appear.

None of these women is rich, and an unasked question is whether abortions are available if you have the money to acquire one outside of the system.

Mother-Child shows the “before”, the situation women in Ireland sought to escape. The political struggle for change in Argentina exists, but is nowhere as advanced as in other countries.

The film is dedicated: “For them, for all of them, for our right to decide”.

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