2.00pm: The Ground Truth
For a change, today's reports come entirely from the Ritzy cinema in Brixton - I saw all three of today's films there. The Ritzy only tends to join in with the LFF for a four-day weekend in the middle of the festival, and generally cherrypicks films from the more radical end of the programme. Which is probably about right for a cinema located in one of London's most aggressively cosmopolitan districts.
The Ground Truth, like Soldiers Pay a couple of years ago, looks at the war in Iraq through the eyes of the soldiers that served in it. As in David O Russell's 2004 film, its subject is how anti-war protesters are told endlessly that even if we don't support the war, we should support the troops: but unfortunately, supporting the troops is precisely what the US Government isn't doing.
Patricia Foulkrod's relatively short documentary (a tidy 78 minutes) starts by looking at the recruitment and training of new soldiers. All of the recruitment adverts naturally play down the risk of being killed or injured, and play up the thrills and excitement of a military career. One recruit sardonically notes, "they used to advertise cigarettes by telling you they were cool: now they have a Surgeon General warning on the pack saying they'll kill you. Ain't no Surgeon General warning on the army ads." The reasons people give for joining up are the traditional ones: getting away from dead end lives back home, raising enough money to get to college, even the simple desire to blow shit up and kill people. And if you didn't have that desire before you joined the Marine Corps, you'll have it by the end of the training: in what might be the single most chilling quote of the film, someone points out "most people have an inbuilt resistance to killing another human being. It was a real problem getting people to kill each other in WW2. The Marine training gets round that now."
Okay, Marine cadets go into the job with some expectation of what they'll be doing, so they may be less deserving of our sympathy. But many of the soldiers interviewed here signed up for non-frontline posts in the National Guard, only to find themselves shipped off to Iraq a year later. And where The Ground Truth really hits home is in the depiction of what happens to these men and women when they come back to the US. They've been trained to kill at a moment's notice, and have spent anything up to a year in an environment where they could die at any time. When they get home, the closest thing they get to support is a questionnaire asking "do you plan to commit suicide in the near future?" - if they answer yes, they're kept on a military base for several months, so they answer no and end up having to cope on their own. The standard response to anyone who complains about flashbacks or recurring mental images is to accuse them of being mentally unstable anyway, or a conscientious objector.
Foulkrod's interviewees are an articulate and angry bunch, and they confirm there's a real problem which is being ignored: when the military spends so long turning people into killing machines, why does it spend no time helping those people turn back into civilians again? The case is passionately argued and beautifully presented: the only real issue I have is with the filming of the interviews, which is done in such supersaturated video that some of the images verge on the psychedelic. Whether it's the result of a deliberate choice in shooting style, or a botched setting by the Ritzy's projectionist, or just our fault for ending up in row C, I don't know: but it means that the visuals distract from the words, and that shouldn't be the case.
6.30pm: Black Gold
Like Suze yesterday, I'm reviewing a film that both he and The BBG have already covered here. And if The Cineaste hadn't missed this screening through being a victim of restrictive working practices, we could have had four reviews of Black Gold on the site. Anyhoo, on the day it's emerged that Ethiopian coffee farmers are trying to get a living wage out of Starbucks through the last-ditch method of copyright law, this may already be a slightly more relevant film than it was last Friday. (Even though the phrase Black Gold always makes me think of Texas Tea rather than coffee.)
There are two strands to Marc and Nick Francis' documentary. In the first one, Tadesse Meskla of the Oromia coffee growers' co-op jets around the world trying to get the fairest price possible for Ethiopian coffee. Looking at their living conditions, it's obvious that the West simply isn't paying enough for them to survive: in some cases, coffee farmers are tearing up their fields and planting the narcotic chat. (Not wishing to stereotype or anything , but if there's anywhere in London where you could advertise chat with the slogan 'available only two minutes from this cinema', it's the Ritzy Brixton.)
In the other strand, we see a mishmash of scenes depicting the use of coffee in the West, particularly given the boom in the last ten years caused by Starbucks et al. We see the New York trading floor where corporations set the coffee price far too low: we find out about a couple of companies who bypass the commodity market and deal directly with growers for a fairer price: and we watch as the 2003 WTO summit plans to make trade in developing nations fairer, and totally fails to deliver.
These scenes are mixed in with some lighter sequences - a Barista Of The Year competition, an interview with the scarily wired manager of the first Starbucks, and so on. But Suze and The BBG have already noted that none of this is pulled together into any sort of coherent argument, and I can't disagree with them there. Nevertheless, they're both expecting me to put a positive spin on the film out of sheer perversity. So here goes.
I've seen a lot of documentaries over the past week, same as in previous festivals. But this year, I've noted that every one of those documentaries has its website address prominently displayed in the closing credits. Movie websites tend to be just promotional guff, but with documentaries the sites can provide additional background information and allow viewers a forum for further discussion of the issues. The sort of bonus that festival audiences get from a post-screening Q&A, in fact, but available to everyone. (In passing, it's fun to note at this particular Q&A how uncomfortable the white liberal audience gets as they're told repeatedly that just buying Fair Trade will not solve the problem: they'll have to do some work as well.)
So maybe this is the way documentary filmmaking will work in the future. Films like Black Gold will be happy to just reel off a series of discussion topics, because the associated website will be where the discussion takes place and develops beyond the actual life of the film. It'll be interesting to see if that's actually the case. Hopefully you'll allow me to be intensely smug if it is.
9.00pm: Son Of Man
Despite the impression you may have got from this site, I can't see everything at the LFF: every year there are films I miss, which I'll try to catch up on if they subsequently get a proper release. One of last year's omissions was U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a spiffy reworking of the opera Carmen set in a South African township and translated (with frequent cl!cking) into the Xhosa language. Director Mark Dornford-May and the members of the Dimpho Di Kopane theatre company gave an old story new life with an imaginative bit of relocation. Son Of Man is the same team's reworking of an even more ambitious story: the life of Christ.
In this version, Judea is an African kingdom, in constant turmoil under its ruler Herode. Into this environment is born Jesus (Andile Kosi), who in his adult life gathers a small band of followers and preaches a message of passive resistance against the regime. By now Herode is dead, and a coalition of elders is hanging on to power by their fingernails. They see a popular leader spreading a gospel of peace and equality: how could he be anything other than a threat?
The same visual and musical imagination that so enlivened U-Carmen is on display here, as the film takes the non-unheard-of line of depicting Jesus as a political subversive. In this environment, it's easy to believe that the authorities would be afraid of his power over people. There are frequent clever transpositions of the Gospel imagery into contemporary African terms - I particularly love the way that key moments from Jesus' life are reproduced in garage door mural form.
Unfortunately, for the most part that's all they are: clever. U-Carmen managed to engage the emotions much more directly, so you quickly stopped looking for parallels with the original story and just enjoyed it for what it was. With Son Of Man, however, you frequently find yourself just waiting for the next reference: possibly this story is just too damn big for this approach to work. It's only in the final quarter of an hour or so - significantly, the point where the film deviates from the acknowledged sequence of events - that it gathers some genuine emotional force. Actually, to be fair, just those final 15 minutes make it worth watching. Son Of Man may be a failure overall, but it's a noble failure, and I'll be fascinated to see what Dimpho Di Kopane do next.