Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen three fantastic documentaries and a film that felt like a documentary for most part. Before my doorknob of a brain forgets why they were so superb, here’s a quick scan of “Exit Through the Gift Shop“, “No One Knows About Persian Cats“, “Two in the Wave” and “Mugabe and the White African.” (Well, at least I hope it will be quick. Knowing my tendency to ramble, however, I’m going to insert a page break here. All those with curiosity for the above titles, click “Read The Rest of This Entry”. To the others, oops.)
Exit Through the Gift Shop
I’ve been waiting for Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” for aaaaages. In fact, I’m the one who begged and pleaded Bandra’s favourite DVD library Sarvodaya to order it (same with “No One Knows About Persian Cats”). Does Bakul of Sarvodaya tell me when it finally lands here? Of course not. I find it while trying to avoid the DVDs of “The Proposal” and some frightening-looking Grindhouse-esque film. Not that you needed this back story. So, “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. Well into the film, Banksy says that he got all of artist and compulsive videographer Thierry Guetta’s footage and decided he was going to make a movie out of it even though he had never made a movie. He figured if Guetta could do it, it couldn’t be that hard.
Except of course, it is. Especially when you have years of video tapes to sort through. Guetta couldn’t do it. What he put together could be something out of “A Clockwork Orange”. Banksy, on the other hand, managed to create a film that does a number of things. One, it provides a crash course in the history of street art. Two, it extols the genius of Bansky. Three, it shows Guetta, who eventually becomes Mr. Brainwash, to be a complete cartoon. Four, it establishes the world of fine art and galleries and collectors to be, well, foolish. Banksy has often been accused of selling out and becoming part of the fine art establishment with his gallery shows. With “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, Banksy presents Guetta as the sell-out and points out the gullibility of the establishment when it chimes in with the hype machine about Guetta’s art work, which is basically the output of a small company of unacknowledged artists. Guetta’s talent is minimal but he’s hailed as the next Andy Warhol. Five, you’re left wondering whether the whole movie is a “prankumentary”. Six, you’re reminded of what a wonderful song Richard Hawley’s “Tonight The Streets Are Ours” was. If I had to make a list of favourite films, “Exit Through The Gift Shop” would be very high up on that list.
No One Knows About Persian Cats
Ashkan and Negar are indie rockers and they’ve been invited to perform for a music festival in UK. They have a problem though: they don’t have a band. They used to have guitarists and drummers but after the band was arrested, only Ashkan and Negar decided to continue pursuing music. Now they have two weeks to get two guitarists, one drummer and a passport for Ashkan. The major problem in all of this is that Askhar and Negar live in Iran, where rock music has been outlawed and rock musicians are arrested for being Western and immoral.
“No One Knows About Persian Cats” follows Ashkan and Negar through Tehran’s underground music scene and network of outlaws who provide everything from pirated DVDs to passports with visas. Although the credits say that the film was written by director Bahman Ghobadi, Hossein Mortezaeiyan and Roxana Saberi (the American journalist who was imprisoned and then released in 2009), much of the film is reality. There are probably many characters like the manic but charming fixer played by Hamed Behdad. Even closer to the truth are Ashkan and Negar, who make up the band Take It Easy Hospital. As in the film, they had actually been arrested after a concert in Tehran and they were invited to perform in UK. Unlike their namesakes in the film, the duo ended up seeking asylum in the UK. All the music and the musicians in the film are real, and they are what make “No One Knows About Persian Cats” truly special. The soundtrack to this film is amazing. I didn’t actually care about what happened story-wise (the ending is abrupt, dissatisfying and feels dissonant). I just wanted to hear more of the music and see the people who make this music, despite all the danger. The film was shot in 17 days at locations that weren’t setups and you can feel the tense rush of the film-making. The camera constantly takes you down winding staircases that lead to dungeon-like rooms. There’s a lovely sequence in which a group of musicians stand guard on a rooftop, waiting for a troublesome neighbour to leave so that they can go in to practice. They’ve made their practice room soundproof with egg cartons but one of their fathers still gets nervous and cuts off their electricity because he doesn’t want his son arrested (again).
The most frightening thing about “No One Knows About Persian Cats” is the nonchalance with which the repression and the moral watchdogs are presented. At one point, Ashkan ticks Negar off for writing gloomy lyrics. “Your writing is so dark ever since you came out of prison,” he tells her, as though that’s a weird reaction, and then urges her to write more uplifting, happy stuff. Another musician tells Ashkan and Negar about a kid who calls up the police to tell them the band is practicing just as a childish prank. They talk about the kid and laugh. It’s chilling.
Take It Easy Hospital is perhaps the most average in musical terms but they’re suitably hipster and they introduce us to some fantastic musicians. Very little of the music that you hear is political. I can’t remember any lyrics that protest against the current regime or orthodoxy. Most of them, including Ashkan and Negar, don’t want to leave Iran. All they want to do is sing, about love and the streets and laughter and heartbreak. And most often, they sing in Persian. Because, as a Persian rapper says, it’s music that’s born in Iran and for Iran. Simple.
Two in the Wave
It’s so weird to imagine Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut as wide-eyed fans but once upon a time, they were. They wrote fan letters to people like Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock. Once upon a time, they were young. Once upon a time, they were also friends. Many years later, they would exchange letters likening one another to feces.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Two in the Wave” is that there isn’t a single interview with either Godard or Truffaut in director Emmanuel Laurent’s film about the two heroes of La Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave cinema). Neither is there an interview with the other main character of the documentary, the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud who first appeared in “400 Blows” and went on to become the leading man in a number of Godard and Truffaut films. Despite this absence of interviews and only the most cursory glance at the subjects’ private lives, “Two in the Wave” feels like an incredibly intimate film. Laurent isn’t really interested in love affairs, children and other such personal flotsam and jetsam. He hopes to put up before his viewer a portrait of the artists and he does this superbly. Only those bits of their biographies that Laurent thinks is relevant to their art is mentioned, which serves to make the two directors all the more charismatic. Truffaut was an ex-convict? Godard recreated fights he had with his wife/girlfriend in his films? There was a time when the two of them wrote paeans to one another’s cinematic talent? How could two people who seemed so in sync fall out so spectacularly that they would become one another’s bête noire?
“Two in the Wave” is not so much about La Novelle Vague as the continuing charm of Godard and Truffaut’s storytelling. The clips from their films still tease the viewer into wishing they could see a little more. It’s also about how their enmity left La Nouvelle Vague and it’s star, Jean-Pierre Léaud, in a confused, vague space. “Two in the Wave” ends with Léaud, who grew into adulthood with the movement and was ultimately terribly torn between the opposing camps of Godard and Truffaut. I loved the ending. Accompanying the rolling credits was Léaud’s audition tape for “400 Blows”. He’s confident, cute and utterly charming. You wouldn’t imagine he’d end up with the hollowed cheeks and a haunted, confused expression that Laurent shows in the latter half of the documentary. Perhaps the same could be said of La Nouvelle Vague as a whole.
Oh, and in case you were wondering why there are random shots of French actress Isild Le Besco flipping through old Cahiers du Cinema, it all goes back to Godard saying all he needed to make a film was “a girl and a gun”.
Mugabe and the White African
Can there be such a thing as a White African? Robert Mugabe doesn’t think so. Mike Campbell, a farmer whose land Mugabe’s government wants to confiscate, does, and vehemently at that. He’s also perhaps the only White man in the world who has gone to court accusing a Black man of racism. A White victim of a racist crime is not an easily acceptable idea, especially if he is from a country that championed apartheid in its recent history. But when the Black man in question is President Mugabe, it’s much easier. When the White man seems like a thoroughly decent chap like Mike Campbell or his son-in-law Ben Freeth, then it becomes depressing. Because these are not the people who should be manhandled by thugs who break bones and crack open skulls.
Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson don’t linger upon what Campbell and Freeth’s opinion is of apartheid. They focus on how supportive they are of their workers and the few (Black) people who dare to oppose Mugabe; on the fact that Campbell and Freeth are proud Zimbabweans; on the corruption of Mugabe’s regime and how it’s bleeding the country’s Black people when it victimises the White farmer community. Not that Campbell seems to have much support from his racial brethren. There’s only one other White family that shows up “Mugabe and the White African” and the film’s website says that the White farmer community doesn’t want anything to do with Campbell. Intentionally or otherwise, “Mugabe and the White African” is a presentation of Mugabe’s terrible and complete power over Zimbabwe. His Zanu PF activists are bloodthirsty and care little for human life. Mugabe himself is notoriously shameless about his lust for power. In this condition, Campbell’s fight for justice seems entirely futile. Of course you admire this old man who will not give up, who isn’t fazed by the armed Zanu PF marauders that regularly visit his property (“I’ll go out with the gun, but after I’ve finished my Scotch,” he says calmly. Bless). But it seems so pointless. He can’t win this battle. Mugabe’s too evil. The history of racial hatred is too old in that continent. Campbell doesn’t care. He’s put everything he had into this farm, he’s built his life around this land and the 500 workers who live off it, and he won’t give up. Looking at some of the exquisite panorama shots in “Mugabe and the White African”, you can see why he loves Zimbabwe so deeply. You also can’t help feeling that he’s not going to win this fight, no matter what any tribunal orders.