Film and Television Features

Doc/Fest 2014: Day Three In Review

It was another strong day at DocFest today, which offered the latest film from Martin Scorsese, as well as diverse stories exploring war, journalism and Afrobeat.

I'd never heard of the sibling directing team behind In The Shadow of War, so was a little surprised when it turned out to be one of the strongest films of the festival so far. The film, which was having its world première today, follows the stories of four young adults who have grown up in the aftermath of the Bosnian war. Though none of film's main cast took part in the conflict itself, its effects have overshadowed every step of their existence. Throughout all of their stories runs a theme of absent parental love, either as a result of their parents being missing or as a result of their parents being too emotionally damaged by their wartime experiences to raise a child. Elvis is an orphan who no longer believes he has a place in the world, and whose eyes already seem to have been drained of all hope. His carer predicts he'll likely either end up in prison or killing himself unless a dramatic change happens in his life. Magdalena appears equally haunted, and is trying desperately to escape the abusive influence of her father. As with nearly a third of the Bosnian population, Magdalena's farther suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and now passes on his wartime scars down to his daughter. The young people here have understandably very little reason to trust anybody. So its all the more impressive then how much trust they seem to have placed in the filmmakers, and how candid and insightful the interviews throughout this film feel. In The Shadow of War is a sensitive, emotionally nuanced film about the ways in which damage left by conflict can continue to be felt for decades.

It was another sibling directing team behind my second film of the day, this time the team behind last year's superb film McCullin. Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime tackles the story of Thalidomide, which was used to treat morning sickness in the 1960s, but resulted in tens of thousands of babies being born without arms or legs. A secondary narrative in the film recounts the career of Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, eventually leading to his long and passionate campaign to win compensation for Thalidomide victims. As you'd expect from a film celebrating quality journalism, Attacking The Devil's approach is methodical and thorough, with equal weight given to the emotional and factual sides of the story. Attacking The Devil is a solid, if somewhat by the numbers, argument for the urgent need for a press driven by morality rather than profit.

Its hard to think of a musician more suited for the biopic treatment than Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose music, extravagant lifestyle and political activism could easily fuel a couple of fiction and non-fiction films. Finding Fela uses the recent broadway musical Fela! as a way of reflecting back upon Kuti's life, showing how those involved in the production had to debate which aspects of the complicated musician's legacy to focus upon. Such an approach is interesting, but one which ultimately harms the film. The energy of the film drains whenever we're shown an extended sequence from the broadway production, which occurs with disappointing regularity. Much more successful is the film's exploration of the life of Kuti using interviews with his friends and family, and most importantly, the electrifying archive footage of the man himself. Kuti's energy seems to have been barely contained by the stages he performed upon, and in this film feels barely contained by the cinema screen. Kuti's dynamic presence throughout ensures that this a film full of energy, which is accentuated by the unsurprisingly great soundtrack. The film also does an admirable job of tackling the varied elements that make up his story – including spiritualism, his problematic attitude towards women, and eventual death as a result of AIDS. With such a rich variety of material though, it can't help but feel a wasted opportunity that so much of the film dwells on the broadway production, rather than giving greater context to the Nigerian political situation that Kuti's music rebelled against. Regardless of its flaws, Finding Fela still succeeds as an engrossing exploration of one of African music's most intriguing musical icons

I ended the day with Martin Scorsese's latest documentary, The 50 Year Argument. The 50 year argument in question here is the The New York Review of Books, which for half a century has debated, critiqued and analysed the ideas and events of its day. The publication's lengthy history has meant it has been a frequently opinionated voice through many key issues, including politics, race and gender. The ambitious and wide-reaching scope of the publication is echoed in Scorsese's film treatment, which expertly weaves back and forth through a varied assortment of topics. As with Concerning Violence yesterday, this is a film that adopts a slow and reflective pace, forcing its viewers to focus on the beauty of the written language it is celebrating. What really struck me though is the passion the film displays for ideas and debate. Academics don't always provide films with the most animated of interview subjects, and a film assembled almost entirely from interviews with them could easily feel like one drained of life. Its to the credit of the filmmaking team then that The 50 Year Argument never feels like a film lacking in emotion or urgency. The film is unashamedly celebratory affair, and given its focus on rigorous debate I can't help but feel it would have benefited from the appearance of some dissenting voices. Despite this, the film is a fascinating, idiosyncratic tribute to the importance of intellectual argument and the long form essay. In many ways, The 50 Year Argument feels like a long form essay in itself – ambitious in its scope and thoughtful in its construction.