I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population. Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.
Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X. All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here. Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.
The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.
James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life. The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message. Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.
The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This slight film from Michael Lucas is an exploration of what it means to be gay in modern Israel. Despite being slightly arch in its central conceit that the audience will be shocked by the idea that Israel is a modern country, welcoming to gay people, there are some interesting moments and the people featured come across as well adjusted individuals.
The two men getting married, surrounded by their family, were my favourites but there was also the couple parenting two boys, an Arab- Israeli journalist, and a host of talking heads all explaining that it was a wonderful country in which to be gay. The film director Eytam Fox was interviewed and he is always worth listening to. Most attention is given to Tel Aviv and there are many questions left unanswered by this film such as what is it like to be gay in a rural community or far away from the vibrant party scene?
An openly gay MP hosted a Pride event in the parliament near the start of the film and talked about the progress already made but the steps still needed. The film provides an entirely positive look at gay life in Israel which is no bad thing when most films in this arena have issues to face.
This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This wonderful documentary is both sweet and very sad. By contrasting normal life in Lampedusa, an island off Sicily in Italy, with the refugee crisis, director Gianfranco Rosi has made a film that shows the human aspects of newspaper headlines.
Two locals in particular dominate the film: a young boy through whose eyes we see ‘normal’ Lampedusan life; and a doctor who comes into contact with refugees because of his vocation.
What makes the film so powerful is the way it shows the details of island life and then the logistics of rescuing migrants; time is taken over both. As the film progresses, the two strands support each other to make a central point that this migrant crisis is taking place among us. People die trying to cross the Mediterranean. Apart from one small scene where the doctor talks about his work in relation to the migrants brought ashore from their un-seaworthy boat, the two worlds do not meet so we do not find out what local people think of the crisis. This is not the point, however, and it serves to remind us that our lives often continue oblivious to the pain of others.
This documentary from Philippe Sands was fascinating even if somewhat painful to watch at times. Sands, an eminent Human Rights lawyer accompanies two sons of prominent Nazis as they visit sites of their fathers’ notorious careers. The trip is made more poignant by the fact that the extended family of Sands himself were victims of the very men the sons are talking about.
Niklas Frank is the son of Hans Frank, the governor of Poland. He has long ago denounced his father’s crimes and he does so again in this film, making it clear that we can only move on if the atrocities of the past are exposed. At no time does he try to defend his father’s actions. Horst von Wächter on the other hand will not concede that his father did anything wrong despite documentary evidence to the contrary. His father was Otto Wächter, the governor of Galicia in modern Ukraine. The tension between the three men increases as Wächter maintains that, although the regime was criminal, his father was not. At times he suggest that things would have been worse if a man other than his father had been in charge.
Throughout it all, Sands acts with great dignity even though the position taken by Wächter exasperates him. The film is best when it expresses the historic through the personal. The city of Lviv or Lemberg is important in this story since it is where the family of Sands lived. This film is in my hinterland.
I watched the first series (programmes 1-6) many years ago when it was broadcast on BBC television and then caught up with the rest of the others (programmes 7- 14) on DVD. It made me realise how little I knew about Civil Rights struggle in the USA. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were well known to this British school boy but this documentary series showed that the movement was wider, deeper and full of more pain and suffering.
Julian Bond narrates the series. I came to love and respect his voice as he calmly detailed the battles fought for dignity by African-Americans throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I had no idea that he, himself, played a major part in the campaigns for equality.
The first series covered the period 1954- 1965. This was a period of great change but also great resistance by majority populations that felt threatened by any improvement to the living conditions of black people. The second series took the story on to 1985 and covered key issues and events such as Muhammad Ali’s fight for recognition, the Black Panther movement and the election of Harold Washington as the Mayor of Chicago.
Like all documentary series that make use of talking heads this has the poignancy of hearing from the people involved but what places this particular series in the highest echelons of the form is the use of ‘ordinary’ people who were involved.
Since November 8th, I have felt somewhat conflicted about the USA. As a British person I am aware that it isn’t my country but it is a country that has always fascinated me and its history in particular has inspired me. On November 9th I wanted to turn my back on it and all its works. Yet, ‘Eyes on the Prize’ reminds me that there are Americans who serve to inspire.