documentary

REVIEW: Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (2021)

Documentary on pioneering scuba diver Valerie Taylor, who has dedicated her life to exposing the myth surrounding our fear of sharks.

Valerie Taylor isn’t a name or a person I knew of before watching this documentary. In fact, I was reading through a “Best Documentaries of 2021” list and Playing with Sharks appeared and as someone who enjoys nature documentaries, I thought I’d give it a go. As a Brit the two most famous nature/conservationist people I immediately think of are David Attenborough and Jane Goodall so it was interesting to learn about Australian Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, their lives and their work with sharks and all marine life.

The fascinating thing to me that was mentioned by one of the scientists featured in Playing with Sharks is that it’s not uncommon for people who were hunters to become conservationists. It’s like those who can see the worst in how people treat nature can then strive to change that as they deeply know both sides of it. In the 1950s Valerie would go spearfishing and she, like everyone else at that time, just believed you could take what you wanted from the ocean as there would always be plenty there. Over time she changed her mind about that and killing creatures and from that she became passionate about learning all she could about them.

Using her camera rather than her spear Valerie captured amazing footage and the fact that she, a young pretty blonde woman, would be in these images too, touching sharks and swimming with them made the images all the more striking. It’s impressive that pretty much all the things we know today about sharks and their behaviour came from Valerie’s work with them.

Playing with Sharks is a bit formulaic with talking heads from different scientists and fellow divers but there’s something so wonderful about a female marine biologist saying that Valerie Taylor was her idol. The use of archival footage of Valerie and Rod going out to sea to take pictures and videos of sharks as well as the interviews they did after the release of Jaws follow the timeline of their lives while the Valerie today recounts what she remembers and how she felt about things.

Playing with Sharks is a really interesting and hopeful documentary. It shows how people wrongly fear these magnificent creatures and all the work Valerie Taylor has done in order to protect them and make people put aside their misconceptions about them. What she’s achieved in her life is inspiring and the footage they captured, in the 1960s and 70s especially is wonderful. 4/5.

REVIEW: Salaryman (2021)

Comprised of interviews, animation and photographs, director Allegra Pacheco explores the concept of “Salarymen”. These are typically white-collar workers who work excessive hours, then go out late drinking or for meals with colleagues and bosses. The last train leaves at midnight and if they don’t make that train, they’re left to either find a bed for the night in the city or, far more commonly, just fall asleep on the pavement, their head lying on their briefcase.

Through interviews with historians, psychologists and with former and current Salarymen, past and present, Pacheco paints a picture of people being pushed to the brink. It’s interesting to hear the cultural and historical roots of Salarymen and while there’s some aspects that are distinctly Japanese – thinking of the collective rather than the individual – the implications of these long working hours and having to socialise after hours in order to help your career is something that can be seen in any capitalist society.

Likewise, it’s the Boomer generation that gained the most from this way of working. While they still lost time at home with their families, there was job security and the chance of progression and mentorship. Today the younger generation of office workers don’t have that, they are putting in long hours for little to no reward just because it’s the norm.

It’s not just men who are affected by this phenomenon. Women office workers also have long hours and the pressure to socialise with colleagues out of office hours, though there was no footage of women asleep on the street. And even if women aren’t living the life of a Salaryman, those who are married to a Salaryman are more like a single parent than in a relationship. Wives are put in a terrible position where they have no support at home, and children can grow up without their father being a conscious part of their lives.

One thing director Allegra Pacheco does is draw chalk outlines around sleeping men on the pavement, making it look like a crime scene and highlighting what is an anomaly to her (she says that being from Latin America she couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping on the street without being robbed or worse) but all other passers-by barely give them a second glance. While the chalk outline is supposed to show how these people are being worked to exhaustion or even death, it feels exploitative as she makes these men a part of her artwork without their knowledge or consent. While it ends up being striking images, it’s uncomfortable to watch.

Salaryman does get a bit repetitive in the middle, there’s only so many times you can hear about people’s dreadful work/life balance, but when it tackles topics of suicide it does so with care and sensitivity. Overall Salaryman works as a wakeup call to the extremes the workforce is pushed to and while there is no concrete solution to how to change this culture, there is a spark of hope coming from the most unlikely of places. 3/5.

REVIEW: Flee (2021)

Animated documentary telling the true story of Amin, who arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and there’s talk of marriage between him and his long-time boyfriend. In a series of conversations with a close school friend, Amin finally tells his secrets that he has been hiding for over 20 years.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated documentary before and I think the two elements really complimented each other. The animation is so good that when there is a little real news footage scattered throughout the film it’s almost jarring, though it does help to drive home certain points or atrocities, giving the real news story to back up Amin’s accounts. What’s really striking about the animation is how the style changes when Amin is deep in a memory or is thinking what could’ve happened. Instead of the colours and neat lines it becomes dark and almost as if it’s in charcoal. These abstract and often faceless images highlighted the fear and darkness Amin and his family faced.

With the music and the animation, Flee manages to be bother beautiful and haunting at the same time. The things Amin saw and went through are more often horrible than not, but there are some moments of fun for him in his childhood, even when things look bleak. The animation and music captures that duality of life incredibly well.

I think Flee is the kind of film that would be a good way to show children what a lot of refugees can go through in the hopes of keeping with their family and being safe. The corruption of the police and greed of the traffickers are clear – at one point it is heavily hinted at that a young woman would be raped by Russian police as she didn’t have any money or valuables for them to take, so they had to make her pay for not having the correct papers somehow.

Flee shows how quickly a person’s life can change. Amin and his family were all normal, living happy lives until things changed in Afghanistan. His father was arrested, never seen again, and eventually he, his mother and older brother and sisters had to flee to Moscow, with the hope of making it to Sweden where another older sibling lived.

Flee is thought-provoking and equally devastating and hopeful. Amin has gone through so much but has managed to make a life for himself, with a man he loves. That’s another aspect of Amin’s life that he struggled with, being gay and from a culture where it was not talked about or even seen to be a thing. 4/5.

REVIEW: Schumacher (2021)

Documentary about seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1 is not a sport I follow or know a lot about but it’s hard to not have at least heard of Michael Schumacher. It’s a name and person I was always aware of growing up as he first raced in the F1 a month before I was born and I remember seeing his ski accident featured in the news. Really that sums up my knowledge of Michael Schumacher before watching this documentary.

I found Schumacher to be really interesting and engaging. The balance between talking heads, voiceovers from various industry professionals and those who know Michael Schumacher, and archival footage was great. The filmmakers had a good understanding of when to let the footage speak for itself; whether that was a montage of photos and clips of Schumacher with his family, or letting key races play out.

The documentary seemed to balance the story of Schumacher the man outside of F1 and Schumacher the driver. It’s clear that they were very different people and while he was focused and put his all into both aspects of his life, his competitiveness when it came to racing was almost unparalleled. You get to see the highs and lows of his racing career and included are the times where he was probably in the wrong when it came to altercations with some of his opponents but it was clear that he’d never apologise for such things as in some ways it was almost like anything goes when on the track. Hearing David Coulthard talk about their relationship on and off the track especially highlighted Schumacher’s competitive-streak.

The documentary shows how Schumacher got into racing from humble beginnings of go-kart racing to almost pure chance that got him into his first F1 race. From there you see how talented he really was and how he loved a challenge. It was like as well as winning Championship titles, what he wanted to do was win them in ways other drivers hadn’t. Sometimes that meant going with teams and cars that were the underdogs – proving that while others may have a faster car, if Michael Schumacher was behind the wheel of a bad car it didn’t mean all was lost.

The skiing accident is mentioned briefly towards the end of the documentary and while you can make assumptions on Schumacher’s condition based on the thing’s family members say, it’s clear that the family is firm in keeping their private life private and the filmmakers respect that. At one point his wife Corrina says how before the accident and during the height of his fame Michael kept his private life private and now his family are committed to do the same.

I feel that Schumacher is one of those great documentaries that is enjoyable and interesting to both those who are fans of or are knowledgeable about the subject matter, and for complete novices (like me). It’s an engaging and thoughtful documentary about both Michael Schumacher the family man and Michael Schumacher the F1 driver and seems to cover both sides of his life with respect. 4/5.

REVIEW: The 8th (2020)

The 8th tells the story of Irish women and their fight to overturn one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the world. After a 35-year struggle the pro-choice side have to radically shift tactics to try and bring this historically conservative electorate over the line.

Living in the UK and having Irish friends via social media I remember hearing about the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment. Though I had no real idea of the real-world implications of such an amendment, that put the rights of the unborn the same as any living human’s rights – meaning the unborn had more rights than the pregnant woman, often even if her health was at risk. Seeing this documentary really highlights how passionate people were on both sides of the argument, and the different ways they’d go to try and get their message out there.

Ailbhe Smyth, a feminist and campaigner, is one of the main people the documentary follows. She’s one of the prominent figures in the Yes campaign and through her and the team’s various members, from door-to-door campaigners to the core organisers and communications specialists, you see what their plans were and how they implemented them. The other main person on the Yes campaign the film follows is self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan. She is the owner of a nail bar and shows what it’s like when a “normal, not political person” gets into politics and behind a cause. She can mobilise young women in a way that other may not be able to and she shows that you can be interested in makeup and nails while still being passionate about women’s rights.

As a documentary The 8th is a mixture of talking heads and in the room-type footage. What’s interesting is the talking heads all are from before and during the campaign, so these people don’t know which way the vote will go and are basing all their thoughts on what was currently happening in the campaign. With hindsight this makes some of their observations quite amusing.

Maria Steen, a journalist who is supporting the No Vote, does make a good point. She believes that culture and society should change so that women don’t feel they have to have abortions if they want a career, that the working environment and social services should be more inclusive so that women can be supported when having children and that their careers aren’t negatively affected by having children. In an ideal world this would be the case, and she and everyone else who believes that should continue to fight for that, but until society is fairer, women need to be able to have access to safe and legal abortions so that they can make the choice about their bodies and their future safely.

Not only does The 8th cover the run up to the voting day, but it also includes past events in Irish history that are to do with women’s reproductive rights and how various cases have gained support from the people before. One example is of a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by a schoolfriends father. She and her family were banned from flying to the UK for an abortion, something that all pregnant women who were seeking an abortion – no matter the reason – would have to do in order to have one safely. There was outcry because how on earth is the foetus have more rights than the living, breathing child that was raped?!

The 8th is a rousing and passionate documentary. While it does it’s best to show both sides of the debate, it’s clear that it is a film that’s behind the pro-choice message. The way the campaigners adapted their message to appeal to those undecided voters, to be compassionate and not scaremongering, and how they stuck with their methods even when it looked like things were turning against them is impressive. 5/5.

REVIEW: Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018)

Documentary about the Barcelona team led by Pep Guardiola from 2008-2012, how they came to dominate the sport, winning 14 trophies in four years.

I’m not a Barcelona fan, though as Thierry Henry says in this documentary; if you’re a football fan, you’ve got to appreciate how Barcelona play and I certainly do. I am a fan of a lot of players who played for Barcelona during the teams’ heyday as I’m a fan and support of the Spanish National Team and there’s a lot of crossover between the two squads. As I didn’t know or remember a lot of the intricacies about the different players or how the club worked, I found Take the Ball, Pass the Ball to be very interesting.

It’s a pretty standard talking head-type documentary and a lot of former or current Barcelona players discussing things including Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o and Víctor Valdés. It’s fun to hear anecdotes and what players really thought, especially on things like the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry. There were also journalists, including Sid Lowe who wrote Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona Vs Real Madrid, coaches, scouts and players who faced Barcelona on opposing teams.

Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is split into sections, focussing on different aspects that made Barcelona so great during those four years. Naturally there’s Pep Guardiola’s influence and how he motivated and changed the team, the bitter rivalry with Real Madrid, the key matches in the different tournaments that Barcelona went onto win, and the discovery and skills of Lionel Messi plays a big part too.

The thing that was most interesting was learning about the philosophy of Barcelona and where that came from. The short passes and building a team on a strong midfield (Xavi and Iniesta) has gone on to be incorporated into the Spanish National Team’s style of play and while other teams (club and country) around the world are now better at countering this style, at their peak, few could touch Barcelona. I knew nothing of Johan Cruyff before watching Take the Ball, Pass the Ball and to see how his strategies and ideas have continued to be the foundation of Barcelona’s style of since he was the teams’ coach from 1988-1996 is very impressive.

If you’re a fan of Barcelona, or even a fan of football and are interested in how one team dominated so completely then I’d give Take the Ball, Pass the Ball a watch. I enjoyed hearing the players and those involved with the team talk, especially when peoples humour (Valdés) or knowledge (Xavi) shined through. 4/5.

REVIEW: All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020)

Documentary about the history of America’s democracy, how people gained and lost the right to vote, and the barriers to voting that so many Americans face today thanks to voter suppression.

Honestly, as a someone born and raised in the UK it really blows my mind how difficult it is for Americans to vote. I have never spent more than a couple of minutes at a poling station, with no more than three people in front of me waiting to vote in the five General Elections I’ve been able to vote in – never mind the local elections I’ve participated in.

Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018, is a big part of this documentary and her story almost bookends the film. At the beginning you learn a little about her upbringing and how her parents made sure she and her siblings knew how important voting is, and then the last part of the film sees more about her run for office, how that turned out and how it serves as an example of the damage voter suppression can do.

I learnt so much about the American voting system from All In: The Fight for Democracy. One thing that really surprised me was how after the Civil War and Black men were able to vote, there were Black senators in the late 1800s and, knowing about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and how the majority of Black people were unable to vote in Southern states I couldn’t comprehend how things went backwards in 80 years. But, All In: The Fight for Democracy showed how a similar thing happened after Obama was elected in 2008; as soon as people who don’t fit the “traditional” mould start getting power and influence, those who want to keep the status quo get to work. Honestly, I spent a lot of time watching All In: The Fight for Democracy in awe of the cruelty and underhand way people have tried (and succeeded) to prevent people from voting.

Today there’s the strict use of voter ID, polls closing, gerrymandering, voter intimidation and purging the electoral roll. All of these things make it a lot difficult for people to vote, but Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, poor people and young people are disproportionately affected. Naturally if voting is hard or people don’t know their rights, they will eventually stop trying and then they will lose their voice and ability to say who governs them.

All In: The Fight for Democracy is an important and impactful documentary. With historians, authors, lawyers, politicians, activists and academics explaining how and why voter suppression is happening, and how communities can fight against it, it’s a rousing film. It makes you feel equally infuriated and inspired but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of what is happening in America and how all citizens voting rights are in danger and the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to once again level the playing field for all American voters. 5/5.

REVIEW: Becoming (2020)

Documentary following former First Lady Michelle Obama during her 2019 book tour for her autobiography ‘Becoming’.

It’s easy to view the Obamas with rose-tinted glasses considering who has been sitting in the White House for the past four years. During Barack Obama’s eight years as President, I was younger and had (and still do) the privilege not to be too invested in politics – especially US politics when I am a Brit living in the UK. It’s since he left office that I learnt about things like his foreign policies and use of drone strikes.

Becoming tries to make you separate the Obama administration from Michelle Obama and for the most part it succeeds. It relies on the viewer to already have an infinity for Michelle Obama, to already like and admire her. Barack Obama does make an appearance in Becoming, but it’s very much in a supportive role and it never takes the spotlight away from Michelle. Some portions of Becoming are about Michelle’s time in the White House, but it’s about her experience and how the media reacted to her rather than the political decisions made by her husband and his government.

I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography last year (I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by her and I highly recommend it) and Becoming the film is a nice comparison piece to the book, but if you’ve read the book, this documentary doesn’t add too much to what you’ve already learnt about her life.

On her book tour, as well as the huge stadium interviews and discussions she has with different hosts, Michelle Obama also meets people – both young and old. One thing that Becoming does well is show the discussions she has with young people, and how they have been inspired by her and are still learning about themselves. Things they see as very normal, studying and working to help support their family while they’re still in high school, is an incredible achievement and shows their strength and resourcefulness even though it’s their everyday life.

Becoming is a nice companion to Michelle Obama’s autobiography and it’s just a nice documentary to watch to see what a thoughtful and compassionate human being is like, when so many of the world and political leaders today don’t seem to have one iota of empathy. There’s also the message of hope that Michelle Obama brings in Becoming, that on her travels around America, meeting different people that there are good people out there, and there are more than we are led to believe thanks to the media. 3/5.

REVIEW: Don’t Take Me Home (2017)

Documentary about the Welsh international football team’s rise through the FIFA World Rankings, and their first international tournament for 58 years when they got to the Euro’s in France in 2016.

I’m half English, half Welsh, with my dad being Welsh. I was staying with him in Spain during a lot of the 2016 Euros, and have fond memories watching Wales’ matches (and also Iceland’s) because they were the underdogs and it was the first time Wales had been in a major international tournament for decades. Perhaps it’s because of those memories, and thoughts of my dad who died three months ago, that made me decide to watch Don’t Take Me Home, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Rather than being a comprehensive history of Welsh international football, Don’t Take Me Home focusses on how coach Chris Coleman took these players who were grieving for their former coach and were 117th in the rankings, to the Euros and making a far bigger impact than just about anyone could imagine.

The focus is on Euros 2016 and follows the team through the Group Stages and beyond. It’s a talking heads type documentary with players and staff commenting on their thoughts and feelings before, during and after games. The footage of the games is interspersed with players commentary, and the matches are just as thrilling as when I watched them four years ago. Don’t Take Me Home also gives an insight into the players mentality and how they gel together, on and off the pitch. It really shows how this group of players are friends and that while naturally they trained hard and talked tactics during the tournament, they still could wind down and have fun.

One thing Don’t Take Me Home showed really well was the passion of the Welsh fans and how the teams’ success and drive made such an impact. Wales is a small country, one of the smallest in the tournament, and now it’s a country that other people have heard of. As I said, my dad was Welsh. He lived in Spain for eighteen years, and for so long the locals down the pub (my dad did learn Spanish) would presume he was English which naturally annoyed him a lot. It wasn’t until Gareth Bale started playing for Real Madrid that he had a point of reference for the Spanish (“Soy Galés como Gareth Bale”) and watching the matches down his local, with Wales doing better than Spain that year, made them take notice.

The footage showing the Welsh fans, both in France following the team around the country, and the ones back home in Wales in fan parks and down their local pubs, is just great. Their joy is infectious and Don’t Take Me Home is filled with a lot of feel good moments.

While Don’t Take Me Home will certainly strike a chord with Welsh fans, I think anyone who is a fan of football and underdogs will enjoy this insight into a team that achieved great things. 4/5.

REVIEW: Strokes of Genius (2018)

Documentary that intertwines Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s lives with their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.

With the world as it is at the minute I, like probably so many other people, turn to the media that brings me comfort. Like all other sporting activities, tennis has had to be put on hold, but there is one tennis documentary that I’ve loved since the first time I watched it so that’s what I found myself watching as a form of escapism.

Strokes of Genius looks at the lives and careers of Federer and Nadal, both individually and how they relate to one another. The 2008 Wimbledon Final is used as an example of what makes them two of the greatest players ever and shows how it is still considered to be the pinnacle of tennis matches. The narrative of the documentary is built around the match and while the match is intersected with footage and information about Nadal and Federer’s childhoods, and there is input from their families, friends, and other tennis professionals, the tension still builds as the match goes to five sets.

Naturally Strokes of Genius will appeal more to tennis fans, and to Federer and Nadal fans specifically, but it’s also a love letter to great sporting rivals. How those rivals can shape someone’s career and life, make them a better player, a better fighter, and the unique relationship two rivals have. While the Federer and Nadal rivalry is the focus of Strokes of Genius, it also looks at the Borg and McEnroe rivalry and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova. All four of them appear in the documentary and it’s fascinating to see how they feel about each other and their legacy as rivals.

There are so many great quotes in Strokes of Genius about both players, from each other and from the various people featured in the documentary. But I feel this quote from Roger Federer’s fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, sums up the two men and why their matches (both generally and when they are against one another) have always been so interesting and entertaining to watch; “Roger is an artist who knows how to fight whereas Nadal is a fighter who knows how to be an artist as well.”

Strokes of Genius really is an enjoyable an informative documentary. Every time I watch it it takes me back to the summer of 2008, watching that epic match, and it reminds me how much I love and appreciate both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and all they have achieved, individually and together. 5/5.