documentary

REVIEW: Hidden Letters (2022)

Documentary about how in modern day China, two women strive to preserve Nushu, an ancient secret language which bonded generations of Chinese women together through centuries of oppression in a clandestine support system of sisterhood and survival.

Hidden Letters paints a somewhat bittersweet picture of how the Nushu language is trying to be preserved and how the women preserving it are doing their best to keep their independence in a modern world. Hidden Letters covers culture, history, language, and how women fit into all of that.

Needless to say, I’d never heard of Nushu before and Hidden Letters was an interesting and informative documentary. There’s not a lot about how Nushu was invented as a language as it was something that was only came to light in the 1980s and often women had their writings buried with them when they died. It’s a secret language where they could talk about the hopes and fears when they were often kept locked in their chambers with their feet bound. It speaks of women’s strength when they refuse to be silent even when awful things are happening to them.

One of the young women the documentary follows is Hu Xin, a young divorcee, but even though her husband abused her, she feels like a failure as she’s neither a wife nor a mother and she feels like the whole point of being a woman is being a mother. It’s kind of sad that she feels this way but her friendship with He Yanxin, an older woman and an expert in Nushu, is lovely and continues the tradition of sisterhood that is such a big component of the language.

Simu Wu is the other young woman Hidden Letters follows and she faces similar difficulties when trying to find love. She sees the value in learning Nushu and the artwork she creates where the language is the focus and it’s a hobby she enjoys. Her fiancé on the other hand, sees it as frivolous and wants her to instead get a second job as getting enough money for them to buy a house and have a child is the only thing that matters to him. Her surprisingly progressive parents though are pretty awesome though.

It’s equal parts frustrating and farcical seeing how men just don’t understand the importance of Nushu and how it’s a uniquely feminine thing. At one point a group of two men and two women discuss on how to make Nushu more mainstream and one of the men says that Nushu has value but the main this is “how to exploit that value so it can be better marketed”. When one of the women pushes back on that idea and she’s quickly shut down. Sure, it’s a huge generalisation but women see the beauty and the cultural significance of the language as while things are certainly better compared to their ancestors, they can still relate to the horrible things the women experienced. Meanwhile, the men just want to find a way to commercialise Nushu and make money from it – exploiting women’s secret language like women have been exploited for generations.

Hidden Letters is a thoughtful and interesting documentary. Its observations are poignant as it shows how important and impressive Nushu is and that women and their voices still struggle to be heard today. 4/5.

Q is for Quincy (2018)

Documentary about the life and career of music legend Quincy Jones.

This documentary is a bit of a mixed to negative bag. For me personally, Quincy Jones was a person I was aware of but definitely didn’t know a lot about. So, Quincy is a good overview of all the musicians he’s been involved with, his work through the decades and his personal life, however it never really delves deep into any of it so if you were a Quincy Jones fan who knew a lot about him already, I doubt you’d get anything from this doc.

The documentary goes between the present and Quincy Jones’ whirlwind work schedule even though he’s in his mid-80s and the past, starting at his childhood to how he got into music and made a career out of it. The segments in the past are narrated by Jones, making them feel less genuine in a way and also pretty unoriginal. You never really get an insight into his creative process and how working with various other artists might’ve made it different. Instead, it is just a man, telling his life story and the various anecdotes about the musical legends he worked with like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles are nice to hear it all feels like a rehash of his Wikipedia page.

The moments where something surprising does happen, like the two times Jones has a medical emergency and ends up in hospital, are glossed over pretty quickly. While he is told he needs to do more exercise and work and travel less, what you see on screen doesn’t make you think he took the doctors warnings that seriously.

Quincy is co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones, and the whole production does feel very much like an outcome of nepotism. One of the first scenes is of Rashida Jones trying to learn how to use the camera and it feels a bit awkward. She’s often with her father, asking him pretty leading questions so it feels staged and like she gets the answers she was aiming for.

As a documentary it’s pretty standard and while it does give a decent overview of Quincy Jones’ career, if you knew his major career milestones like becoming a film composer, working with Michael Jackson on “Thriller”, becoming a producer and “discovering” Oprah Winfrey, then you don’t need to watch Quincy. It’s like the greatest hits of his life and features a load of famous people singing Jones’ praises. It feels a bit shallow and maybe it’s because the documentary was made by his daughter that there aren’t any huge surprises or much depth. She may not want to probe deeper into her father’s life out of respect for him and Quincy Jones has the power to just make the documentary what he wants. 2/5.

K is for King Leopold’s Ghost (2006)

Documentary about the history of the Congo and how the greedy and incredibly ruthless King Leopold II of Belgium turned a vast country into his private estate from 1885-1908. How he plundered the land and caused countless victims; and how his lasting impact is still felt in the country as international powers and corporations fight to take and profit from the Congo’s many resources.

I knew little of the history of the Congo before watching King Leopold’s Ghost, all I really knew was that King Leopold II wasn’t a good person but what his crimes actually were, I had no idea. I presumed it was to do with slavery and taking the country’s resources (like most European nations did with countries in Africa) but the extent to which he took over the country and had the people enslaved – while running a PR campaign saying he was doing no such thing – was incredible. What’s also shocking is that King Leopold II never even went to the Congo but still caused so much damage that had a knock-on effect for decades.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting but hard-hitting documentary that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of colonial rule. It’s narrated by Don Cheadle which was an excellent choice as you can often hear the barely contained anger and disgust over what he’s explaining. It includes photos, videos, interviews with historians, and extracts from various people’s diaries and letters including King Leopold II, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and writer Joseph Conrad.

I liked how King Leopold’s Ghost incorporated what other nations were doing at the same time as what was happening in the Congo. I find it difficult to understand how close certain historic events were to one another so this added extra context. For example, by the time King Leopold was getting involved in the Congo and stealing the land off its people and forcing them to work for him, Britain had stopped being involved with the slave trade. While Britain obviously has its own terrible colonial history, I found it interesting that it had moved away from the slave trade while Belgium was only just getting started.

One of the stats that really shocked me, is that it was estimated that in 40 years from the start of King Leopold’s influence in the Congo, half the population had died – which was 10 million people. And that’s just an estimate. Records of the hangings and killings weren’t kept by the Belgium people who were working out there and some weren’t even really aware of what they were out there for. King Leopold and Belgium’s atrocities have been covered up so that it’s only fairly recently that both Belgians and the Congolese have been taught about these things in schools. In school textbooks in the 1940s-1960s, King Leopold and his involvement in the Congo is framed as a good thing and he helped the people.

King Leopold’s Ghost goes from the nineteenth century to the early 2000s and shows how even when the Congo is supposed to be independent and has elected someone the people want, the Belgian and American secret services will protect their interests, to the detriment of the Congolese.

It’s disappointing but not surprising that still today so many other countries and international corporations have a vested interest in the Congo due to all of its resources. Uranium, ivory, gold, diamonds, coffee, and more are valuable commodities but few Congolese people actual benefit from the sale of it.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting and comprehensive guide to the history of the Congo and how what King Leopold put in place in the late 1800s, is still having a negative affect on the country and its people today. It’s a great documentary if you have little to know knowledge of the country and its history as it explains everything clearly and draws the links between various people, countries and events without being condescending to the audience. 5/5.

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.