documentary

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.

REVIEW: Miss Americana (2020)

Documentary about Taylor Swift as she begins work on her seventh studio album, taking a look at her life and career at a transformative time in her life.

I really was not expecting Miss Americana to make me feel so many emotions. I like Taylor Swift’s music but in the sense that I rarely buy albums of any artist I like but I enjoy their music when I hear it on the radio or whatever. In fact, the Taylor Swift albums I had on my iTunes before watching Miss Americana were Fearless, Speak Now and 1989. I had listened to some of her more recent stuff and mostly liked it but wouldn’t have said I was a Taylor Swift fan. Miss Americana may have changed that.

With Miss Americana you still see just as much as what Taylor Swift allows you to see. Some of that is deeply personal stuff like seeing her unfiltered reaction for the album Reputation not being nominated for the main categories at the Grammy’s, but while she mentions finding love and stability, it’s clear after her past experiences of her love life being dissected by the media, she is deeply protective of that part of her life and wants to keeps her relationship private. The whole documentary is definitely a more unfiltered look into Taylor Swift and she’s brutally honest about how she felt (and continues to feel) about both the highs and the lows of her career and fame.

The thing that is so great about Miss Americana is that while obviously the focus is on Taylor Swift, her life, loves and career, but through her experiences you get to see all the misogyny and double standards that all women are put through. It’s just what happened to Taylor Swift is just more well documented and potentially on a larger scale due to her fame.

There’s when she was sued by the radio DJ who groped her, who she countersued, and what the experience in court was like. There are all the criticisms she faced from the press and everyday people on social media, the comments on her relationships, her appearance, her perceived personality, and how they affected her.

It’s all so infuriating and saddening because she may be famous (so many people would see her as fair game) but she is still a person, and a lot of the stuff that happened to her was when she was still pretty young. She was seventeen when the whole Kanye West at the VMAs thing happened. Would he have done that if she was older? Or a man?

While obviously Taylor Swift is super famous, rich and talented, there was something about Miss Americana that made some of her experiences so relatable. The documentary takes place when she’s approaching thirty. The way she talks about that age, how old she feels (sometimes far older than her years and sometimes far younger), how she isn’t ready to have kids or all the adult stuff that is related to that age – now that’s relatable. I’m a similar age to Taylor Swift and I often feel like I have the mentality of a teenager at university rather than an adult that someone in their late twenties is supposed to be and it can be terrifying. It’s almost reassuring that that is a universal feeling, no matter how much money you have or how successful your career is, it can feel like you’re not ticking all the life achievement boxes by the time you reach a certain number.

A key part of Miss Americana is showing how Taylor Swift found her political voice. It’s easy to criticise her for not saying something sooner, but she does a good job of explaining why she didn’t and a main part of it was her inherent need to be a “good girl”. She came from a background in country music where she was always told never to say her political views and the Dixie Chicks (a group who were slated and their career nosedived for one comment against President George Bush) were used as an example of what would happen to her if she ever said anything. Seeing her stand up for what she believed in and be then constantly striving to learn more so she could help people and to shut out all the misogynistic things you pick up from society without realising was wonderful to see.

While naturally fans of Taylor Swift will get a lot from Miss Americana, I feel that anyone can appreciate this documentary. It shows how the media can affect a young woman as she tries to figure out who she is, and it highlights how talented and resilient she is. Miss Americana made me a Taylor Swift fan and I wrote this listening to the album Lover. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Brink (2019)

A fly-on-the-wall documentary following former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s global mission to spread extreme nationalism.

The Brink spans across about a year, from Autumn 2017 to late 2018, and gives unbridled access into the life of Bannon as he meets with politicians and campaigners and discusses the next move in forwarding the nationalism agenda.

The thing that the The Brink did really well is show how Bannon is a hypocrite and almost constantly contradicts himself. The type of documentary it is means the filmmaker doesn’t make their own commentary on what is happening, instead they allow the camera and the actions of the people on screen to tell the story. While Bannon speaks out against the rich and the elite, you also see him going to the dinners at the Upper East Side, flying in private jets, and staying fancy hotels. It is clear he is a hypocrite as he enjoys the lifestyle that being a part of the elite can bring. He also lies and contradicts himself when questioned on past statements, even when journalists have the evidence to back it up.

Bannon’s meetings and dinners with far right and nationalist politicians from across Europe are often uncomfortable to watch. There is Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP and now the leader of the Brexit Party, who says increasingly inflammatory things as well as members of the National Front in France and other right-wing politicians across Europe. However grimy these dinners might make one feel; they are illuminating as you see how these people think and the propaganda they believe in without any filters.

The Brink is often shocking, with one of the most surprising things being how much access the filmmaker got, sitting in on so many dinners, meetings and private conversations. You get to see exactly the kind of man Bannon is – he can be charming and charismatic, he is smart – though not as smart as he believes he is – but he is also aggressive, rude, and will talk down to anyone who is not acting quick enough to achieve his goals.

The Brink is an engaging documentary though it does help to have a lot of background knowledge on Bannon, his time in the White House and certain events he was involved in. It throws you straight in, following Bannon and his aims without giving a lot of context. There are titles that appear every now and then, giving more information, but really, if you don’t know all what Bannon did as a part of Trump’s campaign staff did as, then the film is more of a character study. 4/5.

As an aside, The Brink would make a good double bill with another political documentary – Knock Down the House. Both of them cover the same amount of time and culminate at the results of the 2018 US midterm elections, however they follow people on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum – showing just how divisive politics has come, not just in America but around the world.

REVIEW: All This Panic (2016)

A documentary following a group of teenage girls for three years, from their last year in high school to their first few years in college, looking at the relationships they make along the way and how they and their lives change in that time.

All This Panic is a great because it doesn’t judge any of the girls it follows, instead it shows all their different sides, the times things go well for them as well as arguments they may have with parents or their friends. It allows you to form your own opinion on each girl while still understanding that they are all growing and learning all the time.

Out of the group of friends one decided not to go to college, so it was interesting to see how her life differed to her friends and how they tried to stay in touch and if they could remain as great friends as they were in school. I think it’s good to see how relationships can change and to allow that to happen, and just because they weren’t together every day anymore, it didn’t mean their friendship was over.

The girls all talked about boys, and girls, they fancy, what they thought about relationships and how when they’re seventeen you can’t win as if you haven’t had sex it’s seen as weird, but if you have then you shouldn’t have. All This Panic paints a very honest picture of what teen girls go through and to paraphrase what Sage says, “People want to see teen girls, but don’t want to hear them.”

All This Panic is a short film, but it packs a lot in. It’s entertaining and affecting as it’s easy to see yourself in these girls and you want them all to find their way and be comfortable in their own skin. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Prince of Nothingwood (2017)

A documentary following Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan’s most popular actor, director and producer, with 110 films under his belt as he travels the country to shoot his latest film.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a brilliant documentary that’s both funny and fascinating. You get to see what life in Afghanistan is like for these men who are a part of Salim Shaheen’s films. Shaheen was in the military and even then, he was making films with the soldiers. They tell a story of how a missile went through a window, injuring and killing many of them and they used the footage of the aftermath in a film.

The film is directed by French journalist Sonia Kronlund and the interactions between her and Shaheen are one of the highlights of the film. Their conversations are funny because he’s such a big personality in comparison to her. Kronlund is well aware of the dangers of being a foreigner in Afghanistan but travelling with Shaheen, the rules don’t really apply to him. Everyone loves him and wants to shake his hand or have a selfie with him, including security personnel, the police and even the army.

Throughout The Prince of Nothingwood you get to see extracts of Shaheen’s films. They are over the top and for Western audiences probably considered pretty bad but they are quite inventive when you consider, as Shaheen says, there “is no money” to make films. Hence why he calls Afghan cinema Nothingwood. Shaheen’s films capture Afghan audiences though and they appear to get a lot of joy from them.

Kronlund not only talks to Shaheen but to the actors who have been a part of many of his films as well as his family. Admittedly it’s only his sons, she’s not able to talk to his two wives nor his daughters. It’s interesting to hear what other people think of Shaheen and his love of films.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a documentary about a man who loves films, both watching them and making them, and that love along with his larger than life personality shines through. The situations he and his film team get into often seem a bit farcical but there’s almost an air of innocence about it all. They all know what it’s like to live with the fear of death over them, there’s often mentions of what life was like under the Taliban, so they all embrace life and filmmaking and appear to have a great time while doing it. 4/5.