Sheffield Doc Fest – Film Reviews by Janus Avivson


janus-avivson-1_bwOur man on the ground, Janus Avivson, once again reviews films in the only way he knows how – honestly… this time, from Sheffield Doc Fest.

Sheffield Doc/Fest June 12-16 2013
Some brief and very personal reviews by your favourite grumpy old semi-retired reporter Janus Avivson of Hampstead

ITALY: LOVE OR LEAVE IT2011 Italy/Germany, 78 min, directors: Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, producer Gustav Hofer.

Two smart and handsome gay guys travel the length of Italy’s boot for six months or so, arguing gently what is better, stay there or emigrate. They make their cases equally for they do not intend to persuade us but to make us think. Italy is lovely but it is also crap and how can you be serious about the people who elect types of Berlusconi into power on and on. One mafia or another rules where he does not, ecology problems are unbelievable but then there is the culture, colours, wine, pasta and beautiful people, and wherever one goes the situation can be worse. Like Berlin – rents are low but then there are Berliners and one has to learn German or even Turkish.

The film was presented by an amicable Luca Ragazzi, well spoken and making a good case for their film. His laud and powerful call was, to young people of Italy, that now is the time for change, for vote, for something new, as the old guard slowly dies and the power vacuum is imminent. I would like to repeat his call to all young people of Europe – as they are the only visible chance of this continent to improve things, as they are grossly mismanaged by the old guys. Will Luca be successful and will others imitate his call – we will see pretty soon, maybe even within the next two years. Or not.

OFF LABEL2012 USA 80 min, directors: Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, producers Anish Savjani and Vincent Savino.

This beautifully done and deeply touching film (one of very few films in my life which screening I left before the end, because of my eyes watering badly) is a strong accusation of ethics-free US drug industry. The film bordered on exploitation issue as most subjects of interviews were very poor and not very clever, and none of them would make a good witness in court. After all they willingly took drugs during tests in order to earn money and they did not seam to be educated well enough to realize the consequences. They were human guinea pigs and it was really sad to see them taking part in the film. However it is one of the few films which simply had to be made as the issue is pertinent to all of us – for we are the benefactors of the pharmaceutical industry when we need it.

I was very much against the horrible parasitic pharma, the spider and sucker and bloodthirsty capitalist huge profit-making monster – until I started taking pills for my recently acquired diabetis B, blood hypertension and high cholesterol, and I realised that they work and make me feel better. So be free to criticize this industry while you are younger, I have no problem with that. One day you wise up, believe me.

ALUNA2012 UK 90 min, director/producer Alan Ereira

An amazing follow up to a doc made twenty years ago by the same brave man, about the elusive tribe of Kogi, who inhabit the very neighbourhood of the high mountain range in North of Colombia just near the Caribbean Coast. I went there two years ago but was chased away by armed guerillas, guarding their marihuana and coca fields, and thus I have a good reason to admire Alan Ereira’s talents of befriending Kogi to such an extend, that, as he claims, they called upon him to make a second film, this time about their Message To The World. Which is that we have to start taking care of our environment before it is too late, which will be pretty soon, or consequences will be irreversible.

That’s nothing new and, as some of us recall the revolutionary idea of one Margaret Thatcher, “Global Warming” is caused directly by products of coal burning, miners are bad people and so on. The name of her idea was upgraded to “Climate Change”, which is a scientific name given by politicians to something they do not understand. Whoever is right the problem remains and does not go away, otherwise the Earth will get angry and spit us out.

Kogi guys, with help of Alan, made their case very nicely and I am almost persuaded to their pitch that all changes are connected, up and down the stream running from the mountain. I also like what they say about generations, that the next ones are less and less clever than the older ones, but probably because I am old and this makes me feel good. Jokes aside, this film is an absolute must for anyone concerned with fate of humans on Earth, and not the Earth, because the Earth will survive, whatever we do. Trust me, I know.

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY2012 USA 91 min, director Alison Klayman, producer Adam Schlesinger

This is story of the brave artist, who became a symbol of defiance against the all powerful Chinese Communist Party, is amazing and fascinating and absolutely obligatory for whoever bought a product Made In China, which is all of us. This country will dominate the news for the next one hundred years and it’s fate will be decided by the manner in which people like Ai Weiwei are treated.

The problem is one of a misunderstanding. The Communist officials believe that they act for the good of many, and an individual freedoms do not matter much comparing with the good of the nation, and working classes, and peasants and so forth, not to mention families of the officials, called pejoratively by the initiated “The Red Spiders”.  Why? Because they are. They suck whatever they can for themselves and they call it Communism. It happened before in The Soviet Union and it did not end well.

The to good news are that Ai Weiwei  is still alive – the bad news are that he is already shit-frightened and muted and under court order not to discuss his case any more. My learned opinion on this matter is that either he will moderate his courageous actions or he will have a traffic accident and his child will be an orphan. This is as long as we will keep buying Chinese products and yes, we will, for we need our Apple computers and iPhones and all the bits and pieces from The One Pound Store. Therefore it is even more important for all of us to see this well made film, on the way to our next shopping spree, because by buying Chinese products we are all responsible for Weiwei and his family and his followers, May God Bless Them All.

Incidentally, as I saw on the BBC evening news a few hours after the screening:  the Chinese delegation (invited by the Sheffield Doc/Fest) – upon hearing that their request to remove the above film from the program will not be taken into consideration by the Festival bosses, left – which is probably better for the Festival, and a very High Five to Sheffield Doc/Fest to stand up to the Communist oppression system and all it stands for.

WE WENT TO WAR2012 UK Ireland 77 min, director Michael Grigsby, producer Rebekah Tolley.

Another follow up of a doc made in 1970 by the same director, still young in heart, about Viet-nam War Veterans, in the middle of Texas. A few sad stories old with the sensitive camera angles and Tarkovsky-like point of view long shots in the mellow morning/evening light. We witness on the screen the extend to which the Veteran’s previous war experiences shaped their present and the life in between the documentaries, the full forty years. Poor men never understood the big picture, the Nixon-Kissinger great game of opening of China, what of course resulted in us being able to buy the Chinese stuff and to sell them ours, BMWs , Range Rovers and so on. Nobody ever told them that their fight for freedom was not in vain, or maybe all they believed was what they read in The Guardian. Actually I doubt if they read The Guardian.

An excellent film made like an example how to make documentaries, and financed by Irish, Scottish and Welsh money, why, I don’t know, most likely because they trusted the director and the producer, who bravely managed to start making it a few weeks before starving to death. Such is life. I only hope that they have also managed to explain to the poor Vets how grateful we all are to them for what they did for us forty years ago.  Maybe the best film of these reviewed here.

SHADOWS OF LIBERTY2012 UK 93 min, director/producer Jean-Phillippe Tremblay.

An extremely actual subject and directly related to the Leweson Enquiry in the High Court. We all know about Mr Murdoch and his excesses and recent humiliation. What we do not remember is that it was Presidents Reagan and Clinton who de-regulated the media in the US and opened the room for present day monopolies. Since then the media are the business, and those who do not dig it are dumb. However it was still nice to see this very necessary film, which spells it all word by word.

And so what? Who is guilty? Corporations? Murdochs? No. As we well know companies consist of shareholders, who vote, and most often (if not always) they vote for profits. Basically everybody who participated in banks saving operations has his or her fingers in it. And the media deliver profits, by feeding the masses with stuff they buy, celebrity bullshit and so on. And what is the solution?

Vote with your pocket and don’t buy the papers and Sky and Virgin packages, full of pulp, write for internet and read and respond to media which is not financially motivated. Simple, isn’t it? And then they will die the natural death. Oh, I forgot that some five million people in this country buy Sun every day. And that they also vote with their pockets and that they are nice guys, just like us.

Good film, actually all of the above, but this is all I had time for and I had to rush back to London, to work.

THE ACT OF KILLING, 2012, 158 min, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

The director went to Indonesia in order to interview descendants of victims of infamous series of pogroms there, which took place in 1965. An estimated three million people were killed, mainly, if not all, members of perfectly legal and quite popular then Communist Party, many middle class and most of them from Chinese ethnic minority. It was not easy to find people who were willing to be interviewed, none of them showed up for the second meeting, and after a few stints in local jails director himself was about to give up on his project. And then suddenly he came upon a genial idea and spread the news that he wants to interview the perpetrators, the very people who participated in the massacres. To his surprise and horror he was swamped with response. People came to him proudly telling about their role, boasting how many they killed and so on. One of them says, showing the crude tools of his crime: “And we were killing…happily”. Ufff!

Obviously it was not the idea to glorify the murderers, and director widely followed a popular Indonesian tradition of theatre, of re-enacting events, except that he asked killers to adopt the roles of victims.

This is a powerful film and undoubtedly the best of ten films I have seen in Sheffield this June, and one of most impressive documentaries I have ever seen. It is done with good taste and it is brave and bold, what more – it leaves the viewer touched to the bone. Everybody reading his should make an effort to see it, and please tell your friends about it as soon as you can. And I am sure that this film will win the best prize in Sheffield this year!

THE SECRET LIFE OF URI GELLER, 2013, 90 min, dir. Vikram Jayanti

I am sure that some of you remember Uri Geller, a handsome Israeli who travelled the world bending spoons and stopping clocks. The director heard rumours that the magician was actually more that the seemed to be. He went to see Uri, and met with the wall of secrecy. Nope. No luck. And so he went to The States and met with people who were known for working with Uri. All of them confirmed, on camera, that yes, of course, Uri was either helpful or even instrumental in this and that, some important and impressive stuff. And then he went back to Uri asking for his side of the story, and was told my lips are sealed, my friend. And then made a face, for the camera, which said what was unspoken.

What a guy! And modest and sweet and friendly and rich and famous and name dripping and likable and accessible (he replies to all emails , try!). An enjoyable and well done doc and worth seeing, and when I will see on the news another intelligence coup, saving lives and so on, I will think that maybe it was thanks to Uri. And of course at the end of the Q & A session he bent a spoon for us there!

THE MURDER WORKES, 2013, 72 min, dir. Jessie Versluys

Did you know that there are on average some 700 murders in the UK each year? And that the average cost to the family of the victim is app. £37.000?

This doc deals with the side of murder we do not see on the news. It is about people who are members of Victim Support National Homicide team. There are fifty of them in the UK and they are busy. Their work is important and demanding, requires a great degree of tact and also technical knowledge in sorting out issues, which arise in such unexpected circumstances. And there are many.

I had a list of cases covered by the doc and it was my sincere intention to write about them one by one, but I will not, because I would very much prefer you to see this valuable film yourself.

DIRTY WARS, 2013, 86 min, dir. Richard Rowley

The first scene of the film is shot from the car, driving through half ruined deserted street, headlights reflecting from white dirty walls. The voice over says: “Kabul Afghanistan, 4AM”. And so it goes. The filmmaker came across an Afghan family, which was decimated by bearded Americans, and do not know why. Obviously it is a mistake, as one of the victims is the government appointed chief of the police. We feel sorry watching mutilated bodies of women and children, an awful sight, of course.

The director follows his friend, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who attempts to provide transparency to the United States war on terror. This is a difficult task and thanks God that someone is doing it. Because, as wars and secret operation go, they are just….secret. This is a doc with an excellent structure and commentary, very well shot, well paced and with good energy. The aim is high, intention noble, a pity that it gets one main thing admirably wrong. Why?

The main premise of this film is that there is a shadowy paramilitary group, directly under President’s orders, responsible for many bad and secretive things happening all over the globe – at one point, it was mentioned, in over one hundred countries. And director, a very nice chap, assumes that all this is a retaliation for 9/11 attacks, and asks an “urgent” question “how does a war like this end?”

As happened, and what is easy to verify on google or Wikipedia, the SOCOM or one of its parts, JSOC, are in existence since 1980, are well documented and reputable branch of US Armed Forces. There are 63.000 people working there, and they had their moments of glory and of failure (Mogadishu was the lowest point). They depend on the President as much as he is a commander in chief of all armed forces, and their secrecy is such that their commanders display nametags on their shirts and uniforms during TV interviews. So, no news here. Do they do anything we do not know or approve of? Well, they kill people, for this is their job, and they protect us from crazies (see recent reports of a terrorist being arrested in Pakistan who attempted to board the airplane with an explosive device hidden in his rectum. A commentator called “a true dirty bomb” and it is kind of funny because nothing happened. But it may.

But coming back to the film: there is a lot of footage of the reporter Jeremy Scahill talking, and one truly amazing sequence of voices of soldiers, bearded American killers, recorded by an Afghan on his or her cell phone, and stating that bullets were dug out of the bodies shot by Americans in order to remove the evidence. Can anybody verify that independently please? And as much as I actually like it I would classify it under a very fashionable anti-USA propaganda, which is great, but in order to be believable it should be a little bit better.


Remember a feature film “Shattered Glass”, a 2003, US, $6 mil budget, with Hayden Christensen in the title role? Its subject was, gently fictionalized, one young journalist at The New Republic, highly influential US magazine, who basically invented many of his reports, but as they were interesting and neatly written, it took three years to unmask him.
It was, incidentally, during the time when this film hit the cinemas near you, that another and almost identical affair surfaced, this time in this indefensible bastion of American press – The New York Times. There were some differences between the two, for instead of a nice Jewish boy the new and soon to be disgraced hero was an African-American, also from a comfortable middle class home and not a ghetto guy at all. Nevertheless his demise was often quoted as an example of one of excesses of already highly unpopular affirmative action (which I think was not the case).

A FRAGILE TRUST is in depth doc dealing with the man, one Jayson Blair, who, working for The New York Times from 1999 till 2003, made up several of his stories and passed them as his own reports. His dependency on lies was supported by his habit of substance abuse, which he financed mainly through his business expenses account, saved from not going on the reporting trips but on search on newly popular internet, something his elderly bosses did not use yet.

This is a most interesting doc, and as I am a fanatical journalist ever since my high school years, it was fascinating for me to realize how stupid these both guys were, so daft in thinking that they will not be discovered by their colleagues, also investigative journalists. Either they had an axe to grind or had a huge chip on both of their shoulders, as Glass was a Jew among the WASP crowd and Jayson a Black among predominantly Jewish New Yorkers? Whatever.

Personally I think that Jayson’s problem started already when he changed his first name from Jason, an obvious sign of vanity and attempt at deception. And then look at his surname? I saw it on some banners several years ago… Blair=Liar…A shame…

PUSSY RIOT – A PUNK PRAYER, 2012, 86 min, dir/prod. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdrovkin.

This is an absolutely amazing doc, shown already at selected venues, at action meetings calling for support of the group. A must see for everybody who cares for free speech and human rights, not in Russia alone but here as well. An example of defiance in face of an autocratic government and subservient court, where few feeble women protest against what they see as injustice and police-state terror.

Actually I have nothing against Mr Putin, for I think that he is good for Russia at present, but I also wish him to go away soon and make room for a more democratic person. A movement in this direction has already started and Pussy Riot group is only one of many. One only wishes that they continue in peace and prosper and do not perish in vast Siberian prison system, therefor they need our vocal and dynamic support.
One thing is certain ??” Putin’s rule, whatever harsh and nasty, is not what was there in pre-Gorbachev era, and some progress is already visible.

This doc, well constructed and entertaining, was heroically shot by Antony Butts, in many potentially dangerous situations.

Also: the original title in Russian is: A SHOW TRIAL ??” HISTORY OF PUSSY RIOT, which is rather far from PUSSY RIOT – A PUNK PRAYER, and I think the original is more suitable, as punks did not pray very much, did they?

PARTICLE FEVER, 2013, 99 min, dir. Mark Levinson

I was lucky that I arrived at the screening auditorium well in time, for soon it was fully packed by an enthusiastic audience.

“Higgs bosom”, named after the Edinburgh based scientist Peter Higgs, who is so smart that, some ten years ago, after winning a financial award and cashing up the monies, he protested against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and refused to go to Jerusalem to pick up the actual gadget. Professor Higgs’ bosom, described theoretically by him in the 60’s, was for the last forty odd years an elusive and mysterious particle, theoretically indispensable for most suitable explanation for sub-nuclear construction of our universe. However, until the establishment of a gigantic Large Hadron Collider, in 2008, where particles could crash at an enormous speed, nobody had the slightest chance of verifying its existence.

The idea of this film and its execution was possible because its director was a physicist turned filmmaker. The process of building and functioning of the Collider is masterly showed and then superbly edited by the venerable Walter Murch. The level of expectations before the first launch of the machine was comparable, and I quote one of the scientists involved, to the “group of six year olds, one week before a birthday party”.

The objective of the experiment was creating, for the fraction of a millisecond, conditions comparable to the moment immediately after the Big Bang, when our Universe was allegedly created. Two theories prevail and exist in an uncomfortable balance, multivers versus super symmetry (google it if you want to find out more). As often happens, long awaiting solution to the query does not happen, the film ends, and we are as much in the dark as ever before. But some of us had fun and huge salaries, so why not?

One of the main scientists summed up his quest for final wisdom about the universe and said that “jumping from failure to failure with undimnishing enthusiasm is the recipe to success”.

This, as we all know, is an activity not dissimilar to making of documentary films!




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