Monday, 14 January 2013

two new documentary classics

The finest, most memorable, and by far the most emotionally involving films I've seen in the past month are both documentaries. Our excellent local Picturehouse should be commended for showing two such disturbing – indeed deeply shocking, and therefore uncommercial, or anti-commercial – films.

Both 5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emat Burnat and Guy Davidi) and McCullin (dir. David Morris and Jacqui Morris) focus on truthful and courageous photo-journalism in extremely hazardous and life-threatening circumstances. Exemplary bravery, honesty and compassion are the (un)common denominators of both.

5 Broken Cameras is co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli – in itself a remarkable enterprise – and the Picturehouse brochure describes it thus: "At his son Gibreel's birth, Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat gets his first movie camera. He starts recording both Gibreel's childhood and the violent conflict that snowballs as Israel's 'security barrier' is driven through their neighbourhood. This affecting, poetic documentary reveals the determined spirit of Burnat and his family." An understatement, of course, as anyone who's been to the West Bank would recognize.

"Affecting" yes, but a truly effective picture too, in which the shameful daily injustices, and the bullying brutality and murderous actions perpetrated by the IDF and the self-styled Zionist "settlers" are vividly and searingly depicted. Personal essay and political cinema at its most provocative, its award at the Sundance Film Festival was well-merited: audiences will need strong stomachs and open minds to watch this extraordinary film, but let's hope it gets as widely distributed as possible. Don't miss it! (There's also a frank and informative interview with the two directors – impressive and dignified people, both of them. This is on Youtube, and a dvd will be available at the end of January.)

Don McCullin, now in his seventies, is in John Lennon's phrase a "working class hero", an internationally renowned British photographer. Here he is interviewed about his life and dangerous career – the art of survival while witnessing and chronicling many of the bloodiest and most violent conflicts of the last 50 years. These range from the Congo to Vietnam, Biafra to Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Salvador and the Middle East. McCullin's sincerity, modesty and moral decency (as with Messrs. Burnat and Davidi) shine through the interviews, stills and archive footage around which this biographical feature is constructed. This film too is revealing and riveting, and it too exposes the full madness, horror and human tragedy of occupation and war. McCullin doesn't duck the hard questions, especially the awkward and perhaps unavoidable fact that taking photos in high-risk situations so often gives the person behind the camera an adrenalin rush like no other: gambling with one's life for the sake of a scoop, in order to fix something quite fleeting, yet absolutely precious and unique, made him almost what he calls in his superb autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour (1990),
"a war junkie". Fortunately for him and for us he survived various misadventures and injuries along the way. Now he lives in his beloved Somerset, photographing the landscape and sorting his amazing archive for posterity. Another impressive human being, now the subject of an equally impressive film.

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