London Film Festival 2015 Dispatch #5 - Some Docs

A few words on some of the documentaries that played at the festival. Three films about people and places and what it means to call a place home, for better and for worse.

Prolific critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins, best known for his autobiographical film history series A Story of Cinema, is in good favour with LFF's programmers. Albania travelogue Here Be Dragons and DH Lawrence film 6 Desires have both screened here in successive years, and he returns bringing new film I Am Belfast this year. A distinctly personal film for the Belfast native turned world citizen, I Am Belfast operates somewhere between travelogue and essay film, touring viewers around some of Belfast's sights whilst an old spirit (Helena Bereen) - claiming to be the 10,000 year old personification of the city itself - tells stories of the city's character, history and inhabitants.

A scrappy collage of many high minded ideas, Cousin's narration connects Belfast's modern landscape to its storied past, lingering longest, most interestingly and most affectingly, on what locals refer to as "the troubles," the Northern Ireland conflict. Cousin's attempt to redefine the city as not just a site of a battleground, but a place of people with a complex, varying relationship to the land and its past is noble, but his approach is a little uneven. Offering a mishmash of stories that interrelate the current function of a place with the significance of the site in the past; and conversations with bit part players, most amusingly two foul mouthed old ladies in a cafe, Cousins lacks a clear line or argument. Some parts make for compelling viewing but others drag out a little, like for instance the funeral for 'the last bigot' he stages as the close of film.

A slightly indulgent effort from Cousins, his increased access and funding displayed through the involvement of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose talents are used only in shots featuring Bereen, and composer David Holmes, whose music is atmospheric, but not exactly necessary. As a city symphony, I Am Belfast will mean a lot more to those who know and love the city than those looking to learn to love it. As such it is hard to recommend wider than to those who will already seek it out.

A more impressive film from another name that may be known to LFF audiences. One of the finest working documentarians, Chile's Patricio Guzman. His latest film The Pearl Button, works as a kind of spiritual sequel to the one that came before it, Nostalgia of the Light, sharing the associative style and conceptual framework of that film, as well as referring primarily to the topic that preoccupies him and his work, the terrible and prolonged dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Both explorative essays that interlink the earthly with the cosmological, tying past traumas to present realities, Nostalgia of the Light took the stars as a launching point whereas The Pearl Button begins with water.

Floating through Patagonia's icebergs and vast bodies of water, capturing the stunning scenery with a sense that he is discovering the unseen, Guzman muses on some of Chile's first peoples - a group of nomadic boaters of whom only several remain and whose language is set to die with them - and their strong relationship with water. From here, with a seamlessness he has made trademark, he looks at a micro/macro history of atrocity that began with the colonial settlement of Chile and leads through to the the Pinochet atrocities, using the vast Patagonian rivers as the link.

The Pearl Button of the title acts a kind of neat connective between diverse subject matters, referring first to the currency used to trade for the first native person taken back to England by earth settlers and also the basis for the name given to him 'Jemmy Button'; then later showing up again, stuck in the large iron rails used to weigh down the corpses of individuals disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship, weathered by the ruin of history and the weight of historical connection. In excess of 1400 of these bodies were estimated to have been dumped, Guzman reveals, and as vast as this seems, its only one aspect of the atrocities he's spent a career trying to unearth and pay reverence to.

Guzman has always had a knack for finding poetic links, and though some of the stretches made here do not seem as organic as those in Nostalgia of the Light, he still manages to tackle the most ambitious subjects in a fashion both down to earth and lyrical. The imagery is perhaps even more stunning than in Nostalgia of the Light, though coupled with his poetic, slowly spoken narration it can feel a little too close to a BBC nature documentary at points. Guzman deviates little from what made his recent masterpiece Nostalgia of the Light so successful, instead probing the same interests and grievances from new angles. Yet without the cosmos as basis, he isn't as impressively grandiose, nor always as poignant and insightful. For some, it won't work as well but for others the relative concision will appeal.

Much less ambitious, (Be)longing, an observational documentary from Portuguese debutant João Pedro Plácido takes matters back down to earth. Following a farming family in the isolated community of Uz, (Be)longing is a warmly affectionate, ambling portrait of a rural society that persists with a traditional lifestyle in unpretentious opposition to the pressures of modernity. Despite an ostentially observational format, Placido's documentary has the active sense of cooperation that comes from being embedded in a community for a long time, especially one with some personal significance, Uz being the home of Placido's grandparents.

Over four seasons, Placido follows the town's fifty or so inhabitants through daily work and evening leisure, a whole lot of cow-herding, land-tilling and small-talking. He focuses most on a young farmhand Daniel, who at 21 seems less restful than most in the area, and more eager to escape the confines of the community. The most exciting sequence involves the community's annual festivities, Placido's camera dancing around the revelry and gently overseeing Daniel's clumsy, humbling courtship of a visiting girl. Indeed, the mobile, sharp cinematography is the film's strength, capturing effectively both the landscapes and the people, and making use of the four season format to show the varying colours and climate of the picturesque area Placido is visiting. (Be)longing is an enjoyable, if somewhat slight piece of ethnography, slightly plodding at some points but genuinely beautiful at others.

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