I have written each mini-review upon immediately leaving the screening, as fast as possible, on my phone. The purpose is to remember each film and capture my immediate impressions without too much reflection, before the impact of the film dissipates.
Docfest #4 – Have You Seen the Listers?, Australia. A biography of the internationally (and financially) successful street artist Anthony Lister, who i admit i had not already heard of but it seems he’s a big deal in the art world, and has been described as the Australian Banksy. The film is told in first person, narrated by Lister and using tons of his own home video over the past few decades. He tells of the development of his art career from the ’80s to present day, alongside falling in love with his wife, with whom he has three children. The film reveals a man who is self obsessed, focussed on his own art and ego and tells of how he chose to get caught up in the art world and travel for his shows, which his wife and soul mate was unable to keep up with considering she was left to do all the childcare. Lister is making a film full of regret, as he explains how he now realises his wife gave up everything for him and their children, and recognises she made multiple attempts over the years to involve him in their lives, yet Lister contiuned to take them for granted. Its amazing their separation came as a shock to him, he tells of a spiral further into partying and drug abuse. Even after cleaning up and spending more time with his son, who later chose to go and live with his father, Lister once again neglects his son to focus on his own career needs, which results in his son moving back home and refusing to speak to him for months. Although Lister expresses sorrow and regret at losing his family, clearly still full of love and admiration for his estranged wife, this film still comes across as a work of egoism, his work, career and his own contentment, his status as an artist remain at the forefront. An exhibition of work he makes about his family, he says is for them and his children but its clear its for himself and his own need to deal with things. His kids are more interested in the bouncy castle he’s displayed the paintings on than the “I DID THIS FOR YOU” artwork itself. Lister does genuinely express pain and regret at his neglect of his family, and makes what seem like real efforts to rebuild bridges with his children but for me he just comes across as a selfish person, using his own love and pain (rather than thinking too deeply about the feelings of his children) as a springboard for more own his own self indulgent artwork. And his artwork is certainly contemporary and interesting, dark cartoonish graphic art is stuff I like, but I didn’t think Lister’s was anything THAT special. At least Banksy’s work tends to have a political message.
Docfest #5 – The Cleaners, Germany, Brazil. Well. I don’t really know where to start other than that this is the most uncomfortable and important viewing so far. It pretty much reaffirms that people are awful, the internet is awful and internet governance is ridiculously arbitrary and also awful. ‘Cleaners’ are employed secretly, en masse, in the Philippines, privately contracted out by the likes of Google and Facebook to decide whether to allow or delete web content. ‘delete’ or ‘ignore’. What they have to view is as bad as you can possibly imagine, and they have to get through 25,000 images and videos per day. Some cleaners describe the worst things they’ve seen, some have committed suicide, some have quit their jobs. Much of the extreme content most people would agree on moral grounds that it should be blocked. But of course there is the question of censorship. The film intelligently takes the issue of web censorship further to political suppression, freedom of speech, policy makers, and interviews those in charge of said platforms, uses footage of company directors being grilled in court, and speaks with both right and left wing activists. The issues of war, hatred and persecution are dealt with in concrete examples in the third world showing how Facebook has fostered cultures in which persecution not only thrives but is encouraged (by ‘likes’), and the example of Manila’s president citing Hitler killing 3 million Jews as a good example of how to deal with the 3 million involved in the drug trade in his country, propped up by propaganda of a hugely popular popstrel/pornstar seems not a million miles from methods of Donald Trump (who is shown saying openly at a political rally speech that obviously he wouldn’t be president without social media). The film makes clear links with how Facebook (and all social media but FB is a particular target) fosters political outrage, encourages it and plays with it as a way of simply maintaining the interest of its audience. The film is very balanced and deals with some incredibly complex issues deftly and straightforwardly, making it obvious how politics and social media are intertwined. The entire issue is fuzzy even for those in governance, and its clear that its all a messy issue at best. Although there are some unpleasant things and uncomfortable things shown, I’ll hopefully never have to see the horrific things that some cleaners describe. But I’ll never forget their descriptions of things that upset them the most, yet another film with an end-of-days feeling. Everything in this film is important and should definitely not be ignored.
Docfest #6 – Vienna Calling, Czech Republic. I was so glad I stayed for the Q&A, as I had utterly no idea what to make of this film before it. Quite a few people left the cinema at various points in the film, but I stuck it out to see what the filmmakers had to say. It was unclear which parts of the film were documentary, parts fiction, parts staged art performances, all based around a notorious artist who is known for graverobbing, created death-obsessed art and has one of the largest collections (and obsessions with) prosthetic teeth and dentures around. The piece is intended as a work of visual art rather than documentary and is thus rather difficult to follow, much like the meandering trip of the giant black neon lit caravan-hearse the characters are taking. There are however many humorous moments, a key thread follows the theft and attempted return of the actual teeth/dentures of Brahms and Strauss to a museum in Vienna. The presenter/actors are very engaging, one amusing scene sees them at a very famous Viennese cake shop, using the famous dentures in their hands to chomp into the cake. It’s rather abstract, and without the Q&A contextualising this as a mixed format visual art piece with metaphors of the grim reaper, ringmaster, and the artist quasi-explaining his paintings which have skull segments attached to them. Perhaps because it’s Czech, but with the themes of food, eating and death, plus the abstract formation, I found this reminiscent of Svankmajer’s work. Dark humour and surreal comedy throughout, this was interesting, but without the Q&A providing context I’m afraid I would have been less understanding or forgiving! At every docfest screening the audience is given a card to rate the film between 1-4 stars, I heard a man near me tell the staff “I can’t give you my card because I don’t feel able to rate it”, and that’s exactly how I felt also.