by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 3: Mangrove, Her Socialist Smile, MLK/FBI

September 30, 2020
Credit: NYFF

Mangrove

Steve McQueen has spent the last decade making films that are quite decidedly about America, creating a body of work in the process that carries significant cultural weight here (Oscars!) while very much representing the British filmmaker’s Euro perspective. This perspective often provides McQueen with a sort of remove to operate from, one that bears out his distinctive aesthetic nicely, but also one that has engendered criticism for being too distant to sensitively take on America’s insidious racist systems and the violence they conduct. And so, McQueen’s London-set, Small Axe “mini-series” is a welcome shift in focus to the director’s home city, as well as a vivid cinematic chronicle of a community that’s rarely been afforded one. This “mini-series” is essentially five feature-length films, each of which takes on a significant event in the history of London’s West Indian community (minus NYFF opening night entry, Lovers Rock– the series’ sole purely fictive narrative). It’s an impressive, maximalist approach on McQueen’s behalf, and one that we can’t completely assess until the final two films drop in November, but the series’ first entry, Mangrove, proves to be a sturdy statement of intent.

The film is basically split into two sections, the first depicting the opening and early days of Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) restaurant, The Mangrove, which served as a social hub for London’s Notting Hill neighborhood; at that time, primarily home to a large population of Caribbean immigrants whom Crichlow proudly catered to. The Mangrove’s significance went beyond the food it served, as it also played host to community organizers and activists, and served as a space for parties and gatherings. All of this is rendered warmly and kinetically in the film’s early passages (not unlike the partying and revelry of the aforementioned Lovers Rock, actually), before souring quite dramatically as the film’s initial joys are crushed down by the arrival of the police and all the racism and violence that comes along with them.

Mangrove’s second section deals with the aftermath of the riots that came about at Crichlow’s restaurant after prolonged police harassment and instigation. This mostly translates into courtroom drama and the trial of “The Mangrove Nine,” which included Crichlow and eight other protestors who the police attempted to blame for the violence they themselves perpetrated. Mangrove doesn’t really manage to overcome the usual unfortunate cliches and formula of this genre, but as is often the case, the format is prime for big monologues and stirring performances and the film certainly serves those up. Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby are given the most time to shine here as the two members of The Mangrove Nine who opt to represent themselves, thus giving them the power to cross-examine witnesses and address the jury, ultimately convincing them that the police’s crimes were racially motivated. These scenes feel cathartic and righteous, especially as they lead to the sort of legal victory that’s dispiritingly rare in real life, but they also only tell the story partially with the end title cards revealing the upsetting, long-term outcomes of this case. 

One can understand McQueen’s inclination to steer this story away from miserablism by celebrating the remarkable triumphs that did occur, but the reality of the situation is much murkier and sadder than presented here. Yet the film does succeed when it orbits around Crichlow, who Parkes plays with remarkable vigor and intensity. McQueen writes him as a man swept up in history, a restaurateur accidentally transformed into the figurehead of a vital political movement. This may be a slight manipulation of the truth (Crichlow was a very politically engaged individual to say the least), but it ultimately works for McQueen’s dramaturgy, a reluctant human center in contrast with the spectacle of the trial. Sort of a recurring idea in a lot of NYFF’s lineup this year (Time, The Inheritance), Mangrove is most compelling when it’s reflecting on what it means to be an activist, and particularly, who gets to choose this work versus those whose entire lives must become acts of political activism. It’s unfortunate that McQueen gets lost in this dusty courtroom formula, but it’s archaic structures at least contrast the more immediate probing material in a way that mostly justifies its use. M.G. Mailloux


Her Socialist Smile

John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) — a staggering, four and a half-hour-long “cinematic prose poem” concerning Clark Air Base Command, a former United States military facility located in the Philippines, and the collective traumatic and ecological fallout left in the wake of unchecked imperialism — opens with three broad axioms about studying history: first, that all history is selection and emphasis, neutral in neither origin nor effect; second, that all history is the history of what is remembered, and what is remembered by those with the power to prescribe the memory; finally, and maybe most importantly, that the soul of history is economic. These three pronouncements, each coolly narrated by Howard Zinn, serve as foundational tenets for the type of pedagogical cinema Gianvito has been crafting over the past two decades: one that approaches the art form as a tool to instruct and articulate a non-U.S. centric record of global events; one that gives as much credence to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Uriah Smith Stephens as one would Mother Jones or César Chávez; and one that also examines the ways in which capitalist interests shape our own perception of the world at large. He repurposed the tombstones and gravesites of such progressive figures in 2007’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, providing these forgotten icons with the prominence they deserve whilst reconstructing Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in the process; the camera leisurely tours from one location to the next, with no narration or even basic context provided to make sense of this far-left monument tour. Much like Vapor Trail, it is more a work of poetics, or even a living document, than a traditional documentary.  

The history Gianvito has chosen to emphasize this time around with his latest feature, Her Socialist Smile, is decidedly more intimate — and, by design, more didactic — than the grander work he’s covered within his previous two documentaries on the Philippines: that of Hellen Keller, a figure many know merely as a deaf-blind person who wrote a book and who’s also the butt of numerous crass jokes, many of which are made at her expense, in order to discredit her beliefs. Keller herself, we come to learn, was pretty good at cracking jokes herself, even claiming that she was once “blind, deaf, and formerly dumb” — the “formerly” here referring not to muteness, but to a naiveté about the injustices of the world at large. When asked about her opinions of capitalism, she wryly responds: “I think it has outlived its usefulness.” It’s from here that we also discover that Keller was a human rights activist who promoted and championed women’s suffrage and American labor rights, who became a socialist after reading H.G. Wells’ New Worlds for Old and was (with the assistance of her lifelong teacher, Anne Sullivan) one of the most popular orators of her era. When a recording of one of Keller’s earliest speeches is played, it’s noted that audience members responded positively to the passionate timbre of her voice and by sheer force of will by which her ideas were communicated. 

Gianvito, in turn, clarifies her specifics for the remaining runtime, letting Keller’s own words do the talking; or, more accurately, let them not do the talking, as there’s no accompanying narration in each of these lengthy lectures. If one wishes to engage with this work, they’re expected to read; in fact, one is expected to read a lot here. But considering the extreme lengths one blind-deaf woman went to educate herself about issues she literally could not see firsthand, this ultimately seems like a fair enough trade-off. If anything, Gianvito hones in and explicates the distancing effects that voiceover can create: in between each address’ onslaught of on-screen text, there are long passages of evocative, simple landscapes set to the clear enunciations and calm demeanor of poet Carolyn Forché, who provides verbal connective tissue between major events in Keller’s life. It’s about as stark a contrast as one can draw out without being obvious, which is the last thing Gianvito would ever attempt to do with the material at hand.

What Gianvito does attempt here is far nobler: to not only educate those on a history they have yet to learn but also commemorate the achievements of an individual who decided to go up against the prevailing powers of capital. Much like his treatment of the members of the People’s Task Force for Bases Cleanup in Vapor Trail, Gianvito presents Keller as a tireless fighter for the disenfranchised, one who could easily have bought into a nihilistic worldview regarding her condition, but chose to dedicate her life to others instead. So in a sense, learning about Keller’s life here becomes an act of political vigor: a way to demolish Western narrative-building and, like Keller, to “see” past the prevailing ideologies that structure our perceptions of history. Unlike the many traditional documentaries that could have been constructed around this subject, Her Socialist Smile doesn’t lull one into passivity; it encourages (and even flat-out demands) active viewer engagement, spurring them to interrogate their established worldviews while also being drawn to the artificiality of Gianvito’s current cinematic practice. Of Pat O’Neill’s landmark Water and Power, Fred Camper once wrote: “One feature of a certain kind of bad film is that it fails to even ask interesting questions, while great films frequently ask the great questions and ask them well. I can think of no higher praise for a work of art than this.” By this measure, Gianvito’s latest is very great indeed. Paul Attard


MLK/FBI

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is now a near-universally revered and beloved historical icon, but as Sam Pollard’s meticulous and quietly infuriating documentary MLK/FBI shows, this was not always the case, especially during King’s lifetime. Based on historian and King biographer David Garrow’s book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, and largely sourced from recently declassified documents and unearthed film footage, MLK/FBI fills in many damning details of the FBI’s extensive surveillance of King, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. This surveillance, which sought to personally discredit King and neutralize the perceived threat of the civil rights movement, is described by one of the film’s interviewees, former FBI director James Comey, as “the darkest part of the FBI’s history.”

Pollard, a veteran documentary filmmaker who also edited several of Spike Lee’s films, masterfully weaves together this archival material with present-day interviews with historians and King colleagues (including Garrow and Andrew Young). While compellingly laying out the vast scope of the FBI’s surveillance, he also shows how both government officials (including supposed allies such as JFK, RFK, and LBJ) and general public opinion were mostly in agreement about the threat King posed to American society. Much of the archival footage consists of clips from Hollywood films glorifying the FBI and depicting federal agents (or “G-men,” as they were colloquially termed at the time) as dashing heroes preserving the American way of life. Anti-Communist sentiment played a large role, and this was the initial tack the FBI’s actions against King took, focusing on Stanley Levison, a white Jewish lawyer and close advisor with ties to Communist groups. King’s refusal to end his association with Levison, even after being personally warned by JFK, was what led to the FBI’s wiretapping of King and his associates. While the FBI was pursuing their campaign to smear the civil rights movement as a Communist infiltration plot, fueled by Hoover’s fears of King becoming a “Black Messiah,” they happened upon evidence of King’s philandering and extramarital affairs. The FBI thereupon pivoted to using this as a means to personally ruin King’s reputation and discredit him in the eyes of his followers.

MLK/FBI is a necessary and timely reminder that far from the often anodyne and sanitized “I have a dream” historical figure that he’s often depicted as, King was a very divisive and controversial figure in his lifetime — “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” per an FBI memo — and who even lost many supporters when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. The film also leaves us with unsettled questions regarding King’s assassination, namely how anyone was able to kill him while he was under such intense surveillance, and whether the FBI’s obsession with taking King down personally led them to overlook or purposefully ignore the many threats on King’s life. But perhaps even more unsettlingly — particularly given the current president and attorney general’s attempts to smear current protests against police brutality, and especially Black Lives Matter’s prominent role, as dangerous sedition — MLK/FBI leads us to question whether the governmental overreach it depicts is as safely in the past as some would have us believe. Christopher Bourne.


There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse

The second chapter of Argentine director Nicolás Zukerfeld’s hour-long cine-essay, There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse, is a fleet, funny, and inventive piece of work. Narrated largely against a black screen, with only the occasional textual annotation or visual illustration, it tells of a film professor’s attempts to trace the origins of a widely cited, inconsistently translated, and possibly apocryphal quote by American director Raoul Walsh. The saga begins with a rushed, bleary lecture, during which the unnamed professor recalls the version given in the film’s title (“There are not thirty-six ways of showing a man getting on a horse”), but soon encompasses a series of dead-end Google searches, desperate emails, excerpts of moldering magazines, and a whole trail of writers and critics (including Edgardo Cozarinsky, David Bordwell, Louis Skorecki, and Serge Daney, to name but a few). It would be too much to call this obsessively detailed, ouroboros-like account a Borgesian ficción, but for its wry tenor, quasi-autobiographical double-backs, forking narrative lines, and headlong momentum, it can nonetheless be situated within a broader tradition of Argentine literature. 

The catch, though, is that this section constitutes only the final third of Zukerfeld’s film, whose first 40 or so minutes are composed entirely of clips from Walsh’s extensive filmography, presented without context or commentary, and rather tediously arranged according to specific gestures or movements (mounting and dismounting horses, entering rooms, taking tea, and the like). In theory, this opening section should operate as a meta-history of Walsh’s oeuvre that would then play off of the materialist digressions of the film’s second chapter. But in practice it comes across as merely labored, and also largely detached from what follows. Still, if Zukerfeld, evidently a devoted cinephile (or else just a practiced poseur), fails to fully convey his enthusiasm for Walsh’s movies, he does at least paint a poignant picture of that effort. In the film’s closing punchline, one recognizes the commingled pain and pleasure of private obsession. Lawrence Garcia


Her Name Was Europa

Filmmakers Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy, who consider themselves purveyors of “expanded cinema” — a loose, catch-all term for video and performance art that has been in use at least since Gene Youngblood’s seminal 1970 book of the same name — have been making experimental films and videos together under the moniker Ojoboca since 2010. In their new, feature-length film Her Name Was Europa, this manifests as a proclivity for performative gestures, foregrounded filming procedures, and a multi-media approach to imagemaking. The directors have constructed their film as a sort of old-fashioned, proto-Power Point presentation. (Readers of a certain age might recall the ubiquitous presence of overhead projectors back in grammar school, as teachers would lay thin pieces of clear acetate on a glass surface that then projected onto a screen for the class to follow along.) So, then, Her Name Was Europa might be considered a pedagogical exercise, except that it quickly becomes much more than that. Ostensibly interested in aurochs, extinct bovines that are the ancestors of modern cattle, the film begins with a title card, typed out and placed by hand into a 16mm camera’s frame: “Lutz Heck and his brother Heinz were directors respectively, of the Berlin and Munich Zoos. Starting in the 1920s, they began a project to bring back from extinction the ancestor of modern cattle, the aurochs.” This first leads to a detour in Nazi history, as Lutz befriended Hermann Göring and worked with the SS to create an “Aryan wilderness” where they could hunt big, pure-blood game, before segueing into an exploration of different versions of a wildlife book Lutz published that provides images that will recur throughout the film. The thread later picks up again in the Netherlands, in 2009, as an entirely different project attempts to breed a new, near-perfect copy of the aurochs. Mostly proceeding along these lines, the filmmakers use hand placed intertitles to convey information, interspersed with black-and-white 16mm footage of cattle, landscapes, and assorted artists and scientists hard at work. It seems, on the face of it, patently absurd, all this effort to genetically reverse-engineer a type of cow. But Dornieden and Monroy have a downright Cubist sensibility — not aesthetically but conceptually. They are determined to look at this particular subject from every conceivable angle and follow any and all threads that they might stumble across. 

The film is also very much about the process of its own creation, with an emphasis on labor and a tactile, handcrafted quality to the images that emphasizes the material aspects of filmmaking. At one point, the filmmakers explain that they had problems with some footage, so they returned and reshot scenes on a different film stock. They then show bits of both footage as a kind of compare and contrast, before then superimposing multiple images from different film stocks. Later, they describe an abandoned fictional ending that they grew bored with, although they spend some time exploring the real location they had decided to shoot in. The film snaps into place when it interviews artist Marleen Felius, who writes and illustrates books about bovines. As she sketches a hypothetical version of the auroch, she pontificates on history and science as a kind of storytelling, one infused with the personality of whoever is telling it. For instance, modern scientists are basing their conception on the auroch in part on firsthand accounts of hunters who might have seen them. As Felius explains, these accounts would have had the incentive to exaggerate both the size and disposition of these creatures so as to inflate their own prowess as big-game hunters. Dornieden and Monroy have been described as “futurist anthropologists,” exploring the past through the lens of an avant-garde approach to imagemaking. Her Name Was Europa is an invigorating attempt at linking past, present, and future in an ongoing formal conversation, infused with a wry, absurdist sense of humor that belies the film’s rigorous structural methodology. Daniel Gorman

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