- David Parkinson
Parky at the Pictures (13/12/2019)
(Reviews of Sons of Denmark; Pink Wall; Citizen K; The Kingmaker; Aquarela; and The Bikes of Wrath)
SONS OF DENMARK.
Not a day goes by without the rise of the Right being made chillingly apparent in news stories from across Europe and the Americas. In seeking to show how disenfranchised Muslims might respond to such alarming developments, 32 year-old Copenhagener Ulaa Salim posits an eminently plausible situation in his debut feature, Sons of Denmark. Unfortunately, despite its commendable visual polish, the ensuing drama is markedly less credible and, at times, feels a little crude. But it certainly provokes thought.
It's 2025 and Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg), the leader of the neo-Nazi National Movement is using the anniversary of Denmark's biggest terrorist atrocity to whip up support ahead of the forthcoming elections. As a result of his growing popularity, groups of thugs under the Sons of Denmark banner have started intimidating Muslim communities in Copenhagen and 19 year-old Iraqi exile Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed) is so appalled by the graffiti and the severed pig heads deposited in a walkway leading to his high-rise estate that he seeks out café owner Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul) to offer his services to the resistance cause.
Affronted by an inquiry whether he is tired of life, Zakaria is shown a squat for migrants who have risked all to reach Europe and been rejected. He also views laptop images of children being injured in military excursions. Realising how cosily he lives with mother (Asil Mohamad Habib) and younger brother (Ivan Alan Ali), the impressionable Zakaria joins an attack led by Ali (Zaki Youssef) on a Sons of Denmark cell and is so enthused by the sense of doing something positive to protect his family that he accepts Hassan's mission to assassinate Nordahl.
Lying to his mother that he has found a job demolishing houses, Zakaria drives deep into the countryside with Ali, who teaches him how to shoot by spray-painting red Xs on trees. He is amused that Zakaria's mother has made him a packed lunch and he agrees to meet her on dropping Zakaria at home. Ali stays for supper and realises that Zakaria is fighting his emotions on saying goodbye to his mother when she goes to work a nightshift. As they look at family photos, Ali reminds the teenager that he has his whole life in front of him and tells him he can always drop out, But Zakaria insists that too many Danes treat migrants as scum and that he needs to make a statement to help his community.
Feeling nervous, Zakaria informs Hassan that Ali had mentioned a way out and the older man is so furious with Ali for undermining his authority that he puts a knife to his throat and threatens to kill him if he finds out he's a traitor. Ali insists he was merely testing Zakaria's resolve and they leave together for Nordahl's house. He is to wait in the car, while Zakaria does the deed. But the teenager realises he's been set up when he finds pillows propped up in Nordahl's bed and he sees blue police lights flashing in the street below. Moreover, he discovers that the gun is empty, as the police arrive on the landing outside the bedroom door.
Ali is taken away from the scene and debriefed by his police handler, as he is really an undercover cop named Malik. He is reunited with his wife, Mariam (Özlem Saglanmak), and his five year-old son (Ali Hussein), who are being kept in a safe house before Malik can be transferred. Nordahl asks to thank Malik in person and he makes it clear that the National Movement is not targeting good immigrants like himself.
A year passes and, in his new role, Malik comes to realise that Sons of Denmark are behind a wave of violence in the days before the election and it's clear that they are in cahoots with Nordahl's party. When he's introduced to undercover mole Tobias (Morten Holst) in a church, Malik is far from convinced that he's up to the job and lets his boss, Jon (Olaf Johannessen), know that he considers him a risk. However, he is unsettled by some of Jon's comments on him being so convincing as Hassan's No.2 that he almost felt he was `one of them'.
As election day approaches, Malik chides Mariam for laughing at Nordahl playing along with a fawning host on a TV show and scares his son when he confronts a blonde man who has repeatedly bumped into them during a shopping trip. Struggling to hold it together, Malik is dismayed when Jon announces that surveillance on Sons of Denmark is being halted so that the unit can focus on Islamist terror groups. Malik persuades him to leave Tobias in situ and agrees to visit the radicalised Zakaria in prison, in the hope that an overdue visit from his mother and brother might persuade him to reveal any planned operations. But Zakaria views Malik with contempt and he arrives home to find that his house has been daubed with racist slogans. Jon leaves a patrol on duty, but Malik isn't convinced that his superior is all that concerned about his situation.
Mozart plays on the soundtrack (as it had when Zakaria found the pig heads), as Malik cleans off the red paint and tries to go about his duties. But Jon is more interested in following a half-lead about a Muslim suspect than he is in listening to the audio Malik has heard about Sons of Denmark planning a wave of attacks after Nordahl wins power. He speaks on television about withdrawing citizens for unwanted guests and Malik's growing sense of dread peaks when Tobias disappears and they hear a recording of his exposure and punishment.
Malik persuades Jon to speak to Nordahl in the hope he will tone down his rhetoric in his victory speech. However, he disassociates himself from Sons of Denmark and says his job is to rid the country of the problem that gave rise to them. When Malik reminds Nordahl that he owes him his life, the politician sneers that he is not in his debt and asks him to leave. Jon urges Malik to go home and stay calm. But, when he finds his son dead and his wife being rushed to hospital after an acid attack, Malik drives to the National Movement headquarters and guns Nordahl down as he finishes his triumphal speech in front of his supporters and the watching media.
Ending with shots of Zakaria's mother consoling his brother, there's a vague intimation that the 20 year-old and Malik will meet up again in prison. But, as Salim has spent much of the previous hour bludgeoning viewers with a blunt instrument, few of those who even notice this nuance will much care. This is a shame, as this technically accomplished picture starts promisingly, with the opening sequence centring on a canoodling couple caught up in a bomb blast being highly effective. Abetted by first-time cinematographer Eddie Klint (who had worked on several of the director's shorts), Salim highlights the fissures in the Danish capital and makes the prospect of a neo-Nazi party winning a democratic ballot seem terrifyingly possible.
From the moment a callow youth is chosen to undertake a major mission by a backstreet bigwig, however, the screenplay's tenability starts to teeter. Despite the solid performance by TV actor Zaki Youssef, it also seems inevitable that Ali is a plant and that his loyalty to the badge will be tested by the policies and personality of the man whose life he has saved. The switch of focus from the sketchily drawn Zakaria to the conflicted Malik is bold and capably executed. But Salim fails to establish the cop in his new milieu, with the result that we know too little about his family or his new colleagues (who are ciphers to a man) to invest much in their fate. Moreover, there is next to no suspense, as it's inevitable that Nordahl (who is hissably played by Rasmus Bjerg) will show his true colours and that Malik will be goaded into atoning for what he now considers to be his earlier dereliction of duty towards his own community.
Evocatively designed by Silje Aune Dammen and steadily edited by Jenna Mangulad, this looks slick throughout. But the use of `Lacrimosa' from Mozart's Requiem in three separate scenes feels more like overkill than associative audio cueing, although Salim wisely keeps the Sons of Denmark meetings off screen and allows an unseen Ari Alexander to provide the ranting racist rhetoric, which hits home harder as an undercurrent rumbling beneath Nordahl's poisonous pronouncements. With a little more subtlety along this lines, this timely treatise on populism, polarisation and indoctrination might have seemed less cumbersomely bombastic.
Primarily known for his work in Andrew Haigh's Weekend (2011) and TV's Downton Abbey (2013-14), actor Tom Cullen makes a steady start behind the camera with Pink Wall. If Joanna Hogg had reworked Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) and encouraged the actors to improvise before jumbling up the chronology, it might look a little like this intimate, intense, yet rather imitative drama. Non-linearity is nothing new, but its use is anything but gimmicky here, as Cullen seeks to show in six scenes set over six years how the rules of attraction change as life buffets a romantic bubble.
Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) and Leon (Jay Duplass) are in Year Four of their relationship. They are in a restaurant chatting cheerfully with her family and taking the mickey out of her younger brother Frankie (TJ Richardson) for dressing in Disney princess outfits as a child. Leon jokes that is sounds as though Jenna has always been a film producer at heart and he reveals that he calls her `The Enforcer' because she knows how to resolve awkward social situations. He also lets slip that she make him lists of things to do and Frankie suggests that Leon sounds like a cuckold.
Stung by the implication, Jenna loses her temper and orders Frankie to apologise. Her mother advises her to calm down and she follows Leon into the courtyard behind the restaurant. A blazing row ensues, as Jenna accuses her boyfriend of being bone idle and leaving her to do all the housework at the end of a long working day, while he sits around and contemplates his next non-achievement as either a DJ or a photographer. Whipping out his phone, Leon starts listing his faults and Jenna begins to laugh. She regrets snapping and reassures him that they are fine before they kiss and rejoin the party.
Things were very different when Leon and Jenna first met. She was at art school, where she enjoyed luring best friend Jess (Sarah Ovens) out of class to get tipsy and frolic tiresomely in her underwear while pretending to be violated from behind by a strap-on bottle. During one truant session, they had wound up in the club where Leon was DJing and he had caught Jenna's eye across the dance floor. Flirting from a distance, she had whispered in Jess's ear and started dancing slinkily to keep Leon's attention. Eventually, he had come over to introduce himself and they had slipped away to chat at a quiet table.
Flashing forward to Year Five, Leon decides to cook a romantic supper. However, Pat drops round to sell Leon some dope and he insists on him staying to a guinea pig lunch. As the afternoon wears on, the pair get more stoned and watch football on the telly while discussing the gentle art of staying busy by doing nothing. When Pat leaves, Leon rolls himself another joint and commends a passer-by on their nice balloons.
By the time Jenna gets home, Leon has prepared a special surprise. He orders her to turn on the record player and sit in a chair in the middle of the room. As coloured lights stipple the wall, Leon comes down stairs shrouded in toilet paper, as if he's some kind of mummy. Despite being exhausted after work, Jenna tries to show a little enthusiasm for his anything but sexy striptease. But, when he tries to climb on top of her, she winces and he takes offence.
Jenna feels bad at pushing Leon away and tries to make amends. However, he reveals that Pat had let slip that she is going to miss their planned trip to Nice to fly to Japan with her production partner, Scott (Sule Rimi), to work on a new project. She apologises for not telling him earlier and assures him that it would be folly to pass up such a glorious opportunity. He accepts that career sometimes has to come first and sulks that he had only been trying to pep up their sex life because she had been complaining that it had become so dull.
Feeling obligated to respond, Jenna unbuttons her top and sits on Leon's lap. But he has lost interest and struggles to resist her wandering hands. They slap at each other in a half-hearted manner before he hits too hard and Jenna pulls away. As he dresses, she wanders into the kitchen area of their studio flat and fills two bowls with pasta. They sit opposite each other in sullen silence before Jenna finally asks Leon how he had spent his day and he sneerily replies that it had been fulfillingly busy.
Following a brief flashback to the first time Jenna came to Leon's flat and he had convinced her to become a film producer, we bound into Year Three, where Leon is in the park minding Marty, the young son of his friend, Chris (Tom Cullen). Leon and Marty get along pretty well and he tells Jenna that he has more fun with the boy than his dad. Jenna admonishes Leon for letting Chris push him around and tells him to stop looking like a two year-old being told off. He protests that she is better at confrontation than he is and she insists that her actually forte is communication.
They sit on a bench and Leon brings the conversation around to children. He jokes that this is a terrible time to bring a baby into the world, but suggests it would be better to have their own kids rather than adopt (or steal) a potential brat monster. Jenna senses where he's going and tries to deflect him by pointing out that she's still young and has a lot of things on her `to do' list. Leon accepts that now might not be the right time, but questions her suspicion that she might not make a good mother because she's too self-centred. When she assures him that she wants to have kids, he smiles, but surmises that she'd rather not have them with him.
Back in Leon's flat on their first night, he had tried to impress her with his knowledge of music and they had shared secrets about childhood ballet performances and bids for high school coolness. He had made her a fake award out of shiny paper and she had donned a veil to receive it. They had danced and got the giggles after his hand had slid down her back. But they had eventually kissed and passionately.
They smooch affectionately when Jenna arrives for the Year Two birthday dinner that her friends have thrown. In addition to Jess, Scott and Pat, the party includes Tamsin (Katharine Mangold), Layla (Ruth Ollman), Obi (Kyle Lima) and Andy (Joseph Ollman) and the subject around the table quickly turns to sex after Jess reveals that the couple across the street pull back their curtains and give sex shows once a week. She admits to watching porn, despite it having given her unrealistic expectations about orgasms. Pat then makes a crude remark about a casual partner's genitals, which leads the lesbian couple to discuss becoming parents.
Obi's anecdote about a couple trying to entice him into a threesome prompts the newest member of the group to reveal that she is in an open relationship. When Jess confides that she'd quite like to experiment, the newcomer asks Jenna for her views and accuses her of cutting herself off from new experiences when she says that it doesn't appeal to her. She taunts her that she will have to sleep with new people when she breaks up with Leon and Jenna can sense him feeling increasingly uncomfortable at the opposite end of the table. Realising there is nothing to be gained from continuing the argument, Jenna throws up her hands in mock submission. Leon excuses himself and Jenna follows him to the hostess' bedroom, where they have sex standing up and burst out laughing as they collapse on to a sofa.
This triggers a flashback to their first night, when they had shared secrets about Frankie's alcoholism and Leon's problems with his father. He had taken photographs of her and he had urged her to strike her own poses because he would never have the nerve to tell her what to do. His passivity complements her assertiveness and they seem to have chemistry.
By Year Six, however, the elements have stopped reacting and Leon and Jenna barely speak a word to each other as they drive into the country. They walk up a windswept hill and Leon presents Jenna with a frame to replace something that he and Pat had broken while she had been in Japan. He explains how he had consulted family photo albums and found a Welsh artist to replicate a cherished item. She looks mortified when he suggests that their relationship had not been the same since this picture broke and confesses to sleeping with Scott on two separate occasions.
When he presses her about the first time, she mentions going to a nightclub with a neon pink wall after a successful day's shooting and being too drunk to resist when Scott kissed her. Leon tells her to be honest and she concedes that she enjoyed the hunger of the embrace because their love life had become so stale. Stung, he claims that he has always been scared of driving her away by disappointing her and Jenna accuses him of trying to play the victim when he is as aware as she is that their moment has passed and he barks back by revealing that her friends are tired of her being such a self-serving careerist.
She accepts that she is ambitions, but lambastes Leon for wasting his talent. He acknowledges that he has been lazy and timid, but he knows his real métier will be fatherhood and it has crushed him that she never really wanted to have children with him. As she apologises tearfully and they stand apart on the hilltop, the scene returns to the flat on the night they met. They lie head to head on the floor after having dozed off. Jenna warns Leon that she can be a handful, but he is sure he can cope and they beam at each other over a spliff at the window, as they gratefully recognise that they have found a kindred spirit rather than the love of their life.
The growing focus on middle-class milieux is one of the more interesting, if frustrating aspects of post-millennial British cinema. With its tendency to navel gaze, one might call it `bourgeoiscore', which is particularly apt in this case, as Jay Duplass was one of the founder members of mumblecore with his co-director brother, Mark. On the evidence of his debut, however, Tom Cullen appears to err more towards the Noah Baumbach brand of ante-Woody Allen chamber drama. This is fine, especially when a pair of Americans occupy the centre ground. But there is nothing more tedious than arty twentysomething dinner party-speak and Cullen needs to be much more ruthless in reining in improving actors, particularly when their meanderings stray out of the cinematic and into the theatrical.
The dependable Tatiana Maslany - who co-starred with off-screen partner Cullen in Joey Klein's The Other Half (2016) - is more disciplined in this regard than Duplass, whose poised, but mannered display of masculine insecurity consistently reminds the audience that they are not watching a raw slice of life. The birthday party guests similarly strain to make the most of their moment, with the result that the discussion of modern sexual mores grows more tedious with each resoundingly unshocking utterance. Yet this scene has been widely lauded, even though it smacks of chauvinism and tells us much less about Jenna and Leon than what happens afterwards and their private chats.
Much has also been written about the structuring of Cullen's script. Scrambling the chronology to inject complexity into a formulaic plot is usually a desperate measure. But Cullen adroitly alights on actions and phrases that acquire deeper meaning within a second context, as the lovers try with fading hope to recapture the expectation, energy and equilibrium of their first night. Moreover, Cullen and cinematographer Bobby Shore make canny use of the boxy Academy aspect ratio for the flashbacks and widescreen for the more recent events in order to comment on the couple's shifting proximities and perspectives. Gwyn Eiddior's production design and Chris Hyson's score are equally well-attuned to the mood and scale of a piece that took a mere nine days to shoot. Perhaps next time, Cullen might also leave more room for the telltale silence.
Prolific Oscar winner Alex Gibney has developed into one of the finest exponents of the reportage documentary. Ever prepared to tackle thorny issues, he has exposed personal and corporate foibles in well-researched studies of such disparate organisations as Enron, Wikileaks, the Vatican, the Church of Scientology and the FBI, as well as profiles of such contrasting individuals as Hunter S. Thompson, Eliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, Steve Jobs and Frank Sinatra.
In Citizen K, Gibney attempts to lower the mask of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who became Vladimir Putin's highest profile critic. However, he struggles to get a handle on the elusive London-based dissident and, thus, fails to draw any definitive conclusions in a film that revisits themes previously explored in Cyril Tuschi's Khodorkovsky (2011), Vitaly Mansky's Putin's Witnesses, Jack Bryan's Active Measures (both 2018) and Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev (2019).
Born in Moscow in 1963, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was raised in modest circumstances by engineer parents Boris and Marina. Graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, he worked for the Komsomol as Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika and took advantage of the relaxed conditions within the Soviet Union to co-found one of the country's first private banks, Menatep, in 1988. He also exploited the economic chaos under Boris Yeltsin to buy up the privatisation vouchers designed to give every Russian a stake in a democratic future and use them to acquire the Yukos oil company in an auction overseen by Menatep.
In addition to unearthing archive footage of Khodorkovsky revelling in his new wealth and status, Gibney also discusses his conduct of business and his role in the 1996 re-election of Yeltsin and his ceding power to Vladimir Putin three years later with former partner Leonid Nevzlin, NTV founder Igor Malashenko, Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer, journalist and historian Arkady Ostrovsky and the BBC's former Moscow correspondent, Martin Sixsmith. They all agree that Khodorkovsky has skeletons in his cupboard from this period of gangster capitalist, but Gibney leaves the viewer to reach a verdict on the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of the Siberian town of Nefteyugansk who had called for Yukos to be investigated for tax evasion.
Having used clips from the satirical programme Puppets (1994-2002) to illustrate why the likes of Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky opted for exile after Putin lost patience with the oligarchs who refused to show him sufficient respect, Gibney turns to Khodorkovsky's ill-fated bid to tackle the president on Kremlin corruption on live television and his arrest for tax offences in October 2003. He doesn't dwell on the details of the case or the embezzlement charges brought to extend Khodorkovsky's sentence to 14 years. Curiously, Gibney also decides against examining the Siberian interlude in any detail and focuses instead on Putin's manipulation of the fledgling democratic system to reinforce his grip on power.
Gibney similarly skates over Khodorkovsky's unexpected release in December 2013 and poses few challenging questions while discussing the aims and activities of the Open Russia group that seeks to play a long-distance role in holding Putin to account. Instead, he digresses to consider the high death rate among the president's exiled enemies and rehash the grim farce surrounding Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov's explanations for their visit to Salisbury around the time that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent. Consequently, we never quite learn what inspired Khodorkovsky's political transformation, how he managed to keep hold of such a sizeable chunk of his fortune or what he hopes to achieve on the domestic scene when he knows that any return home will lead to his arrest in relation to the Petukhov case.
As Sauer succinctly puts it, `He wants to be Jesus Christ, but he has a past.' During their cosy conversations, however, Gibney resists the urge to delve beneath the self-satisfied façade and allows talking heads like journalists Maria Logan and Tatyana Lysova to make any cautious assertions. Editor Michael J. Palmer does a fine job in stitching together the archive material and the footage glossily photographed in Russia. Yet, while this thoughtfully diligent treatise provides a solid summation of Khodorkovsky's career to date and the way that smoke and mirrors have distorted Russian politics since 1991, it lacks the investigative edge that has become Gibney's trademark. Moreover, it also leaves the impression that he is more interested in Putin than his charismatic, but calculating nemesis.
Photographer Lauren Greenfield has a talent for luring the rich and conceited into lowering their guard so that she can expose their flaws without them realising any damage has been done. The documentaries, The Queen of Versailles (2012) and Generation Wealth (2018), amusingly exploited the vanity of Greenfield's subjects and she employs the same tactic in profiling Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker, which examines how the once-disgraced First Lady of the Philippines has given her reputation a post-truth makeover in the hope of steering son Ferdinand `Bongbong' Marcos, Jr. into power.
Imelda Marcos was First Lady of the Philippines between 1965-86. Now 90 years old, she drives through Manila handing banknotes to children at traffic lights and laments that there were never any beggars in her day. She doles out more cash in a children's cancer ward at the hospital she had founded and has now fallen into disrepair. Former Congresswoman Etta Morales accuses Imelda of using her late husband's unburied corpse in her bid to scour the dictatorship's legacy and make a new tilt for power. She certainly likes to portray herself as the mother of the country and retains the poise and glamour that made her the Filipina Evita.
A brief dip into the archives reveals how Imelda Trinidad Romualdez caught the eye of rising Congressman Ferdinand Marcos while she was competing in the 1954 Miss Manila beauty pageant. They married after an 11-day courtship and, as a series of grandiose portraits suggest, she actively sought to bring a touch of regality to the Malacañang Palace. Old friend Mary Yturria commends her on her sense of style, but Imelda found it difficult to acclimatise to life in the spotlight and almost had a nervous breakdown before a psychiatrist encouraged her to equate her new responsibilities with good fortune.
Journalist Beth Day Romulo recalls how Marcos used his wife to charm world leaders and she claims that the likes of Richard Nixon were misunderstood. However, the president also wanted Imelda out of the way so he could conduct affairs with women like American actress Dovie Beams. Rolumo suggests the discovery of this infidelity changed Imeda's personality and made her more acquisitive, whether it was for jewellery, shoes. buildings (her so-called `Edifice Complex') or African animals, which she imported from Kenya in 1976 and lodged in a safari park on Calauit Island after evicting 254 families, including that of Remedios Tradio, who doesn't buy Imelda's assertion that such excesses typified the mother love that she showered on her people.
Having learnt on the job how to be an effective politician, Imelda is backing Bongbong's 2016 bid to become Vice-President and rival Leni Robredo accuses him of using the office as a stepping stone to emulate his father. We abruptly flashback to the imposition of martial law in 1972 in an effort to thwart opposition leader Benigno `Ninoy' Aquino, who was jailed for subversion before being exiled to the United States, He was assassinated as he stepped from the plane on returning to the Philippines in 1983 and his widow, Corazon Aquino, stood against Marcos in the 1986 election. When the president declared himself the victor, the people rose up against him and the family fled to Hawaii (causing Imelda famously to leave behind her collection of 3000 pairs of shoes).
Imelda insists they were abducted, but she also boasts that she managed to slip some diamonds into a box of her grandchildren's diapers and used them to pay the legal bills that accrued when she was faced numerous case in the United States following her husband's death in 1989. Diplomat Frank Yturria dismisses suggestions that Marcos was more corrupt than any other world leader and Imelda shows off the files she keeps at her Manila home pertaining to her various trials. None were proven against her and she returned home to face 70 more civil and criminal prosecutions in 1991.
Andy Bautista, the former chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, claims the Marcos family plundered $5-10 billion and that only a fraction of it has been recovered. Imelda complains that commissioners stole her rightful belongings and curses Cory Aquino and her successor son, Noynoy, for refusing to let her bury her husband. She protests that Mao Zedong had credited her with ending the Cold War and insists she could have preserved peace by intervening with old friends Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi, if she hadn't been the subject of a travel ban.
Activist May Rodriguez thinks Imelda should be muzzled. But she ran for Congress and got elected and remains a big draw on the stumpy for Bongbong in their home province of Ilcos Norte (where Marcos had the San Juanico Bridge built for his wife). We see her being feted on her birthday and crowds cheering wherever she goes. But there's no love for her among the repatriated people on Calauit, where wildlife catcher Tony Parkinson laments the in-breeding that is jeopardising the health of the giraffes and zebras still living in the sanctuary.
Greenfield harks back to the martial law era, as Rodriguez, Rogales and journalist Pete Lacaba fear that Bongbong might feel emboldened to impose similarly oppressive policies if he ever attains power. The women describe the sexual assaults they endured, while Lacaba reflects on the death of his brother. Yet Imelda considers this to be a golden age for Marcos, as he clamped down on the Communists and made the country safe and protected human rights. Noynoy Aquino is concerned that Rodrigo Duterte will undo much of his good work by resorting to violence to clear up the issues blighting Filipino society.
Claiming to be a man of the people when he was really the son of a Marcos cabinet member, Duterte wins by a landslide, while Bongbong loses narrowly to Robredo and challenges the legitimacy of the ballot. When he thanks Imee Marcos for backing him, it emerges that the family had bankrolled his campaign and Rodriguez denounces the subsequent war on drugs that was so memorably chronicled in Olivier Sarbil and James Jones's On the President's Orders (2019). But she also despairs that schools are now teaching a revisionist version of the dictatorship era and worries that the people have been duped into seeing Bongbong as a legitimate heir to Duterte, while Imelda purrs in quiet satisfaction at the fact that she has always got her way throughout her life.
Closing captions reveal that Duterte found Imee a Senate seat and allowed her son to follow her as governor of Ilcos Norte. He also replaced a Supreme Court justice hearing the Vice-Presidential Election case with one more sympathetic to the Marcos cause. Moreover, in July 2019, the police arrested Leni Robredo and 35 supposed co-conspirators for plotting to overthrow Duterte. She could face a 12-year sentence if found guilty and the film ends with the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Heroes' Cemetery and the sobering realisation that his clan is once again within touching distance of the reins of power.
Greenfield has a keen eye for the background detail that shows up the figure in the foreground and Imelda Marcos is frequently hoisted by her own hubris in this slyly devastating documentary. Nervous about her tummy protruding in one of her trademark outfits, she sits on a couch in front of canvases by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, while her home is also full of garish mythologising portraits depicting her as a fairytale princess who has become the mother of her nation. Her delusional sense of entitlement is also exposed when she clumsily knocks over some framed photographs and looks down her nose at the servant stooping to pick up the broken glass.
It's no accident that Greenfield and editor Per K. Kirkegaard slip in a snapshot of Imelda and then property tycoon Donald J. Trump, as the comparative levels of megalomania leave them both open to ridicule, while also driving home the dismaying message that these people have not only risen to run their respective countries, but that they are also actively seeking to dynastise them for the benefit of their heirs. Very much a mommy's boy, Bongbong hardly inspires confidence as he jokes about being compared to father Ferdinand and son Sandro, and it's interesting to note how his older sister, Imee, largely manages to stay away from Greenfield's lens until Duterte outs her as a benefactor late in the piece.
Yet, for all the damning testimony from both the Imelda cheerleaders and Marcos adversaries, the most telling moments in this cleverly constructed exposé concern the slums on the outskirts of Manila and the in-bred giraffes on Calauit. Neither bode well for the future, while providing a chilling reminder of what happens when people ignore the natural order and lessons of the past.
Born in Leningrad on 19 July 1961 - a date he would later immortalise in a 1997 documentary - Victor Kossakovsky has built his career on lyrical visuals and astute observation. Since debuting with The Belovs (1992), a study of a peasant family photographed in a pastiche vintage monochrome style, he has produced a series of diverse, but distinctive studies.
In Pavel i Lyala (1999), he travelled to Israel to profile former Soviet documentarists Ludmila Stanukinas and Pavel Kogan, while he explored love at three different stages of life in I Loved You (2000). Then, having demonstrated in Hush! (2002) that the stuff of screen drama could take place in the street beneath his apartment window in St Petersburg, he traversed the globe in search of quirky comparisons in pairing locations in Argentina and China, Russia and Chile, Spain and New Zealand, and Hawaii and Botswana in ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! (2011).
Since filming the anti-austerity protests in Barcelona for Demonstration (2014), Kossakovsky has joined forces with Simon Lereng Wilmont to examine the stresses placed upon élite athletes in Graine de Champion (2016). But he seems likely to reach his widest audience with Aquarela, a travelogue dedicated to Aleksandr Sokurov that Kossakovsky and fellow cinematographer Ben Bernhard have photographed at 96 frames per second on HD digital cameras to capture the majesty and menace of water in its various forms.
In a lengthy opening sequence, rescuers pick their way carefully across the ice covering the frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia. Accustomed to the treachery of the surface, the team use specialist tools to create holes in order to peer into the depths. They are searching for a vehicle that has been lost in one of the many reckless attempts to drive across the water. A primitive wooden winch is constructed to retrieve the car and the viewer is left to contemplate the fate of the occupant(s) during the painstaking recovery.
As the camera surveys the Brueghelesque scene, another vehicle plunges out of sight and Kossakosvky accompanies the crew as they edge their way towards the stricken motorists. Two have made it to safety, but a third is trapped and his friends keep hampering the rescuers in their eagerness to help. However, there is no sign of the fellow and the segment closes with the ominous thudding sound of the ice reinforcing the overheard contentions that the ice of melting earlier each year and, yet, people fail to heed the warnings and keep putting themselves and the rescue crews in danger in order to experience a cheap thrill.
Following abstract images of ice formations rising out of the water, we find ourselves in Greenland, as a schooner sails in still waters against a backdrop of ice walls towering into the sky. To the throbbing accompaniment of Finnish cello rock band Apocalyptica, shots of icebergs rearing and retreating from the sea feel like stop-motion out-takes of an ice monster battle from an unrealised Arctic adventure by Ray Harryhausen before we slip underwater to gaze in silence at what resemble submerged Henry Moore sculptures. The juxtaposition of the glacial stillness and the inexorable slippage and the giant waves each crash produces drives home the severity of the scientific contention that the polar ice caps are melting and that the future of the planet will be compromised as a result.
But Kossakovsky is not one for over statements and he drifts into a more contemplative mood, as the camera picks out icebergs on a thawing horizon. One moves with disconcerting stealth, but the majority are fixed like beacons of white in an encroaching sea of pure blue. The shot of fast-running melt water cutting a path the frozen terrain through to the sea contrasts with the slow-moving boat chugging across the bay, as the air is filled with fissuring claps that boom out and send the eye scurrying across the screen in search of shearing sheets.
It's almost a relief, therefore, to move away from scenes of irreparable devastation and cross the Atlantic on a yacht. Inky blue gives way to squally grey and tarry black, as the water changes colour and character. The two-person crew of Hayat Mokhenache and Peter Madej copes with everything the ocean can throw at them, as winds gale and rolling swells pitch and toss the sturdy craft. In order to emphasise the insignificance of the intrepid humans, Kossakovsky switches between deck close-ups and drone top shots, as acoustic wails give way to more driving rock to counterpoint the rising storm and the huge walls of water rising imposingly in awe-inspiring slow motion.
The sound of police sirens grows louder behind the images attesting to the enormity and potency of these forbidding breakers, as Kossakovsky strikes land on the United States. Following underwater shots of a swimming horse caught up in the February 2017 Oroville Dam crisis on the Feather River in California - which recall Hope Dickson Leach's The Levelling (2016) - we head to Miami's South Beach to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma. We see dogs sitting in the back of boats or standing alongside some pigs on a half-submerged porch before a roving shot along a windswept road shows the damage caused to street furniture and trees.
The sheer force of the untrammelled elements allows Kossakovsky to match cut into footage of the water cascading down the Angel Falls in Venezuela. These are the highest in the world and the steepling descent causes the water to crash into the pool and rapids at the base of the Auyán-tepui mountain. Such is the power of the spray that rainbows form in the misty clouds and give the place the feel of a primordial paradise. The implication that such perfection is imperilled by eco-catastrophe is left hanging in a wide shot that almost makes the torrent appear to be a trickle.
Not for the first time prompting viewers to wonder how on earth they managed to achieve such dramatic and impeccably composed shots, it's a fitting way to end an often breathtaking rumination on water in all its life-giving beauty and destructive might. Magnificent though the immersive (and impressively stable) images captured by Kossakovsky and Bernhard are, they would be much diminished without the astute editing of Molly Malene Stensgaard and Ainara Vera and the engulfing sound design created by Aleksandr Dudarev.
In many ways, the film would have been better without Eicca Toppinen's intrusive score, which sits oddly with a title taken from the Portuguese word for a watercolor painting. But there are moments when its bombast chimes in with Nature's own cacophonic soundtrack and we should be grateful that there are no captions or commentary to distract from the son et lumière show. Do try to see it on a big screen. Can you imagine what an IMAX double bill this would make with Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky's Watermark (2012)?
THE BIKES OF WRATH.
Earlier this year, Anupan Sharma followed Australian politician Pat Farmer on his `Spirit of India' odyssey in The Run. Now, five compatriots set out along the route taken by the `Okies' in John Steinbeck's Depression classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by Charlie Turnbull and Cameron Ford, The Bikes of Wrath was filmed a year before the 2016 Presidential Election and offers an intriguing insight into the American mindset as the country prepared to take a leap into the unknown.
Having been moved by Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winner, Charlie Turnbull persuaded fellow film-maker Cameron Ford, cinematographer Redouane Chaouki, photographer Oliver Chiswell and fireman Leon Morton to join him on a 1547-mile cycle ride from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California along the route taken by the 12-strong Joad family in their bid to find work. Inflation adjusting the novel's $155 kitty to $420, the friends agree to busk en route to raise the funds to complete the 32-day pedal. They also hope to learn something about the Dust Bowl era and discover whether attitudes to outsiders have changed much in the intervening eight decades.
Packing up their bikes for air freight, the quintet arrive in Oklahoma City to make preparations for the trip. They acquire a trailer to carry the heavier items and get lots of advice and encouragement from locals like waitress Mayra Salazar, who recall how harsh the Dust Bowl had been, as it left farmers with no means of making a living and they had to up sticks and 3.5 million people headed west in the hope of being hired as fruit pickers. They often received a frosty welcome, as they made their way across country. But the Aussies soon benefit from some old-fashioned hospitality, as Chip and James offer them a place to camp on their first night outside Sallisaw, while Sid gives them a spare trailer to lighten the load.
As they progress, the cyclists ask folks to read pertinent passages from the text, as they discuss the state of the American Dream in the wake of the 2008 Credit Crunch and the subsequent recession. They also raise the issue of migrant workers and most agree that those currently entering America should be treated with the same respect as the Okies, as they are only trying to do the best for their families. Several also note that the United States was built on settlers from overseas and recognise that the world works better if people share rather than feud.
When they blow a tyre on the new trailer, Gore garage owner Dave Rodgers gives them a replacement and describes how his wife's family had made the trek in the 1930s. His assistant, Tyler, gives them some dice from Las Vegas in the hope they bring the party luck. Heath and Misty Simmons prove equally generous when they give them a free feed at the BBQ Shack and they receive many more freebies between Vian and Clinton, as well-wishers do what they can to help out. Kathryn Mathis, David Bean, Steven White and Dale Gober speak to camera about the need for folks to stick together in tough times and they hope that America will always extend a helping hand.
On Day Six, they bump into Hanning family, who are on a holiday road trip of their own. Father David insists on contributing to the kitty and everything seems to be going swimmingly. But Ford comes off his bike as they approach the Texas State Line and he has to spend a couple of days recouperating with Ben Ed and Lee Ann Hillhouse, who invite them to a 4 July community lunch. Farmer HB Krug remembers the period Steinbeck had written about and admits that the Okies were often treated as `less than human'. The Hillhouses prove much more accommodating, however, as they allow Chaouki to stay after he sustains a leg injury near Amarillo and has to rest up in a police cell, as there is nowhere else to stay.
Having encountered a solo Chinese cyclist travelling light, they debate ditching the luxury items they are carrying. With Chaouki back in the fold, they are driven back to Newkirk by a heavy storm and have to take refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. The setback prompts them to give a last concert at a remote gas station belonging to Daniel Charris and they supplement the money they make from busking by selling their guitars to locals Chef Carlos and Alex, while Charris takes the snare drum and trailers for a knockdown price.
At Albuquerque, they make the acquaintance of vlogger Rodney Vanworth, who films them for his show and helps publicise the ride. They also get a night's board and lodging from Audrey Domsky before they run across Dave. He loves his country because it does so much for human rights. But he thinks that the government should focus on the impoverished on its own doorstep rather than donating foreign aid. He also has his doubts about allowing so many economic migrants into the US at a time when jobs are scarce.
Yet, while others give their reasons why America is great, the Aussies are the only ones who show any compassion to Joe, the homeless black schizophrenic they meet on the side of a busy highway. He hasn't eaten for three days and has been sleeping under a river bridge while on what he calls `a death march' because he is tired of being told that he isn't wanted. Despite being tormented by voices in his head, he is scared to ask for medical assistance in case he loses his precious freedom and only reluctantly allows them to call an ambulance. Joe's distress shakes the visitors and they also meet a family begging by the roadside because they have no more options.
As the ride into Arizona, they ponder the inequality they have seen. We see Mayra, Kathryn and Audrey lamenting the fact that migrants and minorities are scapegoated, while opinion is divided among the menfolk between those who think things have improved since Steinbeck's time and those who fear the country is separating out along racial lines and needs to find a way to come together again. Yet, at Ash Fork, they are charmed by the generosity of Snowbird and Melinda (who give them melons and sing them a song about rodeo clowns) and Buckskin Dave, who lets them bed down in a replica pioneer wagon.
On Day 25, while eating from tins outside a supermarket, the lads meet Kyng Theo, who can't understand why they would want to live rough out of choice. He jokes that he does it for real and knows it isn't fun. They realise what he means when the manager of a truck stop outside Franconia refuses to let them camp for the night. However, they luck out when they run into the Hannings, who are delighted to catch up with them again and David has a word to ensure they are safe for the night.
With their faith in human nature restored, the Aussies roll into California. The emotional toll is beginning to tell on Morton, who fasts for the last few days, as he is bothered by the fact that they will return to their cosy lives, while journey's end was just the start of another struggle to survive for the Joads and their real-life counterparts. On reaching Bakersfield, they are profiled on the TV news by Anne Di Grazia and the report is seen by Suzanne Thomas, who is keen to share a letter written by her Aunt Wilma, who had made the trek as an 11 year-old on just $30. It's a poignant account of how it felt to be a Dust Bowl refugee, which concludes by revealing that the family never quite shook the stigma of being an outsider.
A summation montage suggests that the majority of the people the riders have met on their travels are optimistic about America's future. But there is also an awareness of how fragile national unity has become (and this is before the Trump-Clinton circus stressed how wide the cracks were becoming). Turnbull and Ford capture the schisms without driving home any of their conclusions. Consequently, while this makes for engaging viewing, it remains very much a video diary rather than think piece.
For all the insights into the American psyche, we learn next to nothing about the five Australians or their concerted views about what they have witnessed and experienced. Ford edits the footage to focus on the people met rather than the places they inhabit, which is slightly disappointing, as this is a neglected corner of the States and it might have been nice to see something more of the landscape. Nevertheless, Chiswell contributes some deftly composed photographs to illustrate the opinions expressed that leave one wondering whether five enterprising Americans of differing ethnic backgrounds might like to tackle the 1139 miles of Western Australia's infamous rabbit-proof fence.