Parky At the Pictures (17/11/2023)
(Reviews of Anatomy of a Fall; Driving Madeleine; Give Me Pity!; Is There Anybody Out There?; and The Mission)
ANATOMY OF A FALL.
Having started out as a documentarist, Justine Triet has been steadily building a reputation for fiction since earning a Best First Feature nomination at the Césars for Age of Panic (2013). Starring Virginie Efira, In Bed With Victoria (2016) was nominated for Best Film and Original Screenplay, while Efira and Adèle Exarchopoulos excelled in Sybil (2019), which competed for the Palme d'or at Cannes. Last spring, Triet became only the third woman - after Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993) and Julia Ducournau (Titane, 2021) - to win the coveted award for Anatamy of a Fall, a courtroom drama that reconsiders the conventions of the genre, while also passing acerbic comment on French social and cultural mores.
German novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) is being interviewed by graduate student Zoé Solidor (Camille Rutherford) in the French Alpine chalet she shares with writer husband Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) and their partially blind 11 year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). As the bisexual Sandra flirts with Zoé, Samuel starts playing an instrumental version of 50 Cent's `P.I.M.P.' on a loud loop in the room above. Having given guide dog Snoop a bath, Daniel goes for a wintry walk, while Sandra gives up on the interview, as it's too noisy. On returning, Daniel finds his father dead on the snow, with blood oozing from his head.
After the forensic investigation fails to determine whether the blow to the head occurred before or during the fall, Sandra asks old friend Maître Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) to represent her. He advises her that suicide is her best line of defence and she remembers after his visit that Samuel had vomited after taking pills and she wonders if this might have been an attempt to take his own life. However, no one else knows about the incident and Vincent isn't sure it helps.
Daniel, meanwhile, is struggling to cope with the loss of his father and Sandra chides godmother Monica (Sophie Fillières) when she suggests consulting a medium. When investigators visit the house, they disprove his contention that he heard his parents speaking normally before he went for his walk, as the music would have been too loud. Moreover, a USB stick is found to contain a row between Samuel and Sandra from the day before the death and this gives the prosecutors enough evidence to indict her for murder.
Vincent and colleague Nour Boudaoud (Saadia Bentaïeb) are disappointed when Judge Janvier (Pierre-François Garel) gives a pre-trial order imposing a chaperone, Marge Berger (Jehnny Beth), on Sandra to prevent her from influencing Daniel before he gives his testimony. But Vincent is angry with Sandra for not telling him about the row and reminds her that she has to consider how things will look in the courtroom, as it's there her fate will be decided. Yet, when Vincent and Nour conduct a camera interview for background detail, Sandra is frank about her relationship with Samuel and the accident that almost cost four year-old Daniel his sight. She claims he never got over the guilt and started taking antidepressants when they encountered financial difficulties. However, Sandra is reluctant to sully Samuel's reputation, as she is keen to protect Daniel's impression of his father.
A year later, Sandra goes on trial in Grenoble and the Avocat général (Antoine Reinartz) asserts that Samuel used the music to disrupt her attempted seduction of Zoé. When Nour and Vincent keep objecting to the sexist line of questioning, the president of the tribunal (Anne Rotger) cautions them not to irritate her. She also expresses doubt about the reliability of Daniel's evidence, as he had changed his mind about overhearing the argument.
As Balard (Antoine Buéno) uses computer graphics to back his contention that Samuel was assaulted and pushed, Daniel tries to visualise the scene he depicts. He does likewise when Bogaert (Anne-Lise Heimburger) shows what happened with a reconstruction using a dummy and the Avocat général sneers when her testimony contradicts that of the cocksure Balard.
When Samuel's psychiatrist, Jammal (Wajdi Mouawad), takes the stand, he accuses Sandra of emasculating his patient and using guilt over Daniel's accident to stop him writing a long-gestating novel. Sandra counters that Samuel blamed Jammal for getting him hooked on his medication and denies that a weekly session could give him enough insight into their relationship to reach his conclusions.
Despite the judge trying to exclude Daniel from proceedings relating to Sandra's relationship with Samuel, he listens intently as she describes finding him collapsed after taking pills and admits that their marriage wasn't perfect. But she whispers to him in bed that night that his father had been her soulmate, even though they didn't always get along.
With jurors and the public now in court, the chief investigator (Sacha Wolff) plays the recording of the last row, in which Samuel accuses Sandra of imposing her wishes on every aspect of his life and denying him the time and space to write. She refuses to let him be a victim, however, as he has chosen where they live and cut down on his teaching to home school Daniel. When he berates her for stealing an idea for her own book, she demands he channels his frustration into his writing. But she despairs when he curses her for ruining their sex life with her control issues and infidelities.
Questioning follows the recording (which is shown in flashback) and Sandra is made to admit that she had lied about the bruises on her forearm. The Avocat général sneers at her reasoning by stating that a guilty person will do anything to save themself. He also jumps on Sandra's contention that Samuel may well have provoked the fight in order to incriminate her after he killed himself. This deflects away from Vincent positing that the police had played the recording now to plant seeds in the jurors minds that an equally violent dispute preceded Samuel's fall.
Sensing that Sandra is going on the defensive, the Avocat général goes into detail about her affairs and scoffs at her insistence she had told Samuel about them. He then suggests that her writing provides an insight into her motives, as she not only plagiarised her husband's idea, but she also envisioned killing her in another book. Vincent dismisses this as speculation and reveals that Samuel had been recording conversations as part of a planned autofiction. He had sent them to his editor, who had failed to reply after four days. According to Vincent, Samuel felt humiliated and jealous of his wife's success and his last fury was not a sign of a man girding himself to fight back but the last lament of someone in despair after accumulating debt over a year in which nothing he attempted had worked out.
Before adjourning for the weekend, the judge announces that Daniel has new testimony and asks Marge to stay close to him to prevent Sandra discussing the case. The boy also asks to be alone and she cries in the car as Vincent drives her away. Daniel needs the time to slip some aspirin to Snoop and his reaction (which Marge witnesses) is identical to a previous fit, which he now realises came about because the dog had eaten Samuel's vomit on the day he had tried to overdose.
Urged by Marge to make a decision he can live with, Daniel comes to court to tell his story. When the Avocat général suggests that Sandra might have given Samuel the pills, Daniel recalls a conversation in the car in which his father had warned him to be ready for a time that Snoop would not be around. Looking back, he realises that Samuel was referring to himself and the Avocat général quickly interjects to tell the jury not to regard such supposition as a factor in the case.
His efforts fail, however, as Sandra is acquitted and she has a moment with Vincent over some Chinese food before she returns home. Daniel admits he was nervous about her coming back, but they hug and he goes too sleep. Sandra flops on the sofa and Snoop jumps up beside her and settles down as she ruffles his head.
First things first. Messi the border collie thoroughly merited his Palm Dog win at Cannes. Indeed, he was probably more deserving of his award than the film itself, as, while this engrosses throughout its 152 minutes and has much to say about French society and its legal system, it's markedly less revisionist in its approach to courtroom drama than Alice Diop's Saint Omer (2022).
It's always satisfying to see a pugnacious prosecutor being hoisted by their own sense of superiority and the skinheaded Antoine Reinartz makes splendidly sneering adversary. Anne Rotger also makes the most of a withering aside on one of Swann Arlaud's point-scoring pronouncements. But the fascination for many will lie less in the performances or even the evidence than in the way in which French trials are conducted and how the burden of proof appears to lie with the defence and not the prosecution. The way in which expert and police testimony is presented is particularly intriguing, as conjecture is apparently permitted in the absence of hard fact.
Seeking authenticity, Triet and husband co-writer Arthur Harari avoid the grandstanding and game-changing revelations beloved of Hollywood screenwriters and leave the audience with a teasing sense in inconclusiveness as regarding the verdict. Do a vomiting dog and a show of faith from a near-blind son facing the prospect of losing both parents really trump the physical and circumstantial evidence against his mother? Or is justice served after a chauvinistic process fails in the absence of demonstrable proof? Doubtless there will be many a debate on the way home from the cinema. Yet, for all the formidable brilliance of Sandra Hüller as the far from sympathetic accused, this feels too functional for a Palme winner.
Whether pursuing characters from behind or snatching telltale gestures in close-up, Simon Beaufils's camerawork is busily effective, at one point ping-panning between the lawyers arguing either side of Daniel (the impressive Milo Machado Graner), as he turns his head to listen to each speaker. Editor Laurent Sénéchal capably cuts between testimony and flashback, notably conveying Daniel's imagined version of events he could not have seen. Triet also uses the boy's piano playing to counterpoint the action, while also suggesting his anxiety and the aptitude that will lead him to conduct the pivotal experiment with Snoop. But, while it's undeniably meticulous, intelligent, and mature and loaded with ambiguity and doubt, this lacks palpable tension. Thus, it works better as a study of an inscrutably complicated woman and her fracturing relationship than it does as a socio-legal tract or courtroom thriller.
Dany Boon had directed and co-starred with iconic chanteuse Line Renaud in three features: La Maison du bonheur (2006); Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008); and La Ch'tite famille (2018). However, the pair will be best remembered for their delightful byplay in Christian Carion's Parisian road movie, Une Belle course, which has been released under the title Driving Madeleine, presumably to tie it in to the Bruce Beresford adaptation of Alfred Uhrey's Driving Miss Daisy (1989) that earned Jessica Tandy the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Beset by financial difficulties and rarely seeing the family he works so hard to support, Parisian taxi driver Charles Hoffman (Dany Boon) agrees to drive out to the leafy suburb of Bry-sur-Marne to collect Madeleine Keller (Line Renaud), who has told him to put the outward journey on the clock. Needing a hefty fare, Charles is still grumpy when Madeleine informs him that she's going to Courbevoie, which is on the other side of the capital.
She gives her shuttered house a last look before revealing that she's being forced to move into a retirement home after having had a fall. Now 92, Madeleine feels as though this is her last chance to revisit some old haunts and she asks Charles to detour to her old neighbourhood in Vincennes. It's changed too much for her to recognise the place, but it triggers a memory from September 1944, when she was 16 (Alice Isaaz) and got her first kiss after dancing all night with an American soldier named Matt. He tasted of orange and honey and Madeleine inquires whether Charles (who is far from talkative) can remember his first embrace.
He can't and begrudgingly makes another stop at a wall memorial to three people who had been executed by the Nazis. Back in the car, Madeleine explains how Matt had returned Stateside after three months and never knew he had a son named Mathieu. Shrugging with a sad smile, she gives the nod to drive on and listens as he complains about the long hours and poor pay. When she suggests he changes jobs, Charles points out the perk of being his own boss and being able to clam up if he doesn't feel like talking. Teasing him that she's struck lucky, he laughs and they pick their way through a typical traffic jam.
On Avenue Parmentier, Madeleine remembers the theatre where her mother, Denise (Gwendoline Hamon), had been a dresser. Having discovered that Matt was married with two kids, Madeleine started dating Raymond Haguenot (Jérémie Laheurte). However, she has chosen not to recall the taste of his kisses, as what started as a beautiful romance turned sour, as Ray was jealous of Mathieu (Hadriel Roure), and took out his frustration on her. When he hit the boy, however, Madeleine had doped Ray's whisky and turned his welding torch on him.
Charles is shocked, but Madeleine asks what option she had at a time when domestic violence wasn't grounds for divorce. She holds hands with her younger self on the backseat before dozing off and Charles uses the lull to call wife Karine (Julie Delarme) and apologise for a row earlier that morning. They became teenage sweethearts after Charles took her photo on a bus and Madeleine hopes they can solve their problems and that he can patch things up with his doctor brother, Daniel.
After causing a queue in a side street while Madeleine uses the facilities in a Chinese restaurant, the pair have a smoke beside the Seine. She reflects on being tried for attempted murder and how the court believed that Ray had never struck her, let alone raped and intimidated her. Consequently, she got 25 years for mutilating his groin and she did her time because it wasn't possible to appeal. Charles is decrying the 1950s when he runs red light. Knowing he'll lose his licence with more points, Madeleine sells a sob story to the female cop and they're allowed to proceed.
Stopping for ice cream on the Champs Élysées, Madeleine tells Charles about being released after 13 years to discover that Mathieu (Thomas Alden) had found it difficult living with her notoriety and had quit school to become a photographer. As darkness falls, she laments his loss as a war correspondent in Vietnam in the 1960s and curses Ray for turning up at the airport when his coffin was repatriated so he could get into a Paris Match photo spread.
Deciding to keep the home waiting a little longer, the pair stop at a restaurant to dine. Charles recalls taking daughter Betty on a tour of the Christmas lights and admits it was the only time he had taken notice of landmarks he passes each day. Daniel calls, but Charles isn't in the mood for a row and walks Madeleine back to the cab on his arm. She thanks him for a lovely day and sits in the front seat for the final leg of the journey. As they pull up outside, each regrets that it's coming to an end.
Madeleine forgets to pay, but Charles promises to visit. He looks her up online and shows Karine that she had been part of the campaign to protect abused women. She agrees to meet her, but they arrive the night after she had died from a heart attack. At the cemetery, Charles is handed an envelope. It contains a cheque from the sale of Madeleine's house and a letter of thanks for giving her a final happy moment. Recognising that her life has passed so quickly, she urges Charles to make the most of his time and remain true to himself.
As the credits roll over Madeleine dancing with Matt, one can't help wishing that Carion and co-scenarist Cyril Gely had resisted such a lachrymosely feel-good ending. Given that Madeleine had no living relatives, it's plausible that she would have left Charles such a generous bequest. But it feels more likely that she would have donated the proceeds of the house sale to the campaign to counter femicide that she had done so much to promote after her release from prison.
Such kvetching aside, this is an engaging odyssey that mostly blends tragedy and nostalgia to poignant effect. Dany Boon contributes another shrewd display of everymanishness, but it's his readiness to leave centre stage to Line Renaud that proves even more significant. She is simply superb as the nonagenarian in no hurry to surrender her hard-earned liberty and Alice Isaaz does well to convey the spirit that Madeleine has refused to allow to be suppressed.
Carion cannily filmed the location work separately and projected it on to screens surrounding the car interior in a studio. This gave Boon and Renaud a landscape to work with rather than green screens and ensures that Paris a key character in the story.
Pierre Cottereau's camerawork is pleasingly intimate, as he finds new angles from which to shoot Renaud and Boon's faces. Loïc Lallemand's editing is equally smooth, especially when transitioned the action to the flashbacks. These suggest interiors and fashions changed more slowly in postwar France than they did across the Channel, especially in the 1960s. But Clarion does well to make them feel more like Madeleine's memories than illustrative inserts to enliven the in-car conversations. Philippe Rombi's score is also adept and is studded with well-chosen standards by Dinah Washington and Etta James. It's just a shame we didn't get to see Renaud sing a snatch of a favourite tune in the rearview mirror.
GIVE ME PITY!
Never has the phrase `the show must go on' sounded more terrifying than in Give Me Pity!, the latest feature by musician-cum-director, Amanda Kramer. As the daughter of 1950s Hollywood performers Beverly and Russell Dennis, it's apt that Kramer has entrusted the lead in this disconcerting insight into the pressure of celebrity to an actress whose mother just happens to be Bette Midler.
Sissy St Claire (Sophie von Haselberg) is starring in her first Saturday night special and confides to her audience in her opening monologue that she has much in common with Jesus, as they each have an iconic look and are dedicated to making it. This is the theme of her first song, which Sissy performs in a glittery silver jumpsuit with a trio of black-clad backing dancers. Canned applause rings out, as Sissy gushes about sharing her love with everyone out there watching.
Convinced she's the living proof that television is in a golden age, Sissy reprises the dance routine. As she promises to give her entertainment all, however, she glances anxiously into the wings where a sinister male figure seems to be lying in wait. Instead, Sissy moves on to the next item, in which she consults a psychic (Cricket Arrison). She sits impassively in pink, with a scarf covering her face, while Sissy jokes about her scepticism and her desire to be haunted because there's something romantic about being a young widow.
When she holds out her palm for a reading, though, the psychic refuses to touch her and Sissy is offended and confused. Informed she's surrounded by a demonic energy and smells like the depths of Hell, Sissy orders the psychic to do a Tarot reading. But she declines, only for her voice to change when Sissy asks if she will make it and replies that she may do if she keeps lying on her back and trying.
For her next segment, Sissy sits on a high stool and responds to fan letters because she wants her showcase to be a shared experience.
She reveals her middle name to be `Janes' and that she's Jewish. Her superpower would be telepathy, while she considers herself to be her main rival (although all women possess something she craves). After advising a sender to have a baby in order to meet someone new, Sissy is spooked by a missive covered in blood and the screen is skewed by psychedelic distortions as the masked figure prowls to the side of the stage.
Cheering herself up with her favourite childhood song, Sissy sings a trio with herself as three kinds of America woman while belting out a disco version of `The Grand Old Flag'. But the show stalls again when the male guest booked for a sketch about an avant-garde artist and his date fails to show up. She tries to play both roles and is distracted by a cute dog. However, it wanders off the stage and, as the canned audience sighs sympathetically, Sissy hisses that she never wants to see the animal again.
The next sketch is called `Wife Hooker' and has Sissy in a fur coat and basque trying to entice potential clients, as she struggles to make her way in Los Angeles. Her coquettish come-ons become increasingly desperate and the screen again wrinkles with colour, as the masked figure sits on her piano stool. The monologue ends with the woman being stabbed to death and a couple of hesitant handclaps break the audience's stunned silence.
Sitting before a triptych mirror, Sissy discusses her beauty ritual. She claims to have been born with amazing skin, but suffers from unsightly hair and nails. However, she works hard to make the most of herself and starts shaving her leg, when she cuts her shin and has to try to stop the bleeding while hobbling across the stage to the next part of the show. This is entitled, `The Youngest Widow', and sees Sissy recline on a divan to imagine herself in mourning and being advised by male voices to focus on making it. A male dancer (Malachi Middleton) gyrates before her in tight briefs before the nightmare ends and Sissy realises she has to cope with being alone.
Returning in a figure-hugging long sequined gown, Sissy is joined by two female dancers (Reshma Gajjar and Tess Hewlett) for `Even Though', a song about refusing to quit her dream in spite of the brickbats she's received from everyone from her first boyfriend to the agent who tried to kill her. The number ends with a wind blowing the women in slo-mo, as the camera glides past them. But Sissy enters again, in another outfit and hairdo to discuss impressions. She wishes she could do a good one and envies her sister who is so unknown she could make a good screen Nazi (because actors are never as effective in such roles once they have a name).
As Sissy muses, a performer (Cricket Arrison) wanders into shot and begins an increasingly grotesque mime that Sissy interprets aloud to highlight her physical imperfections and psychological vulnerabilities. Reaching a point of self-loathing hysteria, she lies on the stage and tries to compose herself.
In `Keep Hanging On', Sissy comes on stage with her face covered in bandages. As a nurse (Annie Kyle) removes them, she describes how hard she works on her eyebrows and asks for a mirror to see how she looks. With the nurse recoiling in horror, Sissy strangles her and goes to her dressing table to see her disfigured features. Rather than be repulsed, however, she coos that it's a big improvement and she loves it.
The male dancer sings in a distorted voice and the images blur and twist, as Sissy goes through some sort of dark night of the soul. She emerges as an angel with wings and a sense of having made it washes over her. Thinking back to her childhood, she recalls when the mother of her neighbourhood friend, Mindy, had taken her to the dressmaker. The dress of dreams had made her feel so good, but she had shredded it when Mindy asked for it back, Now, Sissy wishes everyone could have their own closet filled with dream dresses and she smiles nervously, as the canned applause confirms that she has made it.
The final number is `Give Me Pity!', in which Sissy celebrates making it big, but becomes aware of the pitfalls. Her hair is a mess, her make-up smudged, and she crawls across the stage to curl up with her fur coat. As her dancers and the other cast members take their bows behind her, the cowering Sissy clings to the coat and counts the cost of sacrificing everything for her moment in the spotlight.
It's hard to tell whether Sissy is melting down during her one shot at making it or simply slipping further into an all-encompassing hallucination. Either way, the performance of Sophie von Haselberg is harrowingly exceptional, as Sissy discovers what happened to her inner Baby Jane (as well as her Judy and Liza). The kitschy retro sets designed by Liz Toonkel recall the small-screen specials of yesteryear, in which entertainers showed off their range of skills while offering little insights into their personalities. But the assurance behind their intimacy is noticeably lacking in Sissy St Claire, who craves fame but doesn't really know what to do to attain it, as she trots out the kind of patter platitudes she has heard uttered by her idols.
The songs by Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary have a pastiched pathos that carries over into the sketches that expose Sissy's fragility rather than her talent. Jamie Ortega's inspired costumes also reinforce this sense of a little girl lost who is playing at dressing up, while Benjamin Shearn's editing combines with the woozy visual effects to convey Sissy's hastening detachment from reality.
Having previously directed such provocations as Paris Window, Ladyworld (both 2018), and Please Baby Please (2022), Kramer lets rip with her direction, while her script riffs on everything from body image and societal chauvinism to the distorting power of nostalgia and the tyranny of celebrity. Without Von Haselberg to hold it all together, this could so easily have become a self-indulgent wallow. But the picture takes its risks with such warped chutzpah that it unsettles from start to finish and grates long afterwards.
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
In 2020, Screen Daily included Ella Glendining in its Screen Star of Tomorrow selection. A few days ago, she was named alongside Savannah Leaf and Nadira Murray as a winner at the British Film Institute & Chanel Filmmaker Awards. Her shorts, Like Sunday (2017), Born (2018), and Octopus (2022), have been widely acclaimed, while Pyramid of Disunion (which she has co-directed with Jessi Gutch) is due to show on Film4 later this year. She is also currently working on Curiosities of Fools, the story of a 17th-century court dwarf that has been loosely inspired by Richard Gibson, a painter in the orbit of Charles I and Henrietta Maria.
All of this would be impressive enough for someone in their twenties. But, as she reveals in the documentary feature, Is There Anybody Out There?, Glendining was born with no hip joints and very short thigh bones. Conscious of the rareness of her condition, she year-old decided to reach out to others in a similar situation and discover how they've coped with life in the face of everyday challenges and ableist discrimination. Over the course of the five-year shoot, however, events proceeded to take a series of unexpected turns.
Opening with footage of Glendining dancing to `Frank Sinatra Sings' in her bedroom, she cuts to a home movie father Piers Warren made for her Grandma Rhoda when she was a young girl in the Norfolk village of Elsing. Although Ella knew her body was different, she didn't give it much thought as she was loved and busy making art and stories. Once she went to school, however, she realised other people saw her as something out of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932).
Keen to discover if there was anybody with a body like her own, Glendining joined a Facebook page and Skyped with Dr Dror Paley, who showed her images of a leg-lengthening procedure he had performed on a woman with similar legs. Taken aback, Glendining wonders how dissatisfied she would have to be in order to undergo such a dramatic change. But she found herself heading in another when she discovered that she and boyfriend Scott Stanfield were pregnant.
Convinced a natural birth would be life affirming and enable her to feel proud of herself, Glendining discusses matters with her doctor. She also asks mother Fran Glendining why she's an only child and she's surprised when it's mentioned that she might not have wanted another baby with the same condition. In fact, Glendining's parents split up and her mother didn't seek another relationship. Moreover, she jokes that she was too messed up to cope with the livewire she already had. Relieved that her mother has now won her battle with alcohol, Glendining commends her for the magical world of imagination that she had created around her when she was a girl.
Refusing suggestions to put more of Scott in the film because she doesn't want him to be perceived as an able-bodied hero, Glendining makes contact with Priscilla Miranda, an American hair and make-up artist who has a similar body. But, while she accepts an invitation to meet her, Glendining wants to find her mirror image rather than a close match.
Having been hospitalised with blood clots, Glendining accepts that a caesarian is the safest option for her son and herself and she feels good about shedding what she calls her ableist obsession with natural birth. As she's wheeled into theatre, Glendining mentions in voiceover that she is bisexual and that Scott is her first male partner. He holds her hand as River makes his appearance and a lovely montage follows of him in his first months, ending on the look of wonder on his face as he gets up close to a grazing cow.
Shortly after her ex, Naomi Bethell, comes to visit, the first cases of Covid-19 are confirmed. This curtails Glendining's plans to meet the people she's met online. But, by conducting more Internet research, she starts finding it difficult to come to terms with the prevalence of leg surgery on children. She face times with Renee McCann, an anxious Australian mother, whose daughter, Dylan, is awaiting procedures that are not guaranteed to improve her life and may need repeating as she grows.
While out with River on a sunny walk, Glendining confides that wheelchairs have negative connotations, as she equates hers with freedom rather than restriction. She despairs that such perspectives are learned and follows this up with a video post about how deflated she feels because someone she admires has made a `midget' joke on their Instagram page.
In discussing how her parents had coped with the reaction of strangers to her disability, Glendining cuts in footage from an America information film about medical procedures to normalise those with conditions like curvature of the spine. As her father expresses his relief that they opted to leave Ella as she was, we see a clip from a 1972 is World In Action episode, `A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellan', in which his mother admits to her low expectations for his future (even though he's a bright lad, who loves history and chess). A woman in a wheelchair helping out at a day centre is asked by the reporter whether she's glad her parents decided to have her and she smiles that she's glad to be alive.
Visiting Naomi, Glendining asks if she can mention her Autism in the film and she describes the problems of having an `invisible disability'. Among them is the patronising way in which people reassure her that she doesn't seem Autistic, as their efforts to mean well insult her understanding of who she is. She also feels that there's an ableist prejudice against people on benefits and they recall the time that ASDA withdrew a night shift job offer to Glendining because they changed their mind about her suitability. The pair also laugh at the man who saw Naomi pushing the wheelchair along a pavement and made a panicked display of apologising for being their way (when he wasn't). They say sorry to each other for any unintentional misspeakings and each woman wishes she could have a better appreciation of her friend's situation.
With the pandemic easing, the family flies to Austin, Texas to meet with Priscilla and Glendining admits to being nervous, as she knows so little about her and can't decide what to ask. They share experiences of childhood and how people still stare, point, and laugh. After some nervous giggling, they also confide about dating episodes and the risk of being targeted by fetishists. Priscilla admits to parking in non-disabled places when meeting guys and this prompts a discussion of `internalised ableism' before they concur that being disabled is a good way of weeding out `arseholes'.
Feeling less alone in the world, Glendining hooks up with Priscilla, Ricardo Benitez, who is famous on YouTube as `No Femur Kid', and a young boy named Charlie Floro, who idolises Ricardo. A sports fan, Ricardo played American Football at school and got the biggest boost he ever had when a kid in a wheelchair wished he could be just like him. He regrets not having a role model so he could have learned earlier to accept himself and Priscilla agrees that it takes time to grow into who you are.
Charlie's mother, Chelsea Zeleny, enjoys educating kids who are mean to her son and she has resisted advice to consult Dr Paley. Glendining gets emotional, as she thinks Charlie is perfect as he is and Chelsea doesn't want to lose his personality by inflicting someone else's vision of what's best for him. She comments on the fact that Charlie, Ricardo, Priscilla, and Ella are all different in their gait and approach to life. But she's delighted they've all met and happily takes snapshots.
Flying to Florida, Glendining has an uncomfortable session with Paley. He starts by informing her that she's too old and not the right type for the kind of surgery he does. Moreover, he boasts that Chelsea would soon cease to be conflicted over Charlie's treatment if she consulted him, as she simply needs educating. After wheeling along a corridor filled with large images of the surgeon standing tall, Glendining informs cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe that, while she admires his pioneering spirit and commitment, his whole ethos is rooted in ableism and she finds it disturbing.
Returning from America in time for River's third birthday, Glendining is in low spirits because of ableist society's insistence that disability is a thing to be pitied, corrected, or ignored. She visits her childhood doctor, Keith Tucker. He considers surgery a risk for a debatable reward and thinks Glendining is better off as she is, as `there's no such thing as normal'. Shortly afterwards, she hears from Renee that Dylan has had her shorter foot amputated and is now using a prosthetic. She seems to be adjusting and Renee thanks Glendining for including her in the film and sharing their story.
After finding him on Facebook, Glendining video chats to Kevin Donnellan, who has spent the intervening years as a disability activist and we seen cuttings of his various protests, including chaining himself to the gates of Tony Blair's Downing Street. He has enjoyed demolishing the negativity conveyed by World in Action and proving his mum wrong and he ends the call by introducing the wife and two children she had predicted he would never have.
His positivity confirms Glendining's contentment at being herself, even though she wishes she could change ableist attitudes. She spends a day on the beach with Naomi, who is proud of the journeys they have taken and closes by reminding everyone that both Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla had Autism. Point well made.
Indeed, there are so many good points well made in this documentary that one can only hope that Glendining's bid to educate those with skewed views gets a sufficiently wide showing after its cinematic release. With so much phone footage being included, it's possibly a better fit on the small screen anyway. Yet, while the technique is less important than the message, editor Rachel Roberts does a splendid job of knitting together the bits of video diary, laptop chat, intimate interview, and archive material.
The clips from the World in Action programme are jaw-dropping, especially as it's clear so many of the attitudes and stereotypes they expose remain entrenched. But they also beg the question as to why nobody has yet made a documentary about Kevin Donnellan. One can only await Curiosities of Fools with eagerness, while hoping that Glendining keeps making actualities as well, especially if they're as personal, impassioned, and potent as this one.
In 1956, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act was passed to prohibit travel inside an exclusion zone of five nautical miles around the archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. As the occupants of the islands had repeatedly demonstrated a desire to remain uncontactable, the Indian government has refused to prosecute anyone involved in the deaths of those who have entered the cordon by accident or design. Indeed, when 26 year-old American missionary John Allen Chau was killed on North Sentinel Island on 17 November 2018, the authorities detained seven people who were suspected of having helped the deceased gain access.
Five years on, documentarists Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine try to discover what happened to Chau in The Mission. But they also seek to fathom what inspired him to undertake such a reckless journey and what his convictions say about the connection between Christianity and colonialism two millennia after the Gospels reported that Jesus Christ sent his disciples to spread his message across the world.
In order to understand Chau's motivation, the film-makers use animation to supplement home-movie footage and draw on both the deceased's diaries and a letter they received from his psychiatrist father, Patrick. The words are spoken by actors, Lawrence Kao and David Shih, initially as they recall the books that inspired a desire to be a `wild man'. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Hergé's Tintin adventure, The Broken Ear, particularly fuelled the ambition to become an explorer - although Patrick has misgivings about the colonial mindset in which such stories were rooted.
Patrick had fled China during the Cultural Revolution and John had immense respect for his courage. But he chose his own path at
Vancouver Christian High School, where friend Levi Davis recalls their accountability group to ensure that no one strayed from their strict principles. While John wanted to become an explorer, he returned from a school mission trip to Mexico intent on becoming a missionary and following the Great Commission.
Linguist and former missionary Daniel Everett sees something of his younger self in Chau and notes that they read many of the same books that had inspired an ambition to evangelise. We see a clip from the 1967 documentary short, Through Gates of Splendor, which recalls how five American men were killed trying to preach to a community in Ecuador. Chau had been deeply affected by a docudrama based on the incident, Jim Hanon's End of the Spear (2005), which was based on a book by Elisabeth Elliott about her husband's death alongside Nate Saint, with whose sister, Rachel, she would return to convert the Huaorani in 1958.
Chancing upon the Sentinelese on a website about unreached peoples, Chau felt he was being called to preach there. Reading Adam Goodheart's article about North Sentinel Island in The American Scholar further convinced him. Admitting that his own visit to the Andaman Islands had been born out of youthful hubris, Goodheart reveals that they had been the inspiration for Kong Island in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933).
While he was on this expedition, Chau was finishing school and enrolling at Oral Roberts University, which had been founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma by a controversial televangelist. Here, Chau met missionary Jimmy Shaw, who shared the enthusiasm for conversion and taking the kind of risks that Everett remembered reading about at Bible school in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. He avers that many missionaries are driven by the idea that they are saving non-believers from going to Hell, although Dan Davis suggests that there's also a selfish element because they believe that the Second Coming can't occur until all peoples have been heard the Word of God.
Patrick disagreed with the Great Commission because it had become distorted to suit an imperialist agenda. But he fears that his battle to keep his licence cost him his son's admiration and, consequently, he was unable to prevent John Chau from becoming hooked and palling up with Bobby Parks, the director of Missions and Outreach at Oral Roberts, who challenged him to make a difference. Everett reflects on his own experiences in the 1970s with the Pirahã in the Amazon basin, when he had tried to decipher their language, while also hoping to convert them while being acutely aware that he could never be at one with their culture and that they could not see why he wanted to change them when they were so proud of their hunter-gathering existence.
Chau's fixation to visit the Andamans led him to draw up The Plan, in which he acknowledged that he would need to break the law in order to attempt one of the most audacious conversions in history. Whether this is evangelical zeal or naive egotism is left undiscussed, as we move on to Goodheart telling us about Maurice Vidal Portman, who wrote A History of Our Relations With the Andamanese after being billeted at Port Blair as colonial administrator from 1879-1901. The historian's voice quivers as he reads passages casually recording the death of an elderly couple who had been captured on North Sentinel Island. Goodheart is also repulsed by the anthropometric nature of some of the thousands of photographs that Portman took during his tenure and shocked by his blazé approach to their well-being and survival.
In order to prepare for his own expedition, Chau began running marathons and climbing. He also took a job at Whiskeytown Lake, where he was befriended by Cassie Simons and Arin Okada, who admits to having a crush on him. They speak of his love of the landscape and his storytelling, but also his focus on what he felt was his destiny. Shaw commends his skills as an outdoorsman, while insisting that he was so much more than this because he had his goal.
Goodheart questions the integrity of the planned mission and whether the concept of an empty vessel being ready for filling by God can be sustained when expectations have been shaped by films like Cannibal Island (1956). This was claimed to be the first sound film about cannibalism, even though the peoples depicted didn't eat human flesh, while the footage was taken from Captain Edward A. Salisbury's silent documentary, Gow the Headhunter (1928). Despairing of the film, Goodheart warns against falling into the trap of judging levels of modernity when analysing uncontacted cultures, as they view their methods of spearing a turtle to be every bit as cutting edge as using a laptop.
National Geographic (who backed Moss and McBaine) has issues to address in its presentation of otherness in films like The Last Tribes of Mindanao (1972), which was narrated by Leslie Nielsen to play up the `stone age' primitiveness of the B'laan people that Manuel Elizade, Jr. meets in the southern Philippines, while also romanticisng their existence by putting an exotic Edenic spin on it.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are subjected to the same kind of patronising scrutiny in Prem Vaidya's Man in Search of Man (1974), which asks if the `stone age is preferable to the nuclear age' when the Sentinelese opt not to engage with their unwanted visitors. Anthropologist T.N. Pandit digs out his field notes in recalling going ashore and being accorded a cordial welcome. We see footage of him learning about the spirit, Tomayu, from an elder and hear him reminiscing about a boy who made a carving motion with his knife, as if to suggest trouble if he outstayed his welcome. Pandit notes that Raghubir Singh took hundreds of photographs, but National Geographic illustrated his article with those depicting exoticism or aggression.
Chau was also wondering how to approach the Sentinelese and was debating whether to use camouflaged cameras as a way of studying them before making contact. However, he was worried that they might start worshipping the camera because it has an eye. He sought advice from Cameron Silsbee, a pastor at Van City Church, who didn't feel it was his place to make him question whether he was following a divine call or acting out of vanity. However, as we see clips from Rolf Forsberg's The Peace Child (1972), Silsbee suspects he knew he was seeking glory for himself as much as for God.
In `The Plan', Chau is very certain of his strategy for gaining the confidence of the Sentinelese. But he is aware of the dangers and Shaw enthuses that this is part of the attraction for going there. Cartoon strip drawings accompany a reading of Chau's schemes, which involve all kinds of maritime subterfuge to get him close to the island. The illustrations have the effect of comically counterpointing specious musings that had been written with utter conviction, with the result that Chau's tactics for teaching the Scriptures are made to look preposterous. Everett backs this up with his anecdote about showing a film strip of a hand-drawn Jesus and his admission that he had never met Him in person. Previous acceptance of the miracles and the parables instantly evaporated because the Pirahã couldn't buy into believing in someone without a direct human connection.
He now considers missionary work to be unethical because it introduces negative elements to an existence that had been fine without them. Moreover, intruding also risks bringing disease and superstition where there had been none before. Pam Arlund couldn't disagree more, however, as she feels it's immoral to deny people the chance to make an informed decision about whether to accept or reject Jesus. She thought Chau had the personality to be accepted by the Sentinelese, as she had decided he didn't have a Messiah complex and was resourceful enough to respond to any challenges on the island. She and Mary Ho also describe setting him role play tasks at All Nations to prepare him for any eventualities.
A wildfire at Whiskeytown Lake seemed to align in Chau's mind with the hellfire the Sentinelese would face unless he brought God to them. Patrick laments in his letter that he failed to persuade his son that he had fooled himself into assuming a messianic persona and blames All Nations for encouraging him. According to Chau's journal, Parks was with him in Port Blair until shortly before he set off, but no one else is willing to confirm this on camera.
Travelling illegally on a fishing boat, Chau records that God had hidden him from an Indian patrol boat and Goodhead suggests there is a fine line between faith and madness. Animation shows Chau kayaking to the shore, where he is met by a party with bows and arrows. Walking towards them with a waterproof Bible in his hand, Chau falls back into the sea after a child shoots the book as a warning. He is rescued by the fishermen and writes in his journal that night: `Lord, is this island Satan's last stronghold?'
Everett avers that the arrow was deliberately aimed to miss Chau, but deter him. Yet, he refuses to heed the warning and returns after having wept over the sunset and witnessed lights over the island during a storm that he told his parents in a last letter that he had taken as a sign that God wanted him to persist. Consequently, he had swum back to North Sentinel Island and been killed by arrows.
We see footage of Parks claiming that God is raising firebrands to bring light to the Earth's darkest places. But Everett is baffled with a 1st century myth is still inspiring people two millennia later to impose
their belief system on someone else. Goodheart opines that the story the film-makers are seeking to tell is more about those in the so-called civilised world and our preconceptions than it is about the Sentinelese and their reasons and methods. Everett concurs in suggesting that the happy ending for the islanders is that no one gets to hear the story and they are left alone to live on their own terms.
A troubling tale is tellingly told in this engrossing, if sometimes cautious documentary. It's certainly a bold release for National Geographic, as the organisation's entire legacy is placed under the spotlight, as the perniciously supremacist myth of the White Man's Burden is given a bumpy ride. Patrick Chau, Levi Davis, Daniel Everett, Adam Goodheart, and T.N. Pandit all emerge from the enterprise with credit, although there will be plenty who will claim with a clear conscience that John Chau is a martyr for his faith.
Without dismissing the importance of foreign aid and charitable engagement, Moss and McBaine leave enough clues as to their own take on what can only be called a tragedy, regardless of one's political, religious, or moral standpoint. But they allow each side to make a case and largely leave views to draw their own conclusions. While the animation is largely sensitive, there's a satirical whiff about the comic-book illustrations that accompanied the text of Chau's deluded master plan. But the prevailing emotion is one of quiet fury and Goodheart and Everett express it eloquently and rationally, with the latter's de-conversion perhaps being more potent.
Editor Aaron Wickenden decisively pieces the picture together from an impressive range of sources, including social media and the movie archives. The commentary from Cannibal Island describing widows wearing skulls of their late husbands is particularly distasteful. But there is much to disconcert in this considered study, including Everett's contention that missionaries lack any curiosity about the people they seek to overwhelm with the Good News. Also missing is a sense of respect and humility, which, if they read their New Testaments carefully, they would also find alongside the Great Commission they misunderstand so spectacularly.