Man, I've seen so many Love & Anarchy movies this year that it's going to take a while to get through them all. But it has been quite a festival with loads and loads of interesting cinema to discuss about. I'll open this, the first of my Reports from this year's Helsinki International Film Festival, with a look at three quite extraordinary true stories. As you may recall, I already wrote about Erroll Morris' Tabloid in my pre-festival picks. The weirdness on our documentary-screening cinemas continued deep into the festival.
The Ambassador (Ambassadoren, Denmark)
Director: Mads Brügger
One of the most hyped movies on this year's festival was this Danish pseudo-documentary. It's about the Danish journalist Mads Brügger who fakes and pays his way to become a consul (a diplomat without the immunity) in the Central-African Republic. This position opens opportunities for some very shady side-jobs, and Brügger becomes a smuggler of blood diamonds (diamonds that can't be traced and thus may have been mined at a quarry which uses slave labour).
Brügger attempst to show what kind of a wild west Africa still is, and how dirty western diplomats' hands over there still are. Much has been discussed whether it's really true or just a mockumentary. I think it's safe to say, there are certainly scenes that have been staged, so it's not a full-fledged documentary.
This uncertainty of methods works against the film itself. The biggest reveals in the film don't have the necessary weight into them, when the scenes surrounding them have Brügger just talking bullshit. It's also weird that supposed "hidden cameras" have multiple angle shots. Crucially, in order this to work as any sort of public service announcement, it would need to be a lot more informative and factual. The connections within Africa and the tentacles of international crime are briefly explained but not in a way an audience member could grasp them and digest the info.
While several scenes in the film are quite funny in their politically incorrectness and manage to unveil the racism still inherent in African politics, the jokes don't come very often and even then, don't necessarily work. Brügger's on-screen persona isn't ruthless nor outrageous enough to be enjoyable, and one can't really emphasize with him.
All that adds to the point that the film's pacing is way off, and it never reaches the levels of interest it should. It's a noble effort, with several great scenes (pygmy party, everyone!), but in the end, feels a bit lacking.
Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Nielsdóttir (Amma Lo-Fi: Kjallaraspólur Sigrídar Níelsdóttur, Iceland)Directors: Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Orii Jónsson, Kristin Björk Kristjánsdóttir
This Islandish doc is about how one is never too old to be creative. Sigrídur Nielsdóttir got a synthesizer as a 70th birthday present from her friends. She soon became enthralled with the thing and started to compose some music of her own, based on the base lines and background beats found in the machine itself. She had a knack for it and in the end, taped 59 recordings. Initially for her friends and family, they were found by a larger audience and she became an inspiration for a whole generation of musicians. The cute old granny is likeable enough to pull the documentary by herself.
The documentary is only 62 minutes long and, focuses heavily on Sigríd. It's all well and good, but the viewer gets a feeling that another side of the story is blocked altogether. It would pay to feature some of the musicians inspired by Sigríd's music in the doc. Also missing are any fans or third parties, like friends and family, enjoying Ingrid's music. Only text screens and tie-in animation scenes put the artist herself in the right context.
There's no need to underline the quirkiness of the subject, but in doing so, the film goes to kitchy lengths. This starts to get annoying after a while. Paper clip animations, singing ballerinas and cute animals picture some of Ingrid's best songs. Ingrid would be sweet enough on her own, whether blowing a whistle, telling about her youth or bringing in a new batch of cassettes with her wheeled grocery bag. Not much time is dwelled on any (minor) negative aspects of the artist, only her stage fright is mentioned in one text screen.
Perhaps the artist died before the documentarists could achieve everything they aimed for, but one got the feeling the subject matter would deserve a film that would go a bit deeper
The Imposter (UK)
Director: Bart Layton
The portrait of a liar is one of the most interesting stories one can tell, and even moreso in documentaries, where one has to be a bit wary whether to take the things stated with a grain of salt or not.
Frédéric Bourdin, a French-born con man, had no family growing up, so he made a career in attempting to steal that unit from others. His biggest con involved the Barclays, a grieving Texan family, pining for their missing teenaged child Nicholas. Bourdin successfully stole Nicholas' identity and cheated his way into the family for years. The Barclays wouldn't question whether he really was their long-lost son. This is although he had the wrong hair color, wrong facial characteristics, wrong eye color, and to top it all, a thick accent.
This documentary goes through the whole ordeal from start to finish. It collects a frankly impressive array of interviewees, since basically all parties still alive from the case are in the film. And this is even though the subject matter must not be the easiest thing for all parties involved to talk about. Not only did they lose a family member to mysterious circumstances, they got their hopes crushed and in a way, lost their son again when Bourdin's hoax was revealed.
Re-enacting a past crime in the beginning seems to be like an episode of True Crimes in the beginning. But one becomes enthralled since the interviewees seem to be so open, telling their inner thoughs and feelings with seemingly alarming accuracy. The eccentric person of Bourdin is well-realized in the doc. One starts to like him a little bit, even though it is made clear that he is unable to stop trying to take advantage of any situation by spinning more of a web of lies.
Towards the end of his con, Bourdin gets suspicious himself as to why his new family doesn't realize anything to be wrong with him. FBI agents still studying the case have dug up enough info to put him behind bars for fraud, yet the family defends him and insists he is who he says he is. Bourdin comes to the conclusion that they have something to hide themselves, and the arrival of is convinient for their own plans. Namely, hiding the death of Nicholas in their hands.
The question here isn't, who's lying, but rather, who is the crucial liar. The film doesn't offer any easy answers, but it does have some good social criticism and insights on an inner rot eating an deal suburban Americana inside out. It's a suspensful and thought-provoking film, and that's as much as one can hope for.
Searching For Sugar Man (Sweden, the UK)
Directors: Malik Bendjelloul
Fame is a difficult beat to capture. It may even be hard to tell whether it exists in the first place or is just good enough at hiding.
Sixto Rodriguez was a creative folk artist in the late 60's, early 70's America, that never got the break he deserved. He played in the seedy clubs at his native Detroit and released two albums, produced by Motown mogul Clarence Avant. Even though record executives figured he'd be huge with his talents, nobody bought his albums in his home land. Rodriguez vanished into thin air after the commercial failure of his latter album.
But the story of the artist only begins there. For the record made its way into South Africa, and the locals over there became crazy over it. In the narrow-minded apartheid culture of that time, political protest songs captured something about the native psyche. Rodriguez was also deemed dangerous by the government and censored, which made him an even more important underground figure. The artist became as popular in the country as Elvis Presley or the Beatles. But nobody in South Africa knew anything about their idol. Wild rumours started to circulate, like that the artist had burned himself alive on stage since he didn't get the appreciation he wanted.
Tracking down what happened to Rodriguez has been a process that has lasted for years. South African music fans Simon Chinn and Dennis "Sugar Man" Coffey tried to track the artist down through years of research and calls to record executives. The documentary follows their detective work for the first half and it is some very intriguing stuff. Going in the movie without knowing anything about Rodriguez also makes new listeners instant fans and terribly interested in the fate of the artist. I'd recommend everyone to see the film to have this curiosity for themselves before reading any further. The latter half of the doc is a very different beast and in order to assess it, one must write a spoiler or a few. So look away.
Rodriguez didn't commit suicide nor die of a drug overdose, but decided to take life by the balls and went to do some easy storage works. The artist is found alive, but without a single bitter bone in his body. He's happy with where he was at life, even though he lived in poverty due to the royalty checks from South Africa never reaching him. He didn't do it for the money, he did it for love, as he has done everything since. At Detroit, he was a well-known man, friend to many, but nobody had any idea he had been a recording artist.
The Swedish film is unbelievably well-directed, with just the right amount of talking heads, investigative journalism, and music thrown in the mix, visualized with scenery shots and occasionally animated montages. The film basically does two seperate stories, one a detective story and a mystery, which gets a satisfying ending but with some of the bad guys (like the ones who pocketed Rodriguez's royalty money) walking away scot free.
The second half is more of a philosophical character piece, with an unbelievably easy-going, mellow and friendly musician coming to terms with his newfound fame. Rodriguez is so zen in his approach, he isn't afraid to play to thousands of people, but film interviews seemingly scare him a little. It is clear that this guy is as happy as doing odd jobs at a storage than playing his old songs, which he has never forgotten. For South Africans (and music fans) the climax is seeing Rodriguez finally climbing on the stage of a concert hall.
The moral of the story is, never forget your past, but don't hold grudges against it, but take the good things with you. Important movies such as this one can change your life. And at the very least teach you something interesting about music on the side.