London Film Festival Screens the Best of Brit Docs
By Carol Nahra
As the storytelling for cinematic documentary has evolved over the years, and audiences become ever more comfortable with the blending of techniques, the experience of seeing a documentary on the big screen is often every bit as gratifyingly gripping as a dramatic thriller. Two British films playing at the 63rd annual BFI London Film Festival brought this home to me— both created nail-bitingly suspenseful dramatic storylines from their very different subjects.
Ed Perkins' Tell Me Who I Am is essentially a two-hander in which twin brothers confront some painful, long-suppressed secrets of their childhood. What’s so fascinating about the film is the seemingly spontaneous way in which each twin tells his story to the camera—and the shocking ways in which those stories differ.
I was looking forward to watching the Netflix-commissioned Tell Me Who I Am because of the talent behind it: Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn of Lightbox and Oscar-nominated director Ed Perkins. While Perkins is best known for his recent Oscar nomination, Black Sheep, I had first seen his work directing the well-crafted behind-the-scenes DVD extras for Searching for Sugarman and The Imposter, which I have screened numerous times for my documentary classes.
"The "Making Of" featurettes was my equivalent of going to film school," Perkins maintains in a telephone interview. "That was my trying to learn how to direct; those films are real milestones for me—films that are really bold and ambitious and pushing the form."
Perkins has indeed pushed the form, both for Black Sheep, which employs creative Imposter-like dramatization to tell its story, and Tell Me Who I Am, which, in addition to copious dramatized sequences, constructs a sterile studio space in which the twins come to terms with their past.
"I've been interested in the last few years with trying to boil stories down to their essence and really trying to tell what seems like simple stories that have within them depth and space and nuance and ambiguity and give audiences space to think," Perkins says. "This is a film about many things. It is, of course, a film about abuse. But more than that, it's a film about brotherly love and survival. And actually, it's a sort of love story. We were trying to find a structure that allowed us to explore that; hopefully at the end of the film, even though they go to dark places, you feel like it’s offering hope and inspiration."
Unspooling in three acts, the film's structure has each of the twins tell their story. Perkins used the Interrotron system, which he said was essential for the audience to feel like they were confronting the truth. “I wanted them to have that direct link and be looking right into the audience’s eyes,” he maintains. In the climactic third act, the brothers sit down face to face in the studio. “We deliberately set up the studio space to be as different as possible visually and aesthetically from someone’s living room,” says Perkins. “It's supposed to feel unnatural; it’s supposed to feel stark. And we want to own the construct of it and the arc of it. And yet within that studio space, within that construct, to give the brothers full agency. They feel like they are telling the story in their way—that they are in control of the process.”
The storytelling also benefits from Perkins spending six or seven days with each brother. "In the morning I would spend four hours with Alex and then we’d have lunch and then I’d spend four hours with Marcus," the filmmaker recalls. "Because you are talking over many days, you are able to get details that I have never been able to get to before. And also just the level of comfort in front of the camera. Often we’d talk through one of the parts of their story and then return to it on day three or four and explore it from a new angle." The film is currently streaming on Netflix.
Creating a stir at LFF with a run of sold-out screenings, Taghi Amirani's Coup 53 tells the story of Operation Ajax, the Anglo-American-led 1953 coup d'état in Iran that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the Shah.
Amirani’s ten-year investigation into the coup plays like a thriller on the big screen, placing Amirani in the center of the action. One of the major storylines of the film involves documentary filmmaking, as Amirani gains access to the rushes of Granada’s landmark End of Empire series made for Channel 4—and discovers that the series excised a key interview in which a British intelligence officer confesses to Britain’s role in the coup.
In a telephone interview I asked Amirani how likely that such a storyline—which was dependent on End of Empire's copious written notes and film rushes—could happen today. "This is the kind of documentary that only could have been made with access to analogue material," he maintains. "We were given a huge huge stroke of luck by finding not only the paperwork for the production files for End of Empire but also the rushes and unused footage. I dread to think, If somebody was going to, for example, do a film about my film, where would they find this stuff? Where would they find all the pixels and the emails? Where would they find the PDFs? So hoorah for paper and hoorah for celluloid."
Like so many historical documentaries, Coup 53's tortuous route to the big screen was driven by a scarcity of funders. "Nobody was brave enough to fund this film," Amirani shares. "We got turned down by every funding institution. Nobody in Britain funded this film. All the funding is from Americans and some Iranian-Americans. And mostly in Silicon Valley. I now know Silicon Valley inside out; bless them and the individuals who came on board and trusted me."
But the delays in filming ultimately allowed Amirani time to dig deeper and evolve the style of the film. He attributes his front-of-camera inclusion to advice from veteran editor Walter Murch, (Apocalypse Now; The English Patient), who worked on Coup 53 for four years with Amirani, as editor and co-writer.
When Murch saw material that Amirani shot with his IPhone at the National Security Archives, where Amirani enthuses about the significance of a tranche of newly declassified CIA documents, Murch insisted that Amirana needed to be in the film throughout. "He told me, 'This is your film. This is your story and your country's story. You personally have been affected by the coup and you need to own this story and tell it personally.' Which is perfect because that liberated me. It always was a personal story—that’s why I made it."
Amirani began inserting himself into the story, and after a while insisted that Murch should also be featured: "I said, 'Walter, if I'm going to be in it, then you are going to be in it,' because the discovery of evidence, the discovery of paper and archive constantly shifted things under our feet. We were finding things that constantly made us change direction. This was a meta film within a meta film. We thought, ‘You know what? Let’s lift the hood and look into the engine. Let's invite the audience into our journey and the process of making it, because that’s the real thrill. So we are in it and discovering things.'"
The result is a film with genuine momentum, making the events of 60 years ago seem fresh in its telling of how Iran's democracy was thwarted by Anglo-American oil interests. With Iran looming large as the bogeyman in current geopolitical discourse, Amirani knows that his film is a timely one. "Now everyone says this is THE most relevant time for the film to come out, given what’s going on with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK, warships in the Persian Gulf and oil tankers being attacked," Amirani says. "And so I'm naturally very sad and anxious about what's happening politically and geopolitically in the region. On the other hand, I'm delighted that it makes the story of the film so topical and so relevant. We've been blown away by the way the audience is embracing this and seeking it out."
While many of the docs at the London Film Festival played around with the form to drive momentum, others let the content shine. French director Sebastien Lifshitz's Adolescents is a longitudinal cinema vérité film that follows two best friends, Emma and Anaïs, throughout their teenage years. The girls hail from strikingly different family backgrounds, and are destined to grow apart as their studies take them on different tracks. We follow them from boy-obsessed 13-year-olds to young adults against the background of troubling events including the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The scenes capture the naturalism of adolescent language, even when subtitled. Lifshitz is always up-close and personal, yet these are lives seeming to play out without any awareness of the camera. I was gripped throughout.
In Rewind, filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger trolls through his father's extensive home-movie archive to confront the long-suppressed trauma of his childhood. The film echoes back to the treasure trove of videocam footage unearthed in Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans. It’s a difficult, sometimes shocking journey, with the images of the carefree young Sasha challenging to reconcile with the troubled and temperamental child captured on footage once he became a victim of sexual abuse.
Other LFF standouts include Alex Gibney's Citizen K, which employs an amazing array of archive to tell the jaw-dropping story of Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who, having fallen on Putin's bad side, emerged from prison to become an unlikely activist-in-exile and one of Putin’s chief enemies. The film is a timely reminder of Russia’s turbulent recent history, with interviewees like veteran British journalist Martin Sixsmith helping to shed light on how in the 1990s hopes for Russia’s future were soon dashed by the rush to corruption: "I remember writing all these great articles about how we were going to have a new Russia with great democracy, freedom and openness," Sixsmith recalls in the film. "And looking back, I am a little ashamed that I wrote all that because the signs were there even then that it wasn't going to all work out."
For all of its global outlook, the winner of the LFF’s Grierson Documentary award went to a very local subject matter. White Riot, which had its world premiere at LFF, tells the story of the Rock Against Racism Carnival in 1978, in which 100,000 young people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park to stand up against the far right.
White Riot was director Rubika Shah’s feature debut film. "When I started out on this journey, I was blown away that this story hadn’t been told," she recalled in an interview on stage after winning the award. "It's very timely, has a massive London component, is very topical and I think that audiences really responded to it because they were here—a lot of people that were actually at the carnival —and people traveled from all over the UK to come and watch the film."
Carol Nahra is a London-based journalist and professor. She blogs at www.docsonscreens.com.