“Official Secrets”: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Official Secrets (DVD) [2019]I remember well the 2003 one million-plus people’s London march in the vain attempt to prevent the Iraq War, likewise President Bush’s refusal to wait for the completion of UN weapons inspector Hans Blick’s investigations in Iraq before launching an attack, together with the UK Parliament’s decision to support the US militarily on the basis of what proved to be the “dodgy dossier”, falsely confirming the Iraqi capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction on Britain in 45 minutes.

Film footage of these events is woven into the docudrama “Official Secrets” to provide the context for an event which I am ashamed to have forgotten, namely the remarkably courageous decision of Katharine Gun, a young translator working for GCHQ, to release to the press the email which shocked her profoundly. Wrapped in technical language, this was the instruction from the American NSA for its counterpart GCHQ to “dig dirt” on officials in small UN member countries who might be blackmailed into agreeing to vote for military action against Iraq. Motivated by the desire to prevent a war triggered by lies and subterfuge, she assumed at first that it would be possible to remain anonymous, until a guilty conscience over the sight of her work colleagues being interrogated obliged her to speak out. Then, it quickly became obvious that she had not only sacrificed her career, but risked a prison sentence, widespread ostracism, and the deportation of her husband, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Turkey.

Keira Knightley deserves the praise received for a performance which conveys with great conviction Katharine’s initial soul-searching, and the acute tension, involuntary sense of guilt and fear of detection, experienced by an essentially law-abiding person breaking the law, even for a just cause, as in the crucial moment when she drops the leaked email into the red pillar box. Her moods pass through realistic phases: more guilt and regret over the problems inadvertently created for her husband, depression over being unemployed, anger over bullying by officials and being pressed to take the “easy path” of admitting to guilt to get a lighter sentence, at the cost of a permanent stain on her reputation, which still matters to her.

A docudrama which could become dry once it enters the legal phase with a long wait to be charged and tried, maintains its momentum through moments of wry humour based on real events. I would not blame the film-makers for possibly over-egging some incidents for dramatic effect, and cannot know how much artistic licence has been taken in portrayal of, for instance, the sparring between former legal friends who find themselves in opposite camps, prosecutors against defence. If they are still alive, I wonder how some of the latter feel about the way they have been portrayed.

Overall, this is a well-made and thought-provoking film, raising awareness of strong parallels between then and now – our world of fake news, hacking and manipulating facts for political reasons, and the endless debate as to whether the means justify the ends. Interviews with the real-life Katharine Gun suggest the storyline is authentic in more than the essentials. Claiming that she would act in the same way again, she has the last word: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Marianne and Leonard: Songs of Love

Marianne & Leonard: Words of LoveIn the 1960s, Leonard Cohen joined the colony of aspiring writers on the exquisite Greek island of Hydra, with the lures of casual sex, cheap alcohol and easy access to drugs. He soon began to receive practical and emotional support from Marianne Ihlen, the beautiful young Norwegian who was for several years his lover and “muse”. Apart from not seeming in awe of him, she was a good listener with a gift for drawing out the talent in others. Abandoned by her husband and the mother of an appealing child, “Little Alex”, Marianne was open to ideas of “free love”, but as Leonard developed his megastar status as a singer/songwriter, she could not cope with hectic lifestyle involving long visits to the States, and having to share him with the hoards of fans who also wanted a piece of him.

Beneath the shield of charisma and charm, Leonard actually behaved appallingly at times, drifting off on assignations with women as the fancy took him, putting her under pressure to have abortions since he did not want to have children, or at least those who were not Jewish, when it came to the crunch. There is some remarkable film footage of his lifestyle: the scene where he invites the audience onto the stage in a kind of mass group love in, until the space is filled with a heaving pile of people, or when, clearly very high on drugs, he shaves himself with a flourish since he has convinced himself that this alone will enable him to revive a flagging performance.

I have read critical reviews to the effect that the film is too much about Leonard rather than Marianne, of whose early life we are told nothing. In fact a good deal is also omitted over, for instance, Leonard’s second major relationship with Suzanne, who it seems appeared, Cohen’s child on her hip, on Marianne’s doorstep in Hydra, demanding that she quit the property. This was the final trigger needed to send her back to a conventional life in Norway. Yet what had clearly been a deep and genuine relationship endured to the extent that, on her death bed years later, she received a prompt and moving note from Leonard. I remain uncertain to what extent inclusion of the film of this event is intrusive.

What makes this documentary particularly powerful is the plentiful footage of life on Hydra in the 60s, as recorded by the talented DA Pennebaker and stored unviewed in his attic for decades. For those who remember the 60s, and the hippy flower power at odds with what was still a very conservative Britain, it is very evocative. The magnetic appeal and unspoilt beauty of the Greek islands were enjoyed at the price of an eternal sense of nostalgia, making life anywhere else seem faded and dull for ever after.

There is a thorny debate to had as to whether the creativity gained from the use of mood-altering narcotics is worth the cost of their destructive effects. Must those with great talents like Leonard Cohen be inevitably self-absorbed, driven and selfish in order to attain their full potential? What are the costs for the children of those who practise a life without boundaries? One of the most poignant aspects of the documentary was to learn that Marianne’s son, Little Alex, so full of innocent joy and curiosity in the film footage, has, despite her evident love for him, spent most of his adult life in a Norwegian mental institution.

Mountain: In thrall to indifferent mountains

This is my review of Mountain directed by Jennifer Peedom.

Stunning photography – was it made with the aid of drones or intrepid helicopter pilots? – reveals the stark beauty and vast scale and complexity of landscapes most of us will never be able to see close at hand. Time lapse photography to show clouds moving to obscure huge peaks, the plethora of stars in a night sky free from pollution, white valleys rising and falling as the snow builds up and melts, add dynamism to landscapes we may previously only have seen in static pictures. Suddenly one realises that two dots in a vast expanse of ice are in fact human- mountaineers planning an ascent. Then, with nail-biting tension, we see rock climbers high up on sheer faces, hands bare as they feel for invisible finger-holds, apparently unroped and alone. Footage of skiers weaving down near vertical slopes through trees, or surfing avalanches; mountain bikers hurtling along narrow winding ridges hundreds of feet above rocky valley floors; a tight-rope walker suspended between two pinnacles above a void, all capture the addiction to the adrenalin rush which must drive some to risk their lives for an experience which they cannot really share with the “normal world” from which they must feel disconnected on their return to it.

Accompanied by some freshly composed atmospheric music and beautiful classical pieces, Dafoe’s commentary – sometimes needlessly overblown – traces the short history of mountaineering, since for centuries local people treated high places as the land of gods and devils, to be avoided by ordinary mortals. We see clips of some of the intrepid C19 travellers who began to explore the mountains, totally under-equipped by our standards. The ascent of Everest triggered the growing stream of climbers, assisted by technical aids, often swinging from their belts like a kind of ceremonial metallic skirt, who now form a snail-pace queue up to the world’s highest peak.

This film is a totally absorbing work of art, with many memorable scenes and will appeal not only to mountaineers but people like me who are terrified of the idea of climbing but fascinated by the scenery and why people risk their lives in this pursuit. Yet I agree with the reviewer who would have liked more information on the location of the shots with a little cultural detail e.g. on prayer wheels and flags, explanation of some of the equipment used, the identity of some of the historical characters and events shown. As it is, the film assumes perhaps a little too much prior knowledge.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The Salt of the Earth” DVD – The all-seeing eye

This is my review of The Salt of the Earth DVD.

Wim Wender’s documentary on the life and work of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado holds the audience speechless and spellbound by the artistry, beauty yet often bleak evidence of man’s inhumanity in his pictures. Starting with incredible shots, all the more striking for being black-and-white, of miners swarming like ants on ladders to scale the steep, irregular face of a goldmine, the film goes on to show the various stages of his career. The scale of the forested valley and hills round his family’s farm may have formed his love of landscapes, where he has sought out self-sufficient communities, from Amazonia to Siberia, and won their confidence, enabling him to show them living in close harmony with nature. Another of his collections of photojournalism produced with his wife, focuses on different aspects of employment round the world.

A sensitive man, made aware of injustice through the harshness of the authoritarian military regime which forced him and his wife into exile in their youth, he was inevitably drawn to cover the sufferings of those forced by brutal war to become refugees. Uncensored photos of African victims are particularly harrowing, so it easy to understand why he became depressed by man’s capacity for cruelty, and turned to the animal world, with amusing scenes of his dedication, as he and his son roll over stony ground to catch walruses unawares, rearing up to clash their tusks in the misty dawn. “Genesis”, a wide-ranging project “dedicated to showing the beauty of our planet, reversing the damage done to it, and preserving it for the future” includes some breath-taking aerial shots.

With an innate confidence, he has taught himself the craft of different types of photography, aided by his artist’s eye – he explains at one point to his son how a shot will not work owing to the lack of a suitable background or “frame”.

We see the personal cost of his work, with long periods away from his wife who was left with the care of a Downs Syndrome son, while he seemed like a stranger to his older boy in his early years. The restoration of Salgado’s family farm by the replanting of trees to replace the deforestation and erosion is also inspiring – presumably made possible at least partly by his book sales.

His portrayal of the dignity and pathos of displaced people arouses a deep sense of unease over the handling by the West of current migrations into Europe and by our materialism which aggravates the problem, to which there is admittedly no simple solution.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Practising to Deceive

This is my review of The Imposter [DVD].

Thirteen-year-old Nicholas disappears in rural Texas and turns up just over three years later in Spain. His sister flies over and accepts him readily. But the audience is told from the outset that he is in fact a twenty-three-year-old imposter. How does he manage to fool her, and convince us that the situation is plausible? Why would the sister allow herself to be duped? Where is the real Nicholas?

This documentary mixes current interviews, past TV and home movie clips and reconstructions to weave an intriguing tale in which information is dribbled out cleverly to arouse our interest and shift our viewpoints continually.

The filming is often blurred through the use of old film footage, or the desire to make the reconstructions more convincing. At a few points the picture broke up to such a degree or the screen went black so that I thought our dodgy local film projection had failed again. Apart from this questionable attempt to add to the sense of confusion, "The Imposter" is an effective film with an unusual approach to the tragedy of the children who disappear and the long-term effects on their families.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

From Dust to Dust

This is my review of Nostalgia for the Light [DVD] [2010] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC].

This patchily brilliant documentary is packed with striking images of the Atacama desert, where ancient rock carvings and bodies of native Indians, C19 miners and more recent victims of state brutality are preserved by the intensely arid climate, which also enables distant stars to be viewed in great profusion with unusual clarity. Using a poetic voice-over, the film attempts to draw parallels between the astronomers' search for knowledge of our galactic past, using high-tech telescopes installed in the desert, archaeologists investigating a more recent history amongst the rocks, and the current harrowing search by a small number of ageing women still searching for the remains of their loved ones who disappeared in the 1970s.

I tend to agree with an earlier reviewer who felt that the attempt to link astronomy with political repression does not entirely work, although I think that it could. To use the study of the stars to remind us that the dust from which we come and will return is very old and possibly extraterrestrial in origin is one way of helping us come to terms with terrible events and move on. The power and pathos of the film would have been increased for me by less use of repeated shots of simulated stardust, firm editing of interviews, such as the rather tedious exchanges with scientists gamely trying to respond to the arty questions posed, and omission of some rather lengthy contrived or staged shots. I think the film was meant to have a dreamlike quality, but at times I found it too slow. The tone of the voice-over tends at times to be a little too mawkish, but that is a matter of taste. Also, perhaps too many points are spelt out as to what we should be thinking, when we are well able to form conclusions for ourselves.

It is clearly important that the atrocities of Pinochet's regime should not be forgotten, not least in the UK where our Government gave sanctuary to a man guilty of dreadful crimes. The unusual environment of the Atacama provides an opportunity to tell the story in the distinctive way chosen here.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars