It gives me no pleasure to write this, but — in recent years — it has become clear that the programming at the Edinburgh International Film Festival is in a rut. Recent editions have overemphasized the gala strands, which promote some of the dullest films available to be screened, at the expense of the rest of the program. So, for this year’s edition, I kept eyes on the documentary strand, the strength of which is usually a good mark of a wide-tent festival’s overall quality — and more generally, it should be apparent that non-fiction films constitute a large portion of the best work being done in contemporary cinema. Below are four capsules from the mediocre EIFF 2021: two politically engaged issue documentaries and two essayistic memoirs, drawn from around the world.
Alicia Cano Menoni’s EIFF 2021 film begins with a shot of her grandfather, whose ancestors emigrated to Uruguay from Bosco, a tiny Italian village nestled almost equidistantly between Genoa and Bologna. A series of village portraits appear on screen with text inserts, each revealing a number related to the facts of life in Bosco: crucial among them is that there are only 13 current inhabitants and there are 639 graves. Menoni visited the village 13 years prior to her latest visit, and Bosco braids together the lower-grade digital video of the earlier trip with the clearer, crisper sounds and images from her most recent return. Menoni is as interested in landscape shots as she is portraiture.
At the start of Bosco at least, there’s a sense that Agnès Varda’s documentaries (such as Daguerréotypes) serve as Menoni’s model of engagement with this small community: the portraits mix natural and artificial, conducting conversations with affection but also with an eye towards the villagers’ uneasiness before her lens. Menoni is necessarily a tourist, despite her family connection. Accordingly, she’s interested in forms of knowledge that lie beyond her experience: the habit of some of Bosco’s residents to count their steps, as if mapping out their lives precisely in knowable quantities, is one. Bosco is a study in the passage of time that almost conceals its main angle of approach: the EIFF 2021 film is a gesture of love towards Menoni’s grandfather, whose sight is declining at the age of 102, and who yet claims to have visions of the village. These visions clearly inspire Bosco’s more associational montages, which, despite the occasional piercing visual conceit (a preoccupation with the air and all that travels through it), reveal the aimless nature of the film’s structure.
The Gig Is Up
Photographer Wu Guoyong shows the camera what, at a distance, could be a landscape painting, stylized in metallic yellows, greens and blues. Up close, he reveals it to be a mountain of scrapped delivery bikes, dubbed by the EIFF 2021 film (and emphasized with deep-toned, ominous music) as one of China’s delivery bike graveyards. The scale of the problem faced by exploitative, semi-casual labor is local to the whole planet. Whether it’s a person driving a van with a package to post through a letterbox, someone riding a bike in all weathers to deliver someone else’s lunch or a host of internet users scrambling to accept a worse-than-poorly remunerated task on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, the implications of gig work affect everyone. As Shannon Walsh’s documentary tries to show, with its points of connection across the globe, the demand for greater protections and working conditions from those whose jobs facilitate the gig economy is and will remain to be one of the major labor struggles of the present. But for that I’m in agreement with the arguments of the documentary subjects, and some of the analysis from the experts who serve as talking heads, I do wish the film would break out from its standard issue documentary form. The Gig Is Up’s montage is fluid but unremarkable, the analysis succinct but not always insightful. One moment, in which a white subject, a self-proclaimed master of online surveys, admits that he pretends to be a Black man who votes Republican so that he might be asked back for follow-up questionnaires, raises questions about the relationship between class and race in contemporary capitalism that the EIFF 2021 documentary subsequently shows little interest in. The desire to address the pandemic, which is relegated to the final minutes, is a bit of a problem, since the massive surge in internet shopping inspired by the global response to COVID-19 and how it has exacerbated already poor labor conditions for gig workers is surely a film in itself.
Earnest in its desire to become the definitive Hong Kong protest documentary, Faceless resorts to a grab-bag of the least effective techniques to inspire affective responses. Its visual refrain of large crowds, black-clad and masked-up, walking in slow motion towards the lens, makes a rhetorical figure of the people who participated in the protests of 2019: it abstracts them from the reality of protest. Likewise, the soupy and oppressive use of music makes an emotive claim that the images do not support. Shot on the ground during the protests in response to the suggestion of a since passed extradition bill, the EIFF 2021 documentary takes its title from the anonymity of the protestors, four of whom (referred to only as The Student, The Artist, The Daughter and The Believer, as if they occupy the realm of silent cinema) are interviewed and followed on the move. Key scenes include extended sequences around the sieges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where police and protestors exchange volleys of tear gas canisters and Molotov cocktails. Do Not Split, Anders Sømme Hammer’s short documentary, covers much of the same ground in nearly a third of the running time of Jennifer Ngo’s EIFF 2021 film to greater effect, and without the portentousness.
Radiograph of a Family
“Mother married father’s photograph.” It’s an opening line with the suggestiveness and inherent interest-generation of a great novel, but Firouzeh Khosrovani’s Radiograph of a Family takes time to settle into its approach. Using family photographs and home videos, and personal correspondence read aloud by actors, Khosrovani enters into the world of her parents: her mother, Tayi, married her father, Hossein, who was studying radiology in Geneva at the time. A repeated visual cue is one of the only pieces of newly shot footage: a camera travels through a room, connecting to a bedroom, each time altered, in terms of decoration and furnishing, depending on the family’s circumstances. Early on in the EIFF 2021 film, while Tayi and Hossein live in Europe, the rooms are mothballed; later, they teem with evidence of inhabitation. But the revolution transforms the family, as it does Iran in general.
Hossein is a Europhile with liberal tendencies; Tayi, a devout Muslim, becomes a devotee of the revolutionary theorist Ali Shariati, later supporting the conservative element of the revolution (she later goes on to fight in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s). The split in their political sympathies is signaled by a torn photograph of her mother, which the director pieces together: the reconstructed image is a metaphor for the film’s form, made up of bits and pieces of the traces of her parents’ lives, as well as the performed readings of letters and summary exchanges. It becomes a film about micro-history as national history: the past as something tactile and affective all at once, something to be felt and thought. Khosrovani’s attempt to fill in the missing emotional spaces of her family’s history takes some time to find its rhythm, which it discovers with aplomb come the revolution. What at the beginning feels like an approximation of her parents’ past becomes an intimate record, full of intriguing details of both affection and reproach, disappointment and fulfilment.