Streaming: the Barbican’s first-person documentary season | Documentary films

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A few weeks ago I spotlit the Barbican’s new on-demand streaming service, which launched with a few intriguing hand-picked titles but promised bigger and better things to come. Next week the platform launches its first fully curated and themed season, and it’s a fine and unusual one. Inner States is dedicated to the art of the first-person documentary, a medium where indulgence, piercing intimacy and broader insight all happily (or somewhat anxiously) coexist.

Not necessarily a self-oriented exercise, “first-person documentary” can describe any nonfiction film in which the director doesn’t assume a silent, omniscient perspective, but leans into their subjective point of view and experience, on matters personal or global. The Barbican describes each of the five features that make up its season as “a journey to the inner sanctum of the self” – phrasing that might have sounded more esoteric if we weren’t all emerging from nearly six months of predominant social isolation, in which we’ve all had time to get quite cosy in our inner sanctums. The season was apparently conceived last year, but it has found its moment.

The director Jafar Panahi in his 2011 This Is Not a Film.
The director Jafar Panahi in his 2011 This Is Not a Film.

Some of the selections are more widely known than others. On the familiar end of the scale we have the indomitable Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film – which is approaching, somewhat unbelievably, its 10-year anniversary. A video-diary-as-documentary made in response to his house arrest and film-making ban at the hands of the censorious Iranian government, it’s an authority-defying statement that is far more than a political stunt. Documenting a day of incarcerated life in all its banality and emotional frustration, it wittily reflects on the very sensation of social separation.

Another selection, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, was a critical phenomenon in 2004, though the film-maker’s profile has fallen slightly of late (he hasn’t made a film since 2011). In a sense, his debut, made when he was 30, didn’t leave him many places to go, given what a comprehensive and cathartic outpouring it is. A sort of self-treating cinematic therapy session, it pieces together a ragged jumble of old home movies, photographs and even answerphone messages to evoke the psychic pain of his troubled childhood, and his mother’s mental illness. I thought it might have dated, but it remains brilliantly intense and necessarily overbearing, marking an era before mental health issues took on a higher profile.

Allah Tantou (1992), in which the late David Achkar reconstructs the imprisonment of his diplomat father.
Allah Tantou (1992), in which the late David Achkar reconstructs the imprisonment of his diplomat father.

The other three selections are new to me, with the late French-Guinean film-maker David Achkar’s 1992 doc Allah Tantou (God’s Will) a particular revelation. In it, Achkar reckons with the once-uncertain fate of his father, Marof, a UN ambassador to Guinea who in 1969 was charged with treason and sent to the Camp Boiro, the country’s notorious concentration camp for political dissidents. As Achkar traces what happened to his father in its confines, with the aid of the latter’s prison diary, the two men’s narratives merge into a haunting essay on personal and political legacy – all the more poignant as it remains the only film that the younger Achkar, who died a few years later aged 37, ever directed.

Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman experimented significantly with the first-person form. Her final film, No Home Movie (streamable on BFI Player), movingly preserved conversations between herself and her dying mother, and would have been an apt selection for this season. But the curators have opted for her playfully minimalist 2006 experiment Là Bas, shot entirely through the blinds of a Tel Aviv apartment rented by Akerman during a month-long teaching gig. Unlike in Panahi’s film, her restricted location is self-imposed, a physical and philosophical vantage point from which the film-maker, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, obliquely considers Israeli society and her own Jewish identity. More direct political ruminations are to be found in Palestinian film-maker Raed Andoni’s powerful 2009 film Fix Me, in which his quest to cure a persistent headache flowers into a deeper investigation of his place in the Palestinian uprising and its aftermath.

Palestinian director Raed Andoni goes in search of a headache cure in Fix Me (2009).
Palestinian director Raed Andoni goes in search of a headache cure in Fix Me (2009).

Finally, the season is filled out with Lockdown States, a free-to-stream 45-minute compilation of short documentaries made by film-makers during this year’s pandemic – including The Cop in Our Head and the Cop in Our Hearts, a brisk, pointed miniature by Brett Story about the alarming prevalence of neighbourly policing in corona times. It’s first-person film-making made for everyone to hear.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour.
Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/PA

Misbehaviour
(Disney, 12)
The real-life crashing of the 1970 Miss World pageant by the women’s lib movement should have made for a terrific film. But despite a spirited cast, this peppy feelgood effort falls short: it’s too safe and too formula-driven to live up to its rebellious subjects.

Koko-di, Koko-da
(Picturehouse, 18)
Streaming exclusively on BFI Player, Johannes Nyholm’s bravely bizarre Sundance hit gives the time-loop conceit of Groundhog Day a particularly sinister twist, as a strained couple on a camping trip must relive their own murder over and over. The ghoulishness is undercut, however, with honest considerations of grief and relationship drift.

The Trout
(Mubi)
There’s a case to be made for Isabelle Huppert as our greatest living actor, and Mubi goes there with a season dedicated to her career – kicking off with this fascinating Joseph Losey oddity from 1982, in which she plays a young, emotionally walled-off seductress.

Waiting for the Barbarians
(The Movie Partnership, 15)
JM Coetzee’s stark, anti-colonialist allegorical novel is such a tall order to film, it even stymies the ample imagination of Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent). There are passages of grace and power here, but much of it feels rigid and hesitant.

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: the Barbican’s first-person documentary season | Documentary films

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