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On this page: GRAZING THE SKY
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last update 16.Dec.15
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Grazing the Sky
dir Horacio Alcala
scr Horacio Alcala, David Bobee
prd Carlos Batres, Aitor Echeverria, Horacio Alcala
with Antonio Segura, Saar Rombout, Damian Istria, Jonathan Moss, Fadi Zmorrod, Max La Sala, Bahoz Temaout, Arnau Serra Vila, Julien Auger, Mathieu Lagaillarde, Sidney Pin, Thibaut Brigner
moss and friends
release US Jan.14 psiff,
UK 11.Dec.15
13/Spain 1h27
Grazing the Sky Bristling with physicality, this documentary follows the skilled performers who join a circus school and travel the world doing inventive acrobatics. Each has a remarkable story about how they got here, why they choose to live this lifestyle and what makes them tick. It's perhaps not the deepest look at why people run off to join the circus, but it's beautifully put together and inventively staged.

Historically, circus performers came from circus families, but now it's open to anyone. Mexican filmmaker Alcala traces the lives of some 15 performers from 11 countries over five years as they enter a profession that their parents are probably not too thrilled about. But they find a new family in their colleagues, the people they are required to trust with their lives every day. For each of them, this is about expressing themselves with their bodies in demanding physical ways, entertaining an audience while pushing the envelope of human possibility.

The most moving story is Antonio's, as he recovers from a severe back injury and rebuilds trust with his trapeze partner Max. Palestinian performer Fadi is using acrobatics to bring hope to his community back home. Australian gymnast Damian is preparing to retire from Cirque du Soleil. Jonathan disappointed his family when he left to become an innovator with the Cyr wheel. Saar is a smiley Dutch woman inventing new aerial routines with ropes. And the six guys in La Meute (Bahoz, Arnau, Julien, Mathieu, Sidney and Thibaut) play with muscled physicality as they create their own wolfpack.

There are quite a few more people highlighted here, and each talks about his or her own journey into acrobatics. Alcala intercuts the interviews with gorgeously staged performance pieces in unusual locations, usually outdoors with spectacular backdrops. This brings this artistic physicality out of the tent and into public spaces, which adds to the film's central point that the circus is no longer a closed club.

Colourful, muscular and lyrically shot and edited, the film will appeal mainly to audiences who enjoy dance, as well as anyone connected to the world of acrobatics and gymnastics. With an emphasis on people pushing their staggeringly fit bodies through a series of breathtaking movements, the film is like a feast for the eyes. And without ever getting too detailed about the darker side of a nomadic existence, the film is a celebration of the curiosity required to push artistic expression forward.

U some themes
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The Queen of Ireland
dir Conor Horgan
prd Ailish Bracken, Katie Holly
scr Philip McMahon, Conor Horgan
with Rory O'Neill, Niall Sweeney, David Norris, Angelo Pitillo, Finn O'Neill, Rory O'Neill Sr, Auveen Curran, Mark O'Halloran, Toni Walsh, Declan Buckley, Chris Ronan, Una Mullally
panti bliss release Ire 23.Oct.15,
UK 16.Nov.15
15/Ireland 1h22
The Queen of Ireland This entertaining documentary traces the work of drag queen Panti Bliss, who took Ireland by storm with her pointed comments about prejudice and inequality at a pivotal moment in the nation's history. As it profiles Rory O'Neill, the man beneath the wigs and sequins, the film also touches on relevant issues about society in general.

Growing up in a small town in County Mayo, Rory always knew he didn't fit in. He discovers his sexuality at art college in Dublin before moving overseas to hone his drag artist alter-ego Panti, cracking jokes and pointing out cultural hypocrisy. Then his life takes a turn when he is sued for disparaging homophobes on national television. His eloquent, heartfelt response about growing up under oppression goes viral on YouTube. And suddenly Panti is the spokesperson for her generation, leading the charge as Ireland becomes the first nation to establish marriage equality by referendum.

Filmmaker Horgan assembles this with skill, seamlessly shifting the film from O'Neill's personal history to the larger picture in Ireland and the world. This gives the documentary a resonant structure that hooks the audience with O'Neill's story, ups the stakes with his inadvertent emergence as an unlikely political hero, and then brings it all back home with a terrific sequence in which he nervously returns to his hometown to put on a show, vividly revealing just how much Ireland changed over five years.

Anchored by witty, honest interviews with O'Neill, the film also features comments from friends, collaborators and family members, tracing his childhood and career with a terrific collection of stills and home movies. After Panti's powerful 2014 "Noble Call" speech, the imagery becomes more documentary, using TV news clips and following Rory/Panti through cheering crowds as he becomes a beloved public figure, reluctantly but skilfully taking the lead through both legal and political challenges.

Even more impressive is how the film looks deeper into the issue. Rory has an unusually searing way with words, maintaining a sense of humour as he cuts through the nonsense. His comments on how it feels to grow up as an outsider are astute and moving, revealing the quiet homophobia in even the most innocuous-seeming glance or comment. When he returns home, he's fully aware that he's "the gayest thing in the world: a man dressed up like a cartoon woman". He tries, but is he's unable, to censor himself. Let's hope he never does.

18 themes, language, images
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dir-scr Jennifer Peedom
prd Bridget Ikin, John Smithson
with Phurba Tashi Sherpa, Russell Brice, Ed Douglas, Karma Doma Sherpa, Sumit Joshi, Ed Wardle, Jamling Tenzing Sherpa, Norbu Tenzing Sherpa, Dave McKinley, Mark Woodward, Dawa Stephen Sherpa, Nima Namgyal Sherpa
Sherpa release Aus 7.Jun.15 sff,
US 2.Oct.15, UK 18.Dec.15
15/Australia 1h36

london film fest
Sherpa With a moving story, this beautifully shot documentary explains exactly why this year's epic adventure Everest was so simplistic. This is a layered, riveting account that properly explores the experiences of climbers on the world's tallest peak, plus a strong political angle from the guides who take all the risk but get little of the reward.

Since commercial expeditions began, the slopes of Everest have been increasingly clogged with wealthy hikers who hire teams of Sherpa guides to get them to the summit. This has changed the economy of the region, because mountain-guide work is much more profitable than farming. The Sherpa are an ethnic group with strong family ties and religious beliefs, and in 2014 an avalanche that killed 16 guides caused them to finally wrestle control of the spiritual mountain they call Chomolungma from the government that profits from the expeditions. Out of respect for the dead, they asked foreigners who had paid up to $75,000 to stop climbing and go home.

Director Peedom and her crew travelled to Base Camp intending to make a very different documentary about Sherpa life. When the tragedy took place, they shifted into journalistic mode, capturing the detailed interaction in the following weeks, which offers remarkable insight into the key figures. These include lead Sherpa Tashi and expedition leader Brice, while writer Douglas offers insightful commentary.

The imagery is staggeringly beautiful, sharply depicting the scale of the mountain and the dangerous terrain. The most perilous section is the Khumbu Icefall, a constantly shifting slope of ice. Most climbers cross it twice; Sherpas must cross it up to 30 times as they carry the equipment up and down the mountain. So the danger is much higher for them and their families. The filmmakers catch the striking culture clashes between the locals and the foreigners, and add knowing comments from experts, colleagues and family members.

This is assembled with skill to not only recount the horrible events of April 2014, but to also highlight the bigger issues that have developed since Tenzing Norgay first ascended the mountain with Edmund Hillary in 1953. Yes, there is a lot of money to be made by the government, expedition leaders and even the Sherpas, but is any of that worth dying in unsafe conditions with inadequate insurance? And maybe it's about time the locals show the world that money can't buy anything.

15 themes, language
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Star Men
dir-scr-prd Alison Rose
with Roger Griffin, Donald Lynden-Bell, Nick Woolf, Wal Sargent, Alison Rose
release UK 20.Nov.15
15/US 1h25
Star Men This documentary is about the friendship between four astronomers who forever changed the way we understand the cosmos. It's a bit loose and meandering, following them on a 50-year reunion while touching on the details of their scientific careers. So what it reveals about friendship is more profound than what it says about the stars.

To mark a half-century since they worked at Cal Tech in the early 1960s, Cambridge professors Roger and Donald travel out to Pasadena to reunite with Nick and Wal. The four of them few the flag for Britain in California back in the mid-1960s, and now they are enjoying a chance to retrace their steps with filmmaker Alison. This includes jumping in a car and reliving their epic road trips, including visits to a number of prominent observatories around the American Southwest and recreating a two-day hike to Rainbow Bridge in Utah.

Now in their mid-70s, these four men still have the same curiosity and hyperactive imaginations they had as young scholars, and as the film progresses, each recounts his personal journey into science. Meanwhile, filmmaker Rose narrates their astounding professional accomplishments. The result is a film that teaches rather a lot about stars, planets and black holes without ever getting too academic about it all. But even more engaging is the way it traces decades of friendship.

As one person explains, reunions show what's happened to young, sprightly people who are usually much more interesting now that they're old. So while covering the formative events of the past, filmmaker Rose puts the main focus on the present day, as these men relive their youthful exploits, rekindle their banter about their class origins, and quietly ponder their world-changing work on the nature of the universe. And as she accompanies them on this reunion, she fills the screen with beautiful imagery both of the men and the stars they love so much.

These four guys were innovators at a key moment in astronomy, knowing full well that they didn't create mathematics, they discovered it. These are the men who proved the big bang and the nature of the expanding universe. And now they are exploring the idea of their own mortality with the same unstoppable inquisitiveness, understanding that for new ideas to blossom, the old ones have to die off. So it's telling that Rose ends the film with a TS Eliot quote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

PG some themes
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