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On this page: I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
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last update 16.May.17
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I Am Not Your Negro
5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Raoul Peck
scr James Baldwin
prd Remi Grellety, Hebert Peck, Raoul Peck
with James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Dee Williams, Robert F Kennedy
narr Samuel L Jackson
release US 9.Dec.16,
UK 7.Apr.17
16/US 1h33

I Am Not Your Negro A blistering exploration of American culture, this film focusses on racial issues that have been a driving force across the nation, whether or not citizens realise it. But this isn't a political movie; it's a poetic odyssey based on the words of author James Baldwin, whose sharp observations ring devastatingly true. Even though he died in 1987, what he has to say is relevant and important.

In 1979, Baldwin proposed writing a book titled Remember This House, about the iconic 1960s civil rights murders: Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Baldwin knew these three men personally, and describes how he learned of their violent deaths. He also understood that they were very different men who were activists in the same cause, seeking some sort of solution to the racial inequality that repeatedly boiled over into protests. And Baldwin realised that this issue reveals a lot about the American psyche in general.

Filmmaker Peck assembles this with skill, artfully juxtaposing newsreel footage, period interviews and telling clips from more than a century of cinema and television, plus crisp new images that bring the themes to the present day. Over this, Jackson speaks Baldwin's words, which poetically observe the situation with an eerie prescience that rattles us to the core. The cumulative effect of this film is to completely redefine how we perceive America's cultural traditions and history.

The central idea is that these three murders "bang against and reveal each other". Baldwin's perceived role as a witness to society (rather than as an activist) made him unusually sensitive to spotting connections, which makes his commentary unusually pointed, vividly showing how films and television have eroded a sense of reality about the true make-up of America and the meaning of the American Dream. Since Baldwin's comments are so personal, they're also darkly moving ("I was not allowed to act like I belonged here").

Peck drives the points home by cutting from the violent 1963 Birmingham riots to 2014 Ferguson. And Baldwin's conclusions are chilling: that this isn't a racial problem, but a sign that America is an infant nation that values sincerity and immaturity, revealing its emotional poverty in a fear of outsiders, sexuality, the inner self and the fact that real people still pay a high price for America's prosperity. Which is why the privileged misunderstand their protests. Baldwin's words and Peck's imagery back this up with jarring evidence of how entertainment has consistently dumbed down the public. And there can never be a true American dream as long as segments of society are denied it.

12 themes, language, violent images
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Last Men in Aleppo
4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir-scr Firas Fayyad
prd Kareem Abeed, Soeren Steen Jespersen, Stefan Kloos
with Khaled Omar Harrah, Mahmoud, Yousef, Ahmad, Isra, Batoul, Subhi, Omar, Hussein, Whalid, Ibrahim, Amer, Louai, Bakri, Shabaab Badawi, Hasan Hannan, Mohammed Mashahadani, Fawzi Barghot, Ayman Seter
Last Men in Aleppo release US 5.May.17
17/Syria 1h50

Last Men in Aleppo With cameras on the ground in terrifying situations, this astonishing film documents the remaining residents of a sophisticated city decimated by years of bombardment. It's beautifully shot and edited, putting the audience right in the middle of some horrific events while also letting us experience the joy of life even in this troubled place.

In 2011, a peaceful protest against Syria's oppressive government shifted into civil war when President Bashar Assad responded with military force, brutally attacking his own citizens. By 2013 in the city of Aleppo, students and construction workers volunteered to become White Helmets, rescuing victims of Assad's relentless bombing. Then in 2015, Russian jets joined in dropping bombs indiscriminately, dramatically escalating the carnage and leaving 250,000 remaining civilians under siege. Every day they watch the sky for any sign of death coming their way.

The film follows men like Mahmoud, an ambulance driver who races to rescue the injured, often infants pulled from the rubble of decimated buildings. He's left speechless (as are we) by each death, and he worries about his brother Ahmad, who works with him. Family man Khaled is clearly thinking of his adorable young daughters as he says, "When I look at these ruins, something tells me it's time to leave." But it's almost impossible to escape. So he tries to build a normal life for them in between the attacks.

Director Fayyad assembles this in a fly-on-the-wall style, just showing the situation without any voiceover narration (title cards fill in details). Shooting with remarkable intimacy, the filmmakers' cameras experience the highs and lows of life in Aleppo. Food and medicine are hard to come by, but this is their home, and they don't want to leave. So when there are no planes in the sky, they play and throw parties. Their interaction is lively, often funny. But when a father tells his child not to play in the streets, the echoes are chilling.

The cameras capture a series of bombings and rescues, each of which is shattering. These people feel like the whole world has turned its back on them, as even neighbouring countries refuse Syrian refugees. Their only hope is that somehow Assad's regime will be overthrown. Through all of this, their optimism and perseverance are inspiring. This is an urgent, important film that reminds us that if we keep ignoring what's happening in Syria, it might not be such a big leap to imagine this happening in our own cities.

15 themes, language, violence
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4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Rahul Jain
prd Rahul Jain, Thanassis Karathanos, Iikka Vehkalahti
machines release UK 19.May.17,
US 9.Aug.17
16/India 1h11

Machines This documentary may appear straightforward and simple, but it's a cleverly complex exploration of one aspect of our greed-obsessed world that we would rather not think about. The focus is on a fabric factory in India, and filmmaker Rahul Jain trains his camera with unusual skill to reveal the conditions and quietly comment on what it all means.

In Gujarat, factory employees work gruelling 12-hour shifts for around $3. This isn't enough to support themselves, let alone their families, so they work multiple shifts in a row. Jain's cameras have full run of a fabric factory, showing various jobs in the process, from silk-screening to quality control, from setting up the machines to cleaning up afterwards. At various points, workers speak to the camera about their lives, the stresses of this kind of work and why it's unlikely to change. And the boss has his perspective as well.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva is strikingly beautiful. There are long static shots that capture the colour and textures in this grim, windowless space, but most of the film consists of extended tracking shots following workers through their routines. There are only a few glimpses outside the walls, including a torrential rainstorm that floods the local streets, a moment of colourful levity on the roof and a staggering aerial shot that reminds us that this is just one of hundreds of factories here.

The range of interviewees is intriguing. Some of these jobs are clearly physically perilous, whether operating heavy machinery or handling sloppy chemicals. A young teen says he needs to start work young so he has some skills when he gets older. Because of a drought, a farmer has turned to factory work to support his family and earn money to buy seeds for next season. And one more experienced worker explains that every time they try to unionise to demand shorter shifts and better pay, the organiser dies.

This isn't one of those hopeful docs that challenges us to do something to help these people, although anyone paying attention can see what it means for us in the West. The demand for cheap goods in Europe and North America is directly leading to this situation, equally to blame with factory owners who keep the profits for themselves, just as executives do in our countries while paying people as little as they can get away with. So there's a clear sense of injustice about the whole chain of commerce. And it's important to have well-made movies like this to remind us what unregulated capitalism is doing to the planet.

12 themes, language

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© 2017 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall