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Highlights of the first Timehri Film Festival

Still from Poetry is an Island

Guyana’s inaugural Timehri Film Festival ended on Friday, wrapping up three days of screenings showcasing films from around the Caribbean.

This excellent (and free) showcase of short and feature films had some great offerings, pulled together by the festival’s Caribbean-American team – comprising Romola Lucas and Justen Blaize (founders of the Caribbean Film Academy) and Alysia Simone, editor of blog Rewind N Come Again – with sponsorship from SASOD Guyana and Blossoms of Guyana.

My highlight was the beautiful ode to St Lucian poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, ‘Poetry is an Island‘ – a moving, inspiring and visually stunning homage to a man, an island and a people.

At one point in the film, someone (Walcott himself I think) says “The time has come for us to be ourselves”. And the film is definitely ‘we own’. Sure we have the waving palm trees and beautiful beaches of every Caribbean stereotype, but we also have the imposing Pitons (the island’s famous volcanic mountains), the sadly neglected Derek Walcott Theatre, the enterprising Rastafarian decorator turning Walcott’s childhood home into a museum, and the a stunning painting by Dunstan St Omer (see below) that Walcott proudly shows to Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his other literary guests.


Appropriately the film is the work of a director born in Suriname and of French, Chinese, and Dutch-Creole descent. Ida Does beautifully mixes lingering landscape shots with talking heads, snatches of traditional ceremonies and heartfelt readings. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Walcott reads his own poem for his late mother, and breaks down. “This is wicked”.

Still from Ti Coq


Other feature films at the festival included Sensei Redenshon from Curacao. This taut martial arts drama featured a wonderful understated performance from Raul de Windt as Sandro, the prodigal father and reluctant street fighter. There was also a sneak peek at the upcoming US-Guyana collaboration A Bitter Lime, which I’m reluctant to comment on as we only saw the first 20 minutes or so. But hopefully the final cut is closer to the trailer in terms of pace; with a few more lines for the female lead; and a few less giraffes grazing Georgetown. (Artistic license?) Anyway kudos to the director for coming to Guyana and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same, and bring jobs and new opportunities with them.

There were some excellent Guyanese short films. I particularly enjoyed the loving grandmother in The Seawall, in which Georgetown was vividly brought to life; the colourful and touching Antiman about a young boy feeling his way along the uncertain first steps towards homosexuality; the eye-opening Diaries of an Immigrant about a Guyanese girl struggling to stay afloat in Barbados and earn money for her daughter back home; Painting the Spectrum  was an engaging glimpse behind the scenes of the LGBT film festival organised by Guyanese campaigning organisation SASOD; and also Martinique-based short Ti Coq, another bittersweet portrayal of a grandmother-grandson household (like The Seawall), where the return of the mother is not the longed-for event you might expect.

There were many more films that I missed too – as well as a series of workshops for aspiring or existing film producers and promoters. Of course not everything was perfect. Most people I spoke to seemed unaware the festival was going on, or only found out at the last minute. And I got the impression that Moray House is seen by some as a place where a ‘certain crowd’ goes. But this is only year one, and the team were working from New York.

Next year I hope to see more of the same. Perhaps with some newer, unknown Guyanese films; a variety of venues; and more promotion beforehand. But it’s a fantastic vision and a wonderful platform for Guyanese filmmakers, producers and other creatives. Keep it coming!

blog · Uncategorized

Open-air cinema showcases Guyanese short films


Last night, there were dramatic scenes at D’urban Park, where Guyana’s official Golden Jubilee celebrations are set to take place in just a few weeks. But this time it wasn’t the rushed preparations, dodgy wooden seating or bendy flag pole in the spotlight. All eyes were fixed on the two projector screens set up by CineGuyana to showcase a series of locally produced and shot short films.

The eight films in the CineGuyana’ set – Luck Beat Handsome, The Bottle, Beached, The Encounter, Three Cards, Backyard, Hope and Tradition – are not new. They were, according to Stabroek News, produced in 2011 under the President’s Film Endowment Project, established by the previous president Bharrat Jagdeo. [NB: I arrived late so can’t confirm all were screened last night, but I know the programme also included the short To The Night.]


The films have travelled overseas too – to Guyana’s diaspora communities in New York, Washington and the UK. Tradition and Hope have also been shown at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Barbados, while Backyard and Three Cards were selected for the AFRIFF International Film Festival in 2011.

But CineGuyana’s ambitious project to take the films to eight of Guyana’s ten regions, and screen them for free, is admirable. At d’Urban park, a crowd of about 40 gathered under the white tent, but there were at least the same again scattered around the tent – watching from their cars, the roadside, or perched on the edge of the fountain surrounding Cuffy’s statue.

The audience seemed to enjoy the show. When the geeky star of Backyard made another pratfall in front of the beautiful popstar living next door, they laughed at his foolishness. When the wayward teenage daughter of To The Night shouted ‘whore!’ at her prostitute mother there were grumblings of disapproval. When The Encounter showed a man writhing around in the bath, apparently while being screwed by a ghost of a dead woman haunting his hotel room, the temperature (and laughter) rose up few notches.

The stories, I was glad to see, were undeniably Guyanese. The cinemas at Giftland Mall and Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel churn out Hollywood blockbusters and the odd Indian movie. So the difference was refreshing. The Bottle and The Encounter reminded me of the kind of films you find in Nollywood, though instead of witchcraft we had the Guyanese folkloric spirit, the ‘bacoo’, in the form of an evil, wish-granting genie; and the aforementioned lascivious ghost looking for revenge and a passage out of limbo (plus a bit of action).

Backyard was classic nerdy-boy-gets-the-girl territory, but the physical comedy of the main character, whose expressive eyes bulged behind his glasses, brought a freshness to a familiar theme. Some people in the audience laughed scornfully at the desperate antics of the father in Three Cards, gambling away his last GUY$300 to pay for medicine, but as he clutched his weak daughter to his chest you really felt for him – and the Guyanese people who right now are in the same situation, hoping for a miracle to see them through.

To The Night was my favourite, with its sensitive portrayal of a prostitute doing her best for her family and battling against useless fathers, condescending clients and teenage rebellion – torn between socially respectable but back-breaking housework for a critical mistress that paid a pittance, and lucrative sex work that paid the bills but potentially was going to push her daughter into the same life. The arguments between mother and daughter felt authentic, the dilemma real, the tone not too heavy, the frustration palpable, and the ending believable.

What more delights does the Guyanese cinema ouvre hold? What productions have sprung up since 2011? I’d like to find out.

I got a small glimpse of the dynamism and DIY efforts out there among the youth yesterday, before the CineGuyana screening, when a teenage girl introduced me to the Berbice comedy trio CoolBoyz she had just been watching on YouTube through fits of laughter.

Any more recommendations? And if anyone knows where I can see the CineGuyana films I missed (particularly ‘Tradition’), please let me know.

Also, I saw a post on Facebook about a Guyanese make-up artist competing to win a place at a professional make-up school in Hollywood. I thought his dedication and artistry was pretty inspiring, so worth checking out (and voting). If only to see how on earth he created this crazy Medusa lizard-woman. Freaky.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 14.39.09.png



Invisible People film UK homeless


(The Pavement, 17 July 2012)  “Hold on a minute.” Seconds after meeting Mark Horvath, founder of pioneering US video blog Invisible People, he disappears into the crowd outside Charing Cross station. He’s spotted three sitting men by the entrance and wastes no time in getting acquainted. “You guys sleeping rough? Want some socks?” he asks cheerfully, before kneeling down to chat properly while commuters stream by unseeing. Horvath seems to have a radar for homeless people, which is unsurprising given he has dedicated his life to trying to help them. One of the men agrees to be filmed and as he recounts his experiences, passers-by look over curiously. With a camera in his face, he’s no longer invisible.

Making homeless people visible is exactly why Horvath set up in 2008. Some 17 years ago he too had been homeless, living on Hollywood Boulevard, and knew what it was to be ignored, to not be able to tell his story. He managed to rebuild his life, built a successful career in television and settled into a three-bedroom house (“I know the best of both worlds – I know how to dumpster dive and how to tie a Windsor knot”) – and then economy crashed around him. Facing homelessness for a second time, he decided to set up Invisible People and go on the road. “It wasn’t the best timing. I had just lost my house to foreclosure, was facing my own financial crisis and it was a really dark time.” However he was embraced by the social media community and the site flourished. Today Invisible People has three million views on YouTube and 18,000 followers on Twitter. “The amazing statistic about Invisible People is the amount of people that stay,” adds Horvath. “Twenty-five per cent stay longer than 10 minutes and 14 per cent stay longer than half an hour. That’s huge.” Its success is the subject of upcoming documentary @home, which follows Horvath on his 2010 Invisible People road tour, meeting homeless people from Las Vegas to LA.

Right now, though, Horvath is in the UK on a whirlwind visit (thanks to free airfare from British Airways), taking in London and Chippenham (home of the Doorway Project). Although this is his first time in the capital, Horvath says he has no desire to do anything touristy: “I’m here just to meet homeless people, meet homeless friends. Most people would probably want to go to Big Ben or the London Eye. I’ll eat fish and chips and that will be it!”

Already the site is populated with videos of people he’s met so far in London. The first features 22-year-old Natasha, who has been living on the streets of London for four years. Leaning on her crutches, she quietly explains why she hasn’t been housed (“I’m not a drug addict, I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not pregnant, and they’re three things that get you help”) and her face lights up as she shares her dream of being a writer.

Filming the piece was tough, said Horvath, “I didn’t know what to ask her – it broke my heart… because I know what a young girl has gone through or will go through on the streets”. Already the video has been watched more than 160,000 times on YouTube, and attracted everything from offers of support, a place to live and a hand in marriage to vitriolic comments suggesting she is lying, on drugs and should get a job in McDonalds or as “a street hooker”. Nadia Gomos aka @Homelessgirl1 examined the responses in her blog post Analysing The Controversy Surrounding The “Natasha” Video (now on Huffington Post), concluding “All I know about Natasha is two minutes’ worth of footage on a person who has lived for 22 years… Whether we like it or not, we as a society have failed her.” Even Horvath comes under criticism, with one commenter writing: “Had an email back from Invisible People and they don’t have any contact details or way of contacting her, seems to me to be completely pointless highlighting a problem on a personal level like they did and then not enabling people to help that person.”

The aim of Invisible People, however, is not to act as an agent between individual homeless people and the general public, but to encourage passers-by to notice the homeless people they walk past every day. Nevertheless Horvath is not naïve that he or those he films won’t face criticism or appraisal: “The interesting thing about the internet is that everybody is up for review, so you have to live transparently. And there are always people that are going to be negative. This is how I responded, because it’s the truth; when you saw me homeless, would you have believed me when I told you I used to work in television?”

And despite the negative feedback, Horvath is still a big believer in the transformative and supportive power of social media. “Social media saved my life and it helps me save other people’s lives… Love and reciprocity plays really big on social media. If you’re good to people and real and tell a story people are going to react to that in a positive way.” As well as Invisible People he has set up We Are Visible, a website offering homeless visitors advice in social media literacy, from how to set up a blog to tweeting. “When I first started this I thought when a homeless person in Phoenix, Arizona or someplace says ‘I’m hungry’, the service providers would be on Twitter and say ‘hey, we have food’” says Horvath. “But what happened, which was a little more gorgeous, was homeless people helping homeless people over social media. Then I realised the power of peer-to-peer support.” In response he is in the process of turning it the site into closed network for people to help each other.

Another reason for the change is privacy. “One of first things that is so hard for a homeless person is to raise their hand in public and say ‘I’m homeless’,” explains Horvath. Since he’s been in London, he met many homeless people who although not willing to go on camera were keen to swap email addresses and keep in touch online. Horvath’s @HardlyNormal and @Invisible People timelines are full of conversations and appointment making with homeless people and service providers in London – all keen to meet or share ideas. “I landed and Jenny Edwards [CEO of Homeless Link] – she’s like an icon in homelessness here, she’s an amazing woman – she tweets me about the StreetWise Opera at the Royal Opera House. It was history in the making…it was almost like it was my destiny to be there and I was just blown away amazed.” Since the performance an online twitter petition has sprung up calling for a homeless opera at every Olympics, starting with Rio in 2016. “We’ve seen in the Middle East and other areas where social media has really led to some change,” says Horvath. “I really believe that’s where the change is going to happen. Because there’s so much money and so much bureaucracy in homeless services, that until the people on the streets have that voice you’re not going to see real change or see change happen fast.”

By voicing their views, he believes, homeless people can help homeless services ‘fix’ provision. “No homeless person I’ve ever met said ‘put in me a room with other 100 men, have me sleep on cots, give me one bathroom with two stalls and kick me out in the morning – and that’s going to cure my mental health and drug addiction. But that’s what we do.” Having been homeless and now working in a homeless shelter as his main source of income, Horvath himself is a natural intermediary. “When you listen to homeless services you hear a story. When you listen to homeless people on the streets you hear a story. And the truth I think lies somewhere in the middle. Cos everyone is going from their perspective and obviously a lot of street people are speaking out of their hurt and that’s because the system is broken. And refreshingly enough I was talking to homeless service providers last night [in London] who were saying ‘the system is broken, we got to change it, it’sjust change is slow and it’s a lot of work’.”

Horvath is optimist change can come. “When I was a kid I was a rebel, and if I saw any injustice I fought, I screamed, I yelled. And the only thing that changed was me. Now that I’m older I believe you have to work within the system, you have to make friends not enemies. I come in and say ‘hey, system’s broken, how can we fix it together?’” This approach is bearing fruit. In Arkansas, a farmer donated 40 acres of land that is being used to feed 150 low-income families a week. The Canadian government commissioned Horvath to go to 24 cities in Canada to help champion the Canadian Alliance To End Homelessness, which he says “will save thousands of lives and a lot of money”. Terry Pettigrew was reunited with his long-lost brother shortly before he died of cancer, after the Calgary Times put Horvath’s interview with Pettigrew on its front page. And that’s just the beginning.

“We live in a visual world – Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube,” explains Horvath. “Where homeless services are missing the mark is giveour homeless friends video cameras. If you’re going to give them a Smartphone make sure it has video and have them upload what their day is like. That’s where you’re going to see change.”

African arts, culture + politics · Homelessness

Far from home


(ARISE magazine, issue 15) After a starring performance in acclaimed film The First Grader, Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo could have lent on Hollywood for his next role. Instead the 63-year-old former journalist chose a part in a short film about homelessness. The Truth About Stanley centres around the eccentric Congolese homeless man of the film’s title (played by Litondo), who forms an unlikely friendship with runaway Sam, regaling the 10 year old with fantastic tales. “What he lacks in material possessions, he makes up for with his vivid imagination and an insatiable desire to tell stories,” explains director and co-writer Lucy Tcherniak. “This storytelling serves as a coping mechanism, a crutch that allows him to deal with the harsh hand life has dealt him.” Produced in association with UK street newspaper The Big Issue and homeless hostel Anchor House, the film was shot over five days in London and premieres at London arts hub Rich Mix on April 2.

African arts, culture + politics · Travel

I Love… Kinshasa

Detail from illustration by Christina K
Detail from illustration by Christina K

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) Director of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, Djo Tunda Wa Munga zooms in on the top hangouts in his native city – including locations from his award-winning film

Chez Ntemba
What I like about this nightclub is that it has a really African identity. Of course you have Congolese music but you also have South African music and music from West Africa… At the same time, Chez Ntemba is modern and contemporary. I think they’ve opened something like 10 of these clubs in Africa. I go there to hang out, stop for
a drink and watch the dancing.
Rond-point Forescom, Gombe

Chez Maman Colonel
This restaurant is known for its chicken – especially the chicken and plantain, which is very good. It’s my favourite place to go for something to eat. Kinshasa has a lot of restaurants but you don’t have many new places like this, where someone has said “we’re going to make chicken and it’s going to be delicious”, and that’s exactly what you get.
Avenue Bayaka, Kimbondo

Place Commercial
My office is right next door to Place Commercial and at the end of the day it’s nice to go out, sit there and have a beer or walk around. It’s in the suburb of Ma Campagne, where we shot many of the scenes from my film Viva Riva! It’s a cool and relaxed place with a lot of trees, but at the same time urban.
Ma Campagne, Ngaliema

Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is this old, old hotel. Everybody knows it, everybody goes there – they go for drinking, showing off… making sport! All the city likes hanging around there. Located in the residential Gombe area, the hotel also has great views of the river and the city.
Avenue Batetela, Gombe

Le Bloc
You’ll find Le Bloc in a neighbourhood called Bandal. It’s like a long terrace with lots of bars where you can sit and drink beer. I love stopping by here. It’s pretty noisy any day of the week but at the same time it gives you a real flavour of Kinshasa.

The Congo River
Kinshasa is built right on the Congo, which is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile. If you look across
it, directly opposite you can see the city of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. For the best views
over the Congo I’d always suggest a visit to National Museum of Kinshasa.

Place du 30 Juin
This new area in front of Kinshasa’s Central Station is a bit of a people magnet. It’s under construction at the moment – on one side you have a Chinese building, on the other a piece of Arabic architecture and then there’s the old Place de la Gare. The space has a nice atmosphere and I often go there with my daughter in the morning.
Central Station, Gombe

African arts, culture + politics

New build


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Still buzzing from the reactions to their award-winning  documentary about Ethiopia’s coffee industry, Black Gold, brothers Nick and Marc Francis explore equally hot waters in When China Met Africa. The film explores Chinese investment in Africa and was filmed in Zambia. It captures the difficult, often uneasy, relationship between Chinese project managers and African employees. But Nick says this is not exclusive to Africa: “You could be on a construction site in Beijing and the way workers are treated there isn’t so different. But it’s often misunderstood as being just in Africa.” Tension is caused by cultural and lingusitic differences. Says Nick: “I think in ten years that will change. There’ll be more Chinese speaking English and more African employees speaking Chinese.”

The Francis brothers chose Zambia because its ties with China stretch back to a 1964 diplomatic agreement. The Chinese constructed the Tanzal railway between Zambia and Tanzania and Zambia was the first African country to create China-Africa economic zones, in the copper-belt region and in Lusaka.The brothers hope their film will raise both debate and understanding around the China-Africa relationship. “What’s interesting is when you show the film in the US or the UK,” says Nick. “In this story the West are spectators and that throws up massive insecurity issues. They talk about China’s insatiable appetite for resources but so much of that is driven by our consumer need to have cheap goods”.

African arts, culture + politics

Inside An African Election


(, 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

“What we do we know about African elections other than they mostly go wrong?” It was this rather depressing question that drove director Jarreth Merz to go behind the camera and find out what an African election – the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, to be specific – really looks like on the ground.

The remarkable thing about the resulting film, An African Election, though, is not what goes right or wrong but the unprecedented access Merz and his team have to the two main candidates, their people and (a first for any film crew) the Strong Room – where all Ghana’s election results are sent, where accusations fly and where presidents are made. Eventually.

How easy was it to get the politicians on board? “I think they are hungry to be shown and seen in a different light, bottom line,” says Merz. “They understood very early that this was different … We were embedded in all the major political parties and we built trust over time. So I think they got this sense of ‘they’re not in here to make us look bad’. That wasn’t the case but at the same time I told them they had no control of the footage … I didn’t want to make a political movie, so to speak.”

Director of An African Election, Jarreth Merz

Another point in Merz’s favour was his Swiss-Ghanaian stepdad’s connections to Ghanaian society and family links to the king of Ashante. Merz himself grew up between Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, later moving to the US to study directing and go in front of the lens in hit US TV series ER (as Charles Baruani) and The Passion of the Christ. But it was the death of his Nigerian father in 2007 that put into motion the chain of events that would lead to An African Election.

“I was the first born so I had to attend the funeral otherwise he couldn’t be buried … my brother [Kevin Merz, co-director of An African Election] came and we started a diary – just a family diary – which turned into a documentary called Glorious Exit. And I just realised I didn’t know anything about Nigeria. And then I wondered well, what do I know about Ghana where I spent my childhood? What do I know about Africa? The debates are always about colonialism and neo-colonialism… what about day to day life?” Returning to Ghana in search of his “roots”, Merz instead found a country on the brink of an all-important presidential election – and, quickly, the idea for the film was born.

An African Election begins with just 28 days to go until the elections. The two main candidates are swiftly introduced – John Atta Mills of the NDC and Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP – and the boxing match begins, each contender trying to knock out the opposition and give the crowds something to cheer about. It is the fifth election since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, so the Ghanaian people are not new to this sort of thing. Yet they’re anything but apathetic – something clear throughout the film, from the initial rallies to the vote counting, when crowds of observers watch the election officials hawk-eyed to make sure not a single vote is miscounted. “Politics is embedded in families [in Ghana],” explains Merz. “People speak about politics, they’re engaged. There’s an amazing political sensitivity. They understood very early on that they were the ones to decide, they wouldn’t let the politicians decide.”

Perhaps inevitably – for a documentary, not for Africa – the film cranks up the tension as accusations are made about electoral fraud. A car is suddenly pictured in flames, crowds gather on the darkened streets, rumours spread of “macho men” on motorbikes snatching ballot boxes before they’re counted. Is it real or exaggerated for impact? For Merz, his presence as a filmmaker obviously made him more aware of events: “This was like wow, the shit’s going to hit to fan. Other people were in their homes, they were having dinner. People watched the film and said there was no violence. I think that’s dangerous – we cannot take democracy in Ghana for granted.”

Now the film is out, Merz’s focus is getting it seen – not just at Western film festivals and cinemas but across Africa. When we spoke, Merz had just got back from Zimbabwe where An African Election had passed the censors and was being screened. “Harare Gardens open air was packed,” says Merz. “People were laughing. It was just insane. I think they thought it was an inspiring story, an African success story. It wasn’t just the good, it wasn’t just the bad – people recognised their own political leadership.”

The important role played by the unshakeable Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, has also been commended far beyond African. “I got an email from a Superior Court judge in California who said he was a hero to him and his colleagues,” says Merz.

The focus now is on sourcing funding to take the film to Ghana and planning a “political safari project” to engage people at a grassroots level, using the film as a platform to start debates about democracy in, for example, universities. Then there’s Merz’s planned biopic on the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (who was of African descent) and a documentary on how love is seen across Africa.

So how does Merz think the presidential winner, Atta Mills (surely not a spoiler?), is faring. “I think he’s doing pretty much the right things, he’s trying to stop this conscience of vengeance. He’s not the most sexy politician on this planet, the most charismatic, but he’s trying to reason with his party to consolidate.”  With the next round of elections due next year, Atta Mills’s got another fight on his hands.

An African Election is out in UK cinemas now. For more information visit

London culture

London International Documentary Festival: Rio Breaks


(Visit London, 5 May 2010) The weather may have been miserable this Bank Holiday Weekend (surprise, surprise), but in Kilburn the surf was up, the sun out and bikinis on.  Unfortunately, it was only in celluloid form, as Tricycle Theatre hosted the European premiere of Rio Breaks, a Brazilian surfer film with heart.

While the rain poured outside, we were transported to the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro to meet two best friends; 13-year-old Fabio and 12-year-old Naama. For this cheeky duo, surfing is a total obsession – but also a saviour.

Born into a dangerous favela (or slum), the boys face obstacles as high as the hill they live on – including hunger, poverty, drugs, gangs and even murder. Their escape route is provided by a local surf club that offers free lessons and board loan to young people – on the condition they attend school.

Beautifully shot, the film is inspiring and funny – but still realistic; the boys aren’t angels, their future isn’t fixed and the violence continues around them. Yet their talent and passion shine through. And there’s some pretty amazing surfing, too!

We ended the night at local Brazilian restaurant Barraco, with a plate of juicy steak, rice and beans – and a berry caipirinha cocktail made with a liberal pouring of cachaça. Delicioso!

Rio Breaks is just one film from the ongoing London International Documentary Festival, which began on 23 April. The festival continues until 8 May and there are still lots more films to see, including:

  • Children of the Desert / Figli del deserto, 5 May, Free Word Centre
  • Andrew And Jeremy Get Married, 6 May, The Horse Hospital
  • H.O.T. Human Organ Traffic, 8 May, British Museum

For full listings, visit the London International Documentary Festival website.

Visit our London film festival calendar for more cinematic treats in the city, such as the current Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

London culture

Silent film: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (review)


(Visit London, 30 April 2010) Murder, mysticism and eerie music – the screening of 1920s silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at Greenwich Picturehouse on Wednesday night had it all.

The live rescore came courtesy of music maestros Minima. I had expected a tinkling piano, so was delighted by their electrifying mix of drums, base, cello and guitar.

Celebrated as a classic of German expressionist cinema, the film makes good use of menacing shadows, agitated characters and bulging eyes ringed in thick make-up – even for the men!

The strange story centres around the sinister Dr Caligari who tours fairgrounds with his ‘exhibit’, a hypnotised sleepwalker called Cesare who “knows the past and can see into the future”.

Alternately hilarious and mystifying, I found the film a fascinating change from today’s slick flicks, with its slow-building story, flimsy stage sets and descriptive title cards.

Minima’s score was fantastic. I loved the exotic African-style drumming that accompanied Dr Caligari’s fairground show, the slightly sleazy background music for a bachelor pad and the well-timed drum beat that made me (and half the audience) jump out of our seats!

Minima are sadly coming to the end of their performances of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but they have one more show in London at The Prince Charles Cinema on 18 May. You can also keep an eye out for more Minima performances on their website.


The trash khan of history


(Spiked Online, 4 July 2008) ‘Do not scorn a weak cub; he may become a brutal tiger.’ The wise old Mongol saying, which introduces this portrait of the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, may be a genuine, if hackneyed, attempt on the part of Russian director Sergei Bodrov to bring a sense of authenticity to the film; it’s just a shame the rest of the film is so historically disingenuous.

Faced at the age of nine with the death of his father – who had been the Khan, that is, the leader of his tribe – Temudjin (aka Genghis Khan – no, they don’t explain the name change) is cruelly cast out by the same people who once served his father. Temudjin’s subsequent meteoric rise from slave to ruler of all Mongols and commander of the largest contiguous empire in history – four times the size of Alexander the Great’s and twice that of Rome – is an incredible story, yet it’s tacked on as an afterthought, like those ‘where did they end up?’ credits at the end of TV documentaries about children’s hospitals or troubled teens (1). Admittedly, this is just the first in a trilogy of films about the life of Genghis Khan. Yet whether anyone will want to sit through the next two after this slow start remains to be seen.

The film begins strongly, depicting Temudjin when he was a child (played with conviction by the young Odnyam Odsuren). Self-assured and fearless, the composed expression with which he greets every danger or obstacle is what we expect of someone deemed worthy of yet another film some 800 years later. It’s just that the moment of glory we’re waiting for never quite comes.

The film does portray a number of key battles in the rise of Temudjin, complete with spraying blood, sharp swords and more stomach slicing than your average episode of 10 Years Younger. Unfortunately, Tadanobu Asano, who plays the older Temudjin, fails to fully capture the ambition, charisma and brilliance that inspired so many men to follow Genghis Khan into battle. And because this is only the first instalment of the trilogy, the final showdown is not the ruthless and triumphant seizure of territory across Asia – including China, Russia, Persia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe – but a half-hearted fight between Temudjin and his ‘blood’ brother Jamukha.

With his quirky neck-cracking habit, tendency to sing after a few drinks and a mohawk where the other men have long plaits, Jamukha (played by Honglei Sun) brings a touch of ‘character’ comedy to the proceedings – although you do half expect him to roll his eyes mock-despairingly at the camera, don a pair of sunglasses and start using the silver jewellery piece on his ear to make hands-free calls to one of his ladies. Although the two men’s love/hate relationship or rather love/troubled-but-with-mutual-respect relationship is a welcome break from Temudjin’s dull worthiness, it shouldn’t take up nearly all of the script. This is Mongol warfare à la Oprah.

The women take more of a back seat in the film, as they probably would have done in Mongol life at the time. So, although Temudjin’s wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) is feisty and sticks by her husband throughout, she still spends most of the film either watching him leave or waiting for him to return. The tension of ‘will they ever see each other again?’ is overused to the point where I couldn’t have cared one way or the other.

Besides, Genghis the romantic hero? Hardly. He may have loved his wife and rescued her after she was kidnapped, but he’s also said to have taken on a number of other wives. Moreover, according to recent research, through harems, concubines, not to mention raping captured women, Ghengis’ demographic contribution was such that nearly eight per cent of the men who now live in what was the Mongol empire share near-identical Y chromosomes (2). His descendents are even thought to stretch to our Royal family, Iranian royalty and the family of Dracula (3). Presumably true love gets higher points with the film focus groups.

Such a varnished portrait is problematic. The film blurb promises to deliver the untold story of Genghis Khan ‘based on leading scholarly accounts and written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev’ yet it seems that they’ve chosen to pick and choose the most sentimental parts from the academic research and leave out the rest (4).
One spectacular element to the film – and perhaps the reason why it was nominated for an Oscar in the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film of the Year category – is the scenery. Like an extended episode of BBC2’s Wild China, the camera (and horses) gallop across endless deserts and steppes, over lightning-lit rocks and through lush green grasses and forests. Filmed around remote steppes and forests in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, which was once part of the Mongol empire, it stays true to Genghis Khan’s roots.

Despite being only two hours long, this biopic manages to feel both much longer and not long enough, with many unanswered questions, unexplained escapes and loose threads. It would have been far better if Bodrov had taken a lead from Genghis himself and brutally chopped the three-part script to make one fast-paced film with an engaging and fluid narrative. In some ways the film is similar to Ridley Scott’s fantastic Gladiator – also about the fall and rise of a man from leader to slave to leader again, and the love he has for his family.

The thing is, Gladiator makes no real claims at historical authenticity. And this is Mongol’s problem. For it would have worked far better as fiction than half-baked history, especially if you too struggle to accept the perfectly timed good fortune frequently bestowed on Temudjin by Tengri, the God of the Blue Sky, in times of danger. Since when is that a fair fight? What next? Moses rustling up another sea-parting for God-fearing Nelson in Battle of Trafalgar: the Movie?