Category: Biopic

The General (Ireland-US 1998)

Brendan Gleeson as Martin Cahill and Jon Voigt as Inspector Kenny. Cahill often hid his face when questioned or interviewed.

Does British film culture appreciate its filmmakers enough? John Boorman is one of the most distinctive producer-writer-director figures to have made films in the UK. He left the country to work in Hollywood but then to settle in Ireland partly, I think, because he felt that filmmaking in the UK was not a serious undertaking.  He has been recognised in the UK with a knighthood but not with the level of appreciation by his peers that he deserves.

The General was perhaps the last of Boorman’s films to make money and to achieve critical recognition, though he has completed four films since (the last of which was Queen and Country in 2014). The General was screened in competition in Cannes and Boorman won the Best Director award for the second time. It is now streaming on MUBI but in a print which is slightly different to that which appeared in cinemas in 1998. The film was released as a ‘Scope picture in black and white and therefore not a film that Hollywood studios were prepared to pick up for distribution – i.e. to pre-buy and therefore to effectively co-finance. Boorman had to make the film using his own resources and to borrow a large chunk of the budget from the bank. He also received some Irish public funding. Only after the Cannes win did Warner Bros. agree to distribute the film in Europe. Boorman has argued that in the 1990s no studio would support black and white films because TV stations wouldn’t show them. His film was eventually released on home video in the US. The film was actually shot on colour stock and printed to monochrome and the version on MUBI is presented with almost all the colour bleached out and just some vestiges of pale colour visible in certain scenes. Boorman talks about lighting for colour and black and white at some length in an interview printed in Sight and Sound, June 1998.

Cahill’s gang meeting in a local snooker hall.

The ‘General’ of the title is the Dublin cat burglar turned gang-leader and ‘folk hero’ Martin Cahill who became a well-known figure in Ireland during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was assassinated in 1994 in a hit claimed by the Provisional IRA. Boorman credits Paul Williams for his book on Cahill published in 1995. Because Cahill’s story was so well-known, Boorman decided to start the film with his assassination and then narrate the events as one long flashback. His choice of black and white was also partly concerned with wanting to create some historical distance. It’s not difficult to see why Boorman was attracted to the story. Many of Boorman’s films feature protagonists prepared to take on the world and Cahill was a rebel, a very complex personality but also one easy to engage with, despite the vicious and cruel aspects of his behaviour. He is played in the film by Brendan Gleeson who in 1998 was just beginning to break through in lead roles in Irish films. From the photos I’ve seen Gleeson bears some resemblance to Cahill and he obviously researched the role carefully.

Cahill with the sisters he met as a boy (Frances on the left played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Tina played by Angeline Ball)

Cahill was an interesting figure for several reasons but primarily because he was a working-class lad who, at least initially, became a thief and a burglar because of his family’s fairly desperate economic situation. In an early scene we see him refusing to be rehoused because it would mean losing his place in a community he felt comfortable living within. Later he developed a more sophisticated persona as a joker who was eventually rehoused by the council closer to the affluent suburbs of North Dublin and gradually his ambitions as a criminal developed substantially. He taunted courts and played the system quite intelligently while at the same time developing the kinds of habits that would trip him up eventually. He had no real vices apart from crime except for a love of posh cars and motorbikes – flaunting his wealth while still ‘signing on’ the dole. The ‘Robin Hood’ tag came about because he divided the spoils of his major crimes equally among his gang members. But he could also be horrendously violent to any of his gang who disobeyed orders and his criminal activity was also damaging to the community he purported to support. Boorman does not take sides. He presents Cahill in context and offers us a police inspector (a composite of real Garda officers) played by Jon Voight, who is in some ways a similar kind of a figure but with police authority behind him. I’ve only given a brief description of Cahill – there is much more to add that the film presents in interesting ways.

Adrian Dunbar as Cahill’s ‘lieutenant’ Noel Curley

I’m not sure why I missed this film in 1998. I certainly remember its release but I guess I must simply have been too busy with full-time work to be able to see it. I’m conscious that the image of Ireland within the EU has changed since the 1980s but Cahill’s story has remained within the consciousness of filmmakers. Joel Schumacher’s film Veronica Guerin (Ireland-UK-US 2003), about the killing of a well-known journalist, also features Martin Cahill and his gang and much more recently the Irish TV crime serial Hidden Assets (Ireland 2021) features the ‘Criminal Assets Bureau’ set up in order to trace and recover the money and valuables stolen by the likes of the Cahill gang. Hidden Assets stars Angeline Ball who in The General plays one of the two sisters from Martin Cahill’s childhood who he eventually makes part of his family – he married one and with her consent also had children with her sister. The other notable actor in The General is a young Adrian Dunbar who plays Cahill’s closest gang member Noel Curley. This is ironic in terms of viewing in the 2020s since Dunbar is now one of the key figures in the success of Line of Duty, the TV series about the unit investigating police corruption in the UK.

Cahill takes out a street light in one of several cleverly worked schemes

The other aspect of The General is the sense that this is about a city and a country that has changed profoundly over the last 25 years. Ireland has thrived as an EU member, in many ways overtaking the UK in wealth creation and liberating itself from many of the restraints that held back Irish society for so long. Boorman made a film exploring the effects of the so-called ‘Irish tiger’ economy in The Tiger’s Tail (2006), again starring Brendan Gleeson. Irish cinema has also developed, throwing off its much of its dependence on the UK and US and finding its own stories. The 1990s was also the time that Roddy Doyle’s novels about working-class life in North Dublin were filmed – The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996). The other impact on Irish life that has been important in changing the country was the Good Friday Agreement that came into force in December 1999 and which reduced the activities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, both of which play a role in Martin Cahill’s story. He dismissed both sets of paramilitaries and this lack of political awareness was a major factor in his downfall.

The General is a very entertaining watch, made with real flair, crowned by a superb central performance by Brendan Gleeson and with strong contributions by the supporting cast. Boorman uses two Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack which work well. As well as streaming on MUBI, The General can be rented cheaply on Microsoft (but I don’t know which version this might be).

Tove (Finland-Sweden 2020)

Still not comfortable about returning to cinemas but wanting to see a new/recent release I watched this film streaming on BFI Player. I knew little about the Moomins and even less about their creator Tove Jansson, but I’d heard a couple of good things about this part-biopic. It’s fair to say that I was bowled over by the performance of Alma Pöysti in the title role and I very much enjoyed the story set in the immediate post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The committed artist

Tove Jansson is a woman approaching 30 when the narrative begins, living in Helsinki and sheltering from Russian air raids before the end of the ‘Continuation War’ with the USSR in September 1944. A trained artist who has studied in both Finland and abroad, Tove is still dominated by her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson who is supported by state and local commissions. She lives at home with her mother Signe, a graphic artist, and her younger brother Lars as well as her father. Her first move is to find a room in a bombed house and renovate it before pursuing her painting and graphics work. The narrative that develops has three strands which are woven together over the next ten years. One is the family drama involving her father on one side and her mother and brother on the other as Tove seeks her independence as a ‘visual artist’. The second strand, focusing on her artistic visions sees the development of her ‘visual storytelling’ which involves the creation of the Moomins, something which actually started several years before the film narrative begins. Finally, there is an intense romance that develops with Vivica Bandler, a wealthy married woman, and in the background an equally strong but less sexually charged relationship with Atos, a married man and socialist editor/publisher. The surprise for audiences may be that these relationships take up more screen time than the artistic practice and the development of the Moomin world. Having said that, all three strands are strongly connected. Tove’s love for Vivica is unrequited but Vivica is a genuine supporter as well as an exciting sexual partner. She spots the ‘special’ qualities of the Moomin drawings and will help promote them by staging a theatrical adaptation. Atos is important as a socialist and a true friend and lover in every way. Tove is, in the language of the period, a true ‘bohemian’ but she still needs friends like Atos.

Tove with Atos . . .

. . . and with Vivica

I realised as the film progressed that I did know something about the Moomins, the ‘soft’ creatures that live in a secluded valley. At one point in the narrative we see and hear Tove speaking English and agreeing to produce a regular comic strip for The Evening News in London. This started in 1954 and continued until 1975. I usually bought the Standard, but I must have seen the Moomins strip in The News, though I didn’t learn about its creator until many years later. It’s not surprising that Tove was able to speak several languages. Her family was part of the Swedish minority in Finland and she had studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But little of Tove’s background is included in the film. It is alluded to only as necessary for the central narrative. The film is being promoted as a lesbian romance and its first UK appearance was in the BFI Flare Festival for LGBTQ+ cinema. I found myself identifying strongly with Tove and I think that it’s important for the narrative that it concludes in the mid-1950s when Tove has just met the woman with whom she’ll spend the rest of her life. The end credits include ‘home movie’ footage of the real Tove dancing al fresco with her new lover.

The theatre show devised by Vivica and Tove

There have been some criticisms of the film. It is in narrative terms quite conventional and that often provokes a reaction as if films need to be ‘difficult’ to be worthwhile. Perhaps more to the point is the charge that because it only focuses on part of the life, we don’t get the full impact that her early and later experiences have on her development as an artist .Also, this means that we don’t have time to fully explore the creativity in the presentation of the Moomins world. Beyond the fact that her father is obstructive and that both Atos and Vivika are encouraging we learn relatively little about why the Moomins become such an international success. I suspect that is something the fans in the audience might miss. It’s particularly an issue in the UK perhaps where graphic artists/storytellers are still not properly accepted by cultural commentators, though it is better I think than in the 1950s-70s (and I note that Tove Jansson’s paintings were exhibited in the UK in 2016). These kinds of criticism are inevitable with biopics and to include everything is impossible, even if the final film was twice the length (this one is 103 minutes and the Press Kit mentions a 117 minute director’s cut). One of the other criticisms is that the artists’ parties and the alternative lifestyles of the period are too clichéd. I actually enjoyed the parties and they looked realistic/authentic to me. I particularly liked the music (especially Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’) and Tove’s enthusiastic and wild dancing. There is a good selection of songs to complement Matti Bye’s more muted score.

Tove puts on a show for Vivica

I hope I’ve suggested many reasons why Tove is well worth watching. That central performance is really something. I think I was particularly drawn towards Alma Pöysti by what I perceived to be her ‘naturalness’ or authenticity. I liked her best without make-up and hair styling when she is working as a ‘free spirit’. I understand that she is a theatre actor and that she has done voicework on Moomin animations. Part of her freshness is that she is not presented as a film star. Krista Kosonen as Vivica and Swedish actor Shanti Roney are both experienced film and TV actors and very good second leads, but it’s Alma Pöysti’s film. This is director Zaida Bergroth’s fifth feature and she leads a production crew with several women in significant production roles including Linda Wassberg as cinematographer and Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth as production designer. The script is by Eeva Putro who is also an accomplished actor and plays one of Tove’s friends. Andrea Reuter shares the production credit with Aleksi Bardy. The film’s budget of €3.6 million makes it one of the most expensive Finnish films. Shooting on 16mm film is argued to give the images the right texture for a presentation of the period. It’s difficult to confirm that on a computer screen but the film looked good to me. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

One final note. The film has been given a 12 rating in the UK. At last we now seem able to tolerate a few glimpses of naked body parts without everyone worrying about frightening younger teenagers. I do wonder though, with teenage smoking increasing what the impact of such heavy smoking characters might be. You can watch Tove on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

Charlatan (Czech Republic-Ireland-Slovakia-Poland 2020)

Jan Mikolásek analyses a sample, watched by Frantisek Panko

This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.

Frantisek goes out to the queue of people to make sure they are behaving in an orderly manner

The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the  communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.

The young Mikolásek meets a herbalist who can teach him the ropes

With the family background in horticulture, Mikolásek has a head start

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.

Mikolásek comes across as a severe figure

I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.

Mikolásek passes a diagnostic test set by the occupying Nazis

Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.

The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.

Small AxeRed, White and Blue (UK 2020)

John Boyega as PC Leroy Logan

The third film in the Small Axe ‘anthology’ is a form of biopic about the early working life of Leroy Logan. Logan is a hero figure who spent thirty years as a Metropolitan police officer, entering as a graduate recruit in 1983 and retiring as a Superintendent in 2013. He is played by John Boyega, the young actor who has become a major celebrity figure because of his roles in three recent Star Wars films. In 2020 his status was confirmed when he spoke to crowds during a Black Lives Matter campaign rally in London. Written by Steve McQueen and Courttia Newland and photographed by Shabier Kirchner with music under the control of Mica Levi, this was the third of the films to enjoy festival screenings in the US. It appears to have been shot on film and is presented in the theatrical widescreen ratio of 1:1.85. Compared to Lovers Rock, which was shot digitally and presented in the TV ratio of 16:9, film was presumably used for Red, White and Blue because more of the narrative uses exteriors? Unsurprisingly it turns out to be as successful in its storytelling and in terms of performances and techniques as the first two films. Why then do I feel slightly less ‘engaged’ or sympathetic towards the film?

Kenneth Logan (Steve Toussaint) and his young son Leroy (Nathan Vidal) about to change the music in the car

I think the answer lies primarily in the ideas behind the story and how these have been worked out in the approach adopted by McQueen. I was taken by a review I read after I saw the film when it was first broadcast. It was the first of the five films that I watched, all the others came later via iPlayer. Sight & Sound invited Gary Younge, the celebrated former Guardian journalist and now Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, to review the film. Younge is very astute about issues within Black communities in the UK and the US and he argues that Logan’s initial aim on joining the police was always going to be problematic. Younge articulates this eloquently:

Logan, played by John Boyega, says he has applied to the force to “combat negatives”, and feels “he’s got to be a bridge”. But the negatives are everywhere, which means the bridge he seeks to be can find no firm land on either side. And so the space in which he stands is suspended, without visible support, leaving him precarious and isolated, perched on a flimsy structure he has wished into being.

To appreciate Younge’s comment, we need to be aware that the time period in the film is not clearly signalled. The same is true of the location of the Logan family within London’s then distinct West Indian communities, (the Guardian article referenced below suggests that Logan was based in Islington but there is little sense of the location in the film). The ‘real’ Logan joined the Met in 1983. The film narrative begins when Logan is still a young boy in the early years of secondary school. Standing outside the school gates, waiting for his father to collect him the boy is questioned and searched by two police offers. When Kenneth Logan arrives he is angry about what he finds. This is presumably around 1968 or 1969 (Logan was born in 1957). We next meet the grown-up Leroy working in a science research laboratory, a couple of years out of university. This must be 1980 or 1981. Over the next few months he will begin the process of joining the Met. Why is timing so important? In January of 1981 a fire at a house party in New Cross killed several Black youths and was believed to be a racist attack. The police investigation was criticised as inadequate. In April 1981 anger about policing in Brixton in South London developed into the ‘Brixton Uprisings’ with thousands on the streets. Later in the summer of 1981 similar ‘uprisings’ occurred in Liverpool, Birmingham and several other UK cities. The police generally and the Met in particular were viewed with fear and mistrust by Black communities and significant parts of the general population. These events turn up in the next Small Axe film but aren’t evident in this film. We don’t see the most notorious form of police action either, that carried out by the SPG (Special Patrol Groups) which made the practice of ‘Stop and Search’ allowed under the ‘Sus’ laws, so hated because of its arbitrary use.

Leroy and his pregnant wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) just before he sets off for a family meal and his Hendon course – an uncomfortable framing?

Leroy joins the police force partly in response to his father being beaten up by two police officers when he challenges their allegation that he has committed a parking offence. He is also encouraged by his ‘auntie’, a family friend who works as a police liaison officer and is the mother of Leroy’s friend Leee John. Leee is another ‘real’ character, at this time the leader of the successful Black soul/funk group Imagination whose chart peak was in 1982 with the No. 2 single ‘Just an Illusion’. Leroy is sent to the Police Training Centre at Hendon where he excels as a student but still meets racist ideas and does not subsequently progress in the force as someone with his qualifications and success at Hendon might expect. I didn’t see any reference in the Hendon sequence to the furore surrounding the case of John Fernandes, a lecturer from Kilburn Polytechnic who was assigned to teach a course at Hendon. Fernandes was so shocked by the racist comments police cadets made in essays he asked them to write that he showed them to journalists. The reaction of the police authorities was to suspend Fernandes and his employers at Kilburn took action to dismiss him until action by grassroots trade union members in the lecturers’ union NATFHE prevented this. Ironically, the real Leroy Logan later found himself acting in the investigation into the handling of the Stephen Lawrence case, the murder of a Black teenager in 1993 which again showed the Met accused of inadequate and institutionally racist policing.

Training at Hendon

All five Small Axe films focus on a ‘moment’ in the history of West Indians in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. In most cases this moment becomes a narrative that produces an optimistic ‘possibility’ of a better future. How does that work in this film? If we compare the first and last sequences of Red, White and Blue they both feature Kenneth and Leroy – father and son. The conflict between first and second generation migrants is a familiar element of migrant stories. In the opening sequence after Kenneth has discovered the police treatment of his son, he starts to talk to the boy who asks to turn off ‘This World Is Not My Home’ by Jim Reeves on the cassette player and he replaces it with ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones (which causes his father to turn off the music altogether). This sums up a family conflict, perhaps too obviously? For the rest of the film, father and son will remain distanced. In the final scene (apologies for the spoiler, but this is a biopic so we know that Leroy survives to become successful), Leroy sits and drinks rum with his father. Kenneth now appears a broken man but he explains that he must accept that Leroy has got the education that the family has urged him to do. His father must now accept that Leroy had the right to choose to become a police officer. The narrative seems to have justified Leroy but possibly diminished Kenneth. Is this optimistic? I think what I took from this story is that Leroy attempts to do everything himself. The Metropolitan Police and its ‘canteen culture’ is so riddled with both institutional racism and overtly racist officers that Leroy’s crusade seems doomed. During his induction, when the new recruits are required to say a little about themselves, Leroy announces first that he “hasn’t joined to make friends”. This seems an odd way to set about his task. The events that follow then demonstrate that without support Leroy will find his police work very difficult (if not dangerous). Later on the ‘real’ Leroy Logan would become one of the founder members of the Black Police Association. This Guardian piece outlines some of the main points of Logan’s career in the Met and answers some of the puzzles I found in trying to read the film. Leroy Logan is credited as a consultant on Red, White and Blue.

Leroy discovers the ‘N’ word daubed on his locker at his local police station. The out of focus character in the green jacket is the most provocative of the racists at the station

My wariness about this film is not meant to imply a criticism of Leroy Logan’s actions nor to suggest that this is a ‘bad film’. On the contrary, it is a film that works very well in its own terms, with strong performances and an exciting and gripping narrative. However, it is not like the other four films in its conception and I’m not sure that McQueen and Courtland approach it in the same way. The narrative doesn’t seem rooted in a specific West Indian community like the other stories. Leroy’s ‘difference’ does seem to be carried by the changes in music with Al Green and Marvin Gaye replacing the reggae tracks. I think in the end I wanted to know more about Kenneth’s story and about the others in the family and the wider community (which does appear briefly in Leroy’s attempts to talk to local teenagers).

Mabo (Australia 2012)

Deborah Mailman and Jimi Bani as Bonita and Koiki Mabo

‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.

Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.

Koiki working on the railroad

Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.

The campaign begins

The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.

Getting to court

Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.

A great victory image with Bonita and her eldest son

I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman (Germany-France 2018)

All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.

Liv Ullman responds to Margarethe von Trotta’s questions

The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.

Margarethe von Trotta with two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel (right) and Ingmar (left)

We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.

I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.

A production still of Ruben Östlund being interviewed by Margarethe von Trotta

I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.