Gilbey on Film: Ciné vérité

The future of the documentary is in safe hands.

It would be tempting to suspect, after Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here, that the documentary genre was entering a particularly disingenuous phase. Thank goodness, then, for two new works screening in the London Film Festival which assuage any concerns that the form has been hijacked by smart-arses.

Surely you won't need any encouragement to seek out Pink Saris, the new film from the brilliant Kim Longinotto (Divorce Iranian Style; Sisters in Law). Its subject is Sampat Pal, an indomitable crusader who fights the corner of abused and downtrodden women from northern India. Teenagers abandoned by the men who fathered their children, wives beaten by their in-laws, child brides -- these are the sorts of cases that Sampat Pal takes on with an elemental fury that is nevertheless tempered by wisdom and tenderness.

She talks, quite wonderfully, in boasts and slogans: "There is no higher power than woman"; "Who cares what the world thinks? It's never helped us!"; "I am the messiah for women." Oh, and: "I beat up a cop once." File her alongside Bette Davis.

The picture takes its title from the jubilantly bright dress code of the Gulabi Gang, which comprises members of the "untouchable" caste whose rights are defended by Sampat Pal. Seeing them all crowded together at a wedding resembles an explosion at a pick'n'mix counter. It is Sampat Pal's gossamer scarf, though, that sees the most active duty, mopping up the tears of women and men alike (and, on occasion, her own tears, too). She's not perfect, as the film reveals, but her shortcomings only deepen her struggle for justice, and our understanding of it.

Should you miss Pink Saris at its LFF screenings, it turns up again next month at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, where Longinotto will be presented with the Inspiration award, celebrating "a figure who has championed documentary and helped get great work into the public eye".

I urge you also to catch The Peddler, an Argentinian documentary that is one of the most disarming and compassionate films you'll see all year. The set-up is deceptively slight: Daniel Burmeister, a 67-year-old, white-bearded amateur film-maker, stops in the town of Benjamin Gould to encourage its citizens to participate in a movie he's making called Let's Kill Uncle.

This is how Burmeister spends his life -- settling in towns and villages for a month or so at a time, casting the inhabitants in one of the five or six films that he has in his repertoire, shooting the picture, then screening it for the delighted cast before moving on to the next stop on his journey.

If you could feed Day for Night, Ed Wood and Be Kind Rewind into a documentary-making machine, it might come out looking something like The Peddler. From the glorious auditions (well, they're not really auditions -- everyone is guaranteed a part) to the can-do shoot, and on to Burmeister's DIY publicity campaign and finally the triumphant premiere at the town hall, this is a glorious celebration of community, imagination and the transformative power of film-making.

Burmeister describes his work as "handcrafted", and the same evocative tag could be attached to the documentary itself. There may turn out to be better films in the LFF, but I'll be stunned if there is anything quite so soulful.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem