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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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