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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear