Documentary update

John Steinbeck, When Bankers Were Good and the Academy Awards.

84th Academy Awards Documentary Feature category

The list of 15 films has been announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It includes Wim Wenders' unmissable tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch and Susanne Rostock's documentary about Harry Belafonte's involvement in the American civil rights movement, Sing Your Song.

The list has some prominent omissions: Werner Herzog's death-row documentary Into the Abyss and most surprisingly, Senna, Asif Kapada's mesmerising documentary about the Brazilian Formula One racing driver who won the world championship three times. The winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Senna is made up of fragments of archival footage. The result is a visually sublime exploration of the excitement and burden of Senna's talent.

The chosen documentary films are:

Battle for Brooklyn (RUMUR Inc.)
Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)
Buck (Cedar Creek Productions)
Hell and Back Again (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
Jane's Journey (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
The Loving Story (Augusta Films)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (@radical.media)
Pina (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
Project Nim (Red Box Films)
Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
Sing Your Song (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
Undefeated (Spitfire Pictures)
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
We Were Here (Weissman Projects, LLC)

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on 24 January, with the award ceremony taking place on 26 February, broadcast live on the ABC Television Network.

Melvyn Bragg's John Steinbeck documentary

Tonight a one-hour documentary for BBC Four will follow former NS guest editor Melvyn Bragg as he explores the legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author, John Steinbeck. Bragg travels from Oklahoma to California, focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath and asking why Steinbeck's social concerns still hold great resonance today. Bragg visits the California orchards which formed the centrepiece of The Grapes of Wrath, where migrant labourers and growers engaged in protracted and painful political battles. Across many decades, in several America states, the classic novel has been burned and banned. Its unwavering empathy for the underprivileged and biting critique of social structures has caused it to be branded as subversive by some conservatives. Bragg also travels to the site of the "dust bowl" in Oklahoma and the Monterey coastline that helped shape Steinbeck's ideas on ecology.

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good

Today on BBC Two Ian Hislop presents a provocative and amusing film about the financiers of the Victorian era, whose behaviour belies the idea that banking is always associated with recklessness and unlimited greed. In the Victorian era there was a vigorous national debate about money's moral purpose and its potential to corrupt. Some extremely wealthy Victorian bankers had a troubled relationship with their acquisitions and engaged in a good deal of soul-searching. Hislop champions these highly generous individuals, such as the millionaire merchant banker George Peabody who made a vast donation to London housing which still provides accommodation to 50,000 Londoners today. Hislop talks to a range of figures, including the chief rabbi Lord Sacks, chairman of the FSA Lord Turner, philanthropic financier Lord Rothschild and the historian (and NS contributor) A N Wilson.

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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