This article is part of a series reviewing the films screened at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, previous entries in this series are available on the site.
Little Palestine (Diary of a Seige)
Two of the best documentaries of recent years, The Cave and For Sama, are firsthand, ground-level accounts of the Assad regime’s atrocities against its own citizens in Syria. To this case, Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege, adds its testimony. Filmed in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, the film follows the inhabitants as they are besieged by Syrian missile strikes and roadblocks. To the Assad regime, there are no civilians: these people are their enemy. Unable to get food or supplies in or themselves out, the inhabitants are forced to starve, sourcing food where they can and continue to live until the siege is broken.
As infuriating and distressing as their plight is, and as much as certain images of starvation and fear will sear themselves into you—the child sifting morsels of food from the rubble, the wide eyes and sunken features of a skeletally malnourished infant or the way a bomb dropped from a helicopter seems to hang in the air a moment, as if in slow motion—as ever, the most lasting impression is of how normal it has become to the people. Their struggle for survival has lasted months on end and they’re inured to its routines and privations. While For Sama and The Cave concentrated on the fear, the violence and the exhaustion of tending to the dying and wounded, Little Palestine focuses on the day to day violence of starvation, the mundane grind of finding food and staying proactive.
This latter is something the film’s director and star Abdullah Al-Khatib is unwavering able to do as he and his doctor mother minister as best they can to the community’s needs, maintain morale and to court aid from outside, working to rebuild buildings as fast as Assad’s bombs can tear them down. There’s no suggestion of trivialising or diminishing the suffering portrayed, one could hardly sanitise the unsanitisable, but Al-Khatib works to create a full cross section of the community, wracked by despair, yet angry enough to stay defiant, living on just to spite the regime that wants them to disappear.
As always, it’s the children who are most poignant, something Al-Khatib seems keenly aware of, as the centrepiece of the film comes near its close, in a long interview with Tasnim, a young girl found gathering edible weeds on public land. Abdullah is great at speaking to children, many times throughout the film we see him handing out balloons as discussing the siege with local kids. In a scene that would feel unimaginably manipulative had it appeared in a scripted drama, he asks a crowd of happy, laughing children what they would wish for, and one jovially replies that he’d wish to have his brother back.
In the shadow of two such extraordinary forebears, it would be hard for Little Palestine to excel itself as a film, but it’s sufficient to add its voice to the chorus of outcry against the atrocities committed by regimes seeking to maintain power over the people of the world, and in its attitude of resilience and defiance, it’s as clear a declaration as one will find that the civilian population of the world will not surrender easily.
Ride the Wave
In a somewhat lighter vein, though not the feelgood underdog story it initially seems, we have Ride the Wave, Martyn Robertson’s documentary about Scottish child surfer Ben Larg. When we first meet Ben as a 12 year old little fish in the big pond of international surfing, supported by his larger than life, very, very Scottish dad Marti at world surf championships in Japan, we seem to be on track for an inspiring tale of determination and individuality, about finding one’s passion pursuing it in knowledge of the obstaces. However, documentaries can be as unpredictable as life itself, and events soon take a more ambivalent tone, with a light, funny opening building to something more bittersweet and complex.
After a string of disappointments at international competitions, the now 14 year old Ben decides to set himself a new goal, turning his back on competitive surfing and instead focusing on big wave surfing, a decision that inspires some pause on his supporting parents Marti and Iona. Big wave surfing is dangerous however well prepared you are and however much support you have. Ben is lucky enough to have a huge support network helping him achieve his personal goal: to be the youngest person ever to surf the especially dangerous wave at Mullaghmore, Eire. Nonetheless, the audience is slowly gripped by apprehension that Ben is heading for disaster. It’s comparable in some ways to Free Solo, watching a thrill seeker attempt something extremely dangerous. The danger isn’t quite as great, but this is a child, watched on by his indulgent but worried parents.
Iona and Marti are torn between encouraging their son to pursue his passion and achieve his goals, and protecting him from the dangers of the world, and this isn’t the first time they’ve made such a decision. Ben was taken out of school because he was being relentlessly bullied by his classmates and Iona and Marti’s faith in the school system was shattered, choosing to home school their children instead and keep them safe. However, they can’t be kept safe from their own ambitions and Ben seems keenly aware both of his mortality and of what surfing means in that context. One almost gets the sense that by protecting Ben from mixing with other kids, who can be and are cruel, they’ve stunted him in some way and Ben is throwing himself into surfing as a way to regain the independence and self worth his tormentors robbed him of.
This ambivalence chases Ben and his parents through to the very end, making Ride the Wave a much more complex and emotionally reserved film than one might anticipate given the levity and humour of its opening act. Perhaps the crew didn’t quite realise where this strength lay and weren’t as probing as they might have been, leaving a lot of the most challenging and conflicting ideas unspoken. It’s an engaging documentary, and one that might have been fantastic had it embraced its more agonised moments.
Mothers of the Revolution
One of this year’s few world premieres, Mothers of the Revolution is an uplifting and inspiring, though perhaps somewhat anodyne documentary about the power of protest, focusing on the Greenham Common Peace Camp, begun by a group of Welsh wives and mothers in 1981. As the Cold War reached it’s hottest since the Cuban missile crisis, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and American president Ronald Reagan were working on concocting a British missile crisis of their own, announcing plans to install a detachment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common army base. Outraged by their country’s leaders blindly xenophobic warmongering, the Greenham women organised a march and all-female protest at the site, one which took on a life of its own and became far larger than they had initially dared hope.
Briar March’s documentary tells these women’s stories through a combination of talking head interviews, archival footage and dramatic re-creations of significant events of which footage doesn’t survive. I’m a little torn on the use of these re-constructions, I think they could have been done more creatively – for just one possible example of what I mean, I’d refer to James Spinney and Pete Middleton’s use of re-enactments in their documentaries like The Real Charlie Chaplin—or at least more convincingly. The acting in these scenes isn’t great and they feel rather stiff and stagey. Perhaps a fully dramatised version of events would have been more compelling, or a stronger reliance on archive footage and interviews could have given the film more credibility, but this half and half approach didn’t quite cut it.
The more formally documentarian side of the film worked a lot better, the interviews are sincere and passionate and the footage is well chosen, managing to be very evocative of life at the camp and of the culture at the time. The women are soon besieged themselves by counter-protests and violence attacks from snobbish locals and police, arrests, imprisonments and intimidation, as well as media manipulation, with false news stories being planted against them and a tone of misogyny that’s still shocking despite how recent a memory all this is.
The film also explores the culture surrounding nuclear weapons and makes a potent case for the women’s cause in opposing them, citing the impacts on the population of the Bikini Atoll after the postwar tests. In response, the Greenham women organise to prevent the cruise missiles being installed at Greenham, though with a wider agenda to end the cold war as a whole, travelling to Washington and Moscow to meet with both sides, collaborating with Russian peace activists like Olga Medvedkov and hoping to curb the culture of mistrust fostered by governmental reliance on nationalistic, xenophobic rhetoric.
With voiceover narration by Glenda Jackson, the film’s tone can be occasionally overwrought and positivist, but also genuinely inspiring and often legitimately moving. Ultimately the film ends on a celebratory note tying the Greenham movement to contemporary protests like Time’s Up, the Arab Spring and Extinction Rebellion, celebrating the act of protest itself, divorced from the specific ideologies and issues driving each of these protests, steering clear of controversially endorsing a current struggle.