Gorilla contributor Natalie Stendall has been picking her way through the thick jungle of the Sheffield Doc/Fest this week. Read part 1 here.
After a packed weekend of film premieres, Monday at Doc Fest was a day of commissioning. The first session focussed on the evolution of specialist documentaries, whilst other commissioning sessions throughout the day explored topics including arts programming, class and culture restrictions and the increasingly blurred line between factual and entertainment.
On the film screening front there was still a rich selection to choose from, so I made it along to the Angry, White & Proud, which focusses on the UK’s far-right activists, I Want To Be A King, which follows the fascinating dream of an Iranian man to set up his own nomadic tribe, and Limited Partnership, which took on the subject of same-sex marriage.
ANGRY, WHITE & PROUD
This Channel 4 documentary originally aired on UK television back in January. Since then, viewers have reacted in disgust at the far-right behaviour it reveals. At the centre of the documentary is Colin who openly admits to ‘hating’ Muslims and describes how he graduated from football violence into a splinter group of far-right activists.
The filmmakers follow Colin as he attends protests and demonstrations that are charged with hostility and buoyant party atmospheres rapidly descend into tension and violence. Disorder bubbles fiercely beneath the surface of an unexpected encounter with a group of young Muslims, while a demonstration against an Islamist protest headed by Anjem Choudary ends in heated threats from both sides. The splinter cells regularly jump on news story bandwagons – the Rotherham child abuse scandal sees them engage aggrieved members of the local community in the protest – and hunt down those rumoured to be involved in terrorist activity. Police attempting to manage this behaviour frequently come face to face with the activists’ aggression.
Emerging in a vacuum following the collapse of the English Defence League (EDL), the film examines splinter cells that are now able to act independently. As such, Angry, White & Proud reveals the adverse consequences of the EDL’s collapse and the frightening notion that these splinter groups may be even harder to police. From the activist’s identification of ‘legitimate targets’ to their belief in the inevitability of ‘militia’ style attacks as a valid next step, the consequences of the EDL’s collapse are far from favourable.
Given this material, audience reactions to Angry, White & Proud are not surprising. The attitudes presented are racist and extreme but the filmmakers attempt more than simple, one-sided criticism, aiming to understand the mindset of these far-right activists. For Colin, the far-right offers friendship, family and empowerment. Another activist is motivated by the loss of his son. As he leafs through newspaper cuttings the tabloids’ culpability is hinted at, but Angry, White & Proud suggests solving the extremist problem is much more complicated than any of us might imagine.
I WANT TO BE A KING
At the heart of this eccentric Iranian documentary about the power of personal goals is middle-aged farmer, Abbas. He has a wife and children but Abbas won’t let go of his boyhood dreams. As a child he fantasised about becoming a king and, when we meet him, it seems his dreams have a chance of coming true.
A decade ago, a chance encounter with two German tourists looking for food and a place to rest sparked an entrepreneurial idea. Abbas built a tourist village and now caters for ten to twenty people a day, all looking for an authentic Iranian experience.
I Want To Be A King follows Abbas as he embarks on the next stage of his tourist plan: setting up a nomadic tribe that lives as Iranian nomads did two hundred years ago. With the bizarre opportunity to win an injection of funds from Electrolux, Abbas plans to become the ruler of his own tribe, charging tourists €2,000 a day for the experience.
In conversation with Abbas, director Mehdi Ganji gives us a fascinating character study. Abbas is wrapped up in fantasy. In the background, he watches Harry Potter and reveals the source of his idea: a time travel movie. Later Abbas talks about his first love, whom he was prevented from marrying, and the story has all the ebbs and flows of a Hollywood romance. Reciting it, Abbas is on the verge of tears. The value of romantic love and the complexity of family becomes the beating heart of Ganji’s film.
Abbas possesses an extraordinary combination of boyish imagination and adult determination. It could be a dangerous combination, and for his wife and family – who have worked tirelessly on Abbas’ original tourist village – it almost certainly is. When Abbas decides he needs a new, nomadic wife to become queen of his tribe, the bonds with his old family rapidly disintegrate. His wife faces disgrace and severe financial consequences but, making it clear he is ‘not lustful’, Abbas continues to pursue his goal. Like a true fly on the wall, Ganji captures an explosive, jaw-dropping argument between Abbas and his daughter: the most commanding scene in Ganji’s entire film.
It might be easy to lose sympathy in the face of such determination but Ganji awards enough time to Abbas’ enthralling personality that we remain compassionate. Beneath the irresistible character study, I Want To Be A King explores the complex incongruities between love, marriage, dreams and family. In spite of the films extraordinary subject matter, it’s something we can all can relate to.
It’s 2002. One of America’s first married gay couples still believes that ‘love will triumph and change the world’. Despite being married to US born Richard in 1975, Australian born Tony has repeatedly been denied a US green card. The first letter they received from the US government states: ‘you have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots’. Refusing to separate from Richard, Tony has since been living in the US as an ‘undocumented American’. Limited Partnership follows their legal battle against the American government for equal treatment of same-sex marriage couples in immigration policy: the first battle of its kind and one that lasted over forty years.
This film from director Thomas Miller balances the personal story of Richard and Tony with the wider political context and growing demand for same-sex marriage equality. Beginning back in 1975 when a county clerk determined there was nothing in the Colorado marriage code to prevent two homosexuals from marrying – a decision later overruled by the Attorney General – Miller traces the reaction of the US government through the Federal Defence Of Marriage Act to the impact of 9/11 on immigration law.
Miller astutely collates archive footage of the couple’s legal battle which played out across the US media. In doing so, he takes in eruptions of public hatred towards homosexuals that shock US born Richard, who says, ‘it was a very uncomfortable period of my life’. But the levels of public hostility come only second to the repeated, offensive responses to Richard and Tony made by the US government itself. The way in which Miller assembles this historic news footage is masterly, encapsulating shifts in opinion both within and across state lines.
Filming Richard and Tony between 2001 and 2014, Miller is able to dig deep into his subjects’ lives. Tony’s childhood and troubled relationship with his mother – who even wanted to have him lobotomised – is especially poignant. Her letter to Tony during the couple’s legal battle is more heartbreaking than any government response he receives. In dedicating so much of his time to the couple, Miller captures not only their strength and enduring bond, but a testament to love and commitment that contrasts sharply with narrow, legal definitions of marriage embraced by government.
Already garnering numerous festival awards, Limited Partnership achieves both a poignant intimacy with Richard and Tony and captures a politically rousing impression of the bigger picture. Like Richard and Tony’s belief that ‘love will triumph and change the world’, it’s also hopeful: by the end of this month, the US Supreme Court will decide if all states must allow same sex couples to marry.