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A Lyrical Film That Pulls its Political Punches, 20 December 2014

GELECEK UZUN SURER (THE FUTURE LASTS FOREVER) begins with a haunting image of a horse running across a deserted landscape and being shot down with a gun. This direct reference to Sydney Pollack's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY (1969) sets the tone for a film that focuses on the sheer waste of life during the so-called Kurdish conflict that dominated Turkish history in the Nineties and beyond, and continues to this day. In light of recent events in Syria, the issues raised by this film have become even more significant.

Sumru (Gaye Gursel) is a doctoral student from Istanbul traveling to the east of Turkey to do research on elegies. At the film's beginning, she sees her work as divorced from politics; it is simply a means to obtaining an academic end. She gradually becomes involved with local resident Ahmet (Durukan Ordu), and together they visit various places where the conflict - and its consequences - has been most keenly felt. Along the way they interview various family members who have lost loved ones: most of these interviews are shot with a single camera pointing at the interviewee, interspersed with reaction shots of Sumru and her colleagues.

Director Ozcan Alper has constructed a leisurely narrative, with long shots of the rolling eastern Turkish landscape interspersed with close-ups of the main protagonists. This is a low-key film in terms of tone - a strategy that only served to underline the horror of the events discussed. Many families in the region have experienced the pain of torture, familial loss, and unwarranted intrusion by troops; but their stories are often excluded from the 'official' narratives of recent history. Alper's film serves to bring them to light once more. The allusion to Pollack's film underlines the cheapness of human life - especially for the generals (and other leaders) involved in the conflict. Someone has to get killed in order to fulfill one's ends. Yet Alper suggests that no one - not least the local residents - has any real clue what the conflict is (or was) about any more.

The film's narrative closes with Sumru's mysterious disappearance, and a return of the horse galloping across the screen once more. The image serves to remind us that individuals count for nothing in this conflict - not even the so-called protagonist of Alper's film.

So-Called 'Quirky' Documentary That Rapidly Palls, 19 December 2014

This look at the historical sites along the A303, a road stretching from the south-east to the south-west of Britain, connecting right through to Exeter in Devon, had fascinating potential: ancient and modern sites compete for attention on both sides of the road, that befit close attention.

Unfortunately John Holdsworth's documentary was ruined by the decision to use Tom Fort, a self-styled 'eccentric' as presenter. Traveling down the road in an ancient Mini Traveller car from the Sixties, he came across as someone prone to mugging in front of the camera for no apparent reason: what mattered was not so much the sites, but his reaction to them. The experts assumed an inferior position; Fort either interrupted them or responded to their observations with gales of forced laughter.

Perhaps the BBC should consider that in historical documentaries, the material assumes more importance than the presenter.

Profile of a Modern Artists with some Unnecessary Longueurs, 19 December 2014

German artist Anselm Kiefer began his career in the late Sixties, and made a name for himself by producing controversial works that deliberately referenced Germany's Nazi past. In a culture which - in his view - was trying its best to either minimize or even forget its past, Kiefer tried his best to use art to encourage viewers to come to terms with it. Alan Yentob's documentary commends him for the sincerity of his task, yet refrains from making judgment on his work; we do not really know whether the consciousness-raising efforts of the artists had any profound effect on the ways in which German people viewed their worlds.

Instead the documentary chooses to focus on Kiefer's later work, which certainly does not want for ambition. He has shifted studios on numerous occasions; at present he has taken over a large space just outside Paris once used as a department store warehouse. He tends to be highly ambitious in his creations, regularly employing assistants to carry out his wishes. The theme of World War II keeps resurfacing in his work, as he builds installations using replica models of destroyed airplanes. There is not supposed to be any clearly defined "meaning" in what he does: as he says to interviewer Yentob, his responsibility as an artist is to find connections between apparently disparate images and objects, letting viewers understand and evaluate such connections for themselves.

Kiefer comes across in this documentary as a highly intelligent artist, with a multlingual talent for communication in German, English and French. Yet perhaps the program might have benefited from some judicial editorial pruning; there are too many longueurs in which the camera passes lovingly over Kiefer's work without giving viewers sufficient time to explore it in detail.

Engaging Exercise, but Rather Pointless, 19 December 2014

In this documentary, first aired at Christmas 2011, former Royal Ballet dancer Darcey Bussell comes out of retirement to try and dance some of the wonderful routines pioneered by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.

The format is highly reminiscent of STRICTLY COME DANCING, with Bussell shown taking advice from experts in musical theater, and going through the often painful process of retraining herself from classical ballet into tap. The fact that Len Goodman is wheeled in, his grinning features recalling Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" of musicals, pushes the parallel still further.

In truth Bussell makes a highly creditable stab at some memorable routines, notably "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "Good Morning," from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. But when we see the clips with the original artistes performing these routines, we understand just how great they were. The program seems strangely pointless, although there are some moments to be enjoyed for their own sake, notably an interview with the aging Stanley Donen, co-director of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, who recalls just how painful the rehearsals for the film were, with Kelly doing much of his famous routine in the midst of a Californian summer and suffering from a heavy cold to boot.

Familiar Tale of the Decline and Fall of a Major Sporting Star, 18 December 2014

Alex ('Hurricane') Higgins was one of the major stars of the televised snooker age. Although he only won the World Championship twice, in 1972 and 1982, his colorful style of play and extravagant behavior inside and outside various arenas ensured that he remained in the forefront of spectators' minds.

Brought up in a tough area of Belfast, Higgins was a self-made player who spent most of his younger days in snooker halls. Possessed of immense natural talent, he shot to fame in the early Seventies when he beat his one-time mentor John Spencer to win the world crown. When television started to become interested in the sport, initially through the series POT BLACK, Higgins was catapulted to stardom; his 1982 victory over Ray Reardon at the World Championships had a memorable denouement, when his wife and young daughter came out of the audience to embrace him; Higgins himself broke down in tears.

Sadly this success was not to last. Jason Bernard's documentary suggests that Higgins spent too much time carousing and not enough on practice; to snooker barons such as Barry Hearn - who founded the all-conquering Matchroom team - Higgins was a liability, someone who could prove unmanageable. Despite occasional flashes of his one- time brilliance, Higgins gradually slid down the rankings ladder, and was eventually reduced to the qualifying rounds of the World Championships.

Above all he was a stubborn man - even when he contracted throat cancer he refused to change his lifestyle. He continued to play, even though he was little more than a physical wreck, his once- attractive countenance ravaged by illness and alcohol. He died young; and although the stars turned out in force for his funeral, there was a lingering sense that the player himself was solely responsible for his demise.

While the documentary recognized the fact that he might have been 'The People's Champion' in his prime, by the end of his career he was a sad person.

Arrows (1977)
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Fascinating Record of 'The Crafty Cockney' at the Outset of his Darts Career, 18 December 2014

Recorded in a series of clubs countryside, as well as at the News of the World Darts Championship, ARROWS offers a filmed record of Eric Bristow (aka "The Crafty Cockney") at the beginning of his professional career, as he took the darts world by storm. He comes across as a brash, self-confident personality, enjoying the trappings of fame - a chauffeur-driven car, a large income (by 1977 standards), and regular appearances on television and radio. Confronted by a truculent local radio DJ, who berates him for his louche lifestyle, Bristow answers the questions calmly, while never losing his sang-froid; here is a man who knew himself and what he could do.

As a sociological document, John Samson's documentary is fascinating, evoking a long-lost world of workingmen's clubs, whose patrons spent most of their evenings swilling bear and puffing happily away on their cigarettes. In this smoke-filled atmosphere darts acquired its reputation as a not-quite-respectable sport that nonetheless attracted huge audiences. Bristow went from club to club, challenging all comers, and offering them big cash prizes if they could beat him. No one succeeded, of course, but the main attraction lay in the prospect of seeing 'The Crafty Cockney' defeated, especially in the north of England.

On the other hand ARROWS captures the tedium of the celebrity dart- player's life, as he travels nightly from place to place, charged with the responsibility of putting on a cheery face to please the patrons who came to see him. In truth Bristow preferred to practice on his own, refining his unique dart-throwing technique to such an extent that he would eventually become the major force in the sport during the Eighties. But, like the game trouper he was (and still is), he knew how to please audiences; to appear as 'one of the lads,' despite leading a lifestyle infinitely more affluent than those of his audiences. Despite his apparent cockiness, Bristow comes across as an attractive person; if he hadn't been, he would not have remained a celebrity for over three decades.

The Rise and Fall of a Popular Televised Sport, 18 December 2014

Professional wrestling really took off in the United Kingdom as a music-hall entertainment, with the impresario Charles B. Cochran presenting George Hackenschmidt in a series of exhibition bouts against specially selected opponents. In the Fifties the sport was taken over by a cartel - Joint Promotions - which virtually ran the entire show and obtained a long-running television contact with ITV that ran for thirty-three years until 1988. Wrestling still just about survives as a spectator sport, but it is now a niche interest, as opposed to the late Sixties, when televised bouts could attract audiences of 10-million plus viewers.

Linda Sands' documentary highlights the contribution made by some familiar wrestling faces - Mick McManus, Jackie (Mr. TV) Pallo, Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki among them - but ignores other well-known figures such as Les Kellett. All of them enjoyed long careers beginning in the Forties and continuing for two, even three decades. Although they expended a lot of energy by putting their bodies on the line in the ring, they were at the mercy of Joint Promotions, which actively fixed bouts in advance so as to secure maximum publicity. In the light of recent events in many sports, where spot-fixing has become commonplace, this doesn't seem a particularly heinous crime, but it was this kind of strategy that prevented wrestling from ever being accepted as a de facto sport, rather than a mix of sport and entertainment.

The program claims, wrongly in my opinion, that wrestling was an essentially working-class entertainment. It wasn't; on the contrary, its regular audience (for televised as well as live bouts) was cross-class, with people from all socio-economic backgrounds enjoying the chance to let their hair down by hissing, booing, or even assaulting the fighters on occasions. The atmosphere in most venues resembled that of a bull-fight, with audiences egging on their favorite matadors to chalk up yet another win. The fact that they didn't (with villains like McManus continually winning instead), only served to increase audience interest further.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this documentary is the equivocal way in which some of the interviewees - notably referee/ promoter Brian Crabtree (brother of Big Daddy aka Shirley Crabtree) - address the question of whether the sport was fixed or not. Perhaps it was; but it provided great entertainment for legions of viewers for many a long year.

Full-Blooded Melodrama set in the Late Nineteenth Century Deep South, 18 December 2014

MY FORBIDDEN PAST does not full its punches. It is a full-blooded melodrama set in a time and place where social distinctions matter. Barbara Beaurevel (Ava Gardner) and her cousin Paul (Melvyn Douglas) live in comfortable gentility with Aunt Eula (Lucile Watson). They believe in the kind of social niceties that dictate one's choice of marriage partner, as well as one's future life; those who fail to make the grade are abruptly rebuffed. Hence when Barbara falls in love with industrious yet self-made researcher Mark Lucas (Robert Mitchum), trouble is bound to occur. Robert Stevenson's film boils up to a satisfying courtroom climax in which an inevitable deus ex machina allows a happy ending to take place.

Despite the fact that the film remains relentlessly studio-bound (with only a few second unit shots denoting time and place), it makes a creditable effort of portraying a world riddled with hypocrisies, where Lucas is treated with as much disdain as the African American servant (Clarence Muse) working for the Beaurevel family. Douglas makes an eminently hissable villain with his thin pencil mustache and courtly manners, that do not prevent him from making a pass at Lucas' wife (Janis Carter) in a self-interested act of revenge for Lucas' falling in love with Barbara. Mitchum looks uncomfortable in the cloistered surroundings of a research laboratory, but becomes a formidable adversary for Douglas. Gardner doesn't have much to do, except proclaim her love for Lucas in a series of close-ups; this task she accomplishes competently. Given the constraints of her background, we cannot help but sympathize with her as she tries to escape through love.

No-Holds-Barred Analysis of the Consequences of Religious Fervor, 18 December 2014

Set in contemporary London, BEYOND THE FIRE focuses on the efforts of a defrocked Catholic priest (Scot Williams) to come to terms with his love for Katie (Cara Seymour). Although still a virgin, he believes that he can overcome his hang-ups and acknowledge his passion for her. The task proves highly difficult for him, however, in view of what happened to him when he was a child, that left him in mental as well as physical turmoil.

Maeve Murphy's low-budget drama certainly does not pull its punches; it creates a constricting world dominated by the perpetual presence of sin and guilt. The priest (Sheamy) perpetually goes to church to confess, or to try and obtain spiritual guidance (or inspiration) from the Virgin Mary, but finds his path continually blocked by an officious senior priest Father Brendan (Hugh Sachs). Outside the church Sheamy is like a mental ship without a rudder, alternating between moods of extreme joy and despair. Katie tries her best to empathize with him, but she still regards his behavior as inexplicable. One sequence, taking place in a night-club/ disco with the strobe lights making identification difficult, sums up Sheamy's difficulties; ostensibly out to enjoy himself, he finds himself unable to cope and ends up on the street.

The world conjured up in Murphy's film is an unfriendly, indifferent environment in which illnesses - both physical as well are emotional - are treated with overweening indifference. The lighting is deliberately dark: even during the daytime, the sun hardly ever shines. This is an appropriate visual metaphor for Sheamy's state of mind. BEYOND THE FIRE ends on a note of qualified optimism, as the two lovers vow to stay together; but at no point are we assured that their relationship will be a long-term one.

Whimsical Growth of Awareness Comedy, 18 December 2014

It's instructive to look at Bill Forsyth's mid-Eighties comedy in light of the Alan Partridge cycle of television shows, in which Steve Coogan portrayed a monstrously egotistical radio presenter completely unaware of the fact that everyone hates him, and would rather see him off the airwaves as soon as possible. Likewise Bill Paterson's "Dickie" (actually Alan) Bird comes across as someone so wrapped up in his radio persona that he cannot see what's happening around him. In the ersatz world of jingles, pop music, and inane chatter, he is a big star; to everyone else he is nothing but a pain. It's thus hardly surprising that his long-time girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) chooses to move out.

Set around Christmastime in the center of Glasgow, COMFORT AND JOY looks as if it might be a highly ironic title for a film whose central character cannot find inner peace, and who becomes unwittingly involved in a turf war between rival ice cream sellers. What makes Bill Forsyth's film so endearing is the way he shows so many people making mountains out of emotional and personal windmills. Glasgow is sufficiently big to accommodate both the McCool cartel led by the Mafia-style boss (Roberto Bernardi), as well as the more fly-by- night outfit led by Trevor (Alex Norton). It is simply pride - as well as other issues - that prevents them from arriving at a deal.

As the action unfolds, however, so Alan/Dickie undergoes something of a change of character. He finds out that he can make things happen - not by trying to sustain his arrogant radio persona, but rather treating people on their own terms. He manages to find a particularly satisfying resolution to bring the two sides in the ice cream war together, leaving him ready and willing to face the world with renewed vigor. He might be on his own on Christmas Day, but he understands the importance now of maintaining relationships, both personal and public.

Shot in muddy color in perhaps the most anti-Thatcherite of cities, COMFORT AND JOY offers a glimpse of life beyond the mid-1980s illusion of prosperity and individual self-improvement. People struggle to survive in this city in whatever way they can, even if it means selling ice cream for a living. Their world deserves to be recognized, even though very different from English life at the same time.

The film is replete with memorable cameos, from Scottish actor Rikki Fulton's Hilary - Alan's smooth-talking boss who thinks his star employee has gone barking mad - to C. P. (aka Clare) Grogan's stellar turn as Charlotte. COMFORT AND JOY might be a film with a morally soft center, but it manages to make some acute social observations along the way.

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