Archive for March, 2016

Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.

#FreeWangYu

Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival