It’s a cat thing – Kedi

Kedi,
Directed by Ceyda Torun

I’ve been waiting to see Ceyda Torun’s Turkish documentary about some of the many feral cats in Istanbul for some time, and finally caught it this evening, my end of the work week treat on the way home after work. The film follows a number of local characters in an old neighbourhood in Istanbul, although the legions of cats living wild in the city goes way, way back, well before Istanbul, before Turkey was Turkey, when this was Constantinople, the continuation of the Classical Roman world. As one local comments, ships have always visited this great crossroads city between East and West, even centuries ago, from as far as Scandinavia; many of those ships carried cats, popular with the sailors for both their company and their rodent-cleansing skills, meaning the city’s wild feline population includes a variety of breeds, even Norwegian forest cats.

The film talks about how many of these cats live in this region of Istanbul, each with their own characters, as all animals have, interacting with their chosen humans but still mostly living free and wild. Some come right into human homes and businesses for periods, for food treats, for company and attention and affection, then back out on their rounds across streets and rooftops. Others obviously don’t mind people but don’t get too close, like one who turned up at a seafront restaurant one day and settled in, taking care of any rat problems at night. Another regularly attends a pretty upmarket deli/cafe, but he knows his bounds (he has manners, the cafe owner says), he doesn’t come inside, doesn’t bother the customer for tidbits, he waits and then puts his paws up on the glass to draw attention to let them know he is hungry.

The amount of people who interact with the cats is huge, from just giving them some attention and under the chin scratches to those who go out with bags of food to feed them, seeking out their regular spots, looking out especially those mama cats with young kittens (or in one touching scene a man feeds abandoned kittens milks with a syringe, no idea where their mother is, but he has help, a large Tom who tries to look after the kittens after finding them). Most of them talked about how the cats made them feel, how the interaction with the animals helped them, brightened their day and made it better, more than a few who had suffered some crisis in their lives found interacting with the animals healed them inside, which will surprise no-one who has ever lived with animals. Cats, dogs, horses and more, they touch a part of us deep inside, even when we’re badly hurt; there’s a reason why therapists often recommend living with animals to those with emotional trauma, and more than a few PTSD sufferers are on record as saying that the companionship of an animal saved them from the black pit when they were at their worst.

But this isn’t just a film for moggy lovers like me, it’s as much about the people and the place and the community. The camera moves around in drone shots over the roofs (where the cats walk as they please as easily as they do on the ground, for a cat’s paths around a city are whichever it chooses, not restricted to mere human passageways like us clumsy upright apes) and down at cat-eye level too. Around this old neighbourhood, as in many cities around the world, the movers and shakers are building towering bland palaces of glass and steel, structures on an inhuman scale, built on the cleared remains of communities like this, and they worry that their old neighbourhood will be next.

Where will the people go, where will the cats go in such an environment? What will happen to the community felines and homo sapiens share so beautifully there? Cleared in the way of “progress” (normally defined here as giving rich speculators more room and power at the expense of regular people), a way of life and community scattered to be replaced by isolated high-rise blocks for the rich, the houses, small businesses, cafes and flats and people and cats all gone? It’s a pattern familiar from many cities over the last century, here given added pathos because of the animal element.

The roving cameras following the cat also give a flavour of the city – not the tourist parts, the real city, where people live and know one another, in their local cafes, fishing by the seafront, the bustling local markets (a regular haunt for many of the cats!) and lets you feel something of the beat of the city, its rhythms and life, in a place which has been a bustling hub of life for so many centuries of history, a history the cats have shared with them; empires have risen and fallen, religions come and gone and been replaced, new countries born, and the cats have been there through all of it, happily training the local humans as cats do.

One local comments cats are aware of god, dogs are not, they think humans are god, cats know better, humans are perhaps middlemen. Actually I suspect cats don’t see us even as middlemen to god, they may be aware of god, but they probably don’t care, because they know that they are the centre of all things in the universe (gods included, excepting perhaps the lady Bast, since she is a feline goddess) and god is just someone else they can get a tummy tickle from, and perhaps a bit of ham or chicken.

Overall it’s a charming, funny, warm film though, smiling humans and purring pusscats, it’s touching, inspiring and lightens the soul, god knows something we could all do with.

Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

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(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

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And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Love, life, the blues and terror: Mike’s Place

Mike’s Place,

Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem, Koren Shadmi,

First Second

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When I first spotted Mike’s Place being  solicited by First Second I got that vibe I sometimes get, my bookseller’s Spidey sense, and had a strong feeling I was going to find it interesting. After First Second were kind enough to send over an early copy I found that instinct was again spot on – I sat down in the local on the way home from work thinking I’d have a quick look, wee drink then off, instead I was so drawn in I read the entire book in one sitting. Yes, it was that compelling, I simply couldn’t face putting it down to head home, so I just sat there and finished it. By sheer coincidence I was reading this about the same time as I was also getting into Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist (reviewed here last week), so I found myself reading two quite different graphic novels with an Israeli theme quite by chance.

Mike’s Place is based on actual events and real people (with the exception of some balancing scenes showing the terrorists from the UK entering the Holy Land with blood on their mind, some of which has to be fictionalised, although sadly the results of their travels are all to real). The eponymous Mike’s Place is a seafront bar in Tel Aviv, a happening joint spun off from an equally successful spot in Jerusalem, home to drink, food and good, live music. It’s a place for anyone and everyone to come, to mix with others, to enjoy life and be reminded that there are good things to this life to enjoy. Politics is to be left at the door – Europeans, Israelis, Americans, Arabs, anyone can and does enjoy mixing in Mike’s Place. Like many a fine bar in many a city, it’s a little oasis where anyone can go to relax. Jack is an independent American film-maker, in town to cover an alleged terrorist, but when he discovers another documentary film crew has already been working on the same subject for some months he realises he’s been scooped and plans to return home. Wandering along the seafront one evening he spots Mike’s Place and soon he’s inside, indulging in the time honoured tradition of chatting to the barman, telling him his problems (the kindly bar-tender willing to lend an ear may be a stereotype, but it’s one with a basis in reality).

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And as it happens the barman, Gal, is also the owner, and he isn’t just lending a sympathetic ear to a traveller alone in a strange city, he actually has a suggestion for Jack – forget the politics, the terrorism, that’s what everyone shows of the Middle East. Instead why not do something totally different and make a documentary about Mike’s Place? All we ever see on international news or films is politics, war, terrorism, but behind all that there are people, normal, everyday folks just like anywhere else, working, falling in love, arguing, trying to get through life, and that tends to get ignored. And just as the country is a melting pot of different nationalities living there the bar is a microcosm of that. Gal can even introduce him to one of his bar tenders, Joshua, who has only just returned from Europe (with new girlfriend in tow, she rather lost in this new country but the pair so wrapped in each other it doesn’t matter much) after completing his film studies – he has a camera man who will also become the director of the film. Jack thinks about it and realises he has landed in just the right spot to make a different kind of film about the region.

Just look around! Everybody come here. Israel is more than conflict and politics. Mike’s place is the real Israel – the best part of the Middle East.”

Soon Jack has teamed up with Joshua, Gal’s friend and bouncer Avi sorts them out with transportation and the documentary gets rolling, Jack and Joshua interviewing the staff, an international collection from all corners of the globe, the “Mike’s Place family” as Gal refers to it. And it’s an appropriate label – the first half of the book is especially strong on a theme of family, both the type formed by actual blood relatives (the business is a family affair, Gal’s brother runs the Jerusalem – or J-Town as he calls it – Mike’s Place) and that remarkable extended family that we all, if we’er lucky, form through a disparate group of friends. There’s an overwhelming sense of friendliness and openness here; Jack is making his Indy documentary, but he’s also, quite happily it seems, absorbing the local ambience and fitting in quite easily with the bar staff and their friends and family, from hanging out with them at bar to spending the Passover meal with Gal’s family, everyone happily making this lone stranger warmly welcome.

And behind the progress on the actual documentary we’re seeing glimpses of the private lives. Cameraman/director Joshua and his girlfriend Sasha are trying to adapt to being a couple in a country she’s never even visited before (“it sounds like we’ll be in a scene from a Woody Allen film,” she tells Joshua on being invited to dinner to meet his parents, “Middle East style, baby!” he replies), but the nervousness of a new relationship in a new setting is held at bay by that first, big flush of love at the early stage of a relationship, when you can forget the potential pitfalls just with a good kiss. Gal is having his own romantic problems, so obviously in love with the bar’s beautiful French waitress Dominique, who adores him, but not in the same way and he doesn’t know that yet. In short, just as the film was aiming to do, we see regular people going around their everyday lives just like anywhere, albeit one where the worry of a terrorist attack is pretty constant, and yet they just get on with their lives because, what else can you do? As one points out, the weather might keep them in their houses, but terrorism rarely does.

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The cumulative effect of this entire first half of the book is to immerse us among this wonderfully welcoming, warm group of characters, and like Jack we feel as if they are going out of their way to be nice to a stranger, to make them welcome, at their ease. We get to know them, the different character quirks, from what they say to the camera in their interviews then the behind-the-scenes gossip of everyday life. Which means when we reach the middle of the book, the attack on the bar is all the more devastating, because the reader has really come to care for these people. And no, that’s not a spoiler, in case you were wondering, the blurb on the book makes it quite clear that partway through making the film, suicide bombers attacked the bar, and indeed the cover showing the back of a man holding a trigger to his suicide vest of explosives in front of a group of happy revellers also tells you that before you read the book. And that knowledge really affects your reading of the first half – the warm feelings I had getting to know these characters was always tempered by the shadow of the looming violence I knew was coming in their future. In a way I suppose that conveys just a little of that sense the film was trying to put across that people still live their lives despite the fact that something awful could suddenly happen, because it’s life and we need to enjoy it while we can.

But for me it really made me invest even more emotionally into the characters. The explosion comes right in the middle of the book, a two-page splash, bisecting the narrative – the first half of a group of friends welcoming a new person into their group and making a film about a side of life away from death and terrorism. The second half, the aftermath, after bloody violence has again shoved its hideous way into people’s lives, our group of characters – and we need to remember these are actual people who really went through these events. And the book doesn’t shy away from showing the horrible, horrible effects, which hurt all the more because the first half so effectively made us love these people and now the reader is metaphorically staggering in shock, much like the characters – what the hell happened, why would someone slaughter civilians like this, what happened to each person, where’s Jack, Avi, Gal, Dominique? And then slowly we get to see it – for a silent medium Shadmi does a remarkable job depicting that moment of uncanny silence after the attack, a shocking stillness for a brief instant before the chaos, survivors rushing to help the wounded, clear the space, check there isn’t another attack coming (there was a second bomber, who for an unknown reason never went through with his attack). Amid the horror as ambulances and police arrive Joshua gets the camera, his instinct to keep filming. But he’s now recording a very different film…

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The entire second half deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of the attack and the book doesn’t pull any punches, from the direct, practical aftermath (specialists clearing up body parts, literally scraping pieces from the walls of the bar before any restoration work can be done, the struggle to try and re-open the bar) but more especially to the emotional load placed on the surviving characters. And as with the warmer, welcoming, friendly first half, this is also a deeply emotional experience, but one marred by sadness and grief and loss. Jack’s idea of showing real people leading their real lives now becomes about showing those people trying to help each other through such a shattering experience, trying their best to support one another while trying not to fall apart themselves, all coping in different ways. “We’re alive” becomes something of a theme here – it had surfaced in the first half, on one of the few nights the bar is closed, for Holocaust Memorial Day, and the group get together, having fun, not out of disrespect, but because they are still alive and they can “we party for the six million who can’t” Gal explains. And that “we’re alive” refrain repeats in the more mournful second half, those who are left, like any of us exposed to sudden loss, in a strange place, shadowed by grief, but being reminded that they’re still here and those they lost would want them to keep going. And that extends to the film, the people and the bar, and by extension to all of those innocents, anywhere, of any creed or colour, who get caught in such horrific events by people who are so sure of their beliefs they are willing to spill innocent blood over it (and damn every idiot who does think that way, on any side of a conflict).

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But that second half, harrowing though it is in places, as the physical and emotional toll on the characters we’ve come to love also wears on the reader’s senses, is not just some dirge; miraculously, out of the ashes and fire and blood that warm bond of friendship, of family, slowly reasserts itself, even though everyone is damaged in their own way. And that warm sense of love and family and friendship is what I really took from this book. Jack, Josh and Koren touch on plenty of themes that plague the Middle East, but from the street level view of regular folks (the perspective we rarely see on the news), and do so very effectively, and the tragedy of making a film that celebrates the world away from the bombs and hate being caught in a bombing is powerful and awful. And yet despite the horror and sadness, even in the second half after the attack, I still kept feeling that strong bond of friendship, too strong and resilient to be broken by something as crude as a weapon, because its forged from something immaterial yet remarkably strong. And that sense of warmth and comradeship and, yes, again I use the word family, but that’s what I kept feeling throughout the entire book, it’s there right through the aftermath. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s upsetting, it’s inspiring, it has happy moments of laughter and dreadful troughs of despair, just like life, really, but through all of the events here remains that warm, human feeling of inclusion and family, perhaps our only real defence and hope against the hatred in the world.

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The film was eventually completed and was entitled Blues by the Beach; each year on the anniversary of the attack they screen it in the rebuilt bar in memory of the friends they lost.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Night Will Fall

Back in the autumn I went to my second home, Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, to watch a remarkable documentary, Night Will Fall. Actually it’s more a documentary about a documentary – as World War Two faded into its final days in 1945 and the Allies liberated the concentration camps, camera teams were sent in to record and document the hideous atrocities, partly for evidence for the planned war crime trials, partly because even then they knew some people would say it never happened, or it had been exaggerated. The British team had film reels from British, American and Soviet teams and decided to also make a full length documentary film (appropriately, given British cinema in the 20s and 30s was the birthplace of modern documentary film). Sadly for various reasons, some political, the plug was pulled just after the war and the film, which was two thirds complete, was left in limbo, unseen, for decades, despite a script by Richard Crossman (later the famous politician and diarist) and having involvement by Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on and Andre Singer has made Night Will Fall, telling the story of this project.

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And while I note this as one of the most impressive films I saw in 2014, I must also say it was, quite simply, the hardest film I have ever sat through. I’ve watched every kind of horror film there is over the decades, but this was true horror, the sort it is hard not to turn away from, the sort that makes you spiritually and physically ill. I have never seen an audience leave a cinema in a silence that roared so loud. Obviously given I knew this was about the Holocaust I knew to expect this going in. But you can’t really prepare yourself for it. In one scene we see captured German guards forced to clear up the piles of bodies of the murdered they hadn’t had time to bury or cremate before the Allies reached their camps (the soldiers could smell them long before they saw them, the stench of the dead and of the diseased, weakened survivors, giving lie to German civilians nearby who pretended they didn’t know what was going on). You see them picking the bodies off of piles, hoisting them over their shoulders, the arms and heads loll horribly, like a marionette with the strings cut. This was a person. This obscene thing was once someone’s dad, mum, aunt, sister, brother, son, daughter, reduced to this thing after abject, long suffering… It’s beyond vile. And those are just the remains that can be seen, not including the ones who went up the chimneys from ovens designed for human bodies…

Why the hell did I subject myself to watching something like this, you might ask? A few days before I saw this in the cinema Nigel Farage and his odious Ukip band of bigots made a deal with a far right Polish party. A party whose leader denies the Holocaust (among many other reprehensible beliefs he holds on women and other groups). This was not even for ideological reasons, Farage cosied up to this bastard and his party simply for money-grubbing reasons, to get funding for a group of like-minded parties in the European parliament. I was already considering going to see this, but that decided me – when a British politician is making deals with right wing Holocaust deniers it makes it all the more important more of us see this film, not matter how horribly hard we find it to watch what monsters in a human skin can do to others. Because we need to be reminded where their kind of bigotry leads to – first of all it is treat them different because they are ‘different’ from us, so it becomes acceptable to talk about them like that in public, in the media. Then demand legislation to legally differentiate their rights from other citizens. And then what? Smashed windows? A new crystal nacht? Then it is okay to treat them any way you want, remove them from society, put them in camps… We have been down this road. We know that small starts like that sort of xenophobic bigotry can lead to the most awful acts imaginable.

The documentary makes the point that this happened in a civilised, educated, Western society in the heart of Europe, and given the right manipulation of people’s opinions this could happen anywhere, again. And right now every country sees a rise in these right wing movements attacking immigrants, multi-culturalism, the place of women, gays, anyone who they think is ‘different’. And there is Farage, his “cheeky chappy with pint and ciggie” mask revealed for what it is, an odious little creature who happily makes deals with a party of Holocaust deniers, for which there can be no forgiveness (and why has this not been more widely debated in the media?? How can any UK politician get away with doing that in this day and age??). There is an old adage about dreadful events which we, as individuals are powerless to prevent – but if we cannot stop it (and obviously we cannot stop an even that happened decades ago) we can still bear witness. We bear witness so that it will be remembered and not allowed to happen again. And so I watched Night Will Fall, all the way through, hard as it was. On January 24th, as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, Channel 4 will be screening the film on British television. It is difficult to watch, I know, but please try. And Farage, perhaps you should watch this then explain to the entire British electorate why you are making friends with scum like your Polish Holocaust denying party chums.

Midway

Classic war film The Battle of Midway was on this weekend and as the feature film uses some genuine wartime footage (notably in the ariel combat scenes) it reminded me of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford, who shot some of the most famous American films of the mid 20th century (and is largely responsible for the visual look of the classic Western). Ford volunteered to take a documentary film crew to the tiny island of Midway ahead of the expected Japanese attack, to record it for the US Navy. He didn’t just make fictional tales of combat and heroism, he actually dodged bullets and bombs to record what would be a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific, when the US fleet, so badly damaged after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour the year before, struck back and seriously wounded the seemingly omnipotent Imperial Japanese Navy. The war in the Pacific would rage on for several more bloody years and cost both sides dearly, but this was one of those pivotal moments when the Americans showed their enemies that they weren’t the soft, decadent people they had assumed but a ferocious force determined to finish what the bad guys had started (ah, the days when we didn’t worry about the morality of US foreign policy because it was a clear cut us and them, good guys versus the bad guys war…). Checking the web I found you can actually watch Ford’s original short documentary footage online – no CGI and special effects here, no actors who have spent a few weeks in a mock boot camp to be trained, this is the real thing and recorded at enormous risk. Makes James Cameron going to the depths of the oceans in a submersible look kind of tame in directing derring-do terms, doesn’t it?

Evelyn Glennie at the Filmhouse

One of my favourite musicians, Scottish virtuoso and solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, will be at the Edinburgh Filmhouse for a return visit to coincide with a screening of the documentary about her, Touch the Sound. For Evelyn the title is highly approriate – she started to lose her hearing when she was a young girl and yet still continued to learn music, attend music college after leaving school then blaze an internationally successful career as a solo percussionist, a role in music that’s all but unheard of. She feels the music, the vibrations of the instruments, the feel of the material and she creates an astonishingly diverse musical world from this very physical method of listening and playing (she’s very physical on stage, I’ve seen her live several times and she’s a dynamo) from classical to folk to jazz to improv music played right on the street.

I saw this documentary a few years back at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was an incredible experience, touching, moving, inspiring, as music (or any real art) should be. Afterwards, in front of a sold out audience Evelyn came on with the director for a Q&A session (always one of the pleasures of Film Fest screenings, that often some of those involved will be there for a talk before or after the movie). Then one of the simplest of instruments was produced, a snare drum. The lights went back down in the cinema except for an uplighter shining up through the clear skin of the snare to Evelyn standing over it and this amazing woman improvised an incredible musical set using just a pair of sticks and a snare drum. Watching and listening to her it strikes you that sometimes some people were just born to do something, regardless of obstacles placed in their way, such as deafness; her music is inside and no lack of hearing can touch that. The screening is on Tuesday at 6 with Evelyn on hand, if you haven’t seen it I encourage you to experience it.

Waltz with Bashir

For me, animation meant children’s films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone...” – respected Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai explains to the BBC that he was less than enthusiastic when Ari Folman approached him about contributing to the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman talked the 65 year old reporter around, fortunately – his segment, as the BBC article notes, is fairly brief, but as the first reporter to risk life and limb to enter the site of the refugee camp massacres his testimony is essential to the story; he’s now quite convinced by Folman’s animated efforts: ”The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn’t have documented all these things – like the dreams…. Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations… it comes to haunt you.”

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Waltz With Bashir is a film I had been waiting to see for some time, following the good word of mouth it had been picking up on the international film festival circuit. An animated, feature-length documentary is a fairly unusual beast in the film world, and as someone who is fascinated by animation in its many forms I was intrigued. Ari Folman’s film looks back to the war in the Lebanon in 1982, seen through the memories, dreams and nightmares of former Israeli conscripts. The film opens with a pack of rabid dogs, barking, growling, running through the city streets, eyes glowing red, terrifying people, before arriving outside a building where they bark viciously at the inhabitant. The scene cuts to a bar and Folman is listening to his friend recount the dream of the dogs, which he has repeatedly, a mental echo of the war when he was forced to shoot dogs before their patrol could enter a village so the dogs couldn’t bark a warning (Shakespeare’s line “let slip the dogs of war” sprung to mind). When he asks Folman what bad dreams he has from the war Folman answers that his memory is mostly blank from that period. His friend’s troubled dreams spark the first glimmerings of memories and images from the war in Folman’s mind and so he sets out to talk to former comrades, slowly piecing together events surrounding their time in Lebanon, culminating in a horrific massacre of civilians in refugee camps.

Folman travels to meet old comrades, some fairly open about their war experiences, others quieter, more troubled; in between he talks to his therapist friend, troubled by his own missing memories and wondering what he saw or did that caused his mind to blank so much out. As anyone would be in such circumstances he wants to know but is also worried what he may learn about himself in the process. The film itself is mostly non-linear, made up of frequent flash backs as the former soldiers talk to Folman. But this is no straight ‘talking heads’ documentary – many of the men have only fragmented memories and images, often dreamlike or even hallucinatory. Folman himself is jarred into remembering a scene of himself and some comrades floating in the sea like drowned men; slowly they come to life and, quite naked, shamble slowly towards the war-torn shore, the scene lit by the eery light of flares. It reminded me of one of cinema’s strong visual scenes, Martin Sheen emerging from the dark waters in Apocalypse Now (and like Apocalypse Now there is much of Heart of Darkness about this film) crossed with a sort of D-Day landing but by undead, zombie soldiers, slowly shambling through the surf, across the beach and into the war zone.

And much of the film is seen in this manner; while some scenes are related and shown fairly literally (such as an ambush on a column of tanks) many are hazy, drawn from confused images in the memories of men who saw more than they wanted to and still see it frequently in their dreams, or composed entirely of fantasy images and hallucinations (one man on a boat heading to the war imagines a giant naked woman, who lifts him gently from the ship and swims away with him nestled child-like against her stomach as the ship and his comrades behind them explode into flame; another distances himself from events by pretending he is taking photos of it for an article). Its something a live action documentary simply couldn’t capture but the medium of animation is suited perfectly for; the animation takes us as close as we can be to the dreams and nightmares of those men, as well as showing how different minds react to the stress, how they interpret what they saw and endured, the strains, the stress, the guilt over actions forced on them or simple guilt for being alive when friends are dead. The film doesn’t try to excuse actions, nor does it seek to judge and condemn, it simply shows and shares those events and memories.

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(escape fantasy, sexual fantasy or simply the childlike urge to have a mother figure taking you away from harm – one of Folman’s friends recounts his vision of a giant, naked woman who carries him from the boat taking him to battle)

Popular music of the period features throughout, especially in scenes where the soldiers are given leave to visit home. A home life which now seems alien and bizarre – at the front they dream of being home, at home they feel strange, uncomfortable. Around them people are playing music, video games, enjoying everyday life, all familiar things which now seem so odd compared to what the soldier has been living. In this Folman scores again, showing us just a bit of the contrast the soldier (of any war) encounters when they come home and try to be ‘normal’ but wondering how everyday life can be so ordinary after what they have seen (its no surprise that many former soldiers have to deal with mental health and a myriad of other problems when they return to civilian life. A peace treaty might end a war politically, but it doesn’t end in the minds of many who had to prosecute it).

Its very powerful material, extremely emotional and often very, very uncomfortable to watch – but then, it should be. The last act leads up to the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps (spoiler warning, you may not want to read this last bit if you are going to see the film), the very event that Folman has been wondering about as he probes the gaps in his memory. The Israeli soldiers themselves are not directly involved, but they are ordered to encircle the camps while their Christian militia allies enter them, ostensibly looking for terrorists. They see women, old folks, children, being rounded up and loaded onto trucks; Folman flashes back to an earlier generation of his own family being loaded onto trucks by the Nazis. What happens next is, sadly, a matter of historical record – hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Ben-Yishai, the reporter, was on the front lines and following leads from Israeli soldiers troubled about what they suspect is going on inside the camps, he investigates, bringing it to the attention of the government.

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(Lebanon, once called ‘the Paris of the East’, shattered and ruined by war; a scene probably familiar to many from news bulletins in the early 80s)

In the very last scenes animation is suddenly, jarringly, dispensed with in favour of Ben-Yishai’s news footage. Its simply horrific and the sudden move from animation to news film re-enforces that horror. Its dreadfully hard to take – I found myself seriously struggling to maintain some emotional control – but its something that should be seen by a wider audience (and I wish we could make our so-called world leaders sit and watch it before they decide on more foreign adventures). Like Apocalypse Now it is by turns fascinating and yet often horrific, but its engrossing and powerful. Sad to think Folman must have been working on it when Hizzbolah were firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel was bombing Lebanon once more just the other year. Which, regrettably, makes this not just a look at a historic event from decades ago but very contemporary to ongoing strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, while the animated nature of the bulk of the film guarentees images that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished. One of the most unusual and remarkable animated films I’ve seen; as I said, it can be hard to watch, but you should try.Waltz With Bashir is on general release in the UK now; a graphic novel version of the story is due soon.

I originally wrote this review up for the Forbidden Planet blog

Rhythm song

Checking YouTube for something completely unrelated I stumbled across this decent quality clip of one of my favourite musicians, the Scottish solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. I’ve loved Evelyn’s work for years; being a solo percussionist was pretty remarkable in the classical world, being a woman who chose to forge a path as a solo percussionist even more so, but being a deaf woman who carves out an international career as a highly respected musician is just astonishing. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Evelyn perform live several times and she is a powerhouse on the stage, utterly immersed in her music; the notes she cannot hear she feels.

This clip is from the documentary Touch the Sound, which I saw at the Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years back and at which Evelyn surprised the audience by appearing during the director’s Q&A and giving us an impromptu performance, just her alone with a snare drum, in the dark a single light shining up through the skin of the drum as she stood on the Filmhouse stage and utterly transported a rapt audience. I came out of the cinema into a bright summer day, a head full of music; that was one of those days where I floated home feeling the world was wonderful sometimes.

Giant steps are what you take, walking on the Moon…

This afternoon at the Edinburgh Film Festival I caught the UK premiere of the documentary by David Sington, In the Shadow of the Moon, detailing the glories (and the tragedies) of one of the biggest undertakings humans ever launched themselves on, the Apollo programme. As soon as I saw this in the EIFF programme this year I knew I was going to see it. I was born at the height of the Space Race; Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s astonishing, history-making flight to the Moon on Apollo 11 was still a year and a half away. I grew up with an astronaut space suit costume to play in while Gagarin and Armstrong were on posters as my boyhood heroes (they still are, some things you never grow out of); the idea of space exploration has lived inside me my entire life and as I approach the big four-oh birthday on the last day of this year I get a little sad that those promises of holidays in space we were told the future would hold have never materialised and it looks less and less like that boyhood dream will ever come true.

But still it weaves a magical spell on me; as the footage of those enormous Saturn Vs ascending the heavens on a column of fire flickered across the screen I could feel the old excitement rising – the boy in me is never far from the surface and images and ideas like this always bring it out. Much of the footage has never been seen before and is literally out of this world. The story of our first tentative steps out of the cradle of the Earth to our nearest neighbour is told in their own words by many of the NASA astronauts who made those epic journeys, voyages of discovery that stand in a long line of human endeavours such as the explorations of James Cook, Magellan or those unknown Polynesian sailors who crossed vast oceans on small boats made of reeds.

One of those men featured was David Scott, an Apollo commander – a man I actually met a few years back when his publicist came in to my old bookstore to say he was across the road in the Balmoral Hotel doing interviews with the Scottish press and would we like him to come across and sign some copies of the book he had co-authored with his friend the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space; his friend Arthur C Clarke would name a spaceship in his honour in the sequel to 2001). An ordinary day at work and then suddenly there I am chatting to a former astronaut and shaking hands with a man who had walked on the Moon; a man who got to live that boyhood dream of mine. Naturally I got one of those signed copies for myself; I’ve many signed books in my collection but only one signed by an author who has traveled far enough into space to look back and see the entirety of our world hanging in the void. We’ve all seen the pictures, but it wasn’t until the crew of Apollo 8 voyaged around the dark side of the Moon that humans actually saw the entire Earth from space. They took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, our world rising in the dark above the surface of the Moon, the furthest humans have yet been from our world.

Only a tiny handful of humans have ever seen that sight with their own eyes to this day, all now old men – to look at them in this film you could easily mistake them for someone’s favourite uncle of grandfather. But in their prime these men dared death, road on a column of scientific dragon’s fire further than anyone in the entire history of the world and in the process changed the way we see our little, beautiful world. It’s so sad we’ve pulled back from those days; I’m not stupid, I’m well aware of my history and understand much of the colossal cost of the space programme was only met because of politics of the Cold War. And yet I can’t help but feel we let ourselves become that much smaller as a species when we stopped pushing at the final frontier. Yes, I know we can spend the money on problems right here on Earth, but if we weren’t so busy squabbling among ourselves we wouldn’t need to waste so much on creating weapons – then we could spend that money on feeding and taking care of people here on Earth and have enough to explore, to go where no-one has gone before.

I still want to go.