Following on from my previous dispatch, I review four more great films that I saw during CPH:DOX’s online edition this year.
Desert One (Barbara Kopple)
The great Barbara Kopple is back with a documentary about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed mission to rescue American hostages during the crisis in Iran back in 1979. From her performing artist biopics (Wild Man Blues, Shut Up & Sing) to her portraits on labour struggles (Harlan County, USA, American Dream), Kopple has proven to be one of the most skilful, detail-oriented filmmakers in the world.
Whilst the aforementioned works take a vérité approach to capturing the story, for this remarkable chapter of history Kopple switches form to a straightforward talking-head, news clip-heavy approach that captivates thanks to the amazing access and exemplary contributions from all those who participate. As formally conventional as Desert One is, it’s every bit as thrilling as its feature cousin Argo.
There’s an inherently great story here that virtually could never go wrong no matter in what way it was constructed. But there’s something about the presence of people like Jimmy Carter himself that I imagine would only have been possible to obtain and managed by a filmmaker of Kopple’s calibre. We see the full picture, beginning from the Iranian coup d’etat of 1953 that directly led to the political unrest in 1979, during which the US Embassy was taken over by students supporting Ayatollah Khomeini, to looking at the memorial occasions in present-day Iran and USA.
The storming of the US Embassy led to a lengthy hostage crisis, with negotiations initially breaking down in parallel to Carter’s presidential downfall. And the drop in morale was precisely due to the ill-fated secret rescue mission detailed in this film, wherein eight servicemen died and several were injured after an aircraft collision due to troubled strategic planning and failure of communications. All of this information is freely available online, having been widely documented, but the value of Desert One is the fresh retrospective takes and insightful memories recalled by all the key players, strengthening our knowledge of the event as we know it.
The robust collection of contributors entails hostages, soldiers, presidential staff, an Iranian revolutionary and an Iranian citizen who was on the bus that was halted on the same runway of the American aircraft. It’s the most impressive assembly of key players in a historical documentary since Ken Burns’ Vietnam War series and similarly benefits from memory as a strong source of information as well as a wealth of archive footage. Aiding the retelling is striking comic-book animation that depicts a vivid picture of the moments only captured in the heads of those who were there. All-in-all, Desert One is a treat for history buffs and the definitive film about Operation Eagle Claw.
We Hold The Line (Marc Wiese)
The Philippine Drug War will rage on for as long as corrupt leaders and geopolitics will allow. Filmmakers from around the world have been using their platform to highlight the operation, such as Olivier Sarbil and James Jones‘s documentary On the President’s Orders, in which a film crew was embedded with the Manila police and followed them on their bloody campaign against drug dealers and addicts. On the other hand, Marc Wiese’s intense We Hold the Line presents a sympathetic figure to get behind in the form of a diligent journalist.
Maria Ressa, the CEO of news website Rappler, was named alongside a cohort of journalists, including the late Jamal Khashoggi, as one of Time’s Person of the Year in 2018 for combating fake news. After she relished the celebratory occasion with her fellow nominees, she returned home only to be taken into custody – it’s evident the Duterte critic was getting too renowned and the government needed a reason to arrest her, so they dug up an old cyber libel case. The documentary film crew is embedded into Ressa’s newsroom for a year and follows them working under the threat of Duterte and his supporters.
Wiese’s multi-faceted film misses the occasional contextual detail but is otherwise a shrewd portrait on a news outlet fighting against the odds to share the unfettered truth. From the testimonies of victims to the Drug War that are spoken to – such as a young man hiding after he witnessed eight of his friends killed by the police – and the insight provided by Rappler’s journalists, it’s clear that the Drug War has resulted in unlawful deaths and police misconduct, permanently damaging families if not plainly erasing them.
Through the characters, We Hold the Line deals with the tension of everyday life in the Philippines and, in some of the film’s most unnerving moments, the filmmakers sit down with a few individuals, including a married couple, who kill people for a living. The questions asked to these censored contract killers only call for description rather than reflection but they speak so indifferently about their body count and the money they make from killing that it’s uncomfortably easy to ascertain how and why they do this. A veteran contractor is asked if he’s been ordered directly by the president to kill anyone – take a wild guess at what the answer is.
Cinematically speaking, this gritty film is suitably rough around the edges, with the constraints never interfering with the cinematographers capturing scenes up close and in low-light conditions. Whether the restrictions are budgetary or environmental, they remain on top of their game to get vital storytelling moments. The use of archive footage is precise and powerful, especially the infamous press conference when Duterte cut the mics of Rappler journos. The highlight is a surprising cross-cut sequence involving anti-Rappler protestors – it feels silly to say this is something I don’t want to spoil but the convergence is so incredible, it must be seen without prior knowledge.
Maria is one hell of a character, resilient and persistent in her pursuit for truth and justice: there’s a feeling of safety whenever we see her, even if she may not feel it herself, and her attitude encourages her team’s best work and, in turn, our support. It’s interesting that both her and Duterte are similarly very outspoken. But for a guy who’s so open about his intention to kill at will, Maria manages to make it clear that he wants to hide something.
Shadow Flowers (Seung-jun Yi)
This is a fascinating and unusual story about a North Korean woman stuck in South Korea without the ability to return to her family, directed by Seung-jun Yi, recently coming off an Oscar nomination for short doc In the Absence. Anecdotally speaking, considering popular texts such as Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir A River in Darkness and photographer Tim Franco’s portraits of North Korean defectors, we typically hear stories of North Korean runaways so the plight of Ryun-Hee Kim, a woman wanting to go back there, is a really fascinating perspective.
Back in North Korea, Ryun-hee Kim was a house seeking treatment for liver disease and the healthcare system didn’t have the capacity to treat her so she travelled to China to seek better treatment and visit her relatives. After staying for some time and being shocked at the expenses of China, she started working at a restaurant to make money and met a broker there who said he could smuggle her into South Korea, telling her she could make even more money there before returning home. Except, when she got to South Korea, there were so many wrongs associated with her act, not least the geopolitical suspicions of a North Korean citizen in the country.
Entirely observed, this is a very complex character study of a difficult figure best described by a word somewhere between tenacious and stubborn. It’s the unheard refugee story. You can understand why South Korea would want to closely watch her but it’s also so frustrating to witness her stuck in an endless trap. For someone who is as subtle as a sledgehammer, they surely would have ascertained that she’s not a spy by now.
Though the camera’s presence should probably raise some questions, the film crew manages to stay invisible when accompanying her and it results in an unadulterated look at life, capturing powerful moments on camera, from as big as her attempted escape on the North Korean players bus after a sporting event to as intimate as her video calls with family. There doesn’t seem to be any progress towards diplomacy, as flashes to North Korean media tell us that the big concern is around missile testing, as Trump and Kim Jong-Un put the world on edge.
Out of all the films I saw during CPH:DOX’s online edition, this is the one that I believed would have provoked the most interesting filmmaker Q&A if things could’ve gone ahead in person. Shadow Flowers is crucial and poignant, a potent document on Korean relations through the unique lens of a woman stuck in limbo.
A Song Called Hate (Anna Hildur)
The Shut Up & Sing for the Israel/Palestine conflict, Anna Hildur’s excellent A Song Called Hate follows the Icelandic, pro-Palestinian, anti-capitalist, BDSM-inspired, techno-punk performance art ensemble Hatari as they qualify for the Israel-hosted Eurovision Song Contest 2019 and prepare to make a political statement.
In all the ways that this film is close to perfect documentary filmmaking, one of the highlights is an interview with the Icelandic PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who cogently makes the case for artists expressing their politics, in the off chance her country has a Laura Ingraham criticising their Eurovision representatives. “People are allowed to have their political opinions and, when we come to artists, I think they have a really special freedom to use all sorts of strategies to mediate those opinions,” she says, endorsing Hatari’s choice to express themselves.
But, in this particular story, the idea of freedom of speech is distorted in the paradox of hosting an apolitical event (the organiser’s intention) in an inherently political setting. If nobody mentions the elephant in the room, is it because nobody wants to or because everybody knows that they can’t? The premise pulsates with tension and Hildur and her filmmaking crew are in sync, creating a suspenseful film that works as a terrific cinematic experience as well as a profound piece of video journalism.
Despite their intimidating exteriors, the members of Hatari are easy to connect with, particularly both vocalists Matti and Klemens who participate in all of the discussions in the film, from building their knowledge with BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti to discussing protest ideas with acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (Synonyms, The Kindergarten Teacher).
As activists, Hatari talk the talk and walk the walk – we see social media comments critical of the band’s use of the descriptor “apartheid”, suggesting for them to go to Israel for themselves. The documentary team join them and capture eye-opening footage of the experience, as the artists are both carefully watched by suspecting locals and seen as heroes by fellow attendees following their act of holding up the Palestinian flag on live television.
The film climaxes with the Eurovision final and, whilst it may have been useful to follow the band for a while afterwards, there’s a nice footnote on their native post-Eurovision influence, which smoothly wraps up the arc of Hatari. A Song Called Hate is a deeply compelling film about the power of global solidarity and the courage it takes to stand up for your beliefs, a key theme in the CPH:DOX 2020 programme considering other hits such as I Am Not Alone and The Fight for Greenland.
Once again, on behalf of Film Inquiry, I would like to thank CPH:DOX 2020 for finding a great solution to film and event programming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a strong edition, as you can ascertain from my reviews, with rich global inclusion and a brilliant range of contemporary themes and modes of documentary filmmaking. I’m excited for next year’s festival and hope to be in Copenhagen to provide coverage on the ground.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.