The annals of sporting cinema are filled with underdogs plucking unlikely victories from the jaws of defeat. But the debuting Juho Kuosmanen is more interested in personal gratification that professional glory in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, a glorious monochrome chronicle of the days leading up to the eponymous Finnish featherweight's WBA title bout in Helsinki's Olympic Stadium against African-American world champion Davey Moore, who was on a 64-fight unbeaten streak when 17 August 1962 dawned. Given the rewards that sports stars now demand for giving their all (or some percentage thereof in the case of top-flight footballers), this is a timely reminder that not only is winning not everything, but also that fame and fortune are fickle and fleeting compared to the retention of one's integrity in the face of Kipling's twin impostors.
Travelling by train to Perho to see his new girlfriend Raija Jänkä (Oona Airola), Kokkoka baker-turned-boxer Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is surprised to find his visit coincides with a wedding. Borrowing a suit, he spends part of the service explaining the different fighting weights to the friends in the neighbouring pews before he is shushed by an older female guest. As Raija sings for the happy couple, Olli helps some children trap a fly in a milk glass before Raija kisses him and tries to co-ordinate his limbs on the dance floor. Perched on his handlebars as they cycle home in the darkness, she delights in going for a midnight swim in the lake and giving him a big wet kiss.
Despite the fact he is preparing for the fight of a lifetime, Olli invites Raija to come to Helsinki, where he is staying with manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) and his wife, Laila (Joanna Haartti). Elis was once a champion himself and enjoys showing them photographs of his friend, Frank Sinatra. But Laila is less than amused by Olli and Raija taking her children's bunk beds and does little to hide the reluctance of her hospitality. That said, Olli is far from enthused with having to answer questions at the press conference and is much happier sparring in an outdoor ring, with Raija watching from outside the ropes. Elis assures him that he has what it takes to be the champion, but the 25 year-old is bemused when his manager interrupts a water fight in the showers to introduce the documentarist who will be shadowing him with his cameraman.
He is equally uncomfortable at a publicity shoot, where he gets the giggles while posing with Elis's posse before being humiliated by having to stand on a stool to be taller than willowy model, Sirpa (Nelly Nilsson). Raija wants to tease him, but Elis spirits Olli away to a swish restaurant that is providing sponsorship and he reminds his charge not to eat too much, as he is going to have to shed some pounds to make his fighting weight. Tucking into some bread and butter, Olli assures Elis that everything is under control. But he checks the scales before settling into the bunk below Raija for a good night's sleep.
The next day, Olli presents Davey Moore (John Bosco, Jr.) with a bunch of flowers when he arrives by plane with manager Willie Ketchum (Shamuel Kohen). At the junket, a reporter notes that Olli has lost two of his 10 professional bouts and he jokes that he will be able to say he lost to a proper fighter. As Olli smiles at Raija at the back of the room, Elis testily intervenes and tells the press pack to report that Olli has 300 amateur matches behind him, as well as the 1959 European title. So, he suggests that they print that Olli is not afraid of anyone and will do the country proud. However, he upbraids Olli for appearing weak and urges him to focus on the job in hand and not let his burgeoning feelings for Raija get in the way.
Elis is suspicious when Olli is out for a long time on an evening training run with Raija (they have mitched off to a funfair to knock two bathing beauties off their pedestals) and makes sure she is marginalised when he borrows a friend's house for a happy family photo shoot with Laila and their children. Consequently, after she has an unsatisfactory trip to the hairdresser to pass the time, Raija decides to return to Perho. But Elis prevents her from speaking to Olli when she drops into the gym and he is still sulking when Elis ticks him off for being over the weight limit. Olli grumbles that he would have preferred to fight in Elis's old category (a remark he skirts, but it's clear he doesn't want anyone matching his achievements) and promises he will shift some pounds in the sauna.
Wearing heavy clothing to induce a sweat, Olli stumbles into some water pans as he leaves the heat and has to be helped to a bench. He recovers to attend a reception for his backers and poses for photos with Moore and Elis. But he catches sight of Raija in the documentary footage showing in a big screen and slips away to phone her. She is at the theatre and Elis admonishes Olli for not showing suitable respect to the the people funding his title shot and he shuffles back inside for some more glad-handing and clenching his fist for the camera. Walking home, he takes a detour to the funfair and peaks behind the curtain, as the chubby girl who has just been ducked removes her wig as she dries herself off and Olli feels that he is no less a novelty whose feelings are ignored to ensure the punters get what they have paid for. Despite his feet blistering on a run, Olli shows up for a sparring session in the rain and struts off in high dudgeon after Elis barks at him to put some effort into his punches. Yet, when he gets back to the flat that night, he hears Laila chewing out Elis for spending all their savings on the fight and feels duty-bound to accompany him and his three daughters to the home of a benefactor, who jokes that he has heard Olli is a Communist, as he signs a sizeable expenses cheque. One of the girls needs the toilet and Olli brings her inside, only to forget her when they leave and Elis has to trudge back through a downpour to fetch her.
Still in his tracksuit, Olli takes a walk through the city centre and feels a fool when he catches sight of himself in the tailor's advert that required him to stand on the stool. Strolling to the station, he boards a train for Perho and surprises Raija during a class she is teaching at the local school. He calls Elis to let him know where he is and goes skimming stones with Raija. They kiss as dusk falls and she walks him to the bus stop. She refuses to come back to Helsinki because him being unhappy there isn't a good enough reason. But, while she promises that she wouldn't be disappointed in him if he lost, she only agrees to marry him if he wins and he takes his seat with a quiet smile of satisfaction.
Arriving back in Helsinki, he meets Elis at the Olympic Stadium, where he is reminded that this isn't an amateur bout in a Kokkola hall with his mother selling tickets and his father making a few extra coppers on bagels. Olli wishes he could escape the sideshow and train in his own way. So, Elis finds him an empty house in the country and he swelters in the sauna by night, while taking long training runs by day. While jogging through the woods, he sees a kite stuck in a tree and clambers up to fetch it so that the hard grind seems more like fun.
He makes the weight and Elis gives him a proud hug and looks the other way as Raija enters the hall. Once his pre-fight duties are done, however, Olli sneaks away with Raija to buy wedding rings and they giggle and kiss as the assistant asks what they want to engrave on the inside. They settle for their names and 17.8.62 before Olli sets off for his date with destiny. Elis gives him a pep talk, as he bandages his hands and his walk to the arena is cross-cut with Raija munching on a burger as she looks for her seat. He receives a hero's welcome, as he emerges into the floodlit glare and enters the ring to deafening cheers. After the pleasantries in the middle, Olli negotiates the first round with little difficulty. But he is knocked down three times in rapid succession before the referee steps in to save Olli from further punishment and Elis and Raija respectively look on in disbelief and concern as he staggers towards his corner in a daze.
The crowd filter away in grumbling silence, as Olli hands Moore a bunch of flowers and mumbles something to his second (which isn't translated in the subtitles). He makes his way back to the dressing-room alone and still has blood coming from his nostrils when the press arrive to solicit his views on the fight. As Elis sits stunned behind him, Olli claims it was the easiest fight of his professional career because it was over so quickly. The documentarist beckons Elis forward for a final handshake, but he can barely bring himself to look at the man in whom he has invested so much for so little gain.
Raija waits for Olli at the black-tie reception. No one seems to notice as he enters the room and she grins at him as he reaches her table. She suggests they leave, but he feels he ought to stay for a while. They look around the room at people who mean nothing to them and they decide to go. Elis beckons Olli over to his table, but they slip away and stroll by the harbour. They pass an elderly couple and Raija hopes they will still be happy at their age. He hands her some stones and they start skimming.
Capturing the degrading grind rather than the glitz and glamour of the fight game, Juho Kuosmanen's profile of Olli Mäki is destined for the pantheon of great boxing pictures alongside Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (1947) and Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), John Huston's Fat City (1972) and John G. Avildsen's Rocky (1976), and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) and David O. Russell's The Fighter (2010). Despite looking much older than Mäki's 25 years, Jarkko Lahti plays `the great white hope' with a touching humility that should shame the modern pugs who seize every opportunity to bad mouth or belittle their opponents in crass displays of pampered machismo. Yet, while it's easy to feel sympathy for him, as he is paraded around like a show pony, it has to be said that he isn't particularly gracious towards Elis Ask, who has gone out on a limb to give him his shot at the big time.
Indeed, it could be argued that Elis is the most interesting character, as he is clearly seeking to relive past glories through Olli, while also striving to protect his own legacy. He has also put the security of his own family on the line in the hope of making a quick markka and one is left wondering how he fared after this venture failed. In real life, Mäki went on to win the European Boxing Union light welterweight title in February 1964, only to lose it to the same German opponent, Conny Rudhof, three years later. After his retirement, he became a coach and it would be intriguing to know what the 80 year-old has made of all the fuss this charming film has generated. He can have no complaints about the performance of Jarkko Lahti, whose exchanges with Eero Milonoff and Oona Airola (a musician from Kokkola in her first feature role) reveal a man who accepts his limitations and simply wishes to do the best he can without drawing undue attention to himself.
In fact, Kuosmanen and co-scenarist Mikko Myllylahti's characterisation is rather sketchy and, as a consequence, it isn't readily apparent why someone as vivacious as Raija would be drawn to such a melancholic milquetoast. But, as cinema is forever telling us, love is a many-splendoured thing and a penchant for skimming stones is as good a basis for a romance as any other. But attraction is just one of the themes Kuosmanen explores in this lyrical, bittersweet existential saga, along with ambition, fame, glory and success. He also puts a good deal of thought into evoking the pre-Swinging Sixties and allies with cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi, production designer Kari Kankaanpää, costumier Sari Suominen and editor Jussi Rautaniemi to provide a fond 16mm homage to the nouvelle vague that reaches is apogee of self-reflexive perfection in having Olli and Raija play the elderly couple that Lahti and Airola pass on the waterfront.
Just as Kuosmanen made his mark with the shorts Roadmarkers (2008) and The Painting Sellers (2010), so siblings Ludwig and Paul Shammasian follow The Carriageway (2006), Romans 12:20 (2008) and Akhtamar (2009) with their own monochrome boxing debut, The Pyramid Texts, which is showing at BAFTA in London on 24 April. Adapted from a play by martial arts expert Geoff Thompson, this is a much grittier take on the fight game that follows on from the BAFTA-winning short, Brown Paper Bag (2004), and Clubbed (2008), which was based on Watch My Back, an autobiographical account of Thompson's time as a Coventry nightclub bouncer. Moreover, the raw insights and flinty dialogue afford the estimable James Cosmo to reclaim his soul after his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.
Veteran pugilist Ray (James Cosmo) wanders into a gymnasium and makes himself a cup of tea before climbing into the ring. He sets up a video camera and places four objects on the canvas before perching himself on a stool to begin recording a message for his son. Having explained how boxing is an ancient art whose Olympian ideals continue to burn brightly, he shows how to bandage the hands to preserve the tools of the trade in the same way the Egyptians used to mummify bodies. This is the first thing he teaches all newcomers, as broken bones prevent pay days. His father, an old school, hard-drinking battler, had taught Ray the valuable lesson that there is salvation, but never safety in boxing and he had learned during his career that not even the gods can protect a fighter from his fate.
He stretches his legs and runs his hands along the ropes before resuming his seat. Most of the kids who come through these doors have known nothing but hard knocks and Ray teaches them to trust themselves so that they will have no need to rely on anyone else. He instils the honour of the warrior, but warns that this will make the retired boxer unsuited to either the factory routine or the sordid world of the bouncer or gangster's enforcer. His charges learn the value of their craft and avoid telling punch-drunk anecdotes about their glory days. As he shadow boxes stiffly, Ray recalls with unsentimental pride his 120 amateur fights and notes that the 20 defeats taught him more than the 90 wins and 10 draws that led to him turning professional. He bristles as he recalls that he never went down for the count once in his 37 bouts and grasps the ropes in defying those who settle for a cosy existence to cross this barrier of fear and sample the better life that awaits them.
Sitting down again, Ray remembers the birth of his son and how he struggled in his arms without crying when he first held him and wrapped him in a blanket against the cold. He was 45 when he became a father and wasn't sure he was ready for the challenge. But (as we cut away to shots of Ethan Cosmo getting his eye stitched and showering after a contest) he lets slip that he never warmed to the task and that they have been estranged for some time. Looking wistfully into the lens, Ray describes how he went to buy a pen and paper to write a long letter, but was persuaded by the sales clerk to make a video, as facial expressions could say more than words. Her kindness reminds him of the time towards the end of his career when he had visited an Irish doctor after a heavy drinking session. The old medic had sent off a sample of his own blood to the lab out of curiosity and while Ray had been given a clean bill of health, the physician had discovered that his liver was shot.
Ray gives a rasping laugh and wishes he had never told his boy that he never felt fear, as he believes this is the root to all the problems that have blighted him. His own father had told him that fear is a weakness that opponents will exploit and, so, he had buried it beneath his bandages and gloves, muscles and tattoos and he had misled his own son into thinking that his own terror was a sign of weakness that he would despise. In all his fights, Ray had fronted up to madmen, maniacs and murderers of all creeds and colours and had never once given them a sniff of the dread that was moiling inside him. He muses on the Sikh who had broken his teeth after he had knocked his turban into the crowd and the Irish Catholic priest he had butted unconscious because he had been convinced he was trying to kill him. But he now knows that it was fear as much as fortitude that made him the fighter he was.
Looking at the photographs on the wall, he avers that Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano and Muhammad Ali were all afraid at various points on their journeys. He picks up a rosary from the floor and reminds his son that Jesus Christ asked for the cup to be taken away before his ordeal on Calvary. Grasping another set of beads, Ray relates how Krishna's friend, Arjuna, was so terrified before the Battle of Kurukshetra that he was willing to lose his kingdom rather than fight. The next set brings back a memory of a Muslim fighter who went on to be a politician. They had roomed together in the amateur national squad and he had told Ray that it was okay to be afraid because Muhammad had been so scared by the call of Gabriel that he had contemplated hurling himself off a mountain. As he lets a fourth set of beads bearing an image of the Buddha slip through his fingers, Ray wishes he had shared such wisdom with his son much earlier and hopes it's not too late to bring about a reconciliation.
He explains how trainer Cus D'Amato taught Mike Tyson to channel his fear into the fury that made him a peerless fighter. His eyes mist, as he reflects on a trip to the Blue Corner Gym in Hollywood and the pride he felt when ace coach Jimmy Blaze invited them inside and stood in the 16 year-old's corner for a match against a Golden Gloves champion. Ray admits to eavesdropping on a phone call the boy had made to his mother back in Glasgow when he had gushed that this had been the best day of his life. According to Ray, it had been his, too. But he had never come clean.
Sighing with regret, Ray harks back to his time coaching Bomber, the best fighter to ever pass through the gym. He had given his son the same nickname as Joe Louis, `the Brown Bomber' who had been too scared to tell his mother than he was a boxer and, yet, who had dented the Nazi armour by knocking out Max Schmelling in the first round. But, while Ray had been in his corner the night Bomber defied the odds to beat a Panamanian champion with supposed hands of stone, two years were to pass before they would speak again. Reeking of alcohol, Bomber had stumbled into the gym and asked if he could train again. But, with all his young charges looking on, Ray had sent him away and another two years were to elapse before he had received the phone call that Bomber was dying in hospital.
Rushing to his bedside, Ray had held his son's hand for two days and promised him that they would take another tilt at the title. But Bomber slipped into a coma and Ray had wrapped him in a blanket against the cold of death, as he held him for the last time. Breaking with family tradition, Ray sobs into the camera and wishes he could have done something to have protect his child from the terrors that had driven him to drink. However, he becomes aware that he is no longer alone and packs the tripod into his bag. He climbs out of the ring and places the camera and the beads in Bomber's coffin before kissing his forehead and closing the lid.
Taking its somewhat contrived title from the afterlife instructions carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the Saqqara pyramids, this is a laudable bid to film a grief-stricken father's guilty confessional lament without dissipating the intimate intensity of James Cosmo's performance. Yet, for all the finesse that the Shammasian Brothers bring to the project, they struggle to capture the immediacy that a live production would inevitably generate. They are not alone in this regard, but show much more directorial flair than, say, Steve Binder did in recording James Whitmore's Oscar-nominated turn as Harry S. Truman in Samuel Gallu's Broadway hit, Give `Em Hell, Harry! (1975).
Apart from a short snippet of grainy home-movie footage in the final reel, Sam Brown shoots exclusively in black and white and moves his camera around Clara Gomez del Moral's effectively simple set with considerable care. Some of the gambits are as self-conscious as Stephen Hilton's sparingly used score, most notably the blurring focus shift from a distant Cosmo to a foreground close-up of the ropes., as he strides over to grip the so-called barrier of fear But the Shammasians neatly insert cutaways to Ethan Cosmo in his father's minds eye and make telling us of Cosmo's careworn features, as he loses the battle to hold back the pain behind his eyes during the speech about Bomber's final hours that so poignantly echoes the reminiscence about his birth.
Cosmo clearly relishes the richness of Thompson's text, although the theatricality of the monologue sometimes proves its undoing, particularly during the forced sequence with the prayer beads. However, the description of Bomber's showdown with the Panamanian street brawler - which seems to owe much to Scot Ken Buchanan's epic tussles with Ismael Laguna and Roberto Durán - bristles with the lyricism of the best boxing reportage. A bit more of this at the expense of the mysticism and this might have felt more like a distraught old man's remorseful video diary and less like a piece of conspicuoulsy hand-polished prose.
Much has been made of Michael O'Shea's debut feature, The Transfiguration, being the horror equivalent to Barry Jenkins's Oscar winner, Moonlight. But, while the serial-killing protagonist is African-American, the Brooklyn-born director is white and sees himself less as a pioneer of politicised horror than as a travelling companion of Kelly Reichardt and brothers Joshua and Ben Safdie in the `new neo-realist movement'. In many ways, this bears a similarity to David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000) and Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot (2012). But O'Shea prefers to consider it a cross between George A. Romero's Martin (1978) and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Genre aficionados, however, will also have little trouble recognising the influence of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) and Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2009) When a man overhears a sucking sound in a public washroom, he perversely peeks under the stall door. However, 14 year-old Eric Ruffin is drinking the blood of an unsuspecting businessman rather than giving him sexual gratification and he hides the money he steals from his wallet behind the stash of old horror videos he keeps in a bedroom cupboard. Having thrown up after dining on cereal, he watches an online film about a decomposing carcass before going to sleep.
Despite being in counselling for acts of animal cruelty, Ruffin is bullied at school and has to go home to change after Carter Redwood urinates on him. He shares the apartment in Rockaway, Queens with his older brother, Aaron Clifton Moten, but befriends older teenager Chloe Levine when she moves into the tenement to live with her grandfather. While walking the next day, Ruffin sees Levine being molested by a gang of boys on some waste ground. He checks she is okay and asks why she cuts herself. She claims it gives her a sense of release, but she recoils when he goes to suck on the raw wound. Hoping to make amends, he invites her home to watch a video, but spooks her out when he shows her a documentary on a sheep slaughterhouse.
The following day, Ruffin takes the subway into New York and sits in the park writing in his notebook. He goes to the toilet and fixes the eye of the man in the next urinal, but nothing happens until darkness falls and he murders hobo Lloyd Kaufman, who makes the mistake of checking whether Ruffin is all right, as he sleeps on a grass verge. On his way home, Ruffin bumps into Levine, who asks if she can walk with him. She inquires whether he ever thinks about suicide and is embarrassed when he reveals that his mother killed herself. Yet, while she is puzzled when he claims he is not allowed to end his own life, she accepts his offer to go to the pictures the next day.
They go to see FW Murnau's Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922) and she recommends that he watches True Blood and the Twilight saga instead. She takes his hand on the train home and they sit by the waterfront as he explains his fascination with vampires. He dismisses old theories about garlic, sunlight and mirrors and suggests it is like a diseases that compels the sufferer to drink blood. Levine reveals that her grandfather is a brute, who tries to fondle her and recently put a cigar out on her skin. But, like her fellow orphan, she is glad she is not in a home and can come and go as she pleases. She asks if he ever visits his parents' graves, but he says he has no idea where his mother is buried because Moten took care of the funeral.
Intrigued, Levine offers to find it for him and calls for him with good news the following morning. As they sit by the bus stop, she asks about his favourite vampire movies and he cites `realistic' ones like Martin, Near Dark and Let the Right One In. He also mentions E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which puts a darkly comic spin on the making of Murnau's Expressionist masterpiece. But he becomes less talkative after visiting the grave and Levine is put out when he reads on the bus rather than talking to her.
While wandering home, Ruffin is approached by middle-class white kids Danny Flaherty and Charlotte Schweiger about buying some drugs. He takes Flaherty into the estate and right into an ambush by Redwood and his pals. They accuse Flaherty of being racist by presuming that all black kids were dealers. But they run away when Redwood presents a gun to the rookie member of the crew and he proceeds to shoot the stranger. Redwood finishes him off and Ruffin scarpers when Schweiger comes looking for her boyfriend. He ends up at the police station and makes Redwood uneasy when he gets a lift home in a patrol car. Moten warns him that he would be powerless to protect him from Redwood, but Ruffin seems more concerned with a flashback to finding his mother with slashed wrists on her bed and being unable to resist dipping his finger in the coagulated blood.
Levine gives him a copy of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and he promises to read it. He is taken aback when she kisses him on the cheek and they spend the day sitting near the water. She asks if he believes in God and what he would do if he had a million dollars. When he admits that he has no faith in an afterlife, she reveals that she would love to be able to get away from the neighbourhood and live with her cousin in Alabama. However, she is forced to move in with the brothers after her grandfather attacks her shortly after she fools around with Ruffin under the bed covers for the first time. Moten thinks they make a cute couple and gives his consent, but Redwood warns Ruffin that he has heard rumours he witnessed Flaherty's killing and that he will know who to blame if the cops ever catch wind.
When Ruffin goes out on an errand, Levine snoops around his room to find an envelope. Instead, she stumbles across his notebooks and the calendar on which he records his monthly crimes. She leaves without waiting for him to return and Ruffin realises what she has seen. He calls to explain, but she refuses to answer and he takes the train into the city to find a victim. His gaze falls upon violent drunk Larry Fessenden and he follows him home. But, as he brandishes his knife pen, Ruffin is surprised by Fessenden's daughter and he throws up in the corridor after stabbing her. Steeling himself, Ruffin enters the bedroom and slashes Fessenden's throat and holds him down as he struggles. But, as he rides home on the subway, he notices a spot of blood on his hand and has to wipe a tear from his eye.
He returns home to find Moten sleeping on the sofa. Having stashed more money in his hiding place, Ruffin comes to sit with his brother and asks if he ever killed anyone when he was serving with the military. He says he saw plenty of body parts after explosions and reassures Ruffin that, no matter what weird stuff he is involved in, someone will be doing something much worse and not batting an eyelid. Moten shrugs and admits that he misses their mother and Ruffin concurs, as he shuffles off to bed.
The next morning, he bumps into Levine looking at the ocean from the building roof and she apologises for snooping. She asks if he is writing a book on vampires, but he says he is through with that kind of stuff. In a bid to break with his past, he gives everything he has stolen to Redwood to reassure him that he would never snitch to the cops. He buys Levine some flowers and takes her for a day at Coney Island. But, as they sit on the beach, he imagines himself killing her and gives her the money to escape to her cousin.
That night, Ruffin hears a commotion and he feigns surprise when Moten informs him that Redwood and his posse have been arrested. He removes the last of the incriminating evidence from his killing spree and tells counsellor Karin Cherches that he has recently started drawing suns rather than his usual dark matter. Strolling home, he calls Levine to ensure she is on the bus. But, before she can call back, Ruffin is gunned down by one of Redwood's gang and his journey to the morgue is cross-cut with Levine's ride to freedom. As an autopsy is carried out on his body, she reads his last note about Twilight being unrealistic. But the final words come from his notebook, as he reveals that while a vampire could never kill himself, he could shape events to bring about his own death.
Saving the best to last, Michael O'Shea makes an impressive bow with this slow-burning psychological study, which has enjoyed cult status since being a surprise selection in the Un Certain Regard slot at Cannes last year. Paying fulsome homage to recent American horror through the sly casting Troma supremo Lloyd Kaufman and genre icon Larry Fessenden, O'Shea samples the likes of Romero, Bigelow and Alfredson while also knowingly slipping in clips from John Alan Schwartz's Faces of Death (1978), Hans Rodionoff's Sucker the Vampire (1990), Bill Mousoulis's A Nocturne: Night of the Vampire (2007), Brad Ellis's Daylight Fades (2010), Scott Leberecht's Midnight Son (2011), Adrian Garcia Bogliano's `B Is for Bigfoot' in The ABCs of Death (2012) and John Huddes's After the Dark (2013).
Horror connoisseurs will relish such grace notes, as well as O'Shea's refusal to reveal the whole truth about Ruffin's motivation. But this is far from traditional genre fare. Such is cinematographer Sung Rae Cho's sure sense of widescreen place that O'Shea is able to use the setting to explore the mindset of the characters and impart a social realist spin on a story that touches on such themes as bereavement, domestic abuse, broken families, mental health and the second-class status of America's black community without lapsing into political preaching. O'Shea is also splendidly served by production designer Danica Pantic, editor Kathryn J. Schubert, sound mixer Gillian Arthur and composer Margaret Chardiet (who also works as an industrial music artist under the name Pharmakon). But he is most indebted to Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine, who are touchingly hesitant as the damaged introspective adolescents hoping to find solace in each other without quite being sure how deeply to trust.
CinemaItaliaUK returns with a provocative, prize-winning documentary that is bound to divide opinion. Profiling Sicilian Franciscan, Father Cataldo Migliazzo, Federica Di Giacomo's Liberami (aka Libera Nos) examines the Catholic Church's continued insistence that priests have the power to cast out the demons possessing troubled souls. Accorded remarkable access to the Palermo prelate and those seeking his assistance, Di Giacomo maintains a largely neutral perspective. But, while this actuality debunks many of the myths that have been fuelling horror movies since the phenomenal success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), it also poses troubling questions about the Vatican's encouragement of rituals that will seem to many to exploit vulnerable believers, who need psychiatric help rather than holy water and incantations.
Opening with a quotation from the Book of Job about Satan roaming the earth, Di Giacomo shows a seated woman in a chapel with her back to the camera lapse into a cursing frenzy the moment Fr Migliazzo places his stole on her shoulder. A deep voice warns the priest away that he owns the woman and will resist all attempts to remove him. It's a shocking start to proceedings, which take a detour via a churdyard during an eclipse before following Migliazzo to the parish church, where supplicants from across the island are waiting for him. Such is the clamour to be healed that tempers fray among the faithful and Migliazzo has to usher them into the sanctuary, while admonishing one mother for lacking the faith to prevent her troublesome son from misbehaving.
A young woman who has been coughing while waiting to see Migliazzo begins writhing while reciting her affirmation of faith and she collapses on to the floor. The camera discreetly descends to ground level, as the woman's family explain the nature of her possession and the priest sprinkles her with holy water and prays. Outside, Gloria, a middle-aged woman describes how she has become afraid of leaving the house in case her evil spirit starts forcing her to do bad things, while a man of around the same age who finds it difficult to resist his sexual urges declares that an exorcist had diagnosed possession by the lust demon, Asmodeus.
Grumpily dismissing a claim that he is a saint, Migliazzo says mass and recites a litany denouncing Satan and his minions and calling on them to leave the afflicted. Voices start to cry out around the church and the camera hovers close to those being tormented, as loved ones try to control them and ordinary parishioners join the priest in prayer. At the end of the service, individuals crowd around him, with one man asking for help in recovering an overdue payment. While he listens to each petition, Migliazzo seems testy and spouts platitudes in the hope they will satisfy people with genuine problems and no other idea how to solve them.
Gloria has clearly been pained by the experience and she staggers outside to have a calming smoke. An elderly woman comes to check on her and threatens to hit her with an umbrella the next time she hears her taking the Lord's name in vain. But another is more compassionate, as Gloria concludes that she is either possessed or insane. A man driving along a busy road talks to his daughter, Giulia, about her problems and implies that the devil might be taunting her because of the nature of his job. We also see a youngish man with tattoos, Enrico, wandering the streets because his parents will no longer have him in the house before Migliazzo is shown conducting an exorcism over the phone. The female voice rasps obscenities as the priest orders Satan to desist. But, curiously, the call ends with Migliazzo wishing the woman and her husband an Happy Christmas, as he promises to speak with her again soon.
While attending a healing ceremony, Gloria fights back the tears as she sings a hymn. She sinks to her knees when the priest lays hands on her and she is later shown discussing her case with a cleric who has asked if her problem is `human' rather than demonic. She explains how she has seen numerous doctors without success (one suspected she had multiple sclerosis, another depression) and has concluded that the only solution is a malevolent presence. Meanwhile, Giulia's father prays over her at home, while her mother rubs holy water on her face and her younger brother joins in the Hail Marys with a look of bored bemusement.
As the camera eavesdrops on a woman trying to persuade a companion to leave the car and visit Migliazzo, he conducts an exorcism on a woman whose friend annoys him with her incessant exhortations. Eventually, he tells her to pray somewhere else because she is distracting him before he engages in an exchange with an angry spirit who defiantly refuses to leave its host. The reaction is less dramatic at a healing service at a nearby church (which is shrouded in a misty morning sunshine), where people faint backwards after hands are laid upon them by Father Carmine as they stand before the altar.
Among them is Enrico, who has an angry phone call with the girlfriend who is no longer willing to tolerate his mood swings. He goes to a nightclub, where he does drugs with a mate and complains about the unfairness of life. But Migliazzo also has his moments of human weakness, as he bemoans the fact that his life is ebbing away and he is unable to prepare his soul for the afterlife because he is always in demand. He visits the home of a woman who has been consorting with an occultist and he urges her daughter to burn any worldly obstacles that might be leading her astray, including her cuddly toy collection and the pile of clothing she has dumped on the bed.
A mother takes her daughter, Anna, to see Fr Carmine. They drive behind a lorry with Padre Pio's face on the rear doors and chat about her experiences with various other priests. She crawls around the altar and howls like a wild cat, as Carmine prays over her. But an older cleric confides that he often finds that those who seek exorcism are often feigning possession because they enjoy being the centre of attention. He tells Anna to smile more and stop behaving like a capricious feline. Yet, when she wanders outside with her mother, Anna reveals that she was once assaulted by a trusted family friend (who used to foist good luck charms on them) when he took her for a pizza.
Giulia returns to show Migliazzo how well she is doing. But she seems sullen as her parents fuss over her and she opts not to attend mass because she feels as though there is someone inside her. Enrico also turns up at the church and complains that Migliazzo never manages to find time for him. Gloria is also on hand and she is angry with Carmine for questioning her. She lashes out at him when he shows her a Lenten palm and he orders the malign spirit to leave her. Migliazzo has an even harder time with a blonde woman, who scowls like an alley cat when he pleads with God to relieve her of the suffering that transforms her. She rears up when water is poured over her head and eventually collapses on the floor in exhaustion.
Migliazzo gets a check up with his doctor, who loads him up with pills to keep him ticking along. Gloria seems to be feeling better, as she gets her hair done and announces she would like to go dancing without her husband. Enrico is less buoyant, however, as he argues with his girlfriend about her insistence that he has to believe in God for Migliazzo to help him. But it's clear from the priests gathered at a conference for exorcists in Rome that faith is crucial to the process and a series of closing captions (accompanied by `Lose Your Soul' by Ryan Gosling's band, Dead Man's Bones) reveals that the increase in the number of people requesting rites had prompted every French diocese to appoint a specialist exorcist, while Madrid, Milan and Rome are actively seeking to add to their numbers. Ten times more exorcisms are being performed in the United States than in the past, while the Church is even contemplating setting up a call centre to handle the volume of inquiries.
Written by Di Giacomo and Andrea Zvetkov Sanguigni, this is an often frustrating study of exorcism in the modern Catholic Church. It doesn't help that Di Giacomo's duty to respect the participants prevents her from exploring their backstories in any detail, as it is almost impossible to get a handle on who they are and what are the specifics of their problems. Fathers Migliazzo and Carmine also remain somewhat shrouded, as Di Giacomo - who has previously produced The Cave Side of Life (2006) and Housing (2009) - is only ever allowed to observe rather than inquire about the rituals and their purpose.
The imagery captured by Greta De Lazzaris and Carlo Sisalli and edited by Aline Hervé and Edoardo Morabito is often shockingly intimate and intense. But the lack of context forces the viewer into becoming a voyeur, as a fellow human being endures inexplicable pain and misery. Thankfully, Di Giacomo errs on the side of discretion. However, by failing to explore either the theological aspects of exorcism or the possibility that the supplicants are suffering from schizophrenia and other personality disorders, and by avoiding any discussion of charlatanry, it's never clear what she is trying to prove. Consequently, this discomfiting documentary inevitably feels exploitative in spite of itself and raises as many questions about its own making as it does about the subject itself.
Around the time that Werner Herzog was whizzing Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, James Franco and Damien Lewis around Morocco and Jordan for his ill-starred Gertrude Bell biopic, Queen of the Desert (2015), documentarists Sabin Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum were beavering away in film archives in 25 different countries to provide the remarkable footage to illustrate Letters From Baghdad, their own tribute to the Oxford-educated scholar, archaeologist, adventurer, photographer and spy who became known as `the female Lawrence of Arabia' and might have changed the course of Middle-Eastern history if a chauvinist commissioner had not discarded her insightful white paper, `Self Determination in Mesopotamia'.
Opening with remarks by General Sir Gilbert Clayton (Michael Higgs), T.E. Lawrence (Eric Loscheider), Vita Sackville-West (Rachael Stirling) and Sergeant Frank Stafford (Adam Astill) that establish the technique of conveying information through simulated interviews, the documentary harks back to the birth of Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell on 14 July 1868 on the family estate at Washington New Hall in Durham. Her mother died when she was three giving birth to her brother, but she came to love her stepmother, Lady Florence Bell (Helen Ryan), who recalls that she never quite mastered spelling, even though she became the first woman to receive First Class Honours in History at Oxford.
Gertrude revelled in life at Lady Margaret Hall in the 1880s and friend Janet Courtney (Joanna David) remembers her correcting a professor who had sited a German town she had once visited on the wrong side of its river. On moving to London, she proved just as assertive and half sister Lady Elsa Richmond (Elizabeth Rider) describes how her smoking habit and insistence on riding on the Underground unchaperoned persuaded her parents to dispatch her to the Middle East to modulate her `Oxfordy' hauteur. But she found Tehran to her taste and wrote home in 1892 that she was learning Persian and spending her leisure time with Henry Cadogan (Paul McGann), a member of the foreign service whose love of books and music made him a welcome guest of German ambassador Friedrich Rosen (Jürgen Kalwa). However, Gertrude's father disapproved of Cadogan's gambling habits and he died nine months after permission had been refused for their engagement.
In order to mend her broken heart, Gertrude went to Switzerland and friend Sir Valentine `Domnul' Chirol (Tom Chadbon) commends her bid to climb the most difficult peaks. But he noted her penchant for attempting the most difficult tasks and this prompted her to return to the East, where she mastered Arabic and went on expeditions to Jerusalem, Damascus and Palmyra. She wrote a book on Syria and annoyed archaeologist Reginald Campbell-Thomson and his assistant TE Lawrence by questioning their digging methods. However, her travels also attracted the attention of Ottoman agents, who became convinced she was a spy and she returned home to continue a correspondence with the unhappily married Captain Charles `Dick' Doughty-Wylie (Pip Torrens).
Despite the Turks taking exception to Gertrude's next excursion to Ibn Rashid, she wrote to her father from Damascus in 1913 requesting funds to purchase camels for a journey whose intrepidity impressed David Hogarth (Simon Chandler), the President of the Royal Geographical Society. In addition to mapping settlements, Gertrude also met with the nomadic tribes of the region and survived an 11-day incarceration in the city of Ha'il before her caravan was allowed to continue its progress. She eventually reached Constantinople, where her arrival was reported to Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey by Sir Louis Pan Mallet (Nicholas Hunt), who confided that the information she had gleaned should prove invaluable to the government following the outbreak of the Great War.
Reluctant to return home to a dull routine, Gertrude remained abroad and scandalised half-sister Lady Molly Trevelyan (Lucy Robinson) when the nature of her correspondence with Doughty-Wylie came to light following his death in the Dardenelles. Lady Molly worried that Gertrude's love for life would not recover from the blow and, some time later, she wrote to her stepmother: `It's very curious what you tell me about the anarchy of the universe. Perhaps after all it isn't anarchy, but only the end of the order we're accustomed to. There's no doubt it has come to an end, East and West...There's room enough in the sun for us all - I'm not very certain, by the way, that that's true. Perhaps there's just not enough sun to keep us all warm.'
Keen to be of service, Gertrude persuaded the Admiralty to find her employment and she met up again with Lawrence and Hogarth in Cairo. Lord Cromer (Peter Day) provided her with recommendations and she was teamed with Hogarth and Clayton to draw up a catalogue of the local tribes and their political leanings. The British had promised Sharif Hussein of Mecca that the Arabs would be given an independent state in return for assistance against the Turks and Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were appointed to draw up its borders and assign areas of Franco-British influence. General Maude (Robert Ian MacKenzie) urged the peoples of the Wilayat of Baghdad to see the British as friends and not conquerors and Gertrude echoed his message when she was welcomed by British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox (Andrew Havill) in 1917. But, while Cox was happy to benefit from her expertise, Deputy Commissioner Sir Arnold `AT' Wilson (Antony Edridge) hoped that she would stick to writing books and not try to interfere in delicate negotiations she couldn't possibly understand, in spite of her knowledge of the tribes involved Senior army commander General Sir George MacMunn (Nicolas Woodeson) was quick to recognise her value, however, and sent her tribal leaders to be pumped for information. Senator Fakhry Jamil (Zaydum Khalad) recalls her close ties with his family and how Gertrude was also fascinated by the city's Jewish residents, who numbered 80,000 out of a population of 200,000. She confidently predicted that they would come to play a key role in Baghdad's affairs. But she was closer to the mark when she confided in a letter that `we rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme' and she feared that haste and ignorance would lead to a solution that would be calamitous for all.
She shared her concerns with American missionary Dorothy Van Ess (Michelle Eugene) that Britain would impose a settlement and then leave the Arabs to make it work for themselves. Military governor Lieutenant Colonel Frank Balfour (Mark Meadows) also got on well with her during a fact-finding tour to some local sheiks. But Stafford asserts that she was too snooty to be popular with the rank and file and, yet, she worked tirelessly and began hatching the idea of creating a museum to protect the ancient artefacts from places like Babylon.
This enterprise would have to wait, however, as Gertrude found herself in Paris for the peace conference. She made the acquaintance of Sharif Faisal, who was there to demand to formation of an independent Arab state and Gertrude felt that a kingdom centred on Mesopotamia was a distinct possibility. Clayton was afraid that `British efficiency' would be imposed upon the region and was wary of Wilson, who had little faith in the Arab ability to govern themselves. His pomposity provoked activists like lawyer Suleiman Faidhi (Ahmed Hashimi) to denounce British rule and Gertrude reported in her letters home that a nationalist uprising was on the cards unless Wilson started ruling with greater sensitivity. She was unsurprised, therefore, when the Arabs rejected the Mandate proposed in May 1920. However, she was equally dismayed by the behaviour of the Americans, who wanted to conclude a treaty of their own in order to secure supplies of oil (`detestable stuff').
The British were guilty of dark deeds of their own, however, as a representative of Standard Oil (Richard Poe) states in a report on the aerial bombardment of villages that had refused to pay their taxes. Muhammad Abd Al-Hussayn (Ammar Haj Ahmad), editor of the Al Istiqlal newspaper, cursed the civilian casualty numbers and the destruction of several holy places and Gertrude echoed the frustration that the Arabs had been betrayed by the installation of a government that was controlled by the British. Yet Wilson stuck to his convictions and there was some ruckus when Bell produced the 1921 white paper, `Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia'. But Cox gave her the post of Oriental Secretary and `Al Khatun' (`The Lady') became a key figure on the diplomatic scene. The wife of Abdul Rahman Jamil Zadeh (Hayat Kamille) recalls with fondness the moving picture shows she arranged and even scolded a man who was frittering his family inheritance on dancing girls. But, in striving to ensure Mesopotamia was economically viable, Gertrude was forced to include Sunni cities like Mosul, although she was also eager to temper the supremacy of the Shias, whom she feared would try to form a theocratic state.
In a bid to find a solution, a conference was called for Cairo in 1921 and Gertrude found herself in high-level discussions with Cox, Lawrence and Winston Churchill about the suitability of Faisal (who was the son of Sharif Hussein) to rule the new kingdom. Such was the sense of unanimity that she felt a new world had been agreed upon and she was hugely optimistic for the future. But Faisal's reception in Basra was lukewarm and his coronation in Baghdad was hardly a triumphant affair. Vita Sackville-West came to visit Gertrude, who had become the king's `right-hand man', and she was amused to see the chemistry between them.
By 1922, Gertrude had turned her attention back to the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and she joined Sir Leonard Woolley (Christopher Villiers) on a dig at Ur to ensure he didn't take all of the best finds back to London. He applauded her loyalty to the Iraqi people and her determination to make them proud of their heritage. But Stafford opines that she never recovered from slipping down the political pecking order after Cox departed and her museum work never quite filled the void. Judiciary adviser Sir Nigel Davidson (Jasper Jacob) recalls her health failing in 1924 and how she nearly died. But, ignoring the advice of friends to stay in Britain, she returned to Mesopotamia and survived the 1926 floods to oversee the transfer of her treasures to the museum's permanent home.
However, Davidson recognised that she was suffering from depression and, three days before her 58th birthday, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and tranquillisers. Her body was found on 12 July 1926, but no decision was reached as to whether she had intended to kill herself. Stafford helped carry the coffin and wondered whether her contribution would be remembered. Dorothy Van Ess lamented that Faisal has failed to live up to Gertrude's expectations and that she had been omitted from a key text on the formation of the state. Lawrence had little faith that it would survive for long and regretted that Gertrude had been too gifted for her times. He tuts as he recommends her letters, the last of which conveyed her excitement at the opening of the museum (which was infamously ransacked following the US invasion in 2003).
Taking their cues from Janet Wallach's 2005 biography, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum sifted through thousands of photographs and over 1600 letters, while also digitising some 500 hours of historical footage that had heretofore been overlooked. Yet, while Rose Leslie and Tilda Swinton do a splendid job of delivering Bell's erudite and often trenchant prose, the co-directors presume far too much prior knowledge on behalf of the viewer and introduce an excess of supporting characters without explaining how they fit into the bigger picture. Moreover, they shy away from the thorny, but crucial issues of colonialism and the divisions between the Shia and Sunni Muslims, with the result that while many will be better acquainted with Gertrude Bell and her claim to be a feminist icon, few will be wiser in any depth about the origins of the ongoing crises involving Iraq and its neighbours.
Iraq-born, Norwegian-Kurdish film-maker Zaradasht Ahmed demonstrates the power of eyewitness reportage in Nowhere to Hide, which presents the footage captured by Nori Sharif, a thirtysomething paramedic providing for his family in the Eastern Iraqi city of Jalawla, who learned how to use a camera shortly after American forces left the country in December 2011 and agreed to provide a record of everyday life in his community. Despite many of his neighbours fleeing when the Iraqi army withdrew from Diyala Province in 2013, Sharif remained at his post and continued to treat those caught up in the Kurdish peshmerga insurgency. But, when Islamic State threatened to invade the following year, Sharif had to decide whether his first duty lay with his patients, his family or the strangers around the world who knew nothing of the plight of the displaced or the barbarity of the occupiers.
What is so striking about this rough, ready and recklessly courageous film - which bears more than a passing similarity to Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi's 5 Broken Cameras (2011) - is how quickly Sharif's world implodes and he goes from being a cautiously curious observer to a frightened participant in a living catastrophe. Beset by suicide bombers, snipers and lawless policemen, the populace is subjected to unimaginable suffering and Sharif and doctors Mudhafar and Husum have their work cut out to treat the likes of Abu Fallah, who lost a leg in a car bombing that also left his son brain damaged, and to console Farmar Qathan, whose children died of hypothermia in the treacherous desert at the heart of the `triangle of death'.
But even Sharif feels the need to abandon the Emergency Hospital and hit the road when the ISIS offensive begins and his views of the decimated settlements where he tries to find shelter for his wife and four children are deeply distressing. Even more indelibly harrowing, however, are the images of orphans milling around makeshift coffins in the hope of finding someone to take care of them. Eventually, Sharif finds a haven in a displaced persons camp after seeking refuge in 13 different villages. But it is clear that his life will never be the same again.
As befitting a medical man, Sharif describes the conflict as `an undiagnosed war', a disease that no one can understand even though its symptoms are readily apparent. Such a chilling insight can only be born of personal experience and Ahmed and editor Eva Hillstrom are laudable tactful in their handling of the footage. However, the oud score composed by Gaute Berlindhaug for Kurdish singer Ciwan Haco often feels intrusively trite.
Five documentaries have been produced to mark the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the four police officers who had been filmed by George Holliday beating an unarmed African-American motorist on 3 March 1991. Delivered on 29 April 1992 and coming so soon after Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du was spared a custodial sentence after being found guilty of the voluntary manslaughter of 15 year-old high-school student Latasha Harlins, the verdict in the Rodney King case sparked protests across the South Central district that claimed the lives of 58 people and caused around $1 billion in property damage.
Although One9 and Erik Parker's LA Burning (which was executive produced by John Singleton), Sacha Jenkins's Burn Motherf**ker, Burn!, the Smithsonian Institute's The Lost Tapes: LA Riots, and John Ridley's much-praised Let It Fall have all been shown Stateside, only Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin's LA 92 has made it to the UK, thanks to the excellent documentary distributor, Dogwoof. Sponsored by National Geographic, Lindsay and Martin's account relies entirely on archive news footage, police recordings and home movies that have been juxtaposed in such a way as to make telling contrasts between the sound bites delivered at the time by politicians, civic leaders, participants, onlookers and news reporters and anchors. An object lesson in actuality research and a testament to the editorial skills of Scott Stevenson and the co-directors (who won an Oscar for Undefeated, 2012, this has an immersive immediacy that recalls Göran Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011).
The starting point is the week of rioting in the Watts district of Los Angeles in August 1965 following motorcycle cop Lee Minkus's attempt to arrest 21 year-old black motorist Marquette Frye for reckless driving and the resistance mounted by his passenger brother Ronald and their mother, Rena Price. Spreading from Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street, the disturbances claimed 35 lives and the contemporary TV coverage clearly bridles at LAPD chief William H. Parker comparing the malcontents to monkeys in a zoo. An eyewitness describes the stop-and-search harassment employed by the police and Minister John Shabaz and Civil Rights lawyer Tom Newsome question how people are supposed to respect the law in the face of a century of provocation.
An interviewee claims there will always be rioting because nothing will change and CBS reporter Bill Stout ends his report by quoting the McCone Commission conclusion that worse would follow unless reforms took place. However, despite the hopes of Martin Luther King, the famous summation - `What shall it avail our nation if we can put a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness of our cities?' - fell on deaf ears and not even the 1973 election of ex-cop Thomas Bradley as the city's first black mayor paved the way for improvement. Indeed, the promotion of Parker's former bodyguard, Daryl F. Gates to the top job in the LAPD saw relations take a turn for the worse in the face of increased police brutality.
As footage shows how some two million Hispanic and Asian migrants found a home in Los Angeles, we cut to March 1991. President George HW Bush has just announced the cessation of Operation Desert Storm. But any sense of national pride was dissipated by the 56 blows that broke numerous bones in Rodney King's face and upper body. Lawyer Steven Lerman doubted whether a single Iraqi had been subjected to a similar assault, while Crystal King couldn't understand why a traffic violation should prompt such savagery, even though her husband was an armed robber on parole. Most African-Americans were familiar with such LAPD tactics, but George Holliday's camcorder footage revealed them to the entire nation.
Interviewed in prison before he was released without charge, King claimed that he didn't necessarily believe that the four cops who inflicted the most serious damage were racially motivated. But transcripts of radio chatter released after District Attorney Ira Reiner arraigned officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno seemed conclusively to suggest otherwise. When Gates came before a city hearing, Councillor Zev Yaroslavsky condemned the racist language that appeared commonplace within the LAPD. He responded by urging the council to support the force or live to regret it and then had the temerity to chastise Councillor Michael Woo when he asked if Gates was threatening to jeopardise the city's safety unless it soft-pedalled the King incident and its implications.
Gates sat impassively at a series of forums about police behaviour. But tensions increased when CCTV footage from 16 March 1991 showed female shopkeeper Soon Ja Du shoot Latasha Harlins in the back of the head in the mistaken belief she had stolen some orange juice. Some 300,000 migrants lived in Koreatown, but many had stores in rundown black neighbourhoods and they were accused of hiking prices to exploit the poor. The jury found Soon guilty, but Judge Joyce Karlin opted against imposing a recommended 16-year sentence and gave her a small fine and community service because she didn't believe she posed a serious threat. News camera captured the fury outside the courtroom, as one woman laments that black lives mean nothing now they are no longer slaves picking cotton and sugar. Congresswoman Maxine Waters came to the local church to denounce Karlin for lacking the knowledge of the area to reach a reasonable conclusion. Yet, despite calls for civil disobedience from activist Danny Bakewell, the ruling was upheld and Karlin kept her job.
The LA court system sprang a second unwelcome surprise when defence lawyers successfully petitioned for the trial to be held in Simi Valley because the accused quartet would not receive a fair hearing within the city limits. However, this largely white suburb was home to numerous cops and few had much faith in the process being wholly objective. Powell and Koon were the first to be cross-examined by prosecutor Terry White and both claimed to have been in fear of their lives in confronting King. However, LAPD sergeant Charles Duke and Commander Michael Bostic both testify that excessive force was used against a man putting up no sort of resistance. Nevertheless, Koon's lawyer, Darryl Mounger, argued that his client had acted with laudable restraint in handling a potentially dangerous situation and that King ought to be grateful to him that he remained so cool under pressure.
In closing, John Barnett for Brisnero encouraged the jurors (10 whites, one Asian and one Hispanic) to be true to themselves and do what was right. But the crowds and crews gathering outside Judge Stanley Weisberg court and those watching on television were aghast when all four cops were acquitted. Some of the anchors relaying the news struggled to keep incredulity from their voices. But Mayor Bradley was less reticent, as he wondered how President Bush was going to be able to castigate foreign regimes for their denial of human rights. `This jury,' he informed a press conference, `told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes wasn't a crime. Today, that jury asked us to accept the senseless and brutal beating of a helpless man. Today, that same jury said that we should tolerate such conduct by those who are sworn to protect and serve. My friends, I am here to tell this jury: No. No. Our eyes did not deceive us. We saw what we saw, and what we saw was a crime.'
Insults were exchanged outside the courthouse, as TV crews sought reaction to the verdict. Scuffles broke out as Koon, Bresnero and Wind were escorted to waiting cars, with some squaring up to the fellow whites who dared to damn them. As protesters picketed LAPD headquarters at Parker Centre, Dr Cecil L. Murray, the senior minister at the First Ame Church, told his congregation that God had not forgotten them and called on community leaders and politicians to lead a peaceful protest. Councillor Rita Walters averred that freedom was not yet a reality for African-Americans. But the mood outside was becoming increasingly hostile, as marches began in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and cops at Florence and Normandie put in a radio call for back-up because they were being pelted with bottles and stones. At 75th and Budlong and 71st and Raymond in South Central Los Angeles, it soon became clear that the angry tide could not be held back and the local station ordered its officers to withdraw.
White photographer Bart Bartholomew remained in the thick of the action, as black youths began attacking white motorists near Florence and Normandie. But, as Charles Muhammad from the Nation of Islam asked how many more blacks had to suffer injustice, a liquor store was looted and a riot was declared from the Command Centre two miles to the north. News helicopters circled the area and reported that police choppers were also monitoring the situation and doing nothing to protect white motorists who were being pulled from their cars and beaten. Audio is heard of journalist Bob Brill being attacked in a callbox, as we see mostly female reporters venturing into the multi-racial crowd at Parker Centre. Some chant `No justice, no peace,' while others burn flags and one man sets light to the palm trees at the side of the road.
Back at Florence and Normandie, injured whites lie in the street with no one being able to attend them. Similarly, fires burn unchecked in looted business premises, as the LAFD holds back after a fireman is shot. But, as Governor Pete Brown declares a state of emergency in Sacramento and the National Guard is mobilised, it's evident that the situation is out of control. The White House remains ominously silent on 30 April, as Jesse Jackson leads a small protest and Maxine Waters makes it clear that President Bush has nothing to do with the Black Caucus on Capitol Hill. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton expresses his dismay that too little has been done to make society fairer, while the TV news programmes wonder why the Bush administration has been so inactive in this area in the year since the King beating.
As dawn breaks in Los Angeles, with plumes of smoke still billowing over the city, KJLH Radio presenter Eric `Rico' Reed invites people to express their views rather than descend into anarchy. Some suggest that the violence merely plays into the hands of the white law-makers, but one caller calmly repeats the Watts mantra of `burn, baby, burn'. The Korean-language station notes the number of Asian stores that have been targeted and, as one black man stands beside the burnt-out shell of his aunt's 99c shop, clips show the signs that were placed in the windows of black business in a bid to protect them from the looters.
A Korean woman weeps as she sees the damage done to her dry-cleaning stop, while two black female customers bemoan the fact that their clothes have been stolen. National Guard trucks remain at the command centre, while cops stand idly by as people of all ages and backgrounds steal everything from chest freezers and bacon slicers to groceries and potted plants. Reporters try to shame some of those scuttling away with their contraband, but the cops on the scene admit there is little point trying to catch anyone, as they simply scarper and sneak back at the first opportunity. As fires blaze in Koreatown, lawyer David Kim tells the radio audience that they have a right to defend their property and use firearms if the situation warrants it. Naturally, residents arm themselves to the teeth and a TV crew captures a gunfight on the street. But the aerial shots confirm the abnegation of the police and fire departments in this part of the city.
With reporters across Los Angeles, the networks picked up on every breaking story, as the rioting spread from Watts and Compton to Hollywood. One Korean woman stands with her arms outstretched to prevent cocky young males from getting into her store. Initially, they mock her, as she repeatedly intones, `This is America!' But a grudging respect begins to spread and the would-be thieves melt away and fire crews finally make a concerted effort to tackle the blazes. News bulletins claim that 21 have died and over 570 have been injured since the rioting began. Moreover, 916 structure fires have been reported and one elderly black man remonstrates with the looters for betraying the principles he was taught in the ghetto. A sobbing Korean woman demands to know why the cops watching rather than acting and one officer asks what she suggests they do, as she screams `this is not fair' in heartbroken distress. Another cop in riot gear curses with a trembling bottom lip the fact that he is so powerless and wishes he was able to fight back, as he had been in Vietnam.
Eventually, Governor Wilson sends in the National Guard, even though much of its ammunition has been held up by a logistical snafu. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is imposed and those driven from their homes seek shelter with the Red Cross. As patrols drive through empty streets, its appears as though a degree of normalcy is slowly being restored as citizens wake up on 1 May. News bulletins carry admissions by Gates and fire chief Donald Manning that the riots caught them on the hop, but make sure viewers know that firefighters had to wear bulletproof vests to do their job. Some 40 fires were still burning, while the casualty tolls continued to rise. But, Gates let it be known that 3000 had been arrested and he vowed to regain control as quickly as possible.
Once again, Maxine Waters comes to the fore, as she takes a bullhorn at the main post office and urges those queuing for their social security cheques to remain calm and not do anything that might provoke the police into closing the bureau down. But, as aerial shots reveal the extent of the damage, a decidedly uneasy Rodney King makes an appeal for people to `get along'. He pleads for the violence and looting to stop because it's harming the kids and the old folks and, in a desperate search for something to say, he suggests Los Angeles has a big enough problem with smog without adding to it with fires. His distress contrasts starkly with the sang froid shown by President Bush, as he addresses the nation and declares the rioting to be the work of a criminal mob rather than genuine seekers after justice and civil rights. He also reminds his audience that they have a duty to respect the law, even if they don't always agree with its outcome.
Callers to a radio phone-in denounce his intimation that the protesters were unfit to live in a civilised society and all agree that he has handled the crisis appallingly without a modicum of understanding for the plight of African-Americans. But life had to go on and, as Korean residents throng to call for justice and peace, a small army brandishing brooms marched into the onetime war zone to begin clearing up. A closing montage reflects on what we have just seen. But the Bush speech is interspersed with words taken verbatim from Lydon Johnson's response to the unrest in Watts in 1965 and, it would not be a surprise to learn that Barack Obama used some of the same phrases following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014 after a jury decided that charges should not be pressed against white cop Darren Wilson for the shooting of 18 year-old African-American Michael Brown on 9 August.
When the curfew was lifted on 4 May 1992, the city reported 58 deaths, 2383 injuries and over 11,000 arrests. A closing caption confirms that this remains the most destructive civic disturbance in American history. Yet, almost as soon as the viewer regains their wits after surviving such a shocking audiovisual onslaught, they will start to ask questions that Lindsay and Martin have opted not to answer by employing a cut-and-paste approach to their remarkable primary sources. Why, for example, were captions not used to identify truck driver Reginald Denny after footage is shown of him being hauled from his cab and left for dead on the road? Moreover, why do the film-makers elect not to mention that he received 90 skull fractures after being set upon with bricks, a tyre iron and a fire extinguisher and why do they not name the members of the LA Four: Damian Williams, Antoine Miller, Henry Watson and Gary Williams?
Clearly, this is a film about what the King affair and its aftermath says about the state of race relations in the United States in general and within its law enforcement system in particular (hence. presumably, the similarity between Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans's music and Philip Glass's score for Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, 1988). But to devote so much time to a specific act of barbarity and then pass over it without placing it in its proper context leaves one wondering about other sins of omission. This approach also allows Martin and Lindsay to avoid making any analytical judgements that would help viewers reach a fuller understanding of the raw footage they have been witnessing. Thus, many will feel the need to see Let It Fall, as John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, 2014) has invited some of those involved in the 1992 riots to reflect upon their experience and what this sorry saga needs in the light of Ava DuVernay's 13th, Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America and Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is a proper sense of perspective.
Finally, this week, there is just room to draw your attention to the London Spanish Film Festival's 7th Spring Weekend, which will be playing at the Ciné Lumière and the Regent Street Cinema between 21-23 April. Easily the most eye-catching title on the slate is Carlos Saura's Jota de Saura/Beyond Flamenco, which sees the 85 year-old maestro use his own paintings as a vivid backdrop to this introduction to the traditional castanet dance of his native Aragon.
This land-locked north-eastern region also provides the setting for Jordi Frades's La Corona partidaThe Broken Crown, which harks back to the early 1500s to chronicle the fate of Castile following the death of Queen Isabella (Michelle Jenner), who had ruled in tandem with her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon (Rodolfo Sancheo). The widowed monarch sought the support of Cardinal Cisneros (Eusebio Poncela) to help him retain control over his wife's kingdom by exploiting the mental fragility of his daughter, Joanna (Irene Escolar). But her ambitious husband, Philip (Raúl Mérida), has plans of his own. Skulduggery of a more mundane sort preoccupies the debuting David Cánovas in La Punta del Iceberg/The Tip of the Iceberg, an adaptation of playwright Antonio Tabares's corporate satire-cum-thriller that stars Maribel Verdú as a market analyst who is dispatched by boss Carlo d'Ursi to avert a PR disaster by investigating the suicides of three employees at a regional branch. But, despite the hostile welcome afforded by the surveillance-obsessed Fernando Cayo and sidekick Carmelo Gómez, Verdú enlists underlings Álex García and Bárbara Goenaga to uncover the significance of the top secret Project Iceberg.
A controversial decision also drives the action in playwright Miguel del Arco's feature debut, Las Furias/The Furies. As young Macarena Sanz explains to grandfather José Sacristán, the three furies came into existence when Titan Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, and Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone were born from the drops of blood that fell to earth. Greek mythology means a lot to Sacristán, who named his three children with psychologist wife Mercedes Sampietro after Cassandra, Hector and Achilles. But radio broadcaster Carmen Machi, dead-end executive Gonzalo de Castro and aspiring novelist Alberto San Juan have proved to be something of a disappointment. So, when Sacristán and Sampietro decide to sell the family holiday home in Cantabria and use the money to travel before it's too late, their offspring are less than enthralled by an invitation to select a keepsake before the property goes on the market.
They are even less pleased to find that Sampietro has asked the formidable Barbara Lennie to adjudicate over the weekend. But the mood sours further when De Castro announces that, as Machi and San Juan are bringing spouses Pere Arquillué and Elisabet Gelabert, he hopes that everyone can rejoice in his decision to marry Emma Suárez, the girlfriend his kinfolk have been hoping will dump him for the last 15 years. Naturally, sharp words are exchanged as home truths are revealed and the odd skeleton tumbles out of the closet. Yet, amidst the surfeit of antiquarian allegories, Del Arco manages to examine contemporary Spanish mores while also dissecting the dynamics of a tightly wound family.
Del Arco has compared the scenario to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), but there are also similarities with Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World, as each cast member gets their moment in the dramatic spotlight (with Sacristán's most memorably coming in a boat) and no one disappoints. While the ensemble excels, Del Arco resists the temptation to overwork Raquel Fernández Núñez's camera and makes neat contrasts between the sunny landscape and the sombre furnishings designed by Claudia González.
Echoes of Pedro Almodóvar and Bigas Luna in their 80s heydays reverberate around Paco León's Kiki, El Amor se hace/Kiki, Love to Love. Transposing Josh Lawson's Australian fetish romp, A Funny Kind of Love (2014), this is the Sevillian's third feature and the first not to headline his mother and sister, Carmina Barrios and María León, who became cult figures in Spanish cinema with their performances in Carmina o revienta (2012) and Carmina y amén (2014). Brightly coloured, highly stylised and deliciously subversive, this snapshot of Spanish sexual manners interweaves its five storylines with a panache that still allows León to poke a little socio-satirical fun at recessional Catholic morality.
Set during a hot Madrid summer, first vignette centres on Natalia de Molina, who seems happy with boyfriend Álex García until she admits that she has only achieved orgasm once and that was while being robbed at knifepoint. Ever the dutiful lover, García attempts to pander to De Molina's harpaxophilia by staging an assault. But things don't go according to plan and Ana Katz and Paco León also find events spinning out of control when they follow Belén Cuesta's suggestion of spicing up their love life at the kinky sex club where she works.
Meanwhile, fairground barker Luis Callejo discovers that wife Candela Peña is turned on by his tears and sets about trying to satisfy her dacryphilia, while deaf lizard fancier Alexandra Jiménez strikes up a signing relationship on Skype with David Mora. But, while this liaison strikes a sweet note, a discomfiting pathos clouds plastic surgeon Luis Bermejo's marriage to the wheelchair-bound Mary Paz Sayago. They love each other dearly, but her self-image issues prevent her from committing to any physical intimacy. So, without the knowledge of ditzy assistant Maite Sandoval and Filipino maid Rea Gutiérrez, he sneaks some anaesthetic home to have sex with Paz while she sleeps.
As with Lawson's film (which was originally known as The Little Death), this episode is bound to raise the most eyebrows. But, taking their cues from Almodóvar's Talk to Her and Emilio Martinez-Lázaro's The Other Side of the Bed (both 2002), León and co-scenarist Fernando Pérez bid to make it seem less creepy by emphasising the strength of the waking partnership. It's a risky gambit, especially as one session sees Bermejo arrange Paz in various poses to fulfil his fantasies. But provocation is the name of this picture's game and, with the cast clearly on his side, León makes solid use of Vicent Díaz and Montse Sanz's kitschy designs and Kiko de la Rica's flitting camerawork to make this more a sympathetic treatise on insecurity than a luridly sneering leer at other people's perversions.