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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 8/3/2012)
Seventy years ago, the United States was still reeling from the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt predicted would live in infamy. Indeed, such was the impact of the Japanese air attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor upon the national psyche that it wasn't until 1943 that the US Navy and the War Department finally agreed upon a truncated version of John Ford and Gregg Toland's December 7th, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. However, this controversial account was always intended to be a full-length feature and it is only now (thanks to Odeon Entertainment) that British audiences can see the film as it was designed by one of Hollywood's finest directors and perhaps its most inspired cinematographer.
As the action opens, Uncle Sam (Walter Huston) is deep in conversation with Mr C (for Conscience; Harry Davenport) about the development of Hawaii as a community and Pearl Harbor as a military installation. They discuss the crucial role it will have to play if Japanese power in the Pacific increases and Davenport wonders how far ordinary Americans can trust the thousands of migrants who have made their home on the island and sworn loyalty to the USA while retaining dual citizenship and continuing to speak the language, adhere to old social and religious customs and communicate openly with friends and relations back home in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Seen today, this seems provocatively alarmist, with the line between patriotism and xenophobia being blurred beyond distinction. But one only has to recall the hysteria whipped up in certain quarters about the trustworthiness of Muslim enclaves within Britain and the United States following the assault on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 to see how easily minorities can be demonised by the frightened majority.
What is even more fascinating about Ford and Toland's stance, however, is how equanimitable it is for a film that had been commissioned to boost morale and refocus the war effort at a critical juncture by reminding viewers of the reasons for hostilities and the need to win at any cost. In addition to questioning the effectiveness of US defences and their state of preparedness, the co-directors even commend the Japanese pilots, whose kamikaze courage led to the sinking of the USS Arizona and the bombing of Hickam Field while imperial diplomats were engaged in talks in Washington with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
However, while combining creditably convincing reconstructions and authentic footage of the decimation to chronicle and assess the attack on Oahu, Ford and Toland also stoop to including an animated sequence depicting a radio tower disseminating a speech to such cities as Tokyo, Kobe and Okure of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo proclaiming a triumphant victory. Narrator George O'Brien contradicts the claims, but nowhere does he admit that the speech was never made.
Thankfully, Ford and Toland swiftly return to the factual to introduce members of the Kelley, Leight, Rosenthal and Shick families, who all lost loved ones during the onslaught. They also provide a tour of the island under martial law and discuss the evacuation of children, the securing of sensitive locations and the detention of loyal Japanese-Americans, who have been made to pay for the actions of their onetime compatriots. But the emphasis in the final segment, as ghostly victim Dana Andrews surveys the scene with Great War spectre Paul Hirst, is firmly on the sacrifices made on 7 December and the promises that will be kept to avenge and remember them.
It's 20 years since the War Department allowed archivists access to the 50 minutes excised from the original print. Yet more people have still seen the flagwaving, Oscar-winning 32-minute version and it's to Odeon's credit that they offer all three extant cuts (including one with a special introduction) on this invaluable disc. There is much more Allied propaganda awaiting similar release, much of it produced by front rank Hollywood craftsmen like Stuart Heisler (The Negro Soldier, 1944) and John Huston (Let There Be Light, 1945), and it is to be hoped that some of it might emerge soon.
The world had changed considerably by the time that Michelangelo Antonioni accepted an invitation to China in the early 1970s. Few Chinese features had reached the West and restrictions on reporting meant that little was known about the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists and ordinary citizens alike. Yet, while Jean-Luc Godard flirted with Maoism in La Chinoise (1967), Antonioni confronted its consequent realities in Chung Kuo - China and defied his hosts to keep hidden cameras rolling as he was escorted to show sites chosen to put the most positive spin on a revolution in crisis.
Over the course of eight weeks, Antonioni travelled between bustling cities and sprawling provinces. In Beijing, he alternated trips to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City with visits to well-regimented factories, schools, homes and hospitals, where he recorded the disconcerting use of acupuncture in a Caesarian labour. However, he also shot unsanctioned footage of illegal marketplaces and old women with bound feet and this refusal to follow the Party line persisted on venturing further afield to the Red Flag Canal and the collective farms of Henan, where Antonioni witnessed `happy' peasants beaming their contentment with a simple lifestyle that he recognised as poverty. Still undaunted by polite intimidation, he finally made equally challenging use of the contrasts between the ancient city of Suzhou and the modern metropolis of Shanghai.
Unsurprisingly, when Chairman Mao saw this epic documentary, he castigated it as counter-revolutionary propaganda and commissioned a stylistic denunciation that drew a celebrated response from the critic Susan Sontag in her book On Photography. The Chinese accused Antonioni of shooting the scenes they had stage-managed from too many angles and of deliberately framing imposing edifices to emphasise their flaws. In fact, he had merely followed the tactic employed since his early days in actuality of locating figures in their context and this wholly cinematic, but also intellectually uncompromising appreciation of the socio-political significance of the landscape enabled Antonioni to expose what was supposed to be hidden from him and, ironically, to anticipate the importance placed on environment by such Fifth Generation directors as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.
Another object lesson in how badly the best of intentions can go awry is dismayingly presented in James Marsh's Project Nim. Adapted from Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and supplementing archive footage and photographs with interviews and dramatic reconstructions, this unflinching exposé of the fallibility of scientific research is bound to provoke debate. But in chronicling the life of a chimpanzee who was consistently betrayed by those it trusted, Marsh is careful to avoid sensationalism or sentiment and, consequently, this succeeds where Nicolas Philibert's Nénette (2010) failed in creating a factual drama with the emotional intensity of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933).
Nim was born at the Institute of Primate Studies in Oklahoma in November 1973 and within days he had been separated from his mother Carolyn in order to test Columbia University behavioural professor Herbert Terrace's theory that a chimp could be taught to communicate through sign language. Nim was entrusted to Terrace's former lover Stephanie LaFarge, who had recently married poet Wer LaFarge to whom the baby ape took an instant dislike. As Stephanie and daughter Jenny Lee recall, life in the large Manhattan brownstone was initially blissful, as Nim was dressed in human clothing and allowed to play while he learned. However, lacking a basic knowledge of animal psychology and increasingly struggling to cope with Nim's increased size, strength and independent streak, the LaFarges were forced to accept the assistance of undergraduate Laura Ann Petitto, who became Nim's primary carer when the project relocated to the 28-acre Delafield Estate in 1975.
Revelling in the freedom of his new surroundings, Nim became sufficiently boisterous and canny to require the attention of additional staff. But, while he was mostly affectionate towards Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan and Renee Falitz, he occasionally became aggressive and once bit Falitz so badly on the face that she required extensive treatment and had to be removed from the compound. Throughout this period, Terrace kept collecting data about Nim's ability to express himself through signing and continued to hope that he would eventually be able to form simple sentences. But Nim was smarter than he suspected and began developing skills to manipulate his carers and keep the work sessions short in order to maximise play and feeding time.
Eventually, Terrace pulled the plug on his nurture versus nature study and arranged for Nim to return to Dr William Lemmon's IPS facility, where he became the charge of Bob Ingersoll and Alyce Moore. A keen fan of The Grateful Dead, the former bonded instantly with the beast and even shared the occasional joint with him. However, a shortage of funding led to Lemmon selling his apes to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates at New York University and it was only through a rights case brought by Ingersoll and lawyer Henry Hermann that Dr James Mahoney was able to spare the grim fate of his LEMSIP neighbours and eventually transfer him to the Black Beauty Ranch for retired animals run by Cleveland Amory and his assistant Marion Probst, where he died of a heart attack in March 2000.
This sorry tale makes for sobering viewing, especially as the designated villain of the piece refuses to exhibit the same remorse as his former employees. Clearly, there was academic merit in Herbert Terrace's experiment to disprove linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky's contention that humans alone were capable of understanding and using the grammatical principles key to sophisticated communication. But the decision to remove an infant ape from its mother, billet it with a foster mother and then treat it as a specimen rather than a creature capable of forming emotional attachments soon proved catastrophically misguided and Terrace's apparent indifference to both Nim's psychological well-being and his fate once the study was completed is one of the many contradictions that Marsh highlights with growing incredulity.
However, like Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man (2005), Marsh is also fascinated by the delusional anthropomorphising to which so many of the humans that came into contact with Nim succumbed. But he clearly finds it hard to follow Nim in forgiving those who abused him and this remarkable and impeccably constructed film stands as a damning indictment of scientific arrogance and folly. But don't be fooled into thinking this is just a treatise on the ethics of animal experimentation. This is also a shrewd dissection of the social and sexual attitudes that existed in the early 1970s and a castigation of the predatory chauvinism that enabled so many powerful men entice trusting female underlings into their beds.
Around the time these experiments were being conducted in the States, Jack Hazan was developing a new style of documentary. Nowadays, scripted reality has become something of a blight on TV schedules. But, back in 1974, the notion of actual people behaving like characters in a real-life drama was considered audacious and what makes A Bigger Splash all the more remarkable was that it chronicled the break-up of a gay relationship at a time when pictures like John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) could still cause a media and moral furore. However, artist David Hockney was so unimpressed by his depiction in this landmark film that he offered to buy the negative for £20,000.
Shot variously in London, Geneva, New York and Los Angeles, the action feels rather like an Andy Warhol non-drama. The rambling nature of the conversations reinforces this sense of awkward improvisation and yet the shambolic feel enhances the aura of authenticity, as Hockney tries to come to terms with his abandonment by Californian artist Peter Schlesinger and struggles to complete a painting in which he was a key figure. Fashion designer Ossie Clark and his textile designer wife Celia Birtwell are concerned about Hockney's state of mind, as are assistant Mo McDermott, painter Patrick Procktor, photographer Betty Freeman and curator Henry Geldzahler. But he continues to work and attend parties and openings, while Hazan leavens the manufactured exchanges with homoerotic digressions that include a dream sequence and, for its day, a surprisingly graphic sex scene.
With a moodily melancholic score by Patrick Gowers shaping the emotional tone, this was always intended as an illusion rather than an impression. Consequently, those seeking an insight into Hockney's artistic legacy will have to look elsewhere. However, Hazan does succeed both in capturing the fleeting moments of inspiration that enabled Hockney to create and in suggesting the unbreakable connection between life and art. The cast occasionally struggles to convey the easy naturalism that might have better disguised the evident orchestration. But a fortuitous by-product of this stilted vérité is a satirical undercurrent that echoes the one found in Hockney's canvases of beautiful people posturing beside swimming pools. Indeed, it was this mix of insouciant observation and affected alienation that so impressed Martin Scorsese, who cites Hazan's unconventional style as a major influence on the look and feel of Taxi Driver (1976).
At one point in a profile that remains just the right side of self-promotion, Hockney acts as a judge at the inaugural Alternative Miss World contest and Jes Benstock reveals the part this eccentric event played in the life and art of Andrew Logan in his acute, but affectionate study, The British Guide to Showing Off. Founded in 1972 by Logan and his partner, Michael Davis, the pageants were held irregularly and were notable for the cult figures who patronised and competed in them, as well as for the manner in which the contestants reinvented themselves in the day wear, swimwear and evening dress sections in much the same way that Logan redefined everyday objects in his distinctive sculptures and jewellery.
Derek Jarman and John Maybury were among the contestants at the first Alternative Miss World show. Indeed, the former would return to win the third title as Miss Crepe Suzette and his Super 8 footage of the earliest happenings, along with clips from the television coverage of the 1981 staging at Olympia, prove as crucial to Benstock's compelling audiovisual scrapbook as the interviews, still images and amusing animated inserts by Andrew Savage. Zhandra Rhodes, Grayson Perry, Michael Cashman, Simon Callow and Brian Eno offer fond recollections of these heady days, as well as more controversial incidents like the homophobic protests that forced the abandonment of the proposed 1986 venue, the Chislehurst Caves. But Benstock wisely keeps the focus on Logan, as he makes preparations for the 12th edition.
Born in Witney in 1945, Logan trained to be an architect at Oxford. However, an acid trip helped steer him towards an art world in the midst of its Pop phase and he quickly found a niche that was cemented by the launch of Alternative Miss World. Less a celebration of subversion or even sexuality than a showcase for ingenuity and personality, the competition allows entrants to make a statement rather than show off and it's this empathy with a need to be someone or something else that makes Logan such a perceptive artist and such a decent and engaging human being. Who else would play host in a transgender costume of evening suit and ball frock or would have allowed Bruce Lacey's robotic creation Rosa Bosom to take the crown in 1985?
The parade of past hopefuls becomes a bit repetitive after a while and Benstock fails to inject much drama into the booking and designing of the 2009 event. But the trip to the museum devoted to his craft housed in a reconditioned squash court in the Welsh village of Berriew is charming and confirms Brian Eno's suspicion that Logan would be much better known if the art establishment in this country weren't such fearful snobs incapable of coping with a talent who, in Grayson Perry's words is like a `naughty auntie putting a bit of gin in your tea'.
How Joyce McKinney probably wishes she had said something witty like this when asked about her relationship with Kirk Anderson instead of `I loved him so much I would have skiied down Mount Everest naked with a carnation up my nose!' However, as Errol Morris reveals in Tabloid, McKinney seemed to have a regrettable talent for saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
That said, nobody comes out of this curious exposé of yellow journalism with much credit. For somebody so desperate to correct inaccuracies in the reporting of her 1977 Devon kidnap of her Mormon lover, ex-beauty queen McKinney exaggerates her eccentricity with resistible self-consciousness (especially for someone with an IQ of 168), while Daily Express hack Peter Tory and Mirror paparazzo Kent Gavin are loathesomely smug in their mockery of a woman they purportedly drove to attempt suicide.
However, Morris hardly helps matters with his use of monochrome clips to illustrate interview revelations about the `sex in chains' incident and giant captions highlighting seemingly incriminating words. He clearly finds his subject and her persecutors ghoulishly fascinating and the story faintly ridiculous and allows them and bit players like pilot Jackson Shaw and Mormon missionary-turned-radio host Troy Williams to blurt out remarks that make them look less than dignified. But Morris has surprisingly little to say in this disappointingly frivolous enterprise about tabloid tactics or the extent to which the media reflects the society on which it reports. Indeed, he seems more interested in McKinney hiring Dr Hong of the Seoul-based RNL Bio lab to clone her beloved pit bull terrier, Booger.
McKinney has recently filed a suit against Morris and producer Mark Lipson, in which she accuses this `celluloid catastrophe' of presenting her as `crazy, a sex offender, an S&M prostitute, and/or a rapist'. The verdict will be some time in coming. But, while she seems happy enough to reminisce about this sleazy episode to Morris's Interrotron camera, one can sympathise with McKinney's concern that the slogans, animations and commercial clips added during the edit do her few favours - although she must have had sufficient experience of the media after all this time to know the risks of supping with the devil.
The documentary film has been put to many uses over the last 117 years. But, whether promulgating, persuading, provoking or propagandising, it's most consistent purpose has been to elucidate. Occasionally, however, a subject eludes the grasp of even the most dogged documentarist and so it proves with Joyce Vincent in Carol Morley's riveting Dreams of a Life. The further the investigation delves into the life of the 38 year-old, whose skeleton was found surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents in a flat with the television on above the Wood Green Shopping Centre in London a full three years after she died in 2003, the deeper the mystery becomes about who she really was and how such an attractive, gregarious and popular person could simply disappear and not be missed by a single soul.
One of five daughters born to a Grenadan father and Indian mother, Joyce Carol Vincent was raised in West London and seemed a happy child. However, she was deeply affected by the loss of her mother at the age of 11 and several of the friends interviewed by Morley suspect she may have been abused by the father she always told them was dead (when, in fact, he post-deceased her in 2004). She left school without qualifications, yet had taken elocution lessons and always gave the appearance of being well educated. Indeed, she landed a series of decent jobs, including a post in the treasury department at Ernst & Young that required her to move around large sums of money.
Joyce had been working for a shipping company in 1985 when she began dating Martin Lister, who took her to a hunt ball and amazed friends who considered the strikingly elegant Joyce to be way out of his league. However, she fitted into their circle with ease and Lister was surprised that none of her own friends and family attended the 21st birthday present he threw for her. Indeed, he recalls her being infuriated by the arrival of a stripping vicar, who may well have been organised by one of her sisters as a misfiring joke.
Along with workmates Kim Bacon and Daniel Roberts and school friends Mandy Allen and Prue Almond, Lister was bemused that Joyce's family failed to raise the alarm that she was missing. But she seemed to have a habit of jettisoning jobs and acquaintances as soon as they became an inconvenience and Lister recalls how she would often drift away for months at a time before returning as though nothing had happened. Moreover, she kept her private and professional lives separate and resisted all attempts at greater intimacy, even cheating on Lister with his friend William Barthorpe. Towards the end of the film, however, Lister admits that his father had dissuaded him from marrying Joyce on racial grounds and he breaks down in lamenting that he wasn't able to save the love of his life from herself.
But, as Morley gradually comes to realise, nobody could. Alistair Abrahams got to know Joyce when she lived in Wapping with Kirk Thorne, who ran the Nice recording studio and once cut a demo of Joyce singing his own composition `Tell Me'. According to friend Catherine Clarke, Joyce was invariably the life and soul of the party, although she never craved attention and refused to flirt with attached men, even though Thorne used to dress her in a French maid's outfit whenever Captain Sensible of The Damned paid a call.
She also formed a liaison with Abrahams, who managed such chart acts as Betty Wright and Osibisa, and Zimbabwean singer Alton Edwards remembers them doing a lot of clubbing together. Joyce charmed the likes of Isaac Hayes, Jimmy Cliff and Gil Scott Heron and even met Nelson Mandela at the 70th birthday tribute concert at Wembley in June 1988. Yet, once again, she simply walked away from a scene to which she had seemingly become pivotal and several interviewees testify that Joyce would always run away from a problem rather than confront it and moved house on numerous occasions, often leaving behind her meagre possessions in her flight.
In the early 1990s, she moved in with John Ioannou, but he confides that the arrangement foundered because Joyce kept sending mixed messages. She lived in a women's refuge for a time after a possibly abusive relationship with an unnamed Pole and suddenly re-entered Martin Lister's life at the turn of the century after quitting her City job after four years of seeming success and contentment. By all accounts, she had nowhere else to go after Abrahams declined her suggestion they resumed their romance and she slept on Lister's couch until he caught her in a lie about her employment and he was appalled to discover when she was rushed to hospital in 2002 with a peptic ulcer that she had given her bank manager as her next of kin on the admittance form.
By the end of the following year, Joyce would be dead and she would remain undiscovered until Haringey council officials came to evict her from her housing association flat for unpaid rent on 25 January 2006. Her identity was only established via dental records and Alison Campsie and David Gibbs from the Tottenham & Wood Green Journal strove to provide in-depth coverage of the story, only to fail to unearth anything about Joyce's life. Local MP Lynne Featherstone similarly drew a blank in trying to ascertain whether society had allowed a vulnerable woman to slip through its net.
Carol Morley first became aware of Joyce when she saw a report in a discarded copy of The Sun on a train. She was moved by the utter anonymity of the victim of such shameful communal neglect and vowed that she should not be allowed to slide into further obscurity. After placing adverts in various newspapers, Morley began meeting Joyce's former colleagues and friends, the majority of whom had never associated the corpse on the sofa with the vibrant woman they had known. She uses the detective element of her research to link the disclosures and editor Chris Wyatt makes a neat job of piecing together press cuttings, photographs and scribbled notes.
What makes the documentary completely compelling, however, is the performance of Zawe Ashton in the reconstructions that Morley stages with laudable delicacy and authenticity. Alix Luca-Cain plays the young Joyce, while Neelam Bakshi and Cornell S. John appear as her parents. But it's Ashton who most impresses, as she conveys the vivacity and vulnerability that form the core of the conundrum. The moment in which she sings into a hairbrush along with Carolyn Crawford's `My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)' could have been hideously tacky. But Morley and Ashton judge it to perfection, as the meaning of the lyrics dawns on the swaying Joyce and she begins to weep in the crushing realisation that she is living a similar sham.
The film ends with Ashton propped up against the sofa watching BBC1 and wrapping Christmas presents (who were they for and why did they not check up on her?). As the camera pulls away, Morley switches to a grainy moving image of the real Joyce backstage at Wembley as the stars were introduced to Nelson Mandela. She looks perfectly at home in such stellar company and yet, in a shockingly short space of time, she would become tragically less than a face in the crowd. There was no evidence to suggest she had any drink, drugs or mental health problems. She seems simply to have died of natural causes.
It's a devastating end to a disconcerting, haunting and deeply compassionate piece of work that merits comparison with Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010). Morley refuses to speculate about Joyce's fate and makes little attempt to fill in the gaps in the narrative provided by her talking heads. Consequently, this raises more questions than it answers. But that may be the point.
Prompted by Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1964) and filmed between 1989 and 2010 with Super8 and a cheap digital stills camera, Andrew Kötting's sublime home movie This Our Still Life captures the intimacy of the life he shares with partner Leila McMillan and their daughter Eden, who was first seen on our screens as an excited eight year-old touring the country with her nonagenarian great-grandmother Gladys in Gallivant (1997). But while this new picture is clearly a celebration of the now 22 year-old, who continues to defy the rare neurological disorder Joubert Syndrome to sing, paint and live with boundless enthusiasm and considerable skill, Kötting is also fascinated by the creativity of the natural world and the animism of the forest surrounding their ramshackle Pyrenean retreat.
Following a style that is becoming increasingly common in experimental documentaries, Kötting enhances his deeply personal, but always cunningly composed images with a moody score by Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) and soundbites gleaned from the family archive and record collection. In so doing, he succeeds in chronicling the passing seasons and questioning the purpose of existence with a mischievous insistence that makes this accessible exercise in avant-gardism endlessly engaging and irresistibly inspiring. Moreover, he conveys the sheer joy of living with Eden and how her indefatigability helps her parents overcome more trying moments and cope with the unremitting passage of time.
A fairytale aura pervades Louyre and, even though Kötting adheres to a seasonal linearity, his editing strategy reinforces the feeling that anything could happen in this enchanted place and he revels in the fact that it is inevitably Eden or Nature who provide the surprises. Thus, each painting she produces is extolled for its innocence, simplicity and perception against an audio backdrop of voices discussing such weighty issues as politics, religion, art, memory, isolation and the purpose of existence. In other words, while the rest of the world contemplates life and all its mysteries, Eden just gets on with living hers and her commitment to the here and now alleviates audience fears aroused by the dire portents droning in the ether.
The close-ups of flower, trees, insects, reptiles and the bric-a-brac cluttering the sprawling cottage provide a privileged insight into a rarefied domesticity. But, while so many recent actualities seem to have exploited familiar skeletons to snatch their makers a few seconds in the spotlight, this 57-minute featurette seeks only to reflect a father's devotion to his daughter and she more than handsomely repays him by joining musicians John Roseveare and Matt Hulse in a heartfelt rendition of the Elvis Presley hit `Love Me Tender'.
The same sense of capturing life as it's lived informs Jeanie Finlay's fine documentary Sound It Out and anyone who spent their teenage years hanging round an independent vinyl shop will undoubtedly be moved by this doting profile of Tom Butchart and his eponymous emporium in the recession decimated North East town of Stockton-on-Tees. Funded by arts grants and 257 local donations, this is a moving snapshot of a once-thriving port and railway hub, whose descent into tough times is reflected in the hard-luck stories and down-but-not-out demeanour of the store's predominantly male clientele.
Offering unassuming expertise and a human touch that's missing from internet transactions, Butchart and sibling assistants David and Holly Laybourne do much more than sell discs to ardent collectors and passers-by with a tune in the heads. They help keep the community together and it's noticeable that the regulars who wander in to while away the odd hour amidst the records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, posters and memorabilia also attend the live gigs showcasing such neighbourhood talents as singer-guitarist Butterfield, the markedly more manic Cramps-influenced Russell and the Wolves and returning prodigal, Becky Jones, who now performs under the moniker Saint Saviour.
Despite asking the odd off-camera question, Finlay largely keeps a low profile as she skulks behind the chancer trying to sell stolen goods and the freeloader looking for giveaways to decorate his bedsit walls But her main focus falls on the genial Butchart, the Laybournes and the select few who have become friends as well as customers over the past 20 years.
Bullied as a kid and sent to a special school because he suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, Shane Healey found his niche on the shelf-stacking night shift at B&Q. However, he lives for Status Quo and follows them around the country when not listening to his prized collection of albums and singles. Indeed, so key is his vinyl to his personality that he has looked into having it melted down to make his coffin.
Metal is equally central to Gareth Williams's existence. Indeed, as he sits in a bedroom with best mate Sam Howard, he confides that his periodic suicide bids might have been more awfully successful without bands like Pisschrist persuading him that life may be worthwhile after all. Making rather than listening to music sustains DJ Aaron Frankey McGlade and his emcee buddy John-Boy Taylor and siblings Big Dave `DJ Weedy D' and Richard `DJ Dick' Weedall, whose garden shed broadcasts on NYZ Radio have made their mam proud (and slightly relieved they're not up to mischief elsewhere).
The camaraderie between the brothers is nice to see, as is the banter between a middle-aged bearded man and his Meatloaf-loving partner Janet. Although not identified on screen (he could well, however, be Malcolm Bowen), he pops in frequently after hearing songs on the jukebox in the nearby Garrick pub and flirts amiably with Finlay at every opportunity. His gregariousness contrasts sharply with the reticence of insurance auditor Chris Smith, who always has £100 credit behind the counter in case something irresistible comes into stock (unlike the 17 who have `save it for me' carrier bags on a shelf in the back room). He shows Finlay his meticulously filed collection with a quiet satisfaction that intensifies when he shows how he can find any mid-period Bowie LP in a trice.
Such obsession is a very male trait and Finlay may have delved more into the sociology of her subject and why so few females follow suit. But, while this is more an observational than an analytical exercise, it still fascinates as a day in the life of a passing parade and evokes nostalgic pangs that will prompt many to dust off a deliciously crackly platter and stick it on the turntable.
The subject couldn't be more different as Jerry Rothwell embarks upon an investigation into the world of artificial insemination in Donor Unknown. As in Deep Water (2006) and Heavy Load (2008), Rothwell displays considerable tact in dealing with a sensitive issue. But he also invests the story of a group of half-siblings searching for their anonymous father with equal measures of ethical acuity and gentle wit.
Raised by her lesbian mother Lucinda in Erie, Pennsylvania, JoEllen Marsh first saw Donor 150's profile from the California Cryobank when she was seven years old. She was intrigued by the physical description: `Caucasian, aged 28, 6ft, blue eyes, light brown hair, guitar player, dancer and philosophy major.' But it was the last line of his personality profile that caught her imagination: `This earthly life is transitory and the joys of this world are ephemeral. So keep your moment and, if sincere, great fortune will come.'
JoEllen was keen to meet the man who had made her existence possible and her chances increased when she was 12 years old with the discovery of the Donor Sibling Registry website. Although she had no intention of searching in earnest until she was 18, she signed up and soon made contact with Danielle Pagano, a younger half-sister who had been born to a heterosexual New York couple. After exchanging e-mails and chatting on the phone, JoEllen and Danielle met face to face when they were 16 and 15 respectively and their encounter made the pages of the New York Times.
By sheer luck, 52 year-old Jeffrey Harrison saw the front-page story in Venice Beach, California and realised that the teenagers were his daughters. Born in Delaware to well-heeled parents who had divorced when he was six, Harrison had rejected father Ray's military lifestyle and he survived bouts of teenage depression to relocate to Los Angeles and make his way variously as a waiter, masseur, erotic dancer, Playgirl model and sperm donor. He also devoted himself to caring for animals and he is first seen pampering the dogs who share his battered RV and tending to the wounded pigeon he is nursing back to health. But he has also patched things up with his father and frequently visits him at his residential home.
While Harrison was pondering whether to get in touch with JoEllen, she had started corresponding with new `sibs', including Ryann McQuilton (based in LA after growing up on Cambridge, Massachusetts), Roxanne Shaffer (from San Diego, California), Rachelle Longest (who was reared in Millington, Tennessee by mothers Joy and Helen) and Fletcher Norris, who lives in Boulder, Colorado with his mothers Sue and Cathy. The latter have misgivings about their son meeting Harrison and the pressures of attempting to forge a relationship with a donor are further discussed by Dr Cappy Rothman, who claims to have expedited 60,000 births since launching the California Cryobank, and Wendy Kramer, who co-founded the Sibling Donor Registry after the birth of her son, Ryan.
But JoEllen is determined to meet the man who styles himself a `soul caller' and her brief stay, along with a number of her half-siblings, is genuinely touching, as Harrison takes an interest in their achievements and aspirations and responds to all their questions with an alacrity and honesty that typifies his hippie attitude to life. Moreover, Rothwell avoids sentimentalising the encounter by questioning how agencies verify and monitor their data, the contrasting rights to know and to anonymity and the frequency with which individual donors are allowed to make deposits and how often they are offered for selection.
Appealingly scored by Max de Wardener and ably interweaving JoEllen and Jeffrey's backstories, this never descends into Oprah territory. It also avoids of the urbane melodramatics of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. But one is left wondering how many similar meetings go so well or seem to leave so few emotional scars.
Rothwell is one of those documentarists who prefers to create the illusion that everything captured on camera occurred without his agency. The same cannot be said of Morgan Spurlock, who seeks to expose the perniciousness and ubiquity of advertising and product placement in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by amusingly selling promotional spots within the film itself. Back on Super Size Me (2004) form after somewhat losing his way with Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008), Spurlock again proves a much more genial on-screen presence than Michael Moore, although he is still prone to the intellectual superficiality and grandstanding lapses that have made Moore such a decreasingly effective critic of the contemporary American scene.
Intrigued by the extent to which commercials and sponsorship have impinged upon most aspects of modern living, Spurlock decided to buy in rather than sell out and make a film about the process of funding the very picture he was shooting. Consequently, he hit the phones in a bid to attract potential investors and gets the action off to a rousing start with a montage of pitches and rejections that finally results in Ban deodorant agreeing to come on board for $50,000. Other companies eventually follow suit and Spurlock is seen meeting with founders and executives as he contracts to drink nothing but Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice on screen, as well as exclusively fly with Jet Blue airlines, drive Mini Cooper cars, stay in Hyatt hotels, eat Amy's Kitchen pizza and conduct as many interviews as possible in Sheetz gas stations and convenience restaurants.
He also consents to shoot an ad for Mane`n'Tail shampoo, as he is so taken with a product that can be used on both humans and horses. In so doing, Spurlock fulfils his promise of total transparency. Moreover, he also succeeds in discussing such issues as brand perception, marketing strategies and consumer suggestibility with a satirical insight that would be all the more trenchant if he could resist mugging to the camera whenever he hits a target. Yet Spurlock manages to finance his `docbuster' entirely with other people's money without relinquishing artistic control.
Indeed, he finds time for a couple of digressions, as he buys ad space on the perimeter fence of a cash-strapped school in Broward County, Florida and visits São Paulo to discover how mayor Gilberto Kassab and co-ordinator Regina Monteiro removed all outdoor advertising in a campaign to end visual pollution. Moreover, he also gets to learn some tricks of the trade from PR gurus like Tony Seiniger, Britt Jonson, David Whales, Richard Kirshenbaum, Martin Lindstrom and Peter Bemis, as well as debating the phenomenon of product placement in mainstream movies with directors JJ Abrams, Brett Ratner, Peter Berg and Quentin Tarantino and the ethics of advertising with such academics and activists as Noam Chomsky, Susan Linn, Robert Weissman and Ralph Nader. He even commissions an official film song from the rock combo OK Go.
The majority of these encounters are knowingly droll, with Spurlock never missing the opportunity to winkingly emphasise ironies and reassure the audience that they are not being as manipulated as ordinary punters in being sold the benefits of the tie-in products because they are in on the postmodernist joke. But he struggles to answer such questions as whether having his film sponsored will raise its profile before opening weekend or how much the average consumer is actually influenced by advertising in an era when TiVo and the internet allow them to eliminate sponsors messages at the press of a button.
One thing Spurlock triumphantly succeeds in promoting throughout the film is himself. But the suit he wears on the Jimmy Kimmel Live chat show represents a splendid lampoon of corporatism and logo fixation, which also demonstrates a laudable strain of self-deprecation that goes a long way to restoring Spurlock's credibility after the Osama fiasco.
Although presenting an often fascinating snapshot of modern America, the absence of a tangible socio-political context detracts from the effectiveness of Steve James's The Interrupters. Inspired by a New York Times Magazine story by co-producer Alex Kotlowitz and edited down from over 300 hours of footage gathered over 14 months on the mean streets of Chicago, this profile of the CeaseFire organisation striving to reduce levels of gang violence pays handsome tribute to the courage and conviction of the reformed delinquents who risk their lives in an effort to change hearts and minds. But it always feels as though only part of the story is being told and that the material might have been more effectively presented in a TV series than a feature-length documentary.
CeaseFire was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who sees violence not as part of a moral crisis but as a disease that can be prevented and/or cured with the right treatment. Consequently, he views his interrupters as human antibiotics who work on the causes of a conflict and use their own experiences in such tough neighbourhoods as Englewood, Little Village and Riverdale to bring about its peaceful resolution. Indeed, virtually all the key players in this often poignant, powerful and provocative pictures once struggled with their own demons.
Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire is a born-again street hustler, while ex-drug trafficker Cobe Williams and onetime car thief Eddie Bocanegra both served time for their part in murderous assaults. Most strikingly, Ameena Matthews was literally born into a life of crime, as she was the daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort, who was eventually jailed for conspiring with Libya to commit acts of domestic terrorism. Having been abused from the age of nine and lived fast and loose for much of her youth, she is now a demurely covered Muslim wife and mother. But she has lost none of her feistiness and ventures into danger zones with a fearless zeal that enables her to win the trust of those she seeks to save, like Dee, whom she thanks for helping her defuse an incident involving some hot-tempered sisters coming to the aid of their stricken brother.
Matthews takes a special interest in Caprysha Anderson, a teenager who has become something of a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. However, she also has a talent for trouble that results in her regularly breaching the terms of her parole and spending lengthy periods in correctional facilities. Kenneth and Bud Oliver have also fallen by the wayside and Cobe Williams has been entrusted with bringing about a rapprochement with their mother Latoya. He handles this with the same mix of street wisdom and good humour that he later employs to prevent Flamo from seeking revenge on those responsible for the arrest of his mother and brother. A decidedly unstable individual whose drug frequently use clouds his judgement, Flamo eventually lands a job with the rail network and his salvation is mirrored by that of Lil Mikey, who volunteers to become an outreach worker after Cobe accompanies him on a reconciliation visit to the hairdressing salon he robbed years before.
Yet it's Ameena who keeps finding herself in the eye of the storm and husband Sheikh Rashid admits that he often worries about her readiness to intervene in the most potentially combustible situations. James shows her breaking up a fight between two gangs over a $5 bag of weed and then pleading with lads clearly unused to accepting advice from women not to avenge the friend who was shot while listening to the radio outside his own home. But she also has a way with victim families and does more for the mother and sister of Derrion Albert (footage of whose murder became an online phenomenon) than such politicians as Mayor Richard M. Daley, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretaty Arne Duncan.
Indeed, Ameena helps Anjanette and Rhaea arrange a memorial and does much to bring kids from rival schools and neighbourhoods together in a seminar on the tensions and problems that both unite and divide them. But this gathering only emphasises the intractability of CeaseFire's dilemma, as many of its leading lights are similarly torn between doing right by the community and avoiding becoming too close to the law enforcement agencies for which many retain a healthy mistrust.
The frankness of such uncompromising figures as John `China Joe' Lofton and Norman L. Kerr contrasts with the less strident approach adopted by Eddie Bocanegra, the son of an alcoholic Mexican car worker who specialises in helping young children deal with the ramifications of violence. His sensitivity is readily apparent as he consoles a girl who starts crying during a discussion of life in her building and aids a class to produce paintings expressing their hopes and fears. But its in supporting Vanessa in the weeks following her 16 year-old brother's killing that he shows the most compassion and the sequence of the family having a barbecue beside the boy's grave is only rivalled in piquancy by the response to Ameena's address at the funeral of Duke Smith, during which she asks everyone aged 13-24 to stand up and starkly informs them that they will all be laid out in their own caskets unless they see the error of their ways.
Undertaker Spencer Leak, who once served as a chauffeur to Martin Luther King, laments the fact that an African-American may have reached the White House, but senseless deaths of black kids continues unabated. Indeed, soon afterwards, there are 20 shootings in a single night and Representative La Shawn F. Ford holds a town hall meeting with the locals after the authorities threaten to send in the National Guard. Consecutive speakers blame the violence on poor housing and schooling, unemployment, poverty, drugs and the gang mentality and one is left to wonder how CeaseFire can possibly succeed when James shows Tio Hardiman visiting interrupter Joel Sanchez after he was wounded in the line of duty.
But an epilogue suggests that grounds for optimism are not unfounded, as even Caprysha has managed to complete her education behind bars and Ameena sits with her during a concert (from which she had been excluded for misbehaviour) and hopes that she can stay on the straight and narrow because it's a hard road that lies ahead of her.
Juxtaposing vérité casework footage with interviews and insights into Ameena, Cobe and Eddie's home lives, James and editor Aaron Wickenden necessarily adopt a linear structure. However, the unpredictable nature of the storylines means that they resist the easy narratological organisation that enabled James to impart so much drama into the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams (1994). However, this was always intended to be a harder-hitting enterprise and he largely succeeds in the hugely ambitious task of conveying the harshness of the inner-city environment and the demands placed upon those seeking to make a difference.
Putting past wrongs right is also a theme that recurs as Swiss director Jarreth Merz captures the chaos, excitement and controversy of the 2008 campaign for the Ghanaian presidency in An African Election, which exploits unprecedented access to the candidates to reveal how close one of the continent's most stable democracies came to descending into violence after a disputed first poll necessitated a run-off between Nana Akufo-Addo of the right-leaning New Patriotic Party and John Atta Mills of the left-inclined National Democractic Congress.
This record of the hustings and the consequences of the poll provide a timely reminder of the preciousness of democracy for those in the developed world who take it for granted. But Merz and his co-directing brother Kevin don't always make tangible political distinctions between the parties and, thus, it isn't always clear precisely what's at stake. Commentators Kwesi Pratt and Baffour Agyeman-Duah, British High Commissioner Nicholas Westcott, outgoing president John Kufuor, politician Hannah Tetteh and activist Sekou Nkrumah (who is the son of Ghana's first independent leader, Kwame Nkrumah) sketch in the background to the contest, while Jerry Rawlings (who ruled as a dictator from 1979-92 and as the elected president from 1992-2000) passes some rather muddled observations on the contemporary scene while shuttling between endless rallies and meetings with the African Union delegation sent to monitor proceedings.
But neither Atta Mills nor Akufo-Addo is willing to offer much by way of policy or philosphy on camera. Thus, Merz and editor Samir Samperisi have to content themselves with fast-cutting between Topher Osborn's handheld images of cheering crowds, jostling entourages and speechifying candidates. But the effect is little different from that achieved by Robert Drew in Primary over half a century earlier, although neither contender has the charisma of John F. Kennedy and the Direct Cinema style that seemed so revolutionary in 1960 now feels overly familiar and rather flat and confusing without any accompanying editorial insight.
Nevertheless, the sight of voters trekking for miles and queuing for hours is deeply humbling and the agonising wait for the outcome of the count is slickly presented. But the most memorable sequences involve party agents Rojo Mettle (NDC) and Kwabena Agyepong (NPP), whose playful banter in the so-called Strong Room where the results from the 21,000 polling stations are collated gives way to furious accusations of ballot rigging after irregularities in the distant Tain constituency in the Brong-Ahafo region necessitates a re-vote on 2 January 2009 after days of nationwide unrest.
Ultimately, chief electoral commissioner Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan awards victory to Atta Mills and Rawlings confides his relief that not only has his candidate triumphed, but that Ghana has also continued to provide a good example for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to follow. Yet most viewers will be left with the impression that shenanigans played as big a part as suffrage in the final verdict and few will feel much wiser about the state of the nation or its political system. Merz admirably maintains a balance between the parties and makes fine use of Patrick Kirsta and Ghanaba's jazzy score to impart a sense of gathering momentum. But too many dignitaries are identified by captions without their significance being explained, while the voice of the common people is too often drowned out by the empty rhetoric of politicos who seem more interested in securing power than wielding it.
In 2002, documentarist Phil Grabsky made the acquaintance of an eight year-old victim of Taliban injustice and told his story in the deeply moving profile, The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Over the course of the following decade, Grabsky made periodic returns to Afghanistan and the transformations that have been wrought in both the lad and his homeland are revealed in The Boy Mir - Ten Years in Afghanistan, a chronicle that conveys the implacability of the landscape and the indomitability of its inhabitants and suggests that there is cause for cautious optimism behind the grim headlines.
When Grabsky first catches up with Mir in February 2003, he is relieved to discover he is still alive and still relatively safe in the cave network that had grown up around the once-loved religious site 143 miles north-west of Kabul. Living with father Abdul, mother Murwarid, half-brother Khushdel and his wife Gulafrooz, Mir makes light of the grinding poverty and freezing temperatures that force them to scrap with their neighbours for the warm clothing donated by aid workers. But when the family fails to get one of the 100 houses built in the valley by foreign charities, it has no option but to return to its village in the north and hope that the prejudice and drought that had compelled it to flee have dissipated.
With Abdul unable to work after being injured in a mining accident, the burden of providing for his not always grateful kinfolk falls on Khushdel, who uncomplainingly takes any job going. Mir is also keen to do his bit and he herds goats and tends to a couple of donkeys to bring in some money. However, his chores often keep him away from school and the family is divided about the value of his education when his income is so vital to its survival. Abdul knows that Mir's only chance of bettering himself - and, thus, ameliorating their situation - lies in securing qualifications and a lucrative profession. But good intentions are invariably the first thing to be sacrificed in the face of pressing daily need and Mir is soon shovelling coal from the nearby mine with his pals for a share of a meagre $40 per day.
His spirits remain high, however, and he plays up to Grabsky's camera as he takes a wash and plays with his friends, with girls in chadors joining in a game of football that is shown to the accompaniment of radio headlines about the ongoing war that seems to be happening a million miles away from this remote haven. Grabsky reveals that the cost of the conflict has risen to $300 billion by 2007 and yet only a tenth of that sum has been set aside for aid. Consequently, the 13 year-old Mir has to skip the lessons vital to his ambition to become a teacher in order to join Khushdel down a mountainside mine, where he helps load coal into sacks and lead the encumbered donkeys through perilous passages to the surface.
The effort seems worthwhile when the siblings earn enough to repair the roof of their humble shack and even put in a window. But cash is so short that Mir has to join other hopefuls in competing for prizes in the foot races staged by Nasim, a local entrepreneur who splashes his largesse with a mix of benevolence and braggadocio. Yet, by the time Grabsky returns in 2008, Mir and Khushdel have begun farming a small patch of land and Mir even has enough money to buy a bicycle (albeit one with no brakes). On the distaff side, tensions are increasing at home, with Abdul and Murwarid bickering constantly and Gulafrooz complaining that Khushdel is lazy and deprives her of the bare necessities, let alone any small luxuries to make her feel wanted.
Given such ingratitude, it's impossible not to feel sorry for Khushdel and Mir as they share a cave in the hills so they can be closer to the fields and the livestock they tend. Mir hardly ever attends classes now and his future seems as uncertain as that of the country, as Grabsky informs us that corruption and crime are on the rise and that the Taliban insurgency has inflicted mounting casualties on Allied and Afghan forces and driven the cost of the enterprise up to $500 billion. The teenager sits in on a meeting of his elders, as they lament their misfortune and those opining that things are slowly getting better are shouted down by those who still view Imperialist England (which many believe is a part of the United States) as the Great Satan.
By the time Grabsky revisits the village in July 2009, however, the evidence of improvement is hard to refute. Mir has spent $250 on a motorbike, while Khushdel has a mobile phone that makes it much easier to do business and provide for the family. Indeed, the miners have even clubbed together to buy a generator and Mir giggles at the belly dancer on the television in the recreation tent as he finally becomes aware of a wider world away from his isolated home. But grim reminders of the reality of living in a war-torn state are never far away, as armoured vehicles patrol the region (and patronisingly leave the residents notebooks as a goodwill gesture) and Mir recalls the sadness that afflicts everyone when the body of a fallen hero is returned for burial.
Abdul is adamant that Mir will never join the army. But he continues to prevaricate over the value of his education. Thus, as Grabsky departs in the summer of 2010, Mir is still labouring more often than studying. Moreover, he has started to wonder why foreign forces are still on his land and is beginning to question whether they have actually had a beneficial impact. The answer can be see in the patches of greenery in the forbidding mountainscapes and in the trio of television sets that now keep the villagers informed and entertained. But it must be difficult to appreciate such progress when working every waking hour and then listening to one's parents insulting each other into the night.
Grabsky concludes with the understandable concern that such precarious stability will be jeopardised by the eventual withdrawal of international troops. But he imposes no political spin on this compelling snapshot of the rebirth of a nation. Indeed, he allows the garrulous Mir to speak for himself and his determination to have a happy youth in the face of so many trials is deeply humbling. As one would expect, given the conditions in which the crew toiled, the footage is of a variable quality and Grabsky and editor Phil Reynolds occasionally have to work hard to maintain a cogent narrative thread. But the fact the film has been made at all represents a remarkable achievement and one fervently hopes that further instalments detailing this unique friendship will emerge in ensuing years.
A very different mountain realm provides the backdrop for Neten Chokling's Brilliant Moon, a dual profile of the revered Tibetan Buddhist monk Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche, the young man into whom believers insist he was reincarnated. Narrated by Richard Gere and Lou Reed, this is a laudably sincere biography of a writer, scholar and teacher whose words and actions have inspired millions over the last seven decades, including the current Dalai Lama.
Born in 1910, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche became a monk after it was realised at the age of seven that he was the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Trained in the classical Buddhist tradition, he was such an apt pupil that he could explain complex concepts to his mother by the age of nine and at 15 he relocated to a remote cave to prepare himself for the spiritual, intellectual and political journey that lay ahead. Indeed, even after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche made the most of being driven into exile by using his position as mentor to the Bhutanese royal family to disseminate his teachings and he travelled widely throughout Asia and the West before passing away in 1991.
Best known for his ambitious 2006 feature, Milarepa, Chokling draws on his own experiences as one of Rinpoche's students, as well as a range of archive materials and interviews with the likes of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche, Rabjam Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche. He also uses some animated graphics to illustrate the early part of Rinpoche's odyssey and their mundanity rather detracts from the poignancy of the narrative. However, the power of his message, the courage demonstrated in saving rare Tibetan texts from destruction and the openness with which he received pilgrims ensure this is inspirational viewing, even at its most hagiographic.
And the same is true of Michael Whyte's Relics & Roses, which follows a casket containing some bones belonging to St Thérèse of Lisieux on its tour of English churches in the autumn of 2009. As in the first part of his proposed trilogy on faith, No Greater Love (2009), Whyte makes a respectful observer who allows ideas and images to speak for themselves. But what is most fascinating about this unusual road movie is the contrasting attitude of the lay faithful and the clergy to the remains and what they represent.
Opening with a droll shot of a little old lady refusing to co-operate with the police and security guards as she tries to find a good vantage point outside the Church of Our Lady of Carmel in Kensington, the film flashes back a few days to the casket being readied for its journey in Lisieux. Canon John Udris, the Dean of Northampton Cathedral and a member of the tour organising committee, next provides some background to Thérèse Martin and how her short life (1873-97) and the heartfelt writings in her Little Way led to her canonisation in 1925 and installation in 1997 as one of the three women among the 33 doctors of the Catholic Church.
Footage follows of the progress from Portsmouth Cathedral to Aylesford Priory, the Church of Sacred Heart and St Teresa in Coleshill and St Theresa's in Bristol. Interspersed with the highlights from the various processions and services are contributions from Monsignor Keith Barltrop, Sister Zoe of the Incarnate Word and the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, whose erudite devotion is countered by the forthright, but polite scepticism of Times columnist Matthew Paris. The diametric standpoints provide plenty of food for thought, but Whyte also slips in some telling impressions of his own, such as the top shot onto the pews at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool as the collection pouch is being passed along and the serene sight of sisters from the local Carmelite convent holding an all-night vigil with the reliquary in the half-light of this most glorious of shrines.
The tour moves on to Salford Cathedral and Manchester University Chaplaincy before arriving in York for the only visit to an Anglican venue. Yet while some travelled from Bavaria to venerate Thérèse in the Minster on her 1 October feast day, others protested noisily outside and Whyte adroitly contrasts the highly uncharitable denunciation of the Reverend James R. Hamilton, the Minister of Fole Reformed Evangelical Chapel (who sounds like a martinet trade unionist splenetically quoting a factory rule book), with the evangelical altruism of the Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York, who warmly recognises the value of Thérèse's humility, wisdom and acceptance of God's plan even though he may be more sceptical about conventional Catholic concepts of sainthood.
An outdoor mass at Aylesford (where Whyte can't resist including an announcement about gluten-free communion hosts) is followed by moving scenes at the Chapel of the Hospice of St John and Elizabeth in London, the Carmel of the Most Holy Trinity in Notting Hill and the chapel at Wormwood Scrubs prison, where uniformed inmates genuflect, touch and kiss the glass casing with the same devoutness as the vestmented clerics and eager congregation gathered at Westminster Cathedral for the climactic service.
Having attracted some 300,000 people in just under a month, the odyssey ends back in Lisieux, with an image of the wax effigy of the 24 year-old Thérèse on her deathbed that is kept in the wondrous basilica dedicated to her memory. Contrasted with the sublime monochrome photograph of the departed nun, this strikes a provocative note that seems to question whether the whole notion of an outreach reliquary pilgrimage is not simply the Catholic equivalent of a celebrity PR campaign, in which the fans get to meet their idol and reaffirm their allegiance in the company of lots of like-minded acolytes. But, even if some have come more out of blind faith than true theological understanding, there is no questioning the potency and poignancy of their sincerity and serenity.