Film Reviews: Encounters Film Festival – Documentaries Most Wanted, Or Influenced By Gaza

August 18, 2020

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By BRUCE DENNILL

The 2020 Encounters Film Festival runs from 20-30 August, with all titles being screened free of charge, though donations to keep the festival viable going forward would be appreciated. The programme is full to the brim with top-notch material, with the below three titles just some of the highlights.

 

Banksy Most Wanted / Directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley / NR

Influence / Directed by Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak / NR

Gaza / Directed by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell / NR

 

It seems absurd that the identity of one of the most famous artists on Earth remains a secret. Absurd, but also consistently intriguing and, in the manner of stories from Robin Hood to John Le Carré’s spy thrillers, it’s something that a wide range of observers find exciting. His stock has arguably never been higher, either, with this film being one of two documentaries about him this year. Beginning with the infamous shredding of the artist’s Girl With Balloon at a Sotheby’s auction, Banksy Most Wanted establishes, for viewers mostly unaware of his story, a fragmented timeline that takes in his emergence in Bristol and many of his most high-profile periods, including a notorious stint in New York. The filmmakers look into various theories regarding Banksy’s identity and the research that has led journalists and others to believe they have him in the spotlight. There is an examination of the effect that his work has on observers, from the solidarity felt by those who agree with whatever political statement a new work is making to the breathless fandom of supporters who believe him to be in their city and comb the streets in an attempt to be the first to spot a new work. There is no strong stance taken on the criminal aspect of Banksy’s modus operandum – spraypainting an image on the wall of a building he doesn’t own – but the views of the many interviewees do provide a balance in that regard; some defending the cultural value of the art and others questioning the artist’s right to deface property, regardless of the impact of his actions. Indeed, the film as a whole doesn’t really follow any of its threads to their full conclusion, which is understandable given its subject’s anonymity but a touch frustrating if you are hoping for more than a fleshing out of a growing legend. That said, while you’ll still need to draw your own conclusions once you’ve considered all the options laid out in Banksy Most Wanted, the film paints a vibrant, textured picture of a beguiling phenomenon.

 

In investigating the work done by the Bell Pottinger PR firm and its late, disgraced founder Tim Bell, filmmakers Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak not only collate a mountain of information about the many dubious campaigns the firm was responsible for but also highlight – without direct judgment in the narrative – the ethical wasteland occupied by Bell and every other operator in a similar position. The most positive thing that can be said is that Bell’s capacity for hubris was extraordinary. The less level-headed notion might be that he was actively evil, knowing exactly what darkness he was covering up on behalf of clients including Augusto Pinochet, shady Russian oligarchs, the Iraq-invading Pentagon and, on either side of the South African political divide, FW De Klerk and the Gupta brothers. Excerpts from a number of interviews with Bell show that the advertising man-cum-reputation manager retained, until the end, a turn of phrase that could guarantee a division of opinion on what he meant. Curiously, this both supports the focus of the documentary overall and muddies the water in terms of its impact, as Bell’s certain knowledge of the negative outcomes of his work – flare-ups of racism and xenophobia; the keeping in power of politicians known to be corrupt and much more – is never definitively proved. Authoritative confirmation of suspicions or otherwise (there is proof in many cases, as in the infamous South African “State Capture” saga), what Influence shows beyond doubt is that the rich have means to manipulate stories in ways that benefit themselves and that one direct outcome of this is that trusting the party line is more or less always a foolish thing to do. How that affects established systems and structures – democracy being an obvious one – is profoundly disturbing. More cynical viewers will already share many of writer-directors Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak’s views going in, but it’s likely that many will find the sheer scale of the unscrupulous power games going on behind the scenes, as suggested by Influence, overwhelming.

 

The words “Gaza” or “Gaza Strip”, come up most often – for observers in South Africa and elsewhere around the world – in news reports detailing the latest alleged misdeeds of the territory’s Hamas government and their conflict with the Israeli forces stationed on the borders of the small (around 12km by 40km) area. Under severe trade restrictions and sanctions, it is a poor place with little to aspire to within its borders, and its inhabitants often correspondingly listless. But as in every country, no matter the challenges and hardships, there are individuals with the capacity for hope – if not of happiness now or in the future, then at least of survival and existence beyond the merely functional. In such a situation, meaning can be more important than money, which explains why a young boy, one of 40 children in his family (his father has three wives) dreams of captaining a fishing boat even when the waters in which he can fish are limited and patrolled by gunships; why the stories a taxi driver tells and is told are as important as getting his customers from A to B; and why confused, angry young men persist in using slings to propel pebbles at a massive concrete wall patrolled by soldiers with high-tech weapons when they must know it will make no discernible difference. Gaza is a sober film, but by focusing on the actions and perspectives of ordinary people trying to do their best with what little they have, filmmakers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell steer away from making their statement fundamentalist or aggressive. The smiles on the faces of kids treading through trash to get to their beloved beach are, it appears, not affected. A medic is understandably stressed by his long hours and the injuries, caused by fighting or, occasionally, bombs, that he has to tend to, but he remains committed to his task. Some of the film is tough to watch, but as a look behind the curtain the average news consumer is not privy to, it’s informative and often touching.

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