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November Films

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More films. This month with All the President’s Men, Unser täglich Brot, Koyaanisqatsi, Q & A, Contergan, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon and This film is not yet rated.

All the President’s Men

Funny thing about the film All the Presidents’ Men: Its title in German differs greatly from the original one and is ‘Die Unbestechlichen’. Which also happens to be the German title of The Untouchables. And thus I hadn’t really known that the film even existed and was merely a little confused once when I heard people say things which sounded like Dustin Hoffman being in The Untouchables. Until recently, that is, when my flatmate brought home the DVD and things became a little clearer.

And I had been missing out on a rather good film there. Not just with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford when they were still young. But also with the Watergate topic, the enthusiastic view of journalism they give, the firm setting in decades past with the noise typewriters and all those great shots of their newspaper’s office with its seemingly endless extents of desks and flourescent lighting.

I also like how the film didn’t indulge too much in the ‘happy’ ending but how it focused on the work they did instead. And by that I mean the real work of them just running around and speaking to people over and over again, tirelessly hoping to gain additional information even though people didn’t really want to talk much.

Throughout the film I also wondered how it’d translate to this decade. My impression is that people who can gain any knowledge in corporations or governments are much better trained to not leak any information. The walls around these entities seem much higher and nobody would expect to be shown the receipts of someone just because he’s a journalist.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Unser täglich Brot

I never associate Austria strongly with film making. But not only does Haneke come from Austria, we also saw the depressing documentary We feed the World not so long ago. And this year Unser täglich Brot (aka Our daily Bread) took a further step in the same direction by showing ninety minutes of footage from food production.

Some topics like tomato plantations and the lifecycle of poultry are shared with We feed the World. But Unser täglich Brot takes a completely different approach to the topic by leaving out interview and political or social commentary. The film limits itself to just showing images. We get images of incarcerated chicken, we see apples being harvested, we witness bulls doing what they have been raised for and so on. We get the images we have come to expect from food production. Whether it’s dealing with plants or animals, everything comes down to an elaborate chain of sophisticated machinery. Said machinery is operated by a few people who have to repeat the same steps over and over again.

If you need two seconds to clean the neck of a chicken, five seconds to correctly position a fish on a conveyor belt, five seconds to harvest a bunch of tomatoes and put them right in the box and a minute to halve a cow lengthwise, you can easily compute how many of these food items the person in question handles every day in what must be an incredibly boring job.

But as there is no commentary or speaking in the film, we just see it. We see the ‘products’, we see how they are handled, we see the people handling them, both during their work and in their breaks. We also hear them, and we get the impression that making food is mainly accompanied by the humming and clicking of machines. Throughout, this is filmed in rather nice shots which focus on the long straight lines that large agricultural plantations or facilities invariably have.

At some moments, looking along those long lines with the clever yet somehow clumsy machinery in effect, I was reminded of The Matrix.

Machine opening and cleaning a fish

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]


Admittedly, Koyaanisqatsi isn’t just difficult to spell but also a film from way back in the 1980s. But seeing Unser täglich Brot with its focus on the imagery and the lack of conversation really reminded me of it. While it may be a bit too American in some places and while I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of Philipp Glass and his 1980s synthesizer sounds used in the film, it remains an amazing work. Once you get into it, it does reflect many aspects of living on this world, today.

I particularly like the railway station scenes and the one with the woman trying to light her cigarette.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Q & A

Q & A is a film directed by Sidney Lumet about an investigation of a cop shooting a guy at a club. It transpires that this wasn’t exactly self-defense and the assistant attorney set to handle the case ends up digging deeper and deeper to find out what happened instead of just taking people’s word for it. In the end, many people from the police, law, politics and crime business are involved in the story and it becomes too ‘big’ to be handled properly.

Add to this the whole story with the crook’s wife being the attorney’s ex-girlfriend who left the attorney years ago because - after being together for some years - he was surprised that her dad was black, yet, who seems to have a chance of ‘getting’ her back after, luckily, her crooky husband was blown up on a boat by an even more crooky cop and things are a bit ridiculous. They may even be a bit tasteless once you consider the 1980s music played at times. And they may be a bit inconveninent if you find that people speak rather strong American accents which are a bit difficult to understand at times. So, at more than two hours, it is a rather long but far from the best film of the director.

I quite liked the ceiling lights they had in some of the offices, though.

Scene with ceiling lights

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]


The story about Contergan (Thalidomid) is one of the tragic stories of the 20th century. A sleeping pill which worked well was developed and marketed by the Grünenthal pharmaceutical company. Only later it came out that it seriously affects the development of babies when taken during pregnancy. And thousands of kids were born without arms or legs as a consequence. The company was in denial about the consequences for longer than they should have been. And apparently the existence of many of today’s strict regulations for drugs was triggered by what happened back then. Yet, this didn’t help the families with their disabled kids, particularly as the funds which the company agreed to pay for helping them have long run out.

Public television people made a film about the case recently which does today’s thing of mixing fact and fiction a bit. The film was supposed to be broadcast a while ago but people tried to keep it from being broadcast using the law. That was a bit dramatic as the film was banned initially but eventually things turned around and it could be broadcast, apparently only with a few changes and an explicit note that it’s fiction with a factual background rather than a true documentary.

The film’s two parts show the case of a family whose daughter is born disabled. By coincidence the husband who is a lawyer picks up that similar cases of disabilities have been known and starts to research the topic, and soon meets the suspicion that the sleeping pill is related to the problem. The company, of course, doesn’t want to hear any of that until they can’t deny it anymore. And that delay of stopping to sell their product is probably the worst thing they did. We follow the story of the family in the film and how they eventually take the case to court. A bit of a story about dirty lawyer techniques to drag things out and the company’s boss being a good guy at heart is added around this.

While it was an interesting retrospective on the issue, perhaps a pure documentary (which they possibly wouldn’t have been allowed to broadcast for legal reason) would have been preferable. There was too much ‘human touch’ added in there. And even if it’s a film made for public television, it remains a film for television. And thus a number of scenes remain unnecessarily kitschy and horrible. Particularly how the family finds back together in the end and you see them celebrate christmas with the door closing to finish the film. Argh.

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is a South African film focusing on a guy, Keneiloe, who meets a Somalian woman, Fatima, in a park in South Africa. She tells him a bit about her past and leaving her home country. And he becomes interested and tries to see her again. On his way, he speaks to many different refugees from all over the world (but mainly Africa) who migrated to South Africa. Each of them tells her or his story of having to leave their home country and why they migrated, most of which are tragic. And each of them has a different view on the extent to which South Africa has become their home.

I was a bit sceptical about the film at first, mainly because a guy walking around with a tape recorder interviewing people just seemed a bit dull. But then it started growing on me as it showed the many different countries and fates that come together in Africa. And, possibly more importantly, that it shows all these people who are refugees in a way that not only presents us the variety of cultures, languages and people in Africa but also shows us that they are normal people rather than the typical image of ‘little starving black kid in a huge camp’ which your average European newscast makes you associate with the term ‘African refugee’.

Not Yet Rated

Not entirely surprising when you’ve been aware of the differences between U.S. and European film ratings is what you see in This film is not yet rated, a ‘documentary’ by a film maker trying to find out just exactly who is rating his film and by which standards. Let’s just say that in some parts of the world people believe that seeing excessive violence will ruin their kids, while in other parts of the world ‘they’ think that seeing breasts does.

December 6, 2007, 9:22

Tagged as all the president's men, contergan, conversations on a sunday afternoon, dustin hoffmann, film, godfrey reggio, koyaanisqatsi, not yet rated, q & a, robert redford, sidney lumet, south africa, tv, unser täglich brot.

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