Online Movies: Activist Cinema

In Prison My Whole Life

At the London Film Festival last year, actor Colin Firth launched a new site, Brightwide, which bills itself as a ‘YouTube for Social and Political Cinema’ and whose stated mission is to ‘watch, think, link, act’. On the Brightwide website, writer and poet Fatima Bhutto quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ The internet, perhaps the greatest public archive ever created, must surely count as one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for social justice and seems a natural home for activist cinema.

Although it started as a US military-backed scientific research project, the internet became a hotbed of counter-cultural activity almost as soon as it went public. As a child in the 80s, I remember my older brother’s Magic Modem which could connect us to a whole hyperlinked world of anarchic bulletin boards and cracked software. Years later, Indymedia, launched in 1999 to report on the Seattle WTO protests, became not just one of the first major wiki-style projects on the internet, but was among the first major online news sources, framing the internet as a space of possibility for marginal and oppositional voices against the dominance of corporate interests in older forms of media.

If networks for distributing news and photographs of political actions had existed since, at the very least, the underground press boom of the 60s and 70s, the internet provided the possibility for something more - film and video of and about all manner of political events and issues available to stream online or download in an instant. The sense of immediate live presence afforded by globally networked digital technologies became a major catalyst in the spread of the anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 90s and early 21st century, and continues to play a part today in, for instance, the backlash following the death of Ian Tomlinson at the hands of riot police during last year’s G20 protests in the City of London.

In America, Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films assumed signal importance in the run-up to the presidential election of 2008 with speedily produced documentaries about the inconsistencies in John McCain’s policies and biases in Fox News reporting, which became top-rated videos on YouTube and made a lasting impression on voters. Elsewhere, Michael Moore’s website provides a steady stream of supplements and footnotes to his theatrically released documentaries along with shorter films showcasing alternative viewpoints on major news stories and events.

While critics have condemned the spread of web-based activism as ‘cyberbalkanisation’, and the tortured history of Google in China has proved that the net is far from immune to censorship and government control, technology journalist Evgeny Morozov has argued that it is at least as useful to repressive states as it is to their dissidents. Issues arise when, as in the denouement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACs, tactics of resistance remain parasitical on corporately owned portals such as YouTube, and behind the cosily presumed consensualism of iPod liberals there is always the danger of serious issues being reduced to the level of the latest Facebook fad.

In this light, Brightwide may provide a welcome alternative. Less a politicised YouTube than a new outlet for the exhibition of high-quality political documentaries, it features work by high-profile directors like Michael Winterbottom. With each film linked (both figuratively and literally) to ‘real world’ campaigns, Brightwide clearly has ambitions to make an impact beyond the list of Twitter trending topics, even if it lacks some of the anarchic freewheeling spirit that first made the net attractive to marginal voices.

Robert Barry

To find out more, go to the Brightwide website, where among other films you can watch In Prison My Whole Life, an investigation into the case of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a policeman in Philadelphia.

Film writing competition: Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly

Electric Sheep Film Club

Venue: Prince Charles Cinema, London

Every second Wednesday of the month

In connection with the Electric Sheep Film Club at the Prince Charles Cinema every second Wednesday of the month, we run a film writing competition in which film students and aspiring film writers are invited to write a 200-word review of the film on show that month. The best review is picked by a film professional, and respected film writer Jason Wood was the judge of our November competition for Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The prize for the best review is publication on the Electric Sheep website. We are pleased to announce that the winner is Rob Freeman. Jason Wood said: ‘Overall, I thought the standard was very high, with a good combination of fluid writing and film knowledge. The one thing that shocked me, however, is that not one of the pieces thought to mention the film’s director. I think Robert Aldrich is essential to the world view of the film. My choice for the winner is Rob Freeman. I thought that the writing was extremely taut (like the film itself) and considered. The piece captures the essence of the film whilst also, within a very limited word count, placing it in the context of both its immediate environment (the B-Movie, the pulp novel and the film noir) and its wider German Expressionist heritage.’

Here is Rob Freeman’s review:

Borne out of the B-movie era, Kiss Me Deadly ditches as many noir tropes as it holds onto. From reverse opening credits to an apocalyptic finale, at times the only thing that feels as if it has been gleaned from its pulp source is the sneer on the face of its protagonist as he hurls a gangster down a set of stairs, or slams a drawer on the fingers of a cagey mortician. P.I. Mike Hammer awakes strapped to a metal bed, listening to the screams of Christina Bailey as she is tortured to death with a pair of pliers. From that moment, Hammer becomes a man resurrecting the dead, reconstructing Christina’s past from clues and fragments. It is a fever that all detectives suffer from and never overcome, and the film is bleak, thick with the haunting presence of Christina Bailey repeating her refrain: ‘remember me’. All angles and uplights, Kiss Me Deadly uses its German Expressionist heritage to great effect, as the camera jumps and cuts from the depths to the heights of the set, and chiaroscuro shadows shroud its characters in darkness, as they move from the nether-regions of LA, to a flame-drenched, atomic finale in Hell.

Jason Wood is the author of a number of books on cinema, including 100 Road Movies and 100 American Independent Films.

Next screening: Wednesday 10 March – Guy Maddin double bill: Careful + The Saddest Music in the World. More details on our events page.

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 February-21 March 2010

Venue: Various venues around the UK

Part of the Japan Foundation touring programme: Girls on Film

Director: Izuru Kumasaka

Writer: Izuru Kumasaka

Original title: Pí¢ku ando rabuhoteru

Cast: Chiharu, Sachi Jinno, Hikari Kajiwara, Lily

Japan 2007

111 mins

With its moody charm and pale, grainy look, Asyl: Park and Love Hotel (Pí¢ku ando rabuhoteru) offers a marked contrast to the recent wave of ravishing pop films by Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko) or Mika Ninagawa’s gorgeous Sakuran. Set in the Tokyo suburbs, with most of its sparse action taking place at a shabby ‘love hotel’, Asyl is a slow-burning but ultimately life-affirming debut by Izuru Kumasaka, filmed with a discreet intensity and a feeling of lingering, subtle oddity. Much in the same way as the film’s title plays with the double meaning of ‘asylum’ - as a sanctuary and a madhouse - Izuru attempts to infuse the episodic narrative, which follows four women of different ages struggling with isolation, loss, tedium and the trouble of everyday life, with a sense of purpose that is both enchanting and disturbing.

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel is screening at the ICA from 9-17 February as part of the Girls on Film: Females in Contemporary Japanese Cinema season presented by the Japan Foundation.

The main character in Asyl is the grouchy and strict hotel manager, Tsuyako (played by singer-turned-actress Lily) who has been running the unusual love hotel - it has a public park on its rooftop - by herself since her husband disappeared years earlier. However, Tsuyako’s world expands when Mika (Hikari Kajiwara), a 13-year-old runaway with silver bleached hair, enters the free oasis in the city. Guided by the feeling that she has no place else to go after seeing her father with his new family, Mika seeks shelter overnight with Tsuyako. This is the prelude to further encounters between them and two other women at the hotel: Tsuki, a housewife whose daily fitness walk has taken her past the hotel for years until her routine is dramatically altered, and 17-year-old Marika, the hotel’s only regular guest, who actually uses the establishment for its intended purpose, regularly popping in with a different man in tow.

Programme advisor Jasper Sharp will give an introductory talk about this year’s programme on February 4 at the Japan Foundation, London. Free event but booking is essential: email

Although the fantastical rooftop location, complete with swings, benches and toys, would provide a suitable playground for an urban fairy tale, Asyl is far from fantasy, as Izuru’s main concern lies in credibly exploring his characters’ motivations. The frequent use of close-ups strikes a fine balance between empathy and observation, without flaunting the women’s emotions or sentimentalising their struggles. In the absence of much dialogue and backstory, Izuru creates a potent degree of sensitivity in his warm, insightful yet sometimes detached depiction of his characters’ actions and reactions.

All this may not sound exciting on paper, and Asyl certainly has its flaws: it feels overly long and the pace occasionally flags, while its desire to avoid too much dramatic tension makes it difficult to fully engage with the story. Yet, it is a gentle film, with some wonderful low-key performances and beautifully crafted moments that mark Kumasaka out as a talent to watch. After all, Asyl demonstrates that it is still possible to craft an affecting, unpretentious and quietly entertaining film outside the framework of the pop genre.

Pamela Jahn

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel is also screening in Sheffield (22-Feb-4 March), Belfast (5-9 March), Edinburgh (10-14 March) and Bristol (13-21 March). More details on the from 9-17 February as part of the Japan Foundation website.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 February 2010

Venue: Cineworld Haymarket, Curzon Mayfair/Soho (London) and nationwide

Distributor: E1 Entertainment

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant

Original title: Micmacs í  tire-larigot

Cast: Dany Boon, André Dussollier, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Dominique Pinon, Yolande Moreau

France 2009

105 mins

After a landmine kills his father and a stray bullet lodges in his brain, leaving him constantly on the verge of sudden death, homeless Bazil (Dany Boon) seeks revenge upon the arms companies behind his misfortunes. Aided by his adopted family, a group of gifted misfits (a crook, a contortionist, a calculator, a cannonball…) based in a Paris scrapheap, he uses their combined skills and some ingenious devices built from salvaged junk to bring two death-mongering bosses to book.

Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is a death-by-chocolate layer cake of a film, stuffed with visual invention, intricate set pieces and elaborate machinery. The cast is his usual repertory company of grotesques, clowns and character actors – hello again Dominique Pinon and Yolande Moreau, welcome Julie Ferrier as Elastic Girl, and Jesus, is Marie-Julie Baup playing a clone of Audrey Tatou? The palette is the customary rich mix of greens, yellows and browns, the commitment to delivering what underground cartoonists used to call ‘eyeball kicks’ is present and correct. Jeunet lives to please; physical comedy mixes with wordplay, tricksy camerawork and exquisitely kooky production design; even animation is thrown into the mix. He can’t bear to bore you for a minute, adding more cream, more cherries, more icing…

It’s all just too much. The whimsical, cutesy side to Jeunet and Caro’s first two films, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, was balanced out with weirder, nightmarish elements. Micmacs, however, is Jeunet’s whimsy unrestrained; this is hardcore twee, uncut cute. Every character on screen is quirky and eccentric to various degrees of irritation, and the constant visual whizbang stuff never lets the actors interact without some distracting bit of business going on. More damaging, for a film with the arms industry at its heart, is the lack of danger or darkness: while A Very Long Engagement had the horrors of the First World War to tether its more fanciful excesses to earth, here, any distressing elements are wilfully downplayed, so the arms-manufacturing bad guys are obnoxious and immoral, but never threatening or properly evil. The death of Bazil’s father and the institutionalisation of his mother at the start of the film convey no great sense of real trauma or loss. His shooting and subsequent loss of job and home are played for Chaplinesque laughs. Even the bullet lodged in his brain doesn’t seem to affect him that much. The upshot of all this calculated defanging is that any sense of adventure or tension is derailed; the good guys’ victory is achieved at little risk, and the odds against them don’t seem that high. When photographs of landmine victims are used in one scene, or some nasty gun-toting dictators’ henchmen turn ugly, they seem utterly out of place in this candy-coloured dreamland. Jeunet doesn’t seem that interested in the politics or economics of the arms business; it would muddy the waters of his fable, complicate things. He’s sure you’d prefer a big slice of winsome, another helping of good-hearted. Well, it’s a fine-looking confection, but one bite could give you diabetes.

Mark Stafford

Mock Up on Mu

Parsons Columns_KalSpelletich

Format: DVD (NSTC Region 0)

Distributor: Other Cinema

Director: Craig Baldwin

Writer: Craig Baldwin

Cast: Stoney Burke, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Damon Packard, Michelle Silva

USA 2008

114 mins

Craig Baldwin has made some of the finest underground feature films of the last 20 years. He draws on the visual detritus of the 20th century, using found footage liberated from B-movies, educational shorts, long-lost adverts and many other sources, and creates an aesthetic of recontextualised images melded to his own narrative ends. From his conspiratorial epic Tribulation 99 (1991) through to Spectres of the Spectrum (1999), Baldwin has engaged with the history and secret histories of the 20th century, tearing through accepted fact and outré conspiracy theories, reality and hyper-reality. His latest feature, Mock Up on Mu, delves deep into Baldwin’s interests in science fiction, rocket science, occult California and the New Age.

Mixing his familiar plunderphonic methods with original footage of his small cast (including underground filmmaker Damon Packard), Mock Up on Mu draws on the biographies of magickian and rocket scientist Jack Parsons, occultist and Beat artist Marjorie Cameron and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. A sci-fi history mash-up, the film spins biography, pseudo-biography, actuality, conspiracy and speculation with a gleeful disregard for any distinctions. Baldwin detours into plots and subplots that subvert the historical record. But he isn’t just creating a fantasy so much as he is exploring the mythologies that already existed beneath the collective notion of history. Reality is more than reality and fantasy is more than fantasy.

For more details, visit the Other Cinema website. Watch the first chapter.

Like his previous works, Mock Up on Mu is tightly edited, rapid-paced, informative and irreverent, and coming in at nearly two hours there’s enough here to watch and re-watch. The world may ever seem quite the same again.

Jack Sargeant


Peter Lorre in M

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 September 2014

Distributor: BFI

Director: Fritz Lang

Writers: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos

Germany 1931

110 mins

The first time I saw M, my experience of the film was dominated by Peter Lorre’s startling performance. He holds back not at all in portraying the full creepiness behind the banal exterior of a child killer. But when he becomes the quarry we feel the fear and desperation that he feels, and at the climax he thrusts forward to deliver an unhinged but disconcerting challenge to his hunters and to us. There is no comfortable perspective for the viewer to watch from.

This new restoration of Fritz Lang’s M is released by the BFI to mark the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death. An extensive season of Lorre’s work screens at BFI Southbank from 2 September to 7 October 2014.

If you have seen M before and are ready for Lorre’s performance, you can attend more to the rest of the film, and see how skilfully Fritz Lang has shaped it around the central role. He denies us the usual thrills of suspense. It is clear from the start what is going to happen. The innocent people we see are not going to escape. We know who the killer is and we know what he is going to do. Lang unfolds events with complete certainty of touch: a chilling calmness first, then a brilliant withholding from view of the killer that we have glimpsed, while the intensity is steadily built.

From his cast Lang elicits a set of small-scale acting performances that I have never seen surpassed. It’s not really an ensemble piece: there is little prolonged interaction between characters. In fact, Lang is not concerned with character development (crucial to tragedy, but not to melodrama, and perhaps overestimated as a factor in fiction generally). What he achieves instead is a virtuoso orchestration of bit parts. The impression is of a fully realised human world through which the villain cuts a swathe and which then closes in on him. Most performers are only on screen for a couple of minutes, for a handful of lines: yet each performance is vivid, telling, and in place. One feels that the children being met from school, the beggars on the look-out, the unsuspecting nightwatchmen, the dissipated youth in the nightclub, simply were there, and we see them just as they were. This seems to me an almost miraculous achievement, to make the illusion feel real to a knowing 21st-century viewer. It’s not that we believe ourselves there or experience deep empathy: the viewer is not welcomed in, but shown an enactment that is just as it has to be. It is impossible to imagine performances like this in a British or American film of the period, and one can only marvel at the acting resources available in Berlin and the utter seriousness with which Lang made use of them.

You might not enjoy M. It is grim and remorseless, and it is not beautiful or elevating. But I consider it perfect. Really, it is not for me to review the film: let me just salute it.

M is also available in a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition released by Eureka Entertainment in February 2010 when this review was first published. The Eureka release is a restored high-definition transfer in the correct 1.19:1 ratio, with restored sound.

The 2010 Eureka DVD comes with some extras. A few scenes from the cutting-room floor are re-introduced: these fit neatly enough, and do not disrupt the flow of the film, but do not add significantly. A bonus disc features an English-language version of the film overseen by Lang shortly after the German version. This should not be watched. The dubbing is done competently enough, but with completely the wrong tone - the precise intensity of the original performances is overlaid with a sort of casual English liveliness now horribly dated and unfortunately suggestive of Mr Cholmondley-Warner.

Peter Momtchiloff

Gaea Girls + Shinjuku Boys

Gaea Girls

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 February 2010

Distributor: Second Run

Directors: Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams

Title: Gaea Girls

UK 2000

100 mins

Title: Shinjuku Boys

UK 1995

53 mins

Spotlights sweep across a wrestling arena, electronic music blaring, the announcer’s booming voice pumping up an audience of screaming fans. The main event: a no-holds-barred match between Nagayo Chigusa, founder of the GAEA Women’s Professional Wrestling team, and Lioness Asuka. Despite taking a ferocious beating, Chigusa pulls out a crucial win, a victory for her and her team of girls, who all live and train together in a glorified shed in the Japanese countryside, with just enough space for some tightly packed bunk beds and a wrestling ring.

Gaea Girls, the 2000 film from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, is one of five documentaries that the two filmmakers made together in Japan. In an excellent pairing from Second Run, it’s finally being released on DVD alongside their 1995 film Shinjuku Boys. Longinotto, who also directed the award-winning Divorce Iranian Style (1998), has earned herself a reputation for making powerful films that explore the lives of women living on the fringes of society, and these two films complement each other beautifully.

In a country where women are still expected to become demure housewives, the GAEA girls have forcefully broken with tradition in a quest to become ‘a somebody’. They will probably never marry or have children (a theme that reoccurs in both films). With little commentary and few interviews, the filmmakers capture life for these women over a period of months, closely following trainee Takeuchi as she prepares for her final test before she can go pro. While the professional matches may be more spectacle than real contest, the training these girls endure is brutal.

Over the course of filming, two girls run away; Takeuchi, who sees the ring as the only place where she can unload her aggression, fails her first test. Despite her pent-up feelings, she’s simply not tough enough, and faces the shame and humiliation of being tormented by Nagayo for her weakness. The masculine Nagayo, with her spiky, bleached blond hair, confesses in one of the few interviews that she loves these girls as if they were her own children. But in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, it’s Nagayo who mercilessly pounds Takeuchi into the floor after she’s given a second chance to take the test.

While the film’s classic cinéma vérité style subtly probes beneath the surface of its characters, the film suffers slightly from a lack of context. More interviews with the GAEA girls would have drawn the audience even deeper into their lives, and explained some of the difficult choices they made in such a deeply patriarchal society. Despite the fact that it’s a cruder, more dated film, it’s the strength of the interviews in Shinjuku Boys that makes it an even more arresting documentary.

Gaish, Tatsu and Kazuki are three women who have chosen to live their lives as men. Outcasts from mainstream society, they all work as hosts at New Marilyn, a club for women, who enjoy being entertained by the closest thing they can find to an ideal man. Despite their shared profession, all three hosts embody very different types of masculinity. They also inhabit very different romantic relationships - one with another woman, one with a male to female transsexual. Gaish, the trio’s playboy, sleeps with some of his clients, but never takes his clothes off - not wanting to ruin the illusion that he’s a man. It’s a terrific documentary, and it’s only a shame that it’s not longer.

All of the women who appear in the two films defy easy categorisation - masculine, feminine, gay, lesbian or straight. And although Gaea Girls is less nakedly about gender and sexuality than Shinjuku Boys, both films are fascinating in what they reveal about women living lives that are so utterly remote from those of mainstream women, both in Japan and the rest of the world.

Sarah Cronin

Buy Shinjuku Boys / Gaea Girls [DVD] [1995] from Amazon

Online Movies:


Perhaps it will come as little surprise to anyone who attended David Lynch’s 2007 exhibition, The Air Is on Fire, at the Cartier Centre in Paris, which saw him engaging with a diverse array of materials from digital video and large-scale installation to post-it notes, matchboxes and biros, but Lynch seems to have taken to that most zeitgeisty of artistic media, the world-wide web, with, at the very least, a game enthusiasm. From his daily Twitter-synched So-Cal weather report to his sprawling trans-American ‘Interview Project’, Lynch has to no small degree made the internet his own, and the centrepiece of his online world is the subscription-based member site at

Navigating through a maze of cryptograms and circuit diagrams accompanied by Alan Splet-inspired sounds of heavy industry and heavy metal, one finds oneself at a portal, an opening to a gateway, which leads into a kind of secret garden, a world both strange and unsettling, but curiously familiar. Lynch’s films have always seemed to spill over the edges of their beginnings and ends, his recurring motifs and circular, unresolvable narratives suggesting less a discrete story than a brief peek into an alien landscape. The website only serves to enhance this feeling, with its implied invitation into the lift from Eraserhead, its short films referencing and fleshing out the fractured narrative of Inland Empire.

One of the most popular features of is the crudely drawn animated series Dumbland. With its entry-level drawing skills and fondness for ultra-violence and fart gags, it initially appears close to South Park. But the director’s signature is present throughout Dumbland - less in the white picket fences and eccentric characters that have become associated with the epithet ‘Lynchian’ in the culture of the last two decades; more in its occasional eerie stillness, and its excoriating industrial sound design. In a sense, what characterises all of Lynch’s work is the horror of the noise of industry invading the domestic space. In all its simplicity and apparent stupidity, Dumbland may be his most overtly political statement. The title implies that these characters are not rare, isolated freaks, more the symptoms of a malaise that is at least national.

At present, a great deal of the material on is due to come off the site, possibly so that Lynch can concentrate on promoting transcendental meditation through the David Lynch Foundation. There are worrying rumours that his next film is to be a biopic of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles. But in the meantime, ‘The Interview Project’, which consists of a small camera crew taking a big road trip across the United States, asking the ordinary small town folk they pass about their hopes and dreams, provides a welcome reminder of another Lynch - the humanist director who made The Straight Story and The Elephant Man and talks in interviews of his love for Fellini’s I Vitelloni and La Strada. Lynch’s path is strange and unusual; he is a complex artist with three distinct sides: there is Lynch the spiritualist, Lynch the humanist and Lynch the surrealist, and his website reveals their closeness and complementarity.

For more details, go to Watch the latest episode of the Interview Project.

Robert Barry

Comic Strip Review: Asian Horror: The Essential Collection

Asian Horror: The Essential Collection brings together three acclaimed Asian horror films, featuring Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), the Pang brothers’ The Eye (2002) and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002).

Comic Review by Dan Lester -
Asian Horror - The Essential Collection
Asian Horror: The Essential Collection was released in the UK by Palisades Tartan on 26 October 2009. For more information on Dan Lester, go to