Tag Archives: documentary

Until the Light Takes Us

Frost in Until the Light Takes Us

Format: Cinema

Date: 15 December 2010-13 January 2011

Distributor: Variance Films

Venue: ICA

Directors: Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell

USA 2009

93 mins

Almost two decades after a spate of vandalism, violence and murder turned a localised musical subculture-within-a-subculture into a bogey tale of extreme music begetting extreme acts, two American filmmakers set out to meet the progenitors of Norwegian black metal music and those who still seek to mythologise them. The resulting documentary is neatly made, but frustratingly anaemic, so keen to avoid editorialising and judgement that it ends up lacking in clarity, tension and even coherence.

The central story is one already familiar to any extreme music fan. Three bands - Darkthrone, Mayhem and one-man outfit Burzum - are among those at the crux of Norway’s black metal explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gaining notoriety both for their nihilistic, deliberately DIY sound and raw visual aesthetic, somewhere between Xeroxed punk collage and Grand Guignol. The brutal suicide of Mayhem’s first singer, Dead, is a note of real horror among the posturing. Burzum’s Count Grisnackh, the alias-within-an-alias of 19-year-old Varg Vikernes, burns down a number of historic wooden churches; this sparks sensationally reported copycat crimes, which are blamed on ‘Satanists’. The tension culminates in the stabbing of Mayhem founder and record shop owner Øystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous) by Vikernes, an event he willingly recounts from the high-security prison in Trondheim, from which he was released earlier this year after a 21-year sentence.

Told via interviews with Vikernes, Darkthone’s drummer Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, and members of Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Satyricon, it is still a strange, chilling story of how rage can bubble under the most prosperous, peaceful society. It is easy to see why it appealed to Aites and Ewell, but why did they feel the need to tell it again? One reason the directors have cited is musical, talking in interviews of their discovery of BM via a record-store friend in quite revelatory terms, yet this is not a very musical film. Extracts of the featured bands are used in the background, but the soundtrack also leans heavily on electronica from Múm and Boards of Canada, and there is scant live footage or extended musical examples. Given that Aites and Ewell wanted to avoid didactic or critical voices, more musical content would have been welcome - not least because, well, black metal is an extraordinary sound. Its sheer jagged ugliness; its alienated interiority and chaotic, teeming noisescapes are revelatory when you first hear them. One rarely feels that excitement from Until the Light Takes Us, and from Fenriz, its most prominent and articulate interviewee - a musician, first and foremost, who seems frustrated to be talking about scene politics and black metal identity. I felt I learned as much about him and bandmate Nocturno Culto - whose absence from this film isn’t remarked upon - in their own film release, The Misanthrope (2007), where they don’t say much at all. There is also little sense of how black metal has developed since the 1990s, with thriving communities and labels in both Europe and the US.

We spend more time with what’s politely called, in the film’s publicity literature, the ‘complex and largely misunderstood beliefs and principles’ of black metal - or more accurately, of Varg Vikernes. For me, this is where Until the Light Takes Us becomes most problematic, albeit bleakly absurd at times, as Vikernes is still, so many years later, at pains to point out that his church-burning was not motivated by Satanic beliefs, but rather his anger at the Christian ‘invasion’ of Norway many hundreds of years ago. This argument is no more complex or misunderstood than it was when he made it in the 1998 documentary Satan Rides the Media, although in that film we do get more of a glimpse of the conformist Christian culture against which the black metallers rebelled.

While some of us will join the dots between his professed ‘heathenism’ and far-right ideology, it’s interesting that not only do the filmmakers omit any overt right-wing rhetoric from Vikernes, but there’s no acknowledgement that, during his time in prison, his world view developed from a sort of Tolkienish paganism to neo-Nazism - other than, perhaps, Fenriz’s tactful mention of Vikernes’s ‘politics’. If Aites and Ewell do, as they’ve stated, wish the audience to make up their own minds, it would be helpful to let them know more explicitly what those politics are. It probably would not have been hard to elicit them from the man himself, alongside his more palatable diatribes against McDonald’s and NATO.

Black metal’s preoccupation with identity and origin myths has made and can still make it a tidy vehicle for nationalist politics. Skirting around this connection - which many black metal musicians do not adhere to, a further tension between art and ideology that’s surely of interest to the viewer - leaves a strange gap at the heart of the film. However, Aites and Ewell do explore another kind of conflict, perhaps one they are more comfortable with: the reappropriation of black metal aesthetics in art. This is where the directors’ hands-off approach works best, as they follow artist Bjarne Melgaard’s fascination with black metal through painting, film and installation work. Melgaard’s slightly vampiric approach is coolly observed, as he asks Frost from Satyricon to appear in a piece of gruesome performance art. We see a nonplussed Fenriz at Melgaard’s Stockholm show, while Frost seems pleased at the artistic validation, staging what looks like a re-enactment of Dead’s suicide at an Italian gallery while a track from Sunn O)))’s Black One (itself a reappropration of black metal) grinds in the background. Black metal’s journey from a localised music cult to ‘edgy’ art reference point is well-drawn, and here I also sense a kind of self-awareness in Aites and Ewell, in relation to their own role as filmmakers and observers. This kind of rigour could have been put to good use elsewhere in Until the Light Takes Us.

Until the Light Takes Us will be released on DVD on 21 December 2010. More information at blackmetalmovie.com.

Frances Morgan

DVD of the month: Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno


Format: DVD

Release date: 12 April 2010

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea

Original title: L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot

France 2009

102 mins

This documentary about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 psycho-thriller L’Enfer is as tantalising as it is frustrating. Clouzot remains one of the most masterful of French directors, having produced such unsurpassable classics as The Raven (Le Corbeau, 1943) and The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953). A meticulous filmmaker as well as a master of suspense to rival Alfred Hitchcock, he inexplicably seems to have lost control on the big-budget production of L’Enfer. The long-lost raw footage is intriguing and dazzling, infused with swirling lights and blue-lipped, cigarette-puffing fantasy temptresses. A real shame, then, that although directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Mederea have managed to speak to numerous members of the original crew, this behind-the-scenes investigation has so little to say about the reasons behind Clouzot’s failure to complete the film. In spite of this, the undiminished power of Clouzot’s extraordinary images makes the documentary a fascinating watch.

Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy

Buy Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno [DVD] [2009] from Amazon

No One Knows about Persian Cats

No One Knows about Persian Cats

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Bahman Ghobadi

Writers: Bahman Ghobadi, Hossein Mortezaeiyan, Roxana Saberi

Original title: Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh

Cast: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad

Iran 2009

106 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer

Bahman Ghobadi’s exploration into the world of underground music in Tehran is a welcome antidote to the blasé, pedestrian, apathetic state of the music industry in the West. While we gorge ourselves on MP3 downloads and bit torrents to a point where music is seen as a free commodity, made virtually valueless by a virtual world, in Iran, any acquisition, enjoyment or creation of music (especially Western music) is forbidden by the authorities. So as the film follows a couple of indie kids (Ashkan and Negar) trying to form a band by meeting different musicians around the city, they’re not just chasing the rock’n’roll dream, they are fighting for their lives.

No One Knows about Persian Cats is an interesting hybrid of drama infused with truth, although it could easily have been a documentary. The director’s passion for music saturates every frame of the film and he even appears in the opening scene singing in an underground studio, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Amidst the drama and the perpetual sense of danger, there are some fantastic comic scenes as well as a lot of musical set pieces. At points it seems as if the whole purpose of the film is to showcase various Iranian bands, with the story being secondary. Although a lot of the music is actually quite good, with each new band or musician comes another set piece and another ‘promo video’, which sometimes seems a little obvious. Many of them feature flashing images and scenes of the darker side of city life (especially in the hip-hop scene).

Special screenings with the lead actors + a live PA with their band Take It Easy Hospital followed by a set from DJ Shahram on the following dates: March 23, Ritzy Brixton Cinema @7.30pm + March 31, Ciné Lumií¨re @ 8.00pm.

Yet this is conversely one of the most endearing aspects of the film. As Ashkan and Negar explore the depths of the underground scene, they see a surprising array of different genres, and music snobbery doesn’t get a look in. They meet a singer-songwriter with wonderfully poetic lyrics about the struggle for freedom and a heavy metal band who practise in a cowshed as they were forced out of their village; they go to a rave at a house party and meet an indie-funk band who rehearse in a space built on the roof of a building (whose neighbours constantly report them to the authorities so they keep getting arrested).

Encounters with the authorities are par for the course for these musicians. Ashkan and Negar have recently been released from prison and have been invited to play a gig in London but have no band and more crucially, no passports or visas with which to make the trip. It’s hard to believe that their twee, casio-based indie pop would rile up the authorities too much, but the mere fact that they are expressing themselves artistically and touching on subjects outside of the rigorous Iranian dogma means that they have to be very wary. Negar is even more at risk as women are forbidden from singing due to the emotions they can stir.

No One Knows about Persian Cats also screens at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham on March 24.

Things start to look up when they meet local DVD bootlegger and all-round blagger Nader; he introduces them to a forger who can help them with visas and passports. This scene is flecked with gentle touches of humour as the old forger asks Nader for bootleg DVDs of films with more action and less romance. As every commodity is bought and sold on the black market, Nader has a good little niche for himself copying films and music from the West, and he becomes the musicians’ ally in trying to help them both escape Iran and set up a concert in order to raise funds. One of the other really masterful scenes in the film is when he gets arrested and talks his way out of a flogging, prison and a fine with quick-fire dialogue and perfect comic timing.

The film opens up a world that even most Iranians don’t know exists. These indie bands look like they’ve just stepped off the pages of the NME, yet are in constant fear of that knock on the door, and we follow them through tunnels, up stairs, down basements and back alleys as they insist on creating art and having a voice despite the dangers. The dream of going to the West, or in Ashkar’s case, of going to Iceland to see Sigur Rí³s, seems like an endless struggle when you are constantly looking over your shoulder. Despite all of the obstacles, rock music is still being created in Iran by these rebels with a cause.

This bold and inspiring film was obviously a great risk to make but it is ultimately rewarding for its audience. Recommended for all music lovers but especially to struggling musicians who should know that however tough they think things are, they can’t be nearly as bad as they are for these Persian Cats.

Lucy Hurst

Watch the trailer:

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