Birds Eye View Part III: Documentaries

By Nancy Harrison

life-like-tally-abecassis.jpgLife Like, 2005

After last year’s launch as the only major UK festival exclusively highlighting women filmmakers, the Birds Eye view team took a slightly different approach this year by dividing their festival offering into three separate parts – a March ’06 International Women’s Day gala at the National Film Theatre; a four-day festival of shorts and features in June ’06 at the Apollo West End and recently this three-day festival of documentaries the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The selection of seven films, including four UK premieres, opened with Martyr Street. Winner of the Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto HotDocs 2006 festival, Canadian filmmaker Shelley Saywell’s film centred on two young girls – one Palestinian and one Israeli – who live across the road from each other on Martyr Street in the West Bank in Hebron. Using the starting point of the biblical story of Abraham, whose two sons Ishmael and Isaac became the forefathers of the Muslim and the Jewish peoples (and who is himself buried in Hebron) the film charted the conflicts and refusal to compromise that characterises the turbulent history of the area. Filmed across a period of 5 years, both the street and the children change dramatically. Although a trouble spot at the onset, the area nevertheless is still a functioning neighbourhood with a thriving market and crowded streets. Five years later it resembles a ghost town – graffiti, bulletholes and razorwire have taken over as curfews are in place. The girls themselves, initially cautious but accepting of their opposites, become increasingly hardened in their attitudes and beliefs, and we are left witness to the continuing spiral of conflict, as the adult’s narrow prejudices are distilled into the next generation. The strength of Saywell’s film is grounded in her long-term relationship with the two girls, which has enabled her to so insightfully chronicle how these divisions are perpetuated.

In a complete contrast, Heather Lyn MacDonald’s feature Been Rich All My Life came across as truly life-affirming. The film profiled the Silver Belles, five New Yorkers who were showgirls in 1930s Harlem, and who came back together in the 1980s to once again take the show on the road. Still going strong – Fay Ray the youngest at 84 and Bertye Lou the oldest at 96 – these tap-dancing wonders take your breath away. Energetic, sharp-witted (and sharp tongued), open-minded and feisty, it was hard to believe that these women were anything near their stated ages, and yet an old photo pinpointed Bertye Lou, all legs and sequins, in a 1929 chorus line. In great demand with a new generation of dancers eager to learn at the tap shoes of the high priestesses of the art, these sparky old dames are the antithesis of society’s idea of the elderly. A good use of archive footage and photos added much to the film -- not least to prove these old girls really were around that long ago – and served to illustrate their anecdotes chronicling the changes they have witnessed in American society. A film to make you want to grow old (dis)gracefully.

until-the-violence-stops-abby-epstein.jpgUntil the Violence Stops, 2003

Of the shorter films, two homegrown offerings came from recent National Film and Television School graduates. Eva Weber's award winning The Intimacy of Strangers was an abstract and poetic study of love and loss, entirely constructed out of random overheard mobile phone conversations recorded in and around Euston railway station. Illustrating the way in which our ease in embracing mobile phone technology has led to words that might have once been spoken in private are now shared publicly, it also serves to remind you of the liberation of anonymity afforded in a crowd. A film about the boundaries between private emotions and public spaces, and the poignancy of overheard confidences.

Poignancy was also a feature of Life Like, Canadian Tally Abecassis’ portrait of the competitive world of taxidermy. An affectionate look at the ‘art’ of making something dead look alive, the practice can’t help but offer a rich harvest of oddballs which could easily be parodied. Each of the (inevitably male) practitioners saw their skill as a vocation, and most strived to hone the perfection of their craft. Peppered with unintentionally funny comments (such as a spouse’s dictum of ‘no deer above the stairs’), absurd images (the jagged hole sawed in the ceiling of Benoit’s basement to accommodate his too-tall giraffe) and emotional moments (as a grieving dog-owner realises that her freeze-dried terrier Wonder is just that – and not the hoped-for recreation of her former faithful companion) the film offers a look at the different views and feelings that people have about our domestic relationships with animals. Seen through a sharp observational eye, the film is visually rich and full of gentle humour.

The festival finished with Until the Violence Stops, which documents a growing international grassroots movement that aims to bring about an end to violence against women and girls. Known as V-Day, the uniting force is in the hundreds of staged benefit performances of playwrite and activist Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. With more enthusiasm than polish, first time filmmaker Abbey Epstein (her extensive directing career has been in theatre) captures some of the 800 groups around the world who staged performances during 2002. Divided into chapters set in locations as disparate as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Harlem, Manila and Kenya, it captures the courage and commitment of the ordinary women who are trying to bring about change. Powerful in both it’s interviews, and in the repeated ritual of asking the audience at the end of each performance of The Vagina Monologues to stand if either they have been assaulted, or if they know someone who has, the film makes a strong point in a straightforward way.

Next year the Birds Eye View team will revert once again to a single extended festival covering shorts, features and documentaries – it is scheduled to begin on March 8th, 2007 – International Women’s Day.