Tag Archives: Glasgow Film Theatre

Holocaust Memorial Day – January 27th 2016

Holocaust Memorial Day 2016

Today is Holocaust Day (27th January 2016) and it’s 71 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The theme marking this year’s day is “Don’t Stand by”. And if anyone could teach us the importance of this statement – it would be Sir Nicholas Winton.

A few days ago I watched a film called Nicky’s Family, which was screened at Glasgow’s Film Theatre to a cinema full of secondary school children. A version of this film will be shown on BBC1 tonight at 22.45 pm.

Nicky's Family

This documentary, made by film director and producer Matej Minac, tells the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, a London-based stockbroker, who became known as Britain’s Schindler. In 1939, aged 28, he embarked on an incredible journey to Czechoslovakia which led him to save the lives of 669 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He established the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia – Children’s Section and he brought children to Britain via train, called Kindertransport, arranging for their adoption by families throughout the country.

Sir Nicholas Winton

Winton helped 669 children out of Czechoslovakia in 1939

The film was made in 2011 and it’s a compelling story, pieced together by interviews with some of these children who are now well into middle age.

It’s impossible to imagine the trauma these children faced, and now when interviewed, the pain and memories are evident, seen in the tears that trickle down their older, wiser, wrinkled faces. They retell the stories of their parents anguish and heartbreak at putting them on trains to a far and distant land. And when most of those parents faced the Nazi gas chambers, they knew they had done the right thing because they had saved their children by sending them away.

Six million Jews died during WWII and the recollections in Nicky’s Family will stay with you. One story tells of a mother being advised to encourage her children to sing when they are in the gas chamber, because singing means increased inhalation and a quicker death.

Some of these children who came to Britain were as young as three years old, split up from their families with hardly any possessions in a strange country, but they were given a lifeline. It was heartbreaking to hear that a train was due to leave for Britain on Sept 1st 1939 carrying over 250 children – then war broke out, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland  – and everything changed. The train never left and those children most certainly didn’t survive.

archive-footage-captures-outbreak-world-war-ii

There were some funny recollections. When the train stopped in Holland the children were welcomed by women in national dress serving hot chocolates and strange white bread – which the children had never tasted before.

And we learned that Britain in 1939 was a tolerant and compassionate country. Willing to reach out and help. One man told a story of how he arrived in London with his four brothers. It was dark, they had been waiting all day for someone to collect them. A taxi driver took the five boys off the street and back home to his wife, who looked after them.

The compassion and tenacity of Winton was inspiring. He was someone who didn’t stand by. He pressed on with his crusade and tried to get as many children out as he could. Often speeding up the process by making up fake passports and papers.

When the children stopped arriving after the onset of war, there was nothing else Winton could do. He joined the RAF in the fight against the war.  He eventually met his wife Grete, and settled down. He told no one about his past, not even Grete, but she discovered his old scrapbooks in the attic of their home. There were names upon names of children, photographs and documents.

08-eva-fleischmann-new-batch-05

Eventually Winton’s story found its way onto Esther Rantzen’s TV programme That’s Life in 1988. Where unknown to Winton, he was sitting in the audience with around 100 people – all of whom he had rescued. One can’t imagine what that must have felt like for him, as he wiped tears away from his eyes, or for those people who finally met the man who had rescued them.

He was knighted in 2003 and in Nicky’s Family we also get a sense of his later years, still helping people, finding causes and creating some mischief, being booked for speeding and retaining a sense of adventure by flying in small aircraft. What is most striking though is his humility, he seemed embarrassed at all the attention and we have his wife to thank for bringing his story to us.

Sir Nicholas Winton

While this film contains many horrors, there is also a strong sense of hope. The “children” Winton saved – have married, made families, and the generations include grandchildren. Those 669 children have grown to 5,700 people. And so the story becomes Nicky’s Family. Many of these people have found their way into charitable acts and are making real differences to the world around them. And people who have heard of Winton’s story have been inspired to help others.

His story is an inspiration. He died on 1st July 2015, the anniversary of the departure of a train in 1939 which carried the largest number of children – 241. He was 106.

This film was shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre as part of Holocaust Day. And there was also a Q&A session afterwards with 92-year-old  Henry Wuga. Henry came to Scotland aged 15 via Kindertransport system. He eventually met his wife Ingrid, in a refugee club in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. They married in the synagogue at Pollokshields on December 27, 1944.

His recollections were fascinating and he received an MBE in 1999 for his work with the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association. A keen skier, he only stopped skiing last year, aged 91. He trained ex-soldiers who have lost limbs to slalom down slopes, as well as raising tens of thousands of pounds for the charity.

Read more of Henry’s story here on the Daily Record link

Henry emphasized the importance of reaching out to people and helping, “it’s so important” he said and it really does make a difference. Don’t Stand By.

 

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Film Review – Hector, and a spotlight on homelessness

Hector Movie Poster

Quicker than a swirl of a lightsaber, the country has embraced the Dark Side. The hotly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens has opened with gross earnings estimated to reach £1.3 billion. So on the weekend of the film’s release, I duly went out to the cinema – but not to see the fate of Han Solo – I went to see the heart-warming Hector, a film about a Glaswegian homeless man.

Hector is the directorial debut of Jake Gavin, known more for his photography skills. But on this showing, a bright film career beckons.

The film has already been hailed by some as the best Christmas movie this season. And this is a film that makes you count your blessings and instills a will to help those less fortunate than yourself. It’s not a shiny, sugary sweet fairytale but a story with a sharp gritty realism and grim settings.

Hec-Mac-Adam

We follow Hector’s journey, and he’s sensitively and expertly played by Peter Mullan. The Glaswegian actor is known for playing some down-right nasty characters. I only saw him in Sunset Song, just a few nights previous – where he was Chris Guthrie’s brutal father, a heinous hateful man with a heart full of demons. But here as Hector, Mullan shows an understanding and a softer touch. With a worn face, grey beard and with sometimes twinkly blue eyes, I would actually like to see him play a modern day Father Christmas in some kind of alternative festive story. But as Hector, he’s a man who’s been dealt a hard hand from life, and his back story unravels during his journey from Glasgow to a London homeless shelter to attend an annual Christmas dinner.

Hector Movie

The film is a stark reminder that for some people life cruelly snatches away those things we hold dear, and the phrase “there but for the grace of god, go I” springs to mind.

Hector and two of his homeless friends, joined by a dog called Braveheart, are sleeping where they can, in doorways, in toilets and under cardboard. There’s the everyday practicalities of being homeless, trying to keep clean, keep charge of your worldly possessions (thugs mug Hector and try to steal from him), and get access to medical help.

Then we join Hector on his journey. He’s suffering from ill-health, limping and using medication to keep pain at bay. There’s lots of motorway shots, as he hitches lifts, and we see the kindness of strangers. The high-vis jackets that “fall off the back of a lorry” and into the hands of the homeless, the church who gives him shelter and the cafes who feed him.

There’s the down points, as Hector tries to reconcile with his estranged family, after he “gave up on life” and disappeared for 15 years, and there’s also the fate and desperation of his homeless friends, Dougie played by Laurie Ventry and the young 18-year-old Hazel, played by Natalie Gavin.

Hector-Peter-Mullan-as-Hector-with-Natalie-Gavin-as-Hazel-Laurie-Ventry-as-Dougie

When he gets to the London shelter we meet Sara, who works there, played by Sarah Solemani. She appears like an angel, a wonderfully kind, non-judgemental and humane character.

hector_4_hec_sara_video_backdrop_13153

At the shelter we see various sides of homelessness, from the young boy, to a drop-out priest and an injured soldier, to the chancer-like Jimbo – played by Keith Allen – who turns in a good job in this role.

We don’t know their back story, but we still wonder what led them to where they are, and what their fate will be.

The men are treated with care and respect and receive the things we take for granted. Hot water, clean clothes, a bed and a hot meal. And I defy the hardest heart not to break down when a male choir sings a rendition of Abide with Me, to the men who sit quietly with their own thoughts.

This is a sensitively put together film which puts the plight of homelessness to the fore and challenges some perhaps pre-conceived perceptions.

It will also make you want to help others and I hope it leads to some charities receiving more help. There’s lots of great organisations around the country.

The Christmas appeal from  Glasgow City Mission has the tagline “Love Changes Everything” and you can donate £7 to give a homeless person a Christmas meal, while £22 will feed and support a homeless person for a month.

Social Bite is a great social enterprise café who help homeless people. Read more about them here –  Social Bite

and there’s still time to buy into the Social Bite Itison deal, it runs until 22nd December. Donate £5 to help feed a homeless person at Christmas and also help refugees in Europe.

https://www.itison.com/Edinburgh/deals/buy-a-homeless-person-xmas-dinner-social-bite–3

I also love the good work of the Rucksack Project, where the Glasgow arm of this is organised by Lorna McLean. Thousands of rucksacks have been donated and delivered to help those in need.

See more at The Rucksack Project Glasgow who help many charities around the city and surrounding areas including the Simon Community Scotland

If only we could brandish a lightsaber and solve the world’s problems, in this universe and in any universe, no-one should be sleeping on the streets.

Peter Mullan interviewed by The Independent had this to say:

Your new film ‘Hector’ was out last week; ‘Star Wars’ was out this Thursday. That’s big competition. Why should we see ‘Hector’?

When it started off, Star Wars was about the little people taking on the Death Star and now it is the Death Star. So go and see little independent movies in protest against the Death Star. If you really want to help Luke Skywalker, go see Hector.

Read the full interview here: Peter Mullan interview – The Independent

 

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Film Review -Testament of Youth

 Testament of Youth movie poster

It seems the actress to watch this year is Alicia Vikander. From appearing as a robot in Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, to starring alongside Ewan McGregor in the gritty Son Of A Gun – you can’t escape her. And with a list of roles so diverse, she’s not likely to be easily typecast.

Her first film reeled out this year saw the 26-year-old Swedish star put in a stunning performance as Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.

Testament of Youth - Alicia Vikander

Director James Kent cast her after seeing her in the excellent Danish film A Royal Affair. He was struck by her luminosity on screen, which is very apparent in Testament of Youth. Kent has a background in documentary film-making and perhaps that informs the amount of facial close ups and attention to details. Faces are studied for every nuance of emotion. Vikander lights up the screen and conveys a breadth of emotion through her eyes. From tender and attentive in her romance with Roland Leighton played by Kit Harington to the fiercely impassioned campaigner when giving a rallying speech against the futility of war, to the fiery defiance in her exchanges with her father (Dominic West). She displays a vulnerability matched with a steely determination.

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain’s daughter is Baroness Shirley Williams, and she apparently took a lot of persuasion to agree to her mother’s book of the same name, being interpreted for the big screen. Vikander was understandably nervous when she met Williams but at a live satellite Q&A broadcast from the BFI Southbank, Williams professed to be more than happy with the young Swede’s protrayal and could see no-one else taking on that role.

At the Q&A Vikander said she felt an affinity with Brittain and admired her drive as a young intelligent woman trying to make her way in a world where even having dreams of a university education was frowned upon and discouraged.

Williams worried a movie of her mother’s book would be reduced to a tragic love story, with the focus on Brittain’s romance with Roland. Testament of Youth is about so much more. It’s about the three men in Brittain’s life, Roland Leighton, (Kit Harington) best friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). As well as being a testament to them, it’s also a testament to the era and to all the men and families who suffered during and after the first world war.

Testament of Youth

Actors – Kit Harington, Colin Morgan and Taron Egerton in Testament of Youth

This is one woman’s experience of war, an historical account seen through her eyes. Initially her fight is to get to Oxford and sit exams, which was a battle for women at the time. Fresh from class, she picks up a newspaper and looks through the countless pages, lists of names of those who have fallen on the battlefield. Suddenly her idealistic ambitions of education pale into significance. She volunteers as a nurse and tries to piece together the wounded and nurse the dying.

Testament of Youth

Throughout the film we see Brittain’s transformation. The young optimistic girl who went to Oxford with dreams of becoming a writer found herself walking through a sea of dead and broken bodies cruelly cast aside from the battlefields. The hospital huts are full and in one arresting scene we watch an aerial camera shot as Brittain picks her way outside the hospital hits. The rain is heavy, the ground muddy and soldiers are sprawled everywhere.

There’s a pivotal scene where Brittain, initially surprised to be tending to injured German solders, finds herself comforting one of them as he dies. There’s a realisation that we are all the same. A uniform doesn’t distinguish the dying wish of a man who cries out for a loved one with his last breath. The absurdness of war strikes her as she writes to her brother Edward – here I am Edward trying to keep alive the very men you are risking your life to kill – it makes you think. it really makes you think.

There’s the contrast of Brittain’s early life. The carefree closeness of friends growing up, swimming in lakes and wandering through lush English countryside.

Testament of Youth

Picture credit: BBC Films

With war, the colours become dark, muted and the space of the film is very claustrophobic.

Testament of Youth

D Day arrives to much rejoicing and celebration, the war has been won, but Brittain has lost everything. We get a glimpse of the pacifist that Vera Brittain became as she steps up to give an impassioned speech about the futility of war. She returns to Oxford to resume her studies but nothing can ever be the same again.

Testament of Youth - a book by Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth – a book by Vera Brittain

 

 

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Film Review – The Lunchbox

 

The Lunchbox movie poster

The Lunchbox movie poster

The Lunchbox is a surprising little Indian film that doesn’t have the glamour, colour, dancing and music of Bollywood. Instead it’s quiet, understated and harks back to a tried and tested romantic format. It evokes such films as The Shop Around The Corner, You’ve Got Mail and at times, Lost In Translation.

It’s also a fascinating insight into the 5,000 or so dabbawallahs of Mumbai. These are lunchbox delivery men who for more than 125 years have operated an efficient business supplying lunchboxes, called tiffin boxes, to the city’s office workers and back every day. Without a computerized system and often illiterate it’s claimed that only one in a million deliveries go astray. A fact which was a finding of a six month Harvard Business School study into the service.

Debutant writer/director Ritesh Batra serves up a film that focuses on the story of the one lunchbox that goes to the wrong person.

We are introduced to Ila, (Nimrat Kaur) firmly believing that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, as she lovingly puts all her soul into creating wonderful little dishes for her husband’s (Nakul Vaid) lunch. He is unappreciative, more interested in his mobile phone, and it soon becomes apparent that her lunchboxes are being appreciated elsewhere.

The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox
Nimrat Kaur

They are in fact landing on the desk of sombre widower Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire), who is just short of retirement after 35 years working for an insurance company. The wonderful feast in front of him compels him to write a letter of thanks which he returns with the lunchbox … and she writes back.

The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox
Irrfan Khan

Bit by bit, we get a glimpse into each of their lives through their correspondence. It’s touching and nostalgic. It reminds of the romance of a simple letter. In a digital age – who writes letters anymore?

The characters surrounding the main two lost souls complement them. Saajan has a protégé (Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), ready to take over once he retires. Shaikh is an exuberant puppy often rebuffed by Saajan’s chagrin. But through time we learn that for all Shaikh’s eternally optimistic demeanor he has his own form of loneliness and he becomes a loyal friend to Saajan.

Meanwhile Ila’s support comes in the form of a character who we don’t even see, as her only company on most days is someone called “Auntie” (Bharati Achrekar) who lives up upstairs. They converse by shouting to one another and passing food up and down in baskets from one floor to the other. The “Auntie” is caring for a sick husband and can’t leave her home. It confirms the feelings of loneliness running through the film.

But for all the messages of loneliness and fractured relationships there is hope for a different path to a new and better life.

And in the words of Shaikh “My mother used to always say sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station”.

Quote from Saajan Fernandes, who has spent his working life standing in crammed public transport travelling to and from work every day …

Saajan Fernandes: “When my wife died, she got a horizontal burial cot … I tried to buy a burial cot for myself the other day, and what they offered me was a vertical one … I’ve spent my whole life standing in trains and buses …now I’ll even have to stand when I’m dead!”

One day while traveling on public transport a younger man stands up and offers Saajan his seat. Saajan for once sits down. It’s a simple gesture which affects him greatly as Saajan sees it as confirmation of his advancing years and fast approaching retirement.

 

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Film Review – In The House

François Ozon’s latest movie is a psychological drama that takes its viewers on an emotional ride with more twists and turns than a basket full of snakes.

Kirstin Scott Thomas and Fabrice Luchini from In The House

Kirstin Scott Thomas and Fabrice Luchini from In The House

Following on from 8 Femmes and Swimming Pool, Ozon’s In The House stars Fabrice Luchini (The Women On The 6th Floor) as Germain, a disillusioned high-school teacher of French literature who finds a renewed inspiration in the writings of one of his students, 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer).  Claude has become maths mentor to another pupil and the two boys strike up an unlikely friendship, but it seems Claude has other motives. He has a desire to be accepted into his classmate’s family home and becomes obsessed with his friend’s mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner).

In The House: Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigner and Ernst Umhauer

In The House: Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigner and Ernst Umhauer

His confessional-style writings portray that of a creepy voyeur who has infiltrated another person’s life and is dishing all the intimate details. His observations always end with a “to be continued …”. Germain’s fervour increases with each instalment and he feels a compelling urge to keep the story going. He takes Claude’s writings home, and in reading them to his art gallery owner wife Jeanne (Kirstin Scott Thomas), also embroils her in the game.

It seems the boy is orchestrating events as deftly as a Stradivarius maestro. He’s manipulative and decidedly creepy, and you fear an inevitable tragic ending.

Ozon then throws in a few dramatic twists. There’s a blurring between reality and fantasy leading to confusion about the schoolboy’s relationship with the mother.

All during the film Claude remains a mystery. There is a brief snapshot into his dismal and bleak life, where we feel a surprising turn of sympathy, leading to a renewed confusion over the motives behind his actions.

In the House: Ernst Umhauer

In the House: Ernst Umhauer

And by the time the movie reaches its surprising conclusion, all you are left with are questions and your own interpretations, together with mixed feelings for Claude, suspicion or sympathy?

If you like your films all nicely tied up, you are likely to be left confused and frustrated.

But there is enough intrigue to keep the audience engaged until the final scene. There’s also a brilliant performance by young Ernst Umhauer, and future stardom surely beckons.

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Serious Drugs – Duglas And The Music Of The BMX Bandits

What does it mean to be a BMX Bandit?

Serious Drugs poster

Serious Drugs poster

If you listen to American filmmaker / record producer Kim Fowley:

It means a nuclear submarine floating through chocolate syrup skies of spinach, raining raisins on a Chihuahua covered infinity of plaid waistcoats, with sunglasses and slow motion. It sort of means, pathos equals suburban integrity of loneliness punctuated by really nice melodies.’

While band member Sean Dickson said:

“It’s like being wrapped in your favorite chocolate bar with everybody you love all around you hugging you at the same time.”

Meanwhile Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee has a more down to earth answer in his description of the band when he said:

“I always thought it was a joke group but if it was, it was a very good joke.”

Or how about the accolade from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain? In the early 1990s he said:

’If I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits.’

Jim Burns, the filmmaker behind Serious Drugs – Duglas And The Music Of BMX Bandits started his project with this question in mind.

Film-maker Jim Burns

Film-maker Jim Burns
Picture Credit: Spence Photography

Inspired by his love for the band and in particular their album My Chain, which he credits with helping him through a period of depression, he wanted to make a film about the Bandits and their founder Duglas T Stewart.

Duglas T Stewart

Duglas T Stewart

Duglas agreed to the project and a four year journey began. It was quite an undertaking for Jim, who works for a software engineering company, because he had never made a film before. Duglas however had faith and put his trust in Jim. So much so, he didn’t see or vet any footage. The first time Duglas saw any filming was at the movie’s world premiere, screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre in December 2011.

The film is an amalgamation of interviews, new and old footage, photos and musical segments pieced together and taken right up to the current day where the band are in the production of their album BMX Bandits In Space, released last year.

BMX Bandits In Space

BMX Bandits In Space

This album, their 16th release, reunites Duglas with his former Bandits Jim McCulloch, Norman Blake and Sean Dickson. It’s the first time he has written with Dickson and McCulloch in over 20 years.Given the sprawling history of this band, who celebrated their 25th Anniversary in 2011, it’s quite a task to squeeze into a documentary. A good indication is the drawing, like a family tree, that Duglas presents during the film. It’s a reminder of the members who passed through bandit country and the trails of bands and connections from Soup Dragons, The Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, The Pearlfishers, Superstar and many others.

BMX Bandits Family Tree

BMX Bandits’ Family Tree

Latterly the addition of Rachel Allison on vocals and multi-instrumentalist David Scott has given the band another dimension and keeps them evolving.

There’s been a constant ebb and flow of people, leaving, coming back, moving on, and coming back again. It feels like one big happy family. It would probably take something pretty serious to be ex-communicated.

During the film Norman Blake, who features extensively, likened being a BMX Bandit to being an Army Reserve, “you could get called up any time.”

We go back to the birth of the Bandits and see footage of the band playing early gigs in Bellshill’s Hattonrigg Hotel, which was demolished in the early 90s.We see a young Duglas cutting about his native Bellshill with an angular blonde wedge haircut reminiscent of ABC’s Martin Fry, wearing sharp suits, ties, multi colours and collecting Barbies and dolls houses. In the small Lanarkshire mining town, famous for churning out gruff straight-talking men like football legend Sir Matt Busby, Duglas stood out. But he made his own unique impact and was fondly regarded. A master of impersonations, particularly Frank Spencer, we see Duglas visiting his old Bellshill school.

Early BMX Bandits in 1987.L-R Norman Blake, Francis Macdonald, Billy Woods, Duglas T Stewart, Jim McCulloch, Joe McAlinden

Early BMX Bandits in 1987.
L-R Norman Blake, Francis Macdonald, Billy Woods, Duglas T Stewart, Jim McCulloch, Joe McAlinden

During the film it was touching to meet Duglas’s mum sitting in the kitchen of her house. Possibly like most other mums with a creative child under their roof, she was quite non-plussed and fairly oblivious to her son’s burgeoning career.

The film was shown at the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival in October 2012 at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. At a question and answer session afterwards Duglas revealed that his mum knew he had finally made it when he appeared in the local paper. He made it into The Bellshill Speaker’s list of 100 influential people from Bellshill – at number 51. This was an astonishing revelation which begged the question of who were the other people who made up this list of 100?

The film title comes after a BMX Bandits song. Duglas explained at one point he had been taking medication for depression and he had a new girlfriend at the time who said, “You don’t need these any more, you have me.”  After while the girlfriend said “This isn’t working, you better get some serious drugs.”

This conversation inspired the lyrics “I said I don’t think I can take it much longer, she said ‘maybe your tablet should be stronger, get some serious drugs’, I need some serious love.”

This song which appeared on the 2006 Bandit album My Chain, was written during a difficult time in Duglas’s life, and proved to be a salvation for Jim. He said he felt this was a guy who knew what it felt like to be lonely.

The film is a reflective look back through time, there’s entertaining footage, lively interviews with Creation co-founder Alan McGee, Kim Fowley, band members, it’s a nostalgic slice of Scotland’s musical culture from the 1980s, when albums were made in bedrooms with borrowed gear and lots of mates. But what came through in the question and answer session with Jim and Duglas, was their special relationship, formed with a mutual respect and trust, and a sense that they had both helped each other in some way. It felt as much a personal journey for Jim, as it was for Duglas.

While Jim credits the Bandits music with helping him through a dark period in his life, Duglas suffered a similar darkness which surfaced during filming. Jim was faced with an unexpected dilemma. He sensitively chose not to film and decided they would deal with this period at a later stage when Duglas felt better. And as the darkness descended, the Bandit family gathered around Duglas to help him, like “angels” arriving. They instinctively knew something was seriously wrong.

Duglas Stewart & Norman Blake

Duglas Stewart & Norman Blake

Duglas recovered. The film continued and we were brought up to date with The Bandits celebrating their 25th anniversary, gigging and working on their latest album BMX Bandits In Space. It’s been a journey.

It also felt like the realization of a dream for Jim Burns, a first time film-maker with a vision. He made the film on a shoestring, borrowing and acquiring gear whenever he could and often with his family pitching in to help out.

Before any of this happened he was sitting in the Glasgow Film Theatre one night with his family and whispered to them something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be great to make a film and have a premiere in here?” The seed was sown. He had never made a film before but somehow managed to make his dream become a reality.

The film is now available on DVD. For details see: Serious Drugs DVD Ordering

There’s also a special edition available with lots of extras. See also: Serious Drugs – A Film About The BMX Bandits Facebook Page

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Film Review – War Witch and Discussion on Arms Trade

Five minutes into War Witch, we see 12-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) being ordered to shoot her parents. A rebel leader has a gun at her head and he tells her if she doesn’t shoot them he will kill them, but with a machete, and then adds chillingly … “and they will suffer.”

War Witch Poster

War Witch Poster

Her parents stand together in what is left of their village, a simple sheet behind them which one assumes was a partition separating areas of their living space.

Standing dignified and steady, her father orders her “Komona, do as he says.”

Unsurprisingly it’s a moment that haunts the young girl, as her parents’ ghosts keep visiting her. She is captured, beaten and trained to become a child soldier. A rebel thrusts an AK-47 into her hand telling her “This is your new mother and father.” Komona learns to cry forcing the tears inside her eyes because crying will earn her a beating from the commander.

This fictional story is told in narrative form. Komona talking to her unborn child and telling the story of how she became a child soldier and the horrors she has faced. And she wonders if “God will give me the strength to love you.”

War Witch

War Witch

Often there is a dreamlike feel to the film, which is emphasized when Komona is introduced to “magic milk” from a tree sap which when drunk produces hallucinatory visions. We witness a culture of ritual and superstition. Komona herself gets christened a “witch” because she was the only one to survive a huge massacre of a village. The visiting ghosts of her dead parents (Starlette Mathata and Alex Herabo) warned her to run before the government forces started shooting.

Because of her new “war witch” status she is afforded a meeting with the Great Tiger rebel leader (Mizinga Mwinga). He gives her a present, another AK-47, which has been specially carved and dear to him. All the while it’s hard to grasp that she is only 12 years of age.

War Witch (Rebelle)

War Witch (Rebelle)

Soldiers are forced to dig for coltan, a black metallic ore, one of the so-called called “blood minerals” which warring factions fight over and highlighted in the film Blood In The Mobile. Coltan is a valuable component used for making cell phones and many other electronic devices.

The film is also careful not to name where it is placed, it is set anonymously, but for filming purposes it was made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Amazingly, in these circumstances, Komona finds love and escapes. And here the film takes a bit of a welcome break from the bloodshed and we get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in the villages and live off the land. And Komona and an albino soldier called The Magician (Serge Kanyinda) get a chance to just be teenagers for a while. There’s always a sense that this small snapshot of life is precarious and Komona’s story doesn’t end there. We see her getting married, recaptured, being pregnant and having a baby, and all by the time she is 14.

War Witch movie

War Witch movie

Sometimes it’s the things that are unsaid or unseen that leave an impact. When Komona takes refuge with the Magician’s uncle, simply called the butcher, she explains he lost his family, in a way that is so terrible that it cannot be told.

The story of War Witch is fictional, but based on real accounts. The Canadian director Kim Nguyen initially took his inspiration for the film from Burmese twin brothers who formed an army of child soldiers which they reportedly started when they were only aged around nine or 10.

And the film provoked a response and debate from the teenage school children that were watching this particular showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre.

The film was being shown as part of Take One Action!, Scotland’s global action cinema project to bring campaigns and injustices to people via movies. There was also input from Jamie Livingstone, Communications and Campaigns Manager for Oxfam in Scotland.

Before the film began Livingstone held up a bunch of bananas and an iPod – telling the secondary school children, to think about these things while watching the film. The point being that there are more trade restrictions on these everyday items than there is imposed on guns.

War Witch film

War Witch

And the point was made effectively, because there was abundance of guns (AK-47s) in the film. When the children were captured and recruited – a commander announced “we have 10 children and 20 guns”. While guns were easy to come by, basic essentials, access to health and medical care was distinctly lacking. We see a 14-year-old Komona giving birth alone and in terrifying circumstances.

When director Kim Nguyen started filming in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo he put out an open call for actors and was inundated. He eventually found most of his actors living on the streets, including 15-year-old Rachel Mwanza, star of the film, as Komona. Nguyen has said that he found something in the street children that was a like a haunted “constantly looking over your shoulder” look and in the silences they could convey so much.

The film also feels very spontaneous and Nguyen said he worked with no script, filmed in chronological order, told the children what part of the story they were working on, and let the film and the children’s performances unfold. It feels very natural. There is also a documentary type feel, although it is fiction. Nguyen said “If we had done the film in an objective way, like a documentary, it would have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have conveyed how a child soldier can commit all those violent acts. The ghosts illustrate the influence of drugs and superstition, which are part of the indoctrination process.”

War Witch - Rachel Mwanza

War Witch – Rachel Mwanza

The well-deserved awards are flowing already. Rachel Mwanza won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival, which also gave it the Best Narrative Feature award. It’s a potential Oscar winner too, after being selected as Canada’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 85th Academy Awards.

Rachel Mwanza and director Kim Nguyen at Berlin Film Festival 2012

Rachel Mwanza and director Kim Nguyen at Berlin Film Festival 2012.
Source: Andreas Rentz, Getty Image, Europe

At a Q&A session held after the film, controlling the easy flow of arms between countries was seen as an integral part of moving towards a solution to gang warfare. Oxfam are currently seeking a bulletproof Arms Trade Treaty.

On the Control Arms website is the definition:

“A “bulletproof” Arms Trade Treaty means an international legally-binding agreement that will stop transfers of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict, poverty and serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.””

As Livingstone pointed out in the talk, countries should ask where the guns are going and what they are being used for before any sale is authorized. There simply has to be tighter and stricter controls.

The statistics were also talked about. One person dies every minute from armed violence and each year over 12 billion bullets are produced – enough to kill everyone in the world twice over. Bullets themselves are also an issue, as these are also uncontrolled. Essentially guns are rendered useless without them and Oxfam and Control Arms would like to see bullets included as part of a robust treaty.

The General Assembly opened last week, where Member States of the United Nations convene until November 6. A report from the Control Arms website states that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is still high on the agenda, despite talks breaking down last July when a robust and binding ATT failed to reach a consensus. Now the committee will decide how and when the next round of treaty negotiations will take place. It is expected that a mandate will be put forward for March 2013.

War Witch (Rachel Mwanza)

War Witch (Rachel Mwanza)

As can be seen from Komona’s story, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence and rape in conflict situations. And there is a push to have women’s rights taken into account in the treaty but even more than this – to have women be part of the peace-building process and help effect solutions. Many women experience and live with the worst effects of war, and it seems like commonsense to include their contributions and views to any peace-building movement.

Anna Macdonald, Head of Arms Control, Oxfam, speaking at the United Nations Headquarters on Women, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control on September 25, highlighted this.

She called for the participation of women’s organizations in peace-building and arms controls and said, it was important “Not to find policy solutions for women, but to do far, far more to open the space to allow policy solutions by women. To enable women to assert their rights in peace-building at every stage and more than ever before.”

Oxfam has heard accounts from women all over the world living with conflict and violence. She said “The political situations vary, but the way in which armed violence tears apart their lives, and with it the fabric of society is the same. Without the participation of women in peace efforts and disarmament, those efforts are unlikely to be successful. The specific needs of women and girls must be taken into account. Their specific contribution must be valued if arms control and peace-building are to be achieved.”

She also referred to Yemen and to a particular account from a woman there:

“We wanted jobs, security, an end to corruption and an improvement in services. Instead, we can’t afford food, there’s no electricity and there are guns everywhere.”

Anna Macdonald finished by saying “In conclusion, much more needs to be done at every level, to incorporate the needs, rights and voices of women in disarmament, arms control and peace processes, by not only bringing them to the table, but ensuring they are engaged at the earliest stage. And it must be done by us all, governments, the UN, and civil society.”

While at the GFT, Livingstone concluded that now is the time for everyone to get involved. He urged the school children to log on to their social media networks, become involved, spread the word and sign the petition.

For more information see:

Petition:   Oxfam/Control Arms website

Oxfam/Control Arms: Control Arms Website

Support Control Arms on Facebook: Control Arms Facebook Page

War Witch website: War Witch film

Take One Action:  Take One Action! Website

Facts:

  • Twelve billion bullets are produced each year – nearly two bullets for every person in the world.
  • One million guns are reported to stolen every year from around the world.
  • One in ten people around the world possesses small arms. 747000 people are killed by armed violence every year.
  • One person dies every minute from armed violence.

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Filed under Film Reviews, Films, Glasgow Film Theatre, Oxfam