Our previous round-ups at GFF haven’t focussed on one particular theme as such, but for part five we’re featuring some of the documentaries we’ve seen so far (even if one may be a slight cheat). Featuring tales of obsession, narcissism, musical independence, and a fascinating new take on one of the most famous people ever, there’s a wide range of material, and of quality.
The Artist & The Wall of Death (Maurice O’Brien/ Ireland/ 2022/ 87 mins) follows Glasgow-based artist Stephen Skrynka as he attempts to master, for fairly vague reasons, the popular fairground attraction. After coming a cropper too many times while being taught by professional riders, his backers pull the plug on safety grounds. Skrynka thinks he needs to try and put his obsession to bed until he comes across the Irish film Eat the Peach in which two friends build their own wall of death. Tracking down the two men on whom the film was built, he persuades them to come out of retirement and build another.
Tales of weird obsessions like this one succeed or fail on the amount of engagement one has with its protagonist. Given that we get little beyond a ‘lifelong fascination’ with the wall of death, there’s little to make us hope for Skrynka’s success. Beyond this, he doesn’t come across well as he manipulates the two men into his vanity project, sinking the entire savings of one into the folly in the process. By the time he’s surrounded by his own small bubble of committed volunteers in another attempt at the mad project at home in Glasgow during lockdown, one rather wishes one of the beams would fall and clobber some sense to him. Clearly intended as an inspirational project and a celebration of British eccentricity, the subject himself rather punctures those ambitions. 2/5
Absolutely nothing like what is suggested by the oo-err title, Mister Organ (David Farrier/ New Zealand/ 2022/ 96 mins) is instead another documentary tale of obsession. Affable, Louis Theroux-like investigative journalist David Farrier comes across a strange man called Michael Organ operating as an unofficial clamper outside an antique store. Farrier smells a story and before long has sunk years into investigating a toxic narcissistic who has left a string of used and abused relatives, friends, and associates across New Zealand.
While at some times it feels like Farrier has backed himself in a corner and is pushing forward just to the project doesn’t grind to a halt, Mister Organ is a weirdly compelling tale of deeply banal malignance. Both mysterious and bizarrely forthcoming, Organ himself seems to relish the attention and will talk the ears off anyone unfortunate to get caught in his orbit like an anthropomorphised filibuster, he’s three levels of evil up from one of those pompous sitcom characters we love to see deflated. Despite Organ’s surface pleasantries and faintly camp persona you do feel yourself willing Farrier – who comes across as slightly guileless for a journalist – to close the whole thing down for his own safety and walk away. But then their wouldn’t be a film, and even if feels like the entire quest has been cyclical, it’s strange enough to feel just about worthwhile. 3/5
With a big dose of Anvil! and a whole lot of Spinal Tap, Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir‘s Band (Iceland/ 2022/ 96 mins) follows the (mis)fortunes of The Post Performances Blues Band, the disco-art-punk group which features Örnólfsdóttir, as well as Hrefna Lind Lárusdóttir and Saga Sigurðardóttir. It’s hard to say how much is pure doc and how much is mock, but there is a real sense of truth about Band. When their Dadaist, ramshackle, DIY-Björk-esque performances fail to drawn in more than a handful of bemused punters, the trio give themselves a year to succeed, ambitiously booking Reykjavik’s most prestigious concert venue for a potential last hurrah.
Frequently hilarious and streaked with Nordic melancholy, Band may not be entirely authentic as a documentary but the feeling of time running out is very real. With families and children of their own and their 40s looming on the horizon the three women face the brick wall of stability and domesticity approaching rapidly. Yet there’s something punch-the-air inspiring about their push for one last stab, despite their music being defiantly niche. There’s a self-deprecating side to it all – hence the Spinal Tap comparisons – to the point where the band appear unconcerned whether you’re enjoying the music on its own merits or ironically. As long as you do engage seems to be the point. It’s difficult not to love a group of people so committed to doing things on their own terms, with stardom not necessarily being an absolute necessity. On those grounds, expect The Post Performances Blues Band to gain a whole new cult following. Let’s hope success doesn’t ruin them. 4/5
It’s not difficult to generate interest in a documentary on Muhammad Ali, one of the most fascinating people, not just sportsperson, of the 20th century. The question is whether another one is necessary. Fortunately Cassius X: Becoming Ali (Muta’Ali/ UK, USA/ 2022/ 91) answers resoundingly in the affirmative. Based on the book by Stuart Cosgrove it takes in the rise of Cassius Clay as a contender for the word heavyweight title, and his political and spiritual (for the two appear to be inextricable in his case) awakening under the guidance of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The documentary draws on a treasure trove of archive footage of the erstwhile Clay’s career leading up to his dismantling of Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964, and interviews with sports journalists who covered his career and, most notably, Ali’s ormer partner Dee Dee Sharp and Malcolm X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz.
The path of Ali’s career has alredy been extensively mapped, so it’s the expansion of what we know about Ali’s relationship with Malcolm and the position he took when a schism formed between Malcolm and his former mentor Elijah Muhammad that is truly riveting here. Regina King‘s One Night in Miami touched on the relationship between Ali and Malcolm, but Cassius X digs beneath the fictional gloss in fascinating detail. What emerges is strongly filtered through the perspective of Attallah Shabazz, but does come though as clear-eyed and unbiased as possible, affectionate but not sentimental. Any documentary that finds avenues less explored on arguably one of the most famous people to ever live is worthwhile – for example, footage of numerous reporters ostensibly ‘deadnaming’ Ali is legitimately shocking given the man’s now almost mythological status – but Muta’Ali’s film is also extremely well made and precisely edited. An excellent film. 4/5
All films screened as part of Glasgow International Film Festival