Producer / Curator / Poet
|Chronicle of a Summer
|Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin
|The Gleaners and I
|A Night of Knowing Nothing
|Measures of Distance
|Ma'loul Celebrates its Destruction
|Hit the Road
|I Am Somebody
Sister Act is more a divination than a film: ask it anything, and it will give you an answer. As a documentarian, I often cite Truffaut's reflection that life has much more imagination than us, but this film is the exception to the rule - a premise so brilliant, it could only have been conjured from above. With huge heart, great humour and an unforgettable choir of nuns, Sister Act is the forever classic.
Chronicle of a Summer
The collaborative and reflexive spaces created by Rouch, Morin and their collaborators make Chronique a uniquely rich reflection on what cinema is, and can be. Most significantly, its novel use of audio reflected on what new technology could give to the medium – space to listen. For me, the film captures the pulse of Paris in 1961 specifically because it leans in to hear, to encourage dialogue, to listen. Marceline's monologue is particularly haunting, as is the perennial question – are you happy?
The Gleaners and I
Agnès Varda's heart, humanity and humour permeated her entire oeuvre but Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse has its own unique magic. It is both homage to the ordinary, and documentary manifesto: a film about care and community, and about the very craft of storytelling. About looking and loving the gems that others might overlook or discard – like heart-shaped potatoes, or the beguiling beauty of the shapely damp in your crumbling Parisian apartment. A gift from the doyenne of all strangely shaped vegetables – a master gleaner.
A Night of Knowing Nothing
A Night of Knowing Nothing's exquisite storytelling gave me new hope for the future of the documentary imaginary. It is electric from the first few seconds – where the arresting voice of a young woman quietly stills your attention. She's reading out letters sent to her estranged lover, and they serve as the frame for archive (both found and sourced from fellow filmmakers) of student protests across India. It's a majestic and deeply moving meditation, reflecting on the place of education, of protest, but also of community, love, class, and what it means to tell stories, to imagine a future through our words, or even through someone else's discarded images.
Measures of Distance
Measures of Distance by Mona Hatoum quietly reveals itself to be a deeply intimate and affecting autobiographical reflection on exile, in particular on the generational and geographical distances that can only cause a constant kaleidoscope of emotions and recurring feelings of displacement. I love the epistolary premise of the film, and that the layering of image, text and spoken 'translation' situates the film so distinctly in the 80s – a time of 'assimilation politics'. With distinctive grain and voice, it is subtle in its big questions, deceptive in its simplicity.
Derek Jarman's final film is a visceral, dream-like provocation – one of the most precious and heartbreaking documents of the Aids pandemic, searingly political in its essence and yet as light as the routine act of breathing.
Ma'loul Celebrates its Destruction
There is undeniable truth at the heart of this short documentary, which announces its confounding premise in the title. Ma’loul is a Palestinian village in Galilee. In 1948, like countless Palestinian villages, it was erased from the map – destroyed by Israeli armed forces who also expelled its inhabitants. Each year on Israel's Independence Day, expelled inhabitants are allowed to visit, and so older generations take their children and grandchildren to their ancestral home, have a picnic on the site of their destroyed village and commit it to memory. People remember where everything stood, share food and memories, and recount the history of the village, which had seen Jewish, Roman, Ottoman and Palestinian rulers come and go over the centuries. Michel Khleifi's mastery is in recognising the space of a film as an act of remembrance too, and placing a frame simply around this literal remembering. In doing so, he underlines the very power of a frame and of the imagination to bring forth a new day.
Several of Youssef Chahine's vast oeuvre kept making its way in and out of my list – I particularly love The Blazing Sun, and Alexandria… Why? – but Cairo Station is considered his magnum opus for good reason and the film remains alive to the complexity of human emotion and desire, charged in unexpected ways – in particular, how undercurrents of toxic masculinity seep into the film's frame through the gritty yet somehow not unlikeable character of Kenawy, played by Chahine himself. The film's dark genius lies in this ambivalence and malaise, which was not only ahead of its time, it still resonates.
Hit the Road
Panah Panahi's delightful debut is a feast of emotions – by turns tender, quirky, even laugh-out-loud funny – it is a wondrously observed reflection on family and the ambivalence of forging your own way (I wish more reviews would focus on the film itself, and not the director's father, given that the film speaks directly to the challenge of finding your own independent identity). Closest to my heart is the film's bold, brilliant soundtrack – Panahi's use of music is electric. The scene built around legendary Iranian diva Hayedeh's 'Soghati' brims with nostalgia and the melancholy of separation, is an unforgettable moment of pure cinema.
I Am Somebody
Documenting a strike led by black female hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, for union recognition and better salaries, Madeline Anderson's short documentary I Am Somebody is a crucial document in the struggle for labour rights (and, in today's lingo, a bold document of intersectionality underlining intersecting rights struggles and movements). But it is also a work of exceptional cinematic resonance – each frame is as considered as a line of poetry.
As these lists can only be, mine is undoubtedly a reflection of my heritage, education, work, taste and certainly the languages that are closest to my ear. My list is made up of films that honour the craft of filmmaking – a good story is in the telling – and achieve something unique and lasting in their respect of the medium. I also chose films that are alive to me – meaning the ones that have been living in my head or in my heart since I first saw/heard/experienced them, whether that was 20 years or mere months ago. Naturally, there is also the knowledge that the act of inscribing films into the space of a list or a conversation is also a bid for their longevity and greater visibility, for the world is a richer place for these works. If the list could have been twice as long, it would have included the following films (in no particular order): Sambizanga (Sarah Maldoror, 1972); Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black) (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1962); O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016); News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977); Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994); Loubia Hamra (Bloody Beans) (Narimane Mari, 2013); Atlantique (Atlantics) (Mati Diop, 2019); Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, 2002); Abou Leila (Amin Sidi-Boumédiène, 2019); and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (Jean Cocteau, 1946) – the scene where Beauty enters the castle and all the chandeliers – arms holding tall candles – unfurl to light her way was the magic that made me understand what cinema could be.