Reviews

Bloc Party: God Bless Bloc Party [DVD]

Dan MacIntosh

Bloc Party just might be receiving a few premature blessings here.


Bloc Party

God Bless Bloc Party [DVD]

Label: Vice
US Release Date: 2006-01-17
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Drafting basketball players right out of high school is a big problem for the NBA right now. Such youths may have the natural skills to compete on the court with men, but -- more often than not -- they do not yet have the maturity or basketball smarts to make an immediate impact in the league. Everybody focuses intently upon each particular player's potential, which may be great indeed. Once management realizes that a poor kid can't deliver right away, however, disappointment quickly sets in. It's far better to let talent grow and adapt outside the glare of the spotlight, instead. And much the same thing can be said about Bloc Party, at least based upon the way this new band is studied so microscopically here. It's like staring at a flower growing and expecting to see colorful pedals right away, as with time lapse photography. It just doesn't happen that way. Growth takes time, and lots of it.

Bloc Party's debut Silent Alarm CD marked this British band as one to keep an eye on. Short-dreadlocked vocalist Kele Okereke is a man with a mission, and one that writes excellent songs. Some of these, such as "Price of Gas" and "Helicopter", touch upon relevant social/political subject matters. This material is performed enthusiastically, as if Bloc Party still has something to prove. Both during its concert section, and interspersed throughout the documentary portion, this quartet shows it can consistently pull off its material live.

The main trouble with God Bless Bloc Party is that it focuses on the group much too intently, far too soon. Granted, it's essential that new bands arrive accompanied with biographies that explain a bit about who they are and how they got here. It's only after a few thousand road miles, however, that a group's documentary is truly insightful. Music fans have great fun comparing and contrasting various albums, examining -- for instance -- how one pivotal work might differ from the others. But with only on disc under its belt, Bloc Party has no need for such lengthy discussion. To its credit, this DVD follows the outfit during its first trek through Los Angeles, and it never gets old watching Brits acclimating themselves to the West Coast. Still, we don't get to hear too many personal reflections from the Bloc Party folks about their initial reactions to the whole LA lifestyle. One exception to this rule is a scene where the group's vehicle pulls alongside a pair of locals that are bumping hip-hop music at full blast from their car. The looks on Bloc Party's faces are priceless.

The overall flow of this disc's documentary is particularly problematic. One is left with the overriding impression that it was assembled haphazardly. Performance clips alternate with interviews, yet without any particular rhyme or reason. It would have been far better, for instance, to have made it build chronologically: Follow the group from England to America, then from the hotel room to the various press functions, then ultimately to the concert stage. At least there would have been a little consistency holding it all together.

This project provides sparse new information about the band. It appears as if the camera was merely eves dropping in on various band interviews throughout the day. None of these various writers are introduced to the audience, for instance. They are people with names, right? Nevertheless, this tactic may have been for the best, because few of these interview questions are worth remembering. At one point, Okereke is quizzed about his stuttering problem. Just what does that have to do with his art? Elsewhere, he is asked about his first experiences as a songwriter, but his answer is far from enlightening.

Whenever the band is caught on stage, Okereke is always a fascinating figure to watch. It's evidenced here that this band has already formed a close bond with its audience. During the documentary, filmmakers interview folks that are killing time in line and waiting for the El Rey Theatre Bloc Party show. Ironically, one of these "intelligent" fans tells us she's a stripper that traveled all the way from Las Vegas to experience her favorite band live. Wow, even hot chicks dig Bloc Party!

As with most athletic talent, it takes time to develop a true musical superstar. Checking back with Bloc Party in, say, five years from now, might well be an eye-opening revelation. But for now, it amounts to little more than premature evaluation.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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