RIDM 2015: Music documentary Making a Monster comes highly recommended

Malcolm Brickhouse of the heavy metal band Unlocking The Truth, in a scene from the documentary film Breaking a Monster. It's one of several films about music being shown at RIDM, MOntreal's documentary film festival.
Malcolm Brickhouse of the heavy metal band Unlocking The Truth, in a scene from the documentary film Breaking a Monster. It’s one of several films about music being shown at RIDM, MOntreal’s documentary film festival.

I haven’t managed to watch Breaking a Monster yet, but it sounds really intriguing, so I’ll tell you about it by quoting the reviews of others.

The synopsis on the RIDM web site says: “In 2007, three African-American pre-teen metal heads became instant celebrities after posting videos of their street performances in Times Square. Their recently formed band, Unlocking the Truth, came to the attention of the Jonas Brothers’ manager, an ex-hippie with a nose for a hit who negotiated a lucrative recording contract for them. Surrounded by music-industry pros, the three friends had to learn in a hurry how to cope with stardom and protect their identity while making the most of the marketing strategies developed by white adults who “want what’s best for them.” A funny, incisive look at music marketing today.”

Rob Aldam of Backseat Mafia reviews Breaking a Monster from the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival: (Director Luke) “Meyer allows the three to do their own talking and they’re all charismatic, intelligent and engaging characters. . . Breaking A Monster is an extremely funny and perceptive insight into the inner working of the music industry, where absurdity and infuriation abound. There’s much to love here, not least the three stars who hopefully have a bright future ahead in the music industry.”

Doug Dillaman saw it at the Sydney Film Festival in Australia and reviewed Breaking a Monster for The Lumiere Reader. He says: “we are fully immersed into both the band’s home world and the music industry without on-screen text to identify people; just like the teens themselves, we struggle to keep up, and have to decide what’s invaluable industry expertise and what’s laugh-out-loud absurdity, whether the industry pros have their best interests at heart, and whether the teens might just be happier playing Angry Birds and skateboarding. Tastefully shot and expertly cut, it’s superlative not just as music documentary but as a documentary in general. If the film has a flaw, it’s that, by necessity, it ends before it feels over; the story is still to be written, but if Meyer can retain his access after this film goes wide, I’d happily take a sequel.” (Italics are mine. That’s great praise, I think!)
Lanre Bakare reviewed Breaking a Monster for The Guardian: “Meyer’s success comes from understanding that the interesting thing about a rock band made up of 12-year-olds is their unique approach to rock’n’roll situations we’ve all seen a thousand times. When in meetings about their contract they play Flappy Birds; when they get to a hotel room they have a pillow fight rather than chucking a TV out of a window; and if something isn’t going the way they want it to, they turn to their mums. It’s a charming and engaging mix. . .”

(There are other positive reviews out there, but I didn’t find them as quotable as the ones above.)

Breaking A Monster
Directed by Luke Meyer
Country : United States
Year : 2015
Language : English
Runtime : 93 min.
Production : Tom Davis, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith
Cinematography : Ethan Palmer, Hillary Spera
Editing : Brad Turner
Sound : Tom Paul
Contact :(Production) Tom Davis, Seethink Films, tom@seethink.com

Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, 5:30 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 1, 3575 Park

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RIDM 2015 Review: They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.
Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile is a documentary about the difficulties faced by residents of northern Mali, especially the musicians, after a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 was hijacked by Islamist forces. Mosques, tombs, libraries, and ancient manuscripts were destroyed. The imposition of sharia law meant veils for women, amputated limbs for convicted thieves and a ban on all music – even ringtones on cellphones. Musicians fled cities like Gao and Timbuktu in fear for their lives. Among those who appear in the film, some went to Bamako, in Mali’s south, while others went to refugee camps in Burkina Faso.

Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal's documentary film festival.
Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival.

The people we meet include established stars Khaira Arby and Fadimata Walett Oumar (nicknamed Disco, because she was a big Madonna fan in her younger days). Disco is a longstanding member of the group Tartit, though it is not named until near the end of the film. She is also married to a high-ranking Malian soldier who changes allegiance more than once, which makes their lives somewhat complicated. The film also serves as a promotional vehicle for a younger band called Songhoy Blues, and includes footage from their U.K. tour. (Earlier this year, they toured North America, making stops at SXSW and in Toronto, too.) You can find music by Khaira Arby, Tartit and Songhoy Blues on iTunes; click on their names to go there. The film’s soundtrack will be released, but sadly, it isn’t ready yet. If you like what you heard in the film, check out Tinariwen, as well.

Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.
Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Most of us will never see the wonders of Timbuktu in person, so I appreciated glimpses of them in the film. I suspect that some scenes were shot before the widespread destruction and that many of those intriguing structures no longer exist.

At 100 minutes, the film seems stretched out. I expected lots of music, since it is about musicians, after all, but got tantalizing snippets instead. There is lots of talking, and some of it is repetitive. Perhaps I am just a victim of my own expectations – the film has many positive reviews on the Internet. Sample quote from a review in the Austin Chronicle:
“Social journalism of the highest order, They Will Have to Kill Us First is by turns horrific and front-loaded with sonic heroism. It’s also one of the most vibrantly shot and masterfully edited documentaries of this or any other SXSW year.”

Full disclosure, I did watch They Will Have To Kill Us First at home via an online screener, which must have reduced its power considerably.

(Justified) spoiler: The film ends with a joyous outdoor concert in Timbuktu, with lots of happy women and children among the audience.
They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile (Click on the film’s name to read more about it on the RIDM web site.)

Friday, Nov. 13, 2:30 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 1 (Buy tickets here)

Saturday, Nov. 14, 215 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 2 (Buy tickets here)

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile
Country : Mali, United Kingdom
Year : 2015
Language : English, Bambara, French, Songhay
Subtitles : English
Runtime : 100 min
Production : Kat Amara Korba, Sarah Mosses, Johanna Schwartz, John Schwartz
Cinematography : Karelle Walker
Editing : Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey
Sound : Phitz Hearne
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information about the festival.

FNC 2015 Review: Chinese punk musicians have their say in Never Release My Fist

Wu Wei, standing, centre rear, with his fellow punk musicians outside his bar in Wuhan, China. Note the bagpipes! The history of Chinese punk music is explored in the documentary Never Release My Fist, by Shuibo Wang.
Wu Wei, standing, centre rear, with his fellow punk musicians outside his bar in Wuhan, China. Note the bagpipes! The history of Chinese punk music is explored in the documentary Never Release My Fist, by Shuibo Wang.

If you like punk music, China, or documentary films, then Never Release My Fist is especially for you. But really, I think this film would appeal to any living, breathing person with an interest in his or her fellow human beings, and how they live their lives, struggle to survive, and try to express themselves. I liked it a lot; if I didn’t have another musical commitment today, I would watch it again!

Montreal documentary filmmaker Shuibo Wang received an Oscar nomination for his NFB short, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square. In Never Release My Fist he explores the world of Chinese punk, with particular attention paid to Wu Wei, who is often described as the father of Chinese punk. He formed his band SMZB in 1996.

Wu Wei describes himself as unemployed and aimless in the first few years after he finished high school, but he now comes across as very thoughtful and articulate man, distressed by the politics and rampant consumer culture in China. All the same, his lyrics sound quite poetic.

Wu Wei is from the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China. It’s a city of 10 million people known for heavy industry but it also has several universities, with as many as one million students (potential fans! Though director Wang says that most young Chinese prefer pop music).
While he benefited from some time in Beijing, Wuhan is where Wu Wei played most of his music, and it became the punk hotspot of China.

Musicians everywhere have tough lives, but the punks of Wuhan had little money to buy instruments, few places to play, and they faced government censorship as well. Text messages and email were intercepted.

An image from Never Release My Fist, a documentary film about punk rock in China. It's part of the lineup at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal.
An image from Never Release My Fist, a documentary film about punk rock in China. It’s part of the lineup at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal.

Wu Wei might be the main star of the film but his bandmates, former bandmates and fellow punk musicians get their share of screen time. Punk in Wuhan was not just a guy thing, either. Women played a big part, too. We see their performances and they share their sometimes harrowing stories and as well.

At some point SMZB included bagpipes and a violin to some songs, a very interesting touch! And Hou Hsiao Hsien uses bagpipes in the closing credits of The Assassin. Are bagpipes a thing in China now?

Filmmaker Shuibo Wang was able to use lots of great vintage footage that was shot before he ever met the musicians. He will attend the screening and answer questions after the film.

Festival du nouveau cinema programmer Julien Fonfrede, left, and Montreal director Shuibo Wang. (Photo copyright Maryse Boyce)
Festival du nouveau cinema programmer Julien Fonfrede, left, and Montreal director Shuibo Wang. (Photo copyright Maryse Boyce)

Never Release My Fist is being shown as part of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, which runs from Oct. 7 – Oct. 18, 2015. Visit the FNC web site for more information about Never Release My Fist.

Never Release My Fist
Directed by Shuibo Wang
China, Canada | 87 minutes | 2015, in Cantonese with English subtitles
Saturday, Oct.17, 2015, 17:00
Program #283
Cinéma du Parc 2, 3575 Ave. du Parc

Montreal International Black Film Festival: Thursday night choices include music and memory loss in New Orleans, struggling siblings in a South African township

Aunjanue Ellis, left, and Bill Cobbs in Una Vida: Of Mind and Music, one of the films being shown at the 2015 Montreal International Black Film Festival.
Aunjanue Ellis, left, and Bill Cobbs in Una Vida: Of Mind and Music, one of the films being shown at the 2015 Montreal International Black Film Festival.

Many Montreal film festivals show several films at the same time, which can make life difficult for fans. How to choose?

Here are brief reviews of the two films that will be shown at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 at part of the Montreal International Black Film Festival; I hope that they are helpful!

Una Vida: Of Mind and Music is a gentle tale that unfolds in an unhurried way. Dr. Alvaro Cruz (Joaquim de Almeida) is a neuroscientist who lives in New Orleans. Appropriately enough for someone who lives there, he likes jazz and blues. His mother has Alzheimer’s disease.

Soon after the film begins he is overcome by guilt because his mother died when he was away at a medical conference. He keeps dreaming of a time in his childhood when he got lost while chasing an elusive butterfly.

He takes time off from work to just kinda hang around. He meets an elderly musical couple – singer Una Vida, and guitarist Stompleg. They play on the street and in a small bar. He can see that the woman’s memory is failing, though her songs seem more firmly rooted in her brain than other things are. As a scientist, he is intrigued by this situation; as a human being he wants to help if he can.

Everyone seems to like Dr Cruz, except for a young woman named Jessica, who does a lousy job of helping Stompleg to look after Una Vida. She is hostile and suspicious and tells him to stay away. of course, we know that he won’t, don’t we?

Oh, for what it’s worth – Una Vida is also known as Queenie, though her real name is Maizie.
There are some nice tunes in Una Vida: Of Mind and Music, but there isn’t really much of a plot. The fortysomething actress Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Una Visa, is made up to look much older, yet her voice still sounds quite youthful most of the time. The film is based on a novel written by a real life neuroscientist Nicolas Bazan. It has many rave reviews on Amazon.com.

Una Vida: Of Mind and Music, 2014, U.S.A., 97 minutes, In English, with some Spanish dialogue when Dr Cruz talks to his mother.
Director: Richie Adams
Cast: Joaquim De Almeida, Bill Cobbs, Ruth Negga, Sharon Lawrence and Aunjanue Ellis
Screenwriter: Richie Adams, Nicholas Bazan
Producers: Richie Adams, Brent Caballero, Nicolas Bazan, Nancy Green-Keyes

Busisiwe Mtshali plays Zanele in the South African film Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us), which is one of the selections at the 2015 Montreal International Black Film Festival.
Busisiwe Mtshali plays Zanele in the South African film Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us), which is one of the selections at the 2015 Montreal International Black Film Festival.

Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us) is about high-school student Zanele, and her older brother Thulas, who is raising her in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. He is very strict and stern with Zanele, though he makes his living from robbing the homes of rich people. (We don’t actually see them do it, we just hear Thulas and his friends talk about it, and we see a bit of the loot.)

Zanele and her friend Tumi look very young in their school uniforms and white ankle socks, but Tumi is already flirting and accepting rides, meals, drinks and money from smarmy older men who own cars. She calls one of them the Minister of Finance. There are always lots of people in the street, so her behaviour does not pass unnoticed.

Thulas orders his sister to stay away from Tumi, but rebellious Zanele remains loyal to her friend. We know that this is bound to lead to trouble.

There are some very uncomfortable scenes in Thina Sobabili, and certain connections and coincidences seem too a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, it is quite impressive, especially considering the fact that it was made on a tiny budget and shot in a mere seven days. Thina Sobabili is South Africa’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar.

Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us) 2015, 90 minutes, South Africa, in Zulu with English subtitles,
Director: Ernest Nkosi
Cast: Richard Lukunku, Emmanuel Nkosinathi Gweva, Zikhona Sodlaka, Thato Dhladla, Busisiwe Mtshali and Mpho (Popps) Modikoane
Screenplay: Ernest Nkosi, Mosibudi Pheeha
Producers: Ernest Nkosi, Enos Manthata, Mosibudi Pheeha
Una Vida: Of Mind and Music
Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, 7 p.m.
Cineplex Quartier Latin, 350 Emery St.

Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us)
Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, 7 p.m.
Former NFB Cinema
(Judith Jasmin Annexe)
1564 St. Denis

Tickets are $10. Check the Montreal International Black Film Festival web site, www.montrealblackfilm.com/ for further pricing details, the film schedule, film synopses and trailers.
The Montreal International Black Film Festival has a Facebook page, too.