Film review – Sing Your Song (2011)

18 April 2012
Sing Your Song: Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte

The American born singer Harold George Belafonte, Jr is best known for popularising Caribbean music in the 1950s with songs such as the distinctive ‘The Banana Boat Song’. An all-round entertainer Harry Belafonte acted, sung and danced on stage, film and theatre for both adult and family audiences. He was the first ever celebrity guest on The Muppet Show. His involvement in films such as the all-black musical Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954) and Island in the Sun (Robert Rossen, 1957), considered controversial at the time due to its implied inter-racial relationship, suggest the degree in which Belafonte was aware of race issues within the United States of America. However for many, the full extent of Belafonte’s political activism and involvement in the civil rights movement may not be known, which is why Susanne Rostock’s documentary Sing Your Song is such a fascinating film.

Sing Your Song is relativity straightforward in the way it presents its material. Belafonte narrates the story of his life over archival footage and photographs, and there are extensive talking head interviews. The film is very much his story and he is the one giving weight to particular incidents in his life and choosing what aspects are of significance. With a less dynamic subject, this style of documentary filmmaking could have felt pedestrian, but Belafonte is a captivating and energetic narrator who the audience feels safe with. Moments of modesty feel genuine and moments of pride feel justified. Rostock has captured the blend of politics and music in Belafonte’s life by continually entwining both elements through the film stylistically and in terms of its narrative. The politics of showbiz are directly explored while juxtapositions between his career as an entertainer and his activism are continually made through editing and sound bridges.

One of the most interesting ways that Sing Your Song reflects the personality of its subject is the coy way it presents many of Belafonte’s achievements. When describing incidents such as swimming in a segregated pool or linking arms on television with a woman he is singing a duet with, Belafonte and the film act as if the results of such acts weren’t obvious and the statements they made were almost accidental. It’s a deliberate downplaying of actions that should have no meaning, but in the context of immense bigotry clearly do. In this way Belafonte and Rostock reclaim ordinary actions as innocent moments, while the racist reaction to such actions is exposed as being outlandish and ridiculous. Sing Your Song therefore very effectively articulates Belafonte’s furious yet no-nonsense stance against discrimination and his refusal to accept bigotry in any form or context.

One sad element of Sing Your Song is the realisation that no public figure or celebrity in a contemporary context could hope to have the same impact as Belafonte did. Cynicism towards celebrity campaigners, which is admittedly frequently deserved, has created a culture where anybody in the public eye who is seen to be too overtly promoting a cause is treated with suspicion and ridicule. What is remarkable about Belafonte is how early in his career he realised that he could use his celebrity and access to other celebrities to raise awareness and generate change, to the extent that he effectively brokered meetings between the Kennedy Administration and leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Furthermore, Belafonte has never stopped his campaigning and even looks beyond the boarders of America to see what other parts of the world may require his help. And while the obvious pride Belafonte has for what he has done may turn off some, it is difficult to argue that he doesn’t deserve that pride, nor could he be accused of pretending that he could have done what he did without first becoming successful as entertainer.

Like its subject, Sing Your Song is a passionate film bursting with energy, music and often fury. It’s designed to engage and entertain, but at the same time raise awareness about how injustice and discrimination takes different forms around the world. Belafonte speaks of how he wonders if he has done enough and for a moment this extraordinary moment of self-doubt could seem a little contrived. But that possibly says more about the viewer who doesn’t believe that modesty is ever genuine and who is looking for any excuse to denigrate somebody who is visibly raising awareness while they do nothing. So regardless of how much Sing Your Song reveals Belafonte the person or Belafonte the media savvy social campaigner, what remains is a man who put his career, reputation and life on the line to do more than simply entertain. The resulting film is a fascinating retelling of modern American history filled with music and grounded by a man of immense inspiration and integrity.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 4

25 July 2011

Day 3 of MIFF, Sunday 24 July, was simply wonderful. I saw five films and loved them all. Let’s get into it:

Surviving Life

Surviving Life

All the years of study I spent reading and writing about psychoanalytic theory and surrealism paid off when I saw Surviving Life. This self-described ‘psychoanalytic comedy’ by the Czech filmmaker and animator Jan Švankmajer  marvellously collapses the boundaries between the dream world and the waking world. While Švankmajer has clearly been a big influence on Terry Gilliam, among others, the cutout photographic animation style in Surviving Life recalls Gilliam’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus animations and the theme of the protagonists finding the ideal woman in his dreams strongly evokes Gilliam’s Brazil. Nevertheless, this is a distinctively Švankmajer film and possibly his most accessible feature film to date. I particularly loved the scenes where portraits of Freud and Jung get into a fight. A fun and inventive film with lots of great visual gags.

I’ve always been fascinated by Harry Belafonte despite knowing very little about him. He’s naturally one of the great American entertainers, particularly because of his singing, but it’s what I heard about his activism that’s always made me want to find out more. Fortunately the documentary Sing Your Song extensively covers Belafonte’s remarkable work in the civil rights movement that continues right up until today. I am now in total awe of the man. As well as featuring his humanitarian work, Sing Your Song also chronicles Belafonte’s career and how he used his celebrity status to become a force of progressive change. He’s clearly a passionate and inspirational man and this film channels that energy.

[EDIT 18/4/2012: Read a full review of Sing Your Song]

Life in a Day

Life in a Day

Screening at MIFF on the one year anniversary of the original filming day on 24 July 2010, Life in a Day is a montage of clips shot by people all over the world who were asked to film something that represented their lives. The resulting film, assembled by Kevin Macdonald from 4,500 hours of footage, uses very effective rhythmic and graphic editing to convey the passing of a single day for people all over the world. A diverse collection of clips are used from very raw amateur footage, exhilarating first person shots and more professionally produced clips. The end result is an effective tribute to humanity, which doesn’t shy away from also reminding us of the pain, cruelty and fear that also exists in the world. Before Life in a Day was screened we were shown We Were Here, which is a similar Australian project but on a much smaller scale and unfortunately with much less diversity in the clips selected.

The second Alex Gibney documentary screening at MIFF this year is Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. It’s a film that makes an excellent companion piece to Inside Job, which also examined the conditions leading up to the GFC, the high class escort agencies connected to the financial elite and the extraordinary measures that the people who profiteer from high level white collar crime will go to in order to protect the system they have created. Gibney makes a very strong case that suggests Spitzer’s sexual misdemeanours received an unprecedented and unusually extreme level of scrutiny, most likely due to his antagonism with Wall Street and some very powerful Republicans.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins

MIFF never quite feels right unless it contains at least one film by the insanely prolific Takashi Miike. This year it has two and I went for 13 Assassins, which compared to some of Miike previous films is relatively tame simply for the reason that it sticks to the conventions of one genre. In this case it is the historical samurai genre, with heavy nods to the films of Akira Kurosawa. After establishing the true evilness of a powerful young lord, 13 Assassins quickly endears us to the samurai who are given the task of killing him. Similar to the structure of Seven Samurai, the first half of 13 Assassins focuses on the recruitment of samurais and their planning while the second half is the lengthy battle where all the tension from the build-up is paid off in full. The action and spectacle in this film is outstanding making it one of Miike’s best films to date.

MIFFhaps
The audience for 13 Assassins was a lot of fun and included a girl sitting somewhere behind me who clearly felt every thrust of the sword in the film. Her very vocal gasps came during five minute intervals during the slower first half of the film and were then every 15 seconds during the long battle sequence during the second half. The mood was momentarily threatened just after a scene when one of the lead characters meets an untimely demise and some genius of narrative theory decided to share with those of us sitting around him, ‘I saw that coming’. Bravo. Would you like some kind of special merit badge? Then there was the guy sitting in the middle of the fifth row, who stood up during the film to take off his jacket. Apparently disrobing while seated is passé and it’s better to tease the entire cinema with the promise of a strip routine instead.

I should also mention that an article titled ‘Cinephiles buff for marathon’, which appeared in The Sunday Age, includes several quotes from me about the blog-a-thon where I possibly sound a bit too critical about the motivations for seeing heaps of films at the festival. I probably should have put more emphasis on the positive side of this venture, such as mentioning that one of the attractions of seeing so many films is that it is glorious to be so fully immersed in the festival experience. It’s a good way to see films with people who for the most part know how to be respectful to other audience members in a cinema. The final motivation for seeing so many films is the angst that you may miss out on some masterpiece that you’ll never get an opportunity to see again. Melbourne is an amazing city for cinema and the majority of things worth seeing do resurface, but not always and not always in a cinema. I know three of my highlights from MIFF last year, Son of BabylonLourdes and Poetry, still haven’t shown up.

Show us your MIFF
I’ve known Kate McCurdy both professionally and personally for about 18 months now. She’s the Marketing Manager for Sharmill Films and pretty much guaranteed to be at any screening or film-related event that is worth knowing about. Kate is also the biggest Mike Leigh fan that I have ever met. She refuses to single out any of Leigh’s films so instead tells me to put All the President’s Men down as her all-time favourite film. Kate’s seeing 60 films at MIFF this year and is most looking forward to Submarine. Her advice to surviving MIFF is to not be afraid to walk out of a film that you really aren’t enjoying or engaging with. As Sharmill are distributing Le Havre, Kate feels a bit embarrassed about listing it as her favourite film at the festival so far, but she is genuine and I can vouch for her sincerity! Her all time favourite MIFF experience was simply being in the same room as Quentin Tarantino when he was a festival guest in 2009. Her worst MIFFhap was witnessing a brawl in a cinema last year during a screening of I Killed My Mother. Kate has no idea what the brawl was about, but I’m dying to find out.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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