Southern Hemisphere Blues
Hey, you! Yes, you, the person who's slightly confused at having their attention grabbed when they're already reading the article! Are you sick of brainless summer comedies and mass-produced kids' CGI movies? Are you fed up with so-called multiplexes only showing the same two or three films in four screens each? If so, then why not try something a bit different? Try a documentary.
Though you wouldn't have expected it, the summer has become a bit of a sweet spot when it comes to the release of documentary films, presumably because it's the time when – broadly speaking – the IQ level of the narrative movies on release notably plummets. Taking advantage of this effect this summer are Nostalgia for the Light, by Patricio Guzman, and Searching for Sugar Man, by Malik Bendjelloul.
Anyone who doubted that the documentary genre is every bit as diverse as narrative would be convinced by watching these two films. Both of them are largely set south of the Equator, but in every other respect – subject matter, tone, approach – they are wildly different.
Nostalgia for the Light is concerned with Chile, and in particular the Atacama desert, an environment which is uniquely well-suited to the exploration of the past – the thin, dry air preserving any remains left there. But the same thin air means it is also a perfect location to explore a vaster, deeper past: the desert is dotted with observatories from which astronomers peer into the ancient universe.
The astronomers and archaeologists, and their professional interest in the past, are contrasted with people with a more personal stake in it: survivors of the Pinochet regime which came to power in the 1970s, and under which thousands of people either disappeared or were tortured. Many of the survivors are still searching for the remains of loved ones who were made to disappear by the state. No-one in authority is prepared to break their silence on this topic – it's as if the past, in this case, has been erased, leaving the searchers adrift in time, unable to move forward.
It's a thoughtful, beautifully-shot film, quite serious in tone – as you might have guessed – and touching on many profound and fascinating ideas. It doesn't have quite the transcendental strangeness of a Werner Herzog project, but there are definite similarities.
Searching for Sugar Man is a much more rock'n'roll piece of work, which is entirely appropriate for a film partly concerned with the music industry. People in South Africa love music as much as anyone else, and will happily discuss the great singers of our time – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Rodriguez... hang on a minute, Rodriguez? Who on earth is Rodriguez?
Well. Rodriguez was a Mexican-American singer-songwriter living in Detroit in the late 1960s and briefly tipped for stardom – and on the strength of the songs which comprise the soundtrack of this film, fully deserving it. But his albums flopped and, dropped by his record company, Rodriguez vanished into obscurity.
Except in South Africa, where his records became massive, era-defining hits amongst liberal Afrikaaners, and his music is credited with actually influencing the course of the struggle against apartheid. Totally unknown in his native country, in South Africa he was by all accounts more successful than Elvis or the Rolling Stones. And yet his fans there knew virtually nothing about him, only that he had died in tragic and bizarre circumstances. Eventually two particularly devoted afficionados set out to discover once and for all what had happened to their hero...
And I really can't say any more without spoiling what is, quite simply, one of the most incredible stories I have ever heard. Searching for Sugar Man is as gripping and involving as any thriller or drama. Critics of this film might say that this is only to be expected, given that Bendjelloul has employed a level of storytelling artifice every bit as great as that found in a more traditional narrative. In short, the material is somewhat disingenuously presented, manipulated in order to create an engaging story.
The contrast with Nostalgia to the Light, which is rigorous in its honesty and objectivity, is striking. I suppose human rights atrocities demand a different approach than a music business mystery, but even so – these are both extremely accomplished movies, but there's no question as to which I found most memorable. Nostalgia for the Light is far from a weak film, and it contains many striking moments and images, but its attempt to connect cosmic vistas with human stories means than some of the emotion gets lost, leaving a film with a strangely frozen, detached atmosphere. Searching for Sugar Man, while it may be largely a fabulation, is vibrant and energised throughout. Both of these films are worth watching, but while one of them is a great piece of serious documentary, the other is a terrific movie: and I'm afraid I'll go for the latter every time.