My first day at Glasgow Film Festival was a thrill. I attended two world premieres, both with post-show Q&A’s with the cast and directors in what looks to be a great start to what looks to be an exciting weekend.
I started the festival with Are You Proud?, a documentary chronicling the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the fifty years since the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Then I saw Last Breath, a docu-thriller retelling the story of a deep-sea saturation diver who, in 2012, became stranded on the bottom of the North Sea as his teammates desperately tried to rescue him. It was fascinating to witness the vast differences in tone, subject and style of these two documentaries, and marvel at the wide potential of this cinematic form.
Are You Proud? (Ashley Joiner)
Are You Proud? has been in production since 2016, when a gay nightclub in Orlando was the site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, a hate crime that prompted international mourning from LGBTQ+ communities. First time feature director Ashley Joiner screened the first version of the film, Pride?, at the 2017 BFI Flare Festival, before Joiner returned to shoot more footage to widen the scope of the film’s focus. This film has been a work in progress for so long, and from watching it the depth and breadth of Joiner’s research is clear.
The range of topics covered in this film is immense. It reflects upon the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and hate crimes like Orlando, and condemns the prejudice responsible for the early criminalisation of queer people, and the legal discrimination they still face today. But Are You Proud? also celebrates the resilience of the early gay rights activists, and praises the way the movement has grown to elevate the voices of women, people of colour, transgender and non-binary people.
The film’s editor, Charlie Hawryliw, structures Are You Proud? in a way that seamlessly weaves the dark and light moments of the film together, a difficult job considering the emotional range of this film. In its recount of queer history, Are You Proud? constantly shifts in tone from celebratory to lamenting, illustrating the constant struggle of what it is to be a queer activist in our time; for every victory, another battle replaces it.
One of the film’s best elements is its focus on imagery. The black-and-white photographs of the first Gay rights marches are juxtaposed with the images of the real people in them recounting their experiences fifty years later, powerfully illustrating just how long these people have been fighting. The cinematography of the Pride parade scenes particularly are wonderful, vividly capturing the joy and excitement of the crowd.
As I said before, Are You Proud? covers a large amount of ground in a short period of time. There’s the verbal history of the gay rights movement, which combines a chronological fact-based approach with personal stories. In addition to this, the film includes interviews with members of the black, trans, latinx and lesbian communities sharing their thoughts how their specific identity has affected their experience as a queer person.
While this conscious effort to show the intersectionality of queer activists is one of the things I love about the film, it also feels like a lot of ideas are being shoved into a short period of time, which can be a bit overwhelming to the viewer. The lack of a singular concept makes the film sometimes drag, as we pivot from one interview to another without a clear sense of direction. Watching these interviews, which are structured in a series of approximately 20-minute chunks, it struck me that this piece would function best as a docu-series, not a film. Ashley Joiner has a lot to say and this film feels like there is not enough to space to say it all in.
Last Breath (Alex Parkinson and Richard Da Costa)
Last Breath is a stunning showcase of the dramatic potential of the documentary form. A combination of real footage with beautifully shot re-enactments, the film jump betweens truth and fiction so seamlessly that you become fully immersed in the story.
It’s the true story of Christopher Lemons, a professional compression diver who in 2012, following a catastrophic computer malfunction, became trapped in the bottom of the sea, without communication, light or heat and only five minutes of spare oxygen. It sounds like the plot of a horror film, I know; but everything is true, as told by the real people who were there when it happened.
The opening of the film eases us into this world, giving us a clear outline of the logistics around the divers’ jobs and how the mechanics of the ship and underwater dive base work. This steady-paced introduction doesn’t last long until Christopher becomes trapped and we are skyrocketed into a white-knuckled thriller. The journey to rescue him is told through the eyes of the men on the deck of the boat and the underwater dive base, allowing you to feel like we are experiencing these events as they unfold.
The writer (Alex Parkinson) and directors (da Costa and Parkinson) do an excellent job of explaining the logistics of how it happened, what the crew need to do to fix it, and how much time they have. Their summary is simple enough that we feel we understand exactly what’s going on, despite there being complex technology and science at play.
Last Breath is truly the most suspenseful film I’ve ever seen. The fast-paced sequence where they attempt to rescue Christopher rivals the tension and thrill of most action movies. The ninety minute run-time flies by, and I came out of the cinema ready to watch it all over again. Proving that documentaries can be just as exciting as fictional films, Last Breath is not to be missed.
Be it a gripping thriller or a moving and thought-provoking social commentary, when it comes to documentaries the Glasgow Film Festival has you covered. Although different tonally and formally, both films are moving, well made and very worth your time.
Last Breath will be released in cinemas across the UK on the 5th of April by Dogwoof.
Are You Proud? will be released later this year (date yet to be announced) by Peccadillo Pictures.