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BFI London Film Festival 2021 – Dispatch #2
In his second selection of reviews from this year's BFI London Film Festival, Slarek looks at two very different documentaries. MOTHERS OF THE REVOLUTION looks at the history of the Greenham Common peace camp, while CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST documents a feat of potentially dangerous retro-game endurance.
 

Only two films today, both documentaries, the result of an increased regular workload. Tomorrow I’m not going to be able to see any films at all due to a combination of work and the long-awaited arrival of the 7.1 Dolby Atmos compatible amplifier for my home cinema system. Finally I can watch my 4K discs in full surround sound.

MOTHERS OF THE REVOLUTION

If I ran a spot poll on the teenagers at the FE college at which I work, I wonder how many of them will have even heard of Greenham Common. In my younger days, there were precious few in Britain who hadn’t, and most of those who had were well aware of just what that placename implied. The site of a Berkshire-based RAF base that in 1951 was made available to the American Air Force to use as a Strategic Air Command centre, Greenham Common came to public attention in 1981 when the decision was made to deploy cruise missiles with nuclear warheads there. With East-West tensions once again on the rise, the very real fear was that this would make the base a first-strike target in the event of a nuclear war inspired a group of 36 women to chain themselves to the wire fence surrounding the base in protest. This proved to be a first step in what became a sizeable and active protest camp that would remain outside the base – and just occasionally invade it – for the next 19 years, only being disbanded at the turn of the millennium, following the removal of the missiles and the eventual withdrawal of all military personnel.

Given its subject matter, Mothers of the Revolution is not a film I expected to see fronted by the Universal Pictures logo, but it turns out to be in keeping with the film’s slick production values and polished presentation. Built around interviews with three of the Greenham women, Russian peace campaigner Olga Medvedkova, and actor/activist Julie Christie, the film tells its story with panache and at a seductive gallop. It certainly has a degree of studio gloss, with the stories told by the women illustrated with news footage and photos, graphics and animation, and staged by pleasingly authentic-looking re-enactments, and buoyed along by some well-chosen rock tracks, a tension-heightening score, and sincere narration by Glenda Jackson. All of this may sound a little overblown for a story that would theoretically be better served by a grittier approach, and does risk opening the film up to charges of mythologising. But if any group deserves to be mythologised, it’s these remarkable women who sacrificed any semblance of a normal family life and put their freedom and safety on the line to do their significant bit for world peace.

The Greenham Common protests in Mothers of the Revolution

I was in my early 20s when the Greenham Common protests began, and was then an active participant in the anti-nuclear movement, so was genuinely inspired by what these women were doing. Accurate and up-date information was hard to lay your hands on in those pre-internet times, and it tended to be gleaned from CND (that’s the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament for those too young to remember) circulars or passed on verbally by those who had visited the camp. As is made clear in the film, this was a women-only affair and I was thus unable to participate in the protest itself, but my girlfriend of the time made several trips to Greenham to participate in specific protests. On one occasion she was injured during an overly aggressive police attempt to break up one of the camps. I particularly recall the repeated attacks on the women and their activities in the tabloid press (no surprise that The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express were the worst offenders here), a favourite phrase used to describe them in stories being “burly lesbians,” while no opportunity was missed to pass negative comments on their appearance and the conditions in which they were living.

This does mean that I’m perhaps pre-programmed to be sympathetic to any film that tells the women’s story in such a positive light, but experienced documentarian Briar March has done a blistering and ultimately uplifting job here by giving the film the pace of a thriller and the structure of top-flight drama. It includes moments of conflict and of glorious realisation – the women arriving in their hundreds for the Embrace the Base protest in the dark of night, but proceeding quietly by candlelight so as not to wake their sleeping sisters – and that key moment in any David and Goliath story where all seems lost, only for the fight to be re-energised and build to a triumphant victory, one that takes the women themselves completely by surprise. Along the way, they are arrested and forced to serve jail time, attacked by gangs of misogynistic (and probably dickless) men, and badmouthed by the middle-class locals, whom I distinctly recall complaining to reporters that these attempts to prevent a nuclear annihilation were having an impact on house values.

Crucial to the film’s effectiveness are the stories told by the women who were there, namely Rebecca Johnson, movement-launching protest march organiser Karmen Thomas, and single mother Chris Darke, who recalls how she was hauled into the base and tortured by the police, an incident that only served to make her more determined to resist and see the officers responsible (successfully) prosecuted for their actions. Her recollections of the comradeship that she experienced at the camp are genuinely moving and at one point almost reduce her to tears. Her reaction is so genuine that I found myself also welling up a little at my own memories of a time when epic protest marches could bring like-minded people from all backgrounds and regions together in a common cause. As our current government makes moves to effectively ban any protest they do not like and continues to seek a trade deal that would make Britain little more than an American satellite state, this is a film that needs to be widely shown and seen. For those of my generation, it may act as a reminder of the sad decline in purposeful resistance and protest that has occurred since then, but that takes nothing away from this splendidly executed, cheerfully partisan and ultimately inspiring history lesson, one that should be required and hopefully motivating viewing for anyone for whom Greenham Common is no more than a place name.

CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, and my Monday evenings are still reserved for online gameplay with three distantly located friends, something that was initiated almost by chance just before the pandemic hit and that remains the social highlight of my week. Before the arrival of home computers and consoles, I used to play arcade machines, primarily in pubs and cafés rather than dedicated arcades. I was never obsessive about any one game, but when I worked at a factory in the early 1980s, I spent every break at the industrial estate’s café playing Scramble, on which I battled my workmates and a particularly talented player from another firm as we each sought to get and keep our initials on the top of the high score board. The ultimate goal was to play the game to its end and cycle back round to the start, a task that defeated all who tried, despite how close we sometimes thought we had come. Then, one lunchtime, I finally succeeded, and did so whilst being watched by the player who by then had become my biggest rival – I still remember the nod of respect he gave me as my workmates cheered. Frustratingly, by this point my lunchbreak was over and I had to hand the game off to my former rival to continue. Had I been able to stay, who knows how far I might have gotten and how long I would have played for. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t have been for 100 hours straight…

In the Danish retro-gaming world, Kim Cannon Arm is something of a legend, having played the 1983 Konami arcade game Gyruss for 49 hours straight on a single coin. Now in his 50s, he still regularly plays his favourite game, either at home or in a small establishment called the Bip Bip Bar, where he hangs out with his friends, all of whom are also retro-game devotees with their own arcade achievements. With Kim’s record having since been broken by a player who kept going for a staggering 59 hours, Kim now plans an audacious new record attempt to play non-stop for 100 hours, which will require him to stay awake and focussed for a seemingly impossible four days and nights straight.

Carsten and Kim play games in Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest

From an early stage, when Kim visits a doctor for a pre-record attempt medical check-up, we’re made keenly aware of the dangers of sleep deprivation and the damaging effect it can have on the mind and body. This is brought home by the story of arcade legend Joel West, who died in 2018 attempting a similar marathon on the game Frenzy. For me, it proved a concern that hung over this new record attempt and its build-up, as I’d grown to rather like the taciturn Kim, and not knowing how events played out in advance, I became increasingly concerned for his potential wellbeing. There were even times when I worried that the film might climax in his collapse and death. Some reassurance is provided by his network of close friends, people that the mundanity of regular society would likely dismiss as oddballs (one of them, Carsten, shaves his beard and cuts his hair midway through the film after being beaten up for the way he looks), but there are some seriously talented individuals here whose work with physics, music and even poetry is in a different league to anything that I’ve so far attempted.

Director Mads Hedegaard makes the preparations for the main event the core of his narrative, then repeatedly dives off to explore the lives and work of some of Kim and his friends, or deliver some historical or technical information. This can sometimes give the film a structurally scattershot feel, though sudden diversions can often then tie up with previous sequences, as with the links that emerge between Carsten’s mathematically intricate deconstruction of Bach’s music and the video game Donkey Kong and its famed creator, Miyamoto Shigeru. It’s in the brief shots of the support team meetings and the final preparations that you realise how carefully this record attempt has been planned, with Kim’s ability to stack up spare lives on the game allowing for quick breaks to nip into the garden to pee, and even allow him up to 15 minutes of rest or sleep. This, it turns out, has to be carefully monitored by two or more members of the support team, who keep track of the lives that Kim has accrued, then tick them off as they are lost while he catches 40 winks, making sure to wake him before the lives run out. And contrary to what you might expect, Kim is more able to effectively focus on his task when he has his friends nearby playing games of their own and barking out angrily when they lose lives or the machine plays up.

How the story ultimately plays out is not for me to say, and I have a suspicion that if you find the whole idea of adults playing retro video games peculiar (who are you people?), then Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest is unlikely to win you over. But if you’ve ever had a passion for a sport, a hobby, a career, or even literature or art (movies, perhaps?), then understanding what drives Kim and his friends is an easier jump to make than you might expect. As the film progressed, I found myself wanting to be part of this engaging and likable band of outsiders, but also know I could never even attempt something that required the stamina, concentration and obsessive dedication that drives someone like Kim to attempt such an insanely Herculean task. Personally, I’m happy enough with my complete circuit of Scramble.

 

BFI London Film Festival 2021
Dispatch #2

Mothers of the Revolution
New Zealand 2021
102 mins
directed by
Briar March
produced by
Leela Menon
Matthew Metcalfe
written by
Matthew Metcalfe
cinematography
Mark Lapwood
Maria Ines Manchego
editing
Simon Coldrick
Margot Francis
John Gilbert
Tim Woodhouse
starring
Chris Darke
Karmen Thomas
Rebecca Johnson
Julie Christie
LFF screening date
7-8 October 2021

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest
Denmark 2020
90 mins
directed by
Mads Hedegaard
produced by
Katrine A. Sahlstrøm
written by
Mads Hedegaard
cinematography
David Bauer
Mads Hedegaard
editing
Mark Bukdahl
starring
Kim Cannon Arm
Walter Day
LFF screening date
6-7 October 2021

aticle posted
8 October 2021

See all of Slarek's reviews