Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.


Presos – review

The renegade daughter erring on the side of danger.

So far, so familiar for the film staple of rebellious teenagers.

But when you add the fact that the adolescent in question is acting alongside real-life inmates in a working prison, it becomes a different kind of movie.

In Presos, from the Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez, the fact that true cons play the roles of fictional prisoners is one of the major stand-out points. This is only revealed to us at the end, but it underlines what is a powerful culmination to the film. This strong finish is welcome to make up for the weaker beginnings of the movie.

The lead in Presos is a schoolgirl called Victoria. She has a needy but kind boyfriend, and we are never truly convinced that his dedication to her is reciprocated. Anyway, she wants to break free of restrictive family and romantic binds to find a job for herself.

It is clear from the outset that there is something fishy going on at the workplace where she lands a role as the chief executive’s assistant. The fact she’s answering calls on the important work phone from the San Rafael prison attests to this.

As she spends more and more time talking to the mysterious imprisoned voice on the other end, her character pushes back further and further from her boyfriend. She begins to make secret visits to the man, who is only ever called ‘Jason’ during the film. When the news breaks with her family that she’s been spending time at the jail, their anger only strengthens her resolve to continue meeting Jason.

Family is at the very heart of the film.

Mothers and wives queue at San Rafael prison to visit sons and husbands. Victoria and her sister row as their mother cooks and their adulterous father stands quietly in the shadows. Victoria’s wronged lover, Emanuel, even sees her family as his. And then there is the broken family of the prisoner: the mother of his child determined that he’ll never see his daughter; his own, cheerful mum breaking down as she opens up about her fears that her son will die inside.

The way that Victoria is developed in the first half could be enhanced and the clarity and choice of shots in this part could also be tightened.  The cinematography improves as the film goes on, with enriched light and depth.

In the closing scenes, we see Victoria transformed from the cute schoolgirl to a drugs mule standing in line outside the jail. As she walks briskly away she seems tormented: either the sad realisation of what she has just carried out – transporting internally-hidden drugs into a prison or the upsetting feeling of failing her inmate by pulling out of the drop-off at the last moment.

We are left to work out for ourselves which way Victoria would have gone as she moves sadly towards the camera.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Mexican stand-off


Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.


La Confianza Ciega – a review


La Confianza Ciega is a kaleidoscopic record.

That was the overpowering feeling that I had listening to the new offering from Venezuelan artist Algodón Egipcio. It is an ever-moving artwork that is complex in its rhythms, surprising in its direction and adventurous in its outcome.

At times, it transports you to a relaxing place of late-summer sunshine; at others, you feel as though you are caught up in a stomping riot of colour. His songs consist of several distinct moving parts, with some sections that are structured and others that are more chaotic. You might have a choral refrain, echoes of electro, a shot of Latin hip hop, deeply layered instrumental sections, verse and chorus overlapping to the hints of African and Caribbean beats.

It is synthetic, it is psychedelic and it is a true musical patchwork. This sensory overload can jar but there is respite to be found, especially with the cooling spray of “El Aliento” and “La Estrella Irregular”. It is a most surreal mix of wandering reverberations from an experimental and creative young artist.

The album has a heightened sense of the interconnected and fluid notes of nature, seen in the song names alone: “El Calor Específico”, “El Ciclo del Agua” and “Las Dunas Cantoras”. Into this group we can also place “Las Islas Feroe’, which stands out as the only song named after a specific setting: the windswept and mountainous North Atlantic archipelago.

However, on the whole, La Confianza Ciega is not rooted in one particular place, although Algodón Egipcio himself has hinted at an evocation of a ‘lost’ Caracas in some of the lyrics. The album drifts between moods and feelings rather than clearly delineated locations and genres. It is a refreshing record in its variety of musical flavours and overall sense of brightness: a bouncing parade of experimentation and a twinkling rainbow of sound.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

But is it art?

An insight into the world of street art – and a chance meeting with a major artist

Jay Kaes, Thierry Noir, Stik. Caravaggio, Hockney, Bosch. When it comes to artists, there are those that are world-famous and others who are less well-known. No doubt more people have heard of the second trio above – I certainly had before a recent walking tour of East London’s top street-art destinations.

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

There were two major distinctions within this branch of art that we had to understand: graffiti, which usually takes the form of hard-to-read tags carrying information of ownership, design and belonging; and street art, which offers more easily decipherable messages (at first glance) and may take the form of sculpture, installation or even painted chewing gum, rather than just simply a colourful mural.

There is another division between pieces: legal (and some of those are commissioned) or illegal. But here, as in other areas of street art and graffiti, you can find a blurring of the lines and varying interpretations. You may have an expansive piece painted on the side wall of a bar at the owner’s request (as we saw with a Jay Kaes work) that is legal and intricate. Then you see that it has been tagged with scribbly names by graffiti artists. At first glance, this is a legal work that has subsequently daubed with ruinous name-tags. An ‘illegal’ tag of a legal piece.

But what are the taggers saying? Hello? We don’t like this work? Or are they appreciating its quality and trying to cash in on the art-tourists, who, like us, will now also see the tag when we come to look at the original work? Are they suggesting that they would like to see something different in its place? The world of street art is transient and new pieces go up, are overhauled and challenged regularly. The fact that there were graffiti tags on this legal piece of wild-style street art shows that there are layers to the attitudes surrounding street art that cannot be easily categorised.

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

Of course, as in classic art, there are also layers to the lives of the artists themselves.

One of the major pieces we saw was near Old Street station by an artist called Tizer. He is an Australian who went through problems in his childhood and had found strength in his new family of fellow artists.

A riot of colour, his work often takes the form of his name creating another shape or design simply through the font and size of the letters. The Old Street work was the letters TIZER forming the chassis of a spacecraft that had a human inside, lending it an air of a self-portrait.

It was a fascinating lesson of learning to move through other streets in this area of London and see Conor Harrington’s blurred monochrome people, Invader’s pixellation-style video game creatures and Kai’s grey-framed political messages glued onto walls.

A piece by Thierry Noir

A piece by Thierry Noir

We did not meet any of the artists on that walkabout and we did not expect to do so.

The following day I travelled back to Wokingham, the town where my parents work, about 35 miles outside London. There is a long stretch of hoarding near a roundabout not far from the railway station that the council had put in place around a now-demolished building.

Over the last couple of years, at organised ‘Paint Jams’, the wooden boards have played host to a multitude of artworks by many local painters, with a mix of wild-style, graffiti and political cartoons.

Tiger working on a new design in Wokingham

Tizer working on a new design in Wokingham

I was walking past this hoarding the day after the street-art tour and came across two artists working on new designs. One of them was creating something very like the piece I had seen yesterday by Tizer. I wandered over and spoke to him. An Aussie accent purred back: “Yeah, that’s me. I’m Tizer.”

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

It was a ludicrous coincidence to learn about him and his work in London on one day and then the very next day see him spraying a new piece live in a little commuter town in middle-class Berkshire. He had never been to Wokingham before but had heard about the Paint Jam and had been shown the hoardings by his friend Bonzai, who was also there working that day. I listed all the names I could remember from yesterday, most of whom he knew and some of whom, like Spaniard Jay Kaes, were actually part of his crew.

What also struck me was that, for the most part, these artists are not angry teenagers trying to deface public buildings for no particular reason. These are grown women and men, like Bonzai and Tizer, working in the art world. They do not have the luxury backing of a commission from a gallery but theirs is a genre borne of the rain and the sunshine. It is here that they are engaging with people and the architecture that we create: designing intricate works of art; colourful, cryptic messages; and wild explosions of deep light. They are glueing, draping and tying and they are working for a meagre living.

These works of art breathe life into forgotten walls, alleys and corners. And while they may not always be legal pieces, they are always thought-through, and there is sizeable effort and creation behind them that cannot and ought not to be belittled and criticised as readily as others laud and salute those branches of the visual arts that are seen as historically as being more traditional.

Overflow – a review


It starts in a madcap whirl of old-school R&B and London gospel, intertwined with spiralling Latin brass and percussion.

And by the time it comes to an end, nine songs later, the new album from Venezuelan artist Edwin Sanz leaves you gasping at its musical breadth, its daring enterprise, its global depth.

Overflow is an apt name when you bear in mind the three major threads that dominate the record: the range of genres; the complexity of the experimental covers and new numbers; and the galloping Latin heartbeat.

This is tight, roaring fare. Salsa, cumbia and merengue mixed with British church classics. Trumpet solos, major orchestral pieces and Santana-esque wail-blasts of electric guitar.

The third number is a rework of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ regularly-covered “I Put A Spell On You”. It is a belting Latin alarm-call kicked off with domineering and haunting female vocals. The influence of Stevie Wonder comes through strongly in “Something About You”. The cowbells are still trilling away, but this number shows Sanz’s skill when it comes to soul and slow funk.

With “Eres Tú”, we get back to the Latin heritage. It is a typical salsa serenade with a group refrain and a lead male singer, who is classically and deferentially romantic. Songs such as “Cómo Olvidar” are more traditional yet at other junctures on the album he offers gear-shift alterations to the Latin norm: just under two minutes into “Ella” there is a sudden acceleration from a slow-dance romance to a fire of slick salsa.

Overflow is a bilingual album chock-full of international influences and appearances from world artists. The first lines of the opening song are “From New York to Caracas, from LA to the UK”. Sanz has noted how his musical career has been shaped by his time studying and playing in the US and Europe. But though his music has adapted and developed across time and countries he shows his commitment to the land of his birth throughout the album, notably with the final track “Yo Vengo de Venezuela”, a colourful celebration of that country’s rich musical history.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

An Asian situation

It is eyes on Asia and eyes on those who are thinking about Asia

On Sunday 4 September, China will host its first G20 summit of leading nations (and only the second to be held in Asia) and the spotlight will fall across the region.

President Xi Jinping will want to make a good show of it. The worries over China’s volatile markets that sent jitters across the world earlier in the year remain. The fears over slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy have not gone away.

The start of next week will also see legislative elections in Hong Kong amid bubbling unease in the special administrative region over Beijing’s influence and oversight.

There will be lots of Asian leaders at the G20 summit from South Korea’s female president Park Geun-hye to Indonesia’s charismatic Joki Widodo. Someone who has been feeling the pressure is Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose latest economic stimuli are failing to impress the markets.

China has also invited the Thai and Singaporean prime ministers and Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, who is the current head of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Outgoing US president Barack Obama will be saying his farewells at his last G20 get-together. During his tenure he made much of what he called his “pivot to Asia”. Will this ‘pivot’ survive after the November presidential election in the United States?

If she wins, will Obama’s Democrat colleague Hillary Clinton row back from this position, maintain the policy or enhance it? If Republican challenger Donald Trump takes the White House, how will or should Asian countries react?

When it comes to hardline leaders – and going by much of his recent rhetoric around illegal immigrants, many Americans expect Mr Trump to be exactly that sort of commander-in-chief – the new president of the Philippines appears to be heading up the Asian contenders at the moment.

Rodrigo Duterte revels in the high bombast of fiery speeches – take his threat to pull out of the United Nations, for example – but he is delivering on a promise to crack down on drug gangs. In fact, more than 700 people have died in police operations this summer, and the public are roaring their approval in high ratings for the new leader.

There are also continuing tensions between several countries over who owns which reefs and islets in the South China Sea but Beijing will want to avoid such cartographical arguments as the cream of international leaders touch down on Sunday.