Daybreak express

5 minutes

Daily life in Egypt: ancient and modern

27 minutes

The trouble with love and sex

50 minutes

Don’t think twice

12 minutes

EXCLUSIVE

Ping pong Sufi

11 minutes

D A Pennebaker transformed documentary filmmaking. This is his first film

The US filmmaker D A Pennebaker – a pioneer of the documentary form – died on 1 August 2019 at the age of 94. He is perhaps best-known for his feature films Don’t Look Back (1967), a remarkable portrait of Bob Dylan while on a concert tour near the height of his fame, and The War Room (1993), which followed Bill Clinton’s run and eventual surprise victory in the 1992 US presidential election. Coming of age at a time when portable 16mm cameras with the ability to record sync sound on the fly allowed filmmakers newfound levels of freedom, Pennebaker was one of the first US documentarians to use the tools and aesthetics of cinéma vérité (or direct cinema), which emphasised recording reality with authenticity and representing stories truthfully.

With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame. Today the impressionistic short plays not only as an ode to the dizzying dance of New York City transit, but the very power and potential of the documentary form itself.

Director: DA Pennebaker

Stunning century-old footage of the Nile valley carries echoes from the ancient past

Released by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925, this short film features nearly century-old footage of daily life in the Nile valley. With a distinctly Western perspective, the piece establishes similarities between early 20th-century Egypt and Pharaonic Egyptian life – including mud brick architecture, preindustrial farming and weaving techniques, and the centrality of festivals and the river to the region’s culture. As hinted at by the introductory titles, these through-lines from ancient past to then-present are perhaps overstated, with centuries of Islamisation and Arabisation following the conquest of Roman Egypt in the 7th century CE barely acknowledged. Despite this shortcoming, the refurbished footage is still a visual thrill, providing an extraordinary window into life along the Nile valley as it existed at the dawn of anthropological filmmaking.

Video by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cinematographers: Harry Burton, Albert M Lythgoe

‘What does sex mean to you?’ A fly-on-the-wall view of relationship counselling

Iain and Susan have been together for 33 years but they can’t seem to have a conversation without it spiralling into an argument. Dave longs for a loving a relationship, but lacks the confidence to ask anyone out. Ian and Mandy are struggling with personal and sexual intimacy after Ian is diagnosed with a tumour. With animated avatars protecting the anonymity of the participants, The Trouble With Love and Sex (2011) explores these stories of relationship troubles via recordings from inside the walls of Relate – a UK charity that provides couples counselling. Allowing glimpses into a world often only experienced firsthand or in fiction, the UK director Zac Beattie’s touching film approaches the complex business of intimacy, loneliness and therapy with due nuance and care, revealing the many ways that relationships shape the human experience – for better or worse.

Director: Zac Beattie

Animation Director: Jonathan Hodgson

As dementia trims the tree of knowledge in John’s brain, music holds firm

At the age of 24, John Fudge took a violent fall while climbing the white cliffs of Dover in the south of England, splitting open his head and losing consciousness. The extent of his injuries weren’t revealed until decades later, when doctors decided to perform a brain scan after John slipped into a deep depression. The results revealed extensive brain damage, including a progressive form of dementia. Now, 10 years on from his diagnosis, John’s wife Geraldine compares his brain to an oak tree, its limbs of knowledge being slowly trimmed away, causing John great mental anguish. His only relief comes when he’s able to live in the moment, such as when he plays guitar and sings – his musical abilities being an as-yet untrimmed branch. Don’t Think Twice offers an insight into John’s life, including visits from Jon, a young volunteer who joins him for music sessions at home. An affecting and unusually honest portrait of dementia, the UK director Harry Hitchens leaves his viewers to find relief and peace, like John, in the musical moments tucked in between difficult realities.

Director: Harry Hitchens

Producer: Chloe Abrahams

Website: Everyday Studio

‘I’m just measuring myself with myself’ – ping pong as a route to Sufi spiritual practice

A practitioner of the inward-looking form of Islam known as Sufism, Noah Nazir pursues self-improvement as a means of connecting with God. This is especially true at the ping pong table at his local Sufi centre in Sheffield, where Nazir is ever in search of new and creative ways to up his game. And, as he relays in Ping Pong Sufi, his striving has yielded some impressive results. Despite his age and a recent stroke, he’s one of the centre’s best players – even though, he stresses, he views his only competition as from within, commenting: ‘I’m just measuring myself with myself.’ The UK filmmakers Rachel Genn and Connor Matheson cultivate an appropriately meditative mood in their short documentary, made in 2019, capturing Nazir as he seeks transcendence through ping pong and prayer. The result is an illuminating and novel window into Sufi spiritual practice, which is given a musical lift by the multitalented Nazir, who also composed the song that plays over the closing credits.

Directors: Rachel Genn, Connor Matheson

D A Pennebaker transformed documentary filmmaking. This is his first film

The US filmmaker D A Pennebaker – a pioneer of the documentary form – died on 1 August 2019 at the age of 94. He is perhaps best-known for his feature films Don’t Look Back (1967), a remarkable portrait of Bob Dylan while on a concert tour near the height of his fame, and The War Room (1993), which followed Bill Clinton’s run and eventual surprise victory in the 1992 US presidential election. Coming of age at a time when portable 16mm cameras with the ability to record sync sound on the fly allowed filmmakers newfound levels of freedom, Pennebaker was one of the first US documentarians to use the tools and aesthetics of cinéma vérité (or direct cinema), which emphasised recording reality with authenticity and representing stories truthfully.

With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame. Today the impressionistic short plays not only as an ode to the dizzying dance of New York City transit, but the very power and potential of the documentary form itself.

Director: DA Pennebaker

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