It's not always easy to discern the lines between enlightenment, entertainment and exploitation when watching films about terrorist atrocities. Both Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (both 2006) erred into the disaster movie territory staked out by John Guillermin in The Towering Inferno (1974) and Australian debutant Anthony Maras comes perilously close to repeating their missteps in Hotel Mumbai, which arrives in theatres and on Sky Cinema three years after filming wrapped in Adelaide because of problems in post-production and the collapse of the Weinstein Company.

Maras has impressed with the shorts Azadi (2005), Spike Up (2007) and The Palace (2011), the latter of which proved something of a dry run by centring on Cypriots fleeing from invading Turkish soldiers in 1974. But, while he and co-writer John Collee interviewed numerous survivors and eyewitnesses of the three-day onslaught in November 2008, they are hardly the first to tackle the topic. Since the release of Victoria Midwinter Pitt's Emmy-nominated documentary, Surviving Mumbai (2009), Ram Gopal Varma has approached the incident from the perspective of a veteran policeman in The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), while Nicolas Saada focused on some French teenagers trapped in their hotel room in Taj Mahal (2015). 

In boldly seeking to depict events from the viewpoint of perpetrators and victims alike, Maras conveys something of the chaos and fear that gripped Mumbai. But he tries to cram in too many storylines, with the result that few are limned in any detail and the focus too frequently falls on the non-Indian characters.

On 26 November 2008, 10 men under the command of The Bull (Pawan Singh) arrive in Mumbai by dinghy and take taxis across the city. As Sikh waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) reports for his shift at the Taj Mahal Hotel, he is admonished by head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) for forgetting his shoes. However, he lends him a pair that prove far too small before briefing staff about how to treat Russian businessman, Vassili (Jason Isaacs). Meanwhile, Jamon the butler (Alex Pinder) shows British-Muslim heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), her American husband, David (Armie Hammer), and their Australian nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). to their luxurious suite. 

To the south of the city. two gunmen fire indiscriminately into the crowds at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station and the TV bulletins struggle to keep up to date with attacks at a dozen locations around Mumbai. At the Cafe Lilopal in Colaba, Aussie backpackers Eddie (Angus McLaren) and Bree (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) are caught up in a grenade blast, while waiter Sanjay (Gaurav Paswala) has a run-in with the four terrorists pulling up outside the Taj Mahal in two taxis. They gain access to the lobby as part of the fleeing crowd that also contains Eddie and Bree, who become separated as Abdulllah (Suhail Nayyar), Imran (Amandeep Singh), Houssam (Manoj Mehra) and Rashid (Dinesh Kumar) open fire. 

Recalling Oberoi's mantra that `the guest is God', Arjun seeks to keep those in the dining room safe. But, when Sally calls on her mobile to say that she and baby Cameron have just hidden in a wardrobe from two gunmen pursuing an old lady, David slips out to rescue them. He makes it to the lift and hides behind a drinks trolley when Imran and Rashid intercept him. As Rashid convinces Imran that he has eaten some pork when they start scarfing snacks, David is able to press the button to close the doors in the nick of time and Sally is mightily relieved to see him. 

As TV news reveals that Mumbai police don't have a special operations unit and that it will take hours for a team to travel from New Delhi, cops Kanu (Vitthal Kale ) and Vam (Nagesh Bhonsle) decide to enter the hotel and find the CCTV room so that they can keep tabs on the terrorists. However, their party is ambushed on a landing and only Kanu and Vam manage to get away. Meanwhile, Oberoi has ordered Arjun to lead the dinner guests up the service stairs to the Chambers Lounge, an exclusive club room that has no public access. One of the guests, Lady Wynn (Carmen Duncan) accuses Zahra of being a terrorist when she hears her talking to her mother on the phone. She also asks for Arjun to be removed from the room because his turban and beard scare her. He shows her pictures of his pregnant wife and son and explains the significance of his headwear and she apologises for her prejudice and puts it down to fear. 

In the lobby, receptionist Lani (Naina Sareen) is executed when she refuses to call any more guests to trick them into opening their doors by promising that help is on the way. Alone after Eddie jumped from a window, Bree is taken to Chambers by one of the receptionists. She is badly injured and Arjun volunteers to take her down the service staircase so she can be taken to hospital, When he is stopped by Vam and Kanu, Bree barges through a door and is gunned down by Imran, who defies an order from The Bull to search her bra for hidden ID.

The gunmen are under orders to take live American hostages, but David insists on finding Zahra and he is captured while bundling Sally and Cameron into a cupboard. Posing as a cop, Abdullah tries to gain entrance to Chambers and Oberoi is only prevented from opening the door when Arjun calls him from the CCTV room to warn him it's a trap. Even though they only have six bullets each, Vam and Kanu creep along the corridors to confront the killer and are dismayed when Imran and Houssam join him in firing at the lock of the sturdy Chambers door. They hit Imran in the leg before making their escape to the street and he is left to guard David, who overhears a tearful phone call, as Imran asks his father if they have received the money The Bull promised to pay for his participation in the raid. 

While Arjun notices the dead Sanjay on one of the CCTV screens and realises that could easily have been him, Zahra writes a farewell letter to David from the service corridor where she is hiding with those evacuated from Chambers. She asks Oberoi to let her take her chances in order to find her family and Vasili and four others (including Lady Wynn) insist on joining her, as they have been cowering away for six hours and are convinced that they are sitting ducks. No sooner have they left, however, than Zahra and Vasili are captured and the rest of their group killed. 

David urges Zahra to pretend she doesn't know him and they watch in horror as Abdullah breaks Vasili's ribs after he spits on him. The Bull has realised that he was a special forces commander in Afghanistan and orders his charges to detonate bombs around the hotel to cause a conflagration. They leave Imran in charge and he shoots David when he gets an arm free and tries to jump him. Seeing a line of guests walking into danger, Arjun leaves the CCTV room and escorts them to Chambers. Oberoi informs the guests that they are going to leave via the kitchens, but one member of the party calls the local TV channel and betrays their position during a live interview. Arjun smashes his phone, although the incident most tellingly flags up the responsibility of the rolling media to exercise restraint in such sensitive situations. 

The Bull tells Abdullah to cut them off and they kill some of the stragglers on the staircase. But the special forces unit has arrived to storm the burning hotel and lead Arjun's charges to safety. Oberoi embraces him with pride before letting him ride his scooter barefoot back to his family, with the reunion being cross-cut with Zahra being reunited with Cameron and Sally after being rescued from a window ledge by firemen. 

Determined to do their duty to the last, the remaining gunmen go down blazing before being blown up. The last to die is Imran, who is shot as he shuffles along a corridor on his wounded leg. A closing caption reveals that half of the casualties from the Taj were staff members who stayed to protect the guests. Of the terrorists, only Ajmal (Kapil Kumar Netra) was captured alive, but the identity of The Bull remains unknown and he is presumed to still be at large in Pakistan. 

After we learn that Oberoi re-opened the first of the Taj's restaurants three weeks after the attack, while the building were restored to its former glory within 21 months, a coda shows footage of the grand re-opening ceremony, while a shot of the facade in the sunshine confirms that the terrorists lost because life got back to normal. But this feels like a trite sign-off for a hard-hitting picture that would have been all the more potent had Maras not been so intent on turning it into a nerve-shredding thriller. Whether they are rooted in fact or not, the scenes with Sally and the mewling baby in the wardrobe and David in the elevator come across as generic gambits that are more concerned with using white characters to generate vicarious suspense for the audience than with providing point-of-view insights into the ordeal. 

This tendency to melodramatise (despite a commendable refusal to wallow in on-screen slaughter) is all the more frustrating because Maras and his production team have striven so hard to produce such a meticulous reconstruction of an event that shook the subcontinent and the wider world. Production designer Steven Jones-Evans does a splendid job, as do editor Peter McNulty, while Nick Remy Matthews's photography is more functional, however, while Volker Bertelmann's score leaves the audience little room for emotional manoeuvre. 

It's hard to fault an ensemble that invests the largely two-dimensional characters with such affecting humanity and a special mention should be made of those playing the terrorists, as they succeed in preventing them from simply being fanatical fundamentalist caricatures. The weakest technical link are CGI effects used to show the external damage to the hotel. But, as was the case with both Paul Greengrass's 22 July and Erik Poppe's Utøya: July 22 (both 2018), it's Maras's insistence on wringing tension from tragedy and his refusal to place the action in a cogent social, political or religious background that leaves this well-meaning venture feeling unseemly, if not a little tasteless, especially as it's never immediately obvious what is fact and what has been concocted.

It can hardly be a hindrance for an aspiring film-maker to have a father who has composed scores for the likes of John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1993), Mark Herman's Brassed Off (1996) and Roger Michell's Notting Hill (1999). But, while he has asked Trevor Jones to provide the music for To Tokyo, Caspar Seale-Jones has refused to rely on nepotism in making his feature debut. It's clearly a family affair, as mother Victoria Seale is among the producers, while sister Emily Seale-Jones takes a key supporting role. But the first-timer has spent upwards of four years on this eerie supernatural study of post-abuse trauma and, therefore, finds himself in the august company of Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, 1955), Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo (It Can't Happen Here, 1964), David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977), Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, 1987) and E. Elias Merhige (Begotten, 1990), who also overcame considerable odds to complete their first feature.

Spooked by a figure hovering over the bath and acutely aware of every shadow and sound outside her hotel room, Alice (Florence Kosky) is hiding away in a small Japanese village. She is so nervous of opening the door that the waiter bringing room service drops the tray in trying to squeeze it through a half-crack and Alice has to scoop her noodles off the floor. Despite her yen for privacy, she slips out for a drink at a café in a t-shirt and leggings and is unnerved by the eye contact she makes with Jake (Luke Edward Smith) at the bar. 

Back in her room, Alice hears a phone message from her stepsister, Zoe (Emily Seale-Jones), whose flight is due to arrive the next day. As she paces, Alice accidentally treads on a glass and has to pick a large shard out of the sole of her foot. Awoken by a silhouetted cat padding past her window, Alice meets Zoe at the station and takes her to a restaurant, where she hears the news that her mother is dying. Jake sees her smashing up some rubbish in a side alley and gives her his card, in case she is ever in Tokyo. 

Zoe pleads with Alice to come home with her, but she ignores her knock on the room door and tries to sleep. A sinister figure with a shock of dark hair appears in the corridor and stealthily turns the key. Because Alice has forgotten to jam a chair under the door handle, he enters the room and begins pulling Alice down the bed by her feet. When she wakes, she is in a forest and runs through the trees and across an expanse of desert before finding a straw-covered tent. Venturing inside, Alice guzzles down some water and paints her face in the style of a warrior bust she finds on the floor. Lighting the torches surrounding the dwelling, Alice is disturbed by noises in the night and sits up with a broken bottle to defend herself.

At first light, she packs provisions into a haversack and strides off across the plain wearing a coat and some footwear that just conveniently happens to be her size. She climbs an escarpment and is dismayed by the expanse of wilderness in front of her. But she ploughs on, putting up an umbrella against a storm, before encountering ominous figures when she stops to inspect her bleeding foot and has to take refuge inside a cave. After another trek, Alice finds another tent, where she seems to have a dream about the pursuing monster, who wears a white porcelain mask. On waking, however, she finds the fruit and offal that has been left for her and washes the paint off her face, while Zoe waits anxiously for her to arrive in Tokyo in time for the flight back to Britain.

Eventually, Alice reaches the city and borrows a phone to leave Zoe a message about having found someone scarier that the stepfather (Robert Smith) who used to abuse her. Alice hitches rides to keep a rendezvous with Jake, who appears to have raped and murdered a woman in a hotel room. Having found a little black dress from somewhere, the barefoot Alice joins Jake in a bar, where he slips her a drugged glass of vodka. Nearby, an anguished Zoe has a red-tinted flashback to the night she walked in on her drunken father after he had beaten Alice's face to a pulp. 

Jake guides the staggering Alice to a high-rise hotel room and deposits her on the bed. As lightning jags across the night sky behind him, he rolls his neck and swigs back a whisky, as he steels himself to commit another crime. A flashcut juxtaposes his hand working its way up Alice's leg with that of her red-lit stepfather. However, a noise from the bathroom distracts Jake and he is bemused to find the shower running. Turning it off, he is confronted by Alice's masked monster, who slashes at him with a blade and leaves him slumped in a corner. Alice sleeps through the whole thing and, having felt the monster reassuringly squeeze her hand, she wakes to meet up with Zoe and return home, with her nightmare seemingly over.

Running just 75 minutes, this is a laudably restrained debut that contains few of the neophyte flourishes that are often designed to show off the director's abilities rather than serve the story. Clearly inspired by such classic Japanese chillers as Kineto Shindo's Onibaba and Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (both 1964), Seale-Jones has a sophisticated visual sense and Ralph Messer's landscape long shots are often impressive, particularly when accompanied by Trevor Jones's haunting vocal score. As is to be expected, given the duration of the shoot, the odd continuity error slips in and the action rather meanders as Alice trudges between tents on the South African veld. But, in conjunction with editors Ashley Smith and Joseph Tims, Seale-Jones cannily uses flashbacks and cutaways to keep the audience intrigued before springing a bold Hitchcock homage in the hotel bathroom. 

With her hollow, haunted eyes, model Florence Kosky is used in a Bressonian manner that requires her to strike poses rather than give a conventional performance. Kosky has since reunited with Emily Seale-Jones on her own award-winning short, The Otherworld (2017), while Luke Edward Smith has found a niche on the New York stage. They are all worth keeping an eye on, as they clearly have a commitment to go with their talent. Not everyone will buy into this dystopic variation on Alice in Wonderland, especially as Seale-Jones resolutely refuses to provide any explanations. But it has a twisted fairytale logic to match the thoughtful insights into domestic abuse and PTSD and the unsettling approach to the conquest of demons.

Sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, the Gaza Strip measures is home to two million people. Since 2007, its borders have been closed and daily life has continuously been interrupted by power cuts, petty restriction and sporadic violence. A number of documentaries have sought to present the everyday reality for those caught in this enclave, with the most recent being Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane's Gaza. However, this laudable enterprise has been surpassed by Stefano Savona's Samouni Road, which combines live-action sequences shot a year apart, recreated drone footage and Simone Massi's evocative scratchboard animation to reveal the impact of the 2009 Israeli incursion on an extended farming family. 

It's 2010 in the outlying Zeitoun district of Gaza City and Amal Samouni shows the camera the place on the dusty street where a 150 year-old sycamore tree had been uprooted the previous 5 January by the Israelis. She claims not to be able to remember any stories, but shows us a lemon tree sapling before we cut back a year to an animated scene of Amal taking lunch to her father, Ateyah, and brother Faraj, as they harvest olives with fighter jets zooming overhead. Ateyah speaks to brother Abu Salah about matchmaking Faraj with his daughter, Shifa, and they strike a bargain. 

Zeynat bakes bread and informs us that her son, Mahmoud, has been the head of the family since the Israeli attack and reveals that Amal is still recovering from being hit in the head by shrapnel. She wanders into the fields, where Mahmoud and Fouad are using hoes to break up the parched, stony ground. They work hard to little effect and recall the lettuces that the family had once grown, along with the hectare of wheat that Ateyah hoped would pay off his debts and allow him to fund Faraj's wedding. 

He is excited by the prospect of setting up his own household, even though he knows there isn't much money around to buy him a house because Ateyah (who acts as the local imam) and Abu Salah lose their jobs when the Israelis closed the checkpoints and now have to survive on what they can grow and on the pigeons Abu Salah breeds. They also have chickens and Faraj and his brothers are seen chatting about the birds that were lost in a fire in the henhouse. An animated cutaway shows the siblings tending to the birds.

The Samounis live without running water and the electricity supply often cuts out. Mahmoud sings a song about his father's martyrdom, as he tries to do his homework and bickers with his cousin, Abdallah. Amal sits outside with her cousin, Mouna, and they draw with charcoal on the ground. Her mother shows the camera the x-rays of Amal's skull and points out the places where metal fragments penetrated. She is proud of her for resisting the Israelis and for pulling through, when everyone thought she would die like her father and brothers, Faraj and Ahmed. 

In an animated interlude, Amal seeks out Mouna, who is dancing along to a film on the television. Mouna joins sister Sifa to watch Ateyah's home-movie footage of the wedding of his brother Talal's son. Helmi. Sifa is amused to see a young Faraj trying to dance with the older men, including his uncles, Rashad and Ibrahim, who are seen in animated form, as Ateyah proudly films the family gathering. Their mother mourns the loss of her sons and she explains that Ateyah had two wives, who each bore him seven children. Zeynat confides that her predecessor made his life a misery by constantly returning to her parents, so he married her to run the household and care for the children. She is glad to have served him so well, but seems happier still that she now has running water, as her nephews have laid pipes to the house.

As they reminisce, one of Ateyah's sons wishes he had written down all the stories his father used to tell him and laments that he can't remember the words of his many songs. But they reflect that no one could have known what would happen. as they were ordinary people going about their daily lives without harming anyone. We see the four brothers holding an animated meeting under the sycamore on the seventh day of the Israeli offensive. They have heard that neighbours are moving their families away from the region because a ground strike is expected. But Ibrahim is certain that, because they have all worked in Israel, that they will be sufficiently well known to be spared any unpleasantness. When Ateyah suggests bringing his two households under a single roof, his brothers joke that the Red Cross will have enough casualties to worry about without adding to their workload. 

Placing their faith in divine protection, they prepare to weather the storm. During the ensuing onslaught, the mosque was bulldozed and Ateyah's sons are attempting to build a new one, as prayers are being conducted in a makeshift structure wrapped in plastic sheeting. An old man criticises their work and they tell him to contribute towards the cost or shut up. Mahmoud rushes out from the mosque and starts bullying Amal by hitting her in the face with an olive branch. She strikes back by throwing stones and there is still tension between them when they are forced to go to bed early following a power cut. 

During the bombardment, the families similarly huddled together in the dark and Ateyah had told them the Koranic story of Ababil and the elephant army led by Abraha. Amal looks at the pictures in a book and imagines birds dropping clay bombs on the tank-like howdahs. But, when the real invasion came, it was far more brutal and pitiless. Having dragged Faraj back into the house after he tried to help put out a fire at Helmi's place, Ateyah was gunned down in cold blood when he answered the door to soldiers who had been dropped nearby by helicopters. They forced the family into the street and one of the wounded brothers bled to death shortly after arriving at a cousin's house a few miles away.

Frightened, Amal runs back towards the houses and Abu Salah tells the soldiers that she is his daughter. He is mortified to hear that his brother has been murdered and his wife worries about the money that he had been saving for the wedding. However, they try to remain calm and begin chopping wood to make some food. Unfortunately, the drone controllers mistook the logs for an anti-aircraft gun and bombed the garden and dropped further missiles on the house when the terrified people ran for cover. Amal was among those injured and, initially. they thought she was dead. She revived on being fed, but was so weak when the Red Cross were finally allowed to minister to the victims four days after the attack that she was left behind. Ahmed pleaded with a volunteer to fetch her and she was wheeled to safety on a donkey cart. 

This animated sequence is largely seen from the perspective of the drone controllers, with the images being framed by a target sight and the figures on the ground being nothing more than moving white shapes. It's chillingly done and the audience is left in no doubt that there would have been more casualties had one of the Israeli drone team defied orders to kill because he was so convinced that the targets were civilians and children. The testimony of the Red Cross speaker is also telling, as they were not allowed to take vehicles up to the houses and had to push a cart for almost a kilometre. 

The impact of a simple cut back to footage of a donkey cart slowly moving through the scene is devastating. A white goose surveys the rubble with a sense of incomprehension, as Fouad sifts through the wreckage of the family home and finds the ashes of the family's savings and ID papers. He uses sticks to mark out the place where his father had fallen and Faraj and Shifa walk between the levelled houses with renewed determination to get married and show the Israelis that they are not intimidated. Mouna finds crude graffiti on the wall of her home and wonders why the soldiers felt the need to do something so hurtful. 

When the Red Cross come to take eyewitness accounts, Amal thanks her cousin Ahmed for hitting her with a stick because it woke her up and they realised she wasn't dead. In all, 29 `martyrs' are reported and a family spokesman expresses his disgust that the various Palestinian parties came to offer their condolences solely to make political capital and to claim that the deceased were their supporters. He wants it known that they were unaffiliated victims of a callous enemy and views this more as a family tragedy than a propagandist photo opportunity. Not everyone is so sceptical, however, and the Hamas official who has come to announce a €40 million compensation package is fawned over by some of the Samounis' neighbours. 

Reporting that Amal has gone to the Gulf for specialist treatment, Faraj blames himself for letting his father open the door and takes little consolation from the friend urging him to accept that Ateyah embraced his fate as God's will. As returning men sit in the rubble, they accuse the Israeli troops of unprovoked savagery, as they knew this was a quiet district with no terrorist associations. However, they also claim that some of the soldiers spoke Arabic and Russian and wonder whether the mercenaries were responsible for the carnage. Despite such shows of unity, however, there are disputes between neighbours over the land on which the demolished houses had stood and punches are thrown. 

Faoud shows three young girls the bloodstained spot where his cousin Walid was found. They scrump some oranges from nearby trees and Faoud gets cross when one of the girls starts shooting her mouth off and threatens to strike her with a stone unless she keeps quiet. A year later, they are part of Faraj and Shifa's wedding celebration. They have refused a religious service and barred all political parties from the event, as they just want to be happy with their family and friends. Zeynat is upset because Mahmoud has declared he will never marry, as he can't bear the thought of a widow grieving for him after he is martyred in avenging his father. However, the film ends on a positive note, as the clan dance together, with Amal and Mouna beaming with happiness that their siblings are now husband and wife.

Closing captions reveal that the CGI renditions of Operation Cast Lead have been based on local and Red Cross testimonies, as well as the findings of an Israeli army inquiry. It's hard to see how anyone watching this journalistically trenchant and stylistically innovative documentary can be anything other than shocked and appalled by the content and the wicked inhumanity it uncovers. The award of the Œil d'or for Best Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival is wholly merited and it will be interesting to see how this remarkable achievement fares at the Oscars - although one rather suspects it won't receive a nomination, even though two other films we cover this week, Sea of Shadows and One Child Nation, are being mentioned among the leading contenders.

Excellently abetted by editor Luc Foreville, sound editor Jean Mallet and composer Giulia Tagliavia, Savona focuses entirely on the Samouni family and some might quibble that, as a result, he is only presenting one side of the story. On the basis of the evidence presented here, however, any justification would be greeted with scathing scepticism, especially given that Savona and co-writers Penelope Bortoluzzi and Léa Mysius make a point of drawing on Israeli military findings to corroborate the drone sequences. 

Moreover, in the interests of balance, they also point fingers at Hamas and Fatah and their cynical readiness to exploit misery for their own ends. And they stress how difficult it is for the female voice of reason to be heard over macho patriarchal talk of male-only martyrs and jihadist vengeance. But there's little need for editorialising here, as the truth lies in the twisted metal of the decimated dwellings and the empty spaces left by the uprooted trees. Fortunately, it also resides in the resilience of the survivors striving to get on with their lives and their ability to smile in the face of such wanton destruction highlights the failure of a mission that will strike many as being a war crime.

In 1979, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping instituted a policy of limiting couples to a single baby in order to control the spiralling population figures that were supposedly stifling economic progress. For the next 35 years, grotesque measures were taken to ensure the restriction was enforced and Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang expose the propagandist pressure placed on officials and citizens alike to conform in One Child Nation, won the Best Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

On promulgating its new two-child policy in 2015, the Beijing government issued a statement declaring that its predecessor had `made the country more powerful, the people more prosperous and the world more peaceful'. As somebody whose personal experience suggested that this was not an accurate statement, Nanfu Wang set out to discover the truth about the one-child strategy. She had been born in 1985 and recalls how everything from matchboxes to playing cards had carried reminders about the importance of the one-child policy to protecting the billion-strong population from future starvation. When she delivered her own premature baby, however, Nanfu began to reflect on her childhood and the fact that her parents had given her a Mandarin name that meant `Man Pillar' because they had been hoping for a boy.

Returning to Wang Village in Jiangxi Province, Nanfu learns from mother Zaodi Wang that rural parents were permitted a second child if they hadn't got a son. However, they had to wait five years before having another child and grandfather Zhimei Wang recalls how they had to plead with the authorities not to sterilize Zaodi after Nanfu's birth. She pays a call on former village chief, Tunde Wang, who says it was a difficult policy to implement because people resisted it. But he was under orders to do his duty and insubordination was not tolerated, even if it meant forced abortion or sterilization.

Family planning propaganda official Xianwen Liu remembers the stage performances he wrote to win hearts and minds and Nanfu admits that she was part of a choir that sang official songs at a time when you couldn't turn on the television without seeing something promoting the policy. She visits 84 year-old midwife Huaru Yuan, who can't remember how many babies she saw into the world, but knows she participated in between 50-60,000 abortions and sterilizations. She feels guilt at inducing births and killing the infants, but shrugs that she had no choice, as orders from the top had to be obeyed. However, since a monk told her of a way to atone, she has dedicated the last 27 years to helping infertile couples and her walls are covered with red and gold pennants sent by grateful mothers. 

By contrast, family planning official Shuqin Jiang has no such regrets and is seen being lauded at a national awards ceremony for her efforts. She became something of a celebrity after her story was told in an 1998 video and she tells Nanfu that she had to put public duty about personal feelings because she was involved in a war to save the country from a population surge. In reflecting on the terminations she conducted, she concedes that some were gruesome (especially in the eighth or ninth month), but blames the women who broke the law rather than the Party, which had the foresight to prevent a catastrophe. 

Following footage of troops on parade, Nanfu meets artist Peng Wang, who painted aborted foetuses on all 366 pages of Chairman Mao Zedong's Little Red Book in a work entitled `Motive'. He had focused on China's refuge problem until 1996, when he found a foetus in a yellow plastic bag on a rubbish tip and began commemorating the victims of the One-Child Policy. In addition to the artworks, Peng also started preserving the foetuses he found in formaldehyde and Nanfu's camera peers into the glass jars, as he compares their perfectly formed features with those of his own son. Peng recalls that one child's last act had been a gentle smile and he wonders if it felt relieved at avoiding the nightmare that living in China has become. 

Zaodi tells Nanfu that there would have been cannibalism without the policy and dismisses her daughter's contention that harsh conditions were a price worth paying for life. Zhimei laments the loss of two children, but three more survived, including Nanfu's father, who died of a brain haemorrhage when he was 33. As we hear the patriotic One-Child number, `A Love Song For My Country', we learn that those who broke the law often had their possessions confiscated or their houses demolished. 

Younger brother Zhimei Wang confides that he would have been abandoned if he had been a girl. He also feels ashamed that their mother favoured him at every stage of his childhood, to the extent that Nanfu was withdrawn from school when their father died to provide an extra wage. She notes that their grandfather would only pose for photos with his grandsons and questions the effect that `Little Emperor Syndrome' has had on attitudes towards gender over the last four decades. Nanfu reveals that Zaodi's name means `bring me a son soon' and explains how she had helped her younger brother, Shihua Wang, abandon his daughter in the village market so that he was able to try for a son without breaking the law. As no one wanted her, the child died after two days and the family had to reclaim the body for burial. 

Shihua sobbed on being ordered to dispose of the child by his own mother, who threatened to kill herself if he disobeyed her (and the Party). Nanfu's aunt, Guijiao Wang. opted to use traffickers - who were known in the village as `matchmakers' - to find a home for her baby girl and Nanfu goes to Shenzen in Guangdong Province to find out how the process worked through ex-trafficker, Yueneng Duan. He claims to have sold around 10,000 babies and recreates the train journey he used to take to get $200 for each infants from orphanages who would make much more through international adoption deals. 

Sister Meilin Duan claims they started out as philanthropists, but the profit motive kicked after China sanctioned the export of orphans in 1992. They both feel it's unfair that they were jailed when no one from the state-run orphanages was prosecuted for selling the babies abroad. Meilin complains that her son is a stranger because she missed 10 years of his life and Yueneng blames the One-Child Policy for damaging his family, as they wouldn't have been tempted to exploit it in order to clamber out of poverty. Aunt Guijiao is more philosophical in shrugging that this was her fate because `policy is policy'. Moreover, she hopes her daughter had a better live than the one she could have given her. 

Curious to find out what happened to the exported babies, Nanfu visits Brian Stuy and his wife, Long Lan, in Lehi, Utah. They are the co-founders of Research China and have been trying to help exiles discover their roots since learning that their own three adopted daughters were not foundlings at all, but had been trafficked. Stuy explains how rates ranged from $10-25,000 for babies and reveals that the orphanage fabricated the background of their first child, Meikini, and paid a woman to pose as her finder when he went to investigate. Long Lan stumbled across the Duan family and interviewed their late mother, who realised there was money to be made when she sold the two year-old foundling she had been raising for $115. 

The Stuys have discovered that 130,000 children were sent abroad by Chinese orphanages after their pictures were posted in newspapers for families to claim them. Once they were classified as abandoned, they found foreign candidates willing to pay the most money. Recognising there was a chance to profit. family planning officials stopped knocking down houses and confiscated illegal children to sell them to the orphanages and such corruption was endemic across the country. Journalist Jiaoming Pang was fired for uncovering this story and fled into exile in Hong Kong, where Nanfu meets him. He interviewed peasants in Shaoyang who were forced to pay `Social Maintenance Fees' (or fines) on top of having their babies confiscated and he found lots of intimidatory slogans designed to scare people into conforming with the policy or bribe them into betraying their neighbours. 

One case that particularly shocked Pang involved twin sisters who were forcibly separated. Nanfu visits 16 year-old Shuangjie Zeng, whose sibling was sent to America and she hopes they can meet one day. Long Lan offers to find Nanfu's cousin and takes a DNA sample from Aunt Guijiao to start a search. She fails to make a match and reveals that a lot of adoptees want nothing to do with their birth families, with some being in denial about their origins and others fearing they will be deported. Even more adoptive parents are resistant to the Stuys' offers of help and Long Lan becomes tearful in hoping that her research will prove useful in the longer term. 

On returning to China, Nanfu interviews Shuangjie about making social media contact with her long-lost sister. She is bashful about revealing too much about what they chat about and Nanfu is surprised by her lack of curiosity, although she understands her fear that her sister will block her if she pries too much. While her own family members keep insisting they had no choice but to go along with the One-Child Policy, Nanfu discloses that a shortage of young people to care for their elderly relatives prompted a shift to a two-child strategy four years ago. All of the slogans around her village were repainted, while the folk songs were given new lyrics to affirm that `two is just right'. As she concludes, the memory of the old policy will fade and all that will be left for future generations is the propaganda - providing it's not been suppressed by a state keen to cover up its mistakes. 

A closing caption reveals that the entire Chinese crew was born in the One-Child era and Nanfu seems more than ready to take on the authorities, as she had done with Hooligan Sparrow, a 2016 profile of feminist activist Ye Haiyan, who set out to humiliate the Hainan principal who had accompanied six girls aged between 11-14 to a hotel, where they were raped by a government official, who avoided the death penalty for the offence by exploiting a loophole in the child prostitution law. 

At times, this feels a bit like a Stacey Dooley investigation, as Nanfu and co-director Jialing Zhang touch upon pertinent topics rather than exploring them in any depth. Consequently, while this remains a courageous and vital exposé, it might have worked better as a series that was able to devote more time to rushed issues like the parting of twins, Little Emperor Syndrome and the extent to which Beijing turned a blind eye to bureaucratic corruption in the provinces. In this regard, the story resembles those involving the Magdalene Sisters in Ireland and the stolen generation of Aboriginal children in Australia. But, as Nanfu shrewdly avers in comparing Chinese and American attitudes to unborn and unwanted children, the common factor is the attempt by patriarchal systems to control women by telling them what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

Having previously shown at CinemaItaliaUK, Adele Tulli's highly distinctive documentary, Normal, gets a theatrical run. Adopting an entirely observational stance that recalls the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Godfrey Reggio, this marks something of a departure from the methods employed in 365 Without 377 (2011), which examined changing Indian attitudes to same-sex relationships, and Rebel Menopause (2014), a short profile of eightysomething feminist Thérèse Clerc. A graduate of the Screen Documentary course at Goldsmiths in the University of London, Tulli is currently doing post-doctoral research at the University of Sussex. But, while this intelligent exploration of perceptions of gender normativeness in millennial Italy makes demands on the audience, it's anything but inaccessibly academic.

Following underwater shots of a pregnancy exercise class, we see a close-up of a small girl named Alma waiting to have her ears pierced. The besuited man performing the operation tells her how cute she looks, while her mother coos about how she will soon look like her. She is clearly apprehensive, but lets little emotion slip as the studs are clipped into her lobes and she smiles shyly on seeing herself in a mirror. Her rite of passage is contrasted with that of a nameless boy being prepared by his father for a minibikes race. They discuss how brave he was for not being afraid of the wind while camping out in a tent before dad imparts some procedural information that his son doesn't appear to be taking in. We see the competitors on the grid and a get a brief glimpse of the action on the serpentine track before the segment ends on a shot of the young lad reflecting with quiet satisfaction on his achievement, while still wearing his helmet and protective clothing.

New mums use their strollers during a keep fit class in a park, while divers hands manufacture plastic toys in a noisy factory. We see pieces being fitted together for an ironing board set, as well as the gender-designated packaging for toolbox and kitchen sets. The picture on the label for a dressing-table set shows a young girl wearing lipstick gazing dreamily into the middle distance and this sense that `one day my prince will come' is thrown into relief by footage of adolescent girls screaming at a meet-and-greet with YouTube star Antony di Francesco. There's something Duce-esque about the way he waves to them from an upper window before giving them a quick hug and careless kiss when they are allowed inside to pose for commemorative snaps with their idol, who barely looks up from squiggling his autograph on copies of the book that each girl has bought before being abruptly moved on by his minders. 

Tulli cuts to close-ups of the screen-lit faces of boys of various ages playing a video game. They are wearing headphones and we are aware of the sound effects for a military scenario that is shown before a cross-cut takes us to a war games exercise, in which young males in macho protective masks shoot at each other with pellet guns. Images of lads trying to keep their balance in a gyrating fairground ride give way to a top shot down on to a kayak being paddled on tranquil water. On the soundtrack, however, we hear a teenager and his PUA Training counsellor discussing ways of talking to the opposite sex. As the kid comes up with opening gambits (some of which are wince-inducingly chauvinist), his mentor evaluates their alpha male effectiveness and asks how he would tailor his chat-up lines to impress a `bitter woman'. 

Clips of women subjecting themselves to facial electrolysis, vibratory muscle stimulation and a sunbed session are followed by footage of bright young things attending a beach party. Boys and girls alike have dressed to impress according to trendy fashion expectations, but the outfits worn by the latter are markedly more revealing. A photographer poses Diana and Diego for some wedding pictures near a marina and blithely remarks that `the man always has to take the initiative'. As the shoot moves on to the beach, Diego is asked to adopt a series of manly poses, as he sweeps his bride into his arms, while she is asked to raise her foot off the ground during a passionate embrace. 

Shifting from wedded bliss to the realities of married life, we see a Catholic priest conducting a group guidance session, in which he considers how couples drift apart through a lack of communication and a dimming of sexual desire. He scotches myths about innocence and says that both parties are inevitably to blame if one partner cheats on the other. His words are received with respectful silence and the odd dutiful smile (as well as one female yawn). But they belong to a different age, as do the scantily clad girls dancing with a hose pipe at a moto convention. The shot of the row of motorbikes that opens the segment is designed to remind us of the little lads footling around on their minibikes. But, while there wasn't a female in sight in that sequence, there are several women and girls watching both this unedifying spectacle and the slow-motion destruction of a car by a string of sledgehammer-wielding petrolheads. 

Any hopes that the pungent whiff of fumes can be borne away by a bracing sea breeze are quickly dashed by a diversion to the beach games taking place away from the tideline where people of all ages, shapes and sizes are happily paddling. Shots of kids on a well-slicked water slide are followed by the sight of three boys ogling a pole-dancing exhibition. Further along the shore, there's a Muay Thai display and another open-air exercise session, which this time involved women bouncing on small trampolines. But nothing quite prepares the audience for the Miss Mondo section, which sees a panel of mostly white middle-aged males listening gawpingly as a woman quizzes the contestants about their career plans. A couple are interested in the law, another wants to become a military engineer, while a third is keen to work in criminology. At the end of her presentation, however, she is asked if she has a boyfriend before being told to lift up her hair and her chin for some photographs. She is then required to walk away from the judges in her high heels and we cut away to a full-length body shot from the low angle close-ups of bikini-clad buttocks that have been used throughout the segment. 

From one stereotype to another, as a middle-class wedding planner in Lecce lectures a group of brides to be about the changes they can expect when they return from their honeymoons and have to start cooking and cleaning for their new husbands. She reminds them not to let themselves go and urges them to be attentive to their menfolk, especially during and after pregnancy, as they will often find themselves with two babies to care for. No wonder Ilaria's hen night friends tunefully plead with her not to get married after they bundle into the back of a stretch limo for a raucous party, complete with phallic cakes and deely boppers. 

Backstage at a magic show, we see a conjuror being made up to cut his glamorous assistant in half. He also makes her disappear and replaces her head with a ball of fire. No wonder he needs to relax afterwards with a well-earned cigarette. The film ends on a classier note, however, as Marco and Pasquale conclude their civil partnership in the spectacular setting of the Teatro Communale in Ferrara. They pose on the stage for photographs with family and friends before toasting each other in champagne and serving a colourfully chic variation on the traditional wedding cake. As they closing credits roll, we rejoin the stroller exercise club, as they pass through the frame, squatting to the chirpy encouragement of their MammaFit instructor.  

There's nothing accidental about a cine-essay as meticulously made as this one and a good deal of Flahertyesque selectivity has gone into the content, staging and juxtaposition of its vignettes But the effect is both potent and provocative, as Tulli's `unexpected atlas' forces the audience to reassess where normality lies in the passing parade of situations and the social constructs that ensure that even the most seemingly outdated continue to be regarded as the norm at the tail end of second decade of the 21st century. It would be fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversations of those leaving the cinema after the screening, as this is very much a film whose meaning will vary according to the beholder - even though it shouldn't.

In creating this `mosaic of associations' to convey the `spectacle of the super-normal reality of everyday life', Tulli is much indebted to Clarissa Cappellani and Francesca Zonars, as well as fellow editors Ilaria Fraioli and Elisa Cantelli. Andrea Koch's splendidly eclectic score also does much to reinforce the rhythm of the piece, while also keeping minds focused with its playful shifts of tone. In eschewing caption and voiceovers, Tulli set out to avoid putting a pedagogical or ideological imprint on the images. But the authorial voice is consistently discernible, as, indeed, it should be when it talks such eminently good sense in addressing the conventions and contradictions on which a supposedly civilised society is balanced.

A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Belgian documentarist Kristof Bilsen produced a trio of shorts - Three Women (2005), Parallel Lives and The Perfect Belgian (both 2010) - before making his feature bow with Elephant's Dream (2014), which focused on the employees at three state-owned institutions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He takes a very different tack, however, with Mother, a study of caring for loved ones that is showing at Dochouse. 

Baan Kamlangchay is a care home for 14 Western Alzheimer sufferers in the Thai town of Chiang-Mai. Each patient receives around-the-clock treatment from one of three dedicated carers. One of them is Chutimon `Pomm' Sonsirichai, who took the job to provide for her three children, Miriam, Moses and Nadia. However, she has a genuine connection with Elisabeth Röhner, a Swiss-German woman who is only able to communicate in wordless mumbles. She is clearly fond of Pomm and responds to her efforts to keep her amused. Moreover, Pomm values Elisabeth's company, as she confides her innermost thoughts in the safe knowledge that they'll go no further.  

Miriam and Moses live with their grandmother, while four year-old Nadia stays with her father. Pomm explains that she was alone when she had Miriam and had to put her in a child shelter for the first month. But she couldn't bear to be without her and having to be apart from her children is the only drawback of her job. She admires Elisabeth because she raised her family without a man and her independent streak is still evident. When she first arrived, she was fond of crosswords and taught Pomm songs in English. But she is now heavily dependent upon her and Pomm calls her `Mom' and reassures her that she is on a nice holiday in Thailand whenever she gets distressed.

The mother-child bond is thrown into contrast when we travel to Zofingen in Switzerland to meet Maya Gloor, who is in her fifties and still lives with her husband, Walter. When she was first diagnosed with dementia, he told daughters Joyce, Sara and Tanja that he wanted Maya to receive the best care and the family has been preparing for some time to say their goodbyes before she goes to Chiang-Mai. With only a few days left before the flight, Joyce takes Maya for one of her favourite walks with their dog, Pippa. Snow has fallen and everything is still, apart from Pippa, who has a ball charging around while Joyce reconciles herself that this will be the last time she will take this mountain path with her mother. She is aware that some people think they are sending Maya away, but she has recognised that she can get better care at Baan Kamlangchay and that it would be selfish to keep her away.

Pomm is also having to cope with loss, as Elisabeth dies suddenly and she feels bereft without her. We see her Buddhist funeral and Pomm asks her boss, Martin Woodli, for some time off before her new patient arrives. As she has to work two jobs to pay off her debts, she is exhausted and travels four hours to her northern home of Wat Mae Hat to see her offspring. She is also happy to greet her own mother and admits to feeling guilty that she has placed an extra burden on her with Miriam and Moses. They go collecting leaves in the woods and Pomm wishes she could hug her mother, but it's not the done thing in their culture. 

While on a walk in the mist around her village, Pomm reveals that she is very much a daddy's girl and has many of his characteristics. But he also had a depressive side and, having failed to kill himself in a motorcycle accident so that his family would get the insurance, he shot himself. Pomm recalls breaking the news to Elisabeth, who could still communicate and was very kind to her. As she sees Moses and Miriam off to school, it's clear that they have drifted away from her and resist her efforts to be touchy-feely and ask about their lives. Miriam has even blocked her number and claims to be tired of Pomm complaining about her, even though her mother insists she is merely trying to be a good parent and ensure she is raised in the right way. 

Back in Chiang-Mai, Maya arrives with her family, who are desperately trying to put on a brave face. Pomm acknowledges that it takes time to get to know a new patient and get used to their rhythms. She is used to goodbyes, however, and knows how difficult it will be for Maya's family. They go on a riverboat ride together and attend the home's Christmas party. As she watches Walter show affection to Maya, Pomm realises that she no longer returns his gestures and feels sorry for the pain this must cause him. Home movies of the family in happier times emphasises what Alzheimer's robs them of and how it is worse for Mays's husband and daughters because, even when she is beaming at a puppy and dancing to the band, she appears to be in a world of her own. When the others leave, Maya stands up, as though knowing she should be going with them. But she shows no outward emotions, as Pomm attempts to chat to her. 

Getting Maya to respond proves a problem, as she is reluctant to initiate contact and is happy to stay in bed. Pomm takes her shopping and she enjoys trying on sandals and holds hands with her new friend, as they walk round the mall. Pomm is happy to provide such companionship and considers Maya to be lucky, as her family can afford such devoted care. However, she often wonders what would happen if she fell ill, as it would make life difficult for the children she has spent her life providing for and there is no guarantee they would be able to look after her. 

Walter confides to Martin that it felt very odd returning to an empty house and hopes that Maya will recognise him when they Skype. The notion of conversing with a computer screen baffles Maya, however, and she backs away from the desk with her arms folded, as though she doesn't know where to put herself. They try playing some ABBA to calm her and Walter recognises how difficult this long-distance relationship is going to be. Pomm comes to much the same conclusion when she travels six hours to see Nadia in Pitsanulok. She is pleased to see her mother and they have a nice day out at a water park. But she becomes tearful and clingy when Pomm prepares to leave and the contrast with Maya's reaction to the departure of her family is painfully made. 

Dedicated to the director's own mother, who passed away in May of this year, this is a deeply moving reflection on the maternal bond and how difficult it can sometimes be to maintain. The juxtaposition of Pomm's situation with those of Elisabeth and Maya is inspired and, yet, Bilsen avoids straining for effect, as the storylines naturally overlap and intertwine in highlighting such issues as family ties, sacrifice, devotion, the cruel truths about Alzheimer's, pain, loss and the economic and expectational gulfs between the developed world and the rest of the planet. 

With Belgian director Marion Hänsel acting as a co-producer and Kirsten Johnson (of Cameraperson fame) taking on executive duties, this is a film that needs to be seen. A model of observational and non-judgemental discretion, Bilsen captures the oblivion of the patients with a tenderness that mirrors Pomm's committed and charismatic method of caregiving (that is not, perhaps, as appreciated or remunerated as much as it should be by her employers). For someone whose own mother eventually lost contact with those around while battling a brain tumour 22 years ago this month, this has a curiously consoling effect for which one can only extend gratitude and the sincere hope that others get to share the same feeling from this rather wonderful film.

Having teamed with Kief Davidson to expose the role that China plays in elephant poaching in Africa in The Ivory Game (2016), Austrian director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani turns his attention in Sea of Shadows to the Chinese connection to the illegal fishing activities currently confounding the Mexican navy in the Sea of Cortez. Consciously echoing Louie Psihoyos's Oscar-winning actuality, The Cove (2009), this National Geographic presentation may adopt a rather conventional approach. But its indictment of the corrupt official and black-market apothecaries who sustain the hunting of totoaba is vital and hard-hitting.

The totoaba is a fish whose swim bladder is not only a highly prized Chinese delicacy, but it also has entirely unproven medical properties that make it more valuable than gold. In a dramatic opening sequence employing drones and night-vision cameras, we see fishermen being tracked across the Sea of Cortez by the Mexican navy and the Sea Shepherd conservation society. We also see a caption that informs us that the vaquita, the world's smallest whale, lives in the area and has become collateral damage in the battle, as fewer than 30 now remain.

News anchor Carlos Loret De Mola is appalled that organised crime and corruption are playing a part in making a beautiful species extinct. Moreover, he is determined to follow the money trail to see who benefits from fish that command $4500 in Mexico and $75,000 in China. He's not alone in his disquiet. In Tijuana in Baja California, Andrea Crosta, executive director of Earth League International, consults ELI activist and ex-FBI special agent Marc Davis before meeting with locals who tell them that one Oscar Parra is running the whole trade and has unique access to the Chinese. 

They go to San Felipe, which is the base for the totoaba industry, and Crosta reveals that Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez `the aquarium of the planet'. Marine vet Cynthia Smith flies in to help when the Mexican government announces a Vaquita CPR plan to evacuate all the vaquita from the region and keep them in a safe sanctuary until the illegal fishing trade is crushed. However, she fears that they are too late as so little is known about the vaquita that well-meaning efforts to assist them might prove disastrously counterproductive. 

As De Mola discovers, some fishermen consider vaquitas to be purely mythical creatures and they accuse the government of being more interested in backing a pointless cause than it is in safeguarding the future of communities that will collapse unless they are allowed to fish. De Mola isn't convinced by their arguments, however, and reckons that the drug cartels have started backing the more unscrupulous fishermen because they have scented money and want to make a quick killing. Fisherman Javier Valverde concurs and surmises that the cartels are using the totoaba trade to make up the shortfall that has accrued since the drug trade hit a problem. Indeed, he goes so far as to call totoaba `the cocaine of the sea' and grandson Alan Valverde acknowledges that lots of illegal crews have started muscling into the area. 

Irishman Jack Hutton is first officer on the Sea Shepherd vessel in the Sea of Cortez and he is fully aware that they are dealing with dangerous people. Nevertheless, they continue their patrols and regularly haul in nets and release trapped fish back into the water. They also destroy any dead totoaba and their swim bladders to prevent them falling into the hands of the poachers. Crosta goes to see an illegal fisherman in San Felipe and is told that Parra is part of the powerful Aispura clan and is in league with the Mafia. On their own initiative, De Mola and Ana-Lucía Hernández go to the Ensenada Navy Base to ask Admiral Romel Ledesma why they haven't stopped the illegal fishing trade and apprehended Parra. In a cagey response, he hints at corruption, but refuses to go on the record. 

Crosta joins Sea Shepherd on a night patrol and Hutton uses a drone to track a panga hauling in its net. The crew tries to intimidate the conservationists and a Mexican naval vessel joins the pursuit until the boat vanishes into the shallower water around Santa Clara. They rescue a fish from the net and Hutton vows to keep fighting to protect every vaquita in existence. 

Following this nocturnal adventure, Crosta goes to the Gulf of Santa Clara and notices that, while there are plenty of police and marines in the vicinity, they do absolutely nothing to stop the pangas from launching. The local fishing co-operative states squarely that the government is in cahoots with the Mafia and that the marines get bungs to leave the tatoaba illegals alone. Crosta and his companions are watched by a man with binoculars and buzzed by a drone. It's clear, therefore, that the fishermen are well organised and are not going to tolerate any interference from eco-outsiders. 

Meanwhile, Cynthia Smith goes searching for vaquita and her crew is jubilant when they find one. But it proves too clever to be caught in a net and she has nothing but admiration for its intelligence. As she avers, however, the quandary is, do you risk them dying in a bid to bring them into captivity or leave them to certain death in the sea?

In the course of their investigation, De Mola and Hernández find footage of Parra shooting a soldier and a warrant is issued for his arrest. The pair know they are on the right track when they receive death threats. In Mexicali, ELI undercover investigator Oona Layolle makes contact with one of Parra's gang and wears a wire in a car to learn that Parra hates De Mola and is furious with him for running the incriminating video on his show. Parra is holed up in San Felipe, where he has bribed the authorities. But the whistleblower reveals that Parra is working for David Lee, who is the big boss in the area and runs a Chinese restaurant as a cover. 

As the Valverdes are forced to move 200m to the south to find somewhere to fish without intimidation, De Mola is sent an organisational chart of Parra's gang ahowing the cops and local officials who are on his payroll. He seems untouchable and De Mola laments that the vaquita will vanish if no one is prepared to challenge Parra. 

Back in the Sea of Cortez, the CPR crew catch a female vaquita and bring her on to the boat in a shallow pool in order to transfer her in a safety pen. At first, the whale seems to be exploring its new surroundings and calmly accepts she's in good hands. But she suddenly has breathing difficulties and Smith's best efforts to save her are in vain and they are devastated that they have actively reduced the numbers in their bid to protect the species. It hurts her that vaquita can't adapt to human care and that the only hope for the 15 or so left in the wild is that the poaching stops.

After De Mola shames the Admiral into coming on to his show and explaining his strategy, a concerted effort is made by the police, marines, navy and Sea Shepherd to arrest the culprits. Hutton picks up a panga on drone cam and gives the commander instructions about it landing in San Felipe harbour. However, the patrols goes to the beach instead and the illegals slip through the net. Moreover, the drone is shot down and it's unclear whether the Mexicans have been inept, uncoordinated or nobbled. The next morning, the fishermen riot at the naval base in order to secure the release of three men arrested for being in possession of totoaba and Crosta and De Mol despair that a noisy display of people power can force the authorities to back down.

Crosta brings in Asian undercover agents to cosy up to Lee. They get video of him discussing the trade and see evidence stashed in a warehouse. They also learn about smuggling techniques on public flights, as well as human trafficking and money laundering and take the evidence to De Mol because they don't trust the local cops to act upon it. He declares that he has given chapter and verse to the Mexican, Chinese and US governments and puts the ball in their court. As Crosta says, however, the vaquita could become extinct within a five-hour drive from Los Angeles and if they do disappear, it means that humanity's money and power will be helpless to stop lots of other species from becoming extinct, too.

In August 2018, Poacher JT (who was interviewed for the film) was murdered for supposedly failing to pay back debts to the totoaba cartel. He left behind a wife and three young children and the film hints strongly that Parra is involved. Four weeks later, he is arrested for shooting the marine, but lawyers immediately begin fighting for his release citing procedural errors. As the documentary draws to a close, we learn that 30 Chinese nationals have been arrested for importing $150 million worth of totoaba. Sea Shepherd and law-abiding Mexican fishermen continue to rescue trapped fish and confiscate illegal nets. But nothing seemingly can be done for the planet's last 15 vaquitas. 

Ladkani puts in the hard yards and places himself in considerable danger to make this unflinching study of senseless destruction and the ease with which an embattled community can be suckered into illegality by self-interest. It's always tricky to balance the plight of a human population with that of an endangered species. But the vaquita whale is almost certain to become extinct because of the Chinese appetite for totoaba and the greed of Mexican drug barons and the corrupt officials in their back pockets. Kudos to the reporters and activists risking their necks to challenge such cowardly criminality - and it's worth comparing the tactics of the Sea Shepherd crew in the Sea of Cortez and those operating in north-east Scotland in Heike Bachelier and Andy Heathcote's Of Fish and Foe. 

Radkini and editors Georg Michael Fischer and Verena Schönauer probably overdo the night-vision thriller stuff, but this is muscular reportage with a soft centre. The sequence in which the female vaquita dies in captivity is heartbreaking and highlights the difficulties that conservationists face in trying to protect creatures at risk. But what makes this situation all the more infuriating is the fact that nobody is actually targeting the rarest form of marine mammal. They are simply accidental victims of a ruthless trade that will continue after they are gone, or, at least, until the totoaba has also been wiped out and the gangsters and crank miracle cure peddlers turn their attentions to another defenceless animal.

Coming just a couple of weeks after Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov's wonderful Honeyland, documentarist Sarah Christman also follows the flight of the bumble bee in Swarm Season, a first-time feature that is showing in London under the auspices of Dochouse. However, the bees aren't the only endangered species in this intriguing eco-study, as Christman descends upon a remote region of the volcanic island of Hawaii to question the future of humanity on this planet and beyond. 

In a opening segment that's long on abstract atmosphere and short on tangible information, we are introduced to Alison Yahna and her 10 year-old daughter, Manu. When not exploring the Hawaiian myth that explains why Lehua flowers bloom on Ohia trees, the pair tend to their beehives and go in search of wild colonies that they hope they can breed into disease-resistant strains. `Why are the bees suiciding themselves?', Manu asks her mother, who has no answers, but a growing awareness that the steady decline in global bee populations spells disaster for the other life forms with which they share our fragile planet. 

As cinematographer Zara Popovici alights on insects and flowers, while also standing back and admiring crashing waves and rain-soaked woodlands, Alison and Manu go about their business without impinging upon their neighbours. By contrast, Manu's unnamed father is part of a protest group seeking to prevent NASA from building further telescopes on the sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. We see inside one of the observatories, with the camera favouring oblique angles and obfuscatory close-ups in a bid to make the futuristic architecture seem forbidding. At the same time, Alison clambers up a tree to sever a branch holding a wild colony, so that she can trap the queen and a goodly number of her drones in the hope that they can be transferred to a hive at home.

Tourists flock to the observatories, the protesters braid string in the name of the islands' last queen, Liliuokalani, a woman sings a discordant version of Linda Ronstadt's `Distant Drum' at a karaoke bar, and a local explains to camera how the United States broke its treaty with Hawaii and claimed that an illegal takeover was legitimate. A beekeeper helps pluck queens to aid breeding and Alison tells Manu about the reproductive and evolutionary importance of swarming. Meanwhile, as steam rises from the Kilauea volcano, six scientists in yellow hazmat suits test rock samples as part of an experiment to simulate living conditions on Mars. 

Venturing out from their golf ball-shaped bivouac, the explorers take readings and report back to Mission Control. Elsewhere, a hive is discovered in the plasterboard ceiling of a woman's house and Alison and Manu sell honey at a car boot sale. We get close-ups of bees forming apian ladders by interlocking their legs in order to construct a honeycomb and the sheer dexterity and intense sense of communal duty is humbling to behold. 

Contrasting shots of Hawaiian kids diving into the sea or Muni playing with her toys in the sand don't quite have the same impact. Nor do the drone shots of swimmers racing off the coast or a turtle gliding towards the camera. But, like the shots of the sunset over the volcano and the little green gecko helping itself to a straggler bee, this montage conveys the notion that the planet is irreplaceably beautiful and works best when everyone and everything is in harmony.

Locals gather for a musical event, as Muni watches what appears to be phone footage of protesters being arrested on Mauna Kea. A long shot locates one of the observatories against a star-filled night sky before a fade to black is disrupted by an eruption from Kilauea that sends angry flames into the darkness and balls of red hot lava rolling down the slopes and into the water below. 

But life goes on. The bees toil in their hive, the protesters conduct a traditional tribal ceremony on the mountainside and the six scientists conduct a press conference after emerging from their cocoon on Mauna Loa. One team member opines that history is littered with mass extinctions and that we need a back-up plan. For now, though, Manu will continue to lie in the lush undergrowth and gaze up at the bees swarming above her. 

As much a living artwork as an environmental treatise, this is an easy film to admire. But it's also frustrating in its refusal to contextualise or explain what is on the screen. Such impressionism is all well and good, especially when it's so decorously accompanied by an atmospheric Cool For You score that unsettlingly incorporates the sirens that periodically shatter the natural silence. As remixed by Kevin T. Allen, Sean Dwyer's location sound is also highly effective in sensorily immersing the viewer in the bee world so meticulously photographed by Zara Popovici. But, at times, this feels like a son et lumière show that so pertinaciously presents familiar objects from disconcerting angles that it's rarely clear what anyone is doing. 

As the significance of these actions is also never explained, the viewer can't help but feel excluded and, eventually, a little exasperated. Why is NASA desecrating sacred land in such a cavalier fashion and why do the islanders hold Mauna Kea so dear? All it would take is a bit more background to make this as momentous as it is mesmerising. The juxtaposition of mythological cosmology and futuristic science is as intriguing as the abrupt shifts in proportion from the micro- to the macrocosmic. But, while the majestic visuals leave us in no doubt that the bees and the volcano know something we don't, the gnomic approach occasionally draws attention away from Christman's thoughtful thesis.