The Act of Killing (Denmark-Sweden-UK, 2012)

Blood on their faces

Blood on their faces

I posted about the seminal film of cinema veriteChronicle of a Summerearlier this year. A recent example of the form is the highly controversial The Act of Killing where director Joshua Oppenheimer allowed the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, in Indonesia during the mid-1960s, to re-enact their foul deeds. The premise itself seems highly dubious and Oppenheimer described how it came about:

I began this project working closely with survivors, trying to film memories of the horrors of 1965 and to document the regime of fear and violence built on the celebration of killing. But every time the survivors and I tried to film together we would be arrested and stopped.

         Finally the human rights community, and the survivors themselves, said, “Film the killers: they will talk, and not just talk, they’ll boast.  (Bradshaw 2014)

The killers wanted to reconstruct the atrocities in the form of genres including the gangster film, film noir and there is even a musical section. Oppenheimer’s facilitation of this, which couldn’t have occurred without his presence, firmly situates the film as cinema verite. It has been estimated that two and a half million people were killed because they were designated as communist or they were Chinese. That the killers were keen to talk about their role in the massacres is indicative of the fact that the Indonesian state, and by extension, Indonesian society, sees nothing wrong with their actions. Indeed, at one point a number of them appear on a chat show bragging about what they did though one, Anwar, does appear to feel guilty by the film’s end.

Oppenheimer has been criticised for not explaining the context of the events (see Rayns, 2013) and it is difficult to tell if Anwar’s remorse is genuine or ‘played’ for the cameras.

It did seem to me that his realisation of the evil that he has done is actual. It occurs after he plays the role of a victim, for one of the re-stagings, and he says that he now knows how bad the people he killed felt. Oppenheimer, in one of his few direct interventions, is heard to say it was worse for Anwar’s victims. Anwar seems genuinely puzzled until the director explains that while he knew he would survive, his victims knew they were going to die. At this point Anwar appears to suffer a ‘sea change’ in his attitude to his actions.

None of the other perpetrators show anything other than pride in what they did and politicians’ explicit support of them, and the Pancasila (a paramilitary youth group), shows the corruption of contemporary Indonesian politics. In the light of this, Anwar’s realisation seems genuine given the celebratory nature the killers are still regarded with.

However, in a film that is disturbing throughout (I saw the two-hour version) the obvious distress of children who take part in the re-enactments does raise questions about the ethics of Oppenheimer’s film.


The Imitation Game (UK-US, 2014)

Genius hero

Genius hero

Alan Turing wasn’t diagnosed as ‘Asperger’s’ but Benedict Cumberbatch plays him, entirely reasonably, as if he had the syndrome. It is a quite extraordinary performance, not far from his Sherlock but more nuanced. The story of the Enigma code breakers is a great one and the script, which has been criticised in some quarters, marshals the history well to give a gripping account of how World War II was, at the least, shortened. I found the brief representations of wartime Britain, such as the evacuation of children, particularly effective in showing a nation under siege and on the brink. Into the breech steps the ill-fitting ‘nerds’ who, while struggling to decode social niceties, are happy solving puzzles, whether word or number based.

The wartime narrative is framed by Turing’s arrest in the early ’50s and so emphasises the shameful treatment of male homosexuals by the British state before decriminalisation in late 1960s. The final scene where his one time fiancee, well played by Keira Knightley, tries to help him is extremely moving.

Code cracking isn’t cinematic gold but the film remains gripping throughout; a Guardian reviewer suggested the film struggled to engage because we know the outcome. I think this is just daft; how often don’t we know the outcome of a mainstream film? Better from the Guardian is Ben Walter‘s suggestion that it is the queerest film to hit the multiplexes in years. The queerness he refers to isn’t simply Turing’s sexuality, his difference from the norm in terms of his social behaviour is also queer and celebrated rather than simply used to signify some kind of perversion. At the least most viewers of the film will find themselves sympathising with an outcast and maybe recognise that difference is actually good.

My one criticism is, Knightley’s Joan Clarke apart, women’s role in the code breaking seems underplayed; it’s not even entirely clear what Clarke’s contribution was. A minor blemish on a major triumph. Cumberbatch could win an Oscar for this as the Academy like portrayals of mental illness; but, of course, as the film shows, neither Asperger’s nor homosexuality is an illness.

Interstellar (US-UK, 2014)

Mind bending reality

Mind bending reality

I’ve been avoiding Interstellar a bit because I’ve been seeing the marketing for nearly a year. Also the trailer made it seem like Terrence Malick was going to tackle the meaning of life again with Matthew McConaughey’s portentous voiceover allied to poetic imagery. Thankfully it’s much more engaging and at least as profound as Malick’s movie. It’s true the script clunks occasionally but I can forgive that in a film with immense ambition: bringing ‘hard’ SF to the masses. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity can rarely have been represented so dramatically.

Also striking for SF was the film’s emotive heft; often, in the genre, the characters are subservient to the ideas (that’s certainly not a criticism). The portrayal of the father-daughter relationship, and the discussions about love, are extremely moving. This is aided by performances that inspire belief in the characters; McConaughey’s obviously’s hit a hot streak and MacKenzie Foy (as the 10 year version) is his equal.

Visually the film is brilliant and I liked (if that’s the word) the portrayal of the dying Earth; a fate we’re hurtling toward at the moment. Will most of the audience understand that the Nolans are making a comment on our treatment of the planet? The name of Matt Damon (uncredited) character – Mann – suggests that he personifies masculinity (I won’t spoil).

Hans Zimmer’s score is exceptionally good; the use of the organ reminded me of Solaris (USSR, 1972) a film that, at the time, was called Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s landmark film is a touchstone for the Nolans; it was a favourite of mine for many years but it disappointed me last time I saw it, I shall have to revisit it.

Even approaching three hours Interstellar isn’t too long as there’s plenty of mind bending physics as well as physical tension to make this particular Hollywood roller coaster ride a great mind-body experience.

Divergent (US, 2014)

Women as action heroes

Women as action heroes

As Hollywood thrashes around for the next ‘young adult’ franchise, it looks as though Maze Runner‘s worked for 20th Century Fox, you might be forgiven for ignoring the films if you’re several decades beyond the core audience. It was out of duty I watched Divergent and was delighted to find a narrative that wasn’t compromising over its representation of women. Like The Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence constantly looks uncomfortable when she’s wearing the fancy clothes of the Capitol, Divergent looks beyond the looks of its lead women. We are at a moment where women are becoming more visible (I note that the President of the PGA has just been sacked for misogynist remarks) but are having to withstand a Neanderthal male backlash: see #gamergate for example.

The DVD cover is not exactly encouraging as it repeats the trope that attractive women must twist their bodies so their bum and breasts are visible, but Theo James’ ‘helper’ is definitely in his place.

"Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body..."

“Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body…”

What matters is the film and Shailene Woodley’s Tris is a well drawn character who excels both in mind and body. Unlike The Hunger Games (so far in the films at least) she is also a sexual being and the growing attraction between her and James’ Four is well played and directed. And I particularly liked the scene where she teams up with her mother (Ashley Judd – see pic above) to shoot their way out of  trouble.

Whilst Hollywood apparently prevaricates over whether to actually produce a woman superhero film, audiences are voting with their tickets and the sequel to Divergent follows next year. Hopefully the brave women who are the focus of men’s bile, particularly online where anonymity makes the attacks more frequent, can withstand the pressure and the mass media can start representing women as more than pretty adjuncts to men. Men, of course, have their role in this as well by challenging the everyday sexism that pervades many work environments and not giving any consideration to the Daily Mail who delight in having misogynist female columnists.

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, France, 1961)

History made alive

History made alive

Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:

‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”

The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.

The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.

The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.

For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.

Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.

The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:

Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”

And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.


’71 (UK, 2014)

Desperate times

Desperate times

The ‘Troubles’, which was a Civil War, haven’t entirely gone away but, as a tour guide said, I visited Belfast a couple of years ago, when glass-fronted buildings appeared in the city the people knew things had changed. ’71 takes us back to the time when the violence was escalating and shoots from the perspective of a typical squaddie. Jack O’Connell embodies, which is the apposite term as there’s not a lot of evidence of grey matter, Hook (the soldier) brilliantly as he is immersed in a war he knows nothing about. One of the few clearly good characters in the film, a Catholic ex-army medic (the terrific Richard Dormer), states the army is ‘Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts’; an apt summary,

Hook is immediately immersed in street fighting and Yann Demange casts the film as a thriller which certainly grips with its febrile handheld camera; these scenes reminded me of Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday – high praise indeed. First time director Demange only shows his inexperience in a tense scene where Hook is trying to avoid the Provos on the stairwell of a block of flats; the continuity is more confusing than tense. David Holmes’ score is a standout.

As others have commented, the Sight & Sound review is particularly good, the lack of politics means it is a limited portrayal of Belfast in 1971; however within these limitations it is a particularly good film.

The Riot Club (UK, 2014)

The state of things

The state of things

I hesitated to see this as I knew the antics of the ‘Bullingdon Club’ toffs would make me sick. Laura Wade adapted her play and Lone Scherfig directed what appears to be the ‘cream of British’ young male talent in this worthwhile film. The acting talent is very good: I don’t know their backgrounds but recent complaints, by the likes of David Morrissey among others, that unless you’re posh you’re not getting opportunities to join the acting profession, suggest maybe they know ‘posh’ behaviour intimately. Being ‘posh’ has always bequeathed an unfair advantage but after the increasing meritocracy we enjoyed in the post-war period, the pendulum has swung against the people since Thatcherism.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer thought the film to be humorous, whilst The Observer (not Kermode) felt we identified with the toffs too much to condemn their behaviour. There are accusations that the media is a ‘closed shop’, like acting, and it’s hard to square either of these responses with the film which is not funny and the ‘Riot Club’ boys, with one exception, are all scumbags.

I’m not sure my time was well spent as the film portrayed the British Establishment for what I know it is: corrupt and exploitative. Some might suggest it confirmed my prejudices but in a society where the poor are blamed for their poverty, whilst the rich wallow in their wealth, it is clear that we are fiddling whilst the planet burns.


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