Lebanon (Israel-France-Germany, 2009)

Pressure tank

It’s a big challenge to set the whole of a film inside a tank but when you’re trying to convey what it was like invading Lebanon, in 1982, in an Israeli tank then it’s a good starting point. Writer-director, Samuel Moaz, makes the constraint a strength through the humanity of his (autobiographical, at least, to some extent) story, the performances and the brilliance of the set and sound design.

The grinding of the gears and metallic reverberation of the engine encases the audience in an authentic sounding soundscape and the often juddering camera, shooting the inhabitants in close up, adds to the feeling of ‘being in there’. ‘In there’ was a convincing vision of hell as it rapidly becomes decrepit as it’s ill-used by the conscripts and the walls appear to moldering as if in a Tarkovsky movie. We can see the outside, though the soldiers’ viewfinders, and the events shown are worthy of several circles of Dante’s hell.

Israel’s ‘Defence’ Force often splits opinion but there’s no doubt in my mind that its aggression contributes massively to world instability; only last week 11 where killed approaching Gaza in international waters. Moaz’s film is realist and takes no overt political position, but it’s ‘war as hell’ message – whilst commonplace – is powerfully portrayed. I think the destruction of a guy transporting chickens, and the fate of a Lebanese family, place the film firmly on the anti-Israel side (however, the opposite reading is possible).

The four soldiers in the tank are all out of their depth; one of them desperately wants his mum. And the terrible effects of war on these young man is painfully shown but so are the acts of humanity that can occur amongst degradation; one helps a prisoner to piss in a pot.

The best new film, along with A Single Man, I’ve seen so far this year so experience it in the immersive environment of the cinema while you can.

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District 9 (US-New Zealand, 2009)

The Fly meets Robocop

Genre films, particularly SF, are great for smuggling interesting messages into mainstream entertainment and premises don’t come much better than this where aliens arrive in a pathetic state and end up being corralled in a township in Johannesburg. The parallel with apartheid is clear, though it must be remembered that, for many cinemagoers, apartheid is history. The form of the film, as a mix of television documentary, TV news reports and omniscient (ie normal) filming, helps tell the tale with immediacy; though it wouldn’t stand up to an analysis of a  consistent narrative voice. But…

Genre films can degenerate into cliche, District 9 mines every narrative trope available, and the characters are deeply under-developed. So the last half of the film is a raging yawn; that said, it is 119th on the imdb and was a commercial hit. More worrying is its politics: whilst the idea of aliens being degenerate is a fascinating one, the apartheid parallel then becomes extremely worrying. Or maybe they’re not degenerates, we are not given enough detail to understand why they are scavengers and why they appear not to be able to operate their spaceship. Is their behaviour a result of how they are treated on Earth or were they a load of criminals dumped on Earth, similar to the way Britain used to send convicts to Australia? Ambiguity is fine but in offering an allegorical reading the film has a duty to be clearer in what it’s trying to say.

And the representations of the Nigerians…?! How is it okay to group the superstition-ridden gangsters as Nigerians?

This should have been a great film but the script’s far too weak.

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (UK, 2010)

More than a lesbian?

Broadcast on BBC2, The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister dramatised one of those women ‘hidden from history’. I first came across her in a ‘publicity piece’ in The Observer for the BBC dramatisation. A fascinating woman she sounds however this drama focuses almost wholly on her sexuality. It’s as if the defining characteristic of a homosexual, once he or she finds their life on the screen, is their sexuality; not something that often happens for heterosexual biopics (unless they’re Casanova).

We do get hints of Lister’s business nous but this forms a relatively small part of the drama which is driven by her desire to get married to the woman she loves. As this is the 1820s it certainly is a story but it was far too dominant in the narrative. Didn’t the BBC believe the programme would find an audience without ‘girl on girl’ action? Come on BBC! You are a Public Service Broadcaster and telling this woman’s tale properly would’ve been a public service. The day after the Halifax Courier ran a story of a lesbian marriage on its page 3; it’s good to see such unions being mainstreamed.

It was an immaculate production, with excellent performances, but I’m sure we could have more interesting drama if it had been a six-part tale that focused on her economic and political role as much as her sexuality.