Monday, 28 March 2011

Armadillo and the politics of Le Semaine de la Critique

Le Semaine de la Critique makes for a rather unimpressive, secondary section at the Festival de Cannes. The films showcased in Le Semaine are meant to highlight young talent, but the selection usually turns out to be less exciting than Cannes’ other similar competitions for young film directors like Director's Fortnight or Un Certain Regard. Only very few films which are shown through Le Semaine receive international release and attention from outside of the festival and this fact alone is a huge indicator of the mediocre status of the competition and the films themselves. In spite of all this, it was very exciting to watch Armadillo – the first ever documentary to receive the Grand Prix at Le Semaine de la Critique. The film not only received attention from a multitude of international distributors but caused a political uproar in its native Denmark. It tells a story of a group of young soldiers landing in “Armadillo,” a military base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. For many of the men it is the first time in combat and Janus Metz, the director of the film, turns their first war experience into an exploration of the male psyche and its primal desire for fight.

Aesthetically Armadillo can be easily grouped together with a canon of war documentaries that are a part of the very well-established subgenre of documentary film-making in America. At first glance Armadillo isn’t in any way different from Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight, Control Room or Restrepo. Many of these films present a critique of the governments that conduct war in Afghanistan and present the misfortunes of the people who have to fight in that war. But Metz’s approach is on a much more personal level than any of the aforementioned films. The director investigates the everyday life of a soldier and asks daunting questions about the dark side of human nature.  Armadillo makes an inquiry into the mind of a warrior. We see bits and pieces of the background stories of each character, seeing them at their homes before departure. At a farewell party where all soldiers are enjoying the company of a stripper we identify the individuals as young men, eager to showcase their masculinity, immaturity and impulsiveness. That immaturity manifests itself later on as we see their superficial view of war. One of the characters while waiting for combat refers to experiencing war without killing as going to a theme park and missing all the fanfare. While waiting for a real life bloodbath the boys play video games in which they imagine their actions in the battlefield. They spend their days talking about warfare and almost day dreaming about killing the enemy.

Metz’s commitment to his story and the courage he demonstrates by marching into the battle with the soldiers is truly staggering. The camera follows the soldiers wherever they go so that the audience can understand the full scope of the situation the characters found themselves in and possibly make sense of the primal instincts that overcome the soldiers when confronted with the enemy fire. Metz’s crew risk their own lives during the fight with the Taliban; they never release the camera from their hands. Thanks to that the film achieves a certain aesthetic artistry which resembles warfare video games. But even though the film looks beautiful and the sense of danger is poignantly translated on screen, it somehow feels disappointing. One gets the feeling that the director wants to achieve through his documentary something that was done in the Oscar winning film Hurt Locker, where the combat is presented as a force of nature. In Hurt Locker war is portrayed as a source of exceptional thrill and as such it appears dangerous and addictive. Armadillo flirts with a similar angle but in the end Metz fails to deliver.

Instead, we see the characters of Armadillo running in pointless circles, wanting to find the bad guys without trying to understand the local community and their situation. The ignorance of the Danish is similar to the unawareness exemplified by the American soldiers in the aforementioned Restrepo. The soldiers see themselves as saviours; an attitude which has its source in their Christian identity highlighted at least a couple of times throughout the film. Armadillo rather unintentionally reveals that the war in Afghanistan is a defeat for the Westerners, definitely in cultural terms. But it is a defeat that Danes can only blame themselves for due to their own ignorance. There is a scene in which one of the soldiers tries to interact with the village’s youth. They complain about the death toll that is caused by the military and warn them that the Taliban will eventually come after them and kill every single one of them. But the soldier unable to speak their language is left laughing idiotically and ignores the children.

“In the early research of the project, I was surprised that the majority of those who had already been to war, had a desire to return,” states Metz in one of the interviews. But the soldiers’ compulsion to return to the battlefield is never really explored. We do get hints of what might be the reasons behind the boys’ fascination with war: video games, distraction from the monotonous life at home, camaraderie, and the thrill of being in a life and death situation. But Metz doesn’t succeed in thoroughly analysing his subjects. In another statement the director makes an observation that during  battle, "The soldiers are so close to death and they actually kill someone." Metz seems astonished by the fact that gunfire is used in the warzone and both sides of the conflict are determined to kill. He tries to excuse the killing as an outcome of soldiers’ fear of death, but the film proves that according to the soldiers, it’s the act of killing which is the main attraction of war.

 The director stumbles upon something profound in one of the final scenes of the film in which the soldiers find themselves under fire from the Taliban. They kill the enemy and then victoriously stand over the dead bodies of the Afghanis and handle them in a somewhat disrespectful or joyous manner. But as soon as the director exposes the effect killing has on the soldiers (one of the boys explains later that it feels like they “were on a high” right after the battle) he goes into debating if it was right or wrong of them to do what they did. Metz’s desire to explore something primal and essential for the study of human nature feels genuine, but unfortunately for him the material he gathered wasn’t reflective enough to support his thesis. As the director does not want to interfere in the documented subject he is destined to rely in search of his answers entirely on the actions of the platoon. The effect is only a partial success – the film often forcefully fills the gaps between important events with meaningless conversations and the soldiers’ routines of day to day life. It works perfectly for a documentary about being a soldier, but fails for a film about human nature. 

Friday, 11 March 2011

How to review a reviewer. On Sight & Sound and Skolimowski's Essential Killing

In the latest issue of Sight and Sound Tony Rayns presents a very comprehensive but surprisingly badly researched review of Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing. The critic brands the main character of the film (named in the credits as Muhammad) as 'unsympathetic’ and states that the director feels empathy for a jihadist. Then he goes on to give us details of his odd analysis. Rayns questions everything, going as far to say that Muhammad’s dreams of home is a sick fantasy, his only motivation being the desire to kill (or some other sinister impulse). He also refers to Muhammad’s counterparts as infidels, clearly giving us insight into the character’s psyche that the film itself doesn’t provide.

Skolimowski's film is a very subtle tale. It tells of an Arab man who kills a few Americans in an indeterminate desert in the Middle East. He is then taken for questioning and when water boarding turns out to be fruitless in gathering information from the individual, the main character is transported to a military base in Poland. During his rendition he manages to escape into the cold and hostile wilderness of Poland’s forests. While on the run he kills whoever stands in his way. The point Mr Rayns is missing in his analysis is that the main character is not portrayed as either good or evil; his acts although on many levels sinister do not receive any judgment from the director. The image of the main character is beyond the usual concepts of morality and is portrayed more as a force of nature.

Skolimowski fills his film with parallels, comparisons and juxtapositions. The heat of the Arabian desert is juxtaposed with the coldness of the Polish winter. American English is spoken by the military intelligence while Polish is the language of villagers and lumberjacks. To add to this lingual characteristic, the main character doesn’t say a single word throughout the film so that we are left to wonder: is it because he is morally superior or is it because he is culturally retarded?

There is a certain power structure that Skolimowski underlines throughout the film. For starters, the Americans make all the important decisions, most importantly about the lives of other people, while Poles are diminished to a role which allows them to kill... trees. The military decides how the operation of terrorist hunting is conducted even though the Poles inhabit the land; Polish people remain in the background, ignorant to unfolding events. They represent the lower industrial class, too passive to stop either the Americans or the terrorists. The process of intellectual industrial/ imperial power exploiting a disadvantaged nation of less educated and powerless folks takes us right back to the period of romanticism in Polish history. 

Poland has a very long account of abuse experienced from neighbouring empires, in the proto-romanticist period the dominant authority being the Russian Empire. At that time Poland was linked with Russia via Tsar Alexander I, who ruled both countries while keeping their sovereignties separate. The Poles, who were initially very happy about the union, hoping to benefit economically and culturally, soon discovered that the Tsar wanted to dominate their country and turn it into a Russian province. In Essential Killing Skolimowski exposes a very similar dynamic between Poland and the USA.

Romanticism as a movement emphasised strong emotions as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. Trepidation, terror and awe were especially validated if experienced when confronting the sublime beauty of untamed nature. The natural world was fascinating and mystical for romantics just as it is for Muhammad when he finds himself on the run. As the story unfolds we learn that one of Muhammad’s most notable characteristics is the spontaneity in which he makes his decisions. Romantics treasured instinct over logic therefore the main character’s series of killings can be looked at as an extension of that sentiment: when absent of moral distinctions it goes beyond comprehension.   

Essential Killing just like any other romantic piece has a tragic love story to tell. One part of it is presented in the flashbacks from the main character’s past. We see his wife and a child; Muhammad spends his days in careless joy when accompanied by his family. The second part of the love tale unfolds while the main character is on the lam. He meets a deaf woman who helps him recover and allows him to spend the night in her house. Her lack of hearing makes her more vulnerable and sensitive to qualities other people might not be able to see in Muhammad. Romantics focused on sensibility and the woman’s compassion and understanding certainly underlines this quality. Their encounter even though brief is filled with emotional subtext. We can see the woman longing for protection and Muhammad wanting to feel the warmth of a home again.

As Muhammad says goodbye to his saviour and rides away on a white horse, he re-enters the harsh realms of nature and by doing so dooms himself to a certain death. Just like other great romantic characters Muhammad is defeated by the grandeur of Gaia and dies without fulfilling either his love or plan of escape.

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling,” said Baudelaire. The martyrdom and Jesus-like appearance of the main character suggest that the romantic ideals survive in the Polish psyche up to this day. The country’s seemingly immortal fascination with Roman-Catholic symbolism is only another variant of the ‘feeling’ to which Baudelaire is referring. Just like the romantics, today’s Poland is unable to comprehend the powers that decide its place in the world and turn to their internal sensibilities, exhibited through the devoted faith in a Supreme Being. Skolimowski as much as he is enchanted by the idea, realises that there is only one way to end such a romantic tale – and it isn’t a happy ending.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Spring awakening? – On where cinema is headed in the month of March.

March is the time when we say goodbye to Oscar nominees and allow specialty cinema to reclaim its place on the big screen. The end of February saw some impressive releases reaching the cinematic populace, especially in the documentary department: Inside Job directed by Charles Ferguson and Waste Land directed by Lucy Walker being the finest examples (it’s worth mentioning that both films are also Oscar nominees, *but* of a non-Hollywood origin). Both films were the talk of last year's Toronto Film Festival, and for a reason! Ferguson in his Inside Job walks us through the financial crisis of 2008. Step by step we learn small details of the banks' wrongdoings and become familiar with the political background which created the, as the director calls it, “perfect storm.” Ferguson presents the complex issues of financial discrepancies in a simple, at times even didactic way, but puts just enough Moore-sque comedy bits into his film to compensate for the otherwise serious tone. Waste Land on the other hand relies much less on comedy and allows its subject to simply speak for itself and set the tone for the film. The story of a landfill in Buenos Aires turns into an intellectual debate over class divides, social indifference and ignorance. Even though very stern, the outcome of the film is more hopeful than depressing.

But that was February. What about March? This same time last year we have seen similar great releases, both documentaries and feature films: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Father of My Children, Lourdes and No One Knows About Persian Cats to name a few. Yet as it turns out this year’s line-up is nothing like that. If March was any indication of what is awaiting us in cinemas in 2011, the view is rather grim.

Patagonia directed by Marc Evans is a must-see for every Welsh who wants to reminisce about the good old pre-Thatcher days of industrial glory. The film tells two parallel stories: an old woman travels to Wales from Patagonia region in Argentina in search of her roots and a couple of young  lovers takes a similar journey in the opposite direction, when travelling across Argentina documenting Welsh influence signified by side road chapels.  Yes, the film is extremely simplistic in its narrative - love stories are just too conveniently plotted and all characters are quite one-dimensional. But at the same time the film shows its honesty through the clich├ęd plot devices. It enchants the audience with its unique charm and while it romanticises the effects of Imperial British influence abroad, it makes very adequate observations about the cultural gap between today’s Argentina and Wales. Cymru is spoken through the majority of the film and Duffy makes a guest appearance as a mysterious Welsh beauty who seduces a young traveller from Patagonia with her looks and her voice. Patagonia could turn out to be something of a cultural treasure for the modern Welsh, as their language and cultural legacy is celebrated on the big screen in a truly grand style.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams directed by Werner Herzog is another interesting pick. The film premiered just a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival, gaining lots of positive attention from the critics and regular attendees. This year’s big Berlinale marketing campaign focused heavily on integrating 3D with art house cinema as the majority of the festival’s competition picks were presented in 3D format. Herzog's documentary certainly showcases undeniable tendencies and opportunities of the 3rd dimension. The new format adds previously unknown texture and expressive capabilities to documentary filmmaking and Herzog, even though very new to this way of film-making, very skilfully explores the possibilities with which 3D presents him. As we enter the Chauvet caves, which contain the oldest and most numerous pictorial creations made by early humans, Herzog wants nothing less than to transfer the experience of being inside the actual cave to his audience via 3D. The story of the search for the origin of image runs parallel to Herzog’s contemplation on the evolution of cinema and humanity. In Herzog’s perspective cinema just like any other human device is undergoing a constant transition and the 3D format is only the latest manifestation of that change. The film is an interesting experience, and it is definitely one of the first art house films addressing the matter of communion between 3D and the specialty cinema as an unavoidable step.

Unfortunately the list of interesting March premieres ends here. Yes, British cinema certainly makes its case this month, with Submarine and Archipelago, both of which might not showcase the best writing and execution, but prove to be much more complex and interesting than the late British big Oscar winner The King's Speech. Hollywood also shows its ugly face with LA: Battle, The Eagle, Unknown and Country Strong. But all of these films demonstrate mediocre storytelling and underwhelming cinematic qualities. Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger turns out to be a perfect synergy of the shape in which cinema in the UK will be in the month of March. It follows familiar patterns and under delivers to the point of exhaustion but at the same time has enough stamina to make us come back and ask for more. And just like with every bad Woody Allen film, next month can’t come quickly enough - and hopefully it’ll be better than the previous one.