Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog Five

The fifth instalment of The Dekalog films is direct, brutal and chilling. The commandment used as the inspiration for this film is "thou shall not kill", and it is the horrific killings around which the plot of Dekalog 5 revolves that have earned the collection a "15" certificate in the UK. Certainly there has been nothing I can recall up to this point which has been above a "12", with even the more adult themes being mostly alluded to rather than depicted.

The plot of Dekalog Five centres on the strange anti-social behaviour of a young man, as he wanders the streets aimlessly. While some scenes show hints of his humanity; at other times he seems to gain some grim satisfaction from inconveniencing, humiliating, hurting and finally killing others. The murder he commits is senseless, premeditated, and carried out upon a random victim who has not earned his victim status by being either especially odious or virtuous; but by simply just by being there.

The unfolding action in the city streets around the
Dekalog flats, is interspliced with the career development of an idealistic young lawyer, working his way up the ladder and preparing to defend his first accused person. Inevitably the two stories will collide, and they do, as the young man is caught, convicted and sentenced to death. The idealistic defence lawyer, asks the judge if the prisoner will die because of any errors on his part; but is assured that his speech was the best denunciation of the death penalty that he had heard, but nevertheless, the law stands. The lawyer's desperate attempts to save the life of the young sadistic murderer, come to nothing - and they spend a final half hour together before the sentence is carried out.

The execution is set up to be something similar to the original murder. It is planned, organised, thought- through and all the horrible weapons of death assembled. Like the murder, the execution for all it's planning, is a violent, frantic and ghastly business, in which pleas for mercy are ignored and the frenzy of killing is followed by a noxious silence. Unlike the hangings of Pierepoint (depicted in the movie starring Timothy Spall), in which hanging was conducted with scientific accuracy, speed and with an strange efficiency, this was a matter as horrible as the crime it sought to repay. The credits roll to the sound of the lawyer weeping and yelling, "I abhor it, I abhor it!" The viewer is drawn inevitably to the same conclusion.

It is fascinating that the Polish communist authorities permitted this film to be made and shown on TV, at a time when the Polish State still had the use of Capital Punishment at its disposal. While the rates of executions was a tiny fraction of what it had been under the Stalinist post-war regime, it was still many years before the end of such practices. Dekalog Five was obviously Krzysztof Kieślowski's attempt to hasten its' demise. 

Dekalog Five is horrible, nasty, and powerful as a result. It is noteworthy that Kieślowski's
anti-execution polemic doesn't suggest that the man was innocent; he wasn't. He doesn't suggest that the man was pleasant but unfortunate, he doesn't hint that there was an irregularity in court procedures or that this was a crime committed in self-defence. Krzysztof Kieślowski rather wants the viewer to see that even when a nasty man, commits a nasty crime, without compassion and for no reason; killing him is still not the appropriate response of the state. Asking the viewer to sympathise with the criminal, or to excuse him in some other way, would have detracted from the power of the point he was making. In fact the supressed humanity of the murderer only begins to re-surface in his final minutes.

The filming of Dekalog Five is interesting. The Dekalog Flats feature less than in the other film in the series, in that we see the victim leave the flats, but most of the action takes place away from them at the murder scene, and then in courts and prisons. It is also filmed in a very grimy low light, not in black and white, but an almost ghostly black-and yellow; which casts a mournful shadow over the entire length of the piece. Lengthened and reworked, this episode came to a wider audience as "A Short Film About Killing". It is powerful, intelligent and provocative filmmaking, essential viewing even though the instinct is to want to look away from the screen, again and again.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Film Notes: Under the Bombs

Phillippe Aractingi's 2007 film Under the Bombs (French: Sous les bombes, Arabic: تحت القصف; taht alqasf‎‎), is a deep lament for civilians caught up in the violence of war. The setting is Lebanon in 2006, just as the almost month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is drawing to a close under a UN brokered truce. While the war is raging as the film begins, it ends with French-UN forces arriving and a tense cease-fire generally holding sway. While the respective armies and politicians no doubt count their successes; this film focuses on the people who are left to bury their dead, and rebuild their roads, homes and families.

The film centres on two characters, Zeina and Tony; she has arrived back from Dubai in a desperate attempt to locate her sister and son, who have not been heard of since their town was bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Tony is the one taxi driver at the airport who is so in need of money (and it turns out with his personal dreams in tatters) that he is willing to drive Zeina into dangerous areas in search of her son. He is from 'the South' too, and knows the back-roads and diversionary routes around bombed out bridges, and unexploded ordnance which makes the post-combat zones enduringly dangerous. Nada Abou Farhat as Zeina and Georges Khabbaz as Tony, delivery memorable performances; begining the film as strangers, who in the course of their harrowing road-trip, discover more and more about each other's complex lives. The contrast between the fragile beauty of their humanity and the devastation which surrounds them is haunting.

Under the Bombs is superbly filmed too. According to Aractingi's interview with The Daily Telegraph, a lot it was filmed during the war, or in its immediate aftermath in 2006. The footage of ruined cities, of motorways junctions in fragments, of fleeing refugees, are real scenes of the horror of war. The cameramen took real risks in capturing this remarkable footage, which is on occasion spliced togther with archive news footage from the conflict too.

The obvious question which viewers want to know is which 'side' in the conflict the filmmakers take. Here in the West, people typically come to a film like Under the Bombs, wondering if it will be an anti-Israeli polemic, an apologetic for Hezbollah, or the inverse; a right-wing American funded justification for the Israeli bombing. The film itself turns out to be far more subtle and complex to be simply any of those things. For a start we met sympathetic characters who are Muslim as well as Lebanese Christian. Furthermore, we soon learn that one of the main characters has a brother who fought for the South Lebanses Army, who has fled to Israel, where he lives with his family  - and whose children speak fluent Hebrew. "We are not so different, we and the Jews" says one, "I don't care about politics, I don't care about religion - I just want to find my son" screams Zeina. The demarcation line
highlighted in this film is not racial, or religious; but between people of war, and those who simply want peace. "When the bombs stop, I pick my figs; when they start I hide in the caves" laments a elderly Palastinian man, who seems to speak for all those who simply want to get on with their lives. That doesn't make Under the Bombs a-political, or a piece of naive sentimentality though; we are introduced to friends and family of Tony the taxi-driver; who engage in passionate and informed debate about the many sided conflict. Tellingly though; Zeina interrupts the debate, and she and Tony leave to continue their tragic search. For her part Zeina looks as disgusted with the Israeli planes who kill her sister, as she does with the Hezbollah leaders who politicise the funeral.

Under the Bombs is a remarkable, poignant and unforgettable film which will remain branded in my memory for a very long time. There are simply too many war films which celebrate the heroism of combatants; and too few which expose the truth that the bravest of them all are usually the ordinary people, who face the task of finding some way forward when the bombs stop falling, the funeral processions are gone; and they stand alone in the rubble of all they once knew. Under the Bombs does all this and more; watch it and weep as the sorrow unfolds.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Film Notes: Spotlight

Spotlight is the 2015 film written by Tom McCarty and Josh Singer, about The Boston Globe's investigation into institutional child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts. Making a good film about journalism, which says something important, and does so in a compelling way is not easy. The most vivid newspaper stories are still essentially produced by a person sitting typing, with the resulting words being edited and spell-checked meticulously, which is hardly a spectator sport. Spotlight, however manages to make a gripping movie about the investigative and editorial process which led to the publication of a truly landmark piece of journalism.

The Spotlight team produced regular columns for The Globe, covering all manner of subjects, researched in substantial depth, sometimes over long periods of time. The film describes the way in which the team begin to unearth a series of sorry truths about the Catholic Church, the City of Boston and finally themselves. The investigation begins with a piece about a paedophile priest who was brought to trial, Fr John Geoghan. Interviews with victims suggest that he was not an isolated individual, but part of a large group of child-abusers who had infiltrated the church and used it as a means to access children to prey upon. Finally they unearth eighty-seven guilty names from within the Boston Archdiocese alone. Researching and publishing such grim truth turns out to be difficult, because the church was but one element of a Boston elite, who had spent decades ignoring the problem in the hope that it would go away. The city's legal system, is thoroughly implicated in the cover-up which Spotlight unearths, in which errant priests were moved from parish to parish to 'start-again', while pay-offs with gagging-clauses were agreed with any victim who spoke out. Perhaps as we have seen with Savile at the BBC in this country, there were countless people who knew, but did nothing. The final uncomfortable truth the Spotlight team discover is that they too had been sent information years before which they had failed to act upon; and that they too had been drawn into the web of silent cowardice in the face of power. This film concludes with both the abuse, and the institutional cover-up being exposed, leading to a massive shake-up of the church, the city, and the resignation of a Cardinal - and the phones ringing around the clock as countless further victims and survivors come forward.

In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies argues that this is exactly the type of journalism we are fast losing, because dropping sales have meant falling revenues, which have led to slashed budgets, reduced staff and the regression into what he calls mere 'churnalism'. 'Churnalism' is the term he uses to describe dispirited overworked journalists merely hacking press releases into unchecked, unsubstantiated almost worthless copy. The obvious question is, who speaks truth to power today? The 'powers' have obviously changed, the days of churches being part of the cultural hierarchy are long gone; but the new managers of the zeitgeist, and moneyed classes today do not have brave journalistic teams holding them to account. Rather, the UK libel laws, seem rigged in favour of the rich to precisely prevent such scrutiny. If you want a detailed understanding of the way that journalism today is stifled in this way, read the section on 'money' in Nick Cohen's "You Can't Read This Book".

The roles of the core investigative team at Spotlight, are really well performed by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. They benefit from good direction and editing, some very well observed set-design and era-appropriate details, and an exceptional script. There are a few especially telling moments in the film. Notable amongst these were some of the interviews with (now adult) victims, which were harrowing to watch. Not in terms of the lurid details, which are mostly referenced indirectly and handled with some care by the filmmakers. Some crime based films take a salacious delight in the horror of the offence, but Spotlight avoids this temptation; in order to more soberly consider the long-term effects of abuse upon its' survivors.

Within the movie the subject of 'spiritual abuse' is also raised but not really defined. There seem to be two aspects to this within the film. The first is that within Catholic theology, the priest is an intermediary between people and God, and so acts apparently with God's authority. Victims spoke of
being unable to fight back or resist as they had inculcated the idea that to resist a priest was to defy God. The second aspect of the spiritual abuse raised, is that abuse by the church robs people of their faith - something precious, defining which gives their lives meaning, which is ripped away from them. Mark Ruffallo and Rachel McAdams characters both indicate that this investigation marks the final end of their remaining Catholicism. Both of these issues are worthy of some comment, because the common theme which unites them is that the church is not God.

I write this review from the perspective of a Christian who believes that God does not mediate his grace to humanity through an institution; but through a person: Jesus Christ. The elevation of a priest into a divine mediatorial role, doesn't just give him the opportunity to abuse (though that is the context in this film), but to smear the good name of God with whatever faults the man or his institution has. We should note that such thinking can all to easily permeate churches who would not ever actually endorse such hierarchical theology and might even include some statement about the 'priesthood of all believers' in their basis of faith.  Presenting a veneer of respectability, hiding a morass of wickedness can cause nothing but long-lasting damage to the cause one is seeking to protect. Conversely truth is always liberating.

Spotlight then is a film which calls us not merely to disgust, anger or a knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. Rather, it demands that we do not hide wrongdoing, but call it out for what it is, both in ourselves and in powerful institutions wherever it occurs. Likewise, it demands that we are rigorous in all our child-protection procedures in churches, schools, youth-clubs, sports-clubs and the like as the damage done to individuals by systematic failures in this regard are appalling. Finally Spotlight calls us to seek a free, open press who can investigate the great, the good and the powerful, without fear.

Spotlight is a thought-provoking and disturbing film which exposes dark truths and does so, quite brilliantly.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 4

All ten of Krzysztof Kieślowski's short films in the Dekalog series have certain things in common; they are brooding, bleak, atmospheric dramatic shorts, set in the same monolithic Soviet-era block of flats, and all are inspired to some degree by The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. To undertake such a task when Poland was torn between the Catholic and Soviet identifies on offer was a bold enough prospectus, but Kieslowski once remarked that these were plays about right and wrong, written in an era when the very authority to define such concepts was up for grabs. This is compelling stuff, and in the hands of filmmaker as thoughtful and subtle as Kieslowski, surely going to have a lot to offer.

In practice the films are not all of the same quality. The ones which work least well are those where viewers and critics are left debating about which of the Commandments the film is said to relate to. Kieslowski didn't name the films, merely numbered them, and is a director who likes to leave things for his audiences to work out for themselves.
There is no doubt at all about which commandment Dekalog 4 draws on for its inspiration however, "honour thy father and mother" is clearly in view here. [spoiler alert]. The nature, importance, and uniqueness of the parent-child relationship is explored; and its limits probed, in this touching piece of drama. The film opens in the (by now familiar looking) 'dekalog' flats. A man and woman (Anka and Michal) share this flat, and we first encounter them they are acting playfully and affectionately, and despite their differing ages the starting assumption is that the beautiful 20-something is the wife/partner of the older man. Then, it becomes apparent that they are not partners in that sense at all; their separate rooms, and the appearance of the woman's boyfriend reveal that, and when she waves Michal off on a trip she says, "Goodbye Dad". 

As the complex narrative unwinds, we discover that the girl's mother died soon after delivering her, leaving Michal to bring the girl up alone. He has never remarried, or formed any long term attachments, despite some brief liaisons. At the time the film is set Anka has grown up, is a drama student for whom sex (with a succession of boyfriends) is part and parcel of her life; despite her father's disapproval. This much is straightforward; however the neat lines dividing the parenting relationship from all other are shattered when Anka finds a letter which reveals that Michal is not her biological father. A conflict ensues, in which Anka angrily accuses of Michal of lying to her for years. More disturbingly however, once the restraints of biological incest are removed; and it becomes clear that an unspoken sexual tension has
been building between them for years - their whole relationship could be metamorphosed from from that of parent/child to that of lovers. Here we have the heart of the question Kieslowski asks his audience: is parenting simply a matter defined by DNA, or is the social role of nurturing, disciplining, and raising equally definitive? The answer supplied by Anka and Michal, is that despite the physical attraction, the parenting relationship is more that the sum of its genes, and that the parenting relationship is to be honoured, preserved and protected. The film ends as they burn the letter which revealed their biological secret, and Anka again calls Michal 'Dad'.

Anka is well played by Adrianna Biedrzyńska, who very patiently allows the audience to explore the complexity of the character, as the reasons for her angst, tension and promiscuity is progressively
revealed. Janusz Gajos is excellent as Michal too, as he resists the obvious temptation to overplay it, and scene steal. Instead he allows the complex character of Michal to be tormented and complex, but in a quiet, stoical manner - so much of a more believable portrayal, whose impact is all the greater for its subtlety.

Dekalog 4 is a surprising, and slightly disturbing film. But one which asks an important question and probes towards a helpful answer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 3

Kryzystof Kieslowski's "Dekalog" series of ten short films, was billed as his creative response to the Ten Commandments. I was attracted to the concept, not simply because of it's biblical inspiration, and because I assumed it would contain some interesting ethical wrestling; but because Kieslowski is such an interesting film maker. His "Three colours trilogy", was not only beautifully shot and wonderfully constructed, but was intriguingly quirky in its' inclusion of subtle signs, references and illusions - few of which were 'in the face' of the viewer, but which constantly intrigued and fascinted.

The Dekalog series are equally subtle, loaded with hints, pictures and subtle references playing between each of the individual films - all of whihc are set in the same tower-block of flats. Intriguingly, it is not always obviosu which commandment is being referenced in each film, although Dekalog 1 is thought to be inspired by the 'have no other gods before me' instruction, and Dekalog 2, by the prohibition on misusing the Lord's name. Dekalog 3 is said to be attached to the command to keep the Sabbath Day - but the narrative of this film makes that far from obvious.

The story concerns the events of Christmas Eve night, and two people searching for a missing man. The two are Janusz and his former mistres Ewa, and they are looking for her husband who she has reported missing. From the outset, the commandment against commiting adultery seems a more obvious starting point for the film. However, the narrative takes a series of unlikely turns (spoiler alert!). For a start the couple do not resume their affair, which has been over for three years; then it turns out that the missing husband is not a missing person but left Ewa years ago - and the whole night they spend together is predicated upon an elaborate series of lies (which call another commandment altogether into play). Finally as they separate at 7AM, and Janusz goes home to his wife, who simply wants to know if he is going to be faithful to her or resume the affair; Ewa reveals what has realy been going on. She was alone on Christmas Eve, and set herself the 'bet' of gaining company until Christmas Morning, or ending her life. 

Dekalog 3 contains many of the strenghts of the first two films, bleak and atmospheric shooting, compelling acting and an engaging storyline. It doesn't match up to the first two in terms of links to the commandments, emotional engagement, or depth of thought however. Of the first three films, this is the weakest by some margin. The alleged links to 'the sabbath' commandment are made by seeing links between Sabbattarian duty, and Janusz's duties as a husband - but this seems contrived. This couple seem to be damaged by the fallout from the violation of the adultery commandment, and caught up in the middle of a web of lies; and these commandments seem to be closer to the mark. 

Unlike the focused impact of Dekalog 1 & 2, the third film seems to drift. The bleak empty streets, the moody filming and Maria Pakulnis' brilliant performance as Ewa, don't quite compensate for the fact that this film just doesn't grab the viewer by the throat like the first two.