BFI – Debate in Film.
‘Debate; Riveting films that amplify, scrutinise, argue and surprise.’
Open your eyes. Are you an individual, or a collective? Are you an opinion, or ideology? Do you care? Perhaps not. So often we are party to a single vision, and see only a single side of a coin. As an academic, university student body, we are all striving to open our minds beyond our own ideas and attempting to get an understanding of all the facts presented to us. After all these efforts, we are still likely to return comfortably to our old seats in our cultural surroundings. For all its entertainment value, film is often marginalised to the glamour, high production values, special effects and emphatic scripts of Hollywood. Fed by Americanisms, impartiality is difficult, and it is tempting to all lean in one direction. The BFI’s Debate category gives light to a genre of film that might otherwise be overshadowed by the red carpet. Out of interest for how films can make us think, I attended the festival’s premieres of three films and spoke to each of their directors.
Directed By Peter Slatter,
‘Camp XRAY’ is a film stripped to its bare bones. A blank canvas, but for the naked and most raw of human emotions. A film about Guantanamo Bay, a hugely politicised and complex issue that is contested through a spectrum of international debate with exhausting polar extremes, reduced to its simplest and most isolated form; the relationship between a guard and a detainee. This effort is as successful as it is problematic. On the one hand, at the heart of ‘Camp XRAY’ is the immediate humanitarian tale – A vulnerable, human story of a camp guard willing to listen and a detainee eager to tell of his plight, capable of undermining any global power politics. On the other hand is the greater context and political cesspit which Guantanamo Bay falls in to; one of security, human rights, war, legality, nationalism, and hypocrisy. Speaking to him before the screening, I asked director Peter Slatter if he saw film as an effective medium to provoke thought and debate. He began his answer by emphasising the film’s neutrality – ‘as a piece of Art you can’t go in trying to give someone a message…trying to convince the audience of something’ – clearly outlining that film shouldn’t have a biased angle of approach, ‘you have to come at it more subtly… more obliquely, and Art is a great way to do that’. Then he gave me a ‘but’. ‘…but (there it is) Art in a weird way can trick you, it can slip the medicine with a spoon full of sugar.’ The ‘medicine’ being a refocus on the humans affected by policy, and the ‘sugar’ being the power of cinema. As a humanitarian project, the film is effective. Viewed through the eyes of female camp guard Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), what the audience in fact experiences is the confinement and suppression of the human spirit, which is visually portrayed in the Detainee (who is powerfully portrayed by Peyman Moaadi). ‘Camp XRAY’s conclusion is a genuinely clever and intuitive item of film making that leaves the audience not in a state of elation or in tears. Rather one finds themselves helpless. Helpless in that we adopt the brutal psychological circumstance of the prisoner, and helpless in the knowledge that reducing an issue as large as Guantanamo Bay to its ethical bases, stands little chance in surmounting its heavy political burden.
‘The movie’s about people not politics…’
Either someone slipped something funny into my tea or ‘Court’ is an exceptionally comfortable film to watch. This account of the Indian judicial system does not come with any overarching and complex plot that is designed to lure any emotional reaction from the viewer. To all intents and purposes ‘Court’ is a naturalistic and realistic park bench observation of Indian contemporary society. Director Tamhane’s un-rushed style of film making and passive camera use has certainly contributed to this style, as has the large casting of first-time actors. Speaking after the screening, Tamhane revealed that casting was predominantly carried out in public places such as banks and train stations, and editorial cuts were limited to just 110 meaning the main constructs of the film were lengthy and undisturbed scenes. These elements intended to replicate the subject matter as closely as possible and made ‘Court’ a trustworthy insight into Indian society; though unless there really was something in my tea, I also thought it might be described as lackadaisical, and an unusual festival listing for debate. I asked Chaitanya Tamhane the same question I put to Peter Slatter, to which he revealed that he had not particularly intended ‘Court’ to have any element of thought provocation. Rather his original inspiration was, quite amusingly, the idea of centring a high-paced court room drama on the mundane daily proceedings of a civic court. Had that original concept materialise, ‘Court’ would probably be best suited to Sunday night T.V. and the wavering attention of our wine induced parents! Thankfully Chaitanya Tamhane’s background in documentary work had clear influences on his directing vision, and he has provided a cross section of Indian society that is interesting and worthy of discussion. Below the somewhat charming and serene vision of Indian middle class life, the viewer’s experience is subtly unnerved by a simmering restlessness in Indian society; this aspect gives ‘Court’ a genuine value. What emerges from it is a westernised Indian judicial system with clear signs of maturity, but which is over-burdened in a mass society that is not westernised and not altogether well suited to an imported legal system (court proceedings are slightly reminiscent of a commercial customer service system). Following the repeated plight of a poetical activist, the audience learns of implied illiberal state authority, and manipulation of the police force. As ‘Camp XRAY’ plays out along tracks of sexism and human rights, ‘Court’ is also revealing of an increasing level of change and influence, beyond the court room, on public life. Tamhane may not have overtly intended this project to provoke debate (an element that perhaps gives ‘Court’ greater levels of credibility), but a conception that might well have been suited to Sunday night television crime drama has inarguably fulfilled itself as an insightful cross-section into part of Indian Society.
Fishing Without Nets
Excavating a ‘grey area’ and giving a camera to the events that proceed the newspaper headline, that is how Cutter Hodierne considers his approach to film making as a means of provoking debate. ‘Fishing Without Nets’ is a tale about Somali piracy; or perhaps more appropriately, Somali pirates. There are no heroes, there is no victory; it is de-politicised and de-nationalised. Stripped of these additives, what remains is a complex display of human relations in a context of anarchy. ‘Fishing Without Nets’ exposes more than dramatised anger and hurt, and cycles through an edgy palette of depravity, disparity, isolation, determination and humility. It is raw, provoking, and certainly not comfortable viewing; not for the presence of any gore or graphic imagery, but because of the tormented individuals at the heart of this work. As in ‘Court’, the majority of actors in the film had no previous experience in the film industry. This casting choice invariably is taken as part of an effort to keep as close to the true subject matter as possible; real people, real lives, and real situations. Though shot in Kenya, all the actors portraying pirates were Somali. Hodierne revealed, though naturally he would not specify who, that one had previously been involved in piracy, and another in a militia group. It is possible to critique ‘Fishing Without Nets’ on the absence of any focus on a wider Somalian society, beyond piracy, which can lead to the easy assumption that the film’s characters are representative of all Somali people. If you take this viewpoint then you may also think the film would have been more appropriately named ‘The Only Good Somalian’, as most of its subjects don’t earn much endearment. Rather this removal from wider society is an indicator of the immersion into, and isolation of the subject matter. Isolation is a key element to this film in several ways, and is depicted most notably in its final scene. Beyond this, however, the individuals are the product of a chaotic society in which they are left, to quite carnally, survive alone. Unlike the pirates themselves, their poverty can be taken to be representative of wider Somali life, and the viewer may find themselves searching for solutions to their plight. Whether you are endeared in any way to the characters or not, ‘Fishing Without Nets’ shows an un-Westernised Somali side of the piracy coin, to which no viewer can respectfully deny the existence of a wider issue. In this way Director Hodierne has succeeded in expanding a subject beyond a headline and prejudice based critique.
‘as I went through the process making the movie I evolved from being, maybe, in a point of somewhat empathising with piracy… and evolved into a much more middle ground… it is meant to provoke a conversation, but I certainly wasn’t trying to say that one side was right or wrong, just to get into that grey area…all I can really say is that it’s the itch being scratched on an artistic urge…’
How does film work as a mode of debate? – By providing reconstructed scenarios that are as true to evidence and eyewitness as possible and which cling to an unadulterated viewpoint. Removed of political or national labels the audience is able to emphasise, or not, from a humanitarian perspective. This is a common feature across all three films in this review, as is concluding without resolution. ‘Camp XRAY’, ‘Court’, and ‘Fishing Without Nets’ may not advocate a specific viewpoint, explicitly ask questions, or even have begun production with the intent of evoking a thoughtful response from its viewers, but they share a feature of provocative filmmaking which eludes to their success, and inclusion within the BFI’s category of Debate. Having raised a subject for thought, these films do not give the viewer any catharsis or any concluding comforts at all. These films raise an issue that won’t pass with the credits, but will leave with you from the cinema. If you are interested in a true use of film that isn’t cheap, glamourous or dramatically scripted but gritty and to the point, here are three finely crafted examples to get the ball rolling.