#nzff: Truth, Ruins, and Autonomy

In director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Dwight lives an idyllic-sounding life: his home is in the sand dunes, he bathes in the sea, and he eats fresh fish for dinner. This isn’t how we meet him, though. The opening shots portray the plain interiors of a house with all the banal trappings of suburban life and eventually settle on bearded, bedraggled Dwight, soaking in the bathtub. A family arrives home and he leaps out the bathroom window in a towel, still dripping wet as he sprints awkwardly back into the margins of society. Not his banal life.

Dwight | Blue Ruin

Dwight, who lives in a rusty old car that he also drives, appears not to have been doing much with his life for some time. He has no friends, though he’s known to police; indeed, it’s the intervention of a sympathetic policewoman that gives Dwight his purpose and sets the plot in motion. Unfortunately, that purpose is bloody, clumsy revenge for an incident that happened long in the past. Whatever Dwight has been doing, he now has little on his mind except murder of the most functional and least glamorous kind.

There are a few laughs in Blue Ruin, and I was surprised at how much they made me laugh. Dwight’s general ineptitude is endearing in a sad kind of way, so when he hacksaws the end off an arrow embedded in his thigh before pouring alcohol all over the wound and ripping the head out, it’s as funny as it is cringeworthy. The film’s violent scenes also feel as banal as any of Dwight’s day-to-day life, illustrating how his world has been flattened out into a near-emotionless husk.

My problem was that once exposition took over about 40 minutes in, all the good work of the almost dialogue-free setup unravelled a little in the face of so much direct information. I would’ve been content not to know why any of this was happening if the rest of the film was as expertly crafted as that opening third, and there’s one character who has no real reason to trust Dwight but does so for the sake of the plot. As a result, the climax wasn’t the gut punch it maybe should’ve been, although there was some emotional resonance in the line, “Because my father loved your mother, we all die” — delivered as flatly and plainly as any other in the film.

Onto something completely different. I saw A Separation a few months ago and thought it was a total masterpiece, expertly crafted but with a very natural feel, believable and thought-provoking. My bar for The Past was therefore pretty high. Thankfully, it could be described in much the same way, and we can now declare that Asghar Farhadi is a cinematic master of truth and its consequences. Even the title card at the start is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s subject. He must put a lot of time into developing his films: they feel so natural and yet are so tightly crafted.

Berenice Bejo | The Past

Farhadi sets up the principal characters one by one — Marie-Anne, her ex-husband Ahmad, her new partner Samir, her children Lucie and Lea, and Samir’s son Fouad, who was born to his now-comatose wife. From there, the details of why Ahmad left and why Samir’s wife are in a coma are slowly revealed, and there’s so much going on with character that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Coming in from the outside, but with the understanding of someone who’s lived in this house for years, Ahmad is able to weigh up every situation and speak freely and honestly towards a positive resolution, free of the baggage that confines everyone else’s present. And he is very helpful, and clearly still loved by everyone (apart from Samir, who you’ve got to feel for), but even from his more straightforward perspective he cannot know everything; truth is not as simple as it seems, and in some cases, an assumption can stand in for the truth without anyone really noticing.

Much of the action takes place in a grand old French house that Marie-Anne and Samir are redecorating to within an inch of its life, perhaps in an effort to paint over Ahmad’s past presence. My expletive-laden notes taken during the film ask why they want to put so many chandeliers in, and why they left an open tin of paint sitting around when there are unhappy young children on the loose. If they have a plan for the redecoration, it’s either a half-page afterthought or a messy binder full of clashing ideas. I really wanted to tell everyone to just stop for a day to sit down and figure out what they’re doing with their lives, which is kind of what Ahmad tries to do, but an honest appraisal only gets you so far — and anyway, no time for that now, the doorway needs painting.

Lucie | The Past | Pauline Burlet

The people in this film have been through some shit. They’re not particularly responsible, although they do genuinely love one another and want everything to work out. You can see it in Ahmad’s eyes when he remembers the final months of the marriage, or in Marie-Anne’s rage when her daughter fails to return home one night. Fouad is a naughty child, rebellious and violent, but he’s dealing with the loss of his mother and her sudden replacement with a new one. You can choose not to look back, but the past still happened. The acting is uniformly exceptional, and The Past is another masterpiece; the future, for these characters at least, remains uncertain.

Farhadi is from Iran, where it’s hard for a director to get a film made without government intervention. Wadjda is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman in Saudi Arabia, where it the list of things a woman can do seems shorter than the list of all they are barred from. Her film, about a sassy teenage girl who really wants to buy a bike in a land where “women don’t ride bikes”, is therefore a remarkable achievement, but it is worth your time for many other reasons besides.

Wadjda | Sneakers

Wadjda is the name of the teenage girl, and we quickly learn about the male-dominated world she inhabits — one that we in New Zealand, for all our faults and occasionally overt sexism, cannot even imagine. Turns out there are lewd construction site workers everywhere, and they’re not above shouting inappropriate comments at a young girl; the difference is that in Saudi Arabia, it’s officially the girl’s fault for being female. I wonder how the Bechdel test would apply to this film when its female characters’ entire function in society, drummed into them since the cradle, is to bear male children. Naturally, a lot of their conversation revolves around the men in their lives, but it isn’t just idle chatter: men are almost all they’ve been taught to care about, with Allah and the Devil watching on closely.

She really wants that bike, though. She’s even willing to devote herself to the Quran studies she hates in the hope of winning enough cash to buy one herself after her initial attempts at entrepreneurship move more slowly than she would like. But how sweet and winning those attempts are! Wadjda’s enterprising spirit even extends to her moments of sadness, when she readily accepts five riyals from a neighbourhood boy if she’ll just stop crying. She listens to Grouplove on her tinny cassette player and wears Converse sneakers to school. All this warrants regular cries of “khalas!” (‘Enough!’ orStop it!’) from her mother and teachers, but a girl like Wadjda needs autonomy. Otherwise, she’ll be stifled into misery.

Wadjda | Helmet | Bike

Wadjda is clearly a film by autonomous woman. It’s well made and well acted, and there’s a charming looseness about the plot that’s similar to Wadjda’s most appealing qualities. It’s inevitable that Wadjda will eventually be proposed marriage, but when it comes in one of the film’s later scenes, it isn’t the heel stamp on her freedom one might have expected; instead, it’s secondary to pursuing her bike dream, and all the more sweet for that. I left the cinema with a big smile on my face. If a woman can direct a film in Saudi Arabia,  a film ostensibly about women supporting one another through their oppression, maybe a girl can ride a bike?

#NZFF: The [x] of [y]

2013 NZFF LogoI have never gotten so prepared for a film festival as I have for the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington. Man, I don’t think I was this prepared before moving overseas for four years. I’ve booked leave from work, prepared a backpack of essentials (including water, fruit leather, and a range of medicaments to treat these bastard cold symptoms), and bought a hardcover notebook to jot down thoughts on a jittering knee.

That last point is a first for me. I’ve been attempting to write about film on here for years, but only after I get home and try to piece it all back together in my mind. Today’s initial trials indicate that I am less able to let go and be immersed in a film if I’m taking notes, but I remember a lot more and have a much more coherent understanding of it as I watch it. Seems like a reasonable trade-off: if I really like the film, as I did in both cases today, I can watch it again without the distraction of pen and paper in future.

My first two outings of NZFF 2013 both followed the same titling format: THE [x] OF [y]. Not a trend I’m particularly fond of, but here were two excellent, very different films that bore some surprising similarities. In the first instance, the title was entirely metaphorical and had nothing to do with the literal content of the film; in the second, it was an unvarnished description of the uniquely presented hell on earth it depicted.

The Weight of Elephants | Crystal Shrine

The Weight of Elephants was a perfect way to start my festival. It’s a serious film, but very beautiful and filled with room for interpretation. It’s also very much a New Zealand story, and in the Q&A afterwards, director Daniel Borgman stated his intentions to be true to small town NZ (Invercargill in this case). I think he succeeded admirably in telling a story set in a world I could easily link back to my own childhood in Tokoroa, as well as crafting another worthwhile feature in NZ’s small town canon: Whale Rider, In My Father’s Den, Out of the Blue (which also stars Matthew Sunderland) to name three. The toetoe I’d noticed in Aro Valley on my walk to the cinema showed up on screen, too, as a key symbol in a very beautiful opening sequence. “A Kiwi film,” I thought. Naturally, Tim Tams also made an appearance later on and were appropriately fussed over.

We meet 11-year-old Adrian as his lice-riddled hair is shorn off by a grandmother who really only expresses her (very genuine) love with a ‘get over it’ attitude. Adrian has no say in the matter, and this appears to be his life in a nutshell: a powerless young boy trying to figure out where he fits, virtually always dictated to unless he’s on his own. His friendships are more like ongoing negotiations as he tests others out and — more often — they test him. He’s willing to kick a rugby ball at someone he cares about if it gets him kudos with the playground bullies, but could he kill a rabbit for the same reason? We really see the world through his eyes, and as Adrian’s concept of loyalty is constantly recalibrated with each personal challenge, it all rings dauntingly true.

The Weight of Elephants | Rabbit

Borgman shows a strong hand throughout The Weight of Elephants, keeping a consistent tone of uncertainty through a mix of straightforward cinematography and glorious slow motion. His decision not to rely too much on music — indeed, much of the film carries only incidental sound — also bears fruit when the score quietly builds in the final scene, adding to its emotional payoff. He’s pleasingly comfortable with silence, rarely the hallmark of a commercially sought-after director, but skilled enough to hopefully bring his talents to mainstream success.

He would no doubt be quick to acknowledge that this film would be nothing without its child performers, who are both naturalistic and captivating. As Adrian, Demos Murphy has few memorable lines but says it all with his wide eyes and smile, and he does well to cry so much without ever seeming forced. Of his three aimless neighbours, who are his age or younger but whose worldliness makes them seem like adults, I was particularly taken with Hannah Jones as Joely. The character is only six, and Jones can’t be much older, but in her small amount of screen time she is totally captivating — a playful cherub with an unspoken darkness. If you see it (and you should), watch for the moment when she’s asked, “What’s your name?” The look on her face is perfectly enigmatic.

Just as the development and display of power is a key theme in The Weight of Elephants, it’s central to The Act of Killing, which offers regular reminders of who has it and who doesn’t. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, which is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, is as much an exploration of how power corrupts as of the long-term effects of mass murder.

The Act of Killing | Herman Koto | Filming

Today, there are three million members in the Indonesian paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth, which is headed by one of the most repellent people I’ve ever seen in a movie: a perpetually lewd, offensively charming bastard who doesn’t replace his divots at the golf course. Pancasila is as closely tied to governmental power now as it was in 1965-66, when it played a key role in Suharto’s military coup and helped kill somewhere between 500,000 and 3,000,000 alleged Communists and Chinese Indonesians. It’s an organisation synonymous with extortionist gangsters, who (according to this film) are seen as an integral element of Indonesian society and politics. They even find repeated justification for themselves in the original meaning for the Indonesian word for gangster, preman, which was ‘free man’; this seems a particular point of pride, with the unofficial theme song ‘Born Free’ providing one of the film’s most memorably off-putting scenes.

The main preman in The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo, who is estimated to have killed around 1000 people during the purge and appears to have been trying to justify it ever since. Either that, or he was getting drunk or high: “I’ve tried to forget all this,” he says as he details his preferred method of strangulation. This is the conceit of the film: Congo, and a few of his Pancasila contemporaries, are invited to re-enact their killings in a fictional film bearing the styles of the Hollywood favourites they used to exhibit in shady halls. He dresses as Pacino, Eastwood, and Gene Kelly; in his idle moments, he looks like a thinner, more drug-fucked Nelson Mandela. “There are many ghosts here,” he says as he gestures to a nondescript terrace floor, but it becomes ever more clear that the ghosts inhabit his mind. He certainly can’t escape them when he sleeps.

Act of Killing Ticket | A. O. K.
Act of Killing. Not really ok

I experienced a new kind of desensitisation to violence while watching The Act of Killing. Congo and the others described killing so often, and in such detail, even before any filmic re-enactments were shown, that I found myself nodding more and recoiling less. The killing seems mostly incidental to them in light of the far more important achievement of overthrowing Communism; indeed, most of the paramilitary guys, and ALL of the politicians, are obsessed with appearing powerful and successful. “For massacres, I usually wore jeans,” says Congo, focusing on how he ought to be attired for a particular shot. Herman, a big man who is both lovable and terrifying, blunders into politics as a means to gaining greater wealth and status. Congo’s compadre Adi sees a bigger picture — how Oppenheimer’s film could reflect badly on all of them — but even in full awareness of his own past atrocities, he’s happy to argue at length the negligible difference between cruelty and sadism.

“It’s not about fear. It’s about image,” says Adi. “The legacy.” He’s happy to go on trial for war crimes in The Hague if it brings him fame, and he says all this not as a naive pawn in a grander scheme but as a clear-eyed believer who has thought all of this through and justified his horrific actions as an absolute necessity.

It isn’t so easy for Congo, whose mind and body are slowly failing him. Confronted with what he has done, and invited to act out both parts, he sees how hollow his “relative morality” is. In a key scene, he invites his grandchildren to bear witness to his on-screen suffering, and in the same moment gains piercing insight into his victims’ plight. Here is a man who, upon reaching the twilight of his life, is literally given pause as he looks back over his deeds.

Act of Killing | Strangling technique

In The Act of Killing, expensive crystal sits behind locked glass as a grotesque monument to power and ego. In the more humble Invercargill homes of The Weight of Elephants, a wet finger run along the rim of a crystal glass sings — until it’s smashed. Here are two films that pick the crystal shards off the floor of human experience and place them before us as uncut diamonds.