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DIFF 2011 | DAY 7 | Defeat and Complicity

by Roger Young, Sihle Mthembu, Sarah Dawson / 28.07.2011

Roger Young

The point of critical exhaustion is divine. You cannot process the films anymore; at least not in depth. They wash over you in silver waves. Cheese popcorn is your best friend. Last night I watched The Dead Sea, Elena and Outrage. Sarah watched Micheal and Sihle watched Maryam Keshavarz. This is what we thought.

OUTRAGE (AUTOREIJI) Director: Takeshi Kitano, Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kippei Shiina and Ryo Kase (Japan 2010)

Kitano’s return to the Yakuza genre is an exercise in revenge pact absurdity. I’m not even going to try detail the intricate Yakuza clan involvement and cross pact confusion that pits underbosses and punks against each other. The plot starts with an attempt at extorting money from the wrong clan that results in the first of many obligatory finger slicing apology, and somehow takes in a casino set up in a fictional African countries embassy. It’s never hysterical, increasingly absurd as the utilitarian violence becomes more and more inventive, and darkly funny. In short it’s everything Tarintino aspires to. The violence is never ballet-like but abrupt and very sore. The older Yakuza shout threats at each others like giant Yoda’s on speed. The bodies mount up so quickly that Kitano starts introducing new characters half way through to make up for the shortfall. It’s a film that begs one question, with so much brutal death and one up manship how do Yakuza’s ever get to be this old. There are so many pacts, sub pacts, revoked pacts, banishments, revoked banishments that you forget which deeds are unavenged; that is until the final moment which is suddenly obvious and puzzling.

Side Note: If it was an African film there would complaints about the treatment of women.

THE DEAD SEA (SENGADAL) Dir: Leena Manimekalai Cast: Leena Manimekala (India 2011)

While The Dead Seas adequately communicates the frustrations and horrors of a border war and its surrounding bureaucracy, it struggles to explain the complexities in a way that offers solution. Herein is its success and its failure.

Using elements of magical realism, the film tells of the lives of fishermen in Dhanushkod, an Indian border town near Sri Lanka and how the ethnic war in that country has affected them. The framing stories are that of a man believed by many to slightly mad, who wanders around with his radio looking for signal, and a documentarian who is held captive by the border police while they sift through her footage. A large percentage of the film is us watching them watch her interviews with real people. Suffice to say, the film tends to drag a bit. And while the clear tragedy of this conflict should override our concerns with the need for cinematic satisfaction, the desire for more scenes of torture and brutality and a clear instructive tragedy, the simple truth is that this is not a simple conflict. However with the film not totally engaging in this regard it will very likely not attract many more supporters to the cause.

For those that are aware of this particular region and it’s conflicts The Dead Sea is a true to life and heartfelt telling of it’s exasperations, for those that are not the intricacies often separate us from being able to fully grasp the true scale of the tragedy.

ELENA Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev Cast: Yelena Lyadova, Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov (Russia 2011)

Deliberately cold and distant Elena is primarily a film about separation and obligation. It’s beautiful, profound and very affecting. Beyond that there is little to say about it. Elena is an ex nurse who has been in a relationship with a former patient, Vladimir, for nearly ten years. He is wealthy and still treats her as a nurse: she sleeps in a separate room and, apart from small moments of tenderness, is basically his domestic worker. Elena has a son, who is poor and visibly lazy, he has a son who’s son is about to be drafted into the army unless he pays his university fees. Vladimir has a daughter, who he describes as “a hedonist or, as you would say, selfish” to Elena. She hardly visits. The film is built on the tensions between these elements, slowly mounting in urgency as Vladimir’s health declines and the army deadline approaches. But to say that the tension mounts is disingenuous, because while tension exists it hardly ratchets up to anything approaching nail-biting. Zvyagintsev’s camera lingers lovingly on his characters world-weary faces, honoring the weight of the compromises they have but no option to accept. Elena is beautifully observed, never ponderous and murderously astute.

Sarah Dawson

I watched two films last night. Both of which exist in deeply dubious moral territory. Elena was really very good, but was completely overshadowed by my subsequent viewing of Michael, which has made it impossible to write about Elena. It kept me awake much of last night, replaying in horrifying loops in my mind. I’ll try bring you Elena tomorrow.

MICHAEL (Austria 2011)

There are only two frameworks which are generally accepted as being reasonable when approaching the subject of paedophilia in a society that considers it to be amongst the most repugnant of criminal perversions: One wants unambiguous condemnation, and the other wants to know why. However, the authorial voice of Markus Schleinzer’s debut feature, Michael, offers neither moral judgement, nor any textbook psychological explanation for the actions of its eponymous protagonist. If words like “evil”, or “disturbed” apply to the narrative, they are not put into use by the director.

The film put us in close proximity with a man who is the picture of Austrian fastidiousness. He’s a weak-chinned pragmatist who happens to have a ten year old sex slave in his basement. Clearly in reference to stories like that of Wolfgang Prikopil and Josef Fritzl, we follow Michael for the duration of five months as he maintains his duplicitous existence: nerdy aspirant middle-manager (something like a more aloof and earnest David Brent) by day, and dictatorial pervert by night. But the tension in the film does not lie in the potential dissolution of the lines between these two existences, because, apart from a few moments where this threat is brought into immediate focus for the protagonist, it seems not to occur to him at all. He has complete faith in his rigourous controls.

So if it’s not about good and evil, psychological disturbance or duplicity, what then is Michael about? In fact, it’s startlingly clear. It’s about Michael. It’s not about “people like Michael” or the ghastliness of his actions, or a tumultuous internal life. It’s just simply about Michael. In the ordinary, present moment. Michael’s daily activities. Michael’s sexual tastes. Michael’s need to have well-ironed shirts. Michael’s solitary nature. Michael’s skiing trip to the Alps. Michael’s desire for a promotion. It denies even evocative the portrayal of the sexual act, opting rather to have the door closed in our face, only to return a little later to the main character washing his penis in a basin in a banal act of hygienic routine.

Jay Fernandez of the Hollywood reporter summarises the film as being one that “details the last five months of a 10-year-old boy’s abduction by a pedophile”, which is not entirely true. It would be more accurate to say that it “details the last five months of a paedophile’s abduction of a ten year old boy”. Though the reflex is to align ourselves with the victim, to center ourselves on his experience, it is not the story of the captive child, whose interiority is painted with watery strokes, whose name we never know, and the context of whose kidnapping we never discover anything about. To the viewer, uncomfortably, he remains “the kid in the basement”.

Instead, we find ourselves looking through the eyes of Michael as he scouts for a second child at the go-kart track. We scan the room with him, thinking thoughts like “No, he can’t pick that one, his dad’s nearby,” or “He’s probably too old”, a position which many will find jarringly uncomfortable. And they should. The experience of Michael is loathsome and perverse. But does this make it a bad film? Does it make it an immoral film?

Many will experience it as such, but I think that it becomes difficult to place a value judgement on this film without asking the big questions that would be foolish to answer in any finite way, particularly that of “What is the purpose of cinema?”: Should it have a moral stance? Should it always bear a didactic message? Should evil be defined and condemned, and on what terms? Without answers to these questions it is impossible to decide whether or not Michael is problematic, keeping in mind that implicit in its unwillingness to overtly judge evil, it refuses also to judge good. It simply is. By the end of the film, the protagonist does, in some sense, receive his come-uppance but it is incidental and unsatisfactory. It doesn’t follow the causality of the quasi-religious discourses cinema often exploit, which allows for punishment, remorse and repentance. It just happens.

Certainly, it is cinematically woven into a tightly chilling but banal thriller with a skill that is exceptional for a first time, or any director. (Although Schleinzer has worked with Michael Haneke for years as his fairly hands-on casting director – which might go some way towards explaining his sharp eye for an utter creep.) It sets up moments during which the viewer experiences quite overt and nauseatingly unbearable contradictions, but the sickening incongruities are up to the viewer to see and feel. Nothing is put down for you to pick up as a viewer, you have to crane your neck, with a kind of car-wreck-curiosity for a scrap of emotionality, and when you find it, it turns out to be base and repulsive and exactly the emotionality we work hard to repress in our daily lives as acceptable citizens.

It’s easy to confuse a negative emotional experience with dislike of a film. And this is a film which really requires a conscious drawing of a line between those two systems of judgement. In its emotional complexity, ability to penetrate the viewer, and stray from and undermine well-trodden filmic identificatory paths, and its seamless execution, Michael is way up on the top of the list of best films I’ve seen at DIFF, but it was, nevertheless, an absolutely dreadful experience.

Sihle Mthembu


Iranian cinema has a very high standard, especially amongst its female directors. Filmmakers in the region have found ways of expressing their politics in subversive and hidden ways. For a film that looks to break this convention and be blunt, circumstance does not quite meet the standards that has been set by directors such as Shirin Neshat. The film which is based on the lives of 16 year old Atafeh and her best friend Shireen. Their friendship is too close for Iranian comforts, so close that they have a love affair. Although the film speaks to an issue that is taboo amongst even the most bourgeois of Iranian circles, it lacks potency. The director has tried to emphasise the vibrancy of Tehrani youth, who are so liberal that they even have the guts to dub Milk and sell it on the streets. But the film is flawed in fundamental ways. It tries almost too hard to be sexually overt. With every second scene being a sexual encounter, but it falls short of its mandate. And we are left to contend with close ups of touching skin and panties.

Atafeh and Shireen face their biggest challenge not from the political ranks but from Atafehs brother. Who is determined to break up their love affair and have Shireen for himself. the film climaxes as he speaks to Shireen about her affair with Atafeh. It is a worthy debut for Keshavarz and is solid as a political statement about contemporary Iran, but the narrative adds no new perspective to the genre.

Day 8 Schedule

Roger Young

PLAY (Denmark, France, Sweden 2011)
THE ALGIERS MURDERS (South Africa 2011)

Sarah Dawson

PLAY. Denmark. 2011
SILENT SOULS. Russia. 2010
PUNK IN AFRICA. Czech Republic, SA. 2011

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