Some thoughts on three of the films I've seen so far at the London Film Festival. I'm part of the Young Jury Project and have student accreditation through that; talking about the films we're judging, from the First Feature Award, will have to wait for a bit. Today: two docs and a horror.
He Named Me Malala (dir. Davis Guggenheim, USA)
Here comes another relevant documentary, propelled by the media and internet Zeitgeist, destined to make a splash in the moment and then most likely fade. It's not badly made, per se, although the structure is messy (ending, bizarrely, with the most detailed account of her shooting after skimming over it several times), just not as interesting as it could have been. It simultaneously tries to demythologise Malala, showing her with her family acting like a normal Pakastani-British teenager might, and also build her into an historic figure through these animated scenes exploring the heritage of her name and her backstory, complete with sweeping, sentimental score.
The single greatest scene in the film is a montage intercutting her homework with her activism. Top of the class in her home town of Swat, in Birmingham she's just an average student, embarrassed to show the cameras her physics test score. She might be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, meeting Bono, Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, etc., but for every week of school she misses her teachers give her more homework. She's taking her GCSEs soon. She finds fitting in at school difficult. She thinks her parents would be astonished if she asked out a boy. She sometimes slaps her brother but in an affectionate way (her brothers get some big laughs, mostly by describing their sister in ways that are familiar to anyone with siblings). What is remarkable, interesting, and valuable about Malala's voice is her age and all the conflicts and contradictions that come along with that.
Then there's her father. An education activist himself, his presence is all over this documentary both on screen and behind it. After some man on the street criticisms from Pakistanis of his perceived mastermind role behind Malala's story, the question is posed to her: did your father choose this life for you? She gives a perfectly believable denial, and while her father did and obviously still does encourage her there's nothing to suggest he wanted her to get shot in the head (he expresses feeling guilt initially after hearing about the shooting, in a piece of voiceover used twice). But Malala has tremendous value as Western propaganda (exhibit a: this film), and the way her story has been spun, be it by her father, politicians or the media (exhibit a: this film), is to maximise that value. How much of this is calculated, managed, by her or her father?
The film wilfully ignores the contradictions, conflicts, essentially the drama of its own story; it's the type of film that ends with not one but two websites to find out more. It's not a bad film necessarily but for anyone who watched the news in the last two years, nothing revelatory.
Censored Voices (dir. Mor Loushy, Israel-Germany)
Censored Voices has a great conceit. Mere days after the Six Day War in 1967, several Israeli soldiers were interviewed, some anonymously, on their experiences and feelings of the conflict. Only about 30% of the recordings were released at the time, with the rest unheard until today. Playing these recordings back to the interviewees, now decades older, there's a real sense of how this war shaped not only their identities but Israel's identity and ideology. Although at times veering towards a more simplistic, issues doc - especially with its overbearing score, cartoon maps and repetitive third act - the emotional power of this exercise is hard to deny.
Rarely is there an opportunity for history to confront us in the present this way, and many of the voices are eerily prescient, predicting that this is only the beginning of a conflict that won't be solved easily, and comparing the plight of the forcibly evacuated Palestinians to experiences of the Holocaust. Words are important here, several saying Old Jerusalem didn't feel "liberated" or "free," but "occupied."
Lack of objectivity is generally not a useful criticism of documentaries; it's still not the right word here but it dawns on you, seeing the archive footage of victory celebrations in 1967 and hearing justifications of the war second-hand, that not one of these soldiers had nationalism or Zionist ideology confirmed or hardened by the war. And, in the present day, all of them desire peaceful solutions between Israel and Palestine. But they must surely be in the minority, given Israel's actual modern day politics (which the film sensibly doesn't explore), although the film gives the impression that this was the universal experience and response. Were these the only former soldiers willing to be filmed listening to themselves? If so, that in itself is worthy of talking about. If not, then an interesting opportunity was lost in favour of simplistic advocacy.
Der Nachtmahr (dir. AKIZ, Germany)
Der Nachtmahr, or E.T. Follows as you might pitch it, is a silly horror film dressed up with strobe lights and thumping rave music; don't mistake the visceral reaction of your heart pumping for the film's narrative or characters working. Not that the strobes and score really have anything to do with the plot, in which teenager Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) experiences what might be her death then hallucinates a Golem-type monster following her, which of course the adults (her parents and a psychiatrist) and peers don't believe exist.
The monster is a metaphor, of course, but for what? This is what we, along with the psychiatrist, spend the film trying to work out. She sees it in front of the fridge, gorging himself - an eating disorder? (As the curse is in Drag Me To Hell, according to a popular interpretation.) It self-harms, causing similar damage to Tina's body. But that's the outward manifestation of a deeper connection between the two, Tina eventually going to great lengths to protect the creature from others who are afraid of it and rather it be kept hidden. So it's depression? Or the generic idea of mental illness? Well, ultimately, not really. But who cares? It looks cool.
The distorted wide angle cinematography, stuffed with saturated colours and pushed to the noisy limits of digital sensors in low light, tries to align our view with Tina's, disorientated and at extremes. Instead we end up on the outside, laughing at her, laughing at her parents, their strangely sterile kitchen, and her friends, never really feeling the fear and danger a good horror film creates. The music is OK, apart from one absolutely shameless moment where it evokes Wendy Carlos' A Clockwork Orange (yes, both would technically be based on Purcell, but with the incredibly similar use of synthesisers it can't be a coincidence). Like the rest of the film, this moment is unearned, borrowing from other, better genre films.