A bright full moon pushes through the blue haze of the daytime sky over The Settlement. The warm November breezes herald the approach of another hot sub-tropical summer, and excuses are made all through the town to eschew haste for leisurely engagement to the business of survival. Yet some of the island’s inhabitants have no time for this relaxed philosophy. From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red. One hundred million bundles of busy legs exchanging their sunless burrows for the shining, sandy shores of the beaches beyond the palm trees and the bubbling blue waters of the ocean beyond. Not for them the pleasures of this sinewave surfer’s paradise, but the unquestioning duty, the unwavering need to spawn the future. Just as they did last year, just as they will next year and for all the years to follow. They are the red crabs of Christmas Island.
“The whole place is overrun with curious red crabs as much as 18S in. across. They are excellent tree climbers, and once a year there is a regular migration of these crustaceans who travel in bodies like ants, taking 15 days on the journey, and returning inland after hatching their eggs.” – The Examiner – Launceston, Tasmania, 14 May, 1901, expedition of Sir John Murray.
In 2002, the Australian documentary series Island Life explored the far-reaching impact of this remarkable species, endemic only to Christmas and Cocos Islands (both Australian territories), and the increasing threats it faces by humanity and its influence. Two in particular currently affect the fate of the red crabs. Caring little for the presence of Christmas Island’s self-appointed owners – predominantly European and Chinese – crabs unwittingly braving the tarmac often fall victim to the heavy tyres of mining trucks filled with the precious phosphate that gives the locals their main economy. Fortunately, miners are reasonable people and awareness programs have made good progress in teaching them of the importance of preserving the rare local fauna.
“On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”
Far less reasonable is the second, and far more deadly, threat the red crabs face. Accidentally introduced into the local ecology from Africa a century ago, the yellow crazy ant today decimates all that stands in its path. “Listed among the 100 most devastating invaders of the world,” says Wikipedia (the entry has an extensive references section), “it has invaded ecosystems from Hawaii to Seychelles, and formed supercolonies on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.” Formic acid, their chief method of attack, blinds their prey, eroding areas of its body or simply causing it to starve to death. Large and unwieldy in comparison to its tiny and determined predator, the red crab has little chance of escape. Equally disadvantaged are its distant relative, the coconut (robber) crab, and other mammals and plant life sharing the surrounding environment.
The outlook was fairly grim in 2002, with fully a third of the total red crab population wiped out by the unstoppable invaders. That same year however saw major countermeasures launched by local wildlife officers. Ground and aerial baiting efforts using fipronil, a fish protein-based poison lethal to insects but not their victims, has proved highly successful in curbing the yellow crazy ant population. Like the Borg, however, the interlopers do not give up easily, and the long battle continues, the standing death toll massive. For the time being at least, the red crabs continue to fill the streets for every November’s mass migration.
It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe. It had weaved a path of destruction that was spoken of with disbelief in every port across the South China Sea. Now it’s luck was about to run out as it headed for the remote, palm-covered atolls known by their inhabitants as the Keeling Islands. The final battle was about to begin.
Once the private retreat of a rich Englishman and his harem of forty Malay women, today’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a quiet adjunct of Western Australia and home to a small population of Europeans and Malaysians who make a living from tourism. Sitting about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, the Cocos have always been of strategic importance because of their location within major shipping lanes. This was all the more important in 1914 when the crew of the German cruiser SMS Emden, after months of successfully capturing and sinking almost every Allied ship it had encountered between Bengal and Keeling, decided to make for the Cocos and disable the vital wireless and cable relay on the archipelago’s Direction Island. Not only were the Cocos important to shipping during World War I, serving as a stopover point for ANZACS headed to the Turkish battlefield, but also a vital communications link between Australasia and Europe. For the other side therefore, it was an important link to sever.
The Battle of Cocos began on November 9th, 1914, when a landing party from the Emden stormed Direction Island and destroyed the relay station. Unbeknownst to the Emden was the fact that long before their plans of sabotage had been made, a convoy of ANZAC ships bound for Turkey were at this moment heading through the Indian Ocean. To make matters worse, one of the locals had managed to send an SOS to Allied forces before the communications station was damaged. Dispatched from the convoy to investigate the message, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney encountered and engaged the Emden in what would be one of the first naval battles of the war.
“It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe.”
The battle would prove to be fairly one-sided. While the Emden’s guns were capable of striking a target at longer range, the Sydney’s were more powerful, and after two hours of continuous fire, the wounded Emden beached itself on North Keeling Island. The Australian cruiser then pursued and disable Emden’s supporting collier, before returning to its original quarry four hours later. However, despite its battle damage, the Emden and its remaining crew refused to surrender, until two more direct hits from the Sydney convinced those aboard to hoist the white flag. The German casualties were high: 131 dead and 65 injured. All the survivors, including the Emden’s captain, the Hanoverian Karl von Muller, who had earned the respect of the Allies for his policy of treating captured crews with civility, were made prisoners of war.
Or not quite all: 50 of the Emden’s personnel, led by First Lieutenant Helmuth von Mucke, still remained on Direction Island. The original landing party, sent to wreck the communications relay, had never returned to their vessel and had witnessed its destruction from afar. Having annexed Direction Island and its population in the name of Germany, von Mucke realised he and his men would have to make a break for freedom before the Sydney came for them the next morning. He commandeered the nearby 123-ton schooner Ayesha, planning to head for the neutral territory of Dutch-controlled Indonesia. Strangely, the captured Cocossians were more than happy for the theft to take place, even willingly offering von Mucke and his men provisions for the journey. It was only when the curious First Lieutenant put to sea that he discovered the Ayesha’s truly dilapidated state. For von Mucke, the voyage back to Germany would be a long and arduous one, and an adventure that would ultimately make him an ardent pacifist and him at odds with Adolf Hitler in the future.
Few film-makers have made use of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands outside of tourism. However in 2006, writer/director Jurgen Stumpfhaus and his crew visited the Australian territory to re-enact the Battle of Cocos for his two-part docudrama, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers. Though made for German television, the miniseries was dubbed into English and screened in other parts of the world, as well as being given a DVD release. Episode 1, ‘The Caravan Of Sailors’, recreates the Emden’s dramatic rise and fall, as well as the fate of von Mucke and his men as they try desperately to get home through allied nations in the Middle East. Naturally, it paints the picture from the German side and even features an in-depth interview with von Mucke’s son, who understandably regards his late father as something of a hero. Von Mucke senior is portrayed as an unflappable leader of men, projecting an air of confidence he often did not feel for the benefit of his crew, and with an almost zealous belief in their survival. The kind of person you’d want to have on your side if you had to spend months walking through the deserts of Arabia and fending off warlords and bandits, for instance.
The Cocos really form just a small part of the program, but it stands as a rare example of their use in film and for that, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers is worthy of mention – even if it is mainly enjoyable for the story that unfolds after the battle.
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell
Somewhere in the fog-enshrouded Andean highlands of Columbia, a squad of soldiers is dispatched to a remote outpost to find out what happened to their missing comrades stationed there. However, attempts to unravel the mystery only beget more questions and before they know it, the soldiers are unwittingly re-enacting the fate of their predecessors. The claustrophobic thriller of The Squad next time on World On Film. See the trailer below.
In this edition of the blog, we head over to 20th Century South America, where society is collapsing under the weight of violently-opposed ideologies in the moving Chilean drama-historical,
Machuca (aka My Friend, Machuca)
(2004) Written by Eliseo Altunaga, Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, and Andrés Wood Directed by Andrés Wood
“You insist upon acting like an animal. It’s all about you, and only you. And what about the others? Don’t they count?”
Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. The wealthy oppose their Marxist government and all who support the nationalization of local industry, while the poor, driven to near-destitution by a prolonged economic depression, lack of production and employment opportunities, champion the Communist cause as their only hope of survival. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart.
Machuca is a compelling pseudo-historical drama that explores the social upheaval during the time of Chilean president Salvador Allende. The controversial figure rose to power in 1970, more as a compromise candidate than by popular vote. The Nixon administration sought to remove him due to US fears his Marxist policies would make Chile another Cuba, and their fears were supported by local property and business owners. Those struggling to make ends meet at the other end of the spectrum saw socialism as a means to counter perceived greed: they could see that not everyone had to queue up for food rations, live in slums, or worry about job prospects. With the gulf ever-widening, strikes and clashes were inevitable. But if either side felt the hand of victory by the time of Allende’s alleged suicide in 1973, it was to be short-lived, with the country seized by a military junta and the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for the next two decades.
All of which merely strikes the surface of this truly complex chapter of Chilean history and the many forces that brought the nation to its knees in the early 1970s. Yet Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core. It is a battle between two sides so entrenched by wealth and poverty that they will never be able to reconcile – each side is seen as causing the destruction of national stability and each, in its own way, is right. And, like the similarly-themed Albanian film Slogans, Machuca shows the tragedy of such entrenched social warfare – that any attempt to look past these differences by focusing on basic human commonalities is ultimately thwarted by the very ideologies supposedly designed to create a more socially harmonious world in the first place. However, where Slogans focused more on the failure of Marxism because of party politics interfering with basic social development (eg – education, relationships, etc), in Machuca, the income divide is the principal barrier.
“Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core.”
No film really could do justice to the broad strokes of the conflict, and thus we see only splashes of it through the eyes of sensitive teen Gonzalo Infante, as he discovers the many sides to the story and finds himself unable to make true sense of any of it. Born into wealth, Infante finds himself having to reconcile his privileged world with that of Pedro Machuca, one of the many poor classmates introduced into the school by the Christian priests in charge of their education, as part of their attempt to give equal rights to the impoverished. Through Machuca, Infante experiences life on the other side of the coin, and finds himself enjoying his new friend’s down-to-earth earnestness, the Communist rallies Machuca’s family attends, and even more so, the bewitching charms of the girl next door.
Though viewing the adult world through the lens of childhood innocence is nothing new in film (other examples include The Blue Kite, Empire Of The Sun, and Great Expectations), it is an understandably-useful narrative tool for showing different sides of an issue without picking any. It is probably one of the only ways to maturely deal with subject matter for which there are no easy conclusions. Children are also the only social group within such entrenched ideologically-conflicted circumstances who will reach out to each other regardless of the stance their elders have taken. They have not yet learned to hate for stupid reasons. A similar argument could be made for romance, though we all know how Romeo & Juliet ended.
By making its principal characters adolescents, Machuca shows the point at which such hatred begins to manifest, and is as much a voyage of self-discovery for Infante and his contemporaries as it is the first steps toward understanding what the adults are fighting about. Indeed, for Gonzalo, a fairly sensitive-yet-reserved boy, the discovery of the impoverished class and their beliefs is the point at which he begins to find his voice, even if it is only able to speak with mounting confusion. It’s perhaps telling that he only begins to grow when removed from the stilted world of the private school (where indeed those with the most to say are the classist and insular bullies) and the machinations of his social-climbing mother, whose affair with a richer man and social snobbery is never subtle. In Machuca, we get the sense that this is the first time Infante experiences true friendship, and in the slightly-older shanty town neighbour Silvera, his first sexual awakening. For Infante, travel truly broadens the mind. He is a better person precisely for making an effort to understand difference that his financial contemporaries would be both unable and unwilling to perceive – a common occurrence in any society.
This universal element of growth and personal discovery is another reason why Machuca can reach out to a broad audience who may know nothing of Chilean history. It should resonate with anyone who has dared to step outside of their ‘normal’ world and see the way others live. I would even argue it’s a test of character that everyone should undergo in order to progress to some kind of maturity, and one all the more important in our increasingly-globalised world. The film even makes frequent comparisons to ‘The Lone Ranger’, a story about a man who befriends an American Native.
It’s an interesting comparison to make, given that Machuca is no Tonto, but a strongly-independent character in his own right, and because in the less ‘idealised’ Chile, class differences are seen to divide even the sturdiest of relationships. This makes the friendship between Machuca and Infante all the more important for the journey the two embark upon (how much can they learn from each other before the inevitable happens?) and all the more tragic because their union represents Chile’s last, best hope for peace.
That said, there were certainly more mature elements of Chilean society working to bridge the divide as well. We learn at the film’s opening that the school the boys attend was based upon the very real St. George’s College, a private English-language school in Santiago. In fact, director Andrés Wood dedicates his film to a Father Gerardo Whelan, who served as the college’s director between 1969 and 1973, which suggests a strong biographical element to Machuca. Father McEnroe, his fictional alter-ego, is a bear of a man with a powerful sense of justice working tirelessly to bridge the social divide – even when it seems as though no-one else will thank him for it.
And this is the truth of the whole sorry affair: this wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side, but desired true segregation, the logical end point of the class war. The lines have been drawn long before the two boys discover each other, the final clash only a matter of time. When the Pinochet junta assumes military control of the country, only one side will have the means to avoid the opening salvo of the dictator’s long reign. It is a reign that will care nothing for the previous social conflicts, except inasmuch as they have paved the way for its existence. Here, when blood lines the streets of the capital and its shanty towns have been erased from existence, does Chile follow the main characters and awaken to the reality of their world. The real growing pains are about to begin.
Amazingly, Machuca was shot under very tight conditions due to a miniscule budget that the director and his crew have done very well to mask. This is achieved firstly through the excellent on-location filming which ensures an authentic viewing experience. From the location used to serve as the private school to the standing sets of the shanty town to the frenzy of the busy urban landscape, I can only wonder how someone with more money might have done better. Post-production also plays a major role in the look and feel of the picture, alternating between the vibrant spectrum that today’s software can create – scenes of high drama are even given that colour-bled filter which works so well to match the bleakness of hope dying on-screen.
“This wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side”
Major credit must also go to the choice of actors, particularly when many of them, including the principal stars, had had no professional experience. Wood apparently spent the better part of a year coaching them prior to shooting, and it is a labour that really pays off. Great attention too is paid to the setting – it really does look like 1973. With or without the crew’s many restrictions, Machuca can stand tall for its achievements.
Those better-versed in Chilean history may perhaps take issue with the politics presented, or be disappointed that a major cinematic commentary on that period keeps its distance from a particular stance. It is still fresh in the memory for many who will have their own story to tell. In time, we may come to hear them. However, for novices like myself, Machuca is a very compelling and accessible work that succeeds because of its very universal human drama. We may not have lived through that mad episode of Chile’s development, but through this film, we can recognise in ourselves the people who did.
“The film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.”
The light, but touching Chinese rural drama, Postmen In The Mountains, next time on World On Film. See a trailer below.
This week, World On Film visits Cameroon for an unusual commentary on the madness of war. Though filmed in the central African state, its message applies to the continent as a whole, where the locals are in perpetual conflict and their former European overlords are simply:
(2009) Written by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau Directed by Claire Denis
“I’ve nowhere else to go. I won’t give up.”
(You can find a trailer for this film at the bottom of the previous post.)
French film-maker Clare Denis has firsthand experience with the realities of African colonialism, having lived in Cameroon where the film was shot, as well as Burkina Faso*, Senegal, and Somalia during the period when her father was a civil servant in these former French dependencies. As such, while White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. While this approach achieves varying levels of success, the blurred geographical borders are appropriate to the story since its principal characters inhabit the murky waters of reality, and one is never entirely sure if they too know where they are.
*World On Film previously visited Burkina Faso via Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s acclaimed social commentary, Moolaadé. To read the review, click here.
Chief among them is White Material’s most interesting and most frustrating main character, Maria Vial, in charge of the family’s coffee plantation and determined to keep it operational despite the escalating chaos. France has abandoned the colony, the French army has withdrawn, and even Maria’s ex-husband Andre realises the writing is on the wall. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the business is a lost cause and their continued presence in the country puts their lives at risk, Maria refuses to acknowledge any of this and remains determined to maintain the status quo.
One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is. Perhaps this has much to do with the way it lays its emotional cards on the table, yet keeps people guessing right to the end: you know it can only end in tragedy, but precisely how is difficult to gauge. This is further heightened by Denis’s choice of a non-linear narrative, which makes it clear from the opening scenes that the situation is out of control. We begin with a desperate Maria seemingly stranded in the middle of nowhere and forced to hide from an adolescent rebel militia, after which a series of flashbacks show life on the plantation already collapsing. Long-term employees have fled as gangs of child soldiers sweep through the towns and local government is more concerned about its own immediate survival.
“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”
Ironically, that same disjointed narrative, compelling the viewer to assemble the story, also undermines its impact. It takes the non-linear approach too far, to the point where it felt as though I were arranging a tile puzzle. It’s hard to maintain a buildup of drama under such circumstances, and felt as though it were being done simply for the sake of artistic complexity. One of the difficulties created, for example, is in placing the actions of the White Material’s many secondary characters, from plantation workers to the many participants of the civil war, in the scheme of things. Ironically, where it works far better is in jumping around the actions of the principal character: the fact that it doesn’t matter where we meet her in the story says a lot for her state of mind.
It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message. Possibly the hardest thing for the viewer to accept is Maria’s behaviour, oblivious to the truth and even her own family’s disintegration. If the line were drawn between indomitable spirit and steadfast denial, it is clear that she crossed it long before we met her. The motivation of such a person is borne of even greater instability than the ravaged country in which she chooses to ignore: its collapse is as nothing compared to what the terrified individual must endure if they should ever face themselves, the ongoing denial ultimately robbing them of their sanity.
Unfortunately, Denis chooses to avoid exploring the wider causes behind the conflict itself. In White Material, it seems to be sufficient simply to indicate that white landowners are rich and the black locals are poor, and they’re not happy about it. This, however, is insufficient comment to justify ten-year-old children taking up arms and murdering strangers for money, or indeed a major civil war. Nor are the Vials – the plantation’s owners and only Caucasian characters in the film – seen to mistreat the locals in a manner deserving of such uprising. The result is simply a simplistic painting of the colonial landscape – events happen simply because they are the sort of events that happen in such places. Stereotypes are reinforced and explanations are thin on the ground – ironic, given that this is a film spearheaded by someone who would know the underlying mechanisms of the conflict all too well.
“It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message.”
Taken instead as a discourse on the human psyche, White Material fares far better. It is brought to life by an extremely good cast headlined by Isabelle Huppert. So much of the film’s impact centres around the complex lead character and our struggle to understand her motivations that it is not an exaggeration to say that Huppert is responsible for much of its successes. Marie’s blind determination and hyperactivity masking a deep well of fear is precisely what I have encountered in real-world sufferers of the condition, and if anything, Huppert could have taken it even further.
In contrast, Nicholas Duvauchelle memorably portrays the unbridled descent of Manuel, the son. Here is also a complex character, whose long introduction off-screen as a frequently-mentioned source of trouble, lulls us into a false sense of security as to his true nature – a further extension of his mother’s neglect of the world about her.
Ultimately, it is the brightly-coloured painting of that colonial world that Denis wishes to create. The deeper politics of the clash between the cultures and the reasons underpinning the drama that ensues does not interest her in favour of the image the various elements create together. I’ve used words like ‘commentary’ and ‘discourse’ when in reality, ‘snapshot’ or ‘portrait’ would be more apt. However, the detached rationalisation is compensated for by the emotionally-charged interplay. A ‘beguiling ambiguity’, as one reviewer of Denis’s similarly-themed debut film Chocolat, sums up the endeavour extremely well: come in search of understanding and you will be disappointed, yet you will not walk away unaffected. Perhaps this in itself is the message, but I can imagine many viewers still yearning for more at credits roll.
What happens when a film festival stops being an event for the people and becomes simply a profit-driven vanity exercise for the wealthy elite? In 2011, I returned to the Busan International Film Festival, and found it almost impossible to see anything. I’ll be explaining why I may never attend one of Asia’s biggest celebrations of cinema ever again, and what to expect if you do. That’s next time, on World On Film.
(1983) Written by Tatsuo Nogami, Susumu Saji , Toshirô Ishidô, & Koreyoshi Kurahara
Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara
Showa, established in January 1957 on East Ongul Island, was and continues to be one of Japan’s most active Antarctic stations. After construction was completed, 11 men and 15 sled dogs remained on site and Showa began its long life as a polar scientific outpost. In February of the following year, the team left the base having completed their tenure, and the dogs were left behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished until the relief crew arrived shortly afterward to take over their care. However, adverse weather conditions prevented the intended 2nd expedition team from making landfall, and the animals had to be abandoned. It would be a full year before another expedition team returned to Showa. Joining them was Professor Yasukazu Kitamura, responsible for the dogs in 1958 and whom had never forgiven himself for his decision to chain them together – a sentiment shared by the Japanese public of the day.
The team would discover 7 dogs dead on the chain, with 6 having broken free and missing. Miraculously, brothers Taro and Jiro, who had been born and raised in Antarctica, had managed to survive. Kitamura suggested that they had subsisted on a diet of penguins, trapped fish, seal faeces, and seabirds. The dogs became national heroes and interest in the Sakhalin breed saw a major resurgence in Japan both in 1959 and again in 1983 with the release of Antarctica. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s epic dramatisation of these events combines both fact and fiction as it retells what is known as well as attempting to speculate on the fate of the huskies.
Showa Station also appears in Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection, where scientist Yoshizumi and his colleagues first learn of the infection’s decimation of Japan and beyond. The feature was reviewed recently as part of Antarctic Film Month.
In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama, one in which the canine performers could be said to have equal screen presence with their human counterparts. To an extent, any film that makes use of Antarctica in its storytelling cannot help but be dramatic. The severe, jagged white landscape of the continent is the very essence of spectacle, and, as demonstrated in The Thing – even though the sci-fi/horror was filmed entirely in North America – a place of great hazard.
“In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama.”
All of this is encapsulated at the very beginning of Antarctica, from the montage of polar scenery accompanied by Vangelis’s dated but still powerful electronic score to the near-fatal expedition by Ushioda, Ochi and Ozaka, along with 15 sled dogs to remote inland post Botsnnuten. This sequence alone conveys the deep bond and interdependence between the dogs and their human masters, particularly the first two members of the team, responsible for the dogs’ wellbeing. Ushioda is the alter ego of Professor Kitamura in the film, and actor Ken Takakura expertly brings to life his Atlas-like sense of responsibility and later anguish at having chosen to chain the dogs together in the expectation that the 2nd expedition will ensure their care. With the expedition pilloried in the Japanese press for abandoning the dogs to their fate, both director Kurahara actors Takakura and Tsunehiko Watase as Ochi work hard to show that no-one was more haunted by that decision than the men themselves.
The film also suggests the wanderlust of the two dog lovers, the men finding themselves at a loss to reconnect to Japanese society upon their return. It is not only the dogs that they have left behind, but a major part of themselves and a sense of purpose as the pioneers of the new Antarctic base. Colorful and busy Hokkaido has carried on without them, its people only dimly aware of their experiences and unable to understand their feelings of disconnect. Indeed the only citizens who come close are the families who supplied the dogs, and bereft of their loved ones, have only recrimination to offer the polar scientists. The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world. This is made all the more powerful by the continual juxtaposition of these scenes with the ongoing fate of the dogs in the Antarctic: we cannot carry on without them because we alone know they are still there, and their fate has not yet played out.
With the humans gone from Showa, the dogs take centre-stage, and it is down to some serious animal training, special effects, and post-production that the Kurahara is able to sell his drama to the audience. A good measure of how successful this was is the fact that the director was criticised at the time for animal cruelty, gaining a rating of ‘Unacceptable’ by the American Human Association. Kurahara Productions would respond by stating that all death scenes or sequences placing animals in peril were carefully recreated in a studio under controlled conditions. Filming reportedly took place in the snow-covered climes of Northern Hokkaido, interspersed with second unit footage of Antarctica itself.
The term Sakhalin derives from the Russian island of the same name, where the huskies were originally bred. North of Hokkaido, the long and slender landmass known in Japanese as ‘Karafuto’ has long been a point of contention for the two nations, only in recent history becoming fully Russian territory. Before this, its sovereignty regularly changed and it was once home to the Ainu, an indigenous population since relocated to Japan in the 20th Century. The dogs used in the expedition were bred in Hokkaido. Eight Below, Hollywood’s remake of Antarctica, uses Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes – a malamute also having been used in The Thing, reviewed last week.
Pictured left: A Sakhalin husky. Acknowledgements to www.dogfacts.org for the photo.
“The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world.”
However it was done, the attempt at realism paid off, with the plight of the dogs still just as believable today as it appeared in 1983. Sequences that could now only be achieved through CGI are all the more solid and powerful knowing that they were practically realised. Kurahara seems also to be aware that such sequences can only be used sparingly, not only for dramatic reasons, but also because even in a canine-centric tale, human drama will always be more compelling.
This is further evident with the presence of a narrator over the scenes where the huskies are fending for themselves. It gives both the impression at times of a documentary, but also an uninvited dose of silliness, as the narrator attempts to explain what the dogs are feeling and their motivations in a particular scene. The viewer is well-aware of the situation and can easily discern the action from the screen. It would have been far more powerful to let the visuals and the soundtrack to tell the story than a patronising anthropomorphisation of the protagonists. Fortunately, this is not a major irritation and the visuals do indeed speak volumes.
There is a definite underlying theme of Japanese indomitability throughout the tale, perhaps unsurprising given the pioneering subject matter. An amusing scene between the rescued crew and the captain of the U.S icebreaker Burton Island assisting in their departure underscores the strong sense of nationalism that might have been more pervasive had Antarctica told the story of the Showa base itself. While those at home did not fully appreciate the difficulties of the mission, there was a great sense of national pride at the expedition itself. It had not been long since the Second World War and a rapidly rebuilding nation had in only 12 years joined the Antarctic program long dominated in the early 20th Century by public and private enterprise in the U.S. The sentiment of which only occasionally bubbles to the surface in Antarctica, serving as a powerful undercurrent to the story and a context to the ‘can-do’ spirit of the team, as opposed to a time-serving mentality one might be more likely to find in the South Pole today now that the novelty has worn off.
To the average viewer however, Antarctica is the poignant true story of life and death for man’s best friend in one of the harshest places on earth. I won’t claim to have shed tears during its 143 minutes, but having owned a dog or two in my life, I also cannot say I was unaffected by their predicament. There is a certain amount of guilt at confessing to an enjoyment of animal-based drama, largely in part due to Disney’s many years of cheapening the genre. The genuine article is a different beast altogether, and stands on higher ground with its honesty. Realistically-drawn, well-paced and visually-arresting, Antarctica remains an epic retelling of history and a compelling emotional tale for humans and canines alike decades after its original release. For the polar enthusiast, it returns us to the final days of an era when Antarctica was the last great frontier, before it was conquered by the inevitable mediocrity of familiarity and taxation.
To see photos of the actual expedition at Showa Base and the dogs Taro and Jiro, visit this page. Scroll down until you see the photo section.
Click here to read the assessment of the American Human Association on Antarctica.
Visit this page to learn additional information, including the thoughts of Professor Kitamura.
Clips, or it didn’t happen: we return to where it all began and look at the ‘A’ series of World On Film – a chance to discover the films reviewed earlier all on one page. With pictures.
As the banner above subtly suggests, it’s Antarctic Month here at World On Film – not in fact corresponding to any particular month on the calendar (that would be too easy), but four weeks devoted to that large sweep of ice and land filling up the South Pole. The four films selected to represent it over those weeks will capture its many moods, but perhaps more importantly, the many ways in which we perceive Antarctica. It’s a place of distant beauty and adventure, but it’s also a place of danger and drudgery. Both fact and fiction will be used to explore the subject, and it all begins this week with the very first colour footage ever captured of Antarctica recorded during the United States Antarctic Expedition at the height of South Pole-mania.
Antarctica, the final frontier of Earth exploration, is an austere world of mystery and quiet menace. Once part of the massive supercontinent of Gondwanaland and covered in rainforest, its ancient past lies buried beneath impenetrable glaciers of ice, guarded by deadly ice-cold winds and temperatures hostile to human survival. It is today a glittering interglacial reminder of the powerful forces that shape our planet, and ready to claim the lives of any who dare to take its capricious nature too lightly.
This has not, however, stopped the bold and adventurous from setting a course for the South Pole with the unknown firmly in their sights and discovery fuelling their souls. The list of names associated with Antarctic exploration is long and embedded into the public consciousness, from Amunsden, Mawson and Scott, to Ross, Hillary and Fiennes. However, one name above all others defined human endeavour in the poles: Richard Evelyn Byrd. Not only did Byrd undertake no fewer than 11 expeditions to Antarctica, he was also responsible for galvanizing both government and public interest in the continent. He contributed significantly to and induced the enormous frenzy of scientific activity across the 20th Century that dramatically broke through the quiet, dismissive ignorance the world entertained about its most southerly neighbour.
“Antarctica, an austere world of mystery and quiet menace.”
At the height of the public interest in Antarctica Byrd had himself generated, the explorer, scientist and naval officer was a massive celebrity – almost impossible to believe when today’s incumbents of the term are the dubious breed of cheerfully ignorant, narcissistic attention-seekers whose trifling contributions to the human endeavour are championed and beamed across the globe with undeserving relentlessness by the media. Yet in his day, Byrd was every much as famous, his exploits excitedly recounted in newspapers and radio programs worldwide, his countenance visible on all manner of merchandising from stamps to signed photos. By 1935, he had overseen two highly-successful privately-funded expeditions to Antarctica, and both he and the public were hungry for more.
Eager to capitalise on this popular sentiment, the U.S. government of the day under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly began assessing the feasibility of a government-funded expedition to the region – the first in over a century. In 1939, the impressively-titled Executive Committee For The United States Antarctic Service was formed and Byrd, who had been preparing for his own return to the region since 1935, readily accepted the invitation to take charge of the new venture. Officially entitled, ‘The United States Antarctic Service Expedition’, to the public it was ‘Byrd Antarctic Expedition III’, with the Admiral overseeing the government objective of establishing a permanent seasonal base at ‘Little America’ and another south of the Cape of Good Hope.’ On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history.
Little America was in fact the name given to a series of bases on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales between 1929 and 1956. The breakup of the shelf has seen at least two Little Americas float away to see on icebergs. They were the site of the first-ever radio broadcasting stations in the Antarctic, which, during the expeditions, sent regular transmissions powerful enough to be picked up by household radio sets in the U.S, thereby significantly contributing to the ongoing public interest in the program.
Harrison Holt Richardson
Responsible for capturing the expedition on celluloid was Byrd enthusiast and youngest member of the group, Harrison Holt Richardson. His interest in both Byrd and Antarctica began when, as a teenager, he attended a speech being given by the Admiral at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, where his father was a trustee. He would later write to Byrd hoping to persuade him to let Richardson join the crew of the U.S.S. Bear for the summer, a request which was later granted. Owned by Byrd, the Bear had been one of the principal ships used during his second expedition to the Antarctic, and Richardson the elder would subsequently convince Byrd to keep Richardson on for the third Antarctic expedition of 1939-41 in which the vessel was again utilised.
Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program. Over the winter of 1940-41, he would be a member of the biological team stationed there, working as a dog team driver and meteorological observer. Mt. Richardson in Marie Byrd Land, and discovered during his time there, would be named in his honour.
“Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program.”
In later life, Richardson would graduate from Geneva College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and serving in the U.S. navy as a medical officer during subsequent military expeditions to the North and South poles, helping to open the United States Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland, finally working as a radiologist for two hospitals back home. He would die at the age of 80 in 1999.
Richardson’s remarkable footage was produced using a 16mm film camera, which documents highlights of the 3-year expedition, from the crews’ departure in Boston to the closure of Little America in 1941. The silent footage would subsequently go out under the film title Antarctica, unsurprisingly credited to the United States Antarctic Expedition Service, with the occasional caption card to provide some kind of narrative.
Captured On Film
Whether or not Richardson was given much direction as to what he should document, the young cameraman/cinematographer does an excellent job under the circumstances, making sure to capture every aspect of the expedition, from the multifaceted scientific programs conducted to the equipment used in their implementation and the people behind it all who would go on to make history. He is also adept at capturing some of the breathtaking scenery and the mood of those around him. Probably the happiest surprise for me at least in viewing Antarctica is the fact that Richardson starts filming in Boston harbour at the very beginning of the journey, with impressive equipment like the Snow Cruiser, the overambitious and ultimately problematic all-terrain diesel car designed for ground-based mobility at the other end, excitedly paraded along the wharf prior to loading. An enthusiastic crowd is assembled, excited to be present at the momentous new chapter of scientific history, while crewmembers aboard the USMS North Star, the first ship to depart, cavort about on deck in pirate costumes, clearly lapping up every minute of their fame.
Along the way to icier climes, the crew would check in at destinations no less interesting, such as Pitcairn Island and Rapa Iti, with Richardson’s camera work ensuring the stopovers are saved for posterity. Pitcairn Island is a rich subject unto itself, being the very remote southern paradise the mutineers of the H.M.S Bounty would choose to make their home centuries earlier, with the North Star encountering their latter-day descendants as they trade for much-needed items during the 48-hour stopover. To the West, Rapa Iti, tropical outpost of French Polynesia and sinking volcanic remnant of a younger Earth, offered further trade and shore leave for the crew. Not to be confused with Rapa Nui (Easter Island), ‘Little’ Rapa bears the legacy of similar feats of stonemasonry, this time in the form of hill forts rather than giant statues. Richardson however, appears to be less concerned with history than the bare-chested Polynesian natives – his interest purely in anthropology never in doubt for a moment.
Choosing not to document the most crucial stopover of all in Dunedin, New Zealand, which would act as a major supply stop for the Bear and the North Star over the course of the expedition, the filming resumes once more as the first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.
“The first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.”
Then begins the expedition proper, with Richardson producing many recorded highlights throughout. The Snow Cruiser quickly demonstrates its design flaws from the moment it leaves the ship in much the same way that elephants and rope bridges don’t mix. Some of the scientists develop a deep fascination for the local penguin population, engaging in an intimacy that today’s naturalists would frown upon. Meanwhile, the spectre of death looms over the team, with crevasses hiding their true depths and threatening to swallow up the unsuspecting newcomer for all time. Away from all this, the natives show how perfectly they have evolved to suit the natural environment, with seals surfing joyfully across the powdery surface of the land towards the food-rich depths of the icy water, while rubbery penguins bounce across the achromatic landscape very much at home in this frozen world.
The expedition would nonetheless become more adept at survival in the Antarctic than most, and snapshots of their efforts give tantalising glimpses into their mission. Every conceivable scientific study was conducted over the three-year period, from biological to meteorological. Two bases were maintained, 3,540km apart from each other by sea and 2,575km apart by air. With this, successive teams made up of scientists and the U.S. military were able to fill in the gaps between lands explored by previous expeditions. The Bear would be regularly deployed along the coastline, often hampered by sea ice. Seaplanes would venture inland as well as helping to determine whether sections of coast were island or peninsula. Sledging parties would all for ground-based research, often away for weeks at a time and subject to the harsh Antarctic weather. Together, their efforts would result in the mapping of some 1,127km of coastline, as well as shed light on current glaciations and fully map ranges such as the Queen Maud Mountains, which Byrd had discovered several years earlier.
The daily work of the expedition, from the maintaining of the bases, to the construction and maintenance of equipment and even the feeding of the huskies (seals being their primary diet) can also be seen. Camaraderie and downtime show a cheerful atmosphere, and there can be no doubt that such an experience would create very strong bonds among the crew.
The camera lens also captures the otherworldly, yet very Earth-like quality of Antarctica itself. Huge, jagged pyramids of rock rise into the sky, forming mountain ranges that fade off into the horizon where few have dared to tread. Hauntingly-beautiful coastlines radiate the sun’s rays while offering none of its warmth. Terrain, forged and crumpled by glaciers that melted before the time of man, is beaten relentlessly by icy, power-filled winds. Blocks of ice as large as Hyde Park collapse into the sea. Icebergs, some as flat as table-tops, others emulating the pointed mountains they have left behind, float almost imperceptibly forward – some returning to the continental shelf, others destined to drift out of sight forever.
By 1941, global upheaval had reached fever pitch, and the base camps would be abandoned, much of their personnel redeployed to join the conflict. Antarctica’s airwaves fell silent and the dreams of establishing a permanent presence in the region were forgotten in the chaos of the Second World War. The Antarctic program would eventually continue, however, and thanks to Harrison Holt Richardson, the golden days of polar exploration are there in full colour for future generations to enjoy.
You too can enjoy it for yourself by clicking on the video below. To compensate for the lack of audio, I watched it accompanied by – what else – Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica.
Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of resources on the expedition. Those searching online in particular will find a plethora of resources, including this site, which gives a good overview of 200 years of Antarctic exploration, as well as chronicle the life of Admiral Byrd himself.
In contrast, little information exists on Harrison Holt Richardson, and what I did find was largely sourced from his New York Times obituary.
Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over. The epic Japanese thriller Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection next time when World On Film returns. Click below to view the original Japanese trailer:
Welcome. Let’s jump straight into things this week with the entry for Bangladesh:
The Clay Bird
(2002) Directed by Tareque Masud
“The bird’s trapped in the body’s cage. Its feet bound by worldly chains, it tries to fly, but fails.”
‘The Clay Bird’ opens a door into Bangladesh’s fight for independence in the late 1960s when the soon-to-be nation state was a far-flung region of Pakistan, following the partitioning of India in 1947. Increasingly disenchanted with the distant central government due to racial, cultural and economic discrimination, Bangladeshis began taking to the streets in protest, demanding a general election as the springboard for autonomous rule. The election was cancelled and the Pakistani military were sent in to quell the uprising, murdering thousands and destroying population centres. A civil war ensued, eventually leading to independence in 1971. The film is set just prior to the prolonged and bloody uprising, as citizens find themselves galvanized along religious and political lines, with tempers beginning to fray. Rather than depict events at the heart of the capital, the story centres around the lives of a rural family in a remote village, bearing witness to the way in which the winds of change blew across the ordinary citizen. While the intent of this is sound, the end result is something of a mixed bag.
The plight of the family proves an effective allegory for the various Bangladeshi attitudes to the turmoil their world is in. Kazi, the father, a born-again Muslim, reflects the ultra-conservative stand that faith and discipline will unite the people under Allah, and is unable or unwilling to accept that the deeply fractured society around him faces problems that cannot be solved through prayer. Milon, his brother, a young political extremist, stands ready to fight for the nation with the unwavering confidence of the just. Ayesha, Kazi’s apolitical wife meanwhile, is interested simply in getting through the ordinary day to day struggles of life. Asma, the daughter, is too young to be constrained by the petty concerns of adults, while Anu, the young son, is propelled unwillingly by conflicting forces and ideologies he doesn’t understand. It is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.
“[The family] is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.”
Yet there is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell. It could very easily simply be the story of a young boy forced to attend a madrasa (Islamic boarding school) by a father terrified his son’s mind will be polluted by non-Islamic ideas and therein be a commentary on Islamic extremism itself. Indeed, a large chunk of the film is just that: there is a very telling scene where the young Anu and his uncle watch a Hindu boat race, clearly enjoying themselves, only to be reprimanded for celebrating diversity. Kazi’s religious fervour has him at odds with the rest of his family, incapable of being the father and husband they so desperately need. The dogma strangles the family to the point of dysfunction. Equally telling is the character of Milon, whose more secular and open-minded world view is the foundation for the forthcoming nation-state. Religious dogma is equated with denial, while the activist is the realist.
Fortunately, the Islamic discourse eventually digs deeper and there is a nice scene where two of the madrasa teachers make the point that the religion spread so successfully across Bangladesh precisely because it was a peaceful ideology. Whatever one’s beliefs, there can be no denying that this sort of discourse on Islam is rarely found outside of Islamic countries. The very idea that it must be spread by force and violence is just such a question pondered with dismay by one teacher struggling to understand how religion became part of the rising civil war in the first place. That the Muslim extremists involved in acts of terrorism rivaling the invading Pakistani army might be missing the point is one of the many tragedies of that war, though it is important to remember that many factors came into play, not least cultural and economic destitution. However, director Tarique Masud does not adequately explore these factors, which if the aim is to give a snapshot of society during that time is quite remiss, suggesting that he is more interested on religious commentary. Yet the film goes beyond the madrasa, so that those set up as the main characters then disappear for long stretches like the inhabitants of a Tolkien novel. This unravels the sequences designed to build up character storylines, with the disjointed result leading to the uneven pacing. This leaves the conflicts faced by some to be either insufficiently built up or not satisfyingly followed through. Masud ultimately needed to choose one storyline and stay with it.
“There is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell.”
Nonetheless, the cast perform with the conviction and skill necessary to draw the viewer into their characters’ worlds – when we are able. However, standouts for me include Russell Farazi as Rokon, Anu’s one true friend at the madrasa – a likeable, yet misunderstood loner, and the young Farazi is more than able to imbue the character with the complexities that reside in such a part. Soaeb Islam, meanwhile, brings to the wannabe revolutionary a warmth often without any dialogue whatsoever. Clearly, Kazi is set up to be a stiff-necked Islamic convert, giving Jayanto Chattopadhyay not a lot of range, however, this does allow for a meaningful scene at the end where the horrors of war force Kazi to face his religious convictions. And while Nurul Islam Bablu is no Marina Golhabari, he gives Anu the profound innocence that the script requires of the character.
Ultimately, ‘The Clay Bird’ is not quite the tale of Bengali struggle it purports to be, due to unfortunate scripting and editing choices that take much of the wind out of its sails as a result. However, it opened up a window into a history with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, with many thought-provoking and sometimes touching sequences that still manage to shine through – even if the sum of the parts is conspicuous by its absence.
The Memoirs Of A Self-Confessed Surrealist
(1978) Directed by Alan Yentob
“The marvellous is beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact, only the marvellous is beautiful.”
In 1978, jazz player, film critic, writer and lover of melting watches, George Melly, undertook a journey from his Notting Hill home to visit the Great Exhibition of Dada & Surrealist Art at the Hayward Gallery near the Thames. Along the way, he relates his long and passionate love affair of the surrealist movement and its many colourful denizens, reliving many experience of his own both surreal in encounter and Dadaesque by design.
Melly recounts how he joined the British surrealist movement after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II after discovering the book Surrealism by Herbert Reed, the paintings within revealing “a world I’d always suspected had existed, but which I didn’t know how to get into.” To him, surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality” – a world based firmly upon reality, but overlaid with the heightened states of imagination contributed by the participant. This is an important distinction from fantasy, where the impossible has been divorced from the everyday and celebrated. Surrealism is firmly grounded in the ordinary, but through the freedom of imagination is able to perceive it as the marvellous. Even Salvador Dali had to be an impressionist before he could depict the inner world within. The surrealists embraced convention, recognising that they could be easily dismissed if they fitted the stereotype of the artist. Those like Magritte, who were far too busy challenging perceptual reality to bother with extravagance, were more successful with this aim, while for Dali, extravagance was the point.
“Oh, Dali. What a genius you were, and what a sad clown you have become.”
‘To [Melly], surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality.”’
The surrealist world according to Melly is a close-knit community, a movement shared in full agreement by his members. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Melly knew most of its primary practitioners personally, his own surreal poetry entering the canon of which notable entries lament the loss of a friend.
“When Magritte died, the stones fell to the ground, the birds divorced their leaves, the breasts became blind, the tubas extinguished their flames, the pipe remembered its role, the words looked up what they meant in the dictionary, the ham closed its eye forever, when Magritte died.” – Excerpt from “Homage to Rene Magritte”, by George Melly
Likewise, he is able to name check the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, ELT Mesens, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst with anecdotal clarity. The poetry of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters once saved his life in a dark alley, while the simple, yet revolutionary words of Andre Breton in a conversation decades earlier helped him expect the unexpected from the ordinary. Weekly gatherings at the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho brought him into contact with violin-torturer Robert Melville, pacifist air-raid warden Roland Penrose, suspected Fifth Columnist Conroy Maddox, and anarchist bus conductor Arthur Moyes among others. Inheritors to the surrealist oeuvre are introduced, notably Monty Python, painter Patrick Hughes, blue novelist and fashion guru Molly Parkin, and British rock band The Stranglers, although surely The Stranglers were Dadaists, since as Melly says himself in description of the movement, “the beginnings of Dada were not art, but disgust.”
The long journey includes, as one might expect, plenty of visual examples of the Dada revolt and the Surrealist reinterpretation, from the paintings that still inspire wonder in the minds of many today to the buildings that were created as a result. When not heard to ‘ursonate’, Melly’s poetry parts the clouds of conventional thinking and forces all ears to see the world in-between. It is, after all, a personal journey, and for fans of the genre, a quick and entertaining celebration of everything that makes the movements so exciting and fires the flames of marvellous creativity. For the novice, it serves as an entertaining introduction to the surrealist and Dadaist movements, the key works of both, and the artists who created them. As to availability, BBC4 occasionally repeats it along with other Arena classics, otherwise look online in the usual places.
Life, death, love and anguish, as the lives of 14 Belorussian businessmen take centre-stage in the documentary Brigade, or A Toast To A Clean Friday, part of Rutger Hauer’s I’ve Seen Films short film festival.
World On Film is currently on a break from its prime directive: to seek out episodes of cinema from across the globe and hopefully represent every country (a proposition you will quickly have recognised as being utterly mad). The definition of this raison d’etre is being stretched to breaking point during the respite so as to provide an excuse for other topics of personal interest, though certainly film is still the tie that binds them. This time around, we look at an example of film bringing an episode of history to life and the way it therefore provides a real immediacy to the event, even decades after the fact.
Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s while I was in short pants and discovering the concept of libraries, I discovered the far-away and seemingly-unpronounceable island of Vestmannaeyjar (vest-man-ay-yar). The colourful children’s hardback, helpfully titled Volcanoes would, I hoped, promise just as much wonder and excitement about these powerful, world-shaping mountains of fire as had Felicia Law’s definitive work on the subject, also efficiently titled Volcanoes. In its namesake, a group of schoolchildren living on Vestmannaeyjar’s chief island of Heimaey were poised in the cold outdoor air to learn the complex, yet abundantly demonstrative science of volcanology. Such a school outing would be considered highly dubious at best in my home town, where the only time the ground exploded was when the local council blew up sections of a nearby hill in their quest for granite. The Icelanders however had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.
“The Icelanders [of Vestmannaeyjar] had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.”
The Fires Of Muspelheim
“We felt its hail of cinders long before we saw the volcano’s fire, glowing like a midnight sunrise through the mizzling rain.” – Noel Grove, An Island Fights For Its Life, National Geographic, July 1973.
It was a cold and unexpected awakening that greeted the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its 5,000 inhabitants on the 23rd of January. At approximately 1.55 AM, the ground along the east coast literally tore itself apart barely a kilometre from the slumbering community and stretching 3 kilometres all the way down to the southern tip. Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance. Yet the drama was very much underway and soon, the outpouring of molten rock would confine itself to the north-east of the island, where it enveloped the farmland housing the local church. After less than a month of constant activity, the eruptions had formed a mountain 200 metres high – one that would continue to grow for the next 4 months.
Fortunately, Heimaey had seen tempestuous weather conditions in the days leading up to the eruption and all of the town’s fishing boats were moored in the harbor, ready for use. The population was therefore able to be swiftly relocated to the Icelandic mainland – primarily Reykjavik – where they would stay for the next several months as the volcano unleashed its fury upon their home. Some 200 locals would stay on to fight the sea of ash threatening to crush every household by its sheer weight, and, in the months to come, literally stop the flow of lava from destroying the harbour. With their whole industry based on fishing (in turn accounting for approximately 10% of the national total), the idea of letting nature take its course was never seriously debated. However, their battle would not be won easily.
“Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance.”
As the eruption continued, the geography of the island would be substantially altered, firstly by having its total size increased by 2.24 km², but more crucially, by nearly closing off the all-important harbour entrance. This, more than anything else, would signal the death of the settlement if it were not stopped, and with every passing day, the ever-expanding lava field to the north threatened to close the gap between the mainland and the long peninsula to the north that sheltered the port from extremes of weather. The danger to the town also increased dramatically a month into the eruption when the entire north flank of the volcano collapsed under its own weight. A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.
With both the crucial waterway and the settlement itself directly under threat, contingency plans were needed fast. Early ideas included cutting through the lowest point of the peninsula, effectively creating a new harbour, and bombing the crater. The former would be dismissed as too cumbersome while the later was determined to be likely as dangerous to the town as the river of fire itself. It would eventually be agronomist and fellow rescue worker Páll Zóphóníasson who proposed stopping the lava flow with seawater. With the help of pumping equipment already installed in the larger sea vessels, the islanders quickly began aiming their hoses at the encroaching mass. The process of nature was duly halted, with the gap no more than 100 meters and a massive lava flow having crushed half the town as well as destroying several fishing factories. Under the impact of the sprayed seawater, the edges of the lava flows became towering walls of solid rock, while the still-flowing rivers of fire behind were diverted away from the town.
“A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.”
Their livelihoods saved, the inhabitants of Heimaey were significantly less concerned about the massive devastation that lay in wait for them upon their return to the island. That same destructive coating of ash could after all be harvested to dramatically improve the local runway as well as provide solid foundations for new housing. The tempered volcano meanwhile would provide free geothermal energy for most of the decade – though initially, the sulphurous gases slowly escaping from the drying rock would render the atmosphere toxic, with one fireman rescuer asphyxiating in a cellar and becoming the eruption’s only victim.
By early July, the mountain, initially dubbed ‘Kirkjufell’ for standing where the church had months earlier, now officially known as ‘Eldfell’ (Fire Mountain), had ceased eruptions and towered some 220 metres above the landscape, its neighbour: the ancient cone of Helgafell, which had dominated the island’s fate when it exploded into being some 5,000 years earlier. 12 kilometres to the south-west, the island of Surtsey stood quietly in the half-mist – only 10 years earlier having risen angrily out of the water to frustrate the cartographers by becoming the nation’s southernmost point of land. Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.
“Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.”
Several short films captured the latest chapter in the Vestmannaeyjar saga back in the 1970s. The Heimaey Eruption, from which the images you see here are taken, is one such example. Written and produced in 1974 by Alan V. Morgan, it gives a good account of the unfolding drama, thanks to some excellent footage. Viewers are given a brief overview of Iceland’s volcanism and the forces that are literally pulling it apart, before the action travels to Heimaey, where Eldfell is slowly flattening the town. Two other films if you can find them are Day Of Destruction, produced by Kvikmyndagerðin Hljóð og mynd, and Fire On Heimaey, produced by VÓK-Film hf (both in colour and having English narration).
Someone has posted The Heimaey Eruption to youtube, so never mind my rambling waffle – take a look for yourself:
Gerhard Skrobek and Hermann Luschner produced some spectacular film of the eruption and its impact on both the town and the rescue workers. Having now made its way on to (where else?) youtube, you can view it here:
Thanks to the work of Morgan, Skrobek, Luschner and others, we have the story of Eldfell immortalized in sound and motion, providing that immediacy so important 37 years later when it all seems so distant and unreal: perhaps not to the people of Iceland, used to one of the most dynamic and rapidly-changing landscapes on Earth. How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever. How incredible then to actually be able to see the birth of Eldfell in 1973 and the indomitable spirit of the townspeople, who refused to let a volcano change their lifestyle. A child’s library book and its wonderfully vivid photographs would etch Vestmannaeyjar into my memory forevermore, but The Heimaey Eruption took me there, if only for 30 minutes.
“How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever.”
Still To Come On World On Film
Explorations into topics in and around the concept of film and the world it brings into your living room and the main series of reviews taking us to countries starting with ‘B’ begins with a tale of repressed sexuality, inner torment and discrimination in the Bahaman drama Float. All this and more in the upcoming weeks when World On Film continues.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Pusan International Film Festival for the very first time – PIFF being South Korea’s largest cinematic celebration, now in its 15th year. I say ‘attend’, though it was more of a whirlwind 24 hour flirtation, given that Busan, as it’s now spelled, is in the south-east of the country, and I live in the north-west. As such, I saw no celebrities, attended no special screenings, nor partook in any seminars. At the end of the day though, it’s all about films, and I did manage to catch three fairly decent efforts – one of which saw its world premier here – and generally soak in at least some of the atmosphere that any cinephile would enjoy, as well as walk away with a souvenir or two.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about films”
The action was spread across several cinemas and venues in downtown Busan, most notably Haeundae, the nation’s most popular beach. With time pressing heavily however, I confined myself to one area, that being Nampo-dong, a district famous for film and fish, with raw piscines unwittingly sacrificing themselves to provide the evening’s dinner. With the visit crossing over Friday and Saturday, it was a chance to experience both the weekend throng and the quieter weekday crowd of dedicated flicker-fans. It was little more than a snapshot, a cross-section of the full experience, but it was highly enjoyable when it wasn’t utterly exhausting and hopefully this won’t be my last time there.
As such, I don’t feel qualified to launch into a full account of PIFF 2010, so I’ll concentrate on the films I caught instead.
(2010) Directed by Jang Hun
Click below to view the trailer, which contains English subtitles.
Even if one’s knowledge of film is similar in depth to Boris Johnson’s expertise on lucid discourse, everyone is aware of the concept of ‘national character’ – the cultural zeitgeist of a people that is easy money in cinematic terms. Films portraying the ‘Aussie battler’ champion the loveable struggles of the Australian working class in stereotyped but well-crafted epics such as Gallipoli, however also guarantee bums on seats even with the most formulaic of efforts, such as the more recent Charlie & Boots.
Elsewhere, the British self image of tolerance, restraint and humility has given rise to another genre of guaranteed money-spinners, typically infested with Hugh Grant’s bumbling, self-effacing celebration of failure in the face of eventual triumph. Whether or not anyone in either country actually identifies closely with these social ciphers, they clearly appeal to the collective national psyche.
In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood: the deep and unbreakable bond forged between two men (who may or may not be actual brothers) by blood, sweat, and above all, tears. The human ties that bind define one’s entire outlook in Korean society, with friendship an optional extra. Yet Koreans are powerfully sentimental, and no true brotherhood can last without genuine love.
The last decade alone has produced a glut of films mining the genre all the way to the Earth’s core safe in the knowledge that it will sell like cheap reality tv aspirations. Stand-outs include Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides of Korea’s demilitarized zone find friendship easy once duty and politics are pushed aside, and Shiri, a 2000 drama-thriller produced during the time former Korean president Kim Dae-jung actively pursued his Sunshine Policy with the North. In this film, a group of North Korean sleeper agents are pursued by South Korean special agents as they attempt to set off a series of explosives around Seoul so as to weaken the ‘puppet’ American stronghold for reunification DPRK-style.
“In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood”
2010’s Secret Reunion sits somewhere between the two in terms of plot, dealing as it does with North Koreans infiltrating the South and men of both countries forming a close bond when the seemingly-impenetrable clash of two incompatible ideologies are put aside. In the film, Shadow, a North Korean assassin has been dispatched to the South to obliterate a defected countryman, however Jiwon, his young partner and protege, a product of the North Korean military elite, is not so cold-blooded, needing reasoning deeper than simple political revenge to justify death. When Hangyu, a local National Intelligence agent fails to capture them after a bloody massacre in a residential area, he is forced into civilian life. Six years later however, he inadvertently runs into Jiwon and realizes he once again has a chance to bag the elusive assassin – still somewhere at large in South Korea. As he comes to know his new acquaintance, Hangyu finds a man of depth and compassion, and so turning him in becomes ever more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, PIFF hails this latest Korean effort as a sea change in local cinema. I however found it highly derivative, a local version of a typical Odd Couple outing, with a very standard and formulaic Hollywood happy ending little different from that one would expect from Midnight Run or 48 Hours. However, the film’s unoriginality and cornball moments are offset to a fair degree by some excellent direction from Jang Hun alongside a very competent cast. Jeon Guk-hwan plays the North Korean assassin Shadow with merciless revolutionary zeal. Jeon is more familiar to locals for his stage work, and the elder statesman’s theatrical experience is on full display here – there is absolutely nothing pantomime in his villain and he really comes across as a credible threat. Song Kang-ho is one of Korea’s biggest film stars and indeed my personal favourite. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character he inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages, with the highly-talented Kang able to elevate even the most pedestrian of scripts. Equally capable is Kang Dong-won as Jiwon, the inwardly-anguished North Korean soldier. Where Song is all wonderful bluster, Kang is a study in tightly-controlled conflict and unsurprisingly, the foundations for the odd-couple pairing.
With this new chance to re-explore the brotherhood leitmotif as though it were for the very first time in cinema, writers Kim Ju-ho and Jang Min-seok go to great pains to build up this seemingly incompatible relationship, and of course, they’re onto a winner. Secret Reunion delivers the typical mix of two-hander conflict and humour we would expect from such a venture and away from the occasional ventures into Saccharine Alley, succeeds. Punctuated moments of high drama are the really memorable moments however, and the first venture into graphic violence is a surprise to the viewer. It’s even more effective when one learns that the script derives from a true story, with a Shadow-like killer penetrating the border and engaging in urban executions for the glorious Democratic Republic. In a way, it’s a shame that the producers felt they had to dumb down reality to the level of a tired buddy film, taking much of the wind out of history’s sails.
“There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character [Song Kang-ho] inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages”
Jang Hun nonetheless can be praised for being capable of bringing both elements to the screen with equal directorial affinity, clearly understanding the pacing required to bring out both comedy and thriller. The multitalented relative newcomer will hopefully attach himself to genuine innovation in the future and give himself a chance to show what he’s really capable of.
Those new to Korean cinema will be blissfully unaware of Secret Reunion’s recycled nature. Even Song Kang-ho must surely be feeling the déjà-vu, starring as he did in the similarly-themed JSA. For the most part though, it’s a well-produced adventure put together by a skilled production team. If only I hadn’t seen it all before.
Voice Over (International Premiere)
(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov
(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)
Official program description: The story of a persecuted man who loses his son. Anton Krustev is a famous cinematographer. He makes a film about his own life. But those who now direct the film are the very same people who once persecuted him.
A while ago, I reviewed the Albanian feature film Slogans, which demonstrated the way in which that society, now free of the rigidly-controlled Soviet-style paranoia that once powered it 30 years ago, was finally able to laugh at the insanity of its past. Voice Over is a new Bulgarian entry in very much the same vein, though whereas Slogans showed the way in which people had become more concerned with parroting revolutionary Communist slogans than actually understanding and implementing the ideology behind them, Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies. The film uses black humour to similar effect and similar in theme, the human tragedy of a wasted generation is just as poignant.
As with Secret Reunion, Voice Over is a true story, and to make matters even more intertextual with lead character Anton Krustev attempting to make a film of his own life – of a time in the late 1970s when he became separated from his wife and son by the Iron Curtain, they having fled to West Germany ostensibly for health reasons, but equally because they know which way the wind is blowing. This flashback is the film’s principal tale, and the way in which the State Security Services kept Krustev and his German-born wife under surveillance convinced that one or both were traitors attempting to defect to the decadent West. Innocent phone calls and mail are re-interpreted by the authorities as subversive while the wife herself, entreating Krustev to join her in Berlin, is seen as a malign influence trying to undermine one of Bulgaria’s then-most celebrated directors of photography. Krustev, meanwhile, must deal with the separation and loss of his family all the while succumbing to the influence of national ideologies: he is a patriot torn between personal feelings and national sentiment. If there is a happy ending, it can only be found by future generations free of the irrational forces pinning these unfortunates to the sacrificial altars of their country’s Communist past.
Slogans would also demonstrate how, in times of a Cultural Revolution, the family unit and love itself could be destroyed by the demands of the state, though Voice Over, with genuine humour, suggests that those on the ‘right’ side could be exempt from such disruption. Great rewards are promised to those in the service of their country, and if the misguided are talented, they are not beyond redemption with a certain amount of encouragement.
“Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies”
Writer/director Ovtcharov goes right to the heart of the madness of Soviet paranoia in Voice Over, with even those not well-versed in Eastern European culture or history having no trouble whatsoever in understanding the message being delivered. His story is filled with realistically-drawn characters struggling to cast their voices into an arena interested only in the party line. Chief among them is Ivan Barnev as beleaguered film maker Anton Krustev, who conveys the ever-evolving emotions of love, loneliness, anger and hatred across a rapidly-stretching long-distance relationship with believability. Knowing as we do that the film deals with a dark chapter of Bulgarian history bookended by hopelessness, it is the journey, not the ending that really resonates. However, as much as Voice Over is a story of tragedy and a warning from the past about the dangers of extremism, it is not ultimately about hopelessness, but rather the struggle against insurmountable odds.
Where the viewer may struggle with it however is the slightly-protracted final edit. Perhaps reveling a little too much in the unfolding story, Ovtcharov neglects the pacing of the narrative as well as providing the film with several possible endings that fail to signal the finale. The overall effect renders dry what should be more emotionally-wrenching than it actually is: impatience in a viewer is never a good sign.
Those who can stomach the slower pacing however will be rewarded by Voice Over’s aims and be privy to the very human struggle for normality in extremism’s shadow. The last decade shows that with the parting of Iron Curtain, many Eastern Europeans have interesting stories to tell that they now do in film, finally gaining a voice of freedom away from state-sponsored cinema.
(2010) Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu
Click to watch the trailer below:
Official program description: Yusuf’s father is a beekeeper whose father hangs his beehives at the top of tall trees. One day, his father travels to a faraway forest on a risky mission, and later Yusuf must enter the forest alone in search of him.
Writer/director Semih Kaplanoglu delivers the third and final entry in the ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, this time focusing on the principal character’s childhood. Admittedly, I was entirely unaware until afterward that I’d just seen the final installment, though since they are told in reverse chronological order, one can enter Yusuf’s world through Honey knowing even less. Quick research revealed that the minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Indeed, I was reminded very much of the equally simple but beautiful Korean epic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East? of a decade earlier. In both instances, the deep, impenetrable and imposing natural world is deliberately silent and overpowering so as to show the true place of nature in the human narrative.
Nothing could be more suited to the character of Yusuf, the deeply sensitive young boy who is himself so chronically-shy that speech for him is rare. Deep within the Turkish forests, he is heard to speak only with two characters throughout: his father, whom he idolizes, and even then can only communicate in whispers, and his schoolteacher, with whom he is desperate to impress with his reading comprehension skills. Yet in silence, he is fascinated by the world around him while at the same time almost too afraid to touch it. That he will grow into a poet (as seen in the two prequels) is in no way hard to believe.
“The minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema.”
Obviously, much of the success of Honey therefore hangs on the child actor selected to play the lead role, but in Bora Atlas, Kaplanoglu has struck gold. Whether or not the young star intrinsically understood what was being asked of him, he imbues Yusuf with wonderful naivete and innocence enshrouded by his fear and awe of the world so well that one can’t imagine anyone else playing the part better. In the absence of dialogue for the most part, Atlas must convey his character entirely through his facial expressions and body language, which he does with the conviction of a young boy who very probably didn’t really know what was going on and for Yusuf, this is in character.
It’s easy to criticise the so-called ADHD generation for having the attention span of a bee and therefore unlikely to find Honey ideal viewing. However, given the director’s Philip Glass-like approach to film-making and the paucity of dialogue, the film is a challenge to even fans of art house cinema at 103 minutes in length. While the point is to really capture the unshakeable silence of Yusuf’s world, it could easily lose at least 20 minutes and still deliver the same message without feeling at all rushed. Yet I also feel compelled somewhere down the line to watch predecessors Milk and Egg to see if this is a shortcoming of the Kaplanglu approach or whether this time around, those self-same elements don’t hold together. It is nonetheless the mark of a confident director not compelled to hide a multitude of sins through post-production.
Ultimately, Honey is a fine piece of cinema that just falls short of greatness perhaps for being too one-note in its approach. I still find plenty in it to recommend however and its refreshing simplicity is the perfect antidote to formulaic claptrap.
Coming Up Next
It’s Iceland, 1973, and the inhabitants of a small, sleepy island find their lives disrupted by the very ground beneath their feet. The true story of Eldfell captured on camera for all to see when World On Film returns.
You may be familiar with the genealogy tv program, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the show’s researchers help celebrities trace their lineage and taking them to ancestral home towns and/or other relevant sites of interest. I recently caught the Jason Donovan episode, and though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting. The product of a British father and an Australian mother, he seems well-versed in his British heritage, but his estranged mother’s family was an almost blank canvas. Along the way, he would discover that his maternal great-grandmother was a star of the music hall in Melbourne, while an even more illustrious ancestor and wealthy landowner in Sydney’s Hawkesbury district during the early days of White Australian settlement was once tasked with constructing the first road through the Blue Mountains at the behest of then-governor Lachlan Macquarie. Even today, road building in these enormous jagged, natural rocky leviathans is no easy task. 200 years ago, it would have been sheer lunacy, but that’s precisely what William Cox, 30 convict labourers and 8 guards set out to do in 1814, with little more than shovels and unrealistic dreams. Yet there was method in the madness: the young settlement was suffering from a major drought and recent explorations to the other side of the range had revealed the arable land the colonists desperately needed to produce sufficient crops. 27 weeks later, the work was completed and Sydney’s future seemed assured.
“Though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting.”
However, Australia’s convict history was far from rose-tinted and the means by which the fledgling colony would be made to survive of far greater ruthlessness than is typically taught in schools. The British government of the late 18th and early 19th Century, unable to entice enough willing settlers from the United Kingdom to Australian shores, resorted to enforcement. Suddenly, petty crimes that might have resulted in a small fine or even a simple caution were rewarded with a life sentence. The poverty-stricken were the obvious scapegoats, who quickly found that stealing loaves of bread suddenly meant geographic relocation and a decade of hard labour on the other side of the globe. The official line at the time was that this was simply a means of easing overcrowded prisons – a thinly-veiled deception that more than anything shows the lack of recourse victims had with the judicial system of the time: so desperate was the government to establish a colony there (other imperial powers of the time had also set their sights on the island continent) that they were perfectly content for the law to fall silent.
So it was that thousands of Britons were forcibly relocated to Australia and punished for having done so in labour camps. The more ‘serious’ criminals were shipped off to Tasmania, a rugged, isolated and inhospitable wilderness that even today has only been partially tamed. The infamous convict prison at Port Arthur, along the coast from Hobart, the capital, saw so much brutality and anguish that it is today considered one of the most haunted places in the country. It was here that Donovan discovered traces of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Lyons, who, two centuries earlier, had spent 10 years shackled in the service of his new colonial masters. Lyons, however, was a fortunate case. Not only did he survive his ordeal, but through a network of friends, was reunited with his wife and family and relocated to the Australian mainland a free man. For a great many others, Port Arthur was their descent into oblivion.
And yet even Port Arthur was not the remotest prison Tasmania had to offer. Repeat offenders found themselves sent to an even remoter facility on Sarah Island in the long and winding waters of Macquarie Harbour, in the west of Tasmania. Such was the fate of one Alexander Pearce, the subject of this week’s film:
Van Diemen’s Land
(2009) Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)
“The end of the world. A fine prison.”
Conditions on Sarah Island were so extreme that in 1822, the Irish-born malcontent Pearce and seven others, tasked with felling the surrounding forests to provide shipbuilders with high-quality wood, attempted to escape their exile. When plans to steal a moored whaling vessel fell through, the escapees, without much aforethought, plunged into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness intending to travel east to Hobart, some 225km away. Although Robert Greenhill, one of the convicts, could draw upon his many years as a sailor to provide navigational expertise, none present knew how to survive in bushland so inhospitable even the indigenous Australians largely avoided it, and when food supplies ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Few of the ill-fated expedition would survive to tell the tale. In Van Diemen’s Land, we join the convicts on the day of their escape attempt and follow the grizzly events that ensue.
The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia, and it was only through this film that I myself became familiar with this dark chapter of White Australia. Van Diemen’s Land inspired me to fire up my browser and learn more, with the realisation that in movie terms, I was watching the middle part of a trilogy. Part 1 would have dealt with Pearce’s repeated offences condemning him to slave labour on Sarah Island. There, he would continue to prove unruly for the authorities, practicing his talent for theft and disruption, ultimately finding himself on work detail felling trees in Macquarie Harbour and seeing an opportunity for escape. Part 3 would have dealt with the consequences of his actions, including one final adventure, which the last sequence of Van Diemen’s Land briefly covers. Director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, however, appears to be fixated upon the middle part of the story, and while the moment when Pearce acquired a taste for human flesh strikes an undeniable discord with all but perhaps the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea, I can’t help feeling that it’s a little like telling the tale of Ned Kelly focusing only on the killings at Stringybark Creek. Only a few captions either side of the film quickly fill in the blanks, hinting that there is more to the story. Nonetheless, ‘Part 2’ is well-crafted for what it is and sheds a memorable, yet gloomy light on this hitherto forgotten saga.
“The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia”
auf der Heide wisely chooses a cast of unknowns to inhabit the fateful eight, which ensures the audience will accept their alter egos at face value. Oscar Redding, perhaps the best-known, creates an Alexander Pearce just possibly capable of redemption, up until the moment he agrees to sacrifice a member of the party for food, while Arthur Angel portrays a Robert Greenhill you wouldn’t want to be within twenty miles of when it came time to sleep. The rest of the cast fill out the remainder of the ill-fated group with similarly creditable performances, with the Scottish characters delivering their lines in Gallic alongside the 18th Century English dialect to underscore Australia’s role as a dumping ground for convicts all across the British Isles. The string-powered score, often more sound than symphony, meshes well with the bleak, washed-out picture to strongly evoke the dark mood of the piece. There are no archetypal heroes, only desperate human animals hastening the decay of civilisation’s thin veneer. Filmed on location in south-central Tasmania, the authentic natural backdrop does much on its own to sell the concept that the escapees are not only at the end of the earth as they themselves suggest, but that the land is cold and unforgiving – just as much today as it was in 1822. If I have issues with the film, therefore, it’s the storyline.
By focusing purely upon the escape attempt and the descent into cannibalism, the tale feels reduced somewhat into a B-grade exploitation horror. It doesn’t provide suitable build-up to properly explore the choices certain characters make throughout, though the documentation for this does exist. In consequence, I felt the leap to ‘the other meat’ was a little rushed, reminding me of an early South Park episode where cannibalism is the first rather than last resort. In addition, the full story would be more satisfying than some of the edited highlights ‘cannibalised’ for the purposes of a thriller. There is far more to the Alexander Drake story than we are witness to in Van Diemen’s Land. Undeniably, the issue of runtime comes into play here, however as I suggested earlier, there is enough scope for more than one feature. However, auf der Heide is the first to explore it cinematically, and perhaps this will spark interest in genuine Australian Gothic from here on. It certainly captures the tone and feel of that bleak world, taking strides towards tapping into a rarely explored period of Australian history that perhaps may now be brought to light free of the nationalist veil. Certainly any proud Australian and film fan should see Van Diemen’s Land for this purpose, and genre fans everywhere will appreciate what it does achieve. Let’s hope it’s a taster of things to come.
Paul Collins of Australian newspaper The Age provided a good overview of Alexander Pearce’s life in A Journey Through Hell’s Gate.
If you’re going to see the film, I recommend reading only up to the point of the gang’s escape from Macquarie Harbour and saving the rest for later.
You can also visit Sarah Island, site of the convict facility where Pearce and his contemporaries were imprisoned by popping these coordinates into Google Earth: 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E. You’ll even be able to see the facility itself, courtesy of numerous user-contributed photos. Explore around the area for photos of Macquarie Harbour itself and some shots of the dense inland wilderness the escapees would have traversed.
Do You Wanna
A cursory search for films made in Aruba might lead one to think they are spoiled for choice. On further examination, however, this abundance proves to be chimerical, with almost every mirage listed bearing the unhelpful name ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme’. Yes, Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years. Who among us could forget the heart-warming wondrousness of Knock Out, the incredible and touching insight of Mercenary, or the mind-bending philosophical depth of Out For A Kill?
“Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years.”
Quite. Thus I was left with slim pickings for genuine Aruban cinema and indeed only one film came staggering anywhere near the criteria of a proper local effort – and I’m still not sure it actually is – in the form of Marry Me. The premise of this – as it would turn out – nauseating short has to do with Jim, a man who might possibly be Fate’s punching bag, attempting to propose to his girlfriend on a beach somewhere. Oh yes – with ‘hilarious’ consequences. Well, at least it was shot in Aruba – as indeed I wanted to be by the end credits. You can watch this 5-minute fluff for free directly on IMDB here.
Revenge makes perfect sense when you’re angry. The anguish gives you purpose. The pain gives you clarity. You’ll take the one who gave you that pain into that black abyss inside you – the void that threatens to swallow you up, the space where peace once reigned. A complete stranger just killed the person you love. They can’t be allowed to live.
But what if you then met the object of your revenge? What if you came to know them – their pain, their fears? Would you still have that clarity? Would you still be ready to kill? Discover the thought-provoking Austrian film, Revanche. I bet you can translate that without my help. See a subtitled trailer here:
When the crew of a research submarine searching for new bio fuels in the Arctic Circle mysteriously disappears, another is sent to continue with the work. However, a black box recording compels the crew to discover what happened to the other vessel, especially when that same threat descends upon them – something large and silent that slices through the icy waters like a prehistoric leviathan.
The Deep, starring James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver is a miniseries rather than a film, and one that looked extremely good before I was silly enough to watch it, expecting something along the lines of The Abyss, which episode 1 very tantalisingly suggests. However, it soon strays into Hunt For Red October territory and which point my interest sank through to the mantle. There is also the running theme of scientific triumph overcoming common sense in the name of riches, but explored with the care and consideration of a Sci Fi Channel script, the quality of which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the equivalent of having Russell Brand perform comedy. The Deep should therefore be consigned to the self-same Arctic seabed the program explores and best forgotten.
Happily, this is easily done as this week’s entry in World On Film is the excellent Argentinean romance murder-mystery…
The Secret In Their Eyes
(2009) Directed by Juan Campanella
A trailer can be found at the bottom of last week’s entry.
“A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.”
The Secret In Their Eyes builds upon the very essence of life: a sequence of key moments that can completely change our destinies if we recognise them for what they are, held together by the long ordinary days in between where we don’t feel remarkable enough to act. Yet its ultimate message is one of hope, while also challenging us to decide whether or not in certain situations revenge is justified. I am not normally a big fan of crime fiction, let alone romance, yet if The Secret In Their Eyes was indicative of the way in which crime-romance cinema normally entertains, I’d have to jump the tracks and nail my colours to the mast. However, The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, written and directed with confident maturity, populated with engaging characters expertly realized, and one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.
“The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.”
As the 20th Century draws to a close, retired federal justice agent Benjamin Esposito decides to fictionalise an especially memorable case from his younger days – one that changed his life forever. However, as the memories come flooding back, the unsolved 1974 crime refuses to fade away, and Esposito finds himself compelled to solve it once and for all, in the process rediscovering his undying love for a woman he once let slip through his fingers. Along the way, he learns what truly makes humans tick and that true passion may be the strongest force in existence, although it may manifest itself in ways too hard to accept.
It will therefore hardly be surprising that I consider one of the film’s prime strengths to be its study of the human condition. On one level, the commentary is nothing new: love, longing, missed opportunities, regret, fallibility, weakness, malice; yet this is humanity in a nutshell, with every generation enacting the same drama as before.
Secret is not intended to turn this all-encompassing portrait on its side and offer a new interpretation. Its characters are straightforward, easily-identifiable and found all around us – they may even be us. The aim is to show them in all their glory and misery and break them down into the raw emotions that make us all tick. If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché. Likewise, if you don’t care for a study on the mechanics of human behaviour, this isn’t for you. It’s not a new paradigm of the genre, rather a very open and honest one that relies very much on the viewer’s own life experience for it to make impact. Others may be put off by the analysis of revenge, especially as it invites introspection on one’s own character by film’s end. Yet this is surely the point.
“If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché.”
Another of Secret’s key strengths is the choice of actors and the characters themselves. Ricardo Darin’s Esposito is at turns very subdued, worn down by the realities of life, yet elsewhere a fiery champion of justice – perhaps not unsurprising given his vocation, but Darin has the feel of the character just right. In opposition, Soledad Villamil’s Irene is a woman in conflict: career-driven, struggling to walk the right path, and torn by her feelings. If anyone embodied the film’s title, it would have to be Pablo Rago’s portrayal of Ricardo Morales, the husband of a rape victim. Rago’s wide eyes says so much, yet hide even more. Perhaps especially memorable however is Esposito’s friend, Pablo Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. It may again be unoriginal that the film’s comic relief turns out to have the greatest insight (and espouse the film’s central message), but the oft-ignored yet wise fool is a long-enduring character simply for what he offers the viewer. There is also something earthy and endearing about Francella’s performance that keeps your eyes trained upon him. The humour also provides a welcome release amidst the darker themes of the film.
This is helped further by the touching, at times hauntingly-beautiful score provided by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, proving an excellent match for the often sombre mood director Juan Campanella aims to create. Although ‘sepia’ would be too strong a word, there is a definite yellowish tint awash over the flashback sequences that give the film its art-house feel and atmosphere. Running at just over two hours, Campanella has managed to set the pace just right – anything slower would lose the audience, yet to speed things up would be to destroy the important character moments, often carried by lingering expressions that say more than dialogue ever would. Yet dialogue is very much the centrepiece of the film – none of the themes are left unexplored and Campanella isn’t interested in letting the visuals do all the talking. Again, I felt the balance between the visual discourse and the verbal was just right.
As my first entry into Argentinian film, I was very impressed with The Secret In Their Eyes. However, to dwell on its country of its origin would be to do it a disservice, for it is simply good cinema. While its commentary on its universal themes may not work for everyone, I think many will enjoy the very touching and human tale that unfolds. If it ultimately leaves you a little unsettled and undecided as to the choices taken within the narrative, it has achieved its goal.
A freelance photographer, sent to Armenia with his wife to snap the local churches for a forthcoming calendar, encounters the eternal triangle in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film, Calendar. No trailer I’m afraid, although this youtube video does provide a kind of background teaser: