Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Log 459 Feb 15 2015:Two outstanding films, dealing with significant social issues, set in sharply contrasting landscapes that are brilliantly used by their directors to establish a starkly intense atmosphere

Kieślowski's grave
Kieślowski's grave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Short Film About Killing
A Short Film About Killing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 In the last few weeks I have seen two brilliant films which have dealt with two of the major social and political issues of our time: the first capital punishment, the second Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. But both films concentrated on establishing the social conditions within which these two issues have prospered, yet without beating their audiences over the head with their moral indignation.
Anyone who saw the 1970-1990s films of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996 at the age of 54, will not need any recommendation from me about his genius, which has been on show again at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal with the screening of his film called   A Short Film About Killing, made in 1988 when he was at the peak of his powers. The second film, Timbukto, directed by a Malian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, who has lived in Paris for many years after making his name with earlier films, is a more recent one.  In fact it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards, and all I can say is that any film that beat it must be of superlative quality.
From the very first shot of the Kieslowski film, the camerawork seemed to emphasize a certain sense of danger, certainly of a dark, urban atmosphere, in which, one had the feeling, almost anything could happen.  As the story was picked up, through various characters, the film developed a certain air of aimlessness, yet without letting go of its hold on the audience’s fascination. One after the other, the characters drifted around the town, in most cases pursuing what seemed like slightly irrelevant lives, as if they were slightly adrift in the big city.  A taxi driver washed and cleaned his car, as he did so rejecting offers to use his services made by people who seemed to be in desperate need of them.  When he had finished washing, he drove off, leaving yet another prospective client standing on the sidewalk. Then, a young man who had just taken a law exam seemed desperately anxious, doubtful as to his success, until, to his intense surprise and immense relief, he discovered he had passed. Meantime, a lanky, worthless-looking individual, with long, land hair, and a big skin,  had been drifting in and out of camera, visiting various shops for no discernible purpose, until, with the film well along on its way, he hailed a cab, and got into the cab driven by the previously seen driver. He directed the cabbie to an isolated spot beside a river, told him to stop, and then, taking him by surprise, beat the man, himself got out of the car, pulled the unconscious victim from the car, and proceeded to beat him to a horrible death, none of which was spared those of us in the audience who were still wondering what the film was going to be about.
Cut to a courtroom, where the young man is on trial for his life, defended byt he recently graduated lawyer. He is found guilty, offering virtually no defence, nor any reasonable explanation for his actions. But after he is taken away, the nervous young lawyer seeks out the judge in his chambers to apologize for what he regarded as his own inadequacies in defence, suggesting that a more experienced lawyer might have done a better job, might even have got the young man off. The judge smiled indulgently and said that he should stop worrying, because his speech against the death penalty was one of the most eloquent he had ever heard.
The last part of the film deals with the reality of capital punishment. It is not that long, but dramatic in its intensity.  The young man wants to talk to the lawyer, tells him abut his harsh upbringing and so on. On the day set for his execution he is granted a final half-hour with the lawyer, again, and when the time is up and guards arrive to tell the lawyer to leave, the lawyer says he is not leaving until physically taken out. Of course, that is what happens, and the final moments of the young man’s life are shown in excruciating detail. According to a note on the Internet, a well-known film critic named this film in his list of the ten greatest films of all time, because, he said, it was responsible for Poland abandoning capital punishment. Even if that had not happened, there is no doubt as to the superb quality of this film. Readers may have seen, among earlier Kieslowski films, the brilliant trilogy called Red, White and Blue, and another series called The Decalogue, of which, I was told this week, this film is a part.
Timbuktu is another film full of atmosphere. Some Arab families are living in isolated tents scattered around a desert not far, it seems, from the city of Timbuktu.  The daily life of a particular family, headed by a herder with eight cows, and with a wife and small daughter, is shown, and it is established that this family prefers to stay where they are, not to run away as most of their neighbours have done in face of the intruders who have taken over government. In the city itself a loudspeaker is being driven around the streets, telling women they must wear gloves, they must wear socks, they must cover themselves, and one woman in the market scoffs at them, asking, how could she handle fish while wearing gloves, and telling these men to go away, and leave them alone. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer are banned, and these enforcers roam the city, determined to suppress every sound of a song, even a religious song in favour of the Prophet, every sound of a bouncing ball, indicating children at play. Their edicts are considered absurd by the local people, but they result in harsh punishments.
Thus, the story of the film is elucidated, with the locals resisting the strong-arm tactics used by the intruders, who, I believe, are never named in the film, but who, according to a note on
Wikipedia, were supposed to represent Ansar Dine,  a militant Tuareg group that briefly occupied Timbuktu in 2012, imposing strict Sharia law during its reign.  

The further action of the film is built around the death of one of the herders cows that interfered with the nets of a fisherman. In a quarrel the fisherman was shot dead, and he hunter was convicted in a sort of kangaroo court atmosphere. Though these outlines make the film sound like a polemic, the impact of the filming is rather that one is almost overwhelmed by both the beauty of the desert and the old city, one of the oldest on earth, as well as  the beauty of the quietly dignified  rural life of the inhabitants.

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