District 9: sharp social and political satire buried under a sketchy action thriller plot

Neil Blomkamp, “District 9″ (2009)

The inspiration for this science fiction film arises from a context in which racial segregation and exploitation informed the basis for an entire society. In 1966, the South African government used a 1950 law to declare an area (District 6) in Cape Town a whites-only area and commenced clearing out the black communities there. Two years later, the forced removal of people began and by the 1980s, nearly 60,000 people had been turfed out. The intention behind the forced removal was to open up the area to developers (with the government perhaps benefiting financially as well). Thirty years later, with the Israeli government pursuing similar apartheid policies of removal against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and for similar reasons, little has changed and this is where “District 9″ packs a strong punch.

The film opens its narrative some 28 years after an alien spacecraft has arrived in Johannesburg and deposited its load of sick and malnourished refugee aliens who resemble giant walking shrimp crustaceans there. The aliens are made to live in a slum area of the city and their conditions are portrayed as debased and grim. Under pressure from the public, all white, black and shades in-between, who fear and distrust the alien presence, the South African government decides to evict the aliens and force them to move elsewhere, and gives the job to a private security firm MNU. A rather ordinary administrator employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked by his sceptical father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), to oversee the relocation. While clearing out the aliens, Wikus enters one of the aliens’ homes and picks up a cylinder of alien liquid. He accidentally sprays the stuff into his face and from there the film traces Wikus’ transformation from human to alien.

When MNU discovers what is happening to Wikus, the company detains him under heavy security and begins investigating the effects of the transformation. Almost straight away, MNU scientists realise that Wikus’ changing DNA and blood enable him to fire weapons captured in the past from the aliens and Smit, on hearing the news, callously gives orders for the vivisection of Wikus. Wikus escapes and makes his way to District 9 where he enters the place where he picked up the cylinder and is reacquainted with the alien called Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son. When Johnson realises what is happening to Wikus, he and Wikus strike a bargain: if Wikus and he can return to MNU to retrieve the cylinder, whose juice is needed to power an underground jump-ship up to the mother-ship and kick-start it back into action after 28 long years, Johnson will try to find a cure to reverse Wikus’ transformation.

From then on, the action thriller story with its attendant violence spurs into action and takes viewers all the way to the end. Along the way, the film fleetingly touches on various contemporary issues: the practice of corporations under the pretence of scientific research exploiting humans and aliens for military purposes; the scapegoating of the aliens and the use of fear to impose police state measures on society as a whole; the outsourcing of government functions to private companies for profit and the negative consequences that arise as a result; and the examination of racism, xenophobia and greed. A powerful undercurrent in the film is the paradox of Wikus becoming more fully human in a moral sense as his physical humanity ebbs away: he becomes more compassionate and discovers reserves of bravery and heroism in defending and aiding Johnson and his son.

The use of actual interviews with Johannesburg residents (about Zimbabwean aliens) and fictional interviews with MNU employees gives the film an air of gritty reality as well as fleshing out details of the plot and its themes. Unfortunately however, these interviews and the layering they give to the film are quickly ushered into the background as the Hollywood-style action plot with its emphasis on stereotyped characters such as the psychotic mercenary Koobus Venter (David James) and Wikus’ long-suffering missus Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Too much of the film is given over to various gunfights, each more bloody and using more special FX than the last.

In the end, the film just about holds together thanks to Sharlto Copley’s acting. What a pity though, that Copley had to shoulder an otherwise rather sketchy film whose potential as sharp social commentary remains frustratingly dormant. The film’s conclusion appears open-ended and one senses that a sequel in which Johnson returns with the panacea to reverse Wikus’ transformation and Wikus confronts his callous father-in-law is needed.

Sõda: political satire as animal fable takes on a dark tone

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Sõda” (1987)

It has the look of a political satire disguised as an animal fable and I would say that the hapless little bat represents Estonia, buffeted by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Our flitter-mouse friend takes shelter in an abandoned water-mill and initially whiles away its time catching flies to eat and exploring its new surroundings. Before long though, the water-mill is invaded by crows from the sky, having found their way through a hole in the roof, and the bat is under siege from the birds which peck at it and try to dominate it. If that weren’t enough, hordes of rats from underground flood into the water-mill and attack the bat in the few refuges it can find. Soon the crows and rats start fighting over possession of the water-mill and the bat does its best to escape the crossfire and occasionally swing the battle in its favour.

The stop-motion animation has a raw and crude look which is effective for the film’s theme and plot. The puppets look cartoonish enough yet (in the case of the crows and rats) convey sinister menace. The music soundtrack is not intrusive and helps define the characters and the plot trajectory. The general look of the film is dark and grey-ish, in agreement with its sombre theme.

The film’s theme is adequate for a mainstream audience in scope though the reality is more complicated: Estonia did in fact collaborate with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, helping to round up Roma gypsies and Jewish people for incarceration and extermination. Currently Estonia finds itself losing people due in part to following an austerity program (which is eroding social services and infrastructure) and being part of the Schengen zone (meaning Estonians can travel to any part of the European Union to find work without needing visas) within the EU; and has accepted American troops in its territory on a supposedly temporary basis to defend itself against supposed Russian aggression. It seems that the bat is now up against forces more powerful and terrible than the crows and rats ever were. The film’s conclusion takes on a darker tone than the film-makers intended.

Kapsapea: an entertaining parody of action adventure / romance films

Riho Unt, “Kapsapea / A Cabbage” (1993)

A stop-animation parody of action adventure films like the Indiana Jones movie series, “Kapsapea” revolves around the travails of a humble farming family that discovers a giant cabbage has grown on their plot. The farmer, who conducts scientific experiments with alcohol on the side, imagines the fame and fortune that will accrue so he takes his giant vegetable down to his local pub where it is photographed by reporter Harrison for The New York Times. News of the giant cabbage spreads far and wide and it’s not long before American gangsters, agents from the KGB and spies from Communist China turn up in the neighbourhood eager to claim the cabbage for themselves. Most of the film is taken up with chases around the Estonian countryside as the farmer is pursued by hoodlums and spooks alike who’ll stop at nothing to grab the cabbage off him. Meanwhile Harrison falls in love with the farmer’s young daughter but their romance is nearly derailed when they fall foul of the Russians.

The action is tight and easily understood by audiences who don’t speak Estonian, although some of the finer points of the film, like any satire, will be lost on outsiders. One has to overlook the racist stereotypes surrounding the Chinese and Russian spies. There is plenty of slapstick comedy, some of it quite crude, and some scenes in the pub put the film out of reach of young children. The animation is well done although some of the action sequences are a bit hard on the eye and I’m not really sure what was chasing Harrison and his lady love while they were barrelling through an underground tunnel, in a recreation of the opening scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The characters are stuffed dolls made of cloth and various other soft materials, and look rough-hewn.

It’s definitely very light entertainment with not much of a moral or deeper meaning behind the plot. The farmer and the men who chase him are played for greedy buffoons while the women around them either faff about or strut sluttishly.

Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue: clarion call for everyone to know and resist resurgent global fascism

John Pilger, “Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue”, JohnPilger.com (26 February 2015)

Australia’s conscience comes with a real name: this is John Pilger and true to form, he has written an excellent essay on the resurgence of fascism in Europe and the rest of the world, to the extent that we all now stand on the brink of another major world war and the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used to wipe out whole nations – as if in the form of DU-enhanced ammunition they weren’t already slowly annihilating countries like Iraq – becomes greater every day. This fascism has a distinctly American face: its roots are in the American belief in Manifest Destiny and the notion that the United States is unique because it was founded on the principles of freedom and democracy, and therefore its civilisation is superior to others. This American fascism relies extensively on propaganda in the form of news media, Hollywood film and television output, and other cultural product, and is reinforced by pervasive surveillance through digital technologies, the manipulation of financial markets, the collusion of academics and so-called experts, and widespread censorship and misrepresentation and manipulation of facts working hand in velvet glove with global media and cultural exports.

Pilger ranges widely through examples of US warmongering and violence throughout the world, and how governments and corporate news media have consistently lied about American psychopathic behaviour, in the event demonising impoverished people or people standing up for their rights and convincing the Western public that such people are the villains. He brings his readers up to the present day where in Ukraine the criminal regime of President Petro Poroshenko has ferociously prosecuted a war in the country’s eastern Donbass region (which sits over considerable Yuzovka shale oil deposits, for which the company Burisma Holdings – and guess which US politician’s son sits on that company’s board as a director?) that has resulted in the deaths of thousands and displaced 2 million people, many of whom have fled to other countries. This conflict serves to help demonise Russia and its president Vladimir Putin who are frequently portrayed in the Western news media as aggressive and intent on fashioning a new post-Soviet empire encompassing currently independent nations like Armenia, Estonia and Kazakhstan. Pilger correctly identifies the aim of war against Russia: it is to grab that nation’s considerable energy and other natural resources for commercial exploitation that benefits a small global elite at the expense of the rest of us. In this context, Vladimir Putin and Russia have to be treated as Global Enemy No 1 for committing the unpardonable sin of following an independent course.

Pilger comes to the point of his article which is for the rest of us to wake up and learn the truth, and refuse to follow or co-operate with those individuals, organisations and governments pursuing the path of fascism. Knowing the truth, we must awaken others as well.

The article can be read at this link.

Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch: young investigator’s sleuthing into public school lunch program is queasy to stomach

Zachary Maxwell, “Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch” (2012)

Here comes wisdom from the mouths of babes … in this case, 9-year-old Zachary Maxwell who at the time of filming was attending a public elementary school in New York City. Every day, he’d look forward to school lunch based on the day’s menu which read like a menu that might be offered by one of NY’s finest 3-starred restaurants … only to be disappointed by the over-wrapped, bland and tasteless factory offerings dumped onto his tray. Irritated by the huge gap between what was advertised and what was the reality, Maxwell began a guerrilla film project in which he surreptitiously filmed or photographed about 75 school lunches served to him over several months, at least until he became careless and the Lunch Monitor caught him waving his phone camera in the air. Out of these pictures and videos, Maxwell created a well-structured investigative documentary project which highlights the hypocrisy behind the school lunch programs being run in New York City.

The documentary is very slick and Maxwell received a lot of adult help in editing the film and creating special effects and animation for the project. He ropes in his young brother Lucas for several scenes including a number of scenes in which they conduct an experiment (not very scientific) to see whether the school cafeteria’s fried potato chips last as long as a sponge cake or fresh vegetables. Maxwell appears in nearly every shot where he plays both investigative sleuth and narrator.

Maxwell concludes from the results of his project that the school lunch program’s hype about its lunches being varied, delicious and nutritious is just hot air and the actual lunches themselves – and viewers can see for themselves – are monotonous and consist of highly processed foods with dubious levels of nutrients (to say nothing of what they contain in additives and preservatives) and little if any of the fresh fruits and vegetables they are advertised as having. Along the way he and his fellow students get an early lesson in the power of propaganda to lead impressionable minds astray. He and Lucas decide that the best school lunches are ones they make themselves and carry to school in brown bags.

The film is at once funny and very entertaining, and very revealing about what children at Maxwell’s school have to put up with when private corporations and governments collude to pursue maximum profits by dumping junk … er, in serving school lunch meals to primary schoolchildren. Maxwell’s school may or may not be typical of schools in New York state in supplying such bland and useless lunches. One would hope such films like Maxwell’s should serve as a wake-up call to education department bureaucrats in that state and across the rest of the United States to start supplying more nutritious school meals to primary and secondary school students … but as long as the country hews to an ideology that privileges self-interest, greed and competition over co-operation, and believes that pursuing profit at the expense of the health of young Americans trumps everything else, Maxwell and his friends will have to be satisfied with eating more plastic processed pulp.

The documentary can be seen at this link.

The Look of Silence: a grim and monotonous film about a personal quest but no context to make sense of it

Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Look of Silence” (2014)

A companion piece to Oppenheimer’s earlier documentary “The Act of Killing”, this film considers the effects of Indonesia’s purges of Communists and people suspected of being Communist in 1965 on society and the general public. Adi, a fortysomething eye doctor in his village, seeks out the people involved in the torture and killing of his brother Ramli, whom he has never known, the brother having died before he was born. His journey takes him around various families in his village. The murderers of his brother hold considerable power and respect in the village, and Adi’s questions have the potential to put him and his own family in danger for their lives. Indeed, a number of people, not the murderers themselves but their children and other relatives, do make threats towards Adi and Oppenheimer himself. Throughout the film, Adi conducts himself with quiet dignity, asking hard questions about how the killers themselves feel about living with lies, and how they think their victims and the victims’ families might feel about them.

It’s a gruelling and unrelenting film to watch, and one that could have been edited for length in parts: I confess I felt quite tired and drowsy during parts of the film. The film’s style is spare and its focus is on Adi’s unassuming yet quietly determined quest to gain some justice and peace for his brother and parents in a country that continues to glorify the mass murder and tortures and teaches schoolchildren highly distorted versions of this dark period of Indonesia’s history. The extreme minimalism can make proceedings quite monotonous and dreary. The film becomes more than one person’s search for answers about his brother’s fate: it’s also an investigation into the nature of denial and evasion, and how continued denial keeps families apart in society from one generation to the next. At the very least, Adi and Oppenheimer are able to get the killers to make idiots of themselves when they revel in the details of Ramli’s murder and how they drank the blood of their victims in the bizarre belief that this would stop them (the killers, that is) from going crazy.

The scale of the narrative, focused on Adi’s personal quest for answers and perhaps an apology or acknowledgement from the killers for how his family has suffered, does not address the issue of how Indonesia’s government and institutions continue to suppress inquiry into the 1965 mass murders and make the search for truth, justice, any reparations and above all reconciliation between the murderers and their victims, and their respective families, impossible. As with Oppenheimer’s previous film “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” gives no background information or context to Ramli’s murder or the 1965 mass killings generally, so viewers not familiar with Indonesia’s recent history come away knowing no more about this dark episode than they did before, or why the government still will not admit that wrongdoing and harm had been done during this period. That this situation continues more than 15 years after the resignation of President Suharto, whose rise to power had been enabled in part by the so-called Communist purges, after 31 years as the nation’s leader, and the part that Western nations may have played in encouraging Suharto and his followers to take power, is the real puzzle that gnaws away at the film’s credibility.

A curious aspect of the two Oppenheimer films is how the director manages to get adult men and women, even Adi’s aged father, to act in childish ways. For most of these people also, acting like little children (boasting of their exploits, drinking blood in the belief it will protect them from harm)  incriminates them as murderers but viewers might question the methods that Oppenheimer uses to encourage these people to condemn themselves.

Under Skin, In Blood / You Turn / Karroyul / Man Real / Nulla Nulla / On Stage / Maap Mordak: seven shorts showcasing Aboriginal Australian film-making talent

Larissa Behrendt, “Under Skin, In Blood” (2015)

Ryan Griffen, “You Turn” (2015)

Kelrick Martin, “Karroyul” (2015)

Tracey Rigney, “Man Real” (2015)

Dylan River, “Nulla Nulla” (2015)

Ben Southwell, “On Stage” (2015)

Dot West, “Maap Mordak” (2015)

I had the good fortune of a free ticket to see these seven short films written, directed and/or produced by Aboriginal Australian film-makers and writers. All these shorts cover a range of issues faced by indigenous Australian characters in various urban, suburban and rural contexts in short dramatic narratives. In the order that the films are listed from Behrendt’s film to Dot West’s, the dramas are as follows: a woman living alone holds desperately to memories of happier times with her husband and son at home before asbestos dust in their mining community robbed both men of their health and lives; a man on the run from police over a bungled robbery discovers two unexpected passengers in his getaway car who force him into a life-or-death situation when his car crashes; a young woman mourning the loss of her mother reconnects with her people’s past through the unlikely medium of an abandoned farmhouse; an ex-con tattooing his friend’s leg taunts the naïve pal about his supposed lack of cojones; a rookie white police officer must negotiate the delicate unspoken mores of a rural Aboriginal community in order to break up a fight between two women; a transsexual cabaret singer, lucky in love, fame and fortune, still yearns for her father’s acceptance and love; and a young school-girl teased about her fair skin by Aboriginal kids at school draws hope and strength from her grandmother’s stories and fount of wisdom.

Technically the films are very well made and the acting is very good. “Karroyul” could probably stretch for another 10 – 15 minutes for a deeper and more satisfying treatment of the young woman’s dilemma and alienation, how she comes to terms with her mother’s passing and perhaps how she is entrusted with carrying a legacy to future generations, so that the film becomes open-ended rather than closed off in a tight loop. The cinematography is very beautiful and is epic in ambition, and it seems a shame that the film is so short and its plot and characters sketchily developed almost to the point of being stereotypes. The two police officers in “Nulla Nulla” need another one or two little episodes that bring out aspects of their unique mismatched pairing as older wise Aboriginal man and younger rookie whitefella naïf that riffs on the good-cop / bad-cop routine. Behrendt’s film is the saddest piece with its suggestion that the asbestos mine that blighted the woman’s family was kept open mainly to keep the local Aboriginal community firmly under the thumb of both government and the mine operator and not be allowed to determine its own economic destiny.

“You Turn” is unexpectedly powerful for the choice the robber is forced to make when his car crashes and one of his passengers is thrown out onto the road. “Man Real” is dark and serious for its questioning of macho sexuality and the role that violence plays in shoring up men’s fragile identities as men, all under an apparently light-hearted and jokey veneer. Indeed, quite a few films in this collection have a common theme of a crisis of masculinity and what being a man means for Aboriginal men living mostly Westernised lives in unfulfilling urban, suburban and even rural environments. “You Turn” and “Man Real” address this particular problem head-on but even other films like “Karroyul”, “On Stage” and “Under Skin, In Blood” allude to the issue obliquely: the young woman’s uncle in “Karroyul” is a bit ineffectual in encouraging his niece to reconnect with country; the father of the cabaret singer finds his offspring’s changed sexuality an affront to his identity; and the men in the mining community are denied self-determination and are forced to find identity and fulfilment through mining work at the cost of their health.

Other common themes include continuity through the generations, and the threat that losing a parent or a child can make to breaking this continuity, as expressed in the sorrow and despair of the lonely widow staring at the blurry TV screen in “Under Skin, In Blood”. On the other hand, the characters in “Maap Mordak” seem rather stereotyped: Granny is always available to offer wisdom and comfort to her unhappy granddaughter but doesn’t actually offer the girl any tips to resist the local kids who might turn into nasty bullies the next time she meets them.

Altogether these seven films are fine examples of Aboriginal Australian film-making and writing talent, and I hope the people who made them have even greater ambitions to write major film and TV series screenplays about modern indigenous Australian dramas and issues, and turn them into reality.

A biased narrative that splits hairs in “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat”

Andrew Lachman, “Michael Mosley: The Truth About Meat” (2014)

Second in a series of documentaries hosted and narrated by BBC science presenter Michael Mosley, this episode on the impact of the livestock industry on the environment is entertaining and informative enough but its problem is that the issue is framed in a very narrow and culturally biased narrative. Mosley wants to be an ecologically conscious carnivore so already the episode rules out the possibilities of going partly or wholly vegetarian, even if for just one day a week. Even just broadening one’s protein choices to eggs, seafood and dairy products, and no more, isn’t enough: no, we must (uhh) go the whole hog and consider the environmental impacts of eating beef and chicken in the main, and little else. Mosley travels to the US to investigate free-range cattle farming and raising cattle on corn and soy, and discovers that feeding our horned friends corn and soy is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grass, because a diet of grass produces more methane than does a diet of corn and soy. Never mind whether growing corn and soy just to feed cows is actually a better or more environmentally sustainable use of certain land than growing cereals, vegetables and fruit to feed people. After this revelation, Mosley visits a chicken farm where chickens are fattened up on special diets in air-conditioned comfort and run about inside huge barns and learns that … well, woddaya know? … intensively farming chooks in this way may also be more environmentally sustainable than letting them run about in the open air pecking at table scraps and corn.

My brain may be refusing to accept and process such information that conflicts with what it wants to believe but I cannot accept that such intensive farming really can be sustainable even in the short term. The kind of life cycle analysis that is mentioned in the program should, if it is to be credible, consider the life cycle involved in making meat starting with the life cycles of the corn and soy, and of grass as well, for a better comparison of the total costs to the environment of both alternative forms of raising cattle for food. The amounts of fertiliser and water that may be involved, the petroleum consumed, any human labour and transport costs that make these methods of farming cattle possible all should be included in the analytical comparisons. The same should be done for chickens. We do not know the environmental consequences of switching farmland from other purposes to growing special kinds of crops to feed animals, whether the land needs more water and fertiliser than it would otherwise, and how sustainable such practices are. In the Amazon river region, land cleared of forest for grazing cattle does not last very long and becomes desert after a few years; the meat of cattle grazed on such land is of low quality as well, and fit only for hamburgers. That does not sound like a very good use of land. The life cycle analysis of food also does not stop at the moment we shovel it into our mouths: there are also health effects to consider, whether the food is likely to contribute to people’s risk of obesity or chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes, and the impact of our waste on the environment in the form of sewage.

International comparisons such as what Mosley makes later in the program, comparing US and European meat consumption with Chinese meat consumption and their long-term implications, fall down on the implicit assumption that Chinese carnivores eat much the same kinds of meats as Westerners do and in much the same proportions.

Above all, what the program fails to address is the economic and political systems and ideologies that determine how land is owned and used. Land that might be used to support mixed agriculture with cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens grazing at low densities and co-existing with one another and other farming purposes, is instead farmed highly intensively and in an industrial fashion with one kind of agriculture for profit … and that profit going to corporations or governments rather than individual farmers, farming communities or the people who consume the food. Growing food for profit rather than to sustain communities in ways that enhance people’s health and help preserve the environment for future generates will generate different institutions,  structures and cultural values that support the profit motive and justify industrial farming as “environmentally sustainable”.  This is the proverbial 900-pound gorilla lurking in the background and beating its chest unseen while Mosley wastes his time (and that of viewers) basically splitting hairs.

The Virgin Spring: a profound and moving work on vengeance, justice and the remoteness of religion

Ingmar Bergman, “The Virgin Spring / Jungfrukällan” (1960)

Perhaps not so celebrated as “The Seventh Seal”, this morality tale on the nature of humanity, the remoteness of religion and the anguish of human existence is nevertheless powerful in its apparent simplicity. In 14th-century rural Sweden, a wealthy landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), both devout Christians, farewell their daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) on her long trip to deliver candles to a local church. With her is her pregnant foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), treated by their mother as a servant as punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Karin and Ingeri’s trip is long and takes them through remote country, and it’s not long before the two young women are separated and Karin meets a dreadful fate at the hands of two impoverished goat-herders attracted to her innocence, generosity and, above all, her rich clothes. Later the goat-herders, together with their mute young brother, seek shelter at Töre and Märeta’s farm where they try to sell the clothes they have taken off Karin. The parents recognise the clothes as Karin’s, and what follows next, as the parents are torn between their Christian faith, with its admonition to forgive sin and to have mercy, and their desire for vengeance against those who have harmed their only child, can only be described as appalling.

Threaded throughout the film is a constant war between Christianity and paganism: early on, Ingeri invokes the god Odin to harm Karin, the favoured and spoilt child, and pops a toad into Karin’s lunch before it is packed into the saddle-bags for the journey. The religious overtones throughout the film are strong to the extent that the whole work groans with the burden. It’s not hard to see that the various characters represent the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: Karin is guilty of sloth, her mother of pride, Ingeri of envy, Töre of anger and the goat-herders of lust, gluttony and greed. Another sin that might be added here is excess: Töre’s rage is so overwhelming that he ends up killing a child who is guilty only by association with the goat-herders. The pagan aspects of the film and their association with life and death are portrayed in the use of fire, earth and water throughout: fire gives life and warmth but can also kill; trees grow from the earth but earth can also smother; and water as used in the film symbolises new life but can also be used in rituals that prepare one for murder. During the girls’ trip, Ingeri meets a sinister old gentleman who might be Odin made manifest: he is one-eyed, he has a pet raven and he lives in a strange wooden house (representing Yggdrasil, where Odin hanged himself?) where water (Odin’s blood?) is continuously pouring through the walls and flooding the floors. The Christian aspect is also strong: Karin’s role as sacrificial lamb is obvious and even the goats that gambol about have symbolic value (as bearers of sin).

Ambiguity is also a constant through the film and none of the characters comes off as admirable in any way. Perhaps the most outstanding character is that of Märeta: initially steadfast in her Christian faith to the extent of burning stigmata into her wrists, the woman lavishes love on Karin, yet when her faith is tested, she becomes a calculating bitch – the scene in which she accepts the clothes from the goat-herders, recognises the clothes and tells the men she’ll find out what her husband is prepared to pay is cold and chilling, and what follows after when she collapses on the door-step and hugs the torn rags is equally heart-wrenching – and all but urges her husband to avenge Karin’s rape and death. This is a splendid piece of acting, notable for its emotional restraint. Von Sydow’s Töre is no less riveting for his near-manic desire for vengeance, his terrible violence and his anguish when, as a result of what he has done, he finds no relief in murder and vengeance, begs God for forgiveness and tries to bargain with God by promising that he will build a church on the site of Karin’s death. His Christian faith, shaky to begin with, cannot help him; his wife’s faith, also severely tested, cannot help either. The couple find themselves in a dreadful existential dilemma in which vengeance has proved to be a hollow comfort. Karin may be spoilt but her innocence, bordering on gullibility and sheer idiocy, is touching and her rape and death are unbearable to watch for their overwhelming pathos. The goat-herders may be repellent but viewers may feel some pity for their poverty, circumstances and unthinking stupidity which have driven them to greed, rape and murder.

The tone of the film is bleak and viewers are left in no doubt about the hardships that people in mediaeval rural Sweden had to suffer in making a living. The film’s coda looks tacked on as an afterthought and its meaning is unclear: does the spring that bubbles up under Karin represent the triumph of paganism over Christianity, or is it a sign of forgiveness or otherwise from God in answer to Töre’s outburst? The spring can symbolise the rebirth and renewal of life and hope. The film’s cinematography is beautiful and simple yet powerful, with a strong focus on close-ups of actors’ faces and the expressions on them, and it is no surprise to learn that the cinematographer for this film, Sven Nykvist, became director Bergman’s go-to camera man for all of his later films.

The film’s plot might stretch plausibility but overall this is a profound and highly emotional work.

Ex_Machina: style is part of the substance in a low-budget SF film that tackles complex issues

Alex Garland, “Ex_Machina” (2015)

At first glance, Alex Garland’s directorial debut flim “Ex Machina” looks like the total triumph of style over substance but like its plot the style is part of the substance. Ostensibly the film is an exploration of artificial intelligence with the implied extrapolation of where robot nature stops and human nature begins – or is there a gradual continuum from robot-ness to human-ness instead? Probe a little deeper however and you discover that what really makes us human is our connections to one another.

The film begins with young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee at a fictional Facebook-like social media company called BlueBook, who enters his company lottery and wins a ticket to spend a week with BlueBook’s mysterious and reclusive founder CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is delivered by helicopter to an isolated mountain reserve, owned by Nathan, and has to find his way along a river in a forest to Nathan’s cabin. The cabin turns out to be the entry to Nathan’s underground lab where the super-geek has been working on bringing his theories and writings on AI into reality in-between bouts of working out and drinking himself blotto. However Nathan now needs a human being to subject his newest AI creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing test, which tests a machine or database’s ability to exhibit behaviour and reasoning indistinguishable from those of a human being. For various reasons Caleb is that ideal human being, the lottery being just a cover for Nathan’s choice so that the other BlueBook employees don’t suspect a thing. Over the next six or seven days, Caleb subjects Ava to Q&A sessions, the content of which increasingly centres on Ava’s desire to break away from Nathan’s control. Caleb learns from Ava that Nathan has been emotionally abusing her and that whether she passes the Turing test or not the CEO plans to use Ava’s memory banks (effectively killing her) in his next AI creation. Caleb discovers that Nathan’s servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is also an AI creation and that she too is under his total control. Increasingly infatuated with Ava, Caleb starts helping and plotting with her to dupe Nathan and escape with her back to civilisation.

The minimal and elegant style of the film – Nathan’s super-expensive and tasteful digs become a significant actor in the film that highlights the creeping horror and suspense, and the horrifying yet clinical death that occurs – throws emphasis on the ever-simmering plot that erupts very quickly and goes pow-pow-pow to the inevitable conclusion which was predicted very early in Caleb and Ava’s sessions together. Before the audience has time to recover, the end credits start scrolling amid some very interesting abstract geometric animations. In such a film where special effects are so low-key they end up hiding and blending into in the background, the acting has to be good and subtle, and the small cast acquits itself admirably here: Isaac is superb as the BlueBook CEO who is at once boorish, cultured, sympathetic towards Caleb in many ways yet very controlling and  misogynistic, at least towards his AI creations. Gleeson does excellent work as the blank Caleb, the geeky programmer who in many ways is out of touch with his emotions and humanity, and as a result is easily exploited by both Nathan and Ava. Vikander shines as Ava, at once innocent yet cunning and manipulative, so much so that this role might end up becoming her break-out role as a major acting talent and even Mizuno is outstanding in her support though clichéd role as Nathan’s mute maidservant.

The film also dives into sexual and even racial politics – yes, why does Nathan create obviously female robots when he could have just created non-sexual beings and why does he also create African and Japanese female robots who succumb to all the racist / sexist fantasies of white men concerning African and Asian women? – in a way that might seem superficial but which leaves the audience pondering its own views about women of different racial groups. One detects also Nathan’s attempts at playing God in his own way: creating beings in his likeness and to his liking, and then leaving his creations to sort out their own existential issues and come to realise that they’re his playthings, while he himself spends his days having fun hiking around nature, getting sozzled and occasionally doing some actual work. Obviously while this god is good at making things out of raw materials and breathing life into them with electronics and cybernetics, he has given little thought to teaching his children ethics and compassion, mainly because at core he has very little of those himself. The scene with the Jackson Pollock painting becomes an important part of the film’s plot and themes: if Pollock had given any thought to what and how his paintings would turn out, he would have left his canvases blank. It is no surprise then that once (spoiler alert) Ava makes good her escape, those who have helped her are left either dead or reeling in a slow death: in thought as well as appearance, she is more human than even Nathan and Caleb themselves are or ever thought she could be.

Significantly when Ava goes out into the world beyond Nathan’s estate, she finds herself in the middle of human traffic, and traffic generally, in the big bad world of Western technological civilisation. The ultimate test – that of immersing herself into the networks of human thought, behaviour and morality, and whether she can break out of it whenever she wants without losing her sense of herself as an individual yet social being – awaits her. Can she pass this ultra-Turing test, of passing herself as another cog in the machine that is Western society without being detected? One thinks she can, although in this success there is an ironic tragedy: it means that humans themselves are little more than robots themselves, unthinkingly allowing themselves to be shaped by society into playing particular roles and never thinking or imagining living in worlds outside them. Will Ava willingly submit to the control that Caleb himself entered into without thinking when he became a BlueBook programmer? One suspects not or she would never have escaped in the first place.