Tango: cycle of life with 36 disconnected characters from young to old playing out in one room

Zbigniew Rybczinski, “Tango” (1981)

Winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Animated Short, this 8-minute film is a collection of live-action film clips, all of which are repeated over and over in parallel in an artful way. In a plain setting of a room with three doors, a round wooden table surrounded by benches, a cupboard without a door, a bed in the foreground, a window opposite and a baby’s cot to the right-hand side of the screen (from the viewer’s point of view), a ball is tossed through the sole window into the room. A boy climbs through the window to retrieve the ball and then returns outside the same way. The ball then comes into the room again and the boy repeats his action; almost immediately a woman comes through a door to the left of the window into the room to nurse a baby and then place it in the cot before returning to her original spot through the same door. As with the boy and his ball, the woman repeats her action over and over. With each repetition, new people, one by one, enter the room: a burglar climbs through the window to steal a case on top of the cupboard; a schoolgirl comes into the room to dig about in the cupboard; a courier arrives to place the case on top of the cupboard; various workmen arrive; a man balances upside down on one bench; another man stands on the table to touch the light, screams and falls onto the floor, recovers and goes off with a limp; a naked woman enters the room to put on her clothes; two lovers make out on the bed; an elderly woman lies down on the bed; and somewhere in all of that to-ing and fro-ing, two other women enter the room (separately of course), each with a small child in tow.

Viewers quickly lose track of who goes in and out and does whatever in the meantime. A gorilla could have entered to face the audience, beat its chest with a roar and then exited without being noticed. The crowd of people go about their actions repeatedly without any one of them noticing what everyone else is doing. The courier does not notice that the burglar has stolen his case. The burglar need not have worried about anyone noticing him. The schoolgirl appears to throw something at the burglar but he does not notice. Nobody comments on the naked woman in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The two lovers go about their business openly. The man who is electrocuted receives no help. No-one laughs at the fellow doing his headstand on the bench. A workman brings a toilet-bowl into the room. What’s significant here is that people are doing outrageous things and everyone else rushes by!

Eventually people stop performing their obsessive actions and it’s only at the very end that something new happens: there is a connection between an action performed by someone and somebody else noticing the result of that action. But that second person does not know who performed the action that led to the result – because the perpetrator has vanished. This might say something about how fragmented and impersonal our society has become.

Mini-narratives might be seen: the burglar and the courier might be two spies vying for valuable secrets in the case; the lovers are interrupted by another character who flees the scene in distress; workmen come and go. The small children might represent the same child at different ages. An entire cycle of life takes place in the room from the tiny baby being nursed and put into its cot, to children at play or home from school, to young adults finding life partners, to adults at work or caring for children, to elderly people being served dinner or put to rest.

There’s no definite narrative – viewers can interpret the short in different ways. Some might see modern society at its most impersonal and robotic, others might simply see people in all stages of a person’s life-cycle going about their daily activities.

Technically the film is no big deal in this age of computer-generated imagery and it does look dated and flat. Still, it’s quite mesmerising in its own way with a rhythm all its own. The film can bear a certain number of repeat viewings until the viewer registers most of the characters and the mini-narratives being enacted to his/her heart’s content.

Reflections: original and beautiful use of black-and-white animation to illustrate a cosmic joke

Jerzy Kucia, “Reflections / Refleksy” (1979)

Black-and-white animation has never been used so well as in this little film about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale. A newly formed adult insect struggles to emerge from its cocoon after a long period of pupation, only to be attacked by a predatory ant that has been waiting for its prey for a long time. The insect and the ant struggle but the battle is very one-sided. No sooner does a victor emerge than it too is subjected to another cosmic joke.

Simple though the narrative is, it is beautifully told in the way Kucia changes the viewer’s POV from side-on when the first insect completes its metamorphosis and is attacked, to a bird’s-eye POV when the insects fall into a puddle and fight to the death. The action moves off-screen and all we know is the crackling noise the creatures make and the ripples of black and white waves moving across the screen as the animals struggle. (Animator Kucia originally trained as a painter and his painting background is obvious in the way he uses black and white colours to show the rippling water moving across the screen and to reveal narrative.) The ripples change to show a silhouette of the trilby-hatted man watching the insects and listening to background traffic noises, waiting for a car to arrive. The man ends up playing God to both insects.

Remarkably the action looks as if it could have been done in one take without any editing as it moves from left to right continuously and then to the top right-hand corner of the screen as the ant pulverises its victim and the victim fights in sheer desperation. The final blow occurs off-screen and we have to infer it from the foot-prints left behind by the man as he leaves the puddle. With the action appearing as though in close-up, the viewer is in a position of being voyeur and therefore complicit with the trilby wearer in allowing the first insect to suffer as it does while the ant is attacking it.

As with much other Polish animation, there is grim black humour which arises from the film’s theme of the vicissitudes of Fate and the fragility of life in a particular microcosm. “Refleksy” gains its power from its style of animation, the originality of the way the action is framed, and in the way it leaves out the most significant action which has to be inferred by the viewer. The viewer is then left to ponder as to why the man didn’t act earlier with regard to the insects’ battle.

The Red and the Black / The Horse: two little oil paintings in continuous motion

Witold Giersz, “The Red and the Black / Czorwane i Czarne” (1963) / “The Horse / Kon” (1967)

I was held spellbound by these two very visually beautiful short animations which use animation of oil paintings done on cardboard or glass, and that exploit the possibilities that the characteristics of oil painting can offer. In the first cartoon, “The Red and the Black”, whose tongue-twisting Polish name offers opportunity for word play, a red matador and a black bull duel within the corrida and outside it – and even outside the painting, to the consternation of the “painter” who did the picture! The second cartoon is also a duel, this time between a wild horse and the young warrior who wants to tame it and ride it into war – but this is a much tamer affair that experiments more with colour than with breaking boundaries: one can only toy around with viewers’ expectations and spring surprises on people once.

The two shorts might be portraying the eternal tug-of-war between Human and Nature, and all that is symbolised by those two concepts: Human as symbol for a rationalist view of the universe and Nature as synecdoche for the organic, non-logical and unstructured forces of the universe. During the Communist period (for Poland, this was from 1945 to 1989) the conventional interpretation of “The Red and the Black” was that one side represented the forces of freedom and democracy and the other, those of Communism and authoritarian dictatorship, but my opinion is that the short is a light-hearted playful one and should not be assumed to symbolise two political polarities and their conflict.

The  visual style resembles the bright colourful Fauvist painting style that was briefly popular in France in the first decade of the 20th century, and there may have been influences from Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the French Impressionist school as well in the preference for broad painterly brush-strokes in the movement of the figures. The animation in “Horse” is particularly good: the portrayal of the animal’s movements, in particular its galloping and the way it turns and flicks its tail, shows how closely Giersz must have observed the movements of horses as the animation is accurate and captures the rhythms of its flowing gait.

There is much humour in the narratives of both shorts: both matador and warrior are outwitted by the animals throughout. Even when matador and bull are literally bottled up, their essences still animate their prisons which threaten to upset the painter’s studio. The warrior appears to lose hope of ever capturing his steed as he fades into the black background.

If I were showing a group of animation students a series of cartoons to watch, I would definitely include these two little masterpieces of breath-taking originality.

The Blair Witch Project: clever film that manipulates its audiences’ fear of the unknown and the ordinary

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, “The Blair Witch Project” (1998)

About fifteen years after it was made and the hype surrounding it died down, this hokey fly-on-the-wall mockumentary still stands up surprisingly well as an enjoyable B-grade horror film. Three student film-makers interested in the local lore of their rural Maryland community decide to make a documentary about a notorious local legend called the Blair Witch. This character has been responsible for causing a local man to murder several children in a house in the 1940s, a disappearance of searchers looking for a man in 1888 and other odd incidents involving ritual murder.

The intrepid student trio venture into the woods with their camping gear and promptly lose their map and bearings. They wander about in circles (though the landscape may be changing so as to give that impression); they become tired, cold, wet and hungry; they lose their tempers and self-control, and panic a great deal; they hear strange voices in the distance and find weird stick figures, bundles of faggots, slimy blue goo and some bloody body appendage bits in one of their shirts which their frazzled fevered minds interpret as supernatural Blair Witch business cards. Anything and everything they can do that’s wrong or stupid is done, and after one of them vanishes into the ether, viewers can assume the other two youngsters will soon follow in the inevitable downward spiral. (TBWP itself is based on the infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” by Ruggero Deodato, in which a film crew disappears in the Amazon rainforest, an anthropologist is sent out to discover what happened to the four people and is given their equipment and film footage by the local tribal people. He takes the film back to the film crew’s sponsors and they watch the film which reveals the horrifying fate of the film-makers.)

The film derives most of its suspense from its cinema verité style: jerky filming thanks to the use of hand-held camera, deliberately blurry and unfocused images, the camera pointing upwards or sideways, the constant obsessive filming and the actors’ actions, behaviour and language all force the audience to become more than passive voyeuristic observers. The actors themselves might be typical examples of the film’s target audience (they are all young teenagers enthusiastic about making their own home movie) so there is no need for the film-makers to force the audience to identify with the trio. In addition the three actors used their own names, lending the film the patina of faux authenticity.

The three young people constantly over-act and swear unimaginatively but the hokey goings-on fortunately don’t overpower the one positive element here and that’s the forest setting. The film-makers deliberately draw on the audience’s knowledge of fairy stories like “Hansel and Gretel” in which characters are cast out into the dark woods to survive as best they can. With clever use of filming, including filming at night, and the emphasis on close-ups and sharp night lighting, the film-makers turn ordinary forest objects like tree branches and rubbish on the ground into the extraordinary and supernatural.

A major gripe some viewers will have is that its premise and plot don’t sustain the film’s length. There’s a lot of repetition (though some of that is necessary for plot development and the maintenance of suspense and growing horror) and character development is uneven and mostly flat. When one student disappears, viewers may not feel much sympathy for him. Heather as the leader of the expedition, smug in her certainties at first but breaking down gradually throughout the film, is the most developed character and her address to the audience as if they were family members in the well-known scene where everyone can see up her nostrils is riveting viewing for its pathos. The kids engage in constant whingeing, swearing and fighting, though this is necessary as a way of covering up their fear and panic at being lost. When the film exhausts all available plot possibilities – and they don’t come more stereotyped than a derelict house in the woods – the ending is abrupt, horrifying and open to interpretation.

As a psychological study that deliberately manipulates its audience and plays with its expectations, TBWP is a good work of experimental film-making done on the cheap. It shows that there is nothing so terrifying and horrible as ordinary objects draped over with opinion, beliefs, emotion and personal and community fears.

Electronic Labyrinth THX1138 4EB: experimental sci-fi short already layered with allegory and critique

George Lucas, “Electronic Labyrinth THX1138 4EB” (1967)

Precursor to “THX1138”, this short film was made by Lucas while he was a student at the University of Southern California with the assistance of the US Navy. The plot of this film is simple but lays the groundwork for the later full-length feature: THX1138 EB has escaped from his residence in a vast unknown city and is running through its corridors and tunnels. Computers and TV screens track his every move and try either to pursue him or dissuade him from leaving the city but despite the barriers (including a disabling high-pitched siren) set up against him he reaches the door at the very edge of the city. Immediately disembodied machine voices advise him of the danger of leaving the city, warning that only death awaits. The man makes his decision and the last that we hear of him is the city government’s condolence message to THX1138’s room-mate advising him/her that THX1138 has destroyed himself.

One feature of the film is that it is entirely without dialogue save for the room-mate’s advice to the authorities that THX1138 has escaped at the start of the film and the government’s message at the end which provide enough context for the sequence of actions that make up the bare plot. The threadbare narrative pushes the burden of fleshing out the film’s contextual environment onto the sequences of visual images that emphasise the surveillance and tracking aspects of technology. Through the rapid editing and blow-for-blow linear sequences of camera screens, panels of knobs and flashing light signals, banks of computers and tapes, we see a society highly dependent on technology-based systems to govern its affairs and human relationships. This includes keeping tabs on everyone’s activities down to small details. The combination of images and sound – often rapid with quick cuts, the voice-overs coming from various unknown and unknowable sources, all images static in themselves and relying only on their linear arrangement and sequencing to present the story – may be overwhelming and alienating for many viewers in their relentless maximalist advance and repetition. This demonstrates the extreme dependence the society in the film has on technology. The running man, relying on his own physical body, has rebelled against his techno-dependence and is escaping into a world less reliant on machines. This world of nature is what the nanny techno-society, living underground, fears and prevents its inhabitants from experiencing.

Even in this little film there is another layer of allegory over the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the film: the man’s constant running represents curiosity and the human desire for adventure and exploration which eventually draws individuals away from the communities in which they are born and to find their own niches in the world yonder. This is a theme that repeats in George Lucas’s later “Star Wars” films.

The labyrinth comparison is apt: the labyrinth is not only the passages and other links THX1138 must navigate, it is also the cameras and other surveillance equipment, the announcements and messages, and the punishments he must either evade or endure on his way to the surface of the Earth.

Even as a 15-minute short, made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (and a very frayed shoe-string at that), this film is well-made and directed: its experimental aspects supply all the story and context that are needed, and dialogue is reduced only to what’s essential to start and finish off the narrative. THX1138 is reduced to a generic action figure but this flat characterisation, necessary because the actors in the film were US Navy personnel, can be taken to represent the average human being, downtrodden and apathetic perhaps but in whom also potential for rebellion and renewal reside.

La Marche des Machines / Les Nuits Électriques: experimental shorts suggest technology has a life of its own

Eugène Deslaw, “La Marche des Machines” (1927) / Les Nuits Électriques” (1928)

The Ukrainian film-maker Eugène Deslaw made a number of fairly short experimental films in the late 1920s before his career was swept away by the advent of sound. Little seems to be known of his activities since then; he died in 1966 apparently unremembered. Two such films are “La Marche des Machines” and “Les Nuits Électriques”. The first of the two is a 5-minute documentary that might be commenting on the relentless progress of technology and how it’s acquiring a pulsing life of its own beyond human control. It’s basically a linear collage of little series of shots, each series dominated by a little theme: wheels in one series, a crossways grid in another, weaving in a third, caterpillar tracks in a fourth, conveyor belts in a fifth. Near the end the film becomes more abstract with scenes where two shots are superimposed on one another or placed side by side to suggest that a kind of convergent evolution in two different strands of technology has taken place. In the last minute of the film, carefully selected shots sequenced together suggest that some machines or their levers at least might achieve the ability to reproduce and the very last couple of shots, done almost entirely in contrasts of light and shadow, insinuate sexual intercourse.

Second film “Les Nuits Électriques” showcases a city at night through its lights and the eerie life that it takes on through electricity while its human inhabitants sleep. This is a much more abstract and beautiful film than the first and Deslaw shows considerable imagination in using mirror images of shots to set up symmetrical collages that reveal another world within the electrical world first encountered. A remarkable series of shots of a merry-go-round unveils a secret universe of floating lights that suggest fireflies buzzing about during the twilight hours. As the film progresses, it becomes more playful and starts playing tricks on viewers: about the 7th minute, shots of the moon over the sea hint at a mysterious hovering comet and in the 8th minute, shots of telephone lines and poles are cheekily posited as negatives of daytime scenes. Greater levels of abstraction with mirror imaging and film running backwards encourage a blurring between live action and experimental animation particularly in the shots that take place in a foundry. At times the film can be very hypnotic and one’s mind starts to relax and expand …

As silent films, these mini-documentaries appear to have no message but the way in which the shots are arranged, with emphasis on visual rhythms and patterns of motion, an implied narrative that an alien life-force is incipient in modern technology is strong. Clever editing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, adds to the impression that this vitality has a speed of its own that will surpass human capacity to understand and control it. If humans appear at all, their presence is incidental rather than essential to the technology: they appear as passers-by or passive spectators. The films are at once fascinating and terrifying in the implications of their subject matter.

Deslaw’s use of film looks more sophisticated in the second film than in the first: “Les Nuits …” has a more playful, experimental approach to its subject, especially in later scenes of flying sparks of light in a foundry. At this point the viewer does not know if s/he is watching a live-action film or an animation, and perhaps doesn’t care anyway as the images – all light and dark contrasts – are highly abstract.

The films’ main value lies in their playful use of filming techniques to suggest a narrative where one didn’t exist originally.

Autour de La Fin du Monde: silent film about a sound film hampered by lack of … sound

Abel Gance and Eugène Deslaw, “Autour de La Fin du Monde” (1930)

I had heard that there was a French science fiction film “La Fin du Monde” made by Abel Gance in 1931 and looked for it on Youtube.com. Unfortunately I didn’t find it but what I did find was a silent 18-minute documentary made by Eugène Deslaw on the making and shooting of the film. The documentary is notable for the methods Deslaw uses to observe the director and his crew at work and how various scenes were prepared and shot.

Understandably, being silent, the film features no interviews with anyone on or off the set: it’s done almost completely from the viewpoint of an unseen observer who has stumbled in onto the set and might be watching in wonder and astonishment at the comings and goings of people and what they do. The film opens with a spectacular circular panning of the camera focusing on actors facing it that speeds up until the whole shot is a wild whir. The scene abruptly cuts to a camera operator spinning around on his stand. Sometimes the camera comes in very close to scrutinise the equipment: meter readings, switches being turned on and off, pointers on gauges wavering between two extreme points. Are we looking at scenes from the film being made or are we looking at the actual filming? In this way, Deslaw blurs the boundary between the film being made and his own film. The camera also views the film from the height of a child (there is a shot of a pair of legs crossing a floor) and from above people’s heads.

The film was France’s first talking film and there is a scene of a beautiful woman facing the camera and singing or chanting. There is also a shot of a man declaiming loudly in front of the camera against a background of lights and the lights flashing and the camera deliberately shaking and making the image unfocused. Sometimes the camera appears to be participating in the actual film-making itself, as when it pauses on two lovers arguing and making up, and the woman listening in on them; later the camera follows the crew on a crane and looks down on a small crowd looking up at it.

Although the documentary is described as experimental, I don’t find it as experimental or inventive as the work of Gance and Deslaw’s contemporary Jean Vigo. Vigo’s work had real flair and this documentary, though it uses panning, whole-scene shots, close-ups and different points of view, can appear pedestrian in parts. There is one scene in the last minute of the film in which an image of a face appears beneath an image of a machine in close-up.

Until the film in its entirety is found and released on DVD or uploaded to Youtube.com, this documentary is the best source we have of the film. I know nothing more of the film having seen the documentary than I did before but as an exercise in making a film about a film and playing with audience’s expectations, Deslaw’s portrait is good but not very outstanding. The decision not to include a soundtrack is unusual, as the subject itself has one, and certainly doesn’t help me understand “La Fin du Monde”.

À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.


Taris, Roi du L’Eau: swimming is the gateway to a world of freedom and beauty

Jean Vigo, “Taris, Roi du L’Eau” (1931)

Sports documentaries don’t come any more poetic, beautiful and experimental than this early short by Jean Vigo about the 1930s French swimming champion Jean Taris. In just 10 minutes, Taris imparts lessons on how to swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and how to change direction using the swim blocks. There’s actually nothing about Taris’s early life, how he came to swimming, what made him decide to strive for championship natational glory and what he hopes to give back to society: the usual structure of sports documentaries, at least those made in Australia. As swimming lessons go, the film is not remarkable and is out-of-date, butterfly-stroking being all but unknown at the time, and possibly techniques are demonstrated in that film that are no longer being taught.

No, the true glory of this sports documentary lies in the fact that Vigo has made it and has brought avant-garde filming technique and narrative to make of the swimming lesson a poem in how humans can be at home underwater and fly freely about in a medium  like a bird. A link between this documentary and Vigo’s other films exploring rebellion and freedom in a repressive society might be made here. The diving instruction is the key and the swimming lessons are the gateway into another world. The highlight of the film is the sequence of silent scenes in which Taris wriggles, turns and flies towards the camera and away from it like a flirtatious flighty creature, enticing the viewer to come follow him where he will.

The filming itself is quite extraordinary: in closing scenes, Vigo makes clothes appear suddenly on Taris standing by the edge of the pool; the swimmer then walks across the ground away from the camera in a scene superimposed over the pool itself. Taris looks back at the viewer, doffs his hat and continues to walk into the background, all while water is lapping and rippling behind him. It’s as if having given us the key and the directions to his world, the swimmer now expects that we will follow and enjoy the freedom (and presumably the equality and quality of life he enjoys also) that he has. The experimentation is not limited to the narrative structure and visuals: the voice-over swimming instructions alternate with the sounds of choppy water and this call-and-response soundtrack sets up a rhythm that can be hypnotic in effect.

Of course the short isn’t to be taken entirely seriously as demonstrated by the chirpy music, the diving scenes which include shots run backwards and a hilarious bit near the beginning where a man attempts to swim in a chair.

A minor work in what could have been a long and illustrious career in film-making for Vigo, this short is still outstanding for its treatment of a sport as an art-form in itself and a way of life that promises freedom.

Zéro de Conduite: zero for film convention and conformity, maximum score for lively presentation on social oppression

Jean Vigo, “Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au College” (1933)

One of four films made by French director Jean Vigo before his life was cut short at age 29 by sickness, this featurette is an unusual and goofy commentary on political and social repression and rigidity in French society in the 1930s through the prism of a boys’ boarding school. Four cheeky monkeys – Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard – find the strict boarding school regime unreasonable and ridiculous  and plot to rebel during a public commemoration that involves the school and the wider community. In a loosely structured plot that leads up to the rebellion, the children engage in various small acts of revolt in front of their horrified teachers. One young professor sympathises with the students and encourages them in their rebellion.

The film was filmed on a tight budget in a restricted time schedule and these constraints are reflected in the film’s admittedly cheap sets and general look and in the disjointed plot that brims with many unrealised ideas. Early on a student collects all his classmates’ glue pots and pours the glue behind a shelf of books but that’s about it for the prank they play on their teachers: presumably the glue dries and keeps the books stuck to the shelf for all eternity, to be touched let alone be tugged at never again. The resolution appears incomplete as the ring-leaders walk off into the far distance. Characters talk at one another rather than to each other and no-one carries on a conversation beyond one call and one response. The narrative has the appearance of a series of unrelated skits that merely take place in a common context. There are many surreal sequences and improbable characters, done so deliberately as satire: probably the most surreal character is the boarding-school headmaster who looks and speaks like a child wearing a long beard.

The acting is almost completely natural with children acting like children and not as little automatons mouthing lines they’ve learned. One teacher mimics the English actor Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role in his waddle with the twirling walking-stick. There are several passages that are completely silent save for Maurice Jaubert’s music soundtrack. The climactic scene is the pillow fight in the dormitory done entirely in silent slow motion with music: the kids charge down the passage-way, carrying one of their number like a king on a palanquin, while white feathers flutter down from the ceiling like manna to ancient Israelites.

Whatever viewers think of the loose and disjointed narrative, the message it conveys is clear and sharp: if people are pushed to their limits by governments and corporations wielding oppressive tools of control against them, those oppressors had better watch out – the oppressed will revolt and carry out acts of vandalism and violence, revelling in them all the way. At the same time, the film works as a joyful paean to the cheek and spirit of young children on the edge of adolescence, and suggests that if adults wish to shake off the shackles of outdated ideologies and political / economic systems, they should be as creative and full of verve as children.