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.

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 and directing Suharto and his followers to kill people and 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.

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.

Troll Hunter: comedy horror flick works in popular Norwegian stereotypes and fears of a police state

André Øvredal, “Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren” (2010)

Inspired perhaps by the example of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog” from the 1990s and “Cannibal Holocaust” from the 1970s, this Norwegian comedy horror flick takes the form of a documentary in process by a group of student film-makers Thomas, Johanna and Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Thomas Alf Larsen) who investigate a series of mysterious livestock and tourist killings by bears. They meet a man Hans (Otto Jespersen) who claims to be a troll hunter and that the deaths were caused by trolls. The youngsters spend the rest of the film following him as he hunts the killers. Before long, the three kids are up to their necks in more than troll stench and troll trouble: not only do they discover that trolls really do exist but that the Norwegian government has long denied their existence and has a vested interest in doing so, and will stop at nothing to ensure that the news media – and the students themselves – know their place and not publicise any information about the trolls.

The main glories of the film are in the subtle ways it works traditional Norwegian folk stories about trolls and contemporary Norwegian cultural stereotypes and hang-ups into its threadbare plot. The plot provides a framework to work various jokes and comedy sketches that enliven it. The sketch in which three sheep are placed on a bridge as bait for a giant troll is a reference to the children’s fairy story about the three billy goats. Another sketch in which Hans and the students encounter some Polish immigrants provides an opportunity to send up Norwegian fears and beliefs about immigrants generally and Polish immigrants in particular, the latter being a constant presence across western Europe after Poland joined the EU and its people got visa-free access so they could escape their country’s chronic unemployment problem. A running gag in the film is that every time Hans despatches a troll to troll Valhalla, the government sends in its agent Finn and his helpers to plant false bear tracks in the area and spread lies about mysterious killings of foreign tourists and others. While such issues might suggest the film will find a very limited audience outside Norway, I had no problem picking up some of the issues worked into the film and I daresay most non-Norwegian viewers will spot them as well and enjoy the film for what it is.

There are references also to the conflict between the Norwegian government and farmers whose livestock are attacked by bears and wolves, and the bureaucratic hoops that farmers must jump through to obtain licences to protect their animals without breaking wildlife regulations; and to the problems of setting up power-lines in wilderness areas.

Although the film plays its themes for laughs, one can detect something quite serious in the way the trolls are portrayed as the last, pitiful members of a dying species and how among other things the Norwegian government is using them to expand its power over people’s lives and the country in which they live. Thus we have the paranoid bureaucratic obsession with hiding the reality of trolls from the public, to the extent of arresting and incarcerating the student film-makers, with only a few titles closing off the film by saying that the students have disappeared. (The interesting twist of course is that the trolls are not responsible for the students’ disappearance.) The news media obediently follows the official government line of never admitting the existence of trolls in spite of a short clip featuring the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg averring that they could exist.

Otto Jespersen puts in a very convincing performance as the troll hunter fed up with the way he has been treated by the Norwegian government who needs his services to keep the troll population in check and away from the public yet refuses to acknowledge his existence and pay him properly. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows him in close-up as he explains the different kinds of troll that exist in Norway, the trolls’ inability to metabolise Vitamin D (which explains their aversion to sunlight and the fact that they explode when exposed to UV light) and their ability to sniff out and kill anyone who is Christian. The actual trolls themselves are obviously computer-generated and much of the film does look very amateurish, what with the swinging cameras, but its ability to hold viewers in suspense despite the comedy and the outlandish premise is in no doubt.

Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

Aliens (dir. A Gaponenko): the plight of Russians forced into twilight-zone lives as non-citizens in Latvia

Alexander Gaponenko, “Aliens” (2014)

In August 1991, the Soviet Union broke up after a failed coup d’état and 15 new countries arose from its remains. Latvia  was one such country, reclaiming independence after over 45 years of Communist rule from Moscow. One of its post-Soviet legacies was the multi-ethnic composition of its population: native Latvians constituted just over half the people and Russian speakers of various ethnicities from all over the Soviet Union made up most of the rest. This was a result of policies made by Soviet governments that included forced removal of Latvians from Latvia and distribution to other parts of the USSR and their replacement by Soviet immigrants, themselves often forcibly relocated from their homelands. The goal was to break down ethnic, religious and other differences which might serve as foci for self-determination and autonomy and to create new Soviet citizens.

After Latvian independence, about 300,000 Russian-language speakers (hereafter referred to as “Russians” for the sake of convenience) many of them concentrated in Riga the capital and eastern Latvia, especially in and around the city Daugavpils, found themselves subject to certain conditions demanded by Latvian nationalists in the new government if they wished to become citizens. These conditions included knowledge of the Latvian language to a level not always achieved by many native Latvian speakers themselves, taking an exam to prove their proficiency in Latvian and to give up Russian citizenship. Almost overnight these Russians became “non-citizens” – a category ironically invented by the Communists in the late 1980s for reasons of self-interest – and found themselves barred from public life: to this day, non-citizens cannot hold public office or own property, are barred from certain professions and may not serve in the military.

The 27-minute documentary takes the form of interviews of nine such non-citizens, director Gaponenko among them, and include a journalist who supported Latvian independence, a World War II veteran, a construction worker, a lawyer, a private detective and an unemployed single mother. Several interviewees admit to not applying for citizenship on the basis of principles: they were robbed of a choice to decide whether to retain Russian citizenship or apply for Latvian citizenship, and they do not agree with having to meet the conditions of applying for and acquiring Latvian citizenship. One interviewee organised protests against “reforms” of Russian-language schools proposed by Latvian nationalists and another currently campaigns against the rise of neo-Nazi groups. The single mother and her son have tried to adjust to the new situation by trying to learn Latvian but without much success.

Though their backgrounds are diverse, the interviewees are articulate and most of them are aware of what they are up against. They readily see parallels between their current twilight-zone lives and the situation in pre-1991 Latvia. A few of them speak of the fragmentation of Latvian society by nationalists who pit Latvians and Russians against one another over petty cultural and language issues while real problems go unnoticed.

At the end of the documentary, the film-makers chat to people on the street and ask them for their views on the Russians’ plight. Nearly everyone spoken to believes that Latvian citizenship should be extended to Russians. One man mentions that Estonia, Latvia’s northern neighbour, practises similar discrimination against its Russian communities. A few people say that Latvia’s population is falling and that the country needs more citizens.

Unfortunately very little is mentioned about how easy or how difficult it is for Russian-language speakers to learn Latvian to a level  where they could sit the compulsory exam and pass. I suspect that the Latvian authorities themselves do not care about extending Latvian-language classes and teaching resources to the Russian community and that their attitude is lazy indifference: they do not actively discriminate against the Russians (so that Russians themselves are unable to complain) but neither are they proactive in allocating money and resources towards lifting non-citizens to the level of citizens.

The section in the film in which a woman, Elizaveta Krivcova, states in detail the petty discriminations against non-citizens – non-citizens cannot work in the legal profession, they suffer restrictions on buying real estate and they cannot even work in forestry-related jobs – is quite chilling: the discriminations and the attitudes implied in them have their parallel in current Israeli treatment of Palestinians or the past treatment of Jews by various European governments. The ban on Russians working in forestry-related jobs possibly suggests a sinister tendency in current Latvian culture to romanticise and glorify peasant culture and nature, similar to the way in which past Nazi German ideology exalted nature, imbued it with mysticism and linked nature to racial purity and hygiene.

Bizarrely perhaps, the plight of the non-citizens has led them to create their own parliament and related institutions in which they can air their views and problems. The fact that the Latvian Russians have taken matters into their own hands and created underground institutions should fill us with hope. Since joining the EU in 2005 and some years later shifting into the eurozone, Latvia suffered severe hardship as a result of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and remains one of the poorest nations in the EU. The birth rate is falling and the ethnic Latvian population is decreasing as more people vote with their feet to find jobs overseas. Suspicion of Russia and Russians is apparently so strong that politicians in the Saeima wishing for more government regulation of the economy cannot voice their opinion for fear of being labelled disloyal to Latvia. As Latvian society falls into an existential crisis due to external economic and political pressures – at this time of writing in 2014, the country is preparing to host NATO troops, in effect becoming a likely warzone – perhaps the non-citizens might find they can play a useful role in offering an alternative way of doing things, one not following a US-style neoliberal economic and political path that enriches a few at the expense of many yet also one different from what Latvia experienced in the 20th century.

A recent article in European Business Review on this issue can be viewed at this link.

 

Manderlay: a not entirely satisfactory study of slavery in American society

Lars von Trier, “Manderlay” (2005)

The sequel to “Dogville” is an interesting philosophical if rather slower and less action-packed inquiry on the nature of freedom and democracy and on the insidious effects of imperialism and slavery on societies. In particular, the role of those individuals or countries that free people from oppression and then try to teach or demonstrate democracy to the newly freed, and the hypocrisies often inherent in such actions, comes under scrutiny. Lars von Trier’s pessimism about humanity and its potential to overcome its flaws becomes an asset here: no matter that an angel comes to free people from their shackles and to teach them a new way of life that will help them achieve their full potential as individuals, people end up backsliding into habits and destructive ways of thinking and behaving because these have been ingrained in them by custom and social pressure.

After leaving Dogville in flames, Grace and her entourage of gangsters travel through Depression-era America and enter Louisiana where they come across a cotton plantation that’s so remote that the Civil War has never touched the place and it’s still being run as a slave plantation. Grace insists on staying on at the plantation with her father’s lawyer and a small group of hitmen so she can free the slaves and educate them for their new roles as free people. The white family is reduced to chattel and the former slaves become joint owners of the plantation and its output under contracts drawn up by the lawyer. Grace finds a code of conduct called Mam’s Law which places all the adult slaves in a hierarchy that allocates each slave his/her particular role and set of expected behaviours; this code disgusts her and she does away with it.

As the film progresses, various problems beset the utopian community. Some of these issues are of Grace’s doing: she orders trees around the plantation to be felled for timber, leaving crops vulnerable to the severe dust storm that devastates everything and leaves everyone starving. The community is forced to kill their only donkey to feed a sick child while all the women including Grace are reduced to eating dirt. The child dies from hunger and malnutrition and one woman confesses she had secretly stolen and eaten the child’s meals. The community then hold a trial and sentence the guilty woman to death.

Manderlay’s affairs steadily improve and the cotton harvest is brought in and sold. However one ex-slave, Timothy, steals the money earned from the cotton sale and wastes it in drink. Grace not only learns of Timothy’s misdeed but also discovers who wrote Mam’s Law and the reason this was done: it was done to maintain the slave hierarchy set up by Mam to help the ex-slaves survive together in a white-dominated world hostile to them. Thus do the ex-slaves turn the tables upon Grace who does not find the truth about Manderlay and her own conduct at Manderlay at all palatable.

The minimal stage settings help to distance the audience from the characters and the plot (as does also John Hurt’s narration) and throws the emphasis onto the plot and its nuances. The acting performances are surprisingly good and the young Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, not only inhabits and fleshes out Grace fully as a well-meaning liberal innocent but even shows her Dogville predecessor Nicole Kidman a lesson or two about injecting warmth and life into the character. The cast which includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and (in a very small role) Lauren Bacall gives good support to Howard who appears in nearly every scene as the film’s narrative is so focused on her character.

The plot does seem quite predictable: once Grace gets the socialist community up and running, and given that Lars von Trier is God in this little universe, one can expect various disasters to afflict this little utopia and break it apart. Von Trier deftly shows how one mishap leads to another as a result of a decision Grace makes: this serves to show how one crucial choice, made wrongly if innocently, can have severe consequences later down the track and lead to profound ethical dilemmas beyond Grace’s ability to solve. In an effort to mould her followers into a model democracy, she makes one mistake after another (in effect becoming another slave-master after Lauren Bacall’s Mam) and becomes mired in her own hypocrisy as the people apply her lessons a little too diligently and eventually catch her out.

The film appears to be critical of both the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor for enslaving people in the first place, then “freeing” them but expecting them to conform to a new set of rules and over-riding or punishing the freed people when they follow the lessons too literally or don’t perform as expected; and the oppressed for retaining the habits and attitudes learned during their enslavement, not really wanting freedom and democracy, or using those institutions and ideals to satisfy their immediate physical needs and doing no more to enrich themselves or contribute to the advance of democracy. Grace’s utopia ends up more or less back at square one and one can’t help but think that Mam before her tried something similar to what Grace has attempted with the people on the plantation before. To a point Lars von Trier is right in condemning the two sides but what is missing is a critique of the economic and social system that made the institution of slavery and the mindsets it fostered in slave-owners and the enslaved alike possible. Grace makes the mistakes she does because she has no understanding of the economic and social context in which Manderlay was operating before she took over the place. She does not listen to the ex-slaves and they for their part are reluctant to criticise her or warn her of what she’s doing wrong as their leader. She forges ahead with grand plans about how to run the plantation without consulting with the slaves and the former slave-owning family about how things were done and how they might be improved rather than tossed away.

A superficial parallel can be drawn between Grace and American attempts to impose democracy and freedom across the world over the past century: the reality is that the US has always been cynical in bringing abstract ideals to other countries as a cover for controlling other people’s land and resources and divesting them of their wealth to benefit a few individuals in the American political and economic elite. At this point in time, the US is aiding a so-called government reliant on gangs of fascist thugs and imported mercenaries to impose harsh control and economic austerity on an unwilling public in Ukraine. The end result of the EuroMaidan putsch against a legitimate if corrupt government with violence is far from bringing democracy, prosperity and freedom to the Ukrainians – it is to sack Ukraine of its wealth and to install NATO missiles right up against the border with Russia, Russia itself ultimately being the target for daring to follow its own political and economic path and to support Syria against Saudi and Qatari-funded “rebels”. There is quite a lot in “Manderlay” that echoes current events and will continue to do so as long as the US remains arrogant and regards itself as a superpower not bound by the lessons and warnings of history.

On another level, the fact that Manderlay despite Grace’s best attempts at reform winds up as impoverished as before, with the “slaves” as enslaved as ever – and insinuating that Manderlay for all its apparent pre-Grace innocence is the way it is simply because the slaves prefer to be be slaves – probably tells us much more about von Trier’s narrow and rather pig-headed view of humanity and its potential for change, and his failure to research very deeply into the institution of slavery and how it degraded both the slave-owners and the enslaved alike, than it does about people. (Perhaps it is a coincidence after all that von Trier’s film was released a couple of years after the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq; in the time after the invasion and before the film, news of atrocities inflicted by US and UK troops on Iraqi civilians filtered out to the West.) Passivity and acting according to the letter of the law may not necessarily indicate lazy, pleasure-seeking, unredeemable natures; they may be forms of rebellion and resistance, and Manderlay’s people have every right to suspect Grace of having ulterior motives in trying to force freedom and democracy on them if she is not honest with them about why she is doing what she does. There is little in the film to suggest that she shares her previous experiences with them as a way of being open. To return to the point I’m making, even Steve McQueen’s recent “12 Years a Slave”, limited as it was by its director’s vision and his tendency to make mountains out of certain mole-hills, did a better job of exploring the psychology of the master-slave relationship. One might have expected von Trier with his greater experience as a director and the opportunity offered by the script to explore the institution of slavery and its effect on human psychology and culture in some depth.

Memoria: a tight closed narrative loop with no chance of forgiveness or redemption

Elísabet Ýr Atladóttir, “Memoria” (2013)

A creepy psychological character study, “Memoria” is very depressing to watch. The single protagonist, Vincent, is a young alcoholic and drug addict who is tormented by inner demons. He stumbles into an abandoned house and is quickly overwhelmed by a mysterious and invisible entity that forces him to revisit aspects of his past as he winds his way through the house’s labyrinthine corridors and secret rooms. He remembers his parents’ troubled marriage and the effects it has had on him. He remembers the rage he felt when his younger brother teased him and the punishment he brought down on the boy. Remorse washes over him and he reaches out for something that will end all his torment …

The 3D animation is well done though fairly conventional in its look and backgrounds. The abandoned house is no different from other haunted domiciles in its long dark and spooky passages, the cracks in the walls and the sense of dread present throughout. As you might expect in haunted-house scenarios, the weather outside is dark and stormy. The story is tight and insular with a limited number of characters and ends in a definite closed loop, thus cutting off the possibility of cosmic forgiveness and redemption. It seems no lesson has been learned and if the characters happen to reincarnate together, they’ll repeat their actions that lead to violence, mean-spiritedness and suicide. And so the cosmic vicious circle continues.

Ultimately the way in which the story is resolved, with no suggestion of hope or a chance to make amends, is something of a let-down for this short.

The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.

Dancer in the Dark: a manipulative film with a conservative and disheartening message

Lars von Trier, “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Lars von Trier’s one attempt at making a tractor musical is the third and final installment in a fairy-tale trilogy of films in which the heroine is a good-hearted innocent who, believing she has committed a gross sin, makes amends by sacrificing everything she has even at the cost of her own life. In the trilogy, the heroine’s innocence arises from an inability to relate meaningfully to the world around her and von Trier makes no attempt to explain how this inability, which either comes across as stupidity or self-centredness, has come about originally. Whatever the source or cause of this inability, the heroine’s innocence leads her to make one blunder after another in the belief that she is being justly punished. She is eventually caught up in a vicious downward spiral that all but destroys her.

Von Trier uses this template to make sense of American society with its fascination for guns and gun-related violence and the legal and bureaucratic process that takes an innocent person from being framed for murder all the way to the gallows. Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant working at a dreary and poorly paid job in a factory somewhere in rural America. She has come to the US in the hope of earning and saving enough money for her 10-year-old son to have an eye operation; he has inherited a genetic condition from Selma which is causing her own eyes to fail. In the meantime, Selma works furiously at the factory to earn extra money before her vision fades away completely, and in her spare time, she rehearses for an amateur production of a famous musical and goes to the cinema with her friend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) to watch Hollywood musicals.

Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of a police officer, Bill (David Morse), who is behind in his interest payments to his bank and whose wage cannot support his wife’s lavish life-style. Bill steals the money Selma has saved and this leads to an altercation between them that has disastrous consequences for Selma.

The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese attacked by machine guns and the entire set-up of the film is unbelievably crude and aimed at extracting the maximum amount of sentimentality, tears and melodrama. Characters are drawn in such a watery way that one feels no sympathy for any of them, least of all for the son on whom Selma pins all her hopes: the boy appears to feel no gratitude for his mum for all the sacrifices she is making on his behalf but wags school whenever he can to go fishing. Save for Jeff (Peter Stormare) and Cathy who bust their guts hauling Selma’s arse out of trouble throughout the film, all characters are single-minded and self-centred and viewers can feel no sympathy for Selma when, under stress, she blanks out into a surreal beautiful fantasy world of bright colour, singing and dancing. The actors do what they can to flesh out their characters but one gets the feeling their talents were wasted.

The most disturbing aspects of the film are the messages expressed through Selma’s behaviour and her excuses and justifications for doing what she does. She believes that in giving birth to her son, who is thus cursed with her genetic condition, because she wanted someone to love and to love her back, she has behaved selfishly and must therefore suffer whatever punishments befall her. In this way, she will achieve an inner peace. This horrific conservative message is one that has been peddled, and is still being peddled, by many if not most of the most rapacious and destructive institutions in Western society over the centuries: hundreds of millions of people have suffered and died, often in horrible and traumatic ways, because their political, social and religious leaders decreed that they should accept their destinies meekly as the will of God or some other external authority and not try to improve their lives. The absurdity of Selma’s beliefs reaches its peak in her refusal to hire a lawyer to defend her against criminal charges pressed on her because she believes her son needs her money more than she does, even though this refusal means she is certain to die an early death and leave her son an orphan.

Selma even appears to welcome going blind: in one of several silly songs she sings, she rejoices that she has seen enough of everything and that there’s nothing more for her to see. Presumably once she goes blind, she’ll stay permanently in Hollywood musical fantasy land, where she loves to be, while the rest of the world sails on by and leaves her behind. In this way, she will preserve her “innocence” and “purity”, both of which are really little more than self-interest and ignorance. Selma is not curious about the world around her and seems unconcerned about how her son will cope without her. When the world does intrude on her “reality”, she therefore is unable to deal with it at all; instead she zooms on ahead with little thought for the consequences. When she becomes teary-eyed, one is tempted to believe this is instinctive – the cry of an animal caught in a leg trap – and self-serving with no thought for how the son will survive on his own.

The real pity here is that in Selma’s tragic tale, there is plenty of material that von Trier could have made a half-decent film of: the exploitation of factory workers working their butts off in mind-numbing mass assembly line work; lower middle class people being stiffed by their employers and banks to breaking point; the legal system which chews up wrongly charged and convicted people without money or influence and spits them onto death row; American mainstream society’s dislike of alternative politics and economic organisation, especially socialist culture; and the apparently inexorable machine process that sends Selma to her death. I see the film as insulting to the people who do end up on death row without proper legal representation because they are poor and because the system and culture that put them on the train-track to death have always discriminated against them.  However von Trier, like his heroines, prefers to live cocooned in a world of fantasy where beautiful things are unspoilt by reality, a world in which people, if they are to be good, must quietly and uncomplainingly accept the political, social and economic context in which they live their lives and not question the injustices that arise in such a context. Such a message surely appeals to those disappointed with the current state of the world, in which democracy, the social welfare state and co-operative endeavours to improve well-being and eliminate poverty appear to have failed.

As it is, the film is unconvincing and manipulative, wallowing in misery and grimness merely for the sake of doing so, and with no message that would inspire hope or sympathy in viewers for its characters or for the predicament they find themselves in.