Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors: uneven animated movie with strident tone preaches a nationalistic message

Mitsuyo Seo, “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors” (1945)

Japan’s first full-length animated movie is a World War II propaganda film aimed at children and centred around a young boy Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and his animal friends who represent military sailors. The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com though there are no English or other language sub-titles. Non-Japanese speakers won’t find the movie hard-going anyway as it features music and singing and there’s no over-arching plot. The film’s aim is to instill love and loyalty for Japan and belief in its military invincibility and inevitable victory over British and American forces. The importance of the group over the individual is stressed and collective action based on absolute obedience and loyalty is preferred over individual action which the film suggests can cause a person to go astray.

What plot exists is very loose and falls into three parts that are related only through shared characters. The film-makers’ grasp on history, geography and sociology is precarious. In the first part Momotaro and his sailor friends  are on leave and visiting their families. A young child gets lost chasing a runaway sailor cap and its life is in danger. The sailors and others in their community hear a rescue call and rise as one to save the child. In the second part Japanese naval forces take over a tropical island where they are welcomed by the natives who are represented by exotic species of animals; the sailors build an airbase and take time to teach the locals their language and culture. In the third part of the film the Japanese invade islands in Southeast Asia from the air and force the British overlords there to relinquish control. After parachuting to the ground and ambushing a tank together, Momotaro takes charge of negotiating with the Brits while his friends take notes.

The animation is very uneven: the main characters of Momotaro and his friends (bear, monkey, cat, pheasant) are drawn well with bodies and limbs in correct chubby proportions. Their faces are usually serene and confident with shining eyes though creepy lipsticked lips don’t always syncrhonise well with speech. Momotaro resembles a plump-cheeked kindergarten-age boy straight out of old Chinese Communist propaganda posters. The animals that represent the Pacific Islanders are all very cute and include creatures not usually native to the Pacific islands: elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, squirrels, bunnies, small wildcats and kangaroos all co-exist happily. Perhaps lacking high-order predators like lions and tigers among them gives the folks that open and hospitable attitude towards the invaders. The animals’ portrayal varies from cute and sweet for small critters to rubbery and comic for the crocs and elephants which could have come straight out of old 1930s cartoons. Just as rubbery, dated and definitely caricaturish are a trio of three adult monkeys who look and act suspiciously like 1930s blackface minstrels and the British who are shown as lacking in discipline, cowardly and spineless. Against backgrounds that look solid and almost three-dimensional and the fairly detailed depictions of machinery, the variable standard of animation means the film doesn’t have a distinctive visual style.

Whatever comedy exists in the film seems forced and the songs have been written and played to urge singing along by children. No point in preaching to audiences unless they can be pushed to participate in the message!

The film plays hard and fast with the history and geography of Southeast Asia and its colonisation by Europeans. Most likely the islands “freed” by Japan in the third part of the film aren’t a specific reference to Singapore but representative for eastern Asia and the western Pacific region. Parts of the plot are cut off unexpectedly and the film never returns to them. At the end of the film various small animals practise parachute-jumping onto a map of North America; the implied message is that Japanese domination of the entire Pacific region amd beyond is the next step. Given that when the film was released Japan had already been retreating from US-led forces for two years, and the country was in dire economic as well as military straits, the message is desperate and shrill.

Viewers may note the tone of the whole film can be strident: the pace is steady and fast, the story trajectory is onwards and upwards, and the animals obey orders and act promptly and efficiently without hesitation. The portrayal of some animals as rabbits has an unintended and slightly amusing suggestion of cloned conformity especially in scenes where they prepare the airfield for military planes to land and to take off with almost pre-programmed foreknowledge. A message of unquestioned obedience with one’s heart, mind and soul being at the service of the nation, its government and emperor is strong. Characters might pause only to look at photographs of loved ones and realise how much they miss their families but that’s the only kind of reflection and character development allowed here.

Not a film I’d recommend for children until they’re of an age to understand how seductive and inviting propaganda can be and the different forms it can take to persuade people to adopt particular beliefs and actions.

Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.

Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.

The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.

Aliens (dir. James Cameron): overstretched plot meets redeemed heroine in Vietnam War fable

James Cameron, “Aliens” (1986)

Sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this is a very different movie: “Alien” is basically a haunted-house horror story with ordinary civilian worker types set on a spaceship; “Aliens” is a combat movie about a mission gone wrong set on a distant planet. The only things the two have in common are the character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the monsters who become a regular part of her life when she’s awake or at least not in deep sleep. Comparisons between the two films are beside the point: Cameron didn’t set out to remake “Alien”, he made a movie in a genre he was familiar with at the time (late 1980s), which is the action adventure genre. “Aliens” can be read as Cameron’s ham-fisted criticism of US military conduct in the Vietnam War, in which nearly two million US soldiers were thrown into a conflict a lot of them didn’t understand and many thousands died needlessly, being picked off by the enemy Viet Cong who knew the territory well (it was their home after all). In like manner, a group of marines armed with sophisticated weaponry sally forth into colonial territory established on an alien planet to protect the colonists and hunt down and destroy an enemy, only to be hit back hard by a determined and intelligent though technologically primitive monster species that has made the planet its home.

Fifty-seven years after the events of “Alien”, Ripley’s escape craft, having drifted in space, is picked up by a larger ship and taken back to Earth. After half a century away, one’d think Ripley had been given up for dead and all her details wiped off any databases and the cargo transporter she blew up written off as a lost asset but no, as soon as she’s back, she gets grilled by the Company for wilfully destroying its property, losing its cargo and her pilot licence (it’s still current?) is withdrawn. Worse than that, she discovers she has no family, her only daughter having died childless.

Resigned to manual labour as a non-entity in a society that doesn’t need or want her, Ripley is later contacted by Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and an army man Gorman (William Hope) who advise that the Company has lost contact with its colony on planet LV-426 (formerly Thedus where the Nostromo landed in “Alien”) and they are sending a military mission there to find out why. Would she be willing to go as a “consultant”? After first refusing and then suffering a bad dream and a panic attack, Ripley finally agrees to go.

The mission, made up of young marines under the impression of going on a “bug hunt”, travels to the planet where it finds one surviving colonist, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), and discovers the colony got wiped out by a hive of aliens. After being nearly wiped out themselves, the surviving marines retreat back to their drop-ship and decide to bomb the colony buildings and go home. Unfortunately the evacuation ship itself is attacked by an alien and explodes, leaving the survivors stranded. From then on, it’s a struggle for Ripley, Newt, Burke, the robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and the remaining marines to bring another evacuation ship down to the planet and get off before the colony explodes or the aliens get them, whichever is first. Along the way, Ripley must thwart Burke’s devious attempt to get two aliens on board the ship home and save Newt after the child disappears down a vent into the clutches of the aliens who want her as baby food. The remaining marines get picked off one by one down to Hicks (Michael Biehn) who barely survives the mission.

The film divides into two halves, the first half being exposition, tying up and elaborating on any loose plot strands from “Alien” and setting up the scene for the conflict with the aliens on LV-426; the second half all breathless go-go action with no let up and piling on one implausible plot twist after another. What holds these halves together is Ripley’s transformation from mere company worker with no future into a leader with a purpose: in finding and retrieving Newt, and confronting the alien queen twice, Ripley at last finds reason to continue living and achieves a kind of redemption. This makeover makes Ripley a fully realised character in comparison with rest of the cast who play character stereotypes. The former stickler for regulations throws them all out the window to risk her life to rescue Newt and her black-and-white view of the world changes too: Bishop shows her not all robots are as bad or creepy as they look and she even achieves a short-lived understanding with the alien queen in the breeding pit.

The aliens’ life-cycle and physiology reveal them as overgrown insects: they bleed lots of acid blood which they can use as a weapon, they have a parasitic larval stage, they moult as they grow and they have a “queen” whose life is completely given over to laying eggs. There seems no point in making the queen the biggest and most intelligent critter if she’s merely an egg-laying machine – one could argue she’s actually a slave to the other aliens – but the detail hardly matters in a cartoon plot. Having Gorman as combat mission leader despite having no actual experience in the field begs credibility. Ripley surviving one encounter with the aliens can be put down to luck but surviving two with a little girl in tow and nearly all the marines save one totally blown away is perhaps too much even for coin-tossers among us. Anyone who’s bad like Burke and everyone who is disposable or disrespects Ripley gets it in the neck – or the face – and the people Ripley cares about or who have a lesson to teach her come through safely. Come to think of it, a huge powerful and wealthy Company able to send ships into space should be able to afford a robots-only military mission or even just a reconnaissance satellite with Google Earth streetview (and better) technology to investigate the disappearance of a colony but then of course there’d be no movie and Ripley would have no transformative redemption and a reason to go on living. There are many “just-in-time” moments that strain credibility: the aliens cut off electricity just when the survivors decide what to do with Burke after they discover his little scheme, Ripley saves Newt seconds from being custard-pied by an alien larva, Bishop arrives in the nick of time to rescue Ripley and Newt from the alien queen’s wrath and the queen herself is about to haul Newt from beneath a grate just when Ripley in her cargo-loader challenges her to a duel.

A conservative message about the role of women may be present, in that Ripley finds her true destiny being a mother (to Newt) and is challenged by another mother (the alien queen) to prove herself worthy of that destiny. On the other hand, the men in “Aliens” become weak or compromised in some way and as they fall to the aliens it falls to Ripley to lead the expedition and to salvage whatever she can of it. Only Hicks, who respects Ripley and treats her as his equal, stays alive.

In spite of the overstretched plot, the various “in time” incidents and a weak copycat flush-down-the-airlock ending, “Aliens” is a likeable live-action cartoon movie which fleshes out a familiar character and the monsters who become, for better and for worse, twinned with her forever. The one aspect of “Aliens” that lifts it above other similar popcorn action movies is the development of a character who through her encounters with her worst enemy matures into a leader and discovers inner strength and resourcefulness.

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame: charming child actors carry a bleak and pessimistic message

Hana Makhmalbaf, “Buddha Collapsed out of Shame” (2007)

Charming and delightful with two small child actors playing the main parts, this film carries a sombre message about the effects of grinding war and religious fundamentalism on ordinary people in Afghanistan. It shows how, far from liberating women and girls from the restrictions imposed by the former Taliban government, the US-led invasion actually helped cement the oppression of all females by making the country more unstable, driving people deeper into poverty and enabling the Taliban and similar groups to present themselves as fighters against the invading forces. By framing and presenting these issues in an ingenious way from the viewpoints of young children in the games they play, Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, shows how the attitudes and prejudices of adults pass down to and are maintained and embellished by a new generation.

The film resembles a documentary in the way it shows scenes of the Afghan countryside: panning shots that emphasise its vast deserts and mountains, shots of farmers and shepherds at work, and in particular the scenes of the Taliban’s detonation of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan that bookend the movie. The scenery looks beautiful with stunning blue skies, wide brown plains and clear rivers that beguile viewers and leave them unprepared for the wretched conditions the local people live and work in. In the caves that surround Bamiyan lives a six year old girl Bakhtay (Nikbakht Noruz) with her family. When morning dawns, the parents have already left home and Bakhtay is left alone to care for a baby sibling. She hears the neighbours’ son Abbas (Abbas Alijome), about her age, reading aloud so she investigates and discovers he is reading from a book. Bakhtay is inspired to want to learn to read – she too wants to read funny stories about walnuts falling from trees and hitting grown-up men – so when Abbas and a shopkeeper tell her she needs a note-book and pencil for school, she zealously raises the money to buy the items by taking some eggs to the local market to sell. Selling the eggs turns out to be an ordeal but Bakhtay has just enough to get a note-book so she takes her mum’s lipstick to write with. From then on, it’s another ordeal for Bakhtay to go to the right school: Abbas takes her to his school but it’s a boys-only school so she must go off on her own. On the way, a gang of boys torments her and holds her hostage in a cave; after escaping, she must follow a river all the way to the school. The teacher and the girls at the school reject her and she is forced to leave.

Apart from some plot strands left dangling – once Bakhtay leaves for school, we see nothing more of the baby left at home – and various passages in the movie that could have been edited for length (some shots linger too long after they’ve made their point), “Buddha …” is well-made with a basic plot that moves at a steady pace. Simple, straightforward dialogue helps move the plot along yet successfully conveys Bakhtay’s feelings about the harrowing situations she must endure. The bullying she receives from both boys and girls can be painful to watch. Apart from the teenage stationery shopkeeper, most adults in the film appear uninterested in Bakhtay’s travails or refuse to help her; in an almost Kafkaesque scene, a traffic police officer cannot help her as his duties restrict him to directing invisible traffic; the teacher at the girls’ school boots her out because of the disruption she causes with her mother’s lipstick. All the obstacles in Bakhtay’s way as she struggles to kick-start her education are Afghanistan’s problems in miniature: Bakhtay’s foray into the local market, completely dominated by men, shows how much women are shut out of everyday life; the boys’ taunts and games centre around war and ethnic, gender and social divisions in Afghan society; the teacher’s reaction to Bakhtay shows the extreme fear Afghan women have of the Taliban and what they represent. The symbolism can be overdone and many scenes can have several interpretations that are equally valid and relevant to Afghanistan’s present condition and human society generally.

Noruz is appealing as the chubby-cheeked moppet who through sheer persistence and a chirpy nature overcomes a series of challenges that would make most adults faint: nearly being buried, kept in a dark cave, forced to wear a “burqa”, finding a seat in a crowded classroom only to be kicked back out. Bakhtay shows considerable cheek in leaving the baby at home, stomping around calling for her mum, intruding on adult men’s conversations and foiling the boy bullies’ schemes. Alijome is equally lovable as Bakhtay’s loyal friend who also suffers from the other boys’ bullying.

Ultimately though the film’s message is very bleak: Bakhtay is eventually forced to conform in a way that suggests all Afghans, male and female, no matter how spirited and determined they are, will be crushed under the extreme conditions of Taliban and warlord rule, if people inside and outside the country do not resolve to stop the war and force the withdrawal of foreign troops. Makhmalbaf takes no sides and the suggestion is that the Americans are as much to blame as the Taliban and warlords have been in perpetuating Afghan social inequities and suffering. Enterprise, individuality and integrity will falter under such a regime. Though the film pounds these and other points about Afghan society relentlessly, with ominous music to match, the heavy-handedness is balanced by the child actors’ charm and innocence and by the simple narrative which has many moments of humour. This is definitely a film for adults even though it’s dominated by children and their games and activities.

“Buddha …” was made by Hana Makhmalbaf when she was nineteen years old and is her first feature film. Her mother Marzieh helped to write the script and other members of her family also assisted with filming.

Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.