5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras

Among this year’s gilded list of Oscar nominees, there are surely few peasants. But Emad Burnat is one. The amateur cameraman, who lives largely off the land of his modest Palestinian village, now shares a Best Documentary nomination with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi for 5 Broken Cameras, their illuminating and often astonishing first-person account of the ongoing Israel-Palestine territorial dispute.

Cinema can be an inadequate tool to explain a conflict as old as time, but there is no major attempt here to provide historical or political context; 5 Broken Cameras is an intensely personal film. Told from Burnat’s perspective over a five year period, we watch from a unique vantage point as his native village of Bil’in boldly resists the ever-encroaching Israeli settlers and their bullish army enforcers.

The film is framed through Burnat’s collection of cameras, each of which successively suffer damage at the hands of IDF soldiers during Bi’lin’s regular largely nonviolent demonstrations. Burnat can chart “an episode of my life” with each camera; as his involvement in the resistance movement becomes greater, so does the danger to his life.

Burnat’s broken cameras provide a neat structural composition to the film, but a more intriguing framing device is found in his fourth son, Gibreel. Born on the same day that soldiers first arrive in the village, Burnat’s first camera is originally purchased just as any proud parent might – to document Gibreel’s formative years. Through his thoughtful narration, Burnat openly worries what it means to be born into an endless cycle of violence and oppression, or what it means when your first words are “wall” and “soldiers”.

His footage, showing frequent – and sometimes fatal – tussles between both sides, is visceral and raw, yielding deeper context than any fleeting news bulletin could hope for. A voracious documentarian, Burnat trains his lens indiscriminately on the chaotic world around. The five cameras bear witness to some staggering acts of brutality from the IDF, sometimes in defiance of Israeli court decisions. Like the looming settlements, it’s an incremental process of oppression, a slow march of aggression, reaching its zenith when soldiers attempt to evict Burnat for being in a “military zone”.

This being such an autobiographical tale, there is no effort to seek any response from the Israeli side, and there will be plenty who take issue with the film’s single-minded approach. But in Bi’lin’s compact example, the conflict seems yawningly lopsided, an eternal battle fought in disproportionate terms: kids with pebbles versus soldiers with semi-automatics. The filmmakers make no explicit political statement in 5 Broken Cameras, but the implicit one is loud, angry, and urgent.

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Les Misérables, graphed on the emotion-to-incredulity continuum

Les Miserables

Musicals are silly. Come on, admit it, they are. They are and they always have been. You can postulate and pontificate all you want about how musicals possess the power of spectacle and majesty, that the capacity to move and to inspire can only be found in the musical note, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wouldn’t have been the same without ‘Truly Scrumptious’, but the fact is, people spontaneously bursting into harmonious song, mid-conversation, is utterly absurd. ABSURD. It defies all known logic.

None are more sillier than Les Misérables, a musical which invites us to believe that in its depressing fictional universe, everyone sings, pretty much the whole time. Save for the odd word here or there, everything is sung, which must make mundane conversations about compiling a weekly shopping list or talking on the phone to the DVLA a bit more colourful, I suppose.

Still, in spite of its inherent and overarching silliness Les Misérables has managed to be one of the biggest musicals of all time and now – indicative of the current cosy symbiosis between Hollywood and Broadway – it comes to the big screen, in epic, bombastic, awards-hoovering form.

I actually love musicals, despite what’s just been said, but I’m suspicious of those who take themselves too seriously – who are wilfully ignorant of their own silliness – and so with no familiarity of the book or the musical on which it is based, I went to see Les Mis expecting to be either bored out of my little skull, or in floods of begrudging tears. My experience has been charted on this handy graph.

lesmis

To be fair to Tom Hooper, a director whose King’s Speech could have comfortably slotted into a BBC Sunday evening teatime, he’s managed cinematic spectacle rather well here, and Les Misérables is visually very strong and often joyfully extravagant, with performances – Rusty notwithstanding – to match.

But the singing is silly. Come on, it really is. And Les Mis takes itself laughably too seriously. At no point was my disbelief swept from under me: it was right at the front of my mind, disbelieving the fact that 19th century French peasants had such impressive baritone range.

Still, words are meaningless. As tedious as it is, Les Misérables is critic-proof. As I left the cinema, scoffing quietly under my breath, I overheard a woman snottily wiping away the tears. “What are you crying for?” her boyfriend lamented. “How could that have been a surprise? You already saw it last week.”

The Helpers

the-helpers

Like many a low-budget indie horror, The Helpers has followed a fairly conventional trajectory. It managed a limited release in the US, gained a coveted spot at Film4’s FrightFest last November, and now makes a quiet straight-to-DVD appearance here, jostling for attention in a relentlessly oversaturated genre.

The plot, as you might well guess, follows a rather familiar trajectory too. A car, loaded to the brim with drunk and horny twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas, breaks down in the middle of the Nevada desert, miles away from civilisation. With no mobile signal (and no spare tyres apparently), the gang happen upon a motel, where some friendly locals ply them with free drinks and rooms for the night. All, inevitably, is not what it seems, and our intrepid gang find themselves on the wrong side of a Saw/Hostel/Psycho scenario.

But really, who gives a crap? A flaw befalling many a cheap-and-cheerful horror, The Helpers spends precious little time on character exposition; the effect being that when our heroes inevitably find themselves in mortal danger it’s perilously tricky to conjure up even a morsel of sympathy for their plight.

The seven protagonists are scarcely distinguishable from one another. The men square of jaw; the women large of cleavage; these are empty shells of flesh masquerading as characters, with no notable characteristics or redeeming features. The villains of the piece are not much more interesting, operating under flimsy motives of revenge for a troubled childhood in an abusive orphanage. You never buy it, and neither do you buy the explanation behind the title – effectively, “you said you needed help, so we’re going to kill you!”

And that’s before we even get onto the ‘found footage’, that now-staple cinematic bandwagon which director Chris Stokes gleefully hops on, with one leg hanging off. From the start, a remarkable amount of footage is notably non-found, begging the question of why they ever bothered spuriously thrusting a handycam into the action in the first place. This half-hearted compromise between conventional and unconventional filming methods serves nothing but a useless diversion from the horror.

With bodies ripped apart and head decapitated, it’s a grim and occasionally gruelling watch, and torture-porn disciples will be gratified by the occasional dip into the gore pool. But really, The Helpers is an inconsequential sort of B-movie: not offensively terrible, but not terribly good. The cast give it a good whack. But The Helpers honestly doesn’t merit elevation beyond its assured bargain basement grave.

Just seen: Enter The Void (2010)

Enter The Void

What in fuck’s name can you say about Enter The Void? Words seem laughably insufficient. They certainly seemed so to Gaspar Noé, who uses them sparsely and incidentally in his 160-minute maybe-masterpiece. Instead we are left to ponder surreal, nebulous, frequently breathtaking imagery, around which a bleak, impressionistic and occasionally baffling melodrama is fashioned. Plunging headfirst into the fuzzy, dreamlike urban cosmos of Tokyo, Noé brushes through the themes of Freud, Oedipus, and Tibetan reincarnation beliefs, of troubling sexual politics and inner-city isolation, framed through psychedelic drug trips and out-of-body experiences, barely stopping for breath.

Plot (in as much as there is one) invariably plays second fiddle to style. Benoît Debie’s camera begins in the head of an American drug dealer living in Tokyo’s neon jungles, and from his POV we spend ten minutes in the grip of a powerful hallucinatory DMT trip. Later, the camera leaves his head and floats just above the action, where it largely stays for the remainder, occupying a strange, floaty observer viewpoint. Sometimes it occupies other heads, sometimes it swoops into objects, lights, flashbacks. The transitions are always seamless. Never static, the camera moves in ways you never thought a camera could, and visually, Enter The Void is without parallel: a thrilling demonstration of cinema as visual art and a defiant statement of untapped possibilities still lurking in a versatile medium.

Nothing quite matches the promise of the gobsmacking opening half-hour, and after two hours of rather joyless meandering, it becomes an onerous watch. As Irreversible‘s uncompromising rape scenes earlier confirmed, Noé is a born provocateur, and here, graphic depictions of a fatal car crash or an abortion seem to be testing the audience’s mettle as much as anything else.

Is it a pretentious, incoherent jumble sale of ideas and imagery, a two-and-a-half-hour drug trip writ large, or a stunning, inimitable opus of visual art? The jury’s still deliberating. What cannot be disputed are the dazzlingly original heights Enter The Void manages to climb: from the retina-blistering opening titles (on which Art of The Title have a fascinating feature), to the often unpredictable plot machinations, to the seemingly physics-defying crane shots. It demands a second viewing but would take a stout constitution to return too soon. But, my God, you should watch it.

A list of reasons why I don’t like lists

schindler

It’s that time of year when every film critic and blogger worth his or her sodium chloride churns out another countdown of their favourite films of the previous twelve months.  I don’t much like top 10 lists. They prescribe – with all the haughtiness of a mid-level civil service bureaucrat – order where there is chaos. It’s a pleasing notion to think that opinions can be categorised as sequential facts. But it’s wrong, I tell you! Wrong! That notion is misguided at best!

Simon Kinnear has written far more eloquently on this problem than I ever could, but broadly speaking I see five major problems with the concept of “the ten best of XX year” lists:

  1. The implication that the writer has seen ALL of the films released in that year is insane. To see all films released in one calendar year is a gruelling undertaking that even the hardiest of film hacks will manage. As Simon notes, literary critics don’t bother with this sort of nonsense. Why would they? (This is a particular problem for so-called ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ lists, which supposes that the writer has seen all of the films, all films ever made, every single one, even the Police Academy sequels and corporate motivational videos and porn.)
  2. You are comparing apples with oranges. But also comparing them pears, kumquats and dingleberries. Isn’t modern cinema too diverse to be stacked up side-by-side? Amour is probably the best film I’ve seen this year. But to compare it to The Cabin In The Woods – probably the film I most enjoyed watching – is a futile exercise, and a disservice to both. How do you quantify these things? Surely the measures of your viewing satisfaction are wildly variable?
  3. In our internet age, lists provoke some of the worst levels commenting debate, in which “where the hell is such-and-such?” or “how can so-and-so be higher/lower than and-so-forth” feature heavily, and bitterly. Witness the vitriol directed at the Guardian for placing Ted at number 2 on their list, or at Empire for placing The Avengers at number 1. Lists do nothing to contribute to the dialogue between creator and critic, and fog the real debate that should be had.
  4. Lists – particularly film critic’s lists – are tiresomely homogenous, to the point where critics seem almost apologetic about it. Once you’ve read one list, you’ve pretty much read them all. Metacritic lists 17 critics who place The Master at number one, and another 17 who put Zero Dark Thirty there. Most lists will contain some combination of the same twenty or so films.
  5. Lists suggest objectivity where there is only subjectivity. These are just opinions. This year, Sight & Sound’s decennial critic poll deemed Vertigo better than Citizen Kane. I don’t agree with this. There is no empirical evidence to prove this, beyond the votes of a few hundred people. But it is presented as fact. It’s not. It’s just opinion.

[Of course, having said all that, I’m a massive hypocrite and have in fact come up with a list of my favourite films of 2012. I have an excuse: this year I’ve been fortunate enough to write a few pieces (see here, and here) for The Skinny, the culture mag Scottish people are all too lucky to have. They asked me for my top 10: that – and the excellent collective top 10 – can be read here.]

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