Film reviews

Surviving in Afghanistan
Land Mines, A Love Story, dir.

Dennis O’Rourke. The Afghan woman, mysterious behind her ice-blue burka, suspended somewhere between pathos and allure, is one of the sharpest images of the 21st century. That delphinium blue, still against a background of war and carnage, has drawn photographers in their thousands. Some of them may have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, may even have absorbed its cautions against romanticising the exotic. But the blue is irresistible.

Dennis O’Rourke, by his own account, was caught by that blue as he drove through Kabul’s central bazaar soon after the American bombing. But he saw something else as well: a plastic prosthetic leg sticking out from the enveloping material.

It’s characteristic of O’Rourke’s risky documentary style that he should seize the moment and find his film in that chance encounter. The veil is raised, and we meet Habiba, 19, Tajik, articulate, resilient and yet achingly innocent. She is the pivot on which the film turns.

Habiba lost her leg a decade or so earlier—land mines have a long history in Afghanistan. Her husband Shah, a cobbler, is similarly maimed. They have children, and another one coming. The film documents their efforts to survive. In between scenes of Habiba begging (Shah is shamed by his wife’s enterprise) and Shah trying for a social service pittance, O’Rourke splices a short history of land mining, using sources that include grainy Russian archival footage of metal disks and shredded flesh with cutaways to the digital shimmer of George W. Bush explaining how heartfelt is American compassion, and an earnest US general explaining how unfortunate it is that air-dropped food parcels are the same colour as land mines.

But the film’s strength is the Afghan material: real people being themselves, on the street, at home, in classrooms where exuberant children learn by rote about small machines that may kill or dismember them, in clinics where the women who make the prostheses all limp. Habiba, with her hip-straining walk, is wonderful, whether primping shyly for a photograph or telling men in the bazaar that they should give her more in alms. The intercut land mine and political footage seems contrived by comparison—Errol Morris (The Fog of War) territory, and best left to him. O’Rourke’s art and best energies lie in enticing—or simply allowing—people to act out their own complexity in front of his intimate camera.

Morag Fraser  

Hitching a ride with the original
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dir. Garth Jennings.

It is the era of the remake. They’re made because they each have a guaranteed audience—anyone who loved the original TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will be there for its new incarnation, if only so they can bitch about it on their websites.

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes  one morning to discover a team of bulldozers preparing to demolish his home, making way for a new freeway bypass. His outrage quickly turns to confusion, however, when his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) arrives on the scene, buys everyone a round of drinks, and announces that a team of Vogon spaceships are preparing to demolish Earth. Why? To make way for a new interstellar bypass.

Ford and Arthur escape just in time, hitching a ride on board the Heart of Gold, a shiny new spaceship stolen and piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), President of the Galaxy, and carrying an array of quirky characters including Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin the Paranoid Android, voiced by eternal English malcontent Alan Rickman.

What follows is a frantic ride across the universe as the Heart of Gold seeks out clues to what is, in essence, the meaning of life. Their journey is narrated by Stephen Fry as the electronic guidebook The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which today remains one of the great narrative devices, in movies or anywhere else.

The problem is that what the old TV show could barely jam into six half-hour episodes, this silver-screen production has to abbreviate even further, making for an obscure and often roughshod ride over the original ideas of the late Douglas Adams’s seminal 1979 novel. With Adams himself as a co-writer of the screenplay, it’s not an impossible task. But whatever genius survived that truncation is suffocated by first-time director Garth Jennings, whose capacity for visual effects is extensive, but whose sensitivity to the humour and charm of the story is almost non-existent.

Some of the good stuff couldn’t be ruined in the worst of hands, like the science-fiction hero who careers through the story dressed in a bathrobe and seeking out a hot cup of tea. There’s an absurdity to the telling that harkens back to the blind men and squirrels of Monty Python, and the British obsession with tedious bureaucracy and bad poetry is nicely personified by the Vogon villains. But there’s no love in it. Larger-than-life characters like the two-headed Zaphod are presented without passion or ceremony and come out considerably less than life-size. There is no expectation on the part of the filmmakers that this is anything more than another product on the factory floor of modern movies.

The high point comes at the 15-minute mark, when the original soundtrack from the TV show kicks in, nostalgic for some, pointless for anyone else. The new animated Guide, which teaches Arthur and the rest of us Earthlings a thing or two about the galaxy, is also refreshing humour, animated with European simplicity. But unless you’re an enormous fan of the book, and you’re writing a thesis on its various incarnations, this one is likely to leave you unsatisfied.

Zane Lovitt

Brave new worldliness
9 Songs, dir. Michael Winterbottom.

Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley) are lovers. They share a common interest in live music, drugs and sex. Maybe Matt loves Lisa; it’s a little hard to tell. But really it doesn’t matter.

Michael Winterbottom has made a film with very little by way of narrative particulars, and as the title suggests it seems more like music than your classic plot-appointed tale. Told in flashback, while Matt is visiting the Antarctic, 9 Songs sets its ground from the outset. Matt’s voice-over frankly states that he doesn’t remember Lisa for what she wore or the jobs she had, but rather for the way she smelt and the feel of her skin.

And so we embark with the two characters on an explicit exploration of just that. We watch Lisa and Matt make love, really. And while there is no escaping the reality of the physical acts we are witnessing, it is neither titillating nor gratuitous. Something in the frankness of Winterbottom’s camera strips it of any hint of the pornographic and instead allows us to experience the physical manifestation of an uncertain love.
Winterbottom, initially inspired by Michel Houellebecq’s sexually explicit novel Platform, wondered why books could deal with the subject of sex without shying from the graphic, but that film, ‘which is far greater disposed to it, can’t’. Well now, thanks to Winterbottom, it can and has.

Needless to say, 9 Songs is not the first film to tackle real sex on screen. Patrice Chéreau’s film Intimacy caused quite a ripple when released in 2001. While less graphic, it was a good deal bleaker and the sexual encounters were inextricably embedded in a narrative that meandered from sex to life to love to marriage to loneliness.

But 9 Songs is more than just real sex. It is also a breathtakingly simple piece of cinema. Without the weight of plot twists and character expositions we are left with the very lightest traces of people’s lives—the floating bits between people that are in turn as clear as crystal and mud. We are not asked to understand the intricate machinations of each character’s mind, but rather to realise that much of what we are is driven by physical impressions—and fleeting notions.

Winterbottom punctuates his ‘songs’ with actual songs. Broken into its nine ‘suites’ by the inclusion of live concert footage, 9 Songs does real justice to some great concert performances—among them Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Primal Scream and The Von Blondies. Winterbottom also continues his love affair with Michael Nyman (and a good thing too) by including Nyman’s 60th birthday concert in the line-up.

9 Songs will bore many, offend hordes and just not do it for others. But for my money it was lyrical and unpretentious—not brilliant, but brave in both form and content. When Matt compares being in the vast white of the Antarctic to ‘two people in bed—claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place’, I was moved to watch bodies, in bed and out of it, grapple with that very notion.

Siobhan Jackson

Choosing to see the evil
Downfall, dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel.

Downfall recounts Hitler’s last days, holed up in his bunker as the Russians and Americans besiege Berlin. Although the film is of course a fictionalised or dramatised account, it is based upon Joachim Fest’s book Der Untergang (The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich), and the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s private secretary (Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary, later made into the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary).

The film has generated some controversy for its portrayal of Hitler as something approximating a human being, rather than an embodiment of pure evil, a monster and a madman. In Downfall we see a Hitler who is kind to dogs and small children and who treats his secretaries with paternal affection. Such criticism would suggest a preference for the depiction of Hitler as a figure of transcendental evil rather than as a human being. For if Hitler were human, then we too must share something in common with him—a little piece of Hitler in all of us.

For all that the film allows Hitler his humanity, it can hardly be said to be sympathetic to him. It offers us a man who was kind to dogs and small children, but whose proudest achievement was the genocide of the Jews.

What is most frightening, and potent, in the film (and most disturbing to anyone who wishes to maintain pride in humanity by excluding Hitler from it) is its portrayal of the willingness of the people surrounding him to find, joyfully, in his corruption a saviour from their own responsibility for making any kind of moral choice. This applies not only to fanatics like Goebbels and his wife (who murdered their own children rather than let them live in a world without Hitler), but to those, like Traudl Junge, who chose only to see dog lover, not mass killer.

The film ends with a documentary epilogue from Junge herself. For a long time, she says, she held herself blameless because she was naiive, apolitical, and not aware of the extent of the horrors perpetrated by her fatherly employer—until, one day, she passed a monument to a young German woman executed by the Nazis for her resistance to their crimes. The woman had been 22 when she was killed—the same age Junge was when she started to work for Hitler. At that moment, she says, she realised that she could have known if she had wanted to: the information was there, but she chose not to see it.

If there is a little Hitler in all of us, if Hitler is part of human potential, part of the humanity of the human, then our only redemption is to take responsibility for it ourselves. One must choose to see, rather than to remain blind and complicit when we face the evidence of all too human evil in the world today.
Allan James Thomas



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