Discovering Cinematic Realism

31 May 2014

Sugar (2013)

I first visited Venice Beach during Christmas vacation of my Freshman year in college. At the time I wasn't especially struck by it, but I've since come to appreciate the culture and diversity which it represents. Rotimi Rainwater's 2013 Sugar [official site] is set in Venice Beach, where it traces the lives of a closely knit group of homeless teenagers. We get to know them at a close personal level as they seek to survive, and to forget the pasts they've left behind.

The film focuses on Sugar, a young girl fleeing from recent family tragedy. She roams the streets with a group of friends, including her boyfriend Marshall, the young newcomer Ronnie, the street old-timer Free, and the eccentric Sketch. They sleep under a bridge, and survive on everything from stolen food to handouts to the occasional pizza bought with hard-earned cash.

Once a week they are provided food at a local youth shelter in exchange for meeting with the counselor, Bishop. A former homeless teenager himself, Bishop reaches out with persistent patience. But his efforts to help the youth achieve greater stability in their lives are consistently and vehemently refused by Sugar and her friends. They prefer the freedom of their homeless lives to the unhappy experiences of the past from which they are fleeing.

The balance in Sugar's routines is shaken when her Uncle locates her, with Bishop's help. He offers to take her in to live with him, and is even willing to accommodate Sugar's request to bring both Ronnie and Marshall with her. But an unexpected development throws their plans off course, leaving everyone scrambling to cope with the pain and complexity of reality.

The film Sugar provides an intimate, non-patronizing look into the tragic experience of youth homelessness. The characters are authentic and compelling, as is the world they inhabit. It is a fresh reminder of the pain and the suffering which occur all around is, and is a challenging call to action for us to renew our search for ways that we can make the world better.

21 February 2014

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin [A Separation] (2011)

I only discovered A Separation this year, after watching Asghar Farhadi's latest film, The Past. I was completely blown away by this movie's simplicity and tenderness which culminate in such great emotional power. The story unfolds slowly and naturally, and the characters and their relationships evolve bit by bit.

A Separation is the story of a husband and a wife, Nader and Simin, living in Iran with their teenage daughter and with Nadar's father. One of the constant sources of household tension is the fact that Nadar's father suffers from Alzheimers, and requires constant care and supervision. The competing tension is Simin's desire to emigrate, seeking a better life for their daughter.

From the very beginning, A Separation is filled with very emotional confrontations between Nader and Simin, with each one pulling in a slightly different direction. Simin is looking for change, dreaming of a new world, and taking her own initiative to achieve those dreams. Nader, on the other hand, feels bound to his father by moral obligation, and is unwilling to compromise on what he believes they must do, even if it is difficult. As the viewer, we feel sympathy for both characters, and see validity in their goals and emotional priorities.

As the tension of these situations builds, Simin moves out of the house and files for a divorce, leaving Nader in a bind as he must find a caretaker for his father while he is at work. This sets of a chain of events that slowly unravel, adding to the complexity and nuance of the tension between Nadar and Simin. This leads to an ultimate confrontation where they must come to terms with the rift which has grown between them.

A Separation explores themes such as honesty, moral obligation, sacrifice, and compromise. We see the characters facing very real everyday problems, and struggling to navigate them as best they can. They are also left to face the natural consequences of their decisions, however insignificant those decisions seemed originally.

The main characters both give stellar performances, portraying human feelings in an unexaggerated and fully believable manner. The dialogue is natural and subtle, revealing depth and intentions without over-dramatizing the conflicts which occur. And when there is an emotional outbreak we are already deeply in touch with the tension that led to it. The pacing of the film gives us time to appreciate the depth of momentum carrying their lives, and the reality of the challenges which they face.

27 January 2014

Short Term 12 (2013)

While traveling to London for a weekend film course I watched a 2013 movie which I'd read a lot about, but for which I was entirely unprepared. Short Term 12 [official site] was an engaging ride from beginning to end, and had me in tears on multiple occasions.

The film takes place in a transitional group home for teenagers. The adults we get to know are from the small staff which works the day shift at the home, with a special focus on Grace who supervises them, and her boyfriend Mason. We observe them in their day-to-day interactions with the teenagers staying in the home. There are strict rules designed to keep everyone safe, which are regularly challenged by the youth.

Short Term 12 presents the lives of troubled teenagers in a painfully open but non-patronizing manner. This is brought home when a new staff member (Nate) joins, introducing himself by saying that he'd always wanted to work with "underprivileged kids", which raises the ire of one of the residents (Marcus) who repeatedly asks him what he meant by "underprivileged". Later Marcus shares with Mason a rap which he wrote, with the moving lines:
"look into my eyes
so you know what it's like
to live a life not knowing
what a normal life's like
The youth are presented in a compellingly realistic manner, exposing both their emotional struggles and their inner humanity and goodness. They experience moments of explosion, of anger, of despair, of reaching out, of kindness. And while initially the adults seem to be fully in control of themselves, over the course of the film we come to know them as similarly imperfect humans, with their own struggles and challenges.

All in all Short Term 12 really succeeded in drawing me into its universe. I felt that it was giving me a glimpse into a real world which I haven't experienced, but which is a daily reality for many. The acting felt authentic and natural, in a way which suggested careful study and research. The handheld camera work and the intimacy with which the setting and characters were explored gave the film a documentary-like feel. The story was nonlinear, drawing on many different experiences both in and outside of the group home. The script was down to earth, brought to life by stories told between coworkers, with a slightly poetic edge. The end result was emotionally charged, and left me with a much softer spot in my heart for kids who grow up in abusive situations, and without the luxury of a stable family.

19 January 2014

The Dardenne Brothers

Over the past twenty years many specific directors have caught my attention due to the uniqueness of their work, and the powerful emotional impact which it had on me. I have found that in cinema the director is one of the best predictors of a film's quality. The first thing I do when I see a mind-blowing movie is to look up the director and select the next movie I'd like to see by them.

One of my all-time favorite directors (or director team in this case) are brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who grew up in Belgium in the small town of Seraing, just outside of Liege (ironically both places where I lived for a period of six months each). Over the course of their career the Dardenne Brothers have evolved a very particular and poignant style: a unique realism with its attention focused on the working class of Seraing and Liege.

They made video documentaries between 1974-1983, and experimented with fiction between 1986-1992. But their real breakthrough came in 1996 when they released La Promesse (The Promise). This film defined a revolutionary new style which would become characteristic of the subsequent movies the brothers would make. While they continued to refine and develop their style, it remained highly consistent over their next three films: Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (The Son, 2002), and L'Enfant (The Child, 2005). Their two most recent films, Le Silence de Lorna (The Silence of Lorna, 2008) and Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike, 2011), depart somewhat from the previous feature films visually and in production style, while still maintaining their fundamental realist approach.

This Dardenne's style is heavy in raw realism, dropping the viewer intimately into the lives of their lower class characters. The portrayal of these characters perfectly fits their social context, thanks to the meticulous casting process the brothers employ, their preference for working with unknown, generally non-professional film actors, and their rehearsal and directing process which brings out the authentic in their characters. Their films' visuals and audio are roughly hewn from the urban environments where the films are set. The video maintains a tight focus on the characters, their dwellings, and their possessions. All audio is recorded directly, and they almost exclusively avoid soundtracks). These and other elements combine to present a picture which is deeply authentic, and intensely human.

They then take the pedestrian setting of their films, and indirectly raise profound and potent human issues. One of the most common recurring themes they repeatedly return to is the value of human life. All of their films involve the death or the near-death (if only symbolically) of one of the characters, and much of their films' story lines revolve around these tragic yet transformative instances.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne continue to demonstrate their commitment to walking their own path of film development, rather than being governed by traditional norms. Their films are bold artistic statements, resonating with truth and with philosophical depth. The consistent quality of their films is reflected in the fact that they are among a small number of directors who twice received the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (for Rosetta and L'Enfant. Other films were recognized at Cannes with a Grand Prize (Le Gamin au vélo) or a Screenplay Prize (Le Silence de Lorna); and their lead actors were recognized with the Male Performance Prize (Le Fils) and the Female Performance Prize (Rosetta).

Despite their repeated recognition, the Dardenne brothers are not widely known director super-stars. Their films are not gaudy and boisterous, but rather subtle, gentle, and deep. They are demanding of their viewers, and seek to challenge rather than pamper them. In their work they have succeeded in capturing the rhythms and the breathing of daily life, most notably in the unremarkable circumstances of the socially marginalized lower class. But in so doing they transcend the bounds of the stories they tell, turning our hearts and our thoughts inward on our own humanity.


Mai, J. (2010) Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Mosley, P. (2013) The Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers: Responsible Realism. New York: Columbia University Press.

03 January 2014

Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] (2006)

While I often take issue with the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, I must admit that I remain fully impressed with the 2006 winner, The Lives of Others. When I try to explain to someone just what types of films I like, this film is quite often our greatest common denominator. There are so many things I love about it: from the pacing, to the realism, to the social commentary it provides.

The Lives of Others takes place in 1984 East Berlin, and follows Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler who is assigned the task of spying on the playwright Georg Dreyman. Gerd fulfills this assignment with the utmost meticulousness and rigor. Everything about him is the embodiment of the controlling state for which he operates. Unlike some of his compatriots, he fully believes in and buys into the socialist principles which his party purports. As an artist, Georg is the polar opposite of Gerd personality-wise, being governed more by complex emotions than by simple reason. But he realizes that his best chance at promoting his artwork is by working with the current regime.

Gerd sets up his spying operations in the attic of Georg's apartment, and painstakingly records everything which is said or done within the apartment. Over time he comes to know and appreciate Georg, and sees in him a man who loves and lives life deeply and passionately. And over time this moves Gerd, subtly touching his heart, and leading him to question the man he has allowed himself to become.

Gerd's transformation over the course of The Lives of Others is symbolic of the cultural changes which occurred in East Germany over a longer period of time. In fact, I've always felt that the creation of this film was a cathartic event for a country that was so recently divided in such a dramatic way. The beauty of this parallel is further deepened by the humanity with which Gerd's character is infused. Despite the questionable morality of his early actions, by the film's end Gerd has paid a solemn, heartfelt penance in the new life which he has adopted. Overwhelming sorrow and pity are felt for this man, who ultimately proved himself to be great.

For many years I focused my attention on the social commentary which The Lives of Others presents on the government depicted within the film. But the issue of state monitoring of its own citizens is clearly not just a thing of the past, and is if anything even more relevant today than in 2006. Also I've grown to appreciate the issues which the film raises about the value of art and of free expression, and of their ability to bring satisfaction and to effectuate change. Indeed, a world without variety and diversity is a very boring world to live in; and art is a prime contributor to cultural diversity throughout the world.

16 December 2013

Tore tanzt [Nothing Bad Can Happen] (2013)

I saw many incredible films at this year's Zurich Film Festival. But the one that keeps coming back to me is Tore Tanzt [official site]. I knew from the beginning that it was something special, but I also found it somewhat troubling. And some of the film's greatest achievements were so subtly executed that they didn't strike me for what they were worth at the time.

While it explores many themes, Tore Tantz raises deep religious issues in an unusual setting, and with very indirect examination. It questions what it means to believe in God, and to believe that God has a purpose for us in the trials we face in our lives. It examines the notion of organized religion, and of alternative religious communities. And most importantly it studies the boundaries of naive obedience, begging the question of whether all religious obedience is naive.

However, despite all of the religious issues underlying Tore Tantz, there is little explicit religion in the film. Religion is much more of a setting than a theme. It merely puts into place the context in which the main character lives, thinks, and acts.

As the film opens we are introduced to The Jesus Freaks: a punk movement which seeks to follow the principles Jesus taught while simultaneously rejecting the formalized manner in which Christianity is traditionally organized. In the opening scene Tore, the main character, is baptized by a motley crew of Jesus Freaks, whose disregard for social customs is equalled by their abundant enthusiasm for Jesus.

Before long Tore is marginalized from the Freaks after a fall-out with his roommate stemming from a disagreement over the strictness with which the movement's chastity requirement should be adhered to. He finds himself moving into the yard of Benno, a stranger with whom he had a brief encounter earlier in the film. The real drama of Tore Tantz takes place at Benno's home and with his family, especially his teenage daughter Sanny. Tore and Sanny slowly develop a deep friendship which draws Tore into the family despite mounting abuse which he experiences there.

I continue to be amazed by the subtlety and depth of the performances of the teenage characters Tore and Sanny. They don't impose themselves onto the story, but rather experience it at the same time as the audience. Their body language and facial expressions are often the prime language through which they communicate, revealing great depth of feeling and rendering their experiences fully authentic.

Watching Tore Tantz feels like watching real life unfold before you. The story and presentation flow naturally, and feel observed rather than crafted. The characters are believable, and appear to be living their lives rather than acting. The base behavior of some characters is repulsive, while the goodwill and intentions of others is inspiring. And as a great work of art, Tore Tantz brings depravity and morality head-to-head, in a struggle which is both painful and troubling to watch.

Part of the appeal of Tore Tantz is that it raises hard questions without providing easy answers. And in so doing it provokes further reflection on the situations and themes which it raises. Hat's off to Katrin Gebbe for this stunning feature debut, and for her courage in asking challenging questions in such a non-traditional environment [1].

25 November 2013

Primer (2004)

I am posting this message now to warn you about what has already happened. Or what is going to happen, depending on your perspective. Having lived through this day once before I am now in a position of confidence in my ability to prepare you for that which, for you, is yet to come.

Of course care must be exercised to avoid us straying unnecessarily from the paths which I have previously observed executed; and while it poses a definite risk I deem it valuable for us all that I now divulge to you what shall follow.

Given the inevitable doubt which you are naturally inclined to indulge I have taken the liberty of documenting portions of the experience. While that may be insufficient to conquer your disbelief, it is, at least, sufficient to satisfy my perceived obligation towards you.

I trust that you will be sufficiently challenged piecing together what you can. That cannot be avoided. When you are fully prepared you can pick up where we left off.

No one could have possibly been prepared for the Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival [1]. It was a relatively short time-travel film made by a software engineer with the minute budget of $7,000 [2]. As the director, writer, and lead actor Shane Carruth stated that's "about the price of a used car" [3]. Yet despite the meager origins of Primer, it quickly became a cult classic, forever enshrining itself in the memory of those who both saw it and were somehow carried away by the complex realism and enigmatic time-travel puzzle it presents [4].
From the start, Carruth doesn't go out of his way to explain things to the audience. He wants his characters to talk like scientists talk, not in the lame metaphors and dumbed-down language that passes for dialogue in other science-fiction films. The banter is heavy on technical jargon and almost perversely short on exposition... And I don't doubt that many viewers will simply not be up for the mental gymnastics it takes to get through this movie. But for nerds of a certain kind—lovers of hard science fiction and puzzles, science geeks and brainiacs of the sort depicted in the film—Primer not only welcomes but requires multiple viewings, and Carruth has insisted that all the information that people need to work the story out is there. [4]
 Certainly Primer is not an Everyman's film, and it is clearly for the want of trying. Carruth had no reservations about making the kind of movie that appealed to him, as an engineer, and that closed itself to those who lacked the desire to make a serious mental investment in deciphering his film. And that is exactly what makes Primer so amazing. It is a film full of depth, of heart, of honesty. It is an introverted friend who won't go out of their way to get to know you, but will handsomely reward any efforts you make to understand them.

When recommending Primer to newcomers, my prime directive is this: don't let yourself go anywhere near the internet after watching this film until you've given yourself a full two hours to let your brain digest it. While that is radically insufficient for decrypting every bit of Primer, it is enough to experience some of the rewarding satisfaction which comes from realizing that you just figured out part of the mystery for yourself, on your own. And then if you feel the obsession coming upon you, sit down and watch the film for a second time, for in no possible way can the entire work be appreciated with just a single viewing. While it should be avoided for as long as possible, it is good to know that some determined individual has already meticulously charted out a fully consistent timeline of the initially unclear chain of events in the movie [5].

Part of the appeal of Primer comes from its ruthless realism: from the dialogue of the engineers who stumble upon a primitive form of time-travel, to the very mechanic of that travel. There is nothing romantic about Carruth's operating laws of time travel, for it is absolutely slow, mundane, and tedious:
When you walk to the door you have to walk every moment between here and there, so it seems that, if you're moving through time backwards, you should have to pass through each moment back to get there. That would be the price you pay. [6]
This makes Primer's time-travel so realistic as to be believable. It feels as though Carruth is sharing with his audience his own discovery of the true nature of time-travel.

Every detail of Primer's inception and creation is fascinating, and deserves detailed study [7]. But for now suffice it to say that I have never seen a movie which required so much of me mentally, which was such a puzzle to decipher, and yet which responded so consistently to the deepest interrogation I was able to construct. The world which Shane Carruth so masterfully created is compelling in its realism, and forthright in its presentation of human weakness. And his heroic feat in creating this film gives me hope in my potential as a trained software engineer to try my hand at filmmaking.