Tagged: political thriller

Omar (Palestinian territories 2013)

Omar still

The current intensification of the war by Israel against Palestinians makes this film timely viewing. The basic story concerns a young Palestinian militant who is forced to become an informant for the Israeli security in the occupied West Bank. The film also follows a triangular relationship amongst the Palestinians. What makes it so effective is the representation of the life of Palestinians under occupation. In particular the film makes good use of the ‘separation walls’ constructed by the Israelis to control the Palestinians. The film was shot predominately in Nablus and Nazareth and locations are often recognisable from newsreel and documentary films.

Omar has been written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. His earlier Paradise Now (2005) was a critical and festival success. This film is more conventional, especially in the personal drama. But like the earlier film it has a sense of raw reality and an often-powerful mise en scène.

Predictably the film has only a limited distribution in the UK and some institutions have had problems with attribution. However it is screening at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on the 29th and 30th of August. Definitely a film to be seen.

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990)

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

With Jimmy’s Hall in UK cinemas at the moment I’m looking back and re-viewing the films Ken Loach has made about events in Ireland. Hidden Agenda is one of the two ‘odd’ films that Loach made in the 1980s (Fatherland in 1986 is the other). Hidden Agenda is odd for both institutional and aesthetic reasons – but in other ways it ‘fits’ the general trajectory of the director’s work with his various collaborators.

Ken Loach found it very difficult to get TV commissions or to raise money for films in the 1980s and this project was initially taken up by David Puttnam at Columbia in 1987. When Puttnam left Hollywood, his endorsement nevertheless enabled Loach to raise the money from Hemdale, the UK-US company founded by David Hemmings and John Daly. Hemdale already had a reputation for producing controversial films such as those from Oliver Stone (Salvador and Platoon) and a political thriller set in Northern Ireland presumably appealed to Daly as  a sound commercial business proposition. I do wonder though if he realised what kind of story he would get from Jim Allen.

Allen was in some ways Loach’s mentor in developing political ideas and he had written Days of Hope in the mid 1970s plus three of the more controversial of Loach’s TV plays, including The Big Flame (1969) about a dock strike in Liverpool. Allen was from an Irish Catholic family in Manchester and it’s interesting that the name of the central character in Hidden Agenda is Peter Kerrigan – the name of one of the regular actors (and trade union organisers) in Loach’s TV plays including The Big Flame.

Outline

The film’s narrative combines elements of two conspiracy stories of the 1970s and 1980s. The plot begins with the final press conference of an international ‘Civil Rights Monitoring Team’ which has been collecting evidence of the maltreatment of suspects held by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. One of the lawyers, an American Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), has been given a cassette tape by ‘Harris’ (Maurice Roeves), a mysterious figure who is clearly being watched by undercover British agents. Having listened to the tape Sullivan attempts to meet Harris again but is assassinated. Deputy Chief Constable Kerrigan (Brian Cox) flies in to investigate the murder. He meets resistance from both the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and various figures from British secret service groups. Initially at least he is prepared to push and to find out the truth with the help of Sullivan’s partner Ingrid (Frances McDormand). Kerrigan’s investigation is arguably a reference to the so-called ‘Stalker Inquiry’. John Stalker was the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who investigated the alleged ‘shoot to kill’ actions of the RUC in 1983, but who was then controversially removed from the case. (A 1990 TV drama, Shoot to Kill, covered the affair in some detail.) Hidden Agenda also draws upon the stories of conspiracies by right-wing British politicians and security personnel to destabilise the governments of Heath and Wilson in the 1970s in order to ensure the election of a more right-wing Tory government.

Production

Apart from Jim Allen, only Jonathan Morris as editor and Martin Johnson as production designer were present from Loach’s usual crews. Rebecca O’Brien was a co-producer alongside Eric Fellner (who with Tim Bevan later became the main mover behind Working Title). Stewart Copeland was responsible for the score. Later he also worked on Riff-Raff and Raining Stones for Loach. Copeland had co-founded the pop band The Police with Sting but had started composing for films in the late 1980s. His was one of the more unusual collaborations with Loach. He’d attended Millfield, the public school associated with sport and his father was a senior member of the CIA. But Hidden Agenda includes a couple of Irish Republican songs featured in a Republican club and linking the film to both Days of Hope and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Cinematographer Clive Tickner had just completed photography on the award-winning mini-series Traffik for Channel 4 and this and his documentary experience clearly recommended him. However, the production overall was invariably caught between the kind of political struggle film – the personal and collective struggles over conscience and actions delivered by Allen with the generic thrills of commercial cinema. Added to this, the production was forced to abandon Loach’s preferred ‘authentic locations and performers’ strategy. Parts of the film were shot in Belfast and its environs but the film’s insurers forced some shooting in England. Brian Cox and Maurice Roeves were well-known British actors at this point, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif had been together in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (US 1988) for which McDormand had been Oscar-nominated. Put all these elements together and the result is a production that resembles one of those Hollywood international thrillers directed by a European filmmaker. Sometimes they work in interesting ways – and sometimes they don’t.

Commentary

Hidden Agenda does work as a thriller on one level. Loach, Morris and Johnson capture some of the street feel of Belfast and the action is generally well-handled. All the performances are good I think and there are several set-piece arguments between the principals that are exciting in terms of political ideas. There are also a couple of very neat devices signalling the history of Irish struggles against British colonialism. The film opens with a quote from James Fintan Lalor (1807-49): “The entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right by the people of Ireland”. This is soon juxtaposed with a shot of an Orange march and a quote from Margaret Thatcher (about her ‘ownership’). Later in the film, a patrician British security chief opines that Ireland would be a “lovely country if it wasn’t for the Irish”. There is also a clear link made via the McDormand/Dourif characters with Chile in 1973. “It couldn’t happen here” one of them says – but it does, in a way. These moments promise us something that the film can’t really deliver and though I was gripped throughout the narrative, I realised afterwards that the script doesn’t manage to resolve the contradiction in the mix of genre and politics. It would be good, for instance, to know more about the background of Kerrigan. What lies behind his ‘professional’ career policeman persona? At one point he suggests that he might be prepared to lose everything to expose the truth. What motivates this?

Hidden2

Hidden3

Of course, whatever the film managed to produce in terms of readings it wouldn’t matter to Loach’s right-wing critics. Alexander Walker (a Unionist) famously denounced the film at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize) as ‘IRA Propaganda’. This is nonsense of course. Certainly the film is pro real freedom for the whole of Ireland but the focus is completely on the behaviour and the ideology of the British security forces. And there is the problem. Perhaps Walker was referring to the film he expected to see. In her review for Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1991) Verina Glaessner identifies a character played by Michelle Fairlie as a young mother whose IRA husband is in Long Kesh internment camp. This is the kind of Irish character who needs to be central in the narrative to root the political discourse in the personal lives of ordinary people. John Hill (1997), one of the best analysts of Loach’s work, offers a detailed account of his problems with Hidden Agenda. He suggests that it is the constraints of the ‘conservative genre’ of the political thriller/detective story that undermine Loach and Allen. The generic narrative constrains the possibilities of different types of engagement by audiences – i.e. they must follow the conventional ‘uncovering’ of the conspiracy – and, as we noted, the personal story is focused on the ‘maverick investigator’. (There is actually a second detective, confusingly played by John Benfield (often a police chief, e.g. in Prime Suspect) who seems to disappear from the action early on.

Hill also refers to the way in which the generic mise en scène of the police thriller clashes with Loach’s more usual naturalistic style. He suggests that Loach finds only clichéd generic images to represent the Northern Ireland setting which doesn’t allow audiences to reflect on the political issues. The film becomes an entertainment featuring a vulnerable hero – the ‘good policeman’. This ties in with Glaessner’s complaint that Loach’s overall embrace of naturalism/realism, for which he was heavily criticised by left media/film theorists in the 1970s, is not suited to ‘political filmmaking’. Hill refers to the debates around the film as Costa-Gavras style thrillers rather than Godardian, self-reflexive policiers (like Pierrot de fou?). All of these are valid points, although I would argue that the tradition of Swedish crime fiction suggests that it is possible to re-cast crime thrillers in a ‘non-Hollywood’ way in visual terms without losing the politics (see my review of Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976)).

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Hidden Agenda didn’t offer the alternative view of the Irish struggle that Loach and Allen’s supporters might have wanted, but to get the film made and released in 1990 in the face of the British media’s distorted view of Ireland was a triumph in itself and Ken Loach made up for some of its failings with The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006. Hidden Agenda put him back in cinemas and he has not been kept out over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to Jimmy’s Hall.

Reference

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books

Theatrical trailer:

Salamander (Belgium 2012/3)

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the 'face' of 'Salamander'?

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the ‘face’ of ‘Salamander’?

For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4’s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.

‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.

The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.

The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?

At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.

The East (US/UK 2013)

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.