Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 9

Profile, Holiday, The Day I Lost My Shadow, and VS.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

Up to now, most critics have been content to write off Timur Bekmambetov’s ScreenLife as little more than a gimmick for schlocky genre movies, the 2010s’ found-footage.  And, look, I get why one would be inclined to scoff; on paper, just the idea of a movie that is filmed from and takes place entirely within the confines of a desktop screen, it really does feel like the latest movie personification of “how do you do, fellow kids?”  But I genuinely feel like there’s a goldmine in the conceit, a way to update old genres and themes for a new generation raised on screens and the incredible infinite possibilities of the Internet in a way that feels excitingly current without having to demonise the technology in the process.  I know that I am not alone in this, one of my friends who took the leap my anxious ass could not by seeing the Unfriended movies – and is also an unfathomably better writer than I, please nobody tell them or they may realise they’re too good to slum in my company – has also championed the potential of ScreenLife, and it’s why Aneesh Chaganty’s otherwise celebrated Searching collapsed for me in its stupid final 20 minutes that took a sledgehammer to the promise of its form.

Well, “if you want something done right, best to do it yourself” as the old saying goes and one that Bekmambetov seems to have taken to heart.  Leave it to the form’s biggest champion, the director who wants to only make movies using this format in future, to finally realise its potential with his own stab at it, Profile (Grade: B+).  Updating undercover journalist thrillers for the heady days of 2014, we follow struggling British journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane whom you know as the Irish member of the cast of the The Fall with more charisma and screen presence than an ironing board draped in a pile of soggy bedsheets) as she sets about working up the story that may get her enough money to not constantly be overdue on her rent.  Inspired by a viral news story about a young YouTube personality that converted to Islam, was recruited by online ISIS agents, made the trip to Syria and was stoned to death once she tried to escape, Amy hopes to make contact with one of these recruiters in order to find out how they do it as well.  Her editor, Vick (Christine Adams), tentatively commissions the piece and we’re off to the races.  Amy makes a secret alt-Facebook profile and within literal minutes of getting started, she’s hooked a live one, former British citizen Bilal (Sharzad Latif).

Bekmambetov, as veterans of prior films like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can attest (they’re guilty pleasures of mine), is not a filmmaker who’s particularly comfortable in or adept at subtle storytelling, so Profile is fit to bursting with big emotions, crazy twists, characters acting recklessly, and even a few jump scares.  A nuanced take on the issues, this ain’t, and yet, by virtue of the ScreenLife conceit, it also kind of is.  Profile happily indulges in all of the tropes and standbys of the undercover-journalist subgenre, the film’s main dramatic tension coming from the question of how much Amy is acting falling for Bilal or whether she maybe is actually falling for Bilal, without sacrificing any of the immediate tension from having the action be confined to screens separated from one another by thousands of miles.  If anything, it makes things even more uncomfortable, since Bilal happily brags about all the many people he’s murdered and thirstily throws himself at Amy but also messages in text-speak, GIFs, and cat-based selfies like any other non-terrorist living in the year 2014.  Combined with Latif’s extremely charming performance and elements of his backstory pertaining to racial discrimination, he becomes a worryingly disarming presence.

Which, of course, is the point.  Men like Bilal weaponize empathy and sincerity to prey upon vulnerable women every day and, whilst the Internet may have made it easier for them to do so, it’s not something exclusive to the new technologies, much like it not being behaviour exclusive to ISIS recruiters.  What Searching got wrong in its last act was how it centred the big reveal around an explicit finger-wagging “this never would have happened if it weren’t for the Internet” moralising the rest of the film had only implied (and which retroactively came to the surface after that reveal kicked in), but Profile never does that.  Facebook, Skype, webcams, Google Maps, these are intrinsic parts of the story on a mechanical basis but they’re not intrinsic to the film’s thematic parts.  Amy’s fuck-ups on the job aren’t due to scary boogeymen knowing just the right hack to make or the lack of privacy online, they’re because her life is a complete mess, she’s getting too attached to the story and Bilal, she’s somewhat prejudiced herself – initially trying and failing to get her tech support, Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), thrown off of the project because his mum’s Syrian and Amy thinks they all know each other – and all of these factors causing the lines between her real and fake identities to blur.

Bekmambetov also cheats with the conceit a lot less than Chaganty did with Searching.  There’s no tightly-synced score backing proceedings, he only uses in-window zooms on brief Facebook Messenger exchanges but otherwise leaves the screen alone.  Resultantly, his commitment to visualising the cluttered chaos of one’s desktop is much more truthful and fits this kind of thriller like a glove – Amy, being a journalist, is forever juggling note-taking, two or three Skype conversations at once, running background music, searching up supplemental information when a lead makes itself available, or being constantly reminded of other events/overdue rent/missed calls and messages at the worst possible times.  The constant busyness induces an extra sense of anxiety that’s not only a dose of reality for the experience of Millennial freelancing writers living in city apartments they can’t afford in a film as high-strung as this, but surprisingly cinematic in its effect on the tension.

I fully admit that there will be some people who find Profile to be absolute nonsense that’s only made more ridiculous by the ScreenLife format.  But I do genuinely believe that Profile hits on something with the concept, Bekmambetov successfully updating old tropes to fit new technologies and adding a certain urgency in the process.  Once the film concludes, a title card announces that it was based on a true story – specifically, French journalist Anna Erelle’s book, In the Skin of a Jihadist – which can read like a hilarious joke given the extremely loose handling of the truth Bekmambetov displays throughout Profile.  But I actually found it to be the perfect grace note.  Laugh all you want, but the world has moved online now and it’s fundamentally changed how we approach and experience our own lives, bringing us all so close that we can live under a genuine threat of assassination or experience a sincere moment of extreme vulnerability in a connection made from multiple continents away without even having to step outside the front door.  But although it has simplified and empowered the process, it’s not wholly the Internet’s fault.  It’s not new, it’s human nature, but now we’re going to experience it in the middle of our Facebook feed.

Content warning: discussion and description of sexual assault scenes.

I have massive crippling anxiety that makes it very, very hard for me to be able to look people in the eyes when I’m talking to them.  It’s not because I have something to hide or don’t like the person, I just can’t look people directly in the eyes for much longer than a glance.  Even with my closest friends and sometimes family members, too, I’m just incapable.  So, I developed this trick to hide my problem: because I wear glasses, I sometimes look at the person over the top of my glasses instead.  Since everything gets blurry without my glasses on, I’m able to meet people in the eyes without getting extremely anxious because there’s that distance, and I don’t offend other people because to them I’m just looking them in the eyes.  Sure, it’s not normal behaviour (as my last therapist had a go at me about), but it enables me to be a functional human being in conversations and that’s not nothing.

I bring this up in relation to Holiday (Grade: N/A), the debut feature by Isabella Elköf playing in Official Competition, because Holiday has a rape scene.  Rape scenes on their own are nothing new for me, either from past Festival experiences (your reminder that The Light of the Moon has yet to see a UK release) or general exposure to films and television shows over the years (my American Alternative Cinema module at university effectively served up a new one of those for 13 straight weeks).  But Holiday‘s was different, despite not really being so when typed or spoken out loud.  It occurs in one take, Elköf dead-centers it in the frame so that your eyes can’t ignore it but with enough blank space around the act’s occurrence that it only makes the thing even more stark and attention-grabbing, Michael (Lai Yde) has his fully erect cock given much unimpeded screen time, and Sascha’s (Victoria Carmen Sonne) intermittent muffled cries are truly distressing. But the effect of watching this scene in the moment was genuinely too much.  Something about the combination of anger and apathy in Michael, the deliberate arrangement and blocking of the scene, and his erect penis crossed some kind of line for me and I had to use my glasses trick to get through the scene.  I can attest to many others in my press screening also trying to find some way to avoid having to witness the rape, covering their eyes, looking down at the floor, shuffling extremely uncomfortably in their seats.

Yet, not one of us (to my knowledge) walked out of Holiday.  Not during it and certainly not after it.  I have absolutely no idea what the reactions will be/would have been like at the public screenings, one can only hope that Festival organisers put up trigger warnings in advance of ticket buying about the scene because it most certainly will trigger sexual assault victims, but we Press & Industry folk stayed.  The why of that action – since, based on some of the behaviours I’ve seen from everyone over the years, not everybody treats “professional obligation” as a valid enough excuse – is even harder to articulate.  Holiday is a provocative film in a way that’s designed to last, not merely temporarily.  It’s meant to be the bitterest of pills to swallow, something to ruminate and grow on rather than bust out a sub-1000 word hot-take mere hours afterwards in the midst of a Festival that immediately chases it down with a different film altogether.  Not very conducive to Festival coverage, basically, so take everything I have said and will say throughout the remainder of this entry as subject to change.

But, hell, even with those caveats, Holiday is a difficult one to talk about if only because its being such a simple movie mechanically causes the mere stating of its subversive nature to constitute a massive spoiler.  Sascha is, according to the press release, a trophy wife but given the actions that occur in the film – her coming to Turkey on the down-low via a shady guy who beats her when she spends even a fraction of the 50,000 euros she arrived with, Michael’s definitely-being-a-gangster, and his furiously terrified response when the possibility of the police turning up at their house raises its head since his “the girls are here” implies she and the other women at the house are undocumented – it may not be such a stretch to infer that she’s more a sex-slave.  The specifics aren’t clear and that’s important for Holiday‘s queasy power.  Sascha both wants and doesn’t want this life.  She’s drawn almost instinctually to the materialism and financial comfort of life under Michael’s thumb, but grows increasingly tired of the emptiness and disaffection as time goes on.  Chance encounters with a friendly Dutch sailor named Thomas (Thijs Römer) provide the allure of a simpler life and everything starts to very slowly move towards a seemingly unavoidable trainwreck.

The rape isn’t that trainwreck, that somehow comes later, but it is the point at which things change.  Elköf and co-writer Johanne Algren’s screenplay talks about abuse and complicity, but puts such conclusive judgements in the mouth of an honestly kind of vile character.  Elköf’s direction is formalist and borderline somnambulist in its opening stretch, but there isn’t a wasted second or scene here and it all moves with an unstoppable and ever-building force towards its pointed finale.  The film emotionally perplexes and can at times be unbearable to watch, even stripping out the rape, yet there are also moments where it doubles as perhaps the darkest comedy of the entire decade.  Holiday lives in those contradictions and defies easy description, easy categorisation, or any form of reductivism or compartmentalisation because the execution of the details are so singular and precise that I found it an irresistible watch rather than something that horrified me to the core of my soul.  Actually, it still did that and in a way that I haven’t yet been able to shake off, but not in the way that would get me to write off the film.

So, yeah.  There’s a thousand wishy-washy words of me trying and failing to articulate my thoughts on Holiday because I am at a film festival writing about movies and they were needed in a timely manner.  But I seriously don’t know whether I found Holiday to be brilliant or horrendous.  It’s formally excellent – with all three of the leads being magnetic, Elköf’s direction stark and unsparing, and I couldn’t stop watching despite its most sickening moments – but it may also be rather repugnant and got right under me.  Still has, frankly.  So, I need more time, hence the lack of a grade.  Ask me again in a week or so’s time to see if anything’s changed.

I’ve been having some rotten luck when it comes to my public screening choices so far this year.  Most of the actual bad films, the ones that I can’t chalk up to “just not being for me,” that I’ve seen during my time down here have been at my five public screenings and Sunday night did not change that track with Soudade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost My Shadow (Grade: C), playing in the First Feature Competition.  OK, maybe calling it outright “bad” is overstating things or being overly cruel.  Shadow is… fine.  It’s just fine without much to it or anything particularly unique or strong to make up for that fact.  I’m penning this write-up the morning after seeing the film, barely twelve hours on, and I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it.

Which is a real shame given how evocative that title is.  Set at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, Shadow follows single-mother Sana (Sawsan Erchied) and her young son trying to get by as the conflict rages around them.  These opening stretches are the best parts of Shadow by a good distance, showcasing the hassle involved in trying to go about one’s life when war is knocking on your door.  First the electricity goes just after Sana puts their clothes in the washing machine and won’t return for the remainder of the movie, necessitating her son spend much of it wearing one of his disappeared father’s massive ill-fitting cotton sweaters.  Then prices start doubling as a result of the fighting, making luxury products like hair-dye extortionate.  Checkpoints and random “inspections” ramp up in frequency, Sawson’s boss is either taken or has tried to flee the country (neither her nor her friend know which but he hasn’t been seen for a week), and getting gas is a drawn-out crapshoot of a process that can be shut down at any time by soldiers turning up and just claiming all the canisters for themselves.  It’s a frustrating, uncertain time made worse by the nightly barrage of gun and bomb-fire despite the belief of a temporary ceasefire.

But it’s also not a purely miserable experience, as Sana improvises ways to keep her and her son’s life ticking along with some semblance of stability and hope.  These scenes are sweet, engaging, and provide a deeply human living experience that you otherwise don’t get of the Syrian conflict; the news media being too preoccupied with the bombs, destruction, and dead bodies of those lives that they can use to goose ratings.  Which only makes it even more disappointing that Shadow doesn’t commit to it, instead trapping Sana and two friends outside of their city due to misunderstandings that will now almost definitely get them killed, the rest of the movie following Sana’s increasingly futile attempts to get back home to her son.  Pretty much the second that Shadow gets out of the city, it loses almost any forward momentum, character or urgency, which is rather ironic.  Kaadan fills the rest of her movie up with lots and lots of navel-gazing and sombre reflecting that honestly bored me to tears, the kinds that reveal her characters to be a lot simpler and less interesting than they were at first glance, slowing the film to an absolute crawl despite barely breaking 90 minutes.

Her sprinkles of magical-realism mainly manifest in the idea of shadows as a representation of one’s humanity.  Certain characters still have them but others, somewhat creepily, do not, indicating a hardening from the trauma and war around them that they cannot recover from. A loss of hope, strength, the capacity for joy.  As with the title, it’s a haunting conceit but not only does Kaadan drive the visual into the dirt by using or teasing it more times than WWE wrestlers do finishing moves, but she also has to have the film itself and Sana call direct attention to both the image and metaphor in case the viewer somehow misses it.  Also – and I admit this is a likely temporary issue that will hopefully be fixed by the time Shadow receives an official release – the subtitling job for my screening was rushed and honestly pretty dire.  Overly literal, awkwardly written, and at times genuinely confusing due to the lack of appropriate punctuation.  It really did not help certain more dramatic scenes when the dialogue felt like a bad fan-sub – a redundant term since all fan-subs are bad fan-subs, I know, but point still stands.

Again, The Day I Lost My Shadow is not a bad film, but it’s not one with much to recommend, either, unless someone wants to recut the movie into a short that exorcises everything outside of the city.  Kaadan, in the post-film Q&A, mentioned that she’d been working on the film in some capacity for seven years and it shows.  You spend too long on a single project and you can eventually become blind to its potential emptiness.

But, then, finally, I got myself a public screening that came through with the goods!  Opening this very Friday, Ed Lilly’s VS. (Grade: B) reinvents precisely no wheels and breaks zero new ground but is a testament to just how comfortingly powerful the underdog drama template can still be when executed with enough skill and fire.  Set in Southend, VS. centres around 17-year-old Adam (up-and-comer Connor Swindells).  Adam’s an angry, directionless, emotionally-distant young man with a penchant for violence on account of a childhood spent shuffling from place to place in the foster system after his mother gave him up at age five, and his latest move to the seaside town is his last chance.  A fan of Hip Hop, he has a chance encounter with underground battle-rap organiser Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola) who introduces him to Project Battle, a collaboration between her and Odds (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) designed to allow the wayward youth to channel their energies into an artform that creates a sense of community rather than violence.  Adam turns out to have a bit of a knack for battle-rapping when he rips into undefeated champion and general dickbag Slaughter (Shotty Horroh), and you can already guess exactly where this is headed.

8 Mile but in the UK and more socially conscious, which even gets name-checked in the finale to let you know that writers Lilly and Daniel Hayes are aware of what everyone’s first comparison will be, is a strong base to work from.  Whilst the exact mechanics of the plotting can at times be inelegant – this is another modern movie based around the Internet that utilises the phrase “going viral” as easy shorthand for “we need the plot to get to this specific place without it taking forever to do so” – and Lilly perhaps throws a little too much sizzle on his steak in regards to additional plots and characters, VS. all works in the moment, regardless.  Crowdpleasing movies of the lineage that VS. gladly inserts itself into live or die based on the quality of their stars, direction, and the unique little touches that differentiate the film from their template, and VS. excels at all three.  Swindells is a real find and holds down the film’s emotional centre with the skill of an old pro, most evident in his struggles with the reveal that his biological mother also lives in Southend which brings a decade of rage and resentment to the surface, but the entire cast are great, even the non-actors like Shotty and Paigey Cakey.

Lilly’s direction is grounded and realistic but not in the grimy and depressing manner of your typical working-class British dramas.  His Southend is a quiet and not especially glamorous place, but it still has a life and vibrancy to it that is neither idealised but also isn’t so caked in shit that it would beggar belief anybody lives there, irrespective of whether they have a choice in the matter.  Though his rap battles remain devoted to that grounded direction – the post-film Q&A cited a film like Bodied, which Lilly admitted he enjoyed, as the opposite of his intended visual style – they’re still thrilling displays to watch, all slickly delivered punchlines and technical wizardry with a tangible energy in the delivery and atmosphere.  VS.’ position as a film based in British rap and social culture also allows its narrative the chance to weave in criticisms of rap’s deep-seated homophobia and misogyny without becoming too preachy or stumbling into the dicey pit that comes from its protagonist and antagonist being White guys, thanks to the way British culture is based more specifically around class than many other countries’.  Whilst one could argue that it uses those issues as shorthand to indicate how much of a prick Slaughter is or when Adam has hit the “fall from grace” part of his arc through the usage in their rhymes, the film also allows time for sweet subplots revolving around homosexuality and challenging unhealthy attitudes towards women.  (I also appreciate Wells’ refusal to demonise social services at any point.)

By the time VS. full-on lifts 8 Mile’s ending for its own final battle, I was enjoying myself too much to belabour the obvious debts it owes to other movies or the underdog template in general.  It’s a film that sings with a joy de vivre throughout, plays to the bleachers but spits those bars with such a precision and flair that I found it impossible to not be won over.  VS. may act as a testament to the fact that old standbys of storytelling are still capable of uplifting power when executed in just the right way, but it’s also pure entertainment that’s lovable in its own right.  A great little debut, then, and a long overdue win in my public screening quests!

Tomorrow: S. Craig Zahler hopes to go three-for-three with his ambitious crime epic Dragged Across Concrete, and Ying Liang goes semi-autobiographical with his artist-in-exile drama A Family Tour.

Callie Petch moves like a taxi, all their life in the backseat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s