Monday, 10 February 2014

Shorts films and short circuits

We saw the Oscar-nominated shorts yesterday, as we have done for the past few years. The best live-action short was clearly Xavier Legrand's "Avant que de tout perdre," an astonishing film that takes full advantage of the short timeslot. Not a moment is wasted. It builds up amazing tension around a mother taking her kids... somewhere. It is full of wonderful touches of plot and character development, a story that's at once straightforward and complex in its details. I hope it wins.

But I'm worried that Esteban Crespo's "Aquel no era yo" will, because it is tailor-made to make white people feel good about themselves.

It's a film about two doctors from Spain who get captured by rebel child soldiers in Africa. It may wind up being seen as gritty and "real", and certainly the kinds of abuse it depicts are all too common in conflict zones. But it also reinforces a bunch of tropes about saintly white people in conflict zones and the mad Africans they must survive. Details are after the jump; here I'll say what I can without spoilers.

Which "Africans"? The film never specifies. They speak in English and are children, and it seems as though it is set in the late 90s or early 2000s. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Uganda seem the most likely candidates. But the film seems to be saying, by commission or omission: who really cares where it is? It's Africa, isn't it?

It really bothers me that Amnesty and Save the Children were involved in a film that cannot take its subjects seriously enough to say what country they're in.

Overall the film compares really unfavourably to "Asad," nominated last year, a film about (and starring) pirates and children in Somalia that told a story and took its subjects on their own terms. It even compares unfavourably to "Raju," from two years ago, about a German couple who go to Calcutta to adopt an orphan boy. Once they learn that he had been kidnapped from his family some years before, their different reactions do a very good job of depicting the degrees of complicity that well-meaning white people have in crimes in the developing world.

I mean, go ahead and tell the stories you want to tell. But I saw this in ShortsHD's collection of the Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts, intercut with directors saying how wonderful it is to be able to take risks in short film, because you don't have to answer to a million people. Given this, I would have loved to see a conflict movie that took real risks.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: killing and sexual violence.

After her partner and driver have been shot next to her, and after one rebel has raped her, the surviving aid worker, Paula, manages to still find it in her heart to try to save Kaney, the child who got her into this mess, despite Kaney's sins. Taking advantage of government attack on the camp, Paula gets to a Land Rover, but sees two boys still alive, and must clearly save them: look how noble she is. One dies in the firefight. The other is Kaney. She handcuffs him to her and wields a gun to force him to escape the camp with her: he has no choice in the matter.

Driving away from the camp, they find themselves at a crossroads. Paula does not know which way to go, and fears that he will lead them back to his forces -- to a life of child soldiering, rather than the better life that awaits him in town. He clearly cannot make the right decision for himself. So Paula shoots Kaney in the leg, which -- it has been established -- will induce his commander to execute Kaney if they are recaptured. Thus does a white doctor save Kaney from himself.

We already know that Kaney will be redeemed, for the conflict scenes are intercut with him giving a talk to European university students some years later. He speaks in Spanish, though he's spoken in English only up to this point. One is redeemed by learning one's savior's ways.

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