Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008: first impressions

Danny reports on The Visitor and Standard Operating Procedure - not exactly feel good films...

So, that’s me up and running. I’m currently sitting in The Hub, cradling a Dr Pepper bottle and feeling a bit bloated due to the same Dr Pepper bottle’s contents. Carl’s gone off to another screening so in the meantime, I figured I could drop in some thoughts from my first two films of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The Visitor is director Thomas McCarthy’s follow-up to The Station Agent, the film that brought Peter Dinklage to the wider world upon a wave of critical acclaim. McCarthy’s drama follows Walter (Richard Jenkins, best known for Six Feet Under), a quiet widower and part-time professor who leaves his home of Connecticut for a NYC academic conference – having the unfavourable job of presenting a paper as his own when it is barely even his work – and comes across a pair of squatters in his flat. It is quickly established in a tense, barely lit scene that Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) are refugees, even though they have been living in New York for some time. With very few options of where the couple could live, Walter takes them in.

Here, we learn that the charming Tarek is a musician – a djembe player, we see him perform drum tattoos with buskers and sing in jazz clubs – and Walter is slowly drawn in by his musical skills, becoming friends with him. So far, so How Walter Got His Groove Back. Then, Tarek is arrested, taken to a detention centre and threatened with deportation which, to be totally honest, is telegraphed from the very beginning. However, McCarthy’s film succeeds not through its predictability but in its honesty. Yes, there’s not much said about the issue of illegal immigration in the United States – we’re told that it’s unfair, which we kind of got already – but The Visitor wears its feelings on its sleeve so passionately that you can’t not respect it for yelling out.

That’s not to say there’s subtlety, mind. Jenkins underplays Walter well – perhaps a little too much, you feel – but his relationship with the characters surrounding him, especially concerning Hiam Abbass’ Mouna, feels very organic. Walter may be a blank slate for much of the film but he plays the perfect role as the visitor of the title: a familiar window into a slightly unfamiliar world. In short, The Visitor is worth checking out, even though the framing of a NYC mural (with the Twin Towers in it) and a United States flag at the end of the film are a bit obvious.

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There’s a great line in the first season of 30 Rock that came flying back to me earlier today. It’s in the episode where Jack Donaghy is (allegedly) dating Condoleezza Rice but breaks up with her by the end of the episode. To roughly paraphrase Jack: “I knew she was into the kinkier stuff, but really, Abu Ghraib?” It’s a great scene and a great line but also a great reminder that Abu Ghraib will now and forever be a byword for American shame. As an interviewee in Erroll Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure reminds us, it was one of those moments where the rest of the world caught America “with its pants down”.

Standard Operating Procedure is an exploration of the crimes that took place at Abu Ghraib prison by the hand of members of the 372nd Military Police Company of the United States Army and hush-hush-keep-it-on-the-QT “Other Government Agencies”. Lest you forget, these crimes involved abuse both mental and physical – torture, sodomy, even homicide. I’m going to take a guess and say that when you first learnt about this, saw those famous pictures, you were probably disgusted at the whole affair. Wait til you see many of the soldiers at the centre of the maelstrom – they’re kids. It’s a creepy thing to take note of – their age helped me relate to them a lot more than I thought I would. Time and time again we’re told the tragedy of these kids being led the wrong way by their superiors, and it turns the whole deal into an issue of age. Were the older, more grizzled and experienced soldiers simply spreading their ideals into the minds of a younger generation? That’s one insinuation. Another is that the torture of prisoners was an exploitation of sexual politics – the apparent reverse of Arab ideals by having a woman take control; Lynndie England’s claims that the influence of then-boyfriend Charles Graner brought her to commit awful acts. (Graner is noticeable by his absence, not being allowed to speak to Morris or his crew by the US Army.)

This is, as expected from Morris, handled with cinematic convention aside all the testimonies from talking heads, including beautifully photographed and shot slo-mo reconstructions and a never-ending Danny Elfman (!) score. Some of these touches feel gratuitous – they make the film stand out from other documentaries and add power to the testimonies but does the surround sound echo of a shotgun shell hitting the floor, for example, add anything to the chilling tale of a shootout within the prison? The little moments stand out – Janis Karpinski barely keeping her anger in check as she tells how she was demoted via post is one – but there’s also touches within the interviews of what else could be covered but simply isn’t in the already mammoth 126 minute running time (media manipulation of the photos? The so called “amnesty period” in which important evidence was destroyed? The alleged flaws of the US legal system concerning the case?). Still, Morris’ film is an achievement. It’s not a great film – it’s far too long, repeats itself too often and is compromised by style – but that’s fine. Nobody escapes from what is possibly the modern American shame and you can feel it as you walk out that theatre. Without being too melodramatic, you feel that shame writ large. I guess that’s the point.

In my next post from day one, expect something a bit cheerier. Yes, that counts Blood Car, which I get more excited for the more I think about it.