Monday, September 7, 2009

Direct Speech

A long, long time ago, back in the sixties and into the seventies, the British director Peter Watkins established a certain reputation for himself with his first film, made for TV, Culloden (1964). Thereafter he made The War Game for the BBC. The films were made as if they were newsreels of the time. An unseen interviewer observed momentous events and directly questioned participants in the Battle of Culloden and survivors of a nuclear explosion. They became Watkins themes, anti-militarism, anti-state authority and anti-nuclear politics and his technique in telling his stories remained rather uniquely his for some time at least.

Watkins was seeking a new immediacy, a direct confrontation, head to head, face to face, between people on the screen and people in the audience. He wanted the barrier of the theatre's wall to be broken down. It was very effective and shocking to some. The BBC refused to show The War Game on TV but allowed it to be screened in theatres. It was feared that people might confuse it with the real thing if they tuned in without any foreknowledge of what the director was up to. Memories of Orson Welles famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast were invoked.

Watkins went on to apply his technique to other less directly confronting subjects, the mystery of pop idolatry and its use by the authorities to keep the population quiet in Privilege and the life of the Norwegian painter in Edward Munch. The methods in my view wore out their welcome and seemed affected, predictable and precious by the mid seventies, which was about the time that Watkins stopped finding money for his work and went into other fields. Since then I've seen two of his works, a personally presented slideshow about nuclear weapons installations in Europe full of forebodings about nuclear war and a long piece done for TV, recorded digitally in a factory with litle pretence at realistic settings, about the Paris Commune which BIFF showed some years ago. The latter again uses the technique of actors speaking directly to camera as if being interviewed by an unseen reporter.

By now the technique is no longer, may never have been, something unique to Watkins work. It's been deployed by low-budget film-makers everywhere. The employment is not even frequently used for political analysis or highly ambitious subject matter. Australian films as diverse as the pooh joke movie Kenny and the low budget horror story Lake Mungo give it nods. But it seems to be back most notably and for greatest effect in Neill Blonenkamp's District 9, a science- fiction movie filled with spaceships and aliens set in a state battling to contain citizen hysteria at the invasion of the Earth by a bunch of downtrodden and rather bedraggled refugees.

The refugees, a million or so of them cowering in a junked and broken down spacecraft hovering over Johannesburg, are allowed entry under strict conditions and promptly tossed into a Soweto like camp where they are allowed to eke out livings, scavenge for food, become increasingly lawless, accumulate illegal weapons and involve themselves with shady criminals exploiting their status and breed in massive numbers. They are repulsive in every sense to those seeking a quiet well-ordered existence and repulsive as well in their looks. They are dubbed prawns and they move with astonishing speed and strength but show little other signs of wishing to bring down the established order.

But the established order, fearing them, wants them moved to safer conditions where a better eye can be kept on them and thus the entry is paved for Wykus van der Merwe, a venerable South African name, once the surname of the country's cricket captain among other achievements. Wykus being where he is is the result of nepotism but the slow thinking dill throws himself into the task with huge energy and when inevitably betrayed by politicians with surprising resilience. He first knows what he wants to do - read the prawns their rights, confiscate their weapons and move them to a concentration camp. I need say no more, the parallels with South African politics, the plight of refugees everywhere, state indifference, fear and hatred of strangers come bursting out. When he discovers what it feels like to become such a person he rises up in protest.

District 9 is the best commercial entertainment of the year thus far and it was made by a bunch of unknown South Africans and Peter Jackson and his intrepid CGI masters at Wing Nut Productions in New Zealand. Its galling really that Jackson can do this but it proves once again that an ounce of real talent is much better than a ton of government intervention, script conferences, mentoring, fresh drafts, and layers of bureaucracy. The money follows Jackson because he has skills and visions that nobody else has. (I wish he hadn't bothered to apply those skills to Tolkien, but that's another story.)

But I cant help wondering just how much the way of telling the story in District 9 owes just a bit to the techniique and political fervour of the long ago and now sadly overlooked Peter Watkins and the lonely course he pursued around the world seeking to present a new form of political discourse about the threat of the state.