Tag Archives: New UK Cinema

The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut)


Denmark/Norway/UK (2012). Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

I doubt you will ever see a documentary like this again. And you may never experience a nightmare quite like it.  Imagine a film-maker gaining the trust of the surviving members of a death squad from an earlier generation, giving them the freedom to tell their story – not as talking heads – but by re-enacting their “interrogations” and executions, with reference to their choice of  Hollywood cinematic genre: noir or camp musical, for example.  It really does put you into a nightmare: shocking, sickening and disturbing but also unfathomably surreal. Cinematically, there is genius at work and in getting to the truth it is both brave and important. But it leaves you with the troubled queasiness of balancing on a very high moral tightrope.


In 2002, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to talk to and film survivors of the relatively unknown 1965-66 cleansing of “communists” and ethnic Chinese. An intelligent man, a good man of principle, who wanted to publicise a neglected, dark episode in history, he was frustrated in his attempts to put together the story of the victims and their families. But his research revealed an astonishing openness from the perpetrators. What became clear, almost 50 tears on, is an environment of fear for most people but casual impunity, a sort of celebrity status, for the subjects of the film. But, at the same time, the complexity, the ambition, of Oppenheimer’s project changed dramatically, from documentation to an attempt to explain the motives behind man’s inhumanity to man.

What we learn is at times unbearably gruesome. But, it is also a truism to say that “all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings”. The difficulty for Oppenheimer – and this is difficult stuff – is that he, of course, finds that he can’t really give us much more than the little we know already about cruelty’s motives – under the right (wrong) circumstances, you or I or the next-door neighbour, etc. But he is in so very deep that the piece turns into an emotionally exhausting pursuit of signs of remorse. It becomes a self-fulfilling process of humanisation.


The credits show that the vast majority of those working on the film on location have asked to remain anonymous.  This speaks volumes about the environment in which Oppenheimer worked and his bravery.  It is a unique film that uncovers the truth in a way that is utterly compelling while, simultaneously, making the audience want to run for the exit. At the same time, Oppenheimer may have, unintentionally, overstepped a line.  It is now a couple of weeks since I saw the film. It has stayed with me, but my emotional response has been anything but simple. What I am left with is an overwhelming sadness.


Berberian Sound Studio


UK (2012), Dir: Peter Strickland, Scr: Peter Strickland

It has the prosaic sound of a working title.  But, it does put you in mind of something – obsessive hobbyists, maybe.  We’re beginning to love Peter Strickland and he has pulled off, in this lovingly made period piece, a many-layered, genre-defying and richly imaginative gem.  It’s not a horror film – a film with a central character called Gilderoy, from Dorking, can’t really be setting out to terrify us witless – but it is about horror films and what went in to making them.  It’s a tribute, a satire, it’s funny, it’s also a dark Heart of Darkness but, most of all it’s a love-poem.

Preceded by his reputation as a magician with sound, Gilderoy arrives in Italy to lead the post-production sound team in the studio of an extreme 1970’s giallo low-budget horror film: The Equestrian Vortex.  A film he thinks is about horses is actually an explicit, bloody gore-fest.  It’s not at all clear how he got the job as his experience seems to be in capturing the sounds of nature for public information films about the countryside in the South East of England and his awkward, introverted personality couldn’t contrast more with the continental sophistication and cocky machismo of the producer and director.  But as a true craftsman, Gilderoy applies himself day and night to his work. And he is a magician: his “UFO”, using a lightbulb and a sheet has the team enraptured; an actress almost loses herself when she hears her voice transformed by his complex and sculptural set up of the tape loop of a Watkins Copycat echo machine, and most importantly; he finds the perfect fruit or vegetable facsimile – when torn, hacked or smashed on the ground – for the sound of flesh being burned or impaled and bone being crushed.


We sometimes see Gilderoy in his room at night: working at his portable tape recorder, or reading letters from his mum updating him on the activities of the wildlife in their garden.  Otherwise, the film is set entirely in the claustrophobic studio and adjoining corridors, which feel subterranean.  As we see Gilderoy frustrated in his requests for expense reimbursement, we feel he is being trapped, not short-changed.  We never see any of the Equestrian Vortex itself, but read outrageous snippets of transcript and see Gilderoy’s shocked, disbelieving and sickened reaction to its images.  We feel the pressure on the actresses who, if the scream is just not blood-curdling enough after so many takes, can be replaced.  And so, after multiple melon-chopping takes of his own, we witness Gilderoy, the homesick innocent alone in a malevolent place, gradually lose touch with reality.

Strickland has written the perfect role for Toby Jones, who we could watch for hours.  He also has attended to the detail of the seventies Italian shocker: the opening credits are authentically recreated by designer Julian House as is the mix of atonal synthesizer, dreamy organ and ethereal voices put together by James Cargill, co-founder of Broadcast, for the soundtrack.  The wardrobe and sexism are also made authentically seventies.  But the love-poem is not to those horror films, but to a lost creativity; to the nerdy, eccentric, innocent labour involved; to the sheets of carefully hand-written plans; to the guy whose job was to do the aroused-goblin noise into a microphone; to analogue days when sound itself was as physical as the substantial but intricate machines that made it –  the Revox, the Copycat, the portable reel-to-reel, the dial showing the sound wave and all the knobs and buttons and reels and tape.  We marvel at it, too.

So, we feel reassured that the film did not set out to scare us witless.  But, then again, there is something a little dark-arts about all those analogue machines, isn’t there?  And, as for Gilderoy, maybe the darkness was hidden in him all the time and not due to those nasty foreign film-makers.  I wonder.

Also by Peter Strickland:

Katalin Varga (2009)

PS A Word on Broadcast

Its impossible to say something about this film without a word on Broadcast.  Don’t think “experimental”.  Start by placing yourself back in the 60’s and imagining what bands then thought the future might sound like.  Then layer on a strange, captivating mix of The BBC Radiophonic workshop, Ennio Morricone, early synthesizer sounds, forgotten film soundtracks and psychedelia, with a touch of eeriness, held together beautifully by a voice of innocence and purity.  That was Broadcast, formed in 1995 in Birmingham, UK.  Their signer, Trish Keenan – cool, Nico-like on-stage; all mischief, curiosity and warmth off-stage – died on 14 January 2011 of pneumonia related to H1N1 bird flu, contracted while on tour.  She was 42.  A national treasure.  So sadly missed.

Julian House of Ghost Box, was a close collaborator with Broadcast.  Initially in their “Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night and a science-worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day” phase.

Song For Marion


UK (2012). Dir: Paul Andrew Williams, Scr: Paul Andrew Williams

The main reason I went to see this is because I know someone called Marion.  Sentimental, I know.  It’s like the logic behind my mother’s annual gamble on the horses – there’s a reference to a distant Scottish relative in the name of a horse at 100/1.  My mother never wins.  So it was with this film.  Don’t get taken in by any comparisons with Young@Heart, a moving, inspired and inspiring documentary.  This one has no energy, no characters, a predictable story, an uncomfortably feeble end and it wont make you laugh when you’re supposed to.  It’s the story of a misanthropic old man, Arthur played by Terence Stamp, whose dying wife, Marion, chooses to spend much of what time is left singing with a local choir of pensioners (The OAPz), led by the bubbly Elizabeth, played by Gemma Arterton.  Arthur doesn’t express feeling well, but hates the choir, unable to understand why Marion is wasting her time.  Why does Marion find it fun?  You’ve guessed it, Elizabeth gets them to sing cool, modern songs.  The problem with that key joke – they sing The Ace Of Spades by Motorhead and Salt’n’Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sexis that it is too obvious to be funny and the songs sound silly when translated to 15-strong local choir of no obvious singing talent-with-piano.  They really don’t sound much better the second time with long-haired kid on guitar and someone banging on the drums, by which time the joke really has worn thin.  In the aftermath of Marion’s death, a scene directed movingly, the story develops to the mandatory singing competition entirely as expected.


I can’t fault the actors, especially Vanessa Redgrave as Marion, for trying hard to bring something to the film, but their material is so very thin.  Terence Stamp broods well, helped by his extraordinary eyes, but he is never convincing as the ordinary working-class bloke.  He, too, seemed to be wishing he was in a theatre, where he could do some proper acting.  And, call me old-fashioned, but I was struck at how little musicality there is in any of the singing.

PS The other reason I went to see this is because it’s by Paul Andrew Williams, director of the tense, pacy and atmospheric London to Brighton.  He’ll be fine with his next film.

Also by Paul Andrew Williams:

London to Brighton (2006)