Brief thoughts on People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (John Torres, Philippines, 2016)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Philippine cinema, Uncategorized

In 1936, Joseph Cornell reworked footage of East of Borneo (George Melford, USA, 1931) in order to create Rose Hobart (USA, 1936), an experimental short in which the meaning of Rose Hobart is changed as a result of how Cornell re-edits the Melford flick.

Meanwhile, east of Borneo is the Philippines, where another Rose – Vietnam Rose – was supposed to bloom in the 1980s, but who never really saw the light of day.

That is, Philippine director Celso Advento Castillo, the so-called ‘Saviour of Filipino cinema,’ in the 1980s tried to complete a feature film called The Diary of Vietnam Rose with the 19-year-old film star Liz Alindogan.

Alas, however, the film was abandoned after running into logistical and financial issues – with Alindogan herself being so traumatised by the experience that she basically disappeared from cinema for several years, having also functioned as one of the film’s producers.

It was only 30 years later, then, that John Torres put together People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose, a film that combines footage from some 20 reels recovered from the production of that film with original material made to look like it was shot at the time, and with various experiments in sound also playing a part of the film’s fabric (at times we hear dialogue from the characters in the scenes, but at other times we also hear voices delivering inner monologues and other sounds).

Being shot in 1986, the film was also made at the time of the People Power Revolution that led to the toppling of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Also known as the Yellow Revolution as a result of the prominence of yellow ribbons during the non-violent anti-government protests, and as the EDSA Revolution (EDSA stands for Epifania de los Santos Avenue – a chief artery in Manila), the moment brought about the end of martial law and the reinstatement of democracy in the Philippines.

In some senses, then, Torres’ film and the People Power Revolution resonate with each other – although the political aspects of the film are not what I shall focus on here. Suffice to say that as The Diary of Vietnam Rose fell apart, so in some senses did the Marcos regime. But it is not that Castillo or Alindogan are necessarily the equivalent of Marcos, or even that the film’s troubled production – in various ways involving but perhaps also exploiting locals in the remote location where the film was made.

Rather, the fact that the film fell into ruins bespeaks the state of the Philippines in 1986, such that the revolution took place. And where cinema as a force for change found it hard to survive under the Marcos regime, perhaps it is only since that the Philippines has  been able to develop a cinema worthy of the name.

The last paragraph is an overstatement. One need only think of the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal to realise that oppositional cinema was in some senses doing well under the Marcos regime.

And one might suggest that much mainstream cinema in the Philippines today is pretty mediocre, melodramatic fare – suggesting that cinema as a force for change still struggles to eke out an existence in the Philippines, as it does in many other places around the world.

But what I mean by saying that the Philippines has since developed a cinema worthy of the name is that flowers do grow on the ruins of the Philippines, with People Power Bombshell being a literal case in point as Vietnam Rose blooms a new life – different to the one that Castillo and Alindogan had intended, but which nonetheless is alive, and which suggests future life for the country in spite of ongoing corruption and other controversies. And in breathing new life into the world, People Power Bombshell is thus exemplary of a cinema that can bring about social change.

What is most fascinating, then, is that new cinema, in the form of a rose (red, yellow, pink or blue – as per the blue tint that Joseph Cornell typically added to Rose Hobart by projecting the film through blue glass), flowers where old cinema is thought to have died – east of Borneo, in the Sulu Sea that separates Borneo from the Philippines.

This creates a kind of paradox: this is both cinema but also not cinema, a new cinema born from the old cinema, a cinema that is also a non-cinema – much as Adrian D Mendizabal suggests People Power Bombshell features non-images here.

Indeed, the film shows the original reels from 1986 converted to digital images, but which have not been cleaned up or restored, but which wear on their sleeves the rot and ravage of time. Akin to the work of Bill Morrison, then, Torres’ film sees glitches and imperfections in the aged image not as faults, but precisely as expressive forces in the film – which becomes visually arresting, hard to read, but truly beautiful as a result.

What is more, as flowers grow from the ruins of cinema, so do begin to think of the film as being like another plant form, the rush. For, being made up not so much of finished sequences as rushes, People Power Bombshell sees the rushes grow green, suggesting a sort of amphibian cinema that rises from the depths – again giving testimony to the power of life to continue in spite of the death of any individuals.

Yongchun Fu, Maria Elena Indelicato and Zitong Qiu refer to recent Chinese blockbusters that are aimed at global audiences and which sometimes even involve western stars, such as The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, USA/China/Hong Kong/Australia, Canada, 2016) as Huallywood – named after huaxia, or China, from the character 華, or hua.

However, perhaps we might make a semi-pun and suggest that this flowering cinema that blooms out of the ruins of the old cinema is also a different kind of Huallywood, but this time based on 花/hua, which is the Chinese for flower. Huallywood is cinema as a flower, which does not cut and shoot in the violent way that traditional (western) cinema does, but which produces new life from cuttings and shoots that grow upwards even amongst the ruins of the Third World.

In her recent Ex-Centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology, Janet Harbord suggests that cinema is less about movement and scenes in which people set out to achieve pre-established goals via recognised and recognisable means, but more about gestures and bodies that move in strange and peculiar ways, which themselves affect us in ways that we cannot predict.

In this way, cinema in its commodified, mainstream form is about controlling bodies. But a cinema that moves away from itself (an ‘ex-centric cinema,’ which is not far removed from what I have – including in relation to Philippine cinema – called ‘non-cinema‘), sees bodies set free, as new life is breathed into them and where like a flower they flow.

Being made up of sometimes indiscernible, sometimes random and sometimes striking images, People Power Bombshell becomes a cinema that, in Harbord’s language,

deactivate[s] the smooth flow of commodity images. Cut, removed, repositioned and replayed, the naturalised sequences of ideal bodies and lifestyles become jagged-edged, unruly, uncomfortable to watch… In contrast to the perfect surface of the commodity image as it is put into circulation, the cinematic image comes to bear the marks of its exhibition, or to put it a different way around, it loses the sheen of its status as fixed record and moves into a zone where recording and transmission become indiscernible… [This is] the exhibition of cinema’s materiality as it surfaces in celluloid, video tape and digital video discs. In the glitches, sparkle and crackle that pattern the images… the commodity is subjected to the registration of its history, to contingency, finitude and decay. (Harbord 2016: 102-103)

In other words, in its very imperfection, the image demonstrates that the cinematic image is not eternal, unchanging and fixed forever – an eternity that is part and parcel of its power, in that only gods can stop time and are eternal, and if cinema is a commodity that has no flaws, then cinema as a commodity becomes, or at least aspires to be, god. That is the world of commodities, the world of capitalism.

In showing us that cinema, like the world, changes, and that it even dies… we learn to understand that life goes on, that things need not and will not remain the same, and that other worlds are possible.

May seven billion more flowers bloom on the ruins of cinema-capital and in the realm of non-cinema.

Many thanks to Aperture Asia & Pacific Film Festival for screening the film at the Close-Up Film Centre in London.

Plemya/The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema

This is a brief review of The Tribe in order to accompany the introduction to the film that I made last night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London.

I have been meaning to write about a number of the films I have introduced, but only now have had the chance.

The Tribe is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s first film, and it tells the story of a young deaf man (Grygoriy Fesenko) who arrives at a boarding school for deaf people in Kiev/Kyiv.

Soon he becomes embroiled in the students’ criminal activities, being chosen after the accidental death of one of his peers to pimp out girls from the school.

He falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and then proceeds to defy the rule of King (Oleksandr Osadchyi), the lead gangster.

Developing on from Slaboshpytskiy’s Glukhota/Deafness (Ukraine, 2010) – which can be seen hereThe Tribe contains almost no dialogue, with almost all discussion and conversation taking place in Ukrainan sign language. It also features no subtitles.

The Tribe is relatively easy to follow in terms of plot. Nonetheless, clearly the effect of the sign language (some, but few, viewers will be Ukrainian signers) is to alienate audience members somewhat from what they see.

Slaboshpytskiy also achieves this in part through his stylistic choices: The Tribe often features long takes, or sequence shots, which also are long shots – i.e. the camera maintains a relatively long distance from the events that we see onscreen.

That is, by refusing to ‘speak’ both in terms of dialogue (with traditional subtitles) and in terms of the usual language of cinema (close-ups explaining to us what we need to know, linked to shots that match the eyeline of the characters, such that we know who sees what and when), The Tribe, while easy to follow on some levels, is also a complex film to follow: what are we supposed to look at during each frame? What is going on?

In refusing to answer these questions, Slaboshpytskiy’s film clearly wants us instead to think. And in some respects to see the world anew. For, in being a film without dialogue, The Tribe clearly recalls the classic, silent cinema.

And as silent cinema, when it first arrived, helped audiences to see the world anew, through techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion and freeze frames, so, too, might The Tribe achieve the same goal.

More than this: The Tribe might not only allow us to see the world anew, or as if for the first time (a process of estrangement/defamiliarisation from the world that Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie), but might also allow us to see cinema as if for the first time.

Why would this be important?

It would be important because we live in a world in which cinema is the measure of reality. Why do I say that cinema is the measure of reality?

Well, obviously it is a provocative statement (though others, like Jonathan Beller, also argue as much) . Nonetheless, we live in an age in which we all try to force ourselves to look as much like movie stars as possible. This is not simply copying the fashions of the movies, but about creating an image of oneself that conforms to the lighting, make-up, image quality, variable focus and so on of cinema and photography. We detag ourselveis when we look ugly on Facebook. Because do not look cinematic – even if we look like ourselves. And as you are not really real if you not on Facebook, so if you do not conform to the widespread image standards do you not really get to exist in the same way as everyone else.

In other words, if we accept my prognosis that the world is cinematic (‘it was just like in a movie’ says everyone when something exciting happens to them, as if the rest of their lives, the uncinematic bits, were inferior, boring, not worth commenting upon, unreal), then to see the world anew is by definition today about seeing cinema anew, too.

One of the ways in which we can see cinema and the world both anew via The Tribe is through the film’s emphasis on gesture.

Benjamin Noys, drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, suggests that cinema might not be about image, but in fact about gesture. And yet, we tend to think of cinema as being so much about image, rather than about gesture, and we tend to think of the world as being about image rather than about gesture, too. Thus, for The Tribe to foreground gesture – the gestures of Ukrainian sign – is for most audience members a way for them to rethink what cinema is and what the world is.

This needs greater explanation. Most of the time, when we watch movies, and indeed when we see people going about their daily lives, we see people carrying out movements, but not necessarily gestures.

What is the distinction between movement and gestures? Movement has an end: I go from A to B (in order to carry out X). Gesture, meanwhile, has no end.

More: the world under capital is about the control of the body, such that the body’s movements are productive, and thus function as a means for capitalists to profit.

This is the philosophy of the production line: the production lines enforces repetitive, mechanical movements that are the control of the body’s gestures, turning them from gestures to movements for the purposes of capital.

As an example, we are back to silent cinema, with Charles Chaplin as the filmmaker par excellence of the production line, especially in his Modern Times (USA, 1936).

We also know that capital is about the control of bodies, because we find so funny and liberating bodies that are out of control. Think, for example, of the Ministry of Funny Walks or David Brent’s dance in The Office.

(Of course, we also find out of control bodies disgusting at times, too: a general antipathy towards certain ‘unruly’ body types, or bodies that cannot maintain strict boundaries – we dislike bodies that ooze, for example, sweat, snot, piss, blood, sleep, and so on.)

Furthermore, in the contemporary age, so many YouTube videos are about not out-of-control dancing, but controlled dancing. Control of the body, especially then to turn controlled body into image, such that the image of the controlled body can then capture attention, which in turn helps that body to become monetised, since if we all always look at certain types of body (woman as the world’s biggest industry), then we can use that body to sell things (cinema as the base language of advertising; advertising as a clear expression of capital).

In contrast to controlling our bodies, we might otherwise work out what weird and strange things that our bodies, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza, can do. That is, as we are all different, so do we all move differently and thus we ought to be concerned with individuality and not conformity in terms of how we move. In other words, we might progress from movement (controlled bodies under capital) to gesture (bodies doing unfamiliar things, bodies out of control).

The Tribe is a film that is quite consciously about what bodies can do (and, through its non-mainstream filmmaking techniques – the long shots and long takes – about what cinema can do) . Indeed, this is a film in which all of the characters not only express themselves linguistically (Ukrainian sign) through their bodies, but in which violence, prostitution and various other bodily movements and gestures become prominent for us to see.

Importantly, though, the film does not limit itself to showing to a hearing audience the unusual bodies of these deaf people – making of it a voyeuristic exercise in seeing different bodies, but fetishising them precisely for being different.

On the contrary, the film is also about the control of bodies, and about how the limits of Ukrainian sign (language also as a system of control?) are quickly reached, and bodies must as a result find new ways to express themselves.

It is entirely logical and appropriate, then, that The Tribe is also a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is full of violence, sex and, ultimately, a gesture carried out by the lead character (referred to as Serhiy) that is so terrifying that the film thoroughly deserves its 18-rating in the UK.

For, these are gestures that shock us out of our unthinking perceptions and movements, making us see the world anew. And we do not just gawp at deaf Ukrainians in watching The Tribe, but we also are moved by the gestures that we see, causing us to reflect upon what our bodies can do, and to think (with thinking being a journey into the unknown in which we do not so much repeat what we already know, but work out what it is that our brains can do, but following routes of thought that we have not yet discovered – what mental associations can I make; a journey by definition into the unpredictable).

This, then, is what makes Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe a great movie, and one that I think as many audiences should watch as possible. It is troubling, harrowing, alienating. But in forcing us out of our comfort zones, the film engages us in the ethical challenge of finding out not just who we are, but who we could be – with the result being that consciously we ourselves choose to become, perhaps, better, more ethically engaged human beings.

Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, Italy/France, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Italian Cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

The below is a written version of an introduction that I shall make for Salvo at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton this evening (Tuesday 29 April 2014). Come along if you can – though you may also have to suffer me putting in a gratuitous plug for my film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), which plays at the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase from 1 May 2014)!

And so…

 

Salvo is the debut feature of screenwriters Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. It tells the story of a hitman, the titular Salvo (Saleh Bakri), who starts out getting into a gunfight. He chases down his assailants and then goes to the house of Enzo Puleo (Luigi Lo Cascio), the man who organised the hit. There he meets Rita (Sara Serraiocco), a blind woman and Enzo’s sister, who suddenly can see at the moment of her encounter with Salvo.

Subsequent to this encounter, Salvo and Rita go on the run – and must evade the mob, which surely will hunt them down in a quest to find out what has happened to them.

In certain respects, then, the film tells the story of a miracle. But rather than being a miracle couched in a sense of religiosity, we have the miracle functioning in Salvo as something of an allegory.

For, the encounter between Salvo and Rita becomes some sort of primordial event, a transitional moment after which nothing is the same – and this event is based upon the encounter between two people who mutually change.

In short, then, the film is about how love can open our eyes – it can take away our blindness – and it can put us in touch with other people. Indeed, if Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people, Grassadonia and Piazza might counter this by saying that love, too, is other people, constituted in and by a recognition of other people.

Thus Rita’s literal blindness is accompanied by what the directors call Salvo’s ‘moral blindness’. Indeed, in an interview, Grassadonia explains it thus:

The topic of blindness is important. We come from Sicily, we grew up there, and our experience is that you live surrounded by voluntarily blind people. We told this story, this meeting by two characters affected by two different kinds of blindness: the moral blindness of the mafia killer, who is nothing more than a killing machine at the beginning, and this blind girl, physically blind, but not innocent. She knows exactly her role in that kind of world.

It is in encountering Rita that Salvo can see – and the film works hard stylistically to convey the encounter to us, mainly as a result of its absence of close ups and its absence of faces for the first section of the film, the section that culminates in the miracle.

For, we do not see Salvo’s face until the miracle – if anything we see only disembodied eyes surrounded by darkness. We can surmise two things from this.

Firstly, we can surmise that in a world without faces, people do not exist as humans but as objects that can be killed and discarded without a moral sense of guilt.

Secondly, we can surmise that in having no empathy, it is not that Salvo sees no faces, it is that he himself is also faceless. In encountering Rita, Salvo not only sees her face, but she also sees his, and thus he begins to take on a face.

In other words, identity – Salvo as a recognisable human being – is not something born solipsistically in a body and mind detached from the rest of the world; identity is something that exists only in relation to the world, only with the world. We exist only with other people. Subjectivity is intersubjective.

If the film makes this point, the point does not exist in a bubble. That is, while it it may simply just be that humans can only exist as subjects if there is intersubjectivity, nonetheless the film suggests that we live in a world that lacks recognition of others, a world that lacks empathy, and which is thus a world that encourages what I shall term solipsistic.

So when I say that the point does not exist in a bubble, what I am really asking is: what is this world in which we are encouraged to be solipsistic, blind to each other, rather than with each other?

In interviews, Grassadonia and Piazza talks extensively about how they made the film in their native Sicily, Palermo more specifically. Indeed, in the quotation above, they talk about ‘voluntarily blind people’ there – who in effect turn a blind eye to the mafia, thus accepting its way of life, even if they are not directly involved in it.

In one interview with the ICA, the directors state this clearly:

We are both from Palermo and we naturally chose to set our story in our home town. Palermo is a world where freedom is hazardous. A world that feels the need for a tyrant, an oppressor, is a totally unacceptable state of affairs but somehow understandable. What’s more mysterious is the presence of a silent majority that wishes to be oppressed, that needs to live in a “state of exception”, a state of constant emergency, where violence and oppression are the only laws. A situation where an unencumbered meeting between two human beings is inconceivable.

What is noteworthy here is the use of the term ‘state of exception’ – a concept developed and used at length by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

For Agamben, the ‘state of exception’ is the generalised totalitarianism of the present age. That is, during exceptional times, a state might give itself increased power in order to keep everyone safe. However, what we increasingly have these days is the way in which all times are presented to us as somehow ‘exceptional’ – and so we live under greater levels of control at all times, under a generalised ‘state of exception’ (a key example for Agamben is the War on Terror in the aftermath of the plane crashes of 11 September 2001).

In suggesting that Salvo reflects upon the ‘state of exception’ that is the mafioso rule of Palermo, Grassadonia and Piazza in fact spread the relevance of their film, such that it might well be speaking not just of Sicily, but perhaps of an Italy that has recently been under the control of a media-magnate. Perhaps even to a world in general, in which political and economic crisis are presented to us as the master narratives that keep us all in our place – and scared in our homes – trusting of no one else, in competition with everyone else.

Not seeing each other as human beings, as subjects, but as threats, opportunities and objects.

This wider relevance of the film is signalled aesthetically, too. It is hard not to read the opening sequences, full of bloodshed, and in which we follow Salvo as he chases down his would-be assassins, as borrowing from computer games, in particular the behind-the-head shot familiar from shooter games (and complete with the odd silences that moving through space can involve in computer games).

In other words, the film suggests via this reference to computer games that its message is relevant to the whole of the contemporary, media-saturated and digital world. That we no longer look at each other – but instead pursue a faceless world characterised by affectless, or unemotional, violence.

Salvo does not just make references to a computer game, however. It also makes reference to other films and/or genres. The filmmakers themselves discuss how their film pays homage to the likes of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, and that it also draws inspiration from Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic, Le Samouraï (France/Italy, 1967) – while its use of a miracle, its sparse dialogue and its interest in procedure also seem to recall the cinema of Robert Bresson (for me at least).

In other words, while the film is about how we are with each other in the world, even at a time when we are encouraged to feel that we not together, that to create a bond with another person is ‘inconceivable’, the film itself is also making bonds with other films; films only exist in an inter-cinematic way, too, it would seem.

And yet, for all of Salvo‘s precursors and reference points, the film had a hard time getting made.

After writing the 2004 comedy Ogni volta che ne te vai/Every Time You Go (Davide Cocchi, Italy, 2004) and the TV movie, Gli Occhi dell’amore/The Eyes of Love (Giulio Base, Italy, 2005), the latter of which suggests an ongoing interest in eyes and looking, Grassadonia and Piazza wrote and directed Rita (Italy, 2009), a short film that in some respects is the basis for Salvo (it is about a blind woman).

It then took them four years to get Salvo off the ground, making the film the product of a five-year process. Piazza recounts his experience thus:

Basically if you’re a first time director and you don’t arrive with the conventional comedy made for television, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to finance a film. In our case, the Italian press was talking about the film because of the support of French television but not the support of the Italian television

In other words, the aesthetics of Salvo, a cinephile’s film that is in part about films, reflects the production history of the film, in that a film about two characters who come to understand the existence of themselves through finally seeing others, is a film that was only made because of a transnational coproduction (with the French) – most Italian producers being too risk-averse, too caught up in the solipsism of contemporary capital, to want to tell a story that reaches out in the way that this one does.

The generalised ‘state of exception,’ then, is also present in the risk-averse nature of the film industry – and it is only in collaborating with strangers, perhaps, that films of this kind can get made. Perhaps it was a concession to commercial interests that the film features prominently on its soundtrack the number one Italian chart hit, ‘Arriverà‘, by Modà, featuring Emma Marrone.

Perhaps this even helps to account for the casting of the film. Salvo is played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, the star of Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains (UK/Italy/Belgium/France, 2009), while a couple of well-known actors have cameons, including Luigi Lo Cascio as Rita’s brother, Enzo. Lo Cascio won a Best Actor Donatello (Italian Oscar) in 2001 for I Cento Passi/One Hundred Steps (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2000), was nominated for the same award two years later for La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003), and was nominated for Best Director in 2013 for La città ideale/The Ideal City (Italy, 2012).

Leading actress Sara Serraiocco, meanwhile, stars in only her first movie. Perhaps this is emblematic of her character, that she is revealed to the world as the world is revealed to her. But then her character is perhaps a bit more canny than this – she is counting mafia money when we first meet her. That is, while Salvo may romanticise her, the film arguably does not, with the ‘miracle’ potentially being in Salvo’s head – it is an allegory, not necessarily a miracle to be believed in a literal sense – with the cheesiness of ‘Arriverà’ as the central musical motif also suggesting as much.

The directors quote great Italian writer Italo Calvino in relation to the film:

In the inferno of the living, where we live every day, that we form by being together, there are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

One can argue that the film is not without complications; Salvo and Rita do not necessarily escape the cycle of violence and it is perhaps only by perpetuating it that they stand a chance of surviving. Indeed, as Salvo’s name suggests, not only might he ‘save’ Rita, but he might also be a force for the state of exception, in that ‘salvo’ also means ‘except’ (in the sense of ‘save for’ – as in, ‘I would have been killed, save for a hitman coming to my rescue’).

Nonetheless, as a film Salvo is not inferno – and so we must give it space and thus help it to endure in a world of rapidly recycled and endlessly forgettable films.

Notes from the LFF: Neds (Peter Mullan, UK/France/Italy, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

For those who do not know, NED stands for Non-Educated Delinquent, although it typically is a term bandied about north of Hadrian’s Wall by the bourgeoisie when it wishes to describe people whom those south of the border would call chavs (or Kevs, depending on your generation).

Despite the fact that the term refers to what one class calls another, however, Peter Mullan’s latest film, Neds, does not really deal too much with class difference. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright young thing from a working class family who makes friends with a posh kid, Julian (Martin Bell), at one point, and after Julian’s mother tells John that she does not want him around her house anymore, John comes back and throws some fireworks through their window, shouting: “If you want a Ned, I’ll give you a Ned.”

Aside from this (and a brief moment in which John sees Julian on a bus some time later, before having to flee from the police), the issue of class difference does not surface too much. Instead, the film spends most of its time showing how John, like another John (Reece Dinsdale) from British cinema, becomes seduced by and ends up embracing more than any of his peers, the world of (in Neds, 1970s Glasgow) gang violence.

When John does tell Julian’s family that he’ll give them a Ned if that’s what they want, however, there is of course a sense of ‘Neddishness’ as a performance. Given that John has been rejected by the upper middle class, he decides fully, it seems, to become that which that self-same class loathes and fears: a violent Weegie who’ll chib ya for looking at him the wrong way.

It is not that the rejection of Julian’s mother is the sole factor that turns John from class swot destined for university to the Ned that he becomes. His family is a broken one, with his father (Peter Mullan) habitually beating/raping his mother, while his brother is also the hard man about town. What is more, when he makes friends with the rest of Car-D, the gang that he joins, he seems genuinely to make friends. Why not hang around with these guys if Julian is going to be so two-faced?

However, if Neddishness is something of a performance, then what lies beneath? Well, John the swot remains; even though by the end of the film John has been placed in a class for kids who cannot/will not perform academically, he continues to be a bookworm – and one gets a sense that he will ‘rehabilitate’ himself/that the clever and timid boy we saw at the beginning of the film is still there.

While this may be so, John remains someone who in the course of the film is responsible for holding up a bus at knife point (and the driver remembers him, hence John’s need to flee from the police when he encounters Julian on the bus later on in the film), for giving a kid permanent brain damage by dropping a gravestone on his head, and for knifing a rival from another local gang. It is not that we end up disliking John for these things (personally, I did, but many viewers may not); it is more that all of this must catch up with him one day – not least because the driver and rival gang members recognise him.

In other words, if being a Ned is a ‘performance,’ it is a performance that John takes so far that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for him to turn back to the ‘real’ John at the end of the film, even though to an extent this is what we are led to believe.

The film ends with John leading the boy whom he has given brain damage across a safari park. The moment is surreal, in that John and the boy (whose name escapes me – and IMDb has minimal information, so my apologies) hold hands and walk past a (digitally inserted) pride of lions. It is not clear what this moment ‘means,’ but it does suggest that John will be haunted forever by the crimes that he has committed, and also that the animal/lion in him is never going to go away. But it also suggests that somehow he has come to terms with himself after all of the experiences that he has had – and that, therefore, he is somewhat at peace (the lions do not attack the boys). This is fair enough, but how John will escape revenge from the other gang, or arrest when randomly the bus driver spots him again, or why indeed he does not hand himself in for all of the above, is unclear. Or rather: it is not unclear so much as troubling. We should bear in mind that Peter Mullan’s film does not have to avoid being troubling, but I did feel resistance to the forgiveness that it seemed to want me to give John.

Perhaps this means that Neds exposes my bourgeois values: I cannot get my head round someone who does not make real the ‘moral’ lesson that they have learned by facing up to what they have done. I feel this because I am a victim of luxury, a hypocritical sense of my own innocence, and, most likely, a lingering sense of morality bestowed upon me by my Christian upbringing (chapel every day at school, etc).

John, meanwhile, has been betrayed by Julian, the film’s bourgeois representative; he has experienced the thrill of gang violence that I am too cowardly to face (though I like the idea of it); and he has – in a dream/hallucination sequence that takes place when John is high from sniffing glue – literally been knifed by Jesus. So why would John care for my moral values and want to act in a way that I feel is appropriate to him? In some respects, he may ‘want’ to do this; but then again, he’s a Ned, so why not behave like a Ned and not do what I want him to do?

That John ends up in a safari park is perhaps significant. There is a scene in La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995), in which the main characters (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé) tell a news reporter investigating the banlieues to go forth and multiply, explaining that ‘this is not Thoiry.’ Thoiry is a safari park near Paris – the implication being that the media should not wander into housing estates with their cameras and look curiously at and record for amusement the lives of others that they thus in part consider to be animals put out for show. (Oh, the problems of shanty town and favela tourism – or poorism as sometimes I think of it.)

One wonders whether Peter Mullan is making a similar point with regard to Neds. We cannot make of the working classes (or the past, since Neds is set in the 1970s) a theme or safari park through which we wander, flirting with ‘danger’ and ‘excitement’ without ever experiencing either. Neds therefore self-consciously raises the issue of whether the film itself is not an exoticisation of working class Glasgow life. Whether the film itself is not something of a performance of Neddishness, beneath which is… a creative spirit as bourgeois as those with which the film otherwise denies kinship?

In some of the great British New Wave films, such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962) and Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, UK, 1963), there is a real sense in which the anti-hero, in these films respectively Colin and Billy, who are both played by Tom Courtenay, refuses at the last to take the opportunity to escape from his ‘depressing’ and working class life. Colin refuses to win the race that might help him to improve his lot in borstal, while Billy refuses to get on the train that might lead him to a different and supposedly ‘better’ life. The failure of performance becomes here a performance of failure, which in turn hides something of a success. Why should Colin run just to please other people? Why should Billy get on the train in order to find a ‘kind of living/loving‘ that is not necessarily his own? One may want more money, more freedom to move, and so on – but the Mephistophelian contract of class mobility demands that if you want wealth and, most of all, to be ‘accepted’ by those people that have brandished you as chavs or Neds, then you have to turn your back on and give up everything that you have ever known.

Where Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2010) sees Freddie (Christian Cooke) successfully run away by train in the end (albeit an hour late), the British New Wave films’ characters do not want to turn their back on everything they have known in order to have a ‘better’ life. Perhaps this is because, at the last, they are prey to the very ideological beliefs that imprison people – psychologically as much as physically – in economic penury. John in Neds cannot at the last kill his father, in spite of his father’s wish for him to do so, and in spite of the vicious beating that John gives to him with a saucepan or frying pan earlier in the film. While this shows that John finally loves his roots, no matter how ‘terrible,’ violent or traumatic they are both for him and for we audience members who judge it, as is expressed by his tearful embrace of his father, it might also be one set of beliefs that John cannot throw off – namely that you love your family through thick and thin.

Let us think about this: if we (or I, certainly) feel cold towards John at the end for not, say, handing himself in, it is because I am trying to impose upon him a set of moral values that are middle class but which present themselves as being natural and universal. I similarly feel saddened that John has not embraced/realised his academic potential and gotten out of Glasgow as he ‘should’ do. However, if getting out of Glasgow and the working class means turning one’s back on everything that one is or from which one comes, then in some respects, John would have figuratively if not literally to kill his father in order to achieve this/to do so. And yet, John does not kill his father when he has the opportunity to do so. My hypocrisy resides here: I in fact think John should have killed his father, or done the equivalent thereof by leaving Glasgow and never returning (something that John’s brother apparently does by moving to Spain, though this is also to avoid the heat that he has coming, too), but at the same time I frown upon John for all of the other acts of violence that he has perpetrated. I want John to believe in something, while at the same time asking him to believe in nothing. John may be a ‘fool’ of sorts at the end for not realising his potential, but in other respects, by keeping his potential as, precisely, unrealised potential, John may frustrate my expectations of him, but he also remains somehow pure potential, a member of a coming community or a people to come.

(In this sense, Neds does fit the model of cinema that has already been applied to Peter Mullan’s previous Orphans (UK, 1997) – as has been discussed here.)

John walking through the safari park, then, perhaps signals that John, unlike his brother, will not run away; instead of traveling to Spain or to Africa, the journeys he will make will be inner journeys, perhaps imaginary ones – and if he is caught for previous crimes committed, then he will face up to them, as opposed to going to Spain to escape them like his brother. In other words, John finally does show profound moral responsibility for what he has done – even if he is not in a hurry to hand himself in. Furthermore, he fails to perform/performs failure, and does not turn his back on his family life – which gives him a sense of integrity greater than that of the audience members/me who are egging John on to realise his academic potential, to go to university, and… what? Get a humdrum job like everyone else, watch TV every night over dinner, and congratulate himself on the fact that he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and has no trouble with anything…?

Upon first leaving the cinema after watching Neds at the London Film Festival, I felt somewhat disappointed in the film, as did my two Scottish companions who watched the film with me. Maybe the film felt like a bit of ‘poorism,’ without the overt community values that would have turned the film from Neds into This is Scotland. It was a performance of Neddishness, underneath which lies, as per Shane Meadows’ film, a sweet heart that wants the love of the middle classes that it so happily titillates throughout its duration.

Furthermore, the film was a performance of ‘shite Scotland’ that so pleases English and other communities: a ‘you’re only happy when you’ve escaped Glasgow’ kind of narrative that allows the English to feel safe in their condescending sense of superiority over their neighbours.

In these ways, Neds was disappointing – but that John chooses not to leave Glasgow also made the film interestingly troubling: we don’t like narratives that falsify how shite Glasgow/Scotland is, but we are perplexed that John does not want to escape it. We want to eat our cake and have it. But such reactions also perhaps do not give the film credit for what it is, since they try to judge it against an imaginary film that Neds is not – although if that film did exist, it might be a mix of Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon, UK, 1996) and