Frances with Ha-ha, but where is the boohoo? Or goosepimples?

Paul Andreas Fischer
VTIFF
10/2013


Frances with Ha-ha, but where is the boohoo? Or goosepimples?


My expectations were surpassed in the film Frances Ha. The use of sitcom like interpersonal relations as a facade to entice the viewers into struggling with greater life phenomena regarding sexuality and human interaction was staggering. While at first impression the cast was amateur and the story tangled, the mastery of cinematic devices to captivate the audience, gave the distinct and lasting impression of an important message, if only the viewer could decrypt what that message was. Ultimately due to the exposure of intimate details of personal lives in a certain manner, the conclusion is drawn that the statement is on the society that nurtured, created and maintains the girl; that America is a materialistic society unbound by substantive difficulty.
The cast takes on an almost neorealist situative commentary on the life of a young woman who has exactly what she needs to prosper, and yet there is a tragic underpinning to her interactions with those around her and to her self-communication. The nature of this tragedy is surreal; her being “undatable” as described by her roommate forces her to re-evaluate her own sexuality and in turn the film scrutinizes the gender performance of those around her. But the vehicle has a distinctly neo-realist quality, one that extends beyond the black-and-white empirical nature of the roll and seems to seek truth in setting while imparting an urgent and necessary message of understanding in character development.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film is as Frances lights a cigarette against an apparently clear sky and in the unique blustering winds as the music rises in excitement, in tempo and volume. With a triumphant and yet demarked step she lurches out of the way and the Eiffel tower is revealed: she has made it to Paris! While she does not succeed in resolving her social problems at this point, a certain turning point in the film has been reached.
The completion of the film was ill conceived, while appropriately happy and still comically contemplative, this picture of her resolutely, gleeful but still troubled, stepping away from the Eiffel tower smouldering cigarette in hand would have made a classic ending, given the appropriate cinematography and character development beforehand. Where the Italian Neo-realism film movement consisted of perhaps a dozen films, and spawned many more similarly related movements since then, each showing devastation on a scale not available to any individual studio or entity, it was reality, in a similar track Frances Ha shows true beauty and strength in the setting and the characters, a sense of contentment and placidity, struggle logically met with triumph, that reflects the fundamental change in the European outlook in the times since.
Part of what makes this such a strong emotive response to the film was the use of real world settings, and more apparently of real world characters. As close as the cinematography and music came to capturing the legendary psychological effects of the neorealist cinema, though lacking the goosepimples and teary eyes that accompany the tragic suicides and deaths of protagonists in neorealism, the character development and plot progression was decentralised in a most similar manner to Soviet era films.
One in particular comes to mind, the film Daisies, in which two cohabiting girls or sisters perhaps explore their own temporal existence, stagnant lifestyles, and ultimately harsh realities in Yugoslavia, then a satellite of the Soviet Union. In both films there is an intense struggle occurring in the plot with a status quo of intolerance and with incompatibility to the social norms extant. Then in a variety of settings these norms and intolerance are torn apart without apparent consequence. While the themes of love and friendship are certainly more classically epic in Frances Ha (this is not said as a very positive statement), there is a shared dipolar structure to the films in which independent theses are tested on two protagonist characters through interaction of a number of people less important to the themes and plot.
What makes Daisies perhaps one of the most distinctive films from the region and time, and holds Frances Ha from achieving similar contemporary success is the ability to break solidly from social norms in order to prove their validity. Though both films’ decentralisation of characters make them delightfully unreachable with standard methods of evaluation seeking protagonist and antagonist, or of seeking out a definite hypothesis and proof, the neorealist stylistic choices and comedic relief speak out against a silent censor. In Daisies, this occurs in a grand finale, with the destruction of state property and final smashing of a chandelier and expensive banquet, which at the time infuriated senior Soviet officials. Without a hypothesis, the film successfully proves that, at least in the satellite states, the Soviet Union was a classless society obsessed with materialism.
In Frances Ha the silent censor is outlined, in this case the interpersonal feelings tumultuously clashing inside of a confused girl unsure of her sexuality, her datability, and at times her ability, but is not properly confronted. The picture of Frances moving away from the Eiffel tower, impatient yet hopeful could have communicated the conclusion of this confrontation classically, but that is hopping too deeply into the director’s seat. What can be said, however, is that it is clear that the problems internal to the character Frances such whether she is happy with herself, without a volatile reaction to the silent censor in everyone, and the nature of her social acceptance are neatly folded up and finished, while external ones, such as who exactly she will find, what kind of relationship she will pursue, and her credit card debt are unresolved.
Leaving these unresolved questions combined with unrequited confidence from peers and in herself proves a most intriguing posit: that the United States as this girl has known it is a materialistic society utterly unbound by substantive difficulty. A better proof for the stylistic and cinematographic nature of this film is that America is a materialistic society bound by the pressures of substantive difficulty, but freed through the token of true and open friendship or love as the case might be.

The Act of Killing review and Q and A with producer

Paul Andreas Fischer
VTIFF
10.20.2013


As someone who has virtually no experience with the mass killings in Indonesia, seeing The Act of Killing was incredibly shocking. The fabulous lives of members of the former dictatorship who had become wealthy by indiscriminately killing over 2.6 million people was shown, and then the psychologies of these murderers at the time and today was explored. Less obvious but still tangentially present was the role of the government, many of whose officials were still in power and able to purchase their elections. I was struck by just how similar to A Clockwork Orange these executioners seemed in their time, and the interviews with them now almost seemed a thought experiment into an alternative sequel to that film. They killed and played, intertwining the two into a gruesome myriad of images that to some, still alive today, is still vivid in their mind and haunts them, others managed to move on. Political interrogation under this system became synonymous with torture and perjury committed by these monsters. The act of incarceration simply fell to being pushed in a car. A guilty verdict only had to be suggested. And finally, in the execution capital punishment was carried out in a stealthy but still open matter, efficiently in a silent admission to the inherent evil of these deeds, fueled by hard drug use as well as drinking and marijuana use, in futile attempts to cope with the guilt and pain of committing these atrocities. Sometimes behind closed doors at night, other times simply running down the street and stabbing anyone with a chinese demeanor or appearance, sometimes just driving through the night with a body in the back seat waiting to be hurled out into the abyss in a weak and vague impersonation of the out of this world gangster personas of Hollywood.

After the film was finished I asked about the producer’s struggle to dance the line between presenting factual historical accuracy and representing the often conflicting memories of surviving executioners. She responded that the film was not a historical film by any means, and that she herself was not a historian, but had a stronger focus on the psychology of the executioners. She explained that the film was meant as a sort of view into this unique situation that had panned out in Indonesia. Other questions in the Q and A ranged from what levels of censorship had existed, whether hidden cameras had been used as many admissions were shocking to say the least, and what power still remained in Indonesian paramilitary organizations such as the ones headed by the anti-communist former executioners. While it is not in my place to take sides or to comment on issues outside of the scope of this film, I am completely aware of the dangers of communist purges and the ten thousand executed in China even today every year, the hundreds of millions of girls killed only because of their gender, I cannot emphasize how shocked I was as to the scope of the killings, how the executioners saw it as a lifestyle and way of life, and how the society they lived in, while it was not yet a democracy, found no way to communicate for outside help or intervention. One can only assume that the vital nature of Indonesia to international shipping, and its oil reserves and refineries had a significant amount to do with this.
Another comparison to A Clockwork Orange is the pathological nature of the killers. They would do it again. I would have liked to see survivors, and to hear their accounts. but according to them there are none, and if there were they would be killed. Some justify it by claiming that the time was one of war. Others that they had no job, no real other options. No one was brought to them unless they were going to kill them. Evidence or the reality of a nuanced political situation made positively no difference. These men acted as institutionalized and even celebrated serial killers, harboring similar perversions and drug abuse as the sort in A Clockwork Orange who raped, drugged, and ultimately killed at their leisure without apparent backlash, although a key difference is that ultimately the dystopian society portrayed in that film does take punitive action at some point. I have included a typed version of the Q and A, which I took notes on to better shed light on the motives and themes of the producer.

Question and Answer:
Q: At points of violence or struggle in the filming, how was this done?
A: In the massacre scene women and children went through an extensive casting process, and the rest were former executioners bringing their old deeds back to life. The children were surrounded by family, and the film was shot in very short segments, after crying and wailing, the children were frequently given the chance to be reassured by their mothers. As for the actors, the only actual survivor from the village burning was an accident when the cameraman was shooting on a day when the producer and director were not there. The cameraman did not speak Indonesian, so he did not have the opportunity to differentiate, and after the survivor’s death two years later before the release of the film, his family contacted the film makers and gave them posthumous permissions.
Q: Is there an actual film? Or only the documentary as we saw it?
A: There was never the intention to make an actual film, the process of helping the former executioners imagine their own representation of events was merely a psychological tool to help them recount events accurately.
Q: Were there any hidden cameras used? At one point it seems as though they really think they are off tape, or just preparing?
A: At no point were hidden cameras used, and the former executioners were always aware of when the film was rolling.
Q: What was the reception in Indonesia, especially from the complicit government?
A: We started the work with survivors, showing the film to art house critics and stuff from Jakarta. We later expanded to 500 screenings across the country and now offer free downloads of the film.
Q: How did crew stand by while these gangsters took money from street sellers and were these merchants reimbursed?
A: The crew informed the merchants beforehand and had to stand by, but it was agreed the entire time that the merchants knew they were being reimbursed.
Q: Coming from Rwanda, I am curious how the government allowed this to be filmed, as in my country such an endeavour would be futile and even a fictional film such as Hotel Rwanda was nearly impossible to pull off, did the government allow this, were there special permissions needed?
A: The regime used to be a dictatorship, but is now currently a democracy. These war criminals were unpunished and even welcomed by top politicians as seen in the film. Workers unionzed against globalization are still beaten, and intimidation of family members for union membership still occurs, so the effort had to come from outside. There is a strong fear of speaking in public.
Q: What is with the list of anonymous names?
A: Indonesian crew members took part in a film with sensitive matter and we found it best to keep their identities anonymous.
Q: The number 2.6 million killed sort of splashes out, bringing a whole new level of seriousness to the film from serial murderers psychology to the psychology of a genocide was it difficult to dance the line between historical accuracy and factual information and the fantasies and personal anecdotes of the killers?
A: The film was never intended as a historical film, I am not a historian. What we sought was a stronger investigation into the psychologies of the killers and to show how they cope and live with their crimes, and success, today.
Q: What did the subjects [executioners] think of the film?
A: Most in process [missing word?], Anwar did not want to see the film originally, but decided to at some point… looking to a fishing platform. Anwar is loyal to the film, and has backed us up, keeping his word as he felt it was an important endeavour. Hermann has a sort of ‘axis’ loyalty to the film, and glorifies what it does. The paramilitary organizations did not especially approve and saw the filmmaking process as “Anwar vs. us”.
Q: What is the power of the paramilitary organizations today in Indonesia?
A: Still very powerful. If you are not portraying them well they will shut you down, but still the film does show that the country is moving forward.

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