Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016 Dispatch #2 - Adaptation

In this second dispatch from Doc/Fest, two films adapted from texts of some kind, and an exploration of the various challenges and opportunities that arise from this process. In a way, all filmmaking is about finding the right cinematic language to externalise something that exists only in the head of the filmmaker, but in these films that process of translation is unusually present.

A cursory glance at the title and programme summary of Arto Halonen’s White Rage suggests it might be a film about a certain type of aggression that seems to be unique to white males, but it’s not about that, specifically. Nearly 80% of the countless, horrible school shootings that have occurred around the world to date have been committed by white men, and Halonen’s film proposes a theory why this might be, but not one that is racialised or gendered (nor necessarily, should it be.) The film’s narrator, Lauri, an anonymous academic who himself confesses to holding continually resurfacing fantasies about mass-murder, argues that there is something that unifies all of the killers in these cases. Not a skin colour, gender or mental illness, but instead the presence of ‘white rage,’ a kind of calm, detached state of anger that develops through the suffering of continual injustices or traumas, in these cases and his own often a result of intense childhood bullying. For Lauri, the inverse condition is ’black rage,’ a responsive, momentary anger that is the source of the majority of violent crimes.

Whether you find this argument convincing or reductive will likely come down to personal beliefs, and indeed Halonen admitted his own interest in the theory came from research into the effects of bullying, something he was exposed to during his school years. Presented with a subject willing to talk at length about his own experiences and thoughts in relation to school shootings and the possible source of their proliferation, Halonen had an aural record he needed to somehow visualise.

Unfortunately, it is in the actualisation of this that his film falls somewhat short. Using a hyper-stylised cinematographic style that renders large parts of the image blurred, Halonen represents the words of his narrator directly and often slightly ridiculously, his actors overdramatising or over-literalising the accounts of Lauri's experiences. These DSLR-looking images, clumsily graded and featuring that super low depth of field effect new cinematographers are often too reliant on, render too explicitly what is being spoken, leaving little to the imagination of either director or audience. Those that veer away from direct representation either appear schlocky, as in a sequence where the actor portraying Lauri imagines slaughtering victims with a two handed sword, or too obvious, like the returning symbol of an overexposed white tunnel with a suited man at the end that Halonen relies too heavily on.

Much of the narrative is personal, focusing at length on moments of particularly intense bullying and how this made the victim feel, how his suffering was converted into a kind of misplaced sense of righteousness that leads to the justification of the murder of innocents. White Rage is tremendously difficult material, and Halotonen is brave to handle it. It’s just unfortunate that the material surrounding the theory of ‘white rage’ comes so late into the film, as the visuals he composes don’t do enough to animate the bulk of his narrator’s anecdotes that came before it. It’s the theoretical content that is going to drive most conversation, as an animated post film Q+A proved, and Halonen’s film doesn’t quite elucidate it effectively enough. Had the film screened only hours later, after the news surrounding the Orlando massacre broke, the experience of viewing both this film and A.J. Schnack's Speaking is Difficult, which screened before it, might have been somewhat different.

The other film that takes up the task of visualising a text is Robert Kenner’s Command and Control, a PBS feature doc that uses Eric Schlosser’s book of the same title as a jumping off point for an examination into America’s relationship with it's nuclear weapon reserves. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the argument here is not against the usage or even storage of nuclear weapons, but more the quality of safety mechanisms employed to prevent the accidental detonation of these objects, incredibly dangerous by design. It’s a kind of frustrated polemic, an exposé into how ridiculous it is to have such ruinous objects in your position and not expect terrible things to occur that appears more and more astonished at the absurdity of its own revelations. As one expert’s testimony relays, it's not even about arguing whether or not you should use these weapons. By storing them, you choose to sit on the “constant verge of accidental destruction” at every minute, posing just as much potential damage to your own nation as the one you may intend to fire upon.

A film about nuclear accidents, Command and Control uses a specific case where destruction was particularly imminent to illustrate how any of the reported thousand-plus “incidents” surrounding nuclear weapon misgivings could instigate humanity’s annihilation, even without any military or political figure taking any action to do so. The case in question is from 1980, when a Titan II Warhead was very nearly detonated in an airbase in Damascus, Arkansas as a result of an engineer dropping a wrench, and its contrasted against similarly hairy cases where minor mistakes could have caused a wipeout. Despite foreknowledge of the end result (you’d have probably read about it, had an actual detonation occurred at Damascus), Command and Control remains entertaining for the duration, Kenner employing testimony from those on site at the time to spin a thriller narrative that builds out from that single act of human error into (near) destruction of millions.

Formally, the doc is generic from the get-go, opening with 1980s word processor type flashing intermittently, radio chatter over the top, miscellaneous digital insignia on screen. From here onwards it's largely talking heads and dramatic recreations, some quite elaborate in construction and style and others more laughably rudimentary. At many points, Kenner plays the horror of the situation as farce, most ridiculously by inserting interviews with a local farmer whose concern is more for the loss of his herd than any human life. It’s also incredibly expository, detailing the points of the narrative in that tediously explanatory form that documentary of this pre-packaged type can be prone to, and some of the testimony is poorly chosen and edited.

Ultimately, Kenner’s doc reports, it is as much down to luck as to the skill of those involved in response and precaution that no detonation accident has yet occurred on American soil. The final, slightly hysteric note in the doc is that accidental detonation will occur, whether today, tomorrow or any number of years from now. Sometimes you kind of wish your documentaries were able to ignore those unavoidable truths, especially when the alternative that won’t produce total annihilation of our species, undiscussed here in total disarmament, is so unlikely.

It's probably a good thing that these features, unlike many of the other modes of information provision we are exposed to, generally refuse to shy away from such matters, but still, stepping out of the Sheffield Showroom and looking out over the cities' grey, gloomy skies, it's hard to not feel like there are less apocalyptic topics worthy of cinematic address, and certainly more creative ways in which to do so. If Doc/Fest's programme, in its volume and diversity, showed anything, its that there are countless subjects worthy of global attention, small and large, and that for an audience beleaguered by volume, a little consideration about approach to form goes a long way.

Originally published on Shooting People's Blog

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