Category Archives: movies

The Kindergarten Teacher

Many, many spoilers follow. Trigger warnings also: this movie deals with a teacher’s emotionally abusive relationship with a very young student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Kindergarten Teacher since Mel and I went to see it on Wednesday evening.

There’s much that it does well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lisa, the eponymous teacher at a Staten Island kindergarten. There was never a second where I didn’t buy Lisa’s relationship with her family, or with Jimmy, the child she becomes obsessed with after hearing him recite seemingly improvised poetry one day after school. I was similarly convinced by her quiet disappointment in her own creative efforts, dismissed as derivative by the fellow students in her poetry class, and how this feeds into her unhealthy later behaviour.

The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy – her steps incrementally further over the line past mere teacherly interest in his gifts; his bafflement at the lessons she wants to teach him, and keeps pulling him out of class for – is similarly sharply drawn. It intends to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. Two people walked out of the screening we attended, and about half of the audience kept laughing nervously as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly hard to defend: taking Jimmy into the bathroom during the other children’s nap times to give him a private lesson on subjects like seeing the world from your own unique perspective; giving him her phone number so he can call her if he writes another poem.

My disappointment with the film, to the extent you could call it that when I do think it successful on the whole, lies in the second half of the movie, and particularly the last act.

Lisa having sex with her poetry teacher, Simon (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes attracted to her after she begins to pass off Jimmy’s poetry as her own, is an unnecessary plot point. His later disappointment in her after she takes Jimmy to a poetry recital and he sees that she’s been up to would have been no less acute if their relationship had stayed purely that of a teacher and student.

Throughout the movie, we are shown Lisa’s teaching assistant, Meghan (later revealed by Jimmy to have been the inspiration behind his poem “Anna”; you can see the strings inside Lisa break as he says this. It’s the most psychologically acute moment in the film), noticing what Lisa is doing and watching her. Yet, she never says anything to her or to anyone in authority at the school. After Lisa defies Jimmy’s father and takes Jimmy to the poetry recital at a Manhattan bar, he removes Jimmy from the kindergarten, but he doesn’t call the police or report her beahviour to anyone at Jimmy’s school. Her husband asks her where she’d been on the night of the poetry recital, but didn’t notice on the previous evening when she’d taken Jimmy to an art gallery to show him some, frankly disturbing, paintings.

It’s hard, ultimately, to believe that things could get to the point they reach in the final act without someone stepping in to save Jimmy from what had long since become abusive behaviour from his teacher. As striking as the scenes by the lake are, and as poignant as it is that no one is there to hear Jimmy’s poem at the end of the movie as he sits alone in a police car, the film is at least slightly undermined by Lisa having so little oversight at the school that she is able to carry on this way without anyone calling her to account.

That I began thinking in these terms while watching the third act is a testament to the reality created by writer/director Sara Collangelo (who adapted the story from an Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid; I confess, I don’t know whether the teacher’s behaviour is challenged by anyone in his movie) throughout the rest of the movie. Collangelo builds a wholly believable world and set of motivations for Lisa that remain consistent throughout the film and are revealed to us beautifully through Pepe Avila del Pino’s camerawork as much as through her dialogue. His use of medium shots – repeatedly showing us Gyllenhaal towering over the children in her class – remind us constantly of her place in their lives as protector and educator, and the corruption of that in her relationship with Jimmy. The use of contrasting close-ups (showing us Gyllenhaal’s reactions to disappointment, or her increasingly discomforting physicality with Jimmy (touching his back, fondling his hair, whispering in his ear), are all the more claustrophobic and creepy. When the world and the relationships in it are this real-world credible, the more heightened elements of the plot necessarily stick out more.

Not a masterpiece, then, but thoughtful and provocative.

 

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Scream for Me Sarajevo

The other day I went to see Scream for Me Sarajevo, a feature-length documentary about a 1994 gig the then-former Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson played in the Bosnian capital during the siege.

Directed by Tarik Hodzic, the film is fascinating not merely, or even mainly, for the story of the concert, but for the long section at the start of the documentary where we meet a selection of attendees, metalheads now in their thirties and forties, who talk compellingly and movingly of life during the siege (which lasted almost four years and claimed nearly 14,000 lives). Interviewed separately, they all stressed their passion for music and how important it was in their lives. One man spoke of how in the brief interludes when the electricity supply in his family’s home was working he would dedicate all the time he could to playing his guitar, not knowing when he’d get the chance again.

The concert was arranged by Martin Morris, a British army major attached to the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, who took it upon himself to try to give the youth of Sarajevo an escape from the horror of their lives in the city, even if only for one evening. Although the documentary doesn’t say how he did it or whether he had any connections to call on, he eventually got hold of Dickinson and asked him to come and play a gig there. Dickinson, to his eternal credit, agreed – and then told his band that they were going to play a show in a war zone (that bit may be slightly less to his credit).

Morris publicised the show via an underground radio station, persuaded his seniors that they shouldn’t cancel it despite the enormous security risks (they didn’t get wind of what he was up to till the wheels were in motion), then flew Dickinson and the band in and tried to get safe passage for them into the city. This turned out to be harder than planned. The UN refused to fly them from Split to Sarajevo, quite understandably given the heavy shelling that day. Improvising, Morris and his street-smart colleague Trevor Gibson bundled the band and their gear into vans driven by British aid organisation the Serious Road Trip, hoping like hell none of the vehicles would be blown up.

Another filmmaker – a British filmmaker maybe – would have made this story about Bruce Dickinson riding into town on his white horse and making everything better for everyone. Tarik Hodzic is telling a different story, though. Dickinson is an important part of it, and I think it’s clear from the film that Hodzic and everyone interviewed who was at the gig have a lot of respect for Dickinson for putting himself in very real danger when he could have much more easily just stayed at home. But this is the story of a city and its people living through the most desperate of times, and of the power of music to give hope and comfort in even the most terrible situation.

Threads

Today we’re going to discuss a 1984 BBC movie called Threads, about nuclear war. It’s strong stuff, so please do take that as a warning. Spoilers follow.

Threads never leaves you. No film has ever affected me as deeply, or for anything like as long. I remember vividly the first time I watched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days later, I still felt depressed by what I’d seen. This was about six or seven years ago, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and an event like this stopped seeming inevitable.

I’m 34, so I can remember the last years of the Cold War, but I was only two when Threads was made, and it’s only been seen on British TV rarely since. I saw it first on YouTube or Vimeo (I forget), its impact dulled only slightly by the grainy image. And frankly, there were times in the firestorm scenes where I was grateful for not being able to see the images of charred corpses in total clarity.

Let’s back up. Threads was written by Barry Hinds, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave (which Ken Loach made into Kes), and was co-produced by the BBC, Australia’s Channel Nine and Western-World TV. Its director was Mick Jackson, who’d go on to make, of all things, The Bodyguard.

It’s essentially a docudrama, showing the effects of a nuclear exchange on the UK city of Sheffield, a target for its steel and mining industries, as well as for having a nearby US air base. It’s a small miracle of film-making. It was produced on a budget of about a quarter of a million pounds (far less than its US counterpart, The Day After), yet tells an ambitious story over a roughly 10-year period. It shows an entirely city being destroyed, and the pathetic attempts of civilisation to reassert itself during the resultant nuclear winter. By the time it’s finished, every character we see at the beginning of the film is dead.

The bombs don’t start falling until 45 minutes in, yet the early scenes are full of foreboding. Ruth and Jimmy are a young couple. She’s pregnant, and the pair decide to get married and move in together. Scenes of their families meeting, and of Ruth and Jimmy working on their new house, play out as TVs and radios in the background give updates on an escalating crisis situation in the Middle East, with Russia refusing to acknowledge US ultimatums. Eventually missiles are exchanged over the North Sea, and Sheffield is destroyed.

The film is unsparing in its depiction of what happens next. Jimmy is at work when it happens and he never sees Ruth again. We last see him running through the streets to try to get to her, 51 minutes into the 2-hour film. His fate is left unknown to us. (As a viewer in 2016, this is even more surprising as Reece Dinsdale, the actor who played Jimmy, is the only familiar face on screen – he’d go on to star in ITV sitcom Home to Roost with John Thaw, and was in Coronation Street for a couple of years too.)

Ruth, meanwhile, survives the blast, in the cellar of her parents’ house. But days after the attack, she leaves the house to look for Jimmy. Later she returns, and her parents are dead in the cellar. We don’t see them, merely hearing the flies and scuttling of rats as she opens the door down to the cellar. Threads is, as I say, unsparing.

Ruth survives 10 years of nuclear winter, long enough to have her daughter, Jane, and to grow blind (cataracts) and prematurely aged from radiation poisoning. Jane grows up near mute (there is no system of education so language decays to a bare minimum of words needed to facilitate survival; order is maintained by the essentially totalitarian government witholding food from those unwilling to work) and the film ends with Jane screaming at the sight of her own stillborn baby.

This rough outline of the plot doesn’t come close to capturing the full horror. It’s the sheer relentlessness of Threads that’s so harrowing. Throughout the film, we frequently cut away to title cards giving updates on plot elements that happen off-screen or that give some indication of the nationwide picture. One such particularly brutal cut comes during the firestorm scene. After seeing several shots of buildings (shops, offices and terraced houses) destroyed by the blast wave, a title card tells us that two-thirds of houses in Britain are in the possible fire zone. We cut back to a shot of a whole city on fire, with everything that wasn’t already flattened burning.

That’s what remains so shocking about Threads. It’s not one individual thing. It’s not the burning bodies, the corpses in the wreckage, the scenes of survivors eating rats, or radioactive sheep; it’s not the soldiers gunning down looters, the council’s disaster response team all dying of suffocation in their shelter before they can be dug out, or the stillborn babies. It’s everything. It’s the total lack of pretense from Hinds and Jackson that an event like this could be survivable and anything like life as we know it could continue after. Some on the right have decried the film as propaganda, but Jackson was hired because he’d worked on the BBC’s QED programme A Guide to Armageddon, and Hinds and Jackson spent a week in a Home Office training centre for “official” survivors who’d need to help with the reconstruction effort.Hinds used sources such as Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, an article that Carl Sagan and James Pollack wrote for Scientist to determine realistic scenarios. From the vantage point of 2016, it’s amazing that it was ever broadcast. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, sent a letter of congratulations to Hinds. Ronald Reagan reportedly requested a screening of it.

I’m not ashamed to say Threads changed my stance on nuclear disarmament, pushing me far further towards unilateral disarmament that I’d been before. The idea that we’d spend another penny on weapons that can do this rather than education and welfare makes me boilingly angry. I honestly couldn’t recommend you watch Threads – it really is tremendously  disturbing, it’s in no way enjoyable, and if you do watch it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to forget what you see. But I’m glad that I have seen it, however uncomfortable it was to watch.