Putting the Work in: Some Problems with Films Today

in 30th Warsaw Film Festival

by Michael Pattison

Despite living through a period defined, for millions of people everywhere, by unemployment, debt, bankruptcy, hunger, poverty, dilapidation, preventable disease and general disenfranchisement — in addition to the ongoing problems of institutionally engrained racism, sexism, ageism and classism — many filmmakers continue to bury their heads in the ground, preferring to focus on the negligible, the inconsequential and the offensively whimsical.

Films like Katarzyna Jungowska’s Fanciful (Piate: nie odchodz), Oles Sanin’s The Guide (Provodyr), Jesús Magana Vásquez’s Alice in Marialand (Alicia en el país de María), Nigina Sayfullaeva’s Name Me (Kak menya zovut), Andrew Sala’s Pantanal, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s The Lesson (Urok) and Drazen Kuljanin’s How to Stop a Wedding (Hur man stoppar ett bröllop) all suffer from a number of problems. While some reduce life to a battle between good and evil, others are marred by overcooked plots, engineered miserablism and depressingly or laughably inept direction.

More than anything, framing continues to be the difference between a compelling work and an inert one. How a shot is set up and how the action within it is arranged can determine how the work engages with the world as a whole. Conversely, too many films are drawing attention to what they are not doing rather than to what they are. Following the back of a protagonist’s head, for instance, as she navigates a world we are never really shown, has obvious drawbacks.

Not that every film needs to further a consciously defined political aim. To some degree and at a particular moment, however, an artist must rise to the occasion and intervene upon it. She must grab history by its feeble throat. All we ask is for a work to burn, in some way at least, with an active curiosity for the world. This alone can compel an otherwise limited filmmaker to include elements of a tumultuous social picture even when they didn’t consciously seek to do so.

To this end, Modris, the first feature by Latvia’s Juris Kursietis, is a based-on-actual-events film whose problems are worth talking through. It focuses on Modris (Kristes Piškas), a 17-year-old schoolboy who lives with his single mother. Modris has a gambling addiction, and sinks whatever coins he has into the local slot machines. He is also under the impression that his father is in prison. Left with an insurmountable debt, he pawns one of his mother’s possessions, and is arrested as a result. Modris is given a two-year suspended sentence, and is placed under supervision. Discovering his father is in fact not incarcerated, he becomes increasingly listless and wayward.

As its title suggests, Modris is about a single character, but its writer-director, having cast a non-professional actor (after looking at an alleged 1200), has opted for a familiarly narrow vantage point from which to tell his story. Piškas has a distinctive, profitably inexpressive face — strangely soft, with tinges of a young Robert Mitchum behind his nonchalantly glazed eyes — but to what extent does never veering away from it serve Kursietis’s storytelling? Though the opening shot of the film zooms out from our protagonist to reveal an icily drab area of contemporary Riga, Kursietis opts thereafter for a persistently claustrophobic palette. What of it?

Perhaps seeking something resembling ‘authenticity’ or ‘naturalism’, the handheld camera is in a constant state of verité-style catch-up here, panning furiously between two people speaking to one another in the same room. Though it might convey the physical and therefore emotional distance between these characters, such camerawork resembles some wholly misguided aspiration to a documentary aesthetic, or else betrays a lack of confidence in the performers to carry a scene unfolding in anything other than shaky close-ups.

Truth be told, these are arbitrary reasons for not allowing a dramatic scene to unfold in less frantic, wider shots. A wider shot accommodates the literal space between and around two characters, whereas handheld pans between them tend to obliterate that space. A social milieu is important: characters, like people, are perhaps the sum of their relations — with family, other people and institutions. But while there’s something suitably and cumulatively gruelling in the way, say, the Dardennes follow a character to such an unflinching degree, their films also gradually reveal a more panoramic view of the world navigated.

In contrast, Modris’s clear aspiration to psychological plausibility is undermined by the casual, even lazy consideration of a social believability. The possibly prevalent assumption today is that a character study can be achieved merely by staying with that character for a certain amount of time. Given his protagonist’s crippling lack of basic social skills, however, Kursietis has his work cut out. Of course, a fatherless boy with visible anxiety is not an inherent weakness — and in a performer like Piškas, there is a great deal of potential.

The film’s problems are more fundamental. In one scene, when Modris attends a dinner party hosted by his girlfriend’s parents, and the camera remains fixed on him while everyone else drunkenly talks around him, we see his vulnerability and confusion. While clearly intended to evoke empathy with and perhaps pity for Modris, the scene is frustrating precisely because one senses a certain design behind it, not only in the deliberate framing but also in the way these adults are (not) engaging with the young lad, whose palpable unease they would presumably notice.

Other questions: how are we to believe Modris has a girlfriend like this to begin with, and why does she finally ditch him in the way that she does? The film takes it as a given that we accept such behavioural incongruities. And, just when its unfolding dramatic situation threatens to demand more of Kursietis, the director looks away: Modris ends with an edgily ambiguous cut-to-black like so many other films on the festival circuit today. Frankly, its makers haven’t put the work in.

Michael Pattison