Monday, October 17, 2011

Oliver Laxe's hybrid documentary YOU ARE ALL CAPTAINS gets week-long run at AFA

Budding filmmaker Oliver Laxe has only one film to his credit so far, but YOU ARE ALL CAPTAINS (TODOS VÓS SODES CAPITÁNS)--a combination of narrative and documentary techniques filmed in stunning black-and-white (by Ines Thomsen) at the service of a very slight tale that nonetheless seems to offer a lot of buried possibilities-- has already attracted some attention on the critical front (it won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes).

Mr. Laxe, shown at left -- who wrote, directed and appears in his movie as one of the leading actors -- has quite an interes-ting history. I sug-gest clicking on this "history" link and reading what the filmmaker has to say about himself and his project -- though maybe after you've seen the film. His words explain quite well where he comes from (literally & figura-tively) and what he was attempting. You'll then be able to determine whether he has succeeded.

His film tackles various ideas: the western European filmmaker in North Africa, latter-day colonialism in action, film as narration and documentary, and the lives of children (in this case disadvantaged ones). The movie begins, with perhaps its best scene, as the kids watch a plane arriving, first in the distance and finally right above them. We learn first that a filmmaker is here to work with the kids and teach them filmmaking. Then their school-teacher begins with some instruction on the meaning of various hand signals/signs.

We see a bit of the children's lives and group home, then some would-be filming, and midway, problems seem to arise (we don't really see these), and the filmmaker begs one of the older kids (shown below) -- or maybe a younger adult -- to be his assistant. The guy refuses, and then, it seems that he and the kids take over the film themselves -- shooting some of the very things that the kids have stated they wanted to film all along. The movie ends with a very, very long shot (in both meanings of the word) of them all walking into the distance. And that's it.

What's missing most here is any sense of the genuinely organic. You Are All Captains seems fractured into layers of ideas that don't really coalesce. Instead, they clunk. For all we see of these children, only their faces register with much individuality. Laxe does not choose incidents that would give us clues into their personalities. Likewise, certain important things are more often told than shown -- particularly the question of whether or not the filmmaker is treating the kids well or properly.  The kids evidently have said that he is not, and other adults say no, but we don't really see this in action.  "Benign neglect" maybe, but little more than that.

The films pacing is also jagged. Certain scenes go on and on, while others seem unnecessarily abrupt, adding to the movie's sense of fracture. Ideas are here, all  right, but they are not brought to the kind of life that good narrative filmmaking can offer, yet neither does the movie work as a documentary because it is so clearly not a doc in many ways. It exists finally as an idea on a page -- full of glorious images (for example, the one below) provided by cinematographer Thomsen -- that never quite takes flight.

And yet, for many of those images alone, I would sit through the film again.  They are simply stunning. And Mr. Laxe himself is easy to watch. As are all the kids, and particularly that fellow, below, whom the director begs to assist him.  The scene is which he refuses, constantly smiling but saying no, is a ironic, culture-clash delight.

As another in the burgeoning array of hybrid docs, You Are All Captains is a flawed original. I hope to be there when Mr Laxe, who clearly has a lot of ideas and  talent going for him, finds a way to blend these into something more of a "whole."

Meanwhille, the film -- distributed by Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) -- opens for its week-long run this Wednesday, October 19, at New York's Anthology Film Archives. Showings are daily at 7:15 and 9pm, with 5:30pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Click here for directions to AFA; here to purchase tickets. The film will also play at NWFF in Seattle this November 18 through 23. Click here for more information on its Pacific-Northwest run.

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