Comics

But for the Trees: “The Woods #2”

Steven Michael Scott

Imagine you’re back in high school. You’re faced with a lot of societal pressures such as fitting in and applying for colleges. Now to top that off your school has inexplicably been transported to an alien galaxy. You are now entering The Woods.


The Woods #2

Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Length: 22 pages
Writer: James Tynion IV, Michael Dialynas
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2014-08
Amazon

Imagine you’re back in high school. Perhaps you still are, or it’s fast approaching. You’re faced with a lot of societal pressures such as fitting in, applying for colleges, making the football team or getting cast in the school play. Now top that off with the fact that your school has inexplicably been transported to an alien galaxy.

You are now entering The Woods.

As we saw previously, the high schoolers of Bay Point Preparatory Academy are not in Wisconsin anymore and the mystery of how and why they’ve been zapped to this strange new world is now unfolding.

So let’s meet our core cast of freaks and geeks: We’ve got the unpopular brainy one, the reluctant jock, the unhinged rebel, the theater geek, and the tough-as-nails chick. It’s as if The Breakfast Club got abducted because this planet’s ruler is a big John Hughes fan and wants to stage his own remake. Hey, it’s just a theory.

So maybe the kids aren’t exact replicas of the Brat Pack but the archetypes are all there, and hopefully they’ll evolve into more rounded versions in the coming issues. If they live long enough. It’s a sci-fi comic but at its core, The Woods is pure horror and the survival of the fittest motif is set up early on. Not even the school is safe as flying alien creatures are bursting into classrooms and eating the first student within reach. A leader must emerge with a plan to get them home before all hope is lost and brainiac Adrian Roth has one that involves venturing into the unknown. The foreboding woods.

The concept is a decent enough hook to reel you in, but the portrayal of some of the characters occasionally doesn’t ring true. The students are depicted as taking charge and being logical while the teachers are clueless and seemingly helpless. This won’t necessarily be the downfall of the book, but it does verge on a contrived device to pave the way for a teachers vs. students rivalry. Not only are the adults lacking any leadership whatsoever (you can’t really blame the kids for wanting to rebel against the useless faculty) but they are also kind of evil. I get that teens are all about rejecting authority, and the normal school rules have now been thrown out the window, but do we really need to paint the teachers as villains? Is there not one decent human being amongst them? Their first order of business is to shut down a Tracy Flick type know-it-all, whose crime is that she’s at least trying to make the best out of a situation she has no control over. The teachers seem more concerned with keeping the students in line than actually working together to survive. Very curious.

Despite any misgivings about the absence of logic (perhaps a nod to horror movie clichés), The Woods isn’t boring. You can’t accuse things of moving too slow, as our ragtag crew has already set off in search of answers. However, sometimes it feels like the answers come too easily. Turns out they’re not on a planet, that it’s actually a moon. Minor detail, but how can they determine in less than an hour that they’re on a moon? It took earthlings centuries to determine that Earth was orbiting the sun by charting the solar system and suddenly the jock is Neil deGrasse Tyson? Can we really assume that this galaxy even remotely resembles the way ours works? Maybe there’s more to this character and the supposed moon than meets the eye, but at the very least, it gets you thinking.

The art is a mixed bag. The humans are all drawn very similarly, and the style brings to mind the Sunday strip Funky Winkerbean. This is not a slam! Certainly not against Funky Winkerbean. I really enjoy the art style of that strip. This is just to say that the art style of the humans would be more at home in the Sunday paper than in a horror comic. Having said that… where the artist really shines here is the monsters. That’s where the art really jumps off the page at you and we’re reminded that this is a scary book with real stakes. If only the rest of the book matched the tone set by the monsters, then we’d have more reason to be terrified.

The Woods is a classic B-movie setup complete with cheesy dialogue and stereotypes, which sometimes takes itself a little too seriously, denying its true essence. As soon as this comic embraces what it is and drops hints to the audience that it is self-aware, I think it will take off as fun, grindhouse-style entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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