Reviews

'The White King' Boldly Embraces Film as an Incomplete Form

Jonathan Pryce and Lorenzo Allchurch in The White King (2016)

Here are two storytellers that seemingly trust and embrace the cinéliterate audience to extrapolate, to understand, of their own volition.


The White King

Director: Alex Helfrecht, Jörg Tittel
Cast: Olivia Williams, Jonathan Pryce, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Year: 2016

Jörg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht’s directorial feature debut, The White King, an adaptation of György Dragomán’s dystopian novel of the same name, is the story of 12-year-old Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch). The arrest of his father by the totalitarian state is the catalyst for his own coming of age, and the ostracisation of he and his mother, Hannah (Agyness Deyn).

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” These words of Thomas Jefferson resonate with Tittel and Helfrecht’s dystopian vision. Told through the eyes of its young protagonist, The White King sows the seed that one hopes will grow into a dream for a future that is preferable to “the history of the past”. Yet if Djata, like an earlier youthful heroine in Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of The Hunger Games trilogy, are the heroes upon which “the dreams of the future” rest, then the wisdom of the Buddha -- “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” -- is ingrained in a story told with pragmatic patience.

Unlike other dystopian tales, amongst them Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alfonso Caurón’s Children of Men (2006), Tittel and Helfrecht show little interest in a self-contained story. The choice is one that risks provoking a backlash, but the emphasis on a moment, the chapter between the rise and fall of a regime, strikes up the most unusual or rather unexpected of acquaintances with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). An adaptation of author Maile Meloy's collection of stories, Reichardt’s film is a celebration of the small moments in the lives of the characters. Although one film is set in Montana, the other in a fictitious dystopian country in the future, Reichardt, Tittel and Helfrecht show storytelling as a communal language, or one of close association in spite of seemingly deep contrasts.

The White King is a bold and brave piece of filmmaking that embraces film as an incomplete form. The ideas are presented in such a way that they require the engagement of the audience. While it's true that any film is fundamentally an incomplete object until it's experienced by a single spectator, here are two storytellers that seemingly trust and embrace the ciné-literate audience to extrapolate, to understand, of their own volition.

During my interview with writer-director Nicolas Pesce for the FrightFest blog, I asked him about the striking omission of a key scene from The Eyes of My Mother (2016). He explained: “Part of the speed and tone of the movie was giving the audience places to answer for themselves… By letting the audience do the work, whether it's the dramatic work or the scares, it will be more relatable to them if they are the ones answering the questions.” Tittel and Helfrecht’s brand of creating space for the audience is perhaps less overt, presenting a tapestry of ideas or images that requires us to build outward from, to intellectualise those seeds sown in the emotional experience of the film.

As an Orwellian inspired adaptation, the voyeuristic state whose presence is noted through shots of cameras is also sparingly incorporated. These are interwoven with the coming of age narrative, the violent tussles with bullies to discovering the reality in the stories that lend the world a mysterious, strange and fantastical aura.

Told through the eyes of an adolescent, the film looks to the replacement of the old by the young, and the attempts of the established order to safeguard tradition. The filmmakers understand there's a process of shedding the childlike perspective for the adult world view. While our adult perspective sees revolution and the collapse of the state, Djata’s are more humanly simple: he wants to be reunited with his father.

This speaks to the difficulty of following the wisdom of The Buddha, because as humans the struggle to not dwell on the past or to look to the future is a constant challenge. This is attributable to the simple fact that making peace with or resolving the past forms the future dream or hope we are striving for. While Djata’s simple hope captures a snapshot of the past, present and future coinciding within the folds of the drama, adulthood is exposed as a contradiction. This revelation looks to the work of C.G Jung, specifically the inherent pull between the desire to be an individual with the desire to assimilate ourselves into our immediate society.

Djata’s grandfather (Jonathan Pryce) is a representation of internal and external conflict. The character is initially simple; he's revealed to be an individual suffering complex feelings, and damaged by the contradiction of his outward projection versus his inward feelings. Pryce’s character throws up the question of how impermanent our identity is. In the same way as the state creates a version of history, through this single character we see the contradiction of identities that are created for purposes of social belonging versus who we are in our isolation, or with those we place trust to reveal our inner most feelings.

If The a White King is told through the perspective of an adolescent, Djata’s interactions with his elders echoes Jung’s observation that we learn about our world in our formative years, while our post-adolescence is spent understanding ourselves. Yet this understanding is one convoluted by acts of contradictory self-authorship.

Interviewing Tittel and Helfrecht for the Aesthetica Short Film Festival blog for the UK theatrical release of the film, they described the purpose of any dystopian novel or piece of fiction as being: “To hold a mirror to where we are today.” From within the oppressive folds of a future dystopia emerges a stark presential warning. While numerous documentaries, amongst them The Square (2008) and Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait (2014) have been produced looking to the struggle against totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, Tittel and Helfrecht's dystopian and fictional future is not far removed from our present. The White King is a bold vision crafted with conviction, whose youthful hero is destined to escape his own transformative brawl, and forges a powerful and evocative tale of adolescence mortally wounded.

8

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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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