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Emotion and truth

‘Reality doesn’t interest me,’ said Leni Riefenstahl in a piece in Der Spiegel in August 1997 (Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitlers Wirkung auf die Menschen Spiegel 18.08.1997).

Hitler’s favourite film-maker died in 2003 aged 101 and this quote, usually lifted out of context, did nothing to mitigate her notoriety. Her statement was an answer to the following question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’ ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality,’ Riefenstahl replied.

My immediate reaction is ‘But wouldn’t we all leave the rubbish out?’

It is the sort of self-editing that most of us engage in when we are taking holiday photographs. We compose our shots to leave out the construction site that marrs the view of the old town, the unknown family that spoils our white-sanded beach, the cars that intrude into the sense of loneliness we want to capture on a coastal path.

My second reaction is ‘But what is the purpose of those pictures?’

If I am taking holiday snaps to remind me of how a place resonated with me, that allows me to be transported back there when I look at them, I am looking to take pictures that evoke an emotional response. I want to capture scenes that evoke memories of how beautiful a place was, how bleak it was, how peaceful it was. I am not looking to capture the essential truth of the place except in so far as that emotion is concerned.

Of course, there are other photographs I might be wanting to take – ones that document how disingenuous the holiday brochure was, how crowded the beach was, how the traffic crashed in on you at every moment. These may not evoke the same memories or feelings when I look at them, but they are ‘true’ in a way that those I self-edit aren’t. When we look at photographs in a newspaper, or we watch a documentary film, we place some trust in the film-maker that, whatever our emotional response, what we are seeing is ‘true’.

The power of Riefenstahl’s National Socialist propaganda film-making, as seen in the likes of Triumph of the Will, came from creating images and using soundscapes designed to evoke a powerful emotional response, whilst presenting them as documentary truth – even though some of the scenes were rehearsed fifty times, camera shots were distorted to create senses of scale and it allows a sense of party, state and people being a single united entity to emerge as unchallenged fact, exactly as her Nazi paymasters wanted.

Propaganda as a word is Italian in origin, taken from the modern Latin: ‘Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ or ‘Congregation for Propagation of the Faith’. This was the committee of cardinals charged by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 with overseeing evangelical foreign missions and ensuring uniformity of teaching and interpretation – of ‘truth’. Its modern political interpretation emerged in the early twentieth century, encapsulating Riefenstahl’s style of film-making perfectly.

Yet bending the truth in film is not the preserve of dictators and repressive regimes.

War and lies

The Battle of San Pietro is a documentary film made by acclaimed director John Huston, apparently showing the Battle of San Pietro Infine as it happens, Huston claiming that the cameramen, who were attached to the U.S. Army’s 143rd Regiment of the 6th Division, filmed alongside soldiers as they fought their way up hill towards San Pietro. Later research by Peter Maslowski, in his book Armed With Cameras, demonstrated that this was false.  Once again, those watching were led to believe that the events recorded were as they happened. And elements of course were true – the body bags, the distraught Italians coming home. However, crucially, large elements were re-enactment. Or, to put it less generously, made-up.

The viewer doesn’t know where truth ends and fiction begins.

More recently, Canadian Michael Jorgensen made the controversial film Unclaimed, seeking to substantiate the oft-repeated claim (reinforced by various Hollywood blockbusters including Rambo: First Blood Part II), that some troops listed by the U.S. government as MIA were actually POWs held long after the cessation of military action.

Jorgensen’s film seeks to tell the story of former Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who, shot down over Laos and listed as MIA, but who was allegedly actually imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. After a year, it is claimed, he was released and married a Vietnamese woman, living in a remote village in south-central Vietnam. Robertson forgot how to speak English and forgot the names of his American children.

It is a powerful piece of film-making, including at-first-sight reunions and was intended as a device to reunite Robertson with his family.

Again, however, its central claim had considerable doubt cast upon it. The Independent newspaper carried an extensive report debunking the claims:

‘According to a memo sent to a UK news organisation yesterday evening, the man claiming to be Sgt Robertson is in fact Dang Tan Ngoc – a 76-year-old Vietnamese citizen of French origin who has a history of pretending to be US army veterans.

The memo, taken from a Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office report in 2009, apparently says Ngoc first came to the attention of the US military in 2006 when he started telling people he was Sgt John Hartley Robertson.

He was apparently questioned about the claims but quickly admitted he had been lying and was in fact Vietnamese.

In 2008 Ngoc apparently began claiming to be Sgt Robertson once again, and he was taken to a US embassy in Cambodia to be fingerprinted. It was quickly established that the fingerprints did not match those of the missing army veteran.’

Later in 2013, a DNA test conducted reluctantly by the family showed that the man who was presented as Robertson was unrelated to Robertson’s nephew.

Of course, questions remain about the story of John Hartley Robertson, and who the man in the jungle is, but the ‘truth’ is certainly not as presented in Jorgensen’s film, just as it may not be as is presented by the Department of Defense (this article explores those questions further).

Modern falsehoods

Jump forward to November 2014.

On Armistice Day, Metro, the free paper handed out on the tube, carried an incredible story entitled ‘Hero Syrian boy ‘braves sniper fire’ to rescue girl in amazing video’. It described how a Syrian boy, under fire from snipers, rescues his friend, a young girl, and pulls her to safety. Incredibly, the whole thing had been captured on film.

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of film-making.

It was Armistice Day. I had recently written about my great, great uncle. Every morning for a month I had disembarked at Fenchurch Street and seen the crowds building to see the incredible poppy installation at the Tower of London. I remember how I felt reading that story against a backdrop of reflections on war, evil and loss. This small victory of tremendous youthful bravery over evil created a sense of defiant hope. I remember thinking that I should find a moment to blog it.

The trouble is, it has emerged that not a single frame of it is true.

The millions of us who viewed that film, that reacted to it, who wondered on the fate of the two children after they escaped the sniper’s bullets, were duped by Lars Klevberg, a 34 year-old film-maker from Norway. In a piece for the BBC he said:

‘If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope,’ he said. ‘We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator,’ Klevberg said. ‘The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta.’

Were they comfortable making a film that potentially deceived millions of people? ‘I was not uncomfortable,’ Klevberg said. ‘By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.’

Klevberg’s audacity is breath-taking and his intentions, surely, dubious at best. It is possible to generate a debate about war without faking footage and misleading people.

Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful piece of film-making which purports to show the events that lead up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow often uses documentary-style camera shots to create a sense of immediacy and reality, reflecting the sorts of camera shots we see in contemporary news reports. At no point, however, does she claim that the film is documentary truth. The viewer is able to make a judgement as to whether or not the events were as depicted because we know this is a Hollywood film.

Klevberg’s clip is particularly insidious. It plays on the emotions that we have about children, especially children in war. It uses the sorts of footage that we have come to associate with documentary film-making and news reports. It depicts scenes that we imagine and that we have read about. Some of us have friends in Syria who are living this hell day in and day out. Yet Klevberg’s footage is entirely fake.

Who had heard of Lars Klevberg outside his native Norway before this emotionally-manipulative stunt? No-one beyond a small group of aficionados. Now he has trended worldwide on social media. For all of his protestations, it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cynical device for self-promotion, to register with a world hungry for some sense of hope in a conflict whose manifestations of evil affect us on a very primal level.

Deception and destabilisation

I think its effect is more dangerous.

It is a deliberate lie that reinforces our scepticism about everything we see. Many will argue that is a good thing. However, at a time when it hard enough to discern truth in the images we are presented with, when videos of IS terrorists committing murder for worldwide audiences of billions have to be ‘verified’, Klevberg’s actions seem utterly irresponsible, even to this liberal who instinctively distrusts power and questions constantly the evidence he is presented with. Scepticism built on a deliberate lie is as misleadingly useless as blind faith in authority.

Klevberg has done nothing to further confidence in documentary film-making and journalism. At best he has cast aspersions on his profession. At worst he has deliberately sought to manipulate emotion, mislead a worldwide public and construct events in a manner that fundamentally undermines trust. In doing so, he reinforces terrorist claims that what we see on our TV screens is nothing but Western propaganda.

We can be forgiven a creeping sense of déjà vu.

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starwarstvtimesIt’s been a long time since I was a Star Wars fanboi, counting down the years (as it was when I were a lad) from when it appeared in the theatres to when it appeared on TV.

I remember my  Dad taking my cousin and me to see Jungle Book and me looking longingly at the queues to see Star Wars as we went inside. That would have been somewhere around 1978, the film having hit UK cinemas on December 27th 1977. I remember being mesmerised by the trailer – and having to wait until I was ten, on Sunday 24th October 1982, to see it on TV for the first time (it aired on ITV from 7.15pm to 9.30pm). That was back before the existence of Channel 4 and you needed two magazines to see what was on three channels!

I was never an aficionado of Star Wars LEGO® or played any of the Star Wars computer games and my Star Wars mania waned as I became hooked on Star Trek and its successors. Still, Star Wars held a quiet affection for me as the original and best space epic, even if my geek tendencies took me away from film and into home computers and gaming.

When the three Star Wars prequels appeared, I saw Phantom Menace, but it didn’t capture me in the way that the original had so many years before.

And then this.

Step forward a global army of Star Wars geeks to take on a challenge that is only really possible in the Internet age and which has reminded me why I loved the original three films so much.

Casey Pugh’s Star Wars Uncut has been around for years and I have no idea how I missed it. If you did, too, then take a look. Fans from all over the world have lovingly recreated the original in 15 second segments. Just about every form of amateur film-making can be found in its two hours. I’ve not watched it all yet, but the bits I have seen reveal that Star Wars retains its appeal to people of all ages.

A long time ago…

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death-star-660x448According to the last census (2011), there were still 176, 632 Jedi Knights in the United Kingdom.  As the Guardian reported, that represented a significant decline on 2001 when around 300,000 Jedi Knights were keeping us safe from The Empire (coincidentally, George Bush was US President from 2001 to 2009), but they are still a force to be reckoned with. And thankfully, we are not in Star Wars: Episode IV “A New Hope” territory yet.

Hopefully, the ranks of aspiring Luke Skywalkers will be emboldened by the latest announcement from the White House. In responding officially to a petition on the White House website calling for America to build a Death Star, Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, offered this formal response:

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”

The geopolitical ramifications of building a Death Star aside, Shawcross is quite right to remind folks that actually it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of robust design. Perhaps a little more worryingly it shows just how deeply imprinted Star Wars is on the American psyche. But let’s not go there!

Anyone wanting a little light relief and some reassurance that, just occasionally, government officials do have a sense of humour, should read his full response.

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I’ve long been a gamer, ever since I first laid my sticky mitts on a ZX81 and dived into Mazogs:

My favourite games these days are MMOs, usually fantasy-based, like EQ and EQ2. I have also had a sneaking fondness for FPS games, like Unreal Tournament. The game I am playing most at the moment is Battlefield 3. Up to 32 players on each side, from across the world, play as either US or Russian forces in various forms of battle on various maps, small and large. My liking for this sort of thing is probably a throwback to watching films like Where Eagles Dare as a kid, though there is also a real and peculiar sense of camaraderie when four of you are locked down in the same squad, all communicating by Team Speak, buildings blowing up around you and ammo running low. It is also remarkably cathartic after a frustrating day.

We are so used to seeing computer graphics in films these days, like the magnificent CGI tiger in Life Of Pi, that we can barely distinguish them from the real thing. Conversely, the graphics in many modern games, like BF3, are so realistic, and the models so controllable, that artistic sorts around the world are creating films using exclusively in-game footage.

This effort from Fierce Eagles, a team of gamers in Pakistan, and ultra-violent as it is being based on BF3, is quite something else.

Take a look at Mazogs above.

And then check out the video below to see how scarily gaming technology has advanced in the thirty years since Mazogs was published by Bug Byte in 1982. (Warning: there is a lot of shooting and killing.)

Where will full-immersion 3D, more powerful processors and even higher definitions take us in the next thirty years?

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What is it about cinema? I’ve always loved it and we are spoiled today with an array of multiplexes. With their smaller studio screens they have even recognised that there is a market for art house and foreign cinema, as well as the latest blockbuster, so even those of a more discerning taste can find something to watch.

However, today’s excursion to Skyfall, a second viewing, mid-week and starting at just about tea time, was an eye-opener as far as the behaviour of other cinemas-goers  went. Perhaps at 40 I am becoming a curmudgeonly old git. On the other hand, perhaps my twat toleration levels are severely depleted. Anyway, herewith some handy thoughts to make communal viewing a more pleasurable experience, inspired by unprecedented levels of cretinous behaviour at today’s screening.

Start time

It used to be that you had to buy a local newspaper to find out what was on at the local cinema. Now, though, with a little initiative, you can find the start time listed online. Ain’t technology great? Knowing when the film begins is Very Handy. It means you don’t have to walk in after the adverts, after the trailers and after the opening sequences. Yes, that goes for all TWELVE of you that did that today. You can actually enjoy the whole film (!) if you turn up on time.

Seats

Cinemas generally allocate seats. You can find your seat reference handily printed on your ticket. Don’t be a twat and pretend that you didn’t know you were sitting in the premium seats when you only paid for standard. It’s only embarrassing for you when you are asked to move.

Fidgeting

Sit still. I realise this is a challenge in our ADHD-addled 21st Century world, but honestly. The length of the film can be found online. If you can’t sit still, don’t bloody ruin it for the rest of us by fidgeting like an arse and making your chair squeak.

Food and drink

It’s a cinema. Not a restaurant. Of course have a snack or sweets. But EAT QUIETLY. And certainly with your mouth shut, unlike the munching fules that insisted on rustling their popcorn today before chomping away with their mouths open, so we could all share in the sonorous delights of their mastication.

The loo

Go before the film. Trust me. It’s the best plan. As above, you can tell how long the film lasts. You know how long you can usually go without going. So go before. And don’t order that bucket-sized Pepsi which is a diabetes bomb waiting to explode. You never know when you are going to rub up against the person who won’t move or stand up to let you out. Plan ahead.

Phones

Does this really need saying? Turn them off! You are not James Bond, even if you think you are. You are not going to be called into action. If you are awaiting an important call, or are concerned about the welfare of someone else, get your priorities right and get out of the cinema. It’s not like you have to wait years for it to come out on DVD. You are NOT more special than the rest of us and you really can survive without a text message for two hours. There was a time when people went their entire lives without sending or receiving texts. No, honestly. It is true.

Talking

Don’t! Again, does this really need saying? The odd whisper? Of course. A gasp of surprise? Definitely. Laughter? If appropriate. Talking? NEVER!

And finally?

Follow these simple rules and enjoy the film. Or else…

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In sixteen novels I have come to regard Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher as my heroic alter ego.

Reacher is described as 6′ 5″ tall with a 50″ chest, weighing in at 220-250lbs and with dirty blonde hair. His size is a significant part of his character and affects how he feels about himself and how he is seen by others. I’ve often thought a movie would be great and always wondered who the heck they’d get to play him. I was a bit miffed when they announced that the first film would be One Shot, which is actually the ninth book and by no means the best. Still, I reasoned, they had to start somewhere and there’s enough of a debate as to whether or not you should read the books in order that it didn’t really matter.

So the question was who would play Reacher? I realise 6′ 5″ is a big ask, but you could at least go tall.

I always thought Christopher Meloni, Elliot Stabler in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, would be quite good. He’s got height, at 6′ 0″ and a good jaw for it.  Similarly, Canadian Ryan Reynolds, at 6′ 2″, would make a passable Reacher.

So who did they choose?

Tom Cruise. All 5’ 7″ of him.

One Shot is out on 26th December in the UK. I will never think of Jack Reacher the same way.

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Lego lunacy

A friend’s Facebook update reminded me how much I used to love Lego® as a kid.

Lego was kept in a special box (and, latterly, when I needed additional storage, an old Quality Street tin). It was a green-coloured wooden box that Granddad had made specially, with brass hinges and brass hooks, and numerous internal compartments. From time to time I would sort the various bricks and planks into types, putting them in different sections. It’s what probably led me to insist on alphabetising my CD and DVD collections…

The living room now looking like an explosion in a Lego factory, I would build space stations in the vicinity of the neighbourhood Lego garage, with spaceships to explore the strange new world of the Christmas tree, its lights twinkling away like stars and its glass baubles dangling like asteroids. Back then, most of the pieces weren’t pre-moulded and so you had to be inventive with the bits you did have to create wings, cockpits, laser cannons etc. Lighting bricks, with a cleverly concealed battery pack, lent these Lego landscapes an eerie quality, especially in the dark, with Lego figurines casting four-inch shadows on the plastic tarmac.

Skip forward twenty years and stop-motion animators have had a world of fun with Lego.

Here are four of my favourites: The Battle For Helm’s Deep (by TXsamwise), Star Wars – The Elevator (by obibrickkenobi), The Letter (by JamesFM) and The Ninja Fight (byLegoDude8000).

Vodpod videos no longer available. Vodpod videos no longer available.
Vodpod videos no longer available. Vodpod videos no longer available.

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