We go to the Opening Night of the Sydney Film Festival and endure a shallow, ill-wrought, lump-witted Mike Leigh comedy Happy Go Lucky, then we are nearly killed on the escalator up to the party, which keeps force-feeding compressed celebrities upwards into a crush of screaming film buffs and heaping them up on a balcony and does not relent until somebody hits the reverse switch and the escalator then force-feeds aghast celebrities, tumbling backwards, into the crowd below. ‘The Clare Stewart Effect!’ I humorously yell above the mounting carnage, a reference to the female artistic director who haunts and lessens human happiness most years as a point of principle, but Annie, sobbing, seems to have a life-threatening back injury and we go home. Our chiropractor Anton saves her from twenty years as a cripple and I return alone to the State for the next two weeks, keeping a sharp eye out for Clare and her gremlin ways, and enjoy myself immensely, seeing many wonderful films. Of one of these I later write:
The Abu Ghraib photo of the standing black-hooded man trailing wires on a box Ted Kennedy described as what, instead of the Statue of Liberty, America would be known as in the coming years. Other images of shamed male suffering – the pile of nude buttocks and shoulders, the leashed man crawling, the black dogs snarling at a screaming prisoner’s genitals, the battered corpse in the ice and the pretty, smiling girl with thumb upraised above it, the masturbating line of men and a pretty girl pointing – quickly disabled, and largely ended, any reputation Americans had as decent, liberty-loving saviours of the poorer nations from tyranny and added a kind of millennial Guernica to human memory.
Errol Morris’s meditation on the photos and the ordinariness, ignorance, banal motivations and essential innocence of the young American torturers and their complicit girlfriends, shows that context is everything and in any killing ground patriotic words, however lumpwitted, trump conscience every time.
They believed they were only ‘softening up’ the bad guys for the real torture that would follow in other cells when the nameless, anonymous CIA ‘interrogators’ began the bashing and waterboarding. They believed the information they might extract would save American lives, prevent another 9/11, ensure the capture of Saddam. Also they were bored, and craved a little ‘fun’ on the long night shift between insurgent shelling and screams of ‘Allah! Allah!’ from the cells.
It’s hard not to like them, when Morris has given you the treatment. Decent, good-humoured, unlettered souls at the end of their tether, they made what happiness they could out of a deathly, difficult situation.
No combination of mere words describes what Morris does with images, music, computer print-outs, cell-phone videos, edited close-up faces talking and remembering, ghosts assaulting other ghosts in grimy cells, ghosts looking out of barred windows at birds departing, and the onrushing, algebraic tunnels of numbers and factoids with which he assaults the mind. Like Eisenstein he has invented a new film language. Like T.S. Eliot he has made a new jazz of colliding words and subjects. Like Disney he has pushed a medium beyond imaginable boundaries.
What results, on screen, is a Shakespearian enormity of character. This dull, snickering bunch of bemused young people and their wiser elders, trapped inside a gigantic military mistake and shrugging, joking, making do, become Hamlets, Romeos, Rosalinds in our minds and their own flip lingo a kind of epic verse, in particular the letters home from Sabrina Harmon who took the photos, to her ‘wife’ Katie, expressing her helpless hatred of what she saw. They seem like soldiers in another Trojan Horse awaiting battle. I doubt if a better documentary about the changeable human soul was ever made.
Later: I see Hunger, one of the best ten films, and write about it.
Bobby Sands was the first of the IRA men to go on hunger-strike in the Maze Prison in Belfast in 1983, and the first to die there, and be elected a House of Commons M.P. for South Down while he was dying. Steve McQueen the black English director and Enda Walsh the female Irish writer have made a film that goes beyond ideology and jingoistic foolishness into the dark heart of torture itself and why Empires need it; the proud cold voice of Margaret Thatcher speaking of ‘terrorists’ who were now ‘devouring their own’ augments the batterings and bloodyings and bangings of heads into walls we see full-on; McQueen, an Iraq war artist, knows about these things.
No better prison film has been made, and its award of Best Film here in Sydney is deserved. Most notable is the fifteen-minute two-shot in which Michael Fassbender as Sands, in dialogue better than Shaw’s, discusses with his priest the political necessity of his unCatholic, suicidal, hell-defying masterplan; and, equal to it, Sands’ slow, regretless dwindling to a skeleton as the actor, too, starves himself, and death comes quietly in medically noted stages, kidney-failure, liver-failure, delirium, childhood memories, a ceasing heart.
After this film we really must look on suicide bombers – their land, too, invaded, their cousins likewise tortured – in a different way. That such foul things happen to people who speak English makes a big difference in the quality of our knowing. We know now that humanity is multinational, torture a crime, and patriotism not just the fraudulent waved flag of an addled scoundrel, but now and then, as here, something primal, to die for.