LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

The Democratisation Of Filmmaking: Is It Enough To Have A High Quality Camera?

Originally published by Raindance.

Once the preserve of bearded, baseball cap-wearing men over 40, the notion of what a film director looks like has broadened to accommodate women, amateurs, students and ingénues.

Ultimately, the landscape of filmmaking has shifted to encompass, and arguably champion, the everyman. The average Joe can now pick up a digital single-lens reflex camera and tell their story at a fraction of the price, resources and manpower hitherto required.

 “The digitalization and democratization of the filmmaking process has the ability to bring the power to the people and cultivate new and fresh voices in film that deserve to be heard”. (For full article, go here).

hitrecord (1)The DSLR revolution gave a mass audience a camera capable of producing cinematic images for an affordable price. This process of democratization has made production companies like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘HitRecord’ possible. Marketing themselves as an open, collaborative company, Levitt himself purports that “anybody with the internet [or a camera] can contribute” to their projects.

So is that enough? Will the red carpet roll out in front of you as soon as you purchase that digital camera?

Unlikely, but with the quality and accessibility to DSLR cameras constantly improving, and their cost constantly lowering, anyone with the innovation, vision and determination to get their film made can do just that.

Popular-DSLRsDSLR’s boast adaptability, mobility, image stabilisation, and for those of us lacking the strength to schlep around hefty equipment, ease of use! What’s more, because the prices of such cameras aren’t heart attack inducing, eye-wateringly high, if the camera gets ruined while shooting a scene or you want the dynamic feel of several cameras, it won’t dent your budget irreparably.

Interchangeable lenses are also a major bonus for the independent filmmaker, enabling us to achieve that high-quality aesthetic for a fraction of the cost. When shooting video with a DSLR you can mount lenses ranging from ultra wide 14mm to 800mm, as well as specialist lenses like macro, fish eye, and tilt shift. The creative possibilities afforded by this combination of a larger sensor and a wide range of lenses are near endless, generating a cinematic look once reserved solely for the major studios.

Equally, depth of field is an invaluable tool in storytelling; allowing you to focus on or emphasise certain aspects, moments or motifs in your narrative and which give your film a more professional edge. The low-light capability and shallow depth-of-field offered by most DSLR’s allows for softer focus as well as the ability to clearly see objects or people in the background, foreground and anywhere in between.

However, there are some drawbacks to be navigated if you are to invest in a DSLR. While the shallow depth of field offered by cameras like the 5D is impressive, keeping a subject in focus is a considerable challenge. Autofocus is absent from most HD-capable cameras, and a steady hand is needed to control things manually. What’s worse, for professional or independent filmmakers, rendering the output in real-time on an external monitor can be difficult, if not non-existent on most models, making it hard for operators and technicians to evaluate focus, lighting and other factors.

nikon_d810Poor audio quality has been another criticism frequently levelled at DSLR’s and is a feature most new models are seeking to eradicate. The Nikon D810 DSLR possesses a number of enhanced video features, designed specifically to improve the aesthetic of your film. One such improvement is the inclusion of two microphones, allowing it to record in stereo rather than mono, and those capturing audio with an external mic will be able to split the recording into a separate wide range and voice range.

Furthermore, the D810 is able to film in an auto ISO mode that still allows for manual control over aperture and shutter speed, letting those two factors stay locked down while the camera adjusts to changes in lighting. The internet is the filmmaker’s oyster and such rapid development of DSLR technology has made it easier than ever to exhibit your growing portfolio.

And that’s not to confine DSLR filmmaking to the amateur’s playing field either. ‘Like Crazy’, the recent indie offering from director Drake Doremus, was shot on a Canon 7D and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and achieve an acquisition deal from Paramount for $4 million. Doremus praised the snatched feel in the lensing that the 7D provided, lending the film its guerilla filmmaking aesthetic. Other films to have employed the DSLR include Lena Dunham’s ‘Tiny Furniture and the DP for ‘Black Swan’ Matthew Libatique also got on board with digital filmmaking for a few scenes. Not a bad reason to follow suit.

Whilst the marketing and distribution of your film still requires a certain amount of financial backing and know-how to get your product to the consumers, certainly making a masterpiece is more doable than ever.

Nevertheless, cheaper, fancier equipment does not a Christopher Nolan make. The DSLR revolution has enabled filmmakers to proliferate, but to really succeed you still need the directorial vision and capability to realise your narrative in a dynamic, visual and unique way. That being said, there are a plethora of reasons the DSLR has become such a mainstream form of video capture and DSLR image quality will out perform any other camera in that price range.

But when it comes down to it, what should capture the imagination of your audience is the story you’re telling, rather than the means by which you’re telling it.

Review: Fruitvale Station

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DIR. Ryan Coogler. Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Dias, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

 

Based on the true story of Oscar Grant and the tragic events that occurred at a Californian train station on New Year’s Eve 2008, Fruitvale resembles Crash in its exploration of racial tension and a Greek tragedy in it’s palpable sense of foreboding.

After wowing at both Sundance and Cannes, it was a surprise Fruitvale didn’t become a mainstay at the Oscars too and I sincerely hope this doesn’t limit its release or the attention it gets, for this is supremely effective and affecting filmmaking.

We meet Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, of The Wire fame) in bed with his girlfriend, attempting to navigate accusations of cheating. Despite his skittish, defensive and frustrated behaviour, we also see in him a doting father assuaging bedtime nightmares and a caring son remembering a birthday. The narrative goes on to continually reminds us of this good-natured streak; giving free advice in the supermarket, helping a pregnant lady find a bathroom, washing dishes with his Mum.

o-FRUITVALE-STATION-facebookHowever, there are larger, external forces that threaten individual will. Despite Oscar’s attempts at reform after a year spent in prison for drug-dealing, the film builds an uneasy foreboding to such intensity that it becomes a question of not ‘if’ things are going to kick off, but ‘when’. The only heavy-handed example of this climactic structure is a hit-and-run accident involving a dog, far too obviously suggesting an unfortunate and unnecessary death. Of course, the primer to the dramatic unfolding of events is real-life footage of policemen beating on young black men at a train station, subsequently imbuing the film with a trope of classic tragedy: inevitability.

The moments of superlative filmmaking however come in those downplayed; we just have to register the suspicious, hesitant glances of white folk in their encounters with the black characters to know that segregation, prejudice and racism have left an indelible mark on American society. Caught between his potential and his past, Oscar can barely avoid the expectation for him to do something wrong.

 Much of the nuance in Fruitvale Station is derived from a breakout turn from Jordan, who effortlessly shifts from masculine bravado brimming with energy, to a mama’s boy in need of some TLC.

bRO3oVDThe women in Oscar’s life are also worth more than a mention. Octavia Spencer gives a performance of strength and stoicism, excavating past potential clichés to depict an emotional and strained mother-son relationship. Whilst relative newcomer Melonie Dias as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina gives an incredibly natural and poignant turn, as the aggrieved and then bereaved – negotiating young love and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Schmaltz is never far away, and occasionally director Ryan Coogler dips his toe in a maudlin pool. The soundtrack’s reverential tone, forcedly orchestrating emotion feels unnecessary and stylised amongst an otherwise low-key and naturalistic aesthetic.

Whilst there’s also the sense we’re not given the whole story. Perspective nor reasoning is ill-afforded the macho, aggressive, trigger-happy cops that detain Oscar and his friends at Fruitvale Station for allegedly starting a fight. And whilst that suits a narrative geared towards creating sympathy for a young life wasted, complete factual accuracy might have been compromised.

Ultimately though, Coogler delivers a mesmerising and absorbing drama, excelling most when he allows his actors moments of genuine tenderness and intimacy.

The final scene is chaotic and chilling, and as the deafening sound of a fatal mistake rings clear, the film drives home a devastating climactic irony.

Verdict: Searing, relevant and requiring of a box of tissues close by. A film that will stay with you for long after the credits roll.