Suffer the Little Children

20 October 2013

Two wonderful new films – Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants and Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant – give weight to the wonders and trials of childhood. 

The London Film Festival has been and gone, bringing with it a reminder of the ease and difficulty of accessing high culture in the big city. On the upside, the Festival attracts kick-ass films from all over the world, and many of them will get cinematic releases in local cinemas. On the downside, getting tickets to the Festival is a major undertaking that needs planning with military precision. That’s the thing about London: whenever you think, “Oh, I must do one of those cool accessible cultural things that the city is famous for”, you can be fairly sure that 2 million other people will want to do it with you. This is usually about the time of year where I get weepily nostalgic for the New Zealand Film Festival, which features marvellous films selected by director Bill Gosden and his team, and beautiful Victorian-era picture palaces to see them in, all within walking distance of town and with considerably fewer fellow cineaste hipsters to compete with for tickets. But I digress.

Of the many fine films I was lucky enough to get tickets for this year, my two favourites – Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant and Daniel Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants – turned out to be two variations on the same theme. Made on opposite side of the world – Giant is set in West Yorkshire while Elephants is set in my hometown of Invercargill at the arse end of New Zealand – they tell a fascinatingly similar story about the experiences of lonely boys, ostracised within their own communities, who try to survive and find a space in their lives for kindness and compassion.

There’s something especially exciting about seeing a film set in my hometown, a place of wide flat streets and enormous skies but very little – material, emotional or otherwise – on the horizon. Elephants is a lovely piece of work – grounded in a distinctly melancholy small town Kiwi perspective, but quietly confident about its language and intentions, and very much its own creature. It’s the story of Adrian, a sensitive, lonely boy living with his grandmother and uncle after his abandonment by his mother. Confused and anxious about his mother’s absence, and ostracised by the feral gang of boys at his school, he moves slowly through the frame, apparently scared of his own shadow, searching for a safe space in which to exist. Like many lonely children, he’s an out-of-place alien and a long-term inmate doing time: every situation resonates with his fear of the new and unexpected and the familiar boredom of a world in which nothing changes. It’s a mood nicely underscored by the art direction of his grandmother’s house, a mausoleum in which 1970s Kiwiana interior decoration went to die.

Borgman slows down the pace of the filmmaking to take us completely inside Adrian’s experience, constructing child’s view camera angles, and focusing on the unremarkable details of a child’s day-to-day perception: dust motes, net curtains, patches of wild grass, the light refracting through cut crystal vases, the fur of a pet rabbit. It reminded me in places of Lynne Ramsey’s film, Ratcatcher, another piece describing in painterly detail the secret sensory world of childhood.

Desperate to find an ally, Adrian strikes up a fragile friendship with three feral children who move in next door, who live, like him, within the black hole caused by absent and inadequate parents. In a twelfth-hour plot twist that I won’t reveal here, Adrian sees the world through the eyes of someone suffering as much as he is, and finds a way to show them compassion in a way that saves them – and himself. It’s a beautiful moment of redemption and transformation for Adrian’s character, handled with wonderful assurance and sensitivity. Elephants is one of the strongest New Zealand films I’ve seen in some years, with an amazing, completely un-self conscious performance by 13 year-old Demos Murphy as Adrian. I hope that the film gets a cinematic release in the UK, and finds the wider audience it richly deserves.

The Selfish Giant makes a similarly perceptive and compassionate study of children living on the fringes of an unfeeling and threatening adult world. Arbor and Swifty are young teenagers living in Bradford – one of the UK’s most economically deprived areas, rife with unemployment and a breeding ground for white supremacist local politics. The two are suspended from school when live-wire Arbor, played with extraordinary charisma by first-time performer Bradford local Conner Chapman, sticks up for Swifty against the school bully. The two find fulfilment of a type doing odd jobs for Kitten, the distinctly dodgy-looking scrap metal merchant, who runs an illegal horse-racing racket on the side. Swifty, the gentler and more sensitive of the two, finds an affinity with horses, which Kitten quickly exploits to his advantage, driving a wedge between the boys’ friendship. Things get bad, and then they get very very bad, and then they get worse.

Whereas Borgman’s film narrows the camera lens to take us inside his pint-sized protagonist’s emotional state, Barnard takes a broader stance, placing her characters, Ken Loach-style within a social context of economic deprivation. There’s a quiet but persistent anger simmering under the skin of The Selfish Giant, and the grim story it relates is as much a critique of post-Thatcherite Britain as it’s an indictment on the selfishness and materialism of adult life. Barnard carefully paints in the day-to-day details of the boys’ existence, never overplaying her hand, but providing a convincing context for her grim story of moral debasement and institutionalised hopelessness: missing and inadequate fathers, ineffectual mothers, drug addicted siblings, families without enough money to pay the electricity bill, uninterested teachers, and a hand-to-mouth local economy in which survival by any means is the only currency. It’s a quietly heartbreaking film, enlightened by Barnard’s fierce and unsentimental compassion for her characters, a rough-hewn sense of poetry in the filmmaking, and – like Elephants – a glimmer of redemption in the final moments.

Together, Elephants and Giant would make for the world’s most depressing double feature – or an interesting leaping-off point for an international convention on the rights of children. Neither are particularly easy films to watch, but they are absorbing and captivating pieces of work that achieve, with great craft, a striking sense of truth about the experience of childhood. There’s very little magical thinking here, or any of the sentimentality that usually gets attached to stories about the resilience of children. Both films contain just enough outrage to inspire our anger and engagement, fused with a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature to trigger our sympathies.

Childhood may be like visiting an alien landscape where we don’t speak Klingon, or a battle we all fight (or fought) alone. But I take comfort from the work of Borgman and Barnard, who demonstrate that someone else was listened and remembered everything, and brought back despatches from the front line. As achievements in filmmaking and as social records of our troubled times, they can’t be bettered. Bravo.


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