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Review: “We need to talk about Kevin”

Here is a first film review. We just came from the showing of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” directed by Lynne Ramsay, an amazing stylist with a knack for darker themes.

tilda swinton in we need to talk about kevin

And… really disappointed. The reason is – this is a film with all the right ingredients that misses the target completely! Mind you first… I haven’t read the book! Interestingly, many decent critics are lyric about the film.

Tilda Swinton is marvellous, camera is at moments stunning, editing remarkably intelligent (by Joe Bini, a documentary editor, who works a lot with Werner Herzog), and the topic is intense and thought provoking. Yet, with all this going for it, the film doesn’t create space for discussion, it doesn’t raise any valid points and if you’re ‘the Armageddon’ kind a person, it doesn’t entertain either…

First/Main problem is the story… I do not know if it was the book or the scenario pushing it, but something went horribly wrong here.

The idea, in short (from IMDB):

The mother of a teenage boy who went on a high-school killing spree tries to deal with her grief – and feelings of responsibility for her child’s actions.

This alone is enough to interest anyone. An angle rarely taken, it can provide a glance into human interactions and relationships behind such a horrific act. What we get, however, is “Rosemary’s Baby – The teenage years”. This kid is pure evil from its first breath. This alone simplifies the relation between the mother and a child to a plot of  “Career woman raising Lucifer”. From first second we are fed horror-like suspense, and it is obvious the kid is capable of horrific things.

Am I the only one that thinks that the usage of horror techniques for such a complex and relevant question, is an utter failure?

Second problem, related to this on a technical side is the beginning of the film. Absolutely brilliant, the beginning brings up a lot of questions, metaphors, and expectations. And it just fails to deliver. I could easily account this to the editing, but I rather think this is one of the things the scenario had going for it. After that it all goes wrong – the kid is born.

Just one spoiler, as an example of over the top writing/directing: The kid is 4ish years old, and we see him playing a video game with his father.  Every 2 seconds, the kid mutters ‘DIE-DIE’ towards the TV screen in excitement of the game…. REALLY?!

There are a few more of those…

Still, it is a film worth watching, Swinton is really amazing, and structure of the film is fragmented with a great sense of style. If you’ve seen “We need to talk about Kevin”, please share your thoughts. There’s a lot to say about this and am not even near finished.


We need more Salesmen


Just watched Salesman again, by the Maysles brothers. One of the finest examples of ‘direct cinema’; this film is a gem. It reminded me of how effective the films with a so-called ‘observational’ character can be.

‘Direct Cinema’ and ‘Cinema verité’ were once celebrated as a radical breakthrough in the conventions of documentary filmmaking before the 60s. Undeniably seminal in their use of new technology – a lightweight camera, ‘direct cinema’ and ‘cinéma vérité’ filmmakers were suddenly able to follow the unbroken chain of events unfolding in front of them. There was no need to choreograph action in order to portray something, or to reconstruct events that couldn’t be captured by heavy and cumbersome tripod cameras.

These new methods of filming were soon celebrated as a fulfilment of everything André Bazin advocated for. Coined as ‘observational cinema’ by anthropologists and historians, the work of these new documentarists was advocated as “the resistance to interpretation”. Mirroring Bazin, the new thought was –

seeing over assertion, wholeness over parts, matter over symbolism.

It is almost inevitable that soon enough one will lapse into a social science discourse and start throwing around such terms as truth, evidence, fact and proof.

That’s exactly what happened and this is also exactly what killed the movement. Just the names already – ‘direct’ ‘verité’ ‘fly on the wall’ – reeked of insinuation that the observational style reflected reality more so than any other method so far. (Somehow every new movement before that tried to claim the same.) Due to the promises ‘fly on the wall’ cinema made and could not fulfil, it became marginalized. Incredibly unfair, since especially the French side of the observational coin, with Jean Rouch as its agent, understood better than most where the power of observation with camera lies.

Wider audiences have labelled observational cinema as ethically ‘vague’ to say the least. The conviction they’re invisible and the claim of objectivity, brought the integrity of the filmmakers into question with every shot they made.

However, the mistake here was that this is not what observational cinema is about. It is easy to conclude through historical inspection of the observational film that the critique always targets the relation between the filmmaker and the filmed subject. It wasn’t so in the beginning simply due to the novelty and ability of the observational camera to transpire the complexities of life in fine detail, if executed successfully.

The reason for this repeated ethical questioning of the conduct of the filmmaker is also the answer to what observational cinema represents. It is a result of a relationship between a filmmaker and the subject, with camera as their communication medium. Therefore it’s nothing but highly subjective. Hence, the only thing observational cinema needed to get rid of is the illusion/claim of detachment. (Again, Rouch had this in the bag all along.)

Occasionally, I come across a traditionally observational film. Often the press still makes the same claims of ‘honesty’ or ‘dishonesty’ or ‘authenticity’ of images of people followed by the observing camera. It’s a pity to concentrate on this aspect of a style while it can offer so much more. Especially its non-lexical , non-narrative qualities are being overlooked, even though they are the main part of the magic of observation.

Here is a link to another film that understands that, a very recent one. The manner Tom Fassaert approaches a theme, the care and attention for his character and the topic is incredibly commendable and rather rare these days.

De Engel van Doel


Aesthetics of famine – symbol of a continent


A blog needs to start somewhere, and I’ve chosen to kick off by pointing to an older blog post by David Campbell on “Famine iconography as a sign of failure”.  A post that has surprisingly (for me at least) sparked quite a discussion, especially on twitter.  A result of this was a stimulating webinar and a discussion between Campbell and Jon Levy of foto8.

Campbell points out that the aesthetics employed in photographic reports of famine fail to inform (or raise questions) on the complexities of a phenomenon like famine, and at the same time it contributes to the homogenisation in the representation of Africa. Interpreting a famine as a hungry child, the abundance of flies on and around his/her head, has very little value in explaining the intricate breakdown of systems that is an underlying cause of a famine. 04- 8-10.


Without undermining the effectiveness of these photographs to shift attention to a disaster area, a noteworthy point brought up is the fact that the iconography of famine is composed of images that represent only the last stages of it. This is the time when it’s generally already too late, and all there is left to do is relief aid, while the causes remain untouched.

He recommends that more energy should be spent on finding ways to unravel the underlying causes of humanitarian disasters in a picture, rather than resorting to old stereotypical icons.


Great article. It also mentions an example of photograph recycling. The journey of a picture of a boy from Malawi called Luke Phiri (I suggest it’s Phiri and not Piri), from a news report on Malawi’s famine to the face of Africa’s defeat as a continent in a charity campaign. (both pictures can be seen in a PDF of a comprehensive article yet to be published, as well as in the recording of the aforementioned webinar)

Let me mention that although we can easily rail against the shortcomings of the representation of famine, we have to acknowledge the function of these images and note that not making them might not be the right solution.


…we have to appreciate how the recourse to stereotypes is often a function of the political context they seek to address but cannot represent. Importantly, this means ‘compassion fatigue’ is not the issue with respect to the relationship between pictures and policy. Individuals continue to respond to the humanitarian structure of feeling induced by victim portraits, as their continuing use in charity appeals confirms.


Having said this, the fact that the visual aesthetics of a disaster like famine is to such a degree identical to the aesthetics of the representation of a whole continent, is plenty proof of how potent and damaging an unbalanced coverage of a famine can be.  Therefore a constant scrutiny and analysis is essential.

A portrait is in my opinion one of the most deceitful practices in photographic journalism. Its effect is faultlessly emotional and individual. And as much as it provokes compassion no matter the setting, when the setting is of a greater importance, we get absolutely nothing. The individual is in this case a symbol of dependency – a child, with no context, social environment or perspective. Now, google “poverty Africa”. Then Google something stereotypically similar like “poverty Asia” and compare how many particularly singled out children will pop up.

Although a lot has been written on this theme, these practices cannot be questioned enough, simply due to the importance of the matter they represent or rather misrepresent, and the fact that neither balance nor an alternative have been established in the visual accounts of famine. This blog will be coming back to this often in the future and this should be a starting point.

Finally, it needs to be repeated and stressed what this kind of imaging does to a continent. A vision of a continent – a portrait, a child, alone, amputated of a context or a social structure surrounding it. As I said, one can find heaps of well-written descriptions of why such portrayal is morally and ethically wrong, with words like dignity and humanity being thrown around diligently (I like the Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal’s outcry on the behaviour of foreign photographic crews on-site, as I’ve seen the conduct they describe in my work in Malawi as well).

But, what about the tangible effect of this? Shouldn’t we try to create more solid experiments or descriptions of the direct effect this kind of practice has on the consumers of these images? Like the educated and supposedly informed expat aid workers in Africa flooding social networks with pictures of themselves feeding the same, nameless dark child. A delegate of a large organisation with a mandate for complex structural changes, belching comments like: “Let’s feed Africa”. Or naming a NGO something like “Raising Malawi“. Or something like this:

Here is the link to a yet to be published comprehensive article by David Campbell:

The Iconography of Famine” is forthcoming in Picturing Atrocity: Reading Photographs in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, Jay Prosser (London: Reaktion Books, 2011)