The Cinema of Pessimism: Eleven Films in the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival

Grahame Weinbren

It wasn’t an individual film.

I am quite accustomed to seeing a depressing (or depressive) movie, and whether it has an effect on my own mood or outlook is as much connected with my current state of mind as anything in the film. No, it was the depiction of intolerable situations in film after film, situations never caused or controlled by the characters, though they usually struggled valiantly to do their best against overwhelming odds, sometimes in vain, sometimes with limited success.

It was the accumulation.

Here are capsule descriptions of some of the films I saw in back-to-back press screenings of the Tribeca Film Festival 2008.

Seven Days Sunday (Germany 2008) written and directed by Niels Laupert

Feature length fiction film (based on a true story) about 16 year olds in former East Germany, so bored and disaffected that they go on a killing spree, targeting random older men. The boys seem nice enough, and neither they, nor we, ever get to know their victims.

War Child (USA 2008) by C. Karim Chrobog

Feature length documentary about Sudanese child soldier Emmanuel Jal, who became an international hip hop star. The film includes archival footage of him at age 9, as the interview subject of a UN film about child soldiers: he was a bright, endearing and innocent child, expertly handling his AK47.

Newcastle (Australia 2008) written and directed by Dan Castle

Australian feature-length surfing film about sinister family relationships that emerge after a surfer’s accidental death. 

New Boy (Ireland 2007) directed by Steph Green

Eleven-minute dramatic short about an African kid on his first day at his new elementary school in Ireland, haunted by the memory of his previous teacher getting dragged out of the classroom and shot to death. The assassination is convincingly depicted–and the child’s graphic mental images put the typical problems of a quiet new boy into a different perspective.

Worlds Apart (Denmark 2008) directed by Niels Arden Oplev

Feature-length fiction film (based on a true story) of a girl and her brother banished from the tight-knit Jehovah's Witness community for fraternizing with outsiders. It is especially poignant when the girl’s beloved younger sister looks at her like a stranger, refusing even to nod at her, when they happen to cross paths on the street.

Lioness (USA 2007) by Meg McLagan & Daria Sommers

Feature-length documentary about U.S. women soldiers in active combat in Iraq. They shoot and are shot at, they break down doors and intimidate the natives, while the White House, the Pentagon, and the rest of the U.S. military establishment repeatedly deny that women are ever on combat duty, insisting that they take only supporting roles in the horrible war.

Ana's Way (El Camino De Ana) (Spain 2007) directed by Richard Vazquez

Short film about a middle-aged woman who takes a long, hot, and difficult journey to visit her husband in prison only to find out that he's died. Little relief here.

Angels Die in the Soil (Iran 2007) directed by Babak Amini

Short film about a girl in Halabja, injured by gas attacks, who disinters human remains to sell to the families of the victims for more dignified funerals and memorials. Even less relief.

War God Love and Madness (Iraq 2008) directed by Mohamed Al-Daradji

Iraqi feature documentary about making a fiction film in Iraq: during the shooting, the production manager goes crazy, the director and DP are kidnapped and tortured first by "terrorists," then by Americans. The bright side is that the feature film gets made, though I suspect that this "making-of" may be a stronger piece that the movie itself.


Secrecy (USA 2007) by Robb Moss and Peter Galison

Feature-length documentary about the increase since 9/11 of unnecessary and dangerous secrecy by the White House, Homeland Security, and other government agencies. This film’s elegant construction and beautiful, fresh imagery provide some pleasure, despite the fact that what it reveals is perhaps the most disturbing of all the films.

Baghdad High (UK 2007) by Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter

Four boys are given video cameras by English documentary filmmakers to record their final year in high school in Baghdad. Not much happens – except local explosions, the deaths of a few friends, and one family's difficult migration to Kurdistan.

Is it that in the first decade of the 21st century the world was going through a bad period? Or that, in general, filmmakers look for (and find) dark subjects? Or is it a sign of hope that moving image artists point out terrible things, so that we can work to change them?