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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Dallas IFF Dispatch: Murder Songs and Warlords

After a long day of travel, I finally made it to Dallas this afternoon for a couple days at the Dallas International Film Festival, just in time to check into my hotel room (replete with round bed and zebra rug), change into something more appropriate for the warmer Dallas weather (the sun! my eyes!) and hit the ground running with a couple screenings.

First up was Small Town Murder Songs, a Canadian film directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. The film stars vet Swedish actor Peter Stomare (sporting a ‘stache that would be right at home on a 1970s porn set) as Walter, a cop in a small Mennonite town in Ontario. A murdered stripper (the first murder the town’s police force has ever had to deal with) is the catalyst for the story, as Walter almost immediately targets Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), the seedy white-trash lover of his ex-mistress Rita (Jill Hennessy, terrific here). Martha Plimpton is quietly powerful in a less showy role as Walter’s current girlfriend (or maybe wife? This isn’t made explicitly clear).

There is a great deal to like in this film, and I find myself a bit torn between a very rare wish that the film had been maybe 15 minutes longer, which would have allowed for some details to be fleshed out a bit, and my sense that the film’s sparseness is exactly what its director wanted. My desire for a bit more here is a compliment to the excellent craftsmanship of a script that excels at drawing interesting characters in a very tightly constructed story. I’d heard people comparing the tone of this film to Winter’s Bone, but for me it much more evoked the stellar Icelandic noir Jar City.

The unexpectedly remarkable way that music is used in this film, by the way, knocked my socks off, and a seemingly incongruous scene of a house being moved on a large truck is rather surprisingly impressive, both because of the music overlaying the scene and the way in which it’s shot.

Brendan Steacy’s cinematography in this film is quite stunning all the way around, actually. There’s a consistency with the framing of shots of roads that evokes a sense of being trapped and unable to move beyond a certain point; all roads, for Walter, seem to lead back to Rita and their (for him) unresolved relationship, as well as his equally uneasy and unresolved relationships with his father and brother and the Mennonite community that raised and subsequently rejected him in the wake of an act of violence.

Script, cinematography, editing (including some spot-perfect cuts in a few places) and score all work together mostly seamlessly in conveying the sense that this man has trapped himself in a way that defies retribution. Powerfully effective, and much, much harder to do right than you might think (unless you’ve sat, tortured, through many, many indie films that try and fail to get it this marriage of cinematic elements right).

Next up was Barry Steven’s Prosecutor, a documentary following Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It’s a pretty fascinating subject, this idea of the [perceived need for a civilized society to have one universal (and legal) standard of moral right and wrong conflicting with the inevitability of varying cultural mores. Most of the cases the ICC has pursued so far have been against various African warlords (and even the elected president of Sudan), criticisms crying “white colonialism” may not be completely irrelevant.

For me, there are pertinent questions a documentary like this should be addressing, not least of which is where they grey areas lie when you’re dealing with cultural mores among different peoples. It’s easy enough to say “all murder is bad,” but when powerful nations like the US (and Canada, and our other allies) engage in war, which inevitably does involve killing, and civilian casualties, and soldiers slain by “friendly fire,” one has to question our position atop a moral high horse.

It’s easy enough to say, “well, then, genocide is bad,” but when mass slayings, rape, and the murder of women, children and elders happens on both sides of tribal wars, how the hell do you figure out which side was morally right? I’m not even sure that’s possible.

None of which is to say that the atrocities humans commit against each other — whatever the reason — are ever okay. And the wars and rebellions across Africa have had horrific impacts on the lives of real people: those slaughtered in the conflicts, and the many children who have been conscripted into service in both rebel and state armies. The issue of child soldiers is heart-breaking, yes. Stories of young boys forced to brutally murder — even murder their own relatives, as we hear stories of here — are almost incomprehensible to those of us who like to think of ourselves as living in a “civilized” world.

But — and this is the question this film doesn’t really try to address — is it the right, or even the moral obligation, of those of us who consider ourselves to live under more “civilized” conditions than many of the nations of the Third World to judge the behavior and societal mores of developing nations? If you look objectively at the history of white people and colonialism and the way in which those “civilized” countries have tended to deal with the peoples already occupying the various lands that we want because they have some strategic or economic value, is our history really any better than that of an African warlord leading a rebellion?

God knows, the history of America is littered with wars and domination and various atrocities — including boys who were not yet men fighting and dying in battle. And from a philosophical viewpoint, you could look at the history of the more developed nations and say, well, there is certainly a history of atrocity and war and genocide across those nations as well, and eventually societal mores evolved and those nations figured out that such things are not okay, and supposedly improved (although if you look at Afghanistan and Iraq and Guatanamo Bay, you could equally make an argument that we still have a long ways to go).

The film skims very briefly the surface of Gaza, and raises the question of why the ICC is targeting primarily African nations while keeping its nose out of the political hot water of Israel and Palestine and Gaza. And whichever side of the Israel/Palestinian debate you happen to fall on, there is surely more than a little hypocrisy in the staunch refusal of these same civilized nations to address the deaths and bombings and violence on both sides of Israel/Palestine, whilst assuming we have a right to judge Third World nations for their human rights offenses. Pot, meet kettle.

Prosecutor is a Canadian doc, funded with Canadian dollars, and as such the focus on the players on the ICC end of things tend to skew heavily toward Canadians, which rather gives the impression that the ICC is made up of one very charismatic and passionate Argentinian and a lot of Canadians. There are scenes that seem oddly plopped in from an editing standpoint as well, most notably a whole segment about a former ICC staffer who gets fed up and departs to work with the UN on retrieving third world soldiers who wish to defect. Interesting enough, but off-topic for the film’s focus which should, by its very title, be focusing on Luis Moreno Ocampo.

And I wanted to see more — much more, actually — on WHY it is that powerful nations, including the US, do not support the ICC. Is it, perhaps, because we fear such a court would judge our own nations and elected officials with the same eye to justice with which it targets atrocities committed by less politically powerful nations in the names of “right” and “war?”

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