Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, Jung Yoon-suk, 2017)

Bamseom Pirates posterGiven its long and turbulent political history, Korea has become good at the art of the peaceful protest. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다, beomseom Haejeok-dan seoul bulbada) arrives just after another political storm has passed, but trouble once again hovers on the horizon courtesy of noisy neighbours. Yet it’s not so much the literal threat of the Kims in the North that’s the problem, but the way that fear is used and abused to serve certain needs – this is where avant-garde punk duo Bamseom Pirates aim their carefully crafted arrows. Unfortunately for them, they are too clever for their own good and their reliance on sarcasm leaves them frequently misunderstood.

The Bamseom Pirates are drummer Kwon Yong-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon – two young men living the life of starving artists in Korea’s underground music scene. As Jang points out, other bands smash expensive guitars but Bamseom Pirates smash rubbish picked up from around the derelict buildings where they play their shows to small crowds of likeminded youngsters. Though violence is often an integral part of many “punk” scenes, the clashes here are not born of over exuberance or warring factions of bands and their followers but of hired thugs deliberately sent in to make trouble, limiting freedoms of assembly and expression.

Kwon’s lyrics are deliberately incendiary but violence is not in the band’s agenda. Filmed over several years, Jung Yoon-suk’s documentary finds the pair performing at several protests and rallies usually in support of progressive causes including opposing privatisation, and labour reform. Though he is repeatedly pressed to explain himself, Kwon refuses to pin his convictions to the mast of any recognisable political faction, nervously aligning himself with the defunct Progressive Party and then only vaguely in citing an agreement with their progressive causes. This refusal is key to Kwon’s artistic statement as he finds himself attacked from all sides – the left, who might be assumed to be his allies, tear him down for his bourgeois upbringing and education at an elite university, but on the other hand one can’t say anything that sounds too lefty lest one be accused of being a “communist” and therefore North Korean sympathiser.

Bamseom Pirates rely heavily on irony and so they can’t resist pushing this central dichotomy to its natural limit. Thus Kwon’s signature song is called “All Hail Kim Jong-il!”, but as it turns out the song isn’t about that Kim Jong-il at all, but all the other unfortunate people throughout history who share his not particularly uncommon name and are now tainted by association. North Korea being the most taboo issue of the day, it comes up frequently in the band’s songs in which they often point out the uncomfortable truths about their neighbour – in particular, the theoretical benefits of socialism such as workers rights and a welfare state that should be (but aren’t) in place in North Korea but can’t be adopted into the South because of persistent fear of “Communism”. The fear of “Communism” has become a stick with which to beat the progressive cause or really any cause the conservative society does not want to engage with, shutting down all debate and undermining the “democracy” the previous generation fought so hard to win.

This all comes to a head when the band’s manager finds himself falling foul of Korea’s longstanding censorship laws regarding North Korea designed to prevent “acts which benefit the enemy”. Park, a high school friend of Kwon, and a jack of all trades who runs a small indie record label printing CDs for underground bands, is just as acerbic as the boys and frequently makes ironic comments about North Korea on his Twitter account, even once asking the Dear Leader to buy him some chocolate. Nevertheless, when he retweets a North Korean account he’s immediately arrested and brought in for questioning as a possible North Korean sympathiser. His brand of sarcasm is just too subtle for the censor, and he finds himself on the receiving end of an extremely harsh punishment which is in no way helped by Kwon’s honest testimony clarifying their stance on the North.

Park faces prison for making a stupid joke on Twitter while his lawyer sensibly points out that if he had said the same thing in North Korea, he’d already be dead. He would not last five seconds on North Korean soil and clearly has no desire to go there. Rather than simply capture events, Jung leans in on the central irony of the situation in its suggestion that perhaps there’s not as much difference between the democratic South and the despotic North as might be hoped when it comes to encouraging a full and frank freedom of expression.

Yet despite the satirical content of their music, Bamseom Pirates remain refreshingly unpretentious and keen to make fun of themselves as well the current political crisis of the day. There’s no posturing or claim of a great masterplan to change society through the power of punk. The boys just want to play their music to likeminded people and have fun while doing it. This self effacing charm makes their extremely loud and energetic performances a joy to watch, though Jung also captures their anarchic spirit in several music videos accompanied by garish onscreen captions featuring the lyrics plus the explanation that the sound balance has been “deliberately” miscaptured to represent the “imbalances” in modern Korean society and that the band’s various musical mistakes have also been left in in testament to their artistic integrity. Bamseom Pirates do not claim to speak for their generation, but they do all the same as the young fight back against the “mainstream” of a conservative society, refusing to accept the gradual erosions of the freedoms the preceding generation fought so hard for but have failed to protect.

Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Also screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 on 5th November at Close-up Film Centre.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Making of “Dreams” ( 夢 黒澤明・大林宣彦映画的対話, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1990)

making-of-dreamsYou might think there could be no more diametrically opposed directors than Akira Kurosawa – best known for his naturalistic (by jidaigeki standards anyway) three hour epic Seven Samurai, and Nobuhiko Obayashi whose madcap, psychedelic, horror musical Hausu continues to over shadow a far less strange career than might be expected. However, Dreams is a major aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, eschewing his more straightforwardly conventional approach for an exercise in surrealist social commentary inspired by classic noh theatre traditions. Obayashi was also on hand in an ancillary capacity, capturing the making of a late Kurosawa classic. This is no mere “making of”, as the opening crawl makes clear, but an in depth examination of Kurosawa’s career to date conducted director to director with reverence and sensitivity for a veteran talent.

Broadly moving through the film chronologically, Obayashi includes a decent amount of typical “behind the scenes” footage from the first episode in which the young I unwisely peeps on a solemn fox wedding, right through the to classic turn from Chishu Ryu as a wise old man living a natural life in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth. The footage is captured on a selection of video cameras typical of the time with all of their low grade resolution though they often capture unexpected sides of the production process. On set, Kurosawa is a genial if sometimes exacting presence, taking the time to apologise after speaking a little too harshly to a child actor, thanking his crew for waiting around so long in the cold, and reminding them to take care travelling home on the icy roads.

Where the film differs from the general “making of” DVD extras is in the typical Obayashi touches in the presentation of his material which is assembled from over 190 hours of footage and runs half an hour longer than the film itself. Obayashi is very keen to showcase Kurosawa’s artistic storyboards, often contrasting the illustrations either with the raw live footage or completed film by means of super imposition or split screen. Later he also adds in animatic storyboard manipulation, overlapping with the completed footage similarly bleached into a manga-esque black and white outline. Obayashi then spins the other way with an even more meta approach by incorporating classic cinematic references as in the opening and closing of the iris, classic Kurosawa side and horizontal wipes, and setting Kurosawa’s meeting with a foreign director inside the frame of a film negative itself. Neatly moving from a concept drawing to placing the finished image within that same panel, Obayashi takes us from thought to realisation by means of a simple yet effective visual technique.

The second biggest draw is in the intercut footage from a long discussion between the two directors in which Obayashi interviews Kurosawa about his long career and working methods. Illuminating his ideas of Dreams in particular Kurosawa states his intentions to chart the course of a life very similar to his own, but also emphasises what he feels has become the central theme of his work – humanity and its refusal to choose the path of happiness. Obayashi also raises the sometimes controversial topic of the position of women in Kurosawa’s cinema which is often said to be overly masculine. Kurosawa semi-rejects this view of his work, but admits that early criticism left him less willing to engage with women’s stories. After casting Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth, her character was frequently criticised as being “unwomanly”, or appearing too masculine in her behaviour. A claim Kurosawa rejects, but this unwillingness to accept the existence of “strong” women from critics looking for reflections of their own world view seemingly put him off the idea of attempting to capture women’s stories, lacking the confidence to do so properly.

Moving from black and white to colour and using montages and super impositions, Obayashi re-orders and re-imagines his recollections just as van Gogh does his world through his paintings in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. “Making of Dreams” therefore becomes a much more interesting title than it first appears, not only detailing a “making of” this particular film but all films in so far as a film is a dream. A meeting of minds in more ways than one, Obayashi’s film demonstrates his reverence and affection for the veteran director but his contribution amounts to more than a simple exchange of views and experiences in a mutually illuminating commentary on the careers of these essentially very different artists.


Unchain (アンチェイン, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2000)

unchainTo date, Toshiaki Toyoda has released only one feature length documentary. Unchain (アンチェイン), the story of four boxers from Toyoda’s own home town of Osaka, was released between his debut feature, Pornostar, and followup film Blue Spring, but Toyoda had, in fact, been following his subjects since the mid-90s as they battled with themselves, the ring, and life’s unending tests. Like the fictional heroes of many of Toyoda’s subsequent works, his real life subjects are frustrated young men seeking release through a pugilistic purgatory all the while finding themselves trapped against the ropes.

The film takes its title from the ring name of the group’s lynchpin, “Unchain” Kaji who, it has to be said, may be the most “unchained” person whoever lived. An angry young man from unusual family circumstances in which he discovered he’d been adopted by an uncle as a baby only after his adopted father had died and he was in the process of applying for a driving license, Kaji took to boxing early only to wash out after just seven bouts.

Losing each and every match he ever fought and eventually forced to leave the ring on medical grounds, Kaji remained in the world of boxing as an ardent supporter of his boxing friends – long haired Garuda, second generation Korean Nagaishi, and “shoot boxer” (Japanese kick boxin based mixed martial arts) Nishibayashi. A big hearted man who wanted to make a difference and help people, Kaji drifted through several occupations post boxing from working in an all night cinema and DJ-ing to caring for disabled children. However, his violent impulses always got in the way of his good intentions and an enraged attack on a job centre in which he took the younger Nishibayashi with him for support landed him in a mental hospital where he stayed for the next few years.

Toyoda then follows the other three boxers as they continue their quest for glory in the ring but encounter mostly defeats and setbacks. Garuda and Nishibayashi fight hardest to stay with Nishibayashi eventually giving up after a brutal defeat leaves him with a sour looking wound under his eye, but Nagaishi drifts away from boxing after marrying Kaji’s former girlfriend, Sachiko, and becoming a father to her two children as well as a few of his own later on. The only one to find fulfilment outside of the ring, Nagaishi eventually finds his place as a family man, given a new kind of hope by familial bond rather than fraternal opposition.

Toyoda makes no secret of the fact that he staged some scenes and slightly manipulated his footage but his documentary approach shares much with his narrative filmmaking in its study of young men looking for an escape through violence. Kaji describes the ring as a place where is killing legal but also as a kind of promised land they’ve all been trying conquer. As his name suggests, Kaji was seeking freedom through the ring, a chance to let his soul fly, but never found it leading to his life of picking fights with anyone and everyone. The Kaji released from the hospital is a calmer, though perhaps no less passionate, figure, but one who finds his friends waiting for him with a mix of good humour and exasperation. Even the potentially difficult reunion with Nagaishi finds Kaji in a philosophical mood, grateful for all his friend has done for him and harbouring no ill will.

Filming with mostly the low grade digital cameras of the time, Toyoda captures the fight sequences either from high balconies or heat of the action ringside. Garuda’s final fight is captured unusually well thanks to Toyoda’s fortunate position which allows him to literally get right up in Garuda’s face at a crucial point when it seems all may be lost. Sticking to mostly a talking heads approach, Toyoda also incorporates other archive footage from family photos to documents and news reports as well as a handful of street scenes and recreations offered with Toyoda’s distinctly surreal visual flare. Like many of Toyoda’s heroes, Unchain and his friends are trying to live free in an oppressive environment where they each have reasons to feel constrained thanks to their socio-economic circumstances. They may not find their release, but their quest goes on, alive in the ring even if floundering outside it.

Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Zhao Liang, 2015)

behemothEvil, so a wise man said, begins when you start treating people as things. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed us a city that literally was its people – nothing but a vast yet perfectly functional machine with the workers little more than cogs to be replaced and discarded once worn out. Zhao’s Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Bēixī Móshòu) is no fantasy but a very real journey through our own world and so we follow our narrator, a poetic, naked stand in for Dante’s Virgil, through hell and purgatory on a path to paradise only to find ourselves staring into a void filled with our unfulfilled desires and forlorn hopes.

On the fifth day God created Behemoth, and the mountain brings him forth food. Where once there was a paradise of verdant green fields and pastoral hills, now there are only quarries and the sounds of men at toil have replaced those of birds and other kinds of beasts. Our journey into hell takes us into a coal mine filled with noise and fires as the mountain is asset stripped right before our very eyes. We are witnessing a murder – the brutal slaughter of natural beauty for human gain, perpetrated by exploited workers who live in penury while their bosses rake off the profits from a safe distance.

Zhao’s workers labour at all hours under the searing heat of a midday sun or the bright glow of moonlight. He lingers on their faces, some old before their time but each tired, wrinkled. The workers are not provided with much in terms of infrastructure or facilities. They have no showers as Western coal miners might, they return home to scrape themselves with towels in an attempt to remove the stain of coal dust from their skin. Coal dust is a penetrative parasite, it sinks deep, falling into the creases each worker has developed through their strenuous efforts to earn the money to survive.

The dust does not stop at the skin. It runs deeper still, into the lungs where it stifles breath even once the unbreathable air of the furnace has been left behind. In what amounts to the naked dreamer’s path through purgatory, we see former workers lying listlessly on hospital beds as the black fluid is drained from their lungs. They cough, wheeze and struggle to breathe but they receive scant care or regard for their years or backbreaking toil. Some of them have formed a pressure group, hoping to get the government involved in their struggle to improve pay and conditions in the powerhouse of the nation but, as is expected, they receive little attention – after all, there are plenty more workers out there and leverage is small when jobs are in demand.

So what of Paradise? Paradise is empty, all the righteous are trapped in hell. Vast cities of high rise buildings lie vacant – a symptom of economic hubris as supply outstrips demand by an inconceivable margin. All this progress, and no one left to enjoy it. At the beginning our naked dreamer evokes Dante to tell us that there is no greater pain than desire without hope. It is unclear if Zhao’s Inner Mongolian workers would prefer this kind of paradise to their green rolling hills, but the decision has been made for them and even so, this is a workers’ paradise that is intended for a different kind of worker, there is no space here for any of Zhao’s coal smeared faces.

Our naked dreamer was guided here by a fellow plains dweller who does not know how to write poetry, but the eloquence of his heart is equal to Dante himself. The guide claims to show us a picture of the dead but the weight he carries on his back is a mirror – it shows us death wearing our own faces. Zhao shows us who we are – the faceless monster, Behemoth, is us or a manifestation of our relentless greed. We were born in paradise, and created ourselves a hell because we wanted more than the Earth could give us. This is our never-ending tragedy, overwhelmed by desire we destroy each other in an endless quest for an unattainable paradise that only exists in dreams.

Zhao’s background in photography comes to the fore as he captures these hellish scenes with an odd kind of beauty, mixing the bucolic with the brutal. Cattle grazes on the distant fields as fires burn in the background, and a baby boy plays innocently by madly digging at the ground as if mimicking the behaviour he sees all around him. At one moment the entire screen floods with red as the hellish glow of the smelting process momentarily blinds us, as does a dust cloud of white later on. For the most part, Zhao is content to show us the faces of these men and women, weathered by years of backbreaking labour yet he also tells us that he sees past their fatigue and their resignation to the people they once were that this environment has also destroyed. This is no social realist propaganda film, Zhao respects the sacrifice of these hard working people but it’s as far from glorification as it’s possible to be.

It’s tempting to say this is a China specific issue, brought about by the country’s unique political situation and rapid industrialisation but Zhao’s canvas is wider. This is a human problem that is not bound by national borders or cultural norms. We each live complicit with this system, so desperate to keep the lights on that we’ve become afraid to ask how it’s done. We can continue feed the monster that will one day devour us, or we can try to starve it out but that would require us to acknowledge the greed and selfishness that underline human nature. History is not on our side.

UK release trailer (ICA exclusive screening):

Behind the Camera ( review)

fullsizephoto273825Review of Korean meta documentary style comedy up at

When Korean director E J-yong was commissioned to make a short film as an advertisement for Samsung, he thought to himself what a wonderful idea it would be if he could test modern technology to its limits and direct the film remotely from a hotel room in LA. In particularly meta touch, the script he’s designed for the film also features a Korean director remotely directing a film the only difference being that the fake director is doing it because his overseas girlfriend is in town and he’s trying to avoid having to choose between love and money. Like E’s previous film, Actresses, which got some of Korea’s most talented actresses together for a fashion shoot where they proceeded to trash talk the industry and each other, Behind the Camera is fiercely funny behind the scenes style mockumentary where the lines between reality and fiction are anything but clear.

As the film begins, some of Korea’s best known talent has been assembled for a preliminary meeting regarding the short film they’re going to be making over the next two days – only there’s one very important person who doesn’t seem to have arrived yet. Coming as a surprise to some, the producer then stands up and makes an announcement that this film is going to be a little different, in fact the first of its kind, as the director will not be present on set at any point during the shoot but will be supervising from LA via Skype! Some members of cast take this better than others, especially as they lose wireless contact almost as soon E starts trying to explain the nature of the concept. Predictably, some don’t even believe he’s really in LA at all just engaging in a elaborate practical joke but others regard the whole thing as a farce and vaguely insulting to their status in the industry. As time moves on, the crew gradually start just ignoring E and doing their own thing and it’s clear one or two of them have their eyes on the director’s chair. Can you really direct a film from half way across the world and still realise your vision in the same way you would if you were really standing on the set? What’s more, is the idea of a director in itself anything more than vain conceit if all you do is say ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘cut’?

In the wrong hands, films with this sort of conceit can go horribly wrong. Often too clever by half, anything with a meta construct has a serious risk of ending up on the wrong side of pretentious but it’s clear that E J-yong’s intentions are a world away from any such self aggrandisement. Essentially a bolted on companion piece to his Samsung commercial (what a fantastic use of time!) what E has crafted is a warm and witty backstage look at the movie making business. Completely unafraid to poke fun at himself as the director with a high concept who may or may not be in Hollywood trying to make in America like his friends Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho (now he’s made a film in Hollywood even if it wasn’t a Hollywood film), Behind the Camera takes what could be a fairly thin joke and unpacks it in such a witty fashion that it easily sustains itself over the course of a full length film.

Like Actresses, Behind the Camera assembles a whole host of Korean cinema talent with actors, actresses and industry personnel mostly playing themselves. Some of the funniest moments in the film occur when the cast and crew are just hanging out together and chatting generally about various things. Yun Yoe-jong had taken a brief break from filming Im Sang-soo’s A Taste of Money in order to take part in this mini-project as a favour to E who hasn’t even bothered to turn up! In fact she originally told him she was too busy but after he sent her a depressing photo of himself begging her to star in his film she gave in. If anyone has earned the right to a few salty and spiky retorts after such a long and illustrious career it’s certainly Yun Yeo-jong and witnessing her intense displeasure with the entire endeavour is one of the highlights of the film. There are also plenty of meta references to the Korean film industry and cinema history for those who are well versed enough to pick up on them.

At first glance, Behind the Camera might sound like one of those precious industry “mockmentaries”  that are never quite as funny as they think they are, but Behind the Camera is different precisely because it isn’t afraid to turn the camera around and expose what really goes on backstage. You genuinely can’t tell what is ‘real’ and what is ‘constructed’ but what is certainly true is that Behind the Camera’s warm and humorous outlook make it one of the funniest Korean comedies of recent times.


Room 666

a wim wenders collection v2 Room 666-4preston sturges

If you’re Wim Wenders and you’re bored at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, you could amuse yourself by getting a bunch of your director friends to answer a series of pre-set questions about the future of cinema whilst sitting alone (aside from the ever present TV) in front of a static rolling camera in a fairly anonymous hotel room. Luckily, you have a lot of director friends making all sorts of films from all over the world who apparently won’t get that weirded out by sitting alone in an empty room pontificating about the death of cinema as an art form.

This is 1982, the year I was born (though I was born in the winter and Cannes is in the spring so I’m probably on my way somewhere but haven’t quite arrived yet), and this ‘future of cinema’ they’re envisioning is the present in which we now live. It’s depressing how many of the arguments the class of 1982 come up with are the exact same arguments we’re having now – that cinema as an art form has migrated to television and the cinematic output has been reduced to a vague amalgam of the the things Hollywood (in particular) wants it to be. More than one American director, when questioned about his own cinematic habits, admits he rarely watches films himself – he prefers television. In a telling and prophetic fashion, he videotapes films off the TV but then never bothers to watch them. Another recounts the story of friend who’s terrified of this ‘brave new world’ where you’ll be able to buy things through a video camera or, heaven forbid, order a meal from a computer screen! Some are more positive like Werner Herzog who believes the cinema has its own aesthetic which will save it or Antonioni who looks forward to a new age of HD video which is only now coming to pass.

However, aside from the futuristic visions of thirty years ago, it’s almost even more interesting to note how each director chooses to behave inside this strange “diary room”, left all alone except for the silently glaring camera. Jean-Luc Godard is first up – sitting directly facing the camera, smoking in a relaxed fashion and lamenting that his position isn’t the best for seeing the tennis on the TV just beside him. He gets the longest unbroken lecture in which he talks at length about various quite unrelated things until he gets bored and leaves in true Godard fashion – we wouldn’t have him any other way but it’s difficult to tell how seriously he’s taking this. Some directors sit nervously on the edge of the seat, thinking hard about their answers where as others bluster through as though they were at a Hollywood pool party a la Spielberg who laments the weak dollar and the rising cost of filmmaking which he fears will lead to a decline in artistry (which seems kind of ironic). Werner Herzog wins all the prizes for his entrance in which he makes a point of removing his shoes as ‘these aren’t the sort of questions that should be answered with your shoes on’ and being the only director to realise he can turn off the TV behind him! Antonioni gets up and roams around the room as if giving a lecture whereas Rainer Werner Fassbinder (in a late career appearance – he would sadly pass away of a drugs overdose only a few weeks later) gives his answer concisely and leaves almost straight away.

So there we have it, cinema apparently died sometime prior to 1982 and has been subsisting in some kind of bloated zombie state ever since. Art forms are always dying, books died a century ago and yet new ones keep being born which we take to our hearts and minds, nurturing them even though we keep being told there is no hope. The theatre is dead, pop music is dead, classical music and opera? fossilised, perhaps? The presence of the TV set in background is the most ironic use of a TV screen in any movie, just as the directors talk about the threat of television the viewer is constantly distracted by whatever happens to be playing (which includes some kind of Battle of the Planets type thing and Planet of the Apes!) and good old Werner is the only one who thinks to turn it off so we can focus all of our attention on what he has to say. Perhaps the most pressing segment is the one where the director isn’t even present as he’s the subject of an extradition order by the Turkish government but has been able to tape record his contribution prompting Director Wim Wenders to step in front of the camera to explain. This segment highlights how the cinematic art form is still held as a threat and that the true artistic spirit it can exhibit is often suppressed or oppressed by bodies governmental or otherwise. Sadly, this is a problem that has not gone away, nor is it likely to (and unfortunately applies to all art forms equally not just cinema which necessitates higher visibility). Where is the cinema in 2014 then, still trapped like Shrodinger’s cat inside an opaque box where we can’t be certain if it lives or dies? Maybe, it’s making noises every now and then though perhaps it doesn’t sound quite like it used to. The real question though is who wants to save it, and why? Are there people willing to stand up and fight for their art and what exactly is the ‘cinema’ that they want to save?

Watched on Mubi 12th June 2014 (its expiry date). Also available from Anchor Bay in the UK or legal streaming from The Paris Review (among other places).



Secret Screenings: The Imposter 14th August 2012 (Spoiler Free)

This was my first visit to Secret Screenings – a sister strand to Secret Cinema that aims to show as yet unseen films for one night only with the Secret Cinema touch only on a smaller scale. This is, in fact, only the second of such events, the first having been Searching For Sugarman complete with a performance by Rodriguez himself. My first contact with this event was a rather ominous email taking the form of a court summons and asking me to confirm my attendance at the above day time (i.e buy a ticket).

Dutifully doing so I began to wonder what the film might be. Secret Screenings kept up the crime & punishment theme, posting lots prison related links and videos like Johnny Cash at San Quentin etc so I started to think about prison films. However, things started to skew a little and there seemed to be more about truth vs fiction and identification so I started to think about recent films along those lines.

There was only one thing it could be – I was convinced Secret Screenings were going to show us Bart Layton’s The Imposter. The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Conway Court Hall was the Spanish telephone box, being a bit dim though I didn’t really connect it with the film until later. There wasn’t a queue as such when I arrived but I could immediately see the police presence and after a while one of the officers asked us to line up behind the desk. While we were lined up other officers walked up and down the line checking tickets etc and keeping order. There were also more Secret Screenings signs around here including the lyrics to a song.

While I was near the front of the queue a boy, dressed in suspiciously thick clothing for the hot day, came and sat inside the phone box and I immediately knew my guess had been correct as I recognised it from the promotional material for the film. On finally getting inside we had to hand over our questionnaires to the policeman who filed them according to whether we’d selected truth or fiction. The girl in front of me refused to choose and after some arguing he gave in and created a separate pile. The questionnaires didn’t appear to have any further use and nothing more was made of them on the evening.

The ‘court house’ wasn’t open yet so I wandered around and spotted several ‘Missing’ adverts on the walls – more evidence. When the court did eventually open, we had to pass through a metal detector (which wasn’t switched on or connected to anything but was watched over by a policeman who made sure we went one by one). Once inside we were directed to one side for truth and another for fiction. I sat down on the truth side but this didn’t really make any difference in the end and if you came later you obviously just had to sit wherever there was space.

The film was then introduced by someone dressed as a British style barrister complete with wig who warned us we were to sit in judgement on a very complicated case but not to make up our minds until we’d heard the cross-examination of witnesses after the film had finished.

As you might expect if you’ve read anything at all about the film it is an extraordinarily complicated and distressing case. I came to sympathise with everyone and no-one by turns but even though I was aware of being manipulated I did come to sympathise more with the protagonist than anyone else. After all I’m assuming someone checked the injuries he claimed to have sustained as part his ‘story’ and that therefore he must have received these injuries at some point himself. One of the family members does describe him as walking with a limp from the beginning but I suppose he could have been putting it on all along.

After the film finished we were treated to a Q&A with the director and ‘star’ of the film private investigator Charlie Parker which took the form of a cross-examination by the barrister from the introduction. A lot of questions were asked about the level of scripting in the film and use of actors (none, bar brief reconstruction scenes) and whether anyone had been payed to appear in the film (expenses only). Apparently Frederic Bourdin now disowns the film because he thinks it makes him look bad and harangues the director about it on twitter. Charlie Parker talked how he came to be involved in the case – a current affairs program brought him on board to do some investigative work on a piece they were running about the Barclay family. By chance Parker was standing right next to a picture of the boy who disappeared whilst looking at Bourdin and could see what no-one else could see – it wasn’t him (not least because the shape of his ears was all wrong). Parker then became determined to expose Bourdin as an imposter believing him to be some kind of spy (!). Later Parker formulated his own opinion about what must have happened to the real Nicholas Barclay and is continuing to investigate the case although it has been closed by the police department and FBI.

I would urge everyone to see this fascinating documentary for themselves and make up their own mind. It is obviously very upsetting in terms of its subject matter, the boy who went missing at thirteen is of course still still unaccounted for. It’s a very interesting look at deception and why someone was able to get away with something so absurd in this particular case. There are no easy answers and the film certainly raises lots of questions about human nature and the way that it is often exploited.