Monday 11 February 2013

Zero Killed (2012)

Director: Michał Kosakowski
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
It's not your usual horror movie that evolves out of an art installation, but Zero Killed began life in 2007 at the Lothringer13 gallery in Munich and, sure enough, it's something rather different. It's a cross between documentary and fake snuff film, but with an opposing emphasis to movies such as Man Bites Dog or Long Pigs. For a decade, beginning in 1996, filmmaker Michał Kosakowski asked a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds about their murder fantasies, then provided the gruesome means by which they could act them out in front of the camera. Kosakowski delivered everything needed to turn their fantasies into reality, if only in a fictional way, except one thing: he set the condition that they had to act in their little pictures themselves. Then, a decade on, he returned to his subjects, spread across five central European countries, to interview them about their experiences and how they might have been changed by them.

It's certainly an interesting concept, but I'm not sure how well it's explored in this film, which runs a long 75 minutes, accompanied by a neatly contrasting soundtrack of polite electronica and light opera. What we're given is a selection of extracts from these murder fantasies, some tantalisingly brief and some disturbingly protracted, broken up by the thoughts and musings of the people who conjured them up to begin with. While these are obviously edited carefully to provide progression, any direction is kept off camera. Kosakowski remains unseen and we don't see or hear any of the questions that he asked, merely the answers he received, combined together in such a way that themes appear to emerge on their own as we find our own meanings from this material. The furthest he goes is to edit it and stack it in a particular order, but it's still very open to debate as to whether there's any consensus to be found. What I saw may not be what you'll see.

Initially there doesn't seem to be much of anything in common with the various fantasies beyond the fact that someone dies in every one of them. Certainly it was the differences that leapt out at me first. Some are brutal exercises in aggression through power, while others are passive, polite ways to kill. Some are dreams of long standing, outlined in minute detail, with others more vague in concept, maybe built reactively from the idea posed. Some are personal, the targets being ex-girlfriends, family members or those who caused an abiding response of some sort, but some are random attacks on complete strangers. Some spring from morbid intellectual curiosity, while others are emotional to the core. While this ought to be about the act of murder itself, some folk are apparently unable to see past a particular victim. Most surprisingly, while most interviewees take the expected role of killer, some place themselves into the role of the victim instead.
For a while this is enough, as the sheer diversity of fantasies sweeps over us and I found the first half an hour fascinating. One man loses control so far that he doesn't just take out his aggression on his bound victim but shoots his tomatoes too. A quiet lady serves salad laced with poison to a man who ignores her, all the while trying to embark in conversation. One inventive victim places himself into a full body cast while an apparent madman cuts off body parts. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of momentum and this diversity of approach gradually turns into the consistent result. What are we supposed to focus on: the death or the philosophy? Are we supposed to glean some sort of meaning out of the thoughts of these fantasists or is this supposed to cause a response in us? Should our questions be about the ideas brought forth or about the people who raise them? I couldn't figure out any of these answers and there's no guidance given.

Perhaps that's the point. Art is a subjective creature, which at its best ceases to be about the art and the artist and becomes about the viewer. Perhaps the point is to confront us with death in a hundred different ways and hope that it sparks something in us. Well, no light bulbs lit up above my head watching this film and much of it was predictable. Personalities matched methodologies according to clear patterns. Extroverted and emotional people get up close and personal, visible killers who want their victims to see them before they die. Introverted but driven murderers stay at a distance or hide what they're doing. I didn't find a lot of surprises in any of that. A farmer who is an experienced killer of animals has intellectual curiosity about how it might feel to extend that to human beings, but he found what he expected and so did I. Those with childhood traumas get to explore how it affected them, such as the eight year old who saw his grandfather hanged.

If I found anything new, it was in the more topical choices of approach. One woman takes on the role of a terrorist, putting on a burqa and strapping explosives to herself before walking out into a busy public area. These moments stretched for me. I watched bystanders and passers by carrying on with their lives without any knowledge of what was about to happen. I also watched the woman compose herself and find an inner peace before pressing her button. This particular scenario stood out for me, perhaps because in most of them there's a clear ending where the victims know what is going to happen and why, but here there's nothing. One moment, there are many people living their lives, but the next those lives are stopped entirely. I found it very tough to place myself into the roles of the victims in this scenario because they're blissfully unaware that they're even going to be victims. Most of these scenarios are simple, this one is deceptively complex.
The most topical choice of murder fantasy is the young man who goes on a school rampage. This was hard to watch not, because of the reasons above but because it all became meta for me at this point. I wasn't thinking about the man himself or his actions, but of how others would react to him talking about it so freely in a movie like this. After Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, there are heated discussions across America about gun rights and the second amendment. What fascinates me most about this highly contentious issue isn't the issue itself but the reactions and overreactions to it. When a second grader gets suspended from school for throwing an imaginary grenade into an imaginary box of evil in order to save the world, how are we supposed to react to a young man talking candidly on film about his fantasies of shooting up a school and then seeing clips of him doing so, albeit in fake form, with a realistic machine gun?

Zero Killed is so named for a few reasons, not only as the meaning of the abbreviation OK, as used in military dispatches after combat to highlight no casualties, but to make it clear to us that what we see is fake, imaginary, hypothetical. While we watch a large number of gruesome deaths, not one person was killed in the making of the film or since, to the best of my knowledge, at least not at the hands of these fantasists, but the school shooter hammered home questions about whether that might ever happen. It's constantly notable how cheerful, down to earth and normal these folk are, but a few do seem to warrant a more careful look. How thin is that boundary between fantasy and reality, after all? It's in this aspect that the film really turns around on the viewer and prompts us to evaluate what we're watching and what our reactions are. In a world where thinking about a crime is frequently conflated with committing it, suddenly this feels dangerous.

Unfortunately, such thought really stems from the very existence of this picture more than from anything that unfolds within it. While it started well and posed interesting questions in surprising ways, my interest lapsed about half an hour in. Almost by definition, it became highly repetitive and the reuse of music, as enjoyable as that was, added to that feeling. Clearly I wasn't alone, as the people leaving the theatre where I first saw it wasn't en masse as a reaction to one moment, but a gradual trickle as they decided individually that they just didn't want to watch it any more. Watching again, at home, outside the boundaries of a film festival, I found it easier to remain on board, but my interest still lapsed. Paradoxically, the longer reenactments run, the more boring they become but the less easy it is to ignore their content; yet the more this happens, the easier it is for our eyes to drift away and find something, anything else to focus on. That's not good.

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