Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989)

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By chance, I found that someone had uploaded this gem to YouTube, in its entirety.

If you’ve never seen Alan Clarke’s ELEPHANT before, I would strongly recommend you watch it now, in one sitting, with no preconceptions. It’s 40 minutes long.

It’s not exactly a pleasant watch, but here it goes…

I don’t remember whether I first saw this on TV or video. I do remember my reaction: numbness. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d experienced, or find the means with which to properly process it.

It changed the way I thought about narrative.

A 40 minute film without any conventional sense of narrative, almost no dialogue, no contextualisation, no explanation. Yet I found it the most compelling, painfully vivid, and polititcally devastating portrayal of The Troubles that I had ever seen.

In terms of film, it also taught me that time and space, of themselves, are two of the most powerful components of cinema which are sadly often reduced to insignificance.

ELEPHANT demonstrates how the absence of conventional elements can be so effective. As the BFI’s screen online say:-

The lack of narrative removes any scope for justification of the killings on religious, political or any other grounds and the matter-of-factness of Clarke’s approach debases the often-heroic portrayal – by all sides – of the individuals involved in sectarian murder.

 

Moreover, Clarke’s use of a Steadicam to follow the killers before and during the murders casts the viewer as at best a willing voyeur, at worst an accomplice. After each killing, the camera dwells on the bodies slumped on floors or draped over desks for longer than is comfortable, forcing the viewer to confront the brutality of their deaths.

Here’s Slarek in Cine Outsider:-

To those coming completely fresh to Alan Clarke’s Elephant, [the opening scene] must seem an intriguing set-up to a story in which reasons for what just happened will later become clear.

 

But then scene two kicks off… By now most viewers would be starting to wonder. Again the approach is coldly observational, emphasised by a completely lack of dialogue or music. Are the two killings related? Is a more complex story unfolding?

 

Scene three brings more of the same…By now few will be under the impression that they are watching a standard drama. By the fifth or sixth killing the tone of the entire film is set and the audience divisions set in, splitting those who are prepared to go where Clarke is taking them from those who are not. There is no plot, almost no dialogue, and no musical score, just a series of eighteen sectarian assassinations, one after the other with no on-screen reasons given, no conclusions attempted and no characters shaped in any traditional sense or even identified by name. This is minimalist film-making at its most starkly pure and is bound to alienate a sizeable, dare I say more traditionalist portion of any potential audience. But stay the course and you will experience a film whose single-minded sense of purpose, bold rejection of traditional storytelling techniques and astonishing technical confidence mark it as one of of the most important films ever to be screened on British television, and for my money the very finest work of a consistently excellent director.

Slarek also provides some background on the genesis of the film:-

The project was originally the brainchild of producer Danny Boyle, later a director of some note himself. Having landed a producer’s job at BBC Northern Ireland, he became aware that many of the shootings taking place in the province were going unreported on the mainland, presumably because they involved ordinary citizens rather than politicians or others the English press deemed newsworthy. He was also a huge fan of Alan Clarke, and having written to him and been invited onto the set of Clarke’s previous ‘walking movie’ Christine (1987), he hired him with this very project in mind, and the two worked together to develop the film to its present form. The decision to shoot, so to speak, on the streets of Belfast was a brave one given that local people were living the reality of sectarian violence on a daily basis, but this not only adds to the documentary-like authenticity, it also provides some arresting locations – strangely empty streets, red brick industrial and municipal buildings and vast but deserted factories, all depressingly vacant symbols of Thatcherite industrial policies. The enigmatic title was inspired by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, who described the troubles in the province as akin to having an elephant in your living room – it is so enormous that no-one can ignore it, it gets in the way of everything you try to do, and yet no-one talks about it, and after a while you just learn to live with it.

It seems appropriate that the last word goes to Iain Stott and his suitably minimalist One-Line Review [no longer available]:-

Alan Clarke presents us with a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland – stripped of politics, rhetoric, history, context, and team colours – leaving us with their very essence – casually brutal murder, in this devastating, plotless masterpiece, in which death is accompanied only by the sound of life whirring gently by in the form of cars passing, dogs barking, lifts traversing, and footsteps echoing.

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