A sunny local park. A girl in a bright yellow jacket walks across the grass with some friends. We watch in slow motion, to the sound of glacial, discordant music, as she stops to kiss them goodbye. She walks on, passing a boy with a clarinet, some kids with a ball, a girl with a skipping rope. The title screen appears: Helen. We see her closer, directly from behind. Then the music stops, and we cut to another park scene with figures in black uniforms, looking downwards, walking slowly across a pathway as if part of some sombre line-dance. We immediately know: the girl is missing. These were her last known steps.
Released in 2008, Helen is the feature debut by directing partnership Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, whose other work consists of a series of shorts called ‘Civic Life’. Like those films, the style here never really changes: long shots, slow camera movements, drawn-out music. Unprofessional actors recite stilted dialogue. Sound unpromising? Somehow, from this concoction, a genuine resonance is created – and if you’re anything like me, before you know it the credits will be rolling and you’ll realise you’ve just spent 75 minutes utterly transfixed.
From a directing partnership whose interest clearly lies in style and mood over conventional narrative, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting wonders from the plot. But this film’s central premise is a brilliant one: to help search for Joy, the girl we see in the opening scene, the police call upon Helen, her schoolmate, to play her part in a filmed reconstruction. It turns out Helen is an orphan from a local care home, and so a pair of voids is set up – her parentlessness, and Joy’s parents’ childlessness – which cannot help but come together in strange and unsettling ways.
There’s a satisfying dovetailing of working method and output here in that ‘reconstruction’ is so close to what Molloy and Lawlor are doing as filmmakers themselves. Entering a location, they will find members of the local community to participate in a given project as actors and ask for their thoughts on such matters as what the film should be about, what they would like to say, or even where the camera should be placed. The results are openly fictional and highly stylised but nevertheless firmly based in the reality of their subjects’ lives.
Moments in this film demonstrate that ethic clearly: at one point, we see a teenager playing guitar in a dance studio – then someone comes in, says something, and the boy unplugs and vacates the room. In file some schoolchildren followed by a police-officer, and a scene proceeds which does indeed have relevance to Helen’s narrative. But what of the guitarist? We never see him again, but he seems to be there to tell us: rooms aren’t just film sets, where one (prioritised) single story takes place; they’re real locations, housing multiple individual experiences day-to-day. ‘Civic Life’ indeed. And Molloy and Lawlor’s habit of pointing their camera where others wouldn’t pays off as the scene progresses: we are shown not the policewoman speaker but the children listening, and are left to search their faces for meaning and reaction. Is that blank look boredom or fear? Did one of them just smirk?
The acting is limited but it’s almost as if it brings out an extra dimension in the script by its very lack of bombast. When Helen first meets Joy’s parents there’s something unnerving about how quickly they settle into asking about homework. Then, when she visits their house for dinner – a wonderful Haneke-esque scene where middle-class niceties struggle to contain the horrors beneath – you feel as if an intruiging puzzle has been set by the fact that the father breaks down on the phrase “unknown constant” (referring, ostensibly, to maths). Later, it’s possible to detect just how fully this process is taking over Helen’s life: showing an old photo to Joy’s ex-boyfriend (she’s really getting her feet under the table at this point) she says, in true police-procedural style: “Can I ask you to describe what you see in this picture?”
By writing this piece, in fact, I’m quickly discovering that this is one of those films which gets richer and richer the more you think about it – always a good sign. Alas, I have a word limit, but I think you get the gist. This is bold, thoughtful and distinctive filmmaking – the type we should be celebrating – and, if you haven’t seen it already, I urge you to give it a try.
Contributor Jamie Ruszczynski runs the film blog Shot Through A Window.
I love a film with references to integration! Sounds intruiging.
Joe and Christine went on from HELEN to make a further CIVIC LIFE film, TIONG BAHRU, which was filmed last year in Singapore. You can see Joe and Christine talking about that project here: http://civiclifetiongbahru.com/about/
thanks for that