On Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’
Where: Animate Project/ APEngine
Date: December 2009
There is a remarkable cadence to Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) that makes it difficult to define as a television drama,
extended short, short-form feature or artist’s moving image piece. In
differing contexts it could be read alongside films such as Culloden, Partie de Campagne or Meshes of the Afternoon.
The film, a circle of violence, near silent with no thematic context
provided, other than three lines of dialogue spoken in a Northern Irish
accent, provided Clarke an opportunity to focus his camera in a manner
akin to his more conventional roots in social-realist docu-drama.
Produced for BBC Northern Ireland and originally broadcast on BBC2 in January 1989, at a time when the corporation had been recently forced by Thatcher’s government to impose a blanket broadcast ban on loyalist and republican organisations with supposed links to the IRA, Elephant makes no attempt to explain, contextualise, glorify or denounce the succession of eighteen murders, played one after another, the only recurring feature a lingering single shot of the murdered man at the end of every sequence.
By shooting almost entirely on a steadicam on the streets of a Belfast free of passers-by and stacked along with empty buildings, gives Clarke the opportunity to determine the pace of the film by its characters and allows it to unfold as if it were a documentary. Clarke’s narrative arc is episodic and its beats are natural. We follow, literally, each assailant or victim as they go about their daily business, playing football or taking a stroll in the park, at work in factories and offices, even chatting with friends in their own homes. Our field of vision is as limited as the man which we trail. Every area we are led towards, indoor or out, feels claustrophobic, inescapable of violence that we are aware is imminent, that we will to stop but are never given the respite.
Alan Clarke’s final film, and after Contact (1985) his second to deal with the political situation in Northern Ireland, Elephant has it’s antecedents across a broad range of the arts. One can draw a direct thematic line between Shadow of the Gunman by Seán O’Casey to the plays of Frank McGuinness or Richard Hamilon’s The Citizen to a legacy that has been recently well established by works such as Gus van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning homage (with the title, for example, a direct reference to that well-worn phrase of ‘the elephant in the room’, in both cases the history of a violence that goes unremarked upon) to Willie Doherty’s recent multi-media installations Ghost Story and Buried. The latter works draw upon Clarke’s distinctive and purposeful use of the steadicam to trace a character’s bearing. In both instances, we are led by paths well-trod that hold the weight of a violent history.
Clarke as a film director was an anomaly, in that he was a filmmaker who made only four features (all of which were highly acclaimed and even underwent, like many others, a short and unsurprisingly unsuccessful R&D period in Hollywood), but who spent almost twenty-five years making films for television, which at that point, along with the theatre, was traditionally a writer’s medium. Drawing on experience of theatre, feature film and television, Clarke was one of the leading proponents of the social-realist movement of Thatcher’s England and Scum (1977), Made in Britain (1983) and The Firm (1989) are all held as exemplary models of reflection of England in this period. The evolution of his modus operandi culminates, artistically and literally (this being his final film, broadcast six months before his death) with Elephant and its candid, fluid and unobtrusive camerawork and sparing mise-en-scène. Add to this themes and content that hold wide: general examination (violence in this instance, politically-motivated or otherwise, or drugs in Christine ), Elephant is a work of drama; whether each episode has its roots in reality or otherwise. It works separately as a piece of art because of the lack of a moral bias that distances the film between political accuracy and emotional sub-/objectivity. It is not overtly political, we cannot say with any conviction that the murders that we witness are specifically republican-led, yet the wider significance of each action cannot be understated. There may not be a rigorous interrogation of the actions however the focus remains, this is clearly not an ambiguous film.
In the end the motivation for the actions are unnecessary, we as viewers will bring our own interpretations to the occurrences, a difficult feat for an artist to achieve when dealing with potentially highly-politicised subject matter. Played on a loop on a television set, this is the art film in your living room.