A Cry in the Dark [1988] – There are worse things in our world than a baby-eating-dingo

Australian film-maker Fred Schepisi often deals with conflicts within communities or a family brought upon by destructive forces. His directorial debut, The Devil’s Playground (1976) was a witty and shrewd examination of the sexual repression and other constraints within a Catholic seminary. He followed it up with one of the best works in his oeuvre, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on the 1972 novel of same name by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote the Booker-prize winning novel Schindler’s Ark in 1982). The titular character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a half-aborigine who gets bombarded with abuse from his white employers. At one point, his anger reaches a breaking point. Jimmie takes an ax to a houseful of children and women, and commits a horrifying massacre. In the process, the exploited Aboriginal man becomes a feared outlaw (the novel is based on the real story of bush-ranger Jimmy Governor). Even though, Mr. Schepisi details Jimmie’s brutal slaying of a white family in a disturbing manner, his views are all-inclusive, questioning the prejudices of white establishment that led the Aboriginal man to perpetrate a horrific act. 

In the 1980s, Fred Schepisi started making films in US, including a decent western (‘Barbarosa’) and a comedy starring Steve Martin (‘Roxanne’). With the 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark (aka Evil Angels) Schepisi returned to Australia which was based on a major news story that made waves in and around Australian continent. Mr. Schepisi co-wrote the script with Robert Caswell; the tragic true event detailed in John Bryson’s non-fiction book (Evil Angels) remained as the source for the script. Although the events in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ take place after lot of decades than the crime detailed in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the director’s focus lies in portraying how a prejudiced society and the court of public opinion paints everything in black-and-white. 

The protagonist in A Cry in the Dark leads a far better life than the oppressed Aboriginal lead character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep) is the wife of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Michael (Sam Neill) and a doting mother of two little sons and a infant daughter. The film opens with the christening of Lindy’s nine-week-old baby Azaria. A truck driver looking at the gathering of Seventh-Day Adventists passes a rude comment on them, hinting at the wide misunderstanding of the religious minority and also forebodes the harsh judgment that’s to be passed on the Chamberlain family.
Lindy and Michael take their two sons and their baby daughter on a camping trip to Ayers Rock. Michael cooks vegetarian sausages, Lindy bathes Azaria in a little tub, cold beers are passed around, tents are erected, and dingoes wait for the scraps thrown away by the campers. On the night of their stay, Lindy put Azaria to sleep in the tent. She briefly talks with another camper family before getting interrupted by the baby’s cry. The cry is cut-short abruptly and as Lindy returns to the tent, she sees a dingo emerging with something in its mouth, and runs off into the dark. There’s blood on the blanket. Panicked, Lindy runs to her husband screaming, “The dingo's got my baby!” 

Wielding torches, the lawmen and fellow campers thoroughly search the area, and unable to find the baby they arrive at the obvious conclusion that the baby is dead. The tragedy that befell Chamberlein family, however, didn’t end there. Australian media and public didn’t want to believe in the story of dingo taking a baby. Moreover, Michael’s weird way of rationalizing 'why God would take their little daughter' in the news interviews puts him under the scrutiny of arm-chair pundits. The rumor mill and media circus begin to work together, quibbling over every little mannerism and action of the Chamberlein family. Their religious affiliation makes it easy to paint them as a villain, and soon Azaria’s death is alleged to be a ritual sacrifice. When the baby’s bloodied dress was found, the incompetent police force of Ayers Rock begin to rely on circumstantial evidence and obscure forensic reports to doubt Lindy. The initial assessment in the court rules in favor of Lindy, particularly condemning the media for the way it held public court of opinion. 

Nevertheless, the lawmen allege that they found a bloody hand-print on the baby’s dress and that blood was found sprayed all over the underside of the dash board in the Chamberleins’ car. The case is reopened and Lindy becomes center of attention in a malicious campaign of slander. Director Schepisi often cuts the trials and tribulations faced by Michael and Linda to the dinner parties, saloons, and card games where the Australian public nonchalantly and repeatedly declares Lindy to be the guilty party. Lindy sees tee-shirts in front of courtroom decorated with words: “The Dingo is Innocent”. Some of the journalists seem to be worse than a baby-killing-dingo, who’d do anything for the sake of sniffing out a story. Even though Lindy is turned into an object of entertainment, she remains resolute, self-contained, and believes that at the end of the courtroom proceedings the truth will set her free. 

At one point in the narrative, even Lindy’s lawyers ask her to emote more for the jury, at least to play the role of a grieving mother. Lindy just wants to be the way she is, but the perceived iciness is further claimed as the proof of her guiltiness. Michael reacts in a different manner from Lindy. Being a sensitive man, Michael buckles under the pressure. He’s assumed as the ‘weak’ accomplice to the ‘evil’ woman. Those who have never heard of Lindy’s story would be shocked by the verdict passed by the jury. She was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving three-and-a-half years behind bars, a crucial piece of evidence proved that Lindy was innocent. An appeals court eventually overturned her conviction and Lindy was released. Lindy’s case is a classic example of miscarriage of justice, all happened because she was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion; an opinion persistently peddled by the ghouls and cutthroats in the media. 

A Cry in the Dark clearly has more relevance in our times as the means for public to pass judgment on any idiosyncratic behavior has become much easier. Although this is the story of Lindy Chamberlein, Fred Schepisi meticulously crafts the story in a manner that it becomes the deeply felt portrait of a very judgmental community (which is universal in nature). The narrative could have used more ambiguity, but by unfolding the events from Lindy’s perspective, Schepisi intricately examines how far a society goes when it deems an individual unlikable. Furthermore, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy which allows her to be cynical and frigid adds more complexity to the drama. In fact, Schepisi’s decision to not approach Lindy’s tale as a true-crime mystery works pretty well due to Streep’s perfectly composed performance. And gradually, Streep’s Lindy earns our sympathy, not exactly because we ‘like’ her’, but because we believe in her innocence and due to the rage we feel over the press’ witch hunt. It’s interesting to see how the media doesn’t miss a beat when it covers Lindy’s exoneration with the same relish it showed when it was keen to put her behind bars. The things these malevolent beings do for a good story! How they twist a simple truth when exhibiting it in the public realm! And how our own lust for entertainment perceives everything in a binary manner!

Overall, A Cry in the Dark (120 minutes) is an unpretentious and outstanding dramatization of a court-case in which an individual is condemned for not behaving in the ‘right’ way. 


The Story of Qiu Ju [1992] – A Fascinating Visual Discourse on a Simple Personal-Disputes Story

In many ways The Story of Qiu Ju (‘Qiu Ju da guan si’, 1992), the fourth directorial venture of Zhang Yimou, who is the most renowned among the ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese film-makers, marks a departure for its film-maker. Zhang’s first three period dramas – Red Sorghum (1988), Ju Dou (1990), and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) – possessed a sort of filmic beauty, an almost fairy-tale quality. Raise the Red Lantern, specifically, bowled us over with its sumptuous use of colors and elaborate sets. But ‘The Story of Qiu Ju’ is set in present-day rural China and Zhang replaces his rich formalism with coarse, grainy aesthetics of Italian neo-realism (using concealed cameras to shoot on streets and hiring non-professional actors, etc). The artist’s muse -- the extremely beautiful Gong Li -- also plays an unglamorous woman, cloaked in drab attire and walks around slowly due to her character’s well-developed pregnancy. In fact, Zhang wholly resists from directing his camera at Gong Li’s pretty face (apart from the final shot).

The Story of Qiu Ju was approved by the state censors, a fortune denied for Ju Dou & Raise the Red Lantern, whose final version was banned in China for a period. Perhaps the censors found Zhang’s mild, veiled criticism acceptable compared to his previous ventures (Zhang Yimou followed up ‘Qiu Ju’ with ‘To Live’ which was denied a theatrical release in mainland China). Based on Yuan Bin Chen’s novella ‘The Wan Family’s Lawsuit’, The Story of Qiu Ju was adapted to screen by Heng Liu (who collaborated with Zhang in ‘Ju Dou’ and ‘The Flowers of War’). The role the star-actress Gong Li played in this film and To Live (1994) were the most sympathetic and resilient figures she has donned among her eight movie collaborations with director Zhang Yimou (she was the lead actor in the film-maker’s first six works).

Gong Li’s titular character was first seen walking uncomfortably in a street that’s buzzing with people. She walks alongside another young woman who is pushing a cart within which a man lays down. The story is set in the remote north-west province of Shaanxi and it is winter. The trio reaches a doctor’s office and the doctor, chopping firewood to endure the punishing cold, looks as world-weary as the three. Qiu Ju says her husband Wan Qinglai (Peiqi Liu) was kicked in the groin by their village chief Wang (Kesheng Lei) over a petty argument. The doctor suggests rest for few days. Believing in traditional Chinese notions, Wan accepts his fate and waits for the pain to subside. But Qiu Ju wants an apology from the chief. The pregnant Qiu Ju laments, “If we can't fix your plumbing, we're stuck with the single-child policy for good.” In fact, the country’s child policy is indirectly the reason behind the tension between the two men. Wan has approached the chief, seeking approval to build a shed on their farm to store chili peppers. When the chief rejects this request, Wan is alleged to have made a subtle insult on chief’s lack of male children (he has four little daughters). Hence Wang got the kick in the place ‘where it counts’.

Qiu considers that the chief went too far by kicking her husband in the testicles. She first files a complaint with the local official Li (Zhijun Ge). The official proposes a compromise, modestly fining chief Wang. However, Qiu Ju doesn’t want financial compromise but only a simple apology. The chief’s pride won’t allow him to succumb before a woman. He insults her and it only fuels Qiu Ju’s resolve to take her case to the higher authorities. Each of these journeys is episodic, sometimes abruptly cutting from village to town or city and vice-versa. Qiu Ju is accompanied by her na├»ve sister-in-law Meizi (Liuchun Yang), both sort of lose themselves watching the hustle and bustle of city life for the first time. Qiu Ju does her best to navigate through modern China without getting ripped off (the country wardrobe although marks her as an easy target). Nevertheless, the bureaucracy keeps on suggesting the same solution.  And by the time the wheels of justice are set in motion, Qiu Ju doesn’t feel the same about her doggedness to reap justice.
Zhang Yimou shows tremendous restraint in setting up this simple conflict, never over-dramatizing the plight and emotions of the ordinary people. The authenticity and realism Zhang brings to the proceedings turns the film into a pleasing visual document of the Chinese way of life. The film-maker interleaves the narrative with small, unfeigned moments: the doctor chopping firewood; Qiu Ju and Meizi hauling chili peppers to a street market; the couples applying for marriage being jovially interviewed in the local government office; Qiu Ju’s hunt for the cheapest place to stay; the Public Security Bureau’s President treating the ‘country bumpkins’ to lunch; Meizi having her first American soda; Qiu Ju returning from the city with presents for her family. Such charming, understated notes that visualize the rhythm of village life keep us wholly engrossed despite the cyclical, repetitive nature of the narrative.

Zhang doesn’t make anyone out to be the bad apple. The chief finds himself in a strong position within the village and the legal hierarchy. His family set-up is interesting: an elderly woman, the chief’s wife and his four daughters (the family always welcomes Qiu Ju and her husband Wan with an innocent smile in spite of the conflict). He demonstrates his masculinity by the control he exerts over them. We may never perceive the chief’s defiance in the same note as Qiu Ju’s, mainly because the pregnant woman’s pursuit is mixed with purity and naivety, whereas the chief just wants to perpetuate the little power he possesses. But his haughtiness on being the village patriarch doesn’t stop him from displaying humane gestures. Zhang equates the chief’s humanist action during a dire situation with the traditional Confucian-based values of mutual obligations. The restrained old-school method of handling disputes in village life is preferred over the deeply ingrained indifference of the bureaucratic procedures (Of course, the traditional Chinese methods may contain problems in addressing more complex issues). Zhang’s intention isn’t to severely indict the rule of law (may be because of his then recent confrontations with the state censors), but to gently present the irony in state’s slow and very impersonal delivery of ‘justice’.

The Story of Qiu Ju might take its simple central conflict to absurd heights. We may wonder at the fastest response rate of bureaucracy, doubt Qiu Ju’s strength (owing to her mature stage of pregnancy), and financial position while she frequently makes these exhausting, costly trips to the city. Suspension of disbelief is necessary to take these narrative notes and Gong Li’s subdued acting style proves to be worthy distraction from such queries (What I particularly liked about the actress’ performance is the way she allows Qiu Ju’s anger to surface through her tenacious actions rather than dramatized emotions). Equally baffling was the greatly accommodating and kind nature of almost all the bureaucrats in the movie (that might be Zhang making sure the film gets past the censors). But still as a socio-cultural piece, The Story of QiuJu immensely engages us. Before Zhang Yimou went to make high-budget martial-arts epics, he informed movie-goers about the life of ordinary Chinese. And Qiu Ju was perhaps the most appealing and sympathetic of his ‘ordinary’ Chinese subjects. 


Orlando [1992] – A Whimsical Art-House Drama on Gender Politics

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novella, Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) is a challenging as well as a slightly frustrating art-house drama. At a glance, it looks like a Merchant Ivory production or like one of those (unimaginative) costume dramas. But this aesthetically-pleasing tale of androgynous British nobleman’s fantastical exploits playfully explores the themes of gender outlooks and personal identity. Having read Virginia Woolf (although I haven’t read Orlando), it is understandable what an arduous task it might have been to adapt the intricate text into a movie. Set across four centuries of British history, the ageless gender-switching protagonist’s emotional journey doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc. Yet Sally Potter’s prodigious visual achievement alongside Tilda Swinton’s intoxicating presence strengthens the free-wheeling plot structure.

Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter have started collaborating on this project five years before it went to production. It’s pretty evident how their long involvement have impeccably nurtured the ideas to come up with best possible devices. Virginia Woolf published the novella in 1928 and is alleged to have used Orlando merely as a conduit to playfully address her bewilderment over gender perceptions and restrictions over different eras and centuries. To align with Woolf’s idea, the script takes a slightly detached perspective, moving between one vignette to another (each situation’s theme is explicitly addressed in inter-titles: eg, death, love, sex, etc), and using it as a canvas for its thematic inquiries. 

The rascally central conceit of Orlando may lack the strong emotional resonance of other felicitated self-discovery journeys, although it makes up for this through the remarkably rich and memorable camerawork. Potter’s elegant camera movement and Swinton’s serenely composed bemusement carries the feeling of whimsy and dry humor oft found in Woolf’s works.

Tilda Swinton’s titular Orlando is a dashing nobleman, born into wealth and privilege. In 1600, the young man has a fateful meeting with elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp). The Queen promises him great deal of wealth and land, provided if he doesn’t ‘grow old and wither’. Orlando decides to do just that: to progress through centuries without ageing. In 1610, Orlando lives in a huge estate and captivated by the arrival of an enchanting Muscovite Princess named Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey). The arrival of Russian diplomats is set in the marvelous background of frozen Thames (with waiters delivering drinks by skating on ice). In the pursuit of love, he lets down his betrothed fiancee, and later Orlando himself is rebuffed by Sasha. Arriving at a conclusion that women are beyond trust and comprehension, Orlando tries to be a poet and fails.

In the late 17th century, he is appointed as an Ambassador for Middle-East country and eventually fumbles in the diplomatic test. Soon Orlando transforms into a woman. Gazing upon his now transformed female body, he says with a note of amazement, Same person. No difference at all…. Just a different sex”. Orland’s spiritual calmness persists as she lives in the puritanical British society where intellectuals spout ridiculous claims on the nature of ‘fairer sex’. Orlando’s properties are threatened since as a woman she has no rights to inherit property. However, she rediscovers love and sex through an American drifter Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). The film ends in the timeline, well past the novella’s period. Orlando is seen cruising on a motorbike with her little daughter in 1990s Britain, excited by the new-age freedom and the ever-changing gender precepts.

Sally Potter’s script does find it difficult to maintain cohesiveness with the breakaway narrative. The laborious task of moving through time and space is not as easy in terms of visuals as compared to richly adorned prose. But as I mentioned earlier, Potter’s aesthetic maneuvers finely conveys Woolf’s treatise on shifting gender roles. The scene between Shelmerdine and Orlando, where the lovers discuss about their desires which stands against social expectations of gendered beings, is brilliantly shot savoring the dry wit and richness in the conversation. The occasional fourth-wall breaking moments may seem silly, but it arrays rightly with acutely self-conscious nature of Virginia Woolf and her central characters. Moreover, the devilish close-up shots of Tilda Swinton’s face as she faces the camera (or us) keep alive the feelings of gaiety in the narrative.

 It’s simply unimaginable how Orlando’s solitary stretch and existentialist muses would have played out on-screen without Tilda Swinton donning the role. It’s debatable whether Swinton was very convincing as a male, but there’s an equanimity and soulfulness in her composure that can’t be as fully realized by another actor. Despite the narrative framework maintaining a distance from its characters, Swinton brings up emotional transparency with greatest skill (her sad posture when she answers the question, ‘Why are you so sad?’ balancingly conveys inherent joy of newfound passion and the lament for its inevitable loss). Considering the narrative’s offbeat flourishes, the performances could have easily turned into caricatured portrayal rather than providing some emotional anchor. Both the excellent supporting cast and Swinton doesn’t do that mistake. The production and costume design immediately conjures the word ‘sumptuous’ from our mind (the film received two well-deserved Oscar nominations in these categories).

Orlando (93 minutes) is an unconventional century-spanning drama that must be watched for clear-eyed directorial gaze and Tilda Swinton’s distinctive screen presence. Despite few clumsy or disjointed narrative missteps, this is an audacious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s text on preconceived gender expectations.  

Unbelievable [2019] – A Devastating and Powerful Tale about Sexual Assault

The first episode of Netflix’s 8-part miniseries Unbelievable (2019) – created by screenwriter Susannah Grant & novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman -- is profoundly disturbing. It confirms all of our worst fears about institutional incompetence and societal indifference. Unbelievable is based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning article ("An Unbelievable Story of Rape"), which was the joint project of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, respectively working for the non-profit news organizations, ProPublica and The Marshall Report. The article details the investigation on string of multiple sexual assaults while also focusing on a sexual assault victim’s nightmarish encounter with the very imperfect criminal justice system. Like every other perplexing true-crime case presented in the streaming platform, Unbelievable is meticulous, excruciating, and enraging with some dramatizations.

As I mentioned before, the 1st episode firmly establishes all the unsettling aspects of the story, although the director Lisa Cholodenko’s admirable display of restraint visualizes the trauma of sexual assault victims with minimal details. The episode opens the morning after Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) from Lynnwood, Washington was raped in 2008. The visibly traumatized 18-year-old, huddled under a comforter, notices her former foster mother Judith’s (Elizabeth Marvel) attempts to soothe her. When Marie is questioned by a detective, the trauma of previous night keeps hitting her in bits and pieces. Around 4 a.m., Marie wakes up to see a tall man in a grey sweater and mask standing next to her bed, threatening her with a knife. He ties her up with her own shoe laces. After raping her for hours, he takes pictures with a camera and says that if she reports the incident to police he’d release the photo online.

Marie decides to report the attack anyway. And more violations await her. Marie grew up in foster care and she’s familiar of abuse from childhood. She’s made to re-live the worst experience of her life through the rigorous questioning that forces her to reiterate the story of her assault again and again. But when Marie’s former foster mother raises doubts on Marie’s ‘reaction’ to the rape and attention-seeking behavior, the lead detective (Eric Lange) and everyone who’s supposed to help her get through the trauma exacerbate the situation. The two male detectives finding inconsistencies in Marie’s account hound her to recant everything. She also retracts her retraction, but the detectives intimidate Marie with false report charges. Eventually, Marie is charged with filing a false report.

While Marie Adler’s story shows how few human elements and institutional apathy can make a mess out of things, there’s other side to Unbelievable; the rare story of dogged individuals who try to impose justice on a world full of shortcomings and disappointment. The series is split into two time-lines, one showcasing the fallout of botched up investigation in Marie’s case, and the other immerses us into the compelling investigation of two detectives pursuing a serial rapist. In 2011, Colorado Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) investigates the rape of a student named Amber (Danielle MacDonald). Karen questions the woman without forgetting to pay close attention to the woman’s emotional state. She’s professional, sensitive, and thoroughly invests herself into the case.

A random conversation with her detective husband offers Karen information about an eerily similar, unresolved rape case. Karen contacts Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), a smart and cynical detective in charge of a rape case involving a middle-aged woman. The similarities in their case (a man in a mask carrying a back pack and leaving a spotless crime scene) make the detectives to dig for more such cases.  And unsurprisingly, they stumble upon few other unresolved rape cases in different districts of Colorado. Since Karen and Grace connected their case through pure luck (police departments even within a district rarely communicate), they feel the suspect might be from a military background and possibly working in law enforcement (the meticulously cleaned crime scenes also makes them pursue this angle). Furthermore, the partnership between the two temperamentally different female detectives proves to the most valuable aspect of the investigation.

Unbelievable draws a lot from the contrast between two timelines and eventually shows how in a world that’s decidedly unfair and where people do all sorts of awful things to each other, a great difference can really be made through compassion and competence. The robust current of hope running throughout Karen and Grace’s story-line displaces some of the bitter aftertaste left by Marie’s damaged existence. Both the creators and directors do a good job in maintaining the tension and suspense necessary for a procedural. Most importantly, the creative team avoids depicting sexual assault in an exploitative manner. They rather opt to deftly explore the aftermath of the traumatic event.

Apart from gradually building the profile of the serial rapist, the writers have done a fine job in establishing the tenacious heroic pair at the center, who show up to the male-dominated law enforcement system about the sensitive and fair ways the crimes of sexual nature involving female victims could be handled. The brilliant on-screen chemistry between Wever and Colette also adds to the entrancing qualities of the characters. The writing is particularly excellent when Detective Parker understands the ways he ill-treated the insecure girl. He isn’t made out to be a villain. He is simply part of an imperfect system impacted by a hardwired belief (of looking at those reporting sexual assault with mild skepticism). And there’s glimmer of hope in the manner he acknowledges his mistake and might ‘do better’ the next time.

Like the real investigation and the source material that inspired the series, Unbelievable is thought-provoking and infuriating. Yet some of the narrative elements are overly dramatized and the dialogues at times come across a touch contrived. Moreover, the attempt for a cathartic ending feels a bit formulaic. Nevertheless, it is genuinely affecting to see a sexual assault survivor receiving justice despite all the burdens the judicial system and society places upon her. Overall, Unbelievable is a gripping and unnerving true-crime mini-series, blessed with humane storytelling and incredible performances.