Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Cull

Director: Tom Whitworth
Writer: Tom Whitworth
Producers: Tom Whitworth, Larissa Hoops
Cast: Mark Duncan, Stephen Graham, Dee Quemby
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: premiere screening

Over-population is the greatest threat facing the world today - but you wouldn’t know it. It’s the elephant in the room, the massive problem that no politician will even discuss, let alone do anything about. Yet all of the other problems and dangers facing global society - energy, pollution, land use, water shortages, even crime and war - are, to a significant degree, exacerbated by the constantly, exponentially increasing population of the planet.

Every day, the Earth’s human population increases by about 225,000 people. That’s not 225,000 births, that’s the net difference between the number of people born and the number dying. Every week, when you get home on Friday evening, there are a million more people living on this planet than there were when you left for work on Monday morning.

All these people need food, water, energy, space to live, education, employment, health facilities. Of course a lot of people in the third world don’t have these basics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need them. And ironically, the greater the humanitarian aid, the greater the life expectancy and quality of life of people who don’t have the basics we take for granted - and hence the population increases still further.

In the West too, scientific and social advances continue to increase average life expectancy. And when people live longer, there are more of them on the planet at any one time as generations co-exist who previously would never have met. It’s not too long ago that the idea of meeting your own great-grandmother was almost unheard of.

Look at the UK. Population at the start of the 20th century: 40 million. Population at the end of the 20th century: 60 million. While immigration accounts for a proportion of that, it’s far from the main driver. And bear in mind that during those 100 years, those four generations, there were two world wars and one influenza epidemic - and we still increased our population by 50 per cent!

Incredibly, some moronic governments around the world actually encourage their citizens to have more than two children because they believe that an average family below 2.0 is a bad thing and that population decline must be avoided. The argument is often given that, unless people have more children, the overall population will age and there will be too few young people to care for all the old people. This is plainly bollocks, because increasing the younger generation just means that by the time they are old there will need to be even more young people to care for them, making the situation progressively worse and worse. It’s like propping up a dangerously unstable wall with a bigger unstable wall.

Just a few generations ago - basically up to the middle of the 20th century and the founding of the NHS - child mortality was extraordinarily common. Up until my parents’ generation (they were born just before the Second World War) people routinely had large families for two reasons. One was because you could; because there was room to expand both nationally and internationally and a seemingly endless supply of natural resources to be exploited. And the other was that in any family some of the children were unlikely to survive to adulthood. But today, child mortality in the west is negligible. And while that’s a good thing, it’s yet another contributor to the population explosion.

There is no earthly reason to have a large family now. To deliberately have more than two children is an antisocial act, a deliberate move to further increase an already unmanageable global population. And interestingly, although I have met many people who vociferously defend their ‘right’ to have large families, I have never heard any justification offered except: “Why shouldn’t I have lots of children if I want to?”

“If I want to” - it’s the very definition of selfishness. More than two children is unfair on the children themselves (unless you’re super-rich and have a nanny) and unfair on everyone - including those children - as competition for the planet’s remaining resources hots up.

Now say what you like about the Chinese Communist Party - I’ll happily say that it’s an evil totalitarian regime - but population control is one area where they had some foresight. Yes, the Chinese occupation of Tibet is indefensible. Yes, the West’s ability to quietly forget the Tianmen Square massacre is shameful. No amount of fancy Olympic stadia and impressive manned spaceflight is going to make up for human rights abuses like that. But if China had not implemented its one-baby-per-family rule when it did, the human race would be in even deeper shit than we are now.

I’m not saying that the execution of the policy was particularly well handled in some cases or that short-term, local, social repercussions may not have sometimes been unpleasant. But without that policy, the population of China - and hence of the world - would be even more appallingly huge than it is now. However you can only do something like that if you are an evil totalitarian regime. In a democratic society, politicians court votes and will shy away from social engineering because it’s an instant vote loser, however beneficial it might be to everyone in the long term.

And of course, whenever one tries to raise the matter of over-population with those selfish parents (or wannabe parents) who are blind to the overcrowded world they’re bringing their kids into, a standard knee-jerk response is to cite the infantile straw-man argument: “So what do you want to do? Kill people?”

Which brings me, eventually, as I step down from my soapbox, to Tom Whitworth’s short film The Cull, which debuted in a special screening at Leicester Phoenix in November 2010.

The Cull is set in a near-future Britain where a similar one-child-per-family rule has been instigated - but to be honest I don’t think that would have been evident from viewing the film without the writer-director’s introduction or the introductory text scroll (in an atypical serif font). And there are a great deal of other ideas alluded to in these 15 minutes which Whitworth didn’t refer to in his brief intro and which aren’t mentioned in the text scroll - and which therefore remain out of the reach of this reviewer.

Let’s be fair: The Cull is a technically impressive piece of work considering its tiny budget and tight four-day schedule. It is commendably different from the vast majority of indie shorts. No gangsters in this one and no zombies; this is a serious piece of science fiction tackling a serious issue and must be praised for its originality.

But I would be lying if I said that it really works.

The film centres on an unnamed man who buys a bacon baguette from a sandwich shop. A father and son enter the shop, then the man who ordered the baguette nips up the road to the Co-op while he’s waiting. There he sees a mother and daughter and also, for some reason that’s not clear, the father and son from the sandwich shop. And he somehow realises, to his horror, that the two adults are married so this is a family with two children.

A very loud and piercing public alarm sounds and the family are seen running up the street, being chased by a white Transit van (although it looks, to be honest, like a white van simply driving past after they have run past). A puzzling final scene sees the baguette-buying man stopping his own van to speak with a council worker who has parked his white Transit and is now, inexplicably, mopping a country lane.

I strongly suspect that there is vastly more going on here than we see on the surface, but it is impossible to tell what. This strikes me as a film where the writer-director has a whole world mapped out in his head, peopled with characters and explored through a story - but because he knows what’s going on he has overlooked the necessity of making sure the audience does too. I’ve seen this plenty of times before in indie shorts; films which vaguely hinted at things or touched on them tangentially but were too vague or tangential (or just too short) for those hints and touches to work. Sometimes people want to fit a feature’s worth of film into a 15-minute running time and are so busy doing so that they never stop to consider whether audiences will ‘get’ it without the other 75 minutes that’s in the director’s head.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for ‘show don’t tell’ but there’s little point showing people something if we can’t work out, even after the film concludes, what it is or why you’re showing it to us. Shown things must be meaningful and if they depend on context or broader understanding, that must be conveyed too and not simply assumed. If it ain’t on screen, it ain’t in the scene and it ain’t been seen.

There are some background details here which indicate that this is the near future, though they are unfortunately always going to be defeated by the shops (which are, of course, real locations, looking thoroughly contemporary). This must be at least 12 or 13 years from now because that’s the apparent age of the two children and if they had been born before the one-child law was introduced there would be no problem. But films shot in real, public locales that claim to be set in future years will always unavoidably look like they’re set next month. Or even last month.

The background details I mention are some CGI chimneys belching out smoke and some home-made ‘Missing person’ posters stuck in shop windows. Neither of these is ever explained so although I think they’re significant, I don’t know what their significance is. More puzzling still - and certainly vastly more significant in positing this as several years into the future - are several references to robots. The father tells his son that he should eat up so he’s not mistaken for a robot (does this mean that robots are actually replicant-style androids largely indistinguishable from humans or is dad just making a joke?). The sandwich shop has a briefly-glimpsed, hand-written ‘no robots’ sign on its door. And a radio news report as the baguette-buyer drives along the road at the end states, in a curious info-dump style, that a popular radio presenter has been murdered by his robot co-presenter.

This radio voice reminds the listeners, just in case they have not been paying attention to the massive social and technological changes going on around them in recent years, that robots were introduced to handle a ‘cull’ of the human population and that this radio presenting robot was the first to give up the killing job because it was worried and upset by the task. But it has now killed its human co-host.

There are quite a number of different, mashed-up radio voices at the start of the film, again on the main character’s van radio, but poor sound-mixing unfortunately renders most of them unintelligible so if there was any crucial info-dumping going on in that early part of the picture, it was lost at this screening (it’s possible the sound-mix would work better on a TV).

A couple of prominent, specially created props are a ‘Save the Children’ charity box in the sandwich shop which simply has the words ‘Save The Children’ scribbled on a piece of paper wrapped round it. Is this meant to look like an amateur, unofficial collection (contrasting with the other, genuine charity boxes seen beside it)? I don’t get it. Printing out a sheet of paper with the words and the SCF logo on wouldn’t have cost anything. Or if the film-makers were worried about misrepresenting a genuine charity, well, make one up.

There is also a large poster outside the Co-op exhorting people seeking employment to consider cleaning because ‘it takes guts’. I assume this relates in some way to the lane-mopper at the end who tells baguette bloke in a short, obtuse conversation that, “I’ve still got one of them in my van.” Of course, white vans all look the same so it’s not clear to the audience whether the mop-man’s white van is the same one we saw driving along after the fleeing family.

Here’s what I think is going on. People (or possibly robots) employed ostensibly as street cleaners are actually a (not very) covert Government task force whose job is to arrest (and kill?) families identified as having more than one child. And baguette bloke, who is evidently mop man’s boss or supervisor, is therefore also involved in this process.

But this is all supposition, neither told nor shown and certainly not explored. If anything, that’s the film’s biggest failing - that it doesn’t explore the repercussions of imposing such social engineering methods on modern British society. The closest we get is the mum explaining to the girl, in the Co-op, that, “Mummy and Daddy did something the Government doesn’t approve of when we had you and your brother.” Okay, so the family is living in fear, but then why have they all gone out together? Why is the mum explaining the situation to her daughter in public? Why has it taken till now for the daughter to ask about a situation that has existed her whole life?

There also seems to be two main, somewhat contradictory ideas battling each other for prominence in this short script (three if you include the apparently irrelevant robot stuff!). Is the population explosion being arrested through a one-child law or through a cull of people? Or both? Is it a cull of families with more than one child? Surely that wouldn’t be terribly effective or worthwhile if only a tiny fraction of families are prepared to defy the state by having multiple children. That wouldn’t be a cull, would it? That would be capital punishment, with all the social and political implications inherent in bringing that back for anything. There is more radio discussion over the final long shot of baguette bloke’s van driving away which talks at some length about a debate in parliament which, frankly, doesn’t sound any different from what gets debated now (though that might well be the point).

In applying the 20th century Chinese idea to 21st century Britain, Whitworth hasn’t considered the vast differences between the societies. In China, families were families and strong cultural traditions held them together. But in modern Britain a neat nuclear family unit is increasingly a rarity; the profusion of step-siblings and half-siblings would make the one-child law virtually unenforceable (quite apart from all its other inherent problems!) and the identification of law-breakers impossible without massive amounts of genetic and genealogical evidence.

So the film doesn’t explain itself and doesn’t really explore its premise. We don’t see how the situation really affects people, not least because we don’t know any of these people. I know it’s a short film, but part of the skill in making a short film is to introduce characters quickly but in sufficient depth (ideally without using stereotypes - which The Cull does at least avoid - or infodumps). And then there’s that whole robot thing, which seems irrelevant to the social engineering aspect yet would be just as significant a change, utterly unreflected in what we see on screen apart from two lines of dialogue and a hand-written notice on a shop door.

On a more practical level, there’s a very obvious imbalance to the script which wastes an extraordinary amount of time on the central character ordering his lunch. He asks for a bacon baguette and then he and the sandwich shop assistant go through every additional fried item he could have, one at a time, in excruciating detail. This doesn’t tell us anything at all about either of these characters and certainly nothing about the world this film inhabits, it just wastes time which is a precious commodity in a short film.

If you have 15 pages of script, every single line of dialogue must serve a purpose - especially if it’s in the opening scene. Don’t waste a whole page describing the contents of a baguette. Combined with the inaudible radio voices that open the film, this means that The Cull is already a significant way into its short running time before it’s about anything except a white van man buying his lunch.

Yet at the other end of the film we get these (much clearer) radio voices throwing apparently significant ideas like the first robot murder at us, albeit as infodump reportage rather than plot or story.

Technically, the film looks good with the actual sound recording - so often a failure in low-budget indies - clear and well-handled. The camera-work is good although there seems no reason for it all to be in black and white except possibly to make the integration of the (unexplained) CGI smoking chimneys easier. One solitary shot inside the sandwich shop is framed like a CCTV camera with text in the corner but if this is meant to be some sort of oppressive Orwellian security surveillance (as Whitworth implied by citing 1984 as an influence during his introduction) then that doesn’t come across at all, I’m afraid. Lots of shops have CCTV; so what?

Having said all that, the scene in the Co-op is very nicely directed indeed with deft editing between shots of baguette bloke at one end of an aisle, the mum and daughter to one side of him, the dad and son to the other and the shop manager at the other end of the aisle, who can see baguette bloke but not what is shocking him. The whole thing is played out in silence which lets the audience follow the emphatic dialogue through lip-reading (rather like that memorable scene with the Doctor remeeting Donna at the start of the 2008 series of Doctor Who). This is a very fine example of show don’t tell, with an implied T-shape of action that is (at the risk of sounding pretentious) almost Kubrickian in its symmetry.

(There you go, fella. I know it’s not been the rave review you were hoping for but you can quote ‘“almost Kubrickian” - MJ Simpson’ on your poster if you want!)

What’s not clear is what precisely happens in this scene, however, since it seems in some ways to be a flashback because dad and son were still in the sandwich shop when baguette bloke went to the Co-op - so how are they there now? And, since the two adult-child couples aren’t together, how does baguette bloke know that they’re a family unit? And if his job is part of this great population reduction process, why is he so shocked at what he sees that he drops his carton of eggs (which is all that the shop manager can see happening as she looks down the aisle)?

Incidentally, back in the sandwich shop the one thing he didn’t want on his baguette, during that endless discussion of fried food, was egg. But he’s buying eggs in the Co-op. Hmm, maybe it’s a metaphor or something. Eggs - birth - offspring - I don’t know.

The opening credits are that fuzzy, jumpy video-camera-being-switched-on stuff so beloved of film-makers even though nobody’s video camera has done anything like that since about 1986. It doesn’t seem to have any relevance and it was both disappointing and ironic, when the film was shown on the big screen, that it started off by looking like a video monitor. The end credits play in silence, which strikes me as a bad idea.

The cast are all good, including the child actors. Among those on screen are Mark Duncan (who played Jack the Ripper in a TV documentary) as baguette bloke, Jennifer Rigby (fresh from touring as Elvira in Blithe Spirit) as the sandwich shop lady, Dee Quemby (who has been in Boon, Woof and Emmerdale and played Judy Garland in a thing on Sky) as her kitchen assistant, James Parsons (who has written and acted in Big Finish audio dramas) as the dad, Lynn Cawley (who was in mockumentary The Man With Big Eyes) as the mum and no less than Doghouse’s Stephen Graham as the man with the mop.

Real local radio presenters were used for the radio voices; a sound (and obvious) decision which other indie film-makers would do well to copy as actors portraying news-readers often stick out like a sore thumb in otherwise fine productions. The music, sound editing and sound mixing are all credited to by David Hamill who has scored a number of earlier shorts by Tim Whitworth including Craig Dolby: Going for Glory, John and Gaynor and Rolfe. Nick Marshall and Mark Tica provided the visual effects.

The film was produced by a Leicestershire collective called Seven Five Productions who, curiously, seem to have no web presence whatsoever. It was shot over four days in early 2010 in Markfield and is dedicated to the memory of its cinematographer, Stewart Charles, who passed away during post-production.

One final point to note is the inclusion in the credits of a dozen or so names as ‘bodies’ and a ‘blood effects’ credit for ‘Zombie Ed’ Thurlow, organiser of the Terror4Fun newsletter and annual Day of the Undead film festival. These evidently refer to a cut sequence as there are neither bodies nor blood in The Cull. It’s possible that Stephen Graham’s character is literally mopping up blood but of course, in black and white, it’s impossible to tell.

This is a commendably professional-looking short film whose grasp unfortunately exceeds its reach. The Cull is without a doubt an interesting film; I wouldn’t have been able to write three and a half thousand words about it otherwise, even allowing for my opening polemic. But it’s also a frustrating film. There’s a good - and important - idea in there somewhere but it just doesn’t come through in the script.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 14th November 2010

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