Friday, 18 November 2016

Captured (John Krish, 1959)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)

John Krish’s name and films are a little more widely known now thanks to a number of DVD releases from the British Film Institute that have appeared over the last few years. First there was a light sprinkling of his films to be found on various volumes of the British Transport Films and COI series, then a more significant outing in Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Postwar Britain. This was followed by the collection A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Postwar Britain (which despite the name actually contains six of his films) and his Children’s Film Foundation film The Salvage Gang, which came out on the first volume of films from the CFF archives. Now we have another set devoted to films from Krish, released on the BFI’s Flipside strand, containing five of his films, Captured, H.M.P., Sewing Machine, Searching and The Finishing Line, further showcasing his filmmaking range, craftsmanship and versatility.

The film that gives the collection its name is Captured, a Central Office of Information instructional film made for the Home Office in 1959 – and if that makes it sound like some dry technical exercise, think again. Based on the experiences of veterans from the Korean War, it’s a lean and unflinching look at the eventualities of capture and likely methods of physical and psychological torture. It might have been made as a training film, but it looks like a pared-down and flinty existential PoW movie. A strong drama, with good actors speaking his own dialogue; Krish was hoping the film would be his visiting card in to the world of features, but when he took it to the War Office, they said it was exactly what they wanted – and that he would never be able to show it to anyone. It was marked ‘Restricted’ and, outside of the ranks of the senior military, was unseen for 41 years.

For the film, Krish turned a blowy piece of Surrey, near Chobham, into a north Korean village. There the men were taken and filmed in authentically recreated conditions, twelve to a hut meant for two or three, the continual physical proximity producing a simmering tension that was all part and parcel with the morale-breaking techniques of discomfort and division – or even a sympathetic ear and rewards – which were used to get men to talk.

Watch it carefully and you see just how effective the camerawork in the film is. There’s no unnecessary fancy stuff, just the right angles and background for maximum effect for what the scene is trying to convey. This could mean filming from low down in a crowded hut, so that a change of position accentuates the jostling and disturbance created by any movement across the room, or filming on the same height as the faces of a Chinese interrogator trying to claim kinship with a disaffected PoW who was in the International Student Movement before the war. It could mean pulling back to show the face of a whimpering soldier left paralysed on the ground after being refused assistance, an interrogator facing his foe with nothing but inky blackness between them, or a brief, bracing close-up of a face, bristling with quietly menacing authority.

‘Do you think of yourself as a brave man,’ asks his Russian interrogator of Daniels. ‘Not out of the ordinary,’ he responds. Indeed, there’s no heroism of the movie sort here, just grit, doubt and bloody-mindedness, and the everyday sort of bravery that gets broken anyhow, perhaps in ways that aren’t so immediately obvious. At the end, we know that Daniels, the intelligence officer, is going to be led off for more questioning, another bout of simulated drowning under a wet towel, or cooped up in the wooden box jokingly referred to as the kennel club. It’s humour that might get you through and keep you sane; there’s no guarantee mind, but you’ve only got that and the determination not to say anything until after the next flood of water in your face. And death’s a possibility, as happens with one of the PoWs who had mentioned the Geneva Convention. One of the military advisors on Captured, a man who had undergone capture and torture in a Korean war camp, had to leave after 10 days when seeing his experience re-enacted proved too traumatic. That’s the man I have in mind as I watch Daniels fronting up to his captors.

Krish had worked as an uncredited assistant on Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain, and the invigorating final words of Captured, in which, responding to repeated platitudes abut the communist regime’s great leniency, a young man summons up a bit of resilient spirit and tells his captor to ‘get stuffed’, reminds me a little of the ending of Jennings’ Fires were Started, in which, after a draining night of firefighting down at the Docks, and a colleague lost, the grey morning finds the fire crew exhausted, damp, chilled through. As they disconsolately drink a mug of morning tea, one of their number wakes the troop into the resilience to face another day with  the words, ‘come on chums, snap out of it’. What else can you do? There’s a war to fight and life goes on.

One of Krish’s skills was to turn whatever brief he was presented with – and as he says, ‘I was never handed a brief by a civil servant that would make a film’ – into good cinema whose message was enhanced by his alternative treatment. This could take the form of a 60 second filler such as Searching, a public information film about the danger of leaving matches in the reach of children, in which a family’s desperate, disembodied voices replay the trauma of a house fire as the camera searches through their drenched and smoke-blackened house. It contains more chilling dread in its 60 seconds than some horror films manage in their entirety and was one of the films that earned Krish the nickname of ‘Doctor Death’ for the amount of accidents that populated his work.

At the other end of the scale is H.M.P., an hour-long film made for the Home Office in 1976 for the purposes of recruitment to the prison service. Again, you would be forgiven for thinking that the subject matter might not readily lend itself to great cinema, but Krish’s approach is both innovative and intriguing, bringing to the fore the large grey area of initiative and negotiation required as warder while also making it seem a rewarding occupation. As the Head of Prisons said on viewing the film, ‘this is how it is’.

So, what’s special about it? Well, as Krish mentions in an interview accompanying the films on the set, he wanted none of the stuff of prison melodrama, so there are no slamming cell doors, no rattling keys, no barbed wire and no threatening shots of the prison wall. For an environment so governed by walls and doors and locks and keys and bars, it’s remarkable just how few of these elements are shown. An internal gate here, the door from the carpentry block there, a warder locking a door as they move through to the segregation ward. This all has the effect of focussing on the human participants in an ongoing process of communication. Krish certainly didn’t want to be at the centre of the film – ‘I had no place there,’ he says – which led him to the idea of using trainee prison officers as his guide. So, the film follows an ex-navy man, an electrician and a grocer as they endeavour to find out something about working in a prison from the warders.

Krish is always sensitive to what's going on in the background of the shot, so for example not wishing to draw unwarranted attention to a man lingering in the borstal farmyard, nor to a failed weightlift in the prison gym (though in this instance not able to exclude it from the shot, though you can tell he wanted to). Generally, there is an air of not wanting to invade people's privacy – or whatever might count for privacy in such an environment.

The central scene in H.M.P. listens in on a discussion between the three trainees and the prison chaplain, who explains that instead of talking to the men as a ‘client’ or a ‘patient’ as they might be seen by a welfare officer, or doctor, or psychologist, he – ‘to use an old word’ – sees them as souls and his role to ‘to keep alive the broken spirit’. This ‘keeping alive of the spirit’ provides a linking theme to a number of Krish’s other films in fact, whether at a more immediate, visceral level as in Captured, or at a more gently nurturing level, as in Return to Life or I Think They Call Him John. It’s certainly the mark of a director whose humanitarian concerns are to the fore.

The chaplain talks of an ‘arrogant’ officer who slams a door behind a woman and child as they leave the prison after a visit. Another man talks of closing doors gently so as not to appear spiteful. This is a central concern: do you reinforce the feeling that doors exclude and bar, or encourage the thought that they might open into a different world?

The film takes us from arrival at the prison – a change of clothes, and allocations of soap, clothes brush, toothbrush – to the release hostel, in which men stay for up to 6 months before release to help them acclimatise to the outside world. An ex-warder who looks after the hostel outlines some of the problems that we take for granted. How do you adapt to feeling wind on your face for example when you haven’t really felt it for years, and how can you prepare a man for life outside the prison when, for the length of his sentence, he hasn’t been able to see in a straight line for any distance, his view interrupted or ending in a wall. As he says in the film’s final words, ‘how the ruddy hell do you expect a man to go straight if he can’t see straight?’.

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