Tag Archives: Based on a True Story

At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

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Showing at the Showcase: Argo

While it’s fair game to attack a documentary for playing loose and easy with the facts, levelling the same accusations against a ‘Based on a True Story’ feature isn’t as straight forward. The numerous, and endless crimes of omission and embellishment committed by such films will always be ready fodder for comedians and commentators, and a critical engagement with historical retellings is of course a discipline in its own right. A discipline called ‘History’. But skirting around what any given audience knows, what the filmmakers assume, and the dizzying gap in between, can I ever really be justified in criticising a Hollywood thriller for not being balanced?

From the start it should be said that Argo is a painfully well-paced action thriller. Charting the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the hostage crisis that followed, and the dramatic escape of six embassy workers to the Canadian ambassador’s house is pretty nerve-wracking in its own right. Add to this the CIA’s madcap plan to fake the production of a Star Wars style science fiction adventure, as a cover under which to smuggle out the six US embassy workers, and you have a ‘True Life Story’ too fantastic for fiction, but perfect for the form that Argo takes. Adding to an already respectable track record as a director, Ben Affleck deftly proves his abilities both in-front of and behind the camera, and he clearly has the pulling power to fill the rest of the cast list with countless actors you’ll recognise from meaty bit parts in that film, or the other US TV show. From the hatching of the plan, to its execution, and inevitable climax, the film may as well have had a progress bar running along the bottom of the screen, steadily creeping up from the off towards ‘100% Dramatic Tension Agony’. Some of the final moments are pretty blatant in their daftness (SOMEBODY PICKUP THE RINGING TELEPHONE, THE FATE OF THE FREE WORLD DEPENDS ON IT) but for all of that it’s still really good fun. Like any Hollywood film, just harmless good fun.

Which of course isn’t quite the case. This isn’t some hypothetical spy-drama based on the well-worn tropes of airport pulp novels, but rather it comes with the momentum of being ‘Based on a True Story’. While examples like The Baader Meinhof Complex are perhaps more blatant in how they unblinkingly glamorise political and historical events, Argo presents a less clean cut proposition. The impetus of the drama is driven by its historical context, and how the political tension between the US and Iran made this a life or death proposition on a personal level, while also dangling the threat of all out global strife should these diplomats be caught and executed. The stakes, as they say, don’t get much higher than this.

As a dramatic devices go, you’d struggle to find a more effective omnipotent threat (murderous mobs AND nuclear horror), but in practice the context is given scant attention. There’s a laughable 1-minute cartoon recap of 3000 years of Persian/Iranian history at the very front of the film, and possibly two or three actual Iranian characters in the whole film. The rest of Iran is cast as the furious marching revolutionary horde, easily riled and quick to action. The furious mob is of course a terrifying prospect, inescapable and non-negotiable, and its immediacy is recognisable following the recent attack of the US embassy in Benghazi, and the tragic murders which followed. This terror is nothing new, but in taking such a force and neutering it of any political underpinning, what you’re left with is a zombie horde devoid of anything but a murderous impulse. Just not specifically focused on brains.

For the thriller-driven purposes of the film this simplification makes certain sense, yet in skirting over the complexity of historical as well as contemporary Iranian politics, a chance to deepen the narrative has been missed. Not that Affleck could have given the angry mob a reasoned voice, and perhaps the broader actions of the Ayatollah’s forces can’t be balanced in any reasonable sense, but in only throwing a handful of lines to the two or so Iranian characters afforded any dialogue Affleck only hints at the conflicted position of the individual stuck in the terrifying political climate of Tehran in 1979.

Not that I could reasonably beat the film with the journalistic stick of fair-and-balanced reportage, and the Wikipedia page for the film does a good job of covering all the bent and broken facts necessitated in the telling of this story. Chalk what you will up to artistic license, and enjoy the film for the ride it is, I still feel sorry that for all the energy spent sourcing all the meticulous period detail (clothes, props, facial hair), that maybe a bit more focus could have been afforded to the period’s politics as well.

A score? Ar-go make up your own mind.

(or Four out of Five if you do insist)

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