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BFI London Film Festival: Babi Yar. Context and Wild Indian

This article is part of a series of pieces covering the press screenings of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival; previous entries in the series are available to read on the site.

Babi Yar. Context

A Ukrainian woman being escorted, possibly to her death, by German soldiers
Babi Yar. Context (dir. Sergey Loznitsa, 2021)

Some films, usually documentaries but not always, I feel shouldn’t to be reviewed because it feels too crass. How does one evaluate the artistic merits of a historical document? True, like art or entertainment films, they take an approach to their subject, choose what to include and what to exclude, and compile their artifacts to construct a narrative. One can debate those choices and perspectives, the political merits and goals of releasing this footage in this form, but I still feel out of my depth. We watch re-enactments of events like these in films like The Pianist and Massacre in Rome, and we’re distressed and appalled, but we see the footage raw, look into the faces of actual murderers and their soon-to-be victims and you don’t know what’s expected of you. It’s a kind of horror cinema without any adrenaline or euphoric release of feeling, just a muddy judicious suppression of it.

In such a case as this, the questions become less “is this a good film” and more “is this healthy”, and “should I be seeing this?” But then you remember that holocaust denial is still a living part of our modern reality. You remember how the Lost Cause myth has reshaped popular understanding of slavery in the United States and that a similar obfuscation of history awaits if we’re not careful. And so, the answer, depressingly, is yes. This happened; real people like us did this to other real people like us; this is still possible, and these are incontrovertible facts that we need to recognise and never forget.

The facts, for I haven’t gone into those yet, are that on the 29th and 30th of September 1941, 33,000 Jewish Ukrainians were killed at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev by German soldiers. Babi Yar. Context offers precisely that: context for the massacre, showing the events leading up to and after its fulfilment. Overall, an estimated 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar.

At first, you’re unsure what you’re seeing. Is it archive footage or recreation? If archive footage, how is it this clear? How does this footage survive and how was it shot? If re-created, how does it feel so real? The actual answer seems to be similar to the case of Peter Jackson‘s World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old: silent footage restored and synced with a re-recorded soundtrack, though it is, I think, a better film than Jackson’s romantic, toothless and sanitary take on the previous war. Loznitsa’s film unfolds without narration or interviews, only the raw archive footage, brought into focus by the restoration and added sound.

The footage begins months earlier in June as the German army arrives in Kiev. During these months, the German army arrives, holds rallies for itself and liberates the prison camps, releasing those prisoners who swear their fealty. We see first-hand how they won the mandate of the people, with slogans promising to liberate the people from the tyranny of Communism, foreign invaders (because Nazis have little grasp of irony) and the Jews. Bombs left behind by the retreating Soviet Secret Service (the NKVD) destroy buildings downtown; almost unbelievably, some of these blasts were caught on camera, and it is used as a pretext to eradicate the Jewish population, who were marched down to the ravine, stripped of their belongings, shot and cast down into a mass grave. All 33,000 of them. Thankfully or not, this was not recorded for posterity.

From here, via an interlude provided by Vasily Grossman’s astoundingly powerful poem “Ukraine Without Jews”, the film transitions into a second half, following the aftermath of the massacre and of the war, beginning with Soviet forces arriving, tearing down Nazi posters and road signs, and clearing bodies out of the street. After what we’ve seen, the celebratory nationalistic rhetoric of the Stalinists sounds unimaginably hollow.

After the war, we hear the details of the first days of Autumn 1941 as witnesses and perpetrators alike give their testimonies at the trial, culminating in the extraordinary tale of Dina Pronicheva and, eventually, the public executions of some of those responsible for the massacre, attended by thousands. These are the only actual deaths we see onscreen. It’s hard to overstate how incredible this footage is—it’s still hard to believe some of it wasn’t staged. The world of presenting, researching, restoring, editing and compiling this footage is an extraordinary feat in itself. As for the tale of unimaginable hatred and violence at its centre, I understand what Loznitsa and Babi Yar does, that it speaks for itself and its audience need only be directed to it.

Wild Indian

The psychopathic Michael (Michael Greyeyes) looms imperiously as he threatens a hospitalised woman.
Wild Indian (dir. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr, 2021)

When it comes to representation, there’s an intriguing push and pull between the desire to present positive portrayals of underrepresented minorities, and the desire to represent those minorities as multifarious groups with as much range in moral and intellectual worth as any other social group. We have to keep a good balance between the two, and when portraying a group you’re not a part of, it’s usually better to err on the side of positive portrayal, while those who speak as a member of that group are free to employ negative portraits or make use of more stereotypical archetypes. From viewing his feature film debut Wild Indian, it’s clear which perspective on this debate director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. aligns more with. His titular “wild Indian” is a narcissistic, possibly psychopathic sadist.

The film opens with Makwa, a severely mentally disturbed young boy (Phoenix Wilson) growing up on a reservation with his violent and abusive father when he, seemingly for no reason, kills a boy from his school and forces his friend Teddo (Julian Gopal) to bury the body with him. We then flash forward many years: Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) is now a wealthy businessman with a family living out in California, while Teddo (Chaske Spencer) is a haunted man newly released from jail who sets out to track down the monster who ruined his life. The film also features mostly pointless supporting performances from big-name stars Kate Bosworth and Jesse Eisenberg in full-on grating Lex Luthor form. Eisenberg is listed as one of the film’s 15 producers and his glorified cameo feels like an attempt to bring more attention to the film. Eisenberg’s performance is bad and neither big star does anything a less familiar face couldn’t have done.

The real meat of the story lies in the character portrait of the titular character Makwa, or Michael, as he goes by in his bourgeois modern existence. There’s clearly an initial ambiguity about who the titular “wild” Indian is: upwardly mobile family man Makwa, or the ex-con Teddo. Makwa is a slightly more credible “American-Indian Psycho“, and the film takes some shocking turns as it follows a certifiable psychopath (whether he really is without empathy or not is thrown into doubt by the film’s frankly unconvincing ending) as he tries to cover up his horrific crimes and the system is rigged to let him do it. It’s a chilling reminder that in America, more than race or sex, wealth is what defines a citizen as above suspicion.

The film hangs Makwa’s behaviour on the societal trauma of the oppression native people in America suffer, but the film isn’t really smart enough to make a particularly haunting or compelling case for that. The Ojibwe cultural markers feel incidental, never becoming that integral or meaningful a part of his story. There’s some originality and merit to the film’s story, and it has a compellingly unconventional structure but it’s fighting uphill against the bleakness of its subject and its loathsome protagonist. Greyeyes tries to give an intense performance, but he doesn’t have the odious charisma of a Gian Maria Volonté or a Christian Bale, and the role feels lacking real support and depth. Spencer is better as the traumatised Teddo, but that part feels underwritten, being robbed of its most pivotal scenes, and the rest of the performances are pretty bad, once again, especially Eisenberg, and the directing doesn’t succeed in bringing the material to life.

There’s something here, but the film doesn’t do the legwork for the political bite it seems to be aiming for, and as subjects for a character study, psychopaths are pretty played out and the whole point is there’s nothing to discover. The novelty of seeing a Native American lead, especially such a provocatively amoral one, has some mileage and there’s a macabre fascination in watching along and trying to manifest his downfall, but it’s not the sharpest or most gripping version of this story.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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