SOURCE: Sight and Sound, Vol 8 no 9, September 1998, pp. 18-22.

Extract from “Alan Clarke: In it for life” by Howard Schumann






Contact and Elephant function as a cinematic diptych about the Irish problem. One panel captures the deadly routine experienced by the English army, the other features sectarian messengers of death. Both portray landscapes devoid of Political or religious context, an abstraction that focuses the films purely on survival and murder.

Contact, ("based on the memoirs of A. E N. Clarke") is a war film with as many images of apprehension, exhaustion and sleep as of conflict; as much about staying awake as staying alive. It follows a platoon of English soldiers as they patrol the border between Northern and Southern Ireland, a glorious landscape stained with blood. Except for Sean Chapman's stoic, consummately professional Commander, Clarke doesn't let us “know” the members of the platoon in any conventional narrative sense - though by day the camera piles us so close to them it's impossible not to live their tension as they search for snipers and explosive devices among the farms and derelict ruins. At night the platoon is photographed with an infra‑red lens, which has the effect of turning us into alien observers; the viewer is therefore both comrade and enemy, victim and aggressor. At the end, when a young soldier is killed by a booby trapped bomb, we’re not sure whether to feel grief or triumph. The final image resolves the dilemma: Chapman seated in front of a white wall, drained of energy and wracked by the pain of loss. The unstated question - why are the English in Ireland? - is one to which there is no clear answer, only a lament for wasted lives.

Elephant (written by Clarke) is even more abstract, which makes it even more harrowing. It depicts 18 murders. There is no other narrative made available to us but this: wave upon wave of anonymous assassins - sometimes working alone, sometimes in pairs - go about their inexorable business of killing other human beings. Clarke binds us to the killers by steadicam; once again we become unwilling accomplices, forced to participate in a journey we have no desire to undertake. So we are borne along, day and night, on fatal marches to factories, petrol stations, empty offices, middle class homes, council flats, a neighbourhood football pitch, a park picturesquely covered by frost ‑ in this hell there is no secure place.

But forcing us to accompany these nameless butchers is only one part of Clarke's strategy: after each bullet has been delivered, the camera stops moving and studies the victim in shots that are frequently held for more than 20 seconds. Having been made a party to murder, Clarke now fixes our attention on beautifully lit and composed still-lifes. We shift from being participants to voyeurs - and then another killing is set in motion and once again we're on the move. At the “climax” we are dragged along in the wake of two men, on a walk that feels endless. A third man is waiting for them in what looks like a deserted warehouse. The first man walks away, leaving the second man behind. Man 2 faces a wall and is shot by man 3. Only when an assassin is himself assassinated does the murderous cycle come to an end.

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