So what did I do for fun on a Friday night? I watched a documentary about the Cambodian genocide and a verite-style fiction film about two students plotting a school shooting. What a barrel of laughs, right?
OK, so I planned to see S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE, although if a second film weren't playing at the Wexner Center tonight, I don't know that I would have bothered with it. I'd read some generally good things about it, and since I was already going to be down there, I figured I might as well catch the first film and avoid the hassle of locating a decent parking place around Ohio State.
S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE can be a little dry and repetitive, but I'll cut it some slack because director Rithy Panh often relates the story with one jawdropping technique. Panh has former Khmer Rouge prison camp guards reenact their duties at the actual site. (Needless to say, he didn't ask the same of the rare S21 survivor.) The results are often spooky. The men seem as emotionally distant now as they must have been then to do what they did. It's mindboggling the awful things men could inflict on their fellow countrymen, women and children. Other than the assertion that they were only following orders, the guards are as lost for an answer as anyone.
The main reason I went to the Wexner was for their second offering of SECRET CINEMA. The catch is that you don't know what you will see until the film starts. (Promotional materials promise viewers a rare classic, a new international hit, or "something too bizarre to put in print".) I must admit that I'm a sucker for this gimmick. It's like Christmas for the movie buff, except that you may end up getting something you didn't want. You pay your three dollars and take your chances. The first time the Wexner folk tried this they showed Samuel Fuller's FORTY GUNS, which supposedly has never been released on home video in the United States.
Tonight's surprise turned out to be ZERO DAY, a film that had the misfortune to come out the same time as Gus Van Sant's Palme D'Or-winning, similarly themed ELEPHANT. After learning about the atrocities the Khmer Rouge inflicted, this wasn't how I would have chosen to polish off an evening of moviegoing. Nevertheless, ZERO DAY is a very fine film that tracks two teenage boys in the ten months leading up to their assault on the high school.
The two main characters use a camcorder to document their preparations and their thoughts so that a record will remain for the media. The film is shot and assembled like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which gives it such a strong sense of realism that it's startling and unsettling. It's also a tribute to the excellent performances by these amateurs that ZERO DAY plays like found footage than fiction filmmaking.
Director Ben Coccio gives us full access to the killers at their most unguarded and posturing moments. In giving us this insight into their privacy ZERO DAY turns our expectations upside down. The most troubling aspect is how likeable Andre (Andre Keuck) and Calvin (Calvin Robertson) are. They're funny and personable, at least with each other, family members, and, in Calvin's case, with a girlfriend. The natural inclination is to hope they won't follow through with their plans because we don't want to see innocents slaughtered. The feeling strengthens, though, because we get to know these two guys and don't want things to turn out badly for them. It's a weird cognitive dissonance that intensifies as zero day approaches. The humor in this film also throws off one's bearings. It's ghoulish to laugh when the guys are preparing to kill themselves and debate whether they should shoot on four (or "go") when counting to three or shoot on three.
I think ZERO DAY is a more satisying film than ELEPHANT. Coccio's film feels immediate and real, so much so that anyone who didn't follow the news for awhile might believe this really happened. Van Sant's film is more recognizably art with a capital a. He's aiming for lyricism and a study in tone. While there's value in this approach, the ending is somewhat underwhelming.