Sunday, 25 November 2012

World Cinema: Distinctive Visual Features

In my continuing goal to become a better teacher, I am putting up more exam answers to help students to see how to structure an argument and refer in detail to a text.

This is an example of an answer for Section A of the A2 Film Studies examSection A covers world cinema and there is a focus on urban stories and how they deal with issues of power, poverty and conflict.  The films looked at are City of God, La Haine and Tsotsi.

Check out my answer on social and political context here. 

This answer is on visual features of the films studied.

What are the distinctive visual features of the world cinema films you have studied?

World cinema films are often positioned as art house films and therefore their visual styles can be very different from their Hollywood counterparts.  However in the case of some world cinema films such as City of God, there are elements of the visual style that could be aimed at a much wider audience.  The three films studied, City of God, La Haine and Tsotsi all have very different visual styles but they are also all devised in ways that emphasise the realism of the representations on screen.

City of God and La Haine have very different visual styles.  Both use the mise-en-scene of real locations to add to the realism of the films.  In City of God, the filmmakers chose to shoot in the real Brazilian favelas that are depicted in the film.  This adds to the realism and the choice to use many non-professional actors also aids this.  The film looks in many ways like a documentary with its real locations, lack of recognisable star faces and also the cinematography that captures the scenes.  The favelas are very unfamiliar to global audiences and the striking poverty including endless grey concrete and shanty style huts, skinny animals wandering around and the electricity wires that hang precariously in many shots all increase the sense of hardship that the inhabitants face.  The characters’ clothes are similarly torn and raggedy and Benny’s desire to get new clothes after earning more money through drug dealing reflects his desire to break free of the poverty of the slums.

Similarly the locations used in La Haine emphasise the realistic nature of the content.  Les banlieues on the outskirts of Paris are filled with more grey concrete.  High rise flats are hemmed in together so that the sounds of the estate ricochet around.  Though not in as desperate poverty as the slums of both City of God and Tsotsi, the locations used in La Haine are still grim, depressing and hopeless.  The youths in La Haine sit around in simple playgrounds, one flicking a discarded syringe with his feet and hanging out in the cramped apartments that are very different to the open plan luxury of the Parisian apartment they later visit. 

All three films contrast their poverty stricken locations with opposite locations to emphasise the poor conditions.  In City of God, we see the journalists large open plan offices and one journalists house (that Rocket notes has hot running water), in La Haine the youths end up in the centre of Paris in a lush art gallery where the attendees are offered free champagne and called ‘sir’ and in Tsotsi the audience sees the contrast of the townships where Tsotsi lives with the gated mansion of the rich people he steals from.  These contrasts help to emphasise inequality in society and help the audience to empathise more with the youths in the films who struggle with crime, drugs and violence.

Another contrast between the films is that whereas La Haine and Tsotsi are set over short periods of time, City of God is set over decades and the mise-en-scene effectively shows this time span.  Les banlieues and the townships stay the same but the favelas in City of God noticeably change from sun drenched, open and almost optimistic looking places to grey, concrete lined alleyways that hem in the characters and give a sense of claustrophobia.

None of the films use a star which helps to create more realism as the faces of the characters are far more believable and their performances and occasionally improvised dialogue in the case of City of God adds to the sense that the viewer is watching real people’s lives.

However all the films are stylised in some ways.  La Haine uses black and white cinematography to enhance this realism by linking it with the real footage from news reports shown in the opening credits.  This real footage gives the viewer real social and political context at the start of the film as we can see that riots and confrontation with the police are genuine occurrences in the French banlieues.  Similarly City of God also uses real footage but places this at the end of the film in the closing credits.  Unlike La Haine which uses black and white to give a sense of grey, boring reality to the scenes, City of God begins with bright colour (in the sixties and seventies) but as the narrative progresses, the colours become duller as the concrete trappings of urban development take over.  The use of colour reflects the more innocent crimes of the early characters before plunging the audience into the darkness and despair of the later scenes.  Tsotsi uses naturalistic lighting but also emphasises the beauty of the townships through the golden sunset tinged establishing shots.

Handheld camera is used throughout City of God enhancing the documentary feel, whereas La Haine features more steadicam movement with long flowing shots following characters through their environment.  City of God is hectic in both its cinematography and editing.  The opening chase scene is a great example of how the films subject (a chicken running for its life) and the film form used reflect each other.  The point of view shots from the chicken, the close ups on the chicken’s face and the low angle shots of Lil Ze are rapidly cut together to give the impression that the viewer is watching something as it happens and gives a sense of the hectic, danger-filled environment of the favelas.  There are many close ups that can disorient the viewer by not allowing them the conventional establishing shot that sets the scene.  On the other hand the close ups give a great level of detail about the favelas helping to create a realistic and atmospheric representation. The close ups of the chicken’s face in the opening scene accompanied by close ups of blood, knives, instruments sets up a party atmosphere but also a tension and fear for the chicken’s life (and by extension protagonist Rocket’s life). The use of point-of-view shots also helps the viewer to identify with Rocket and we often see events from the view of him or his camera.

The use of strobe lighting in Benny’s death scene and the parallel editing between Blacky entering the dance hall and the rest of the people partying creates unbearable levels of suspense and is a standout scene where editing, cinematography and mise-en-scene are used to create meaning for the viewer.  The fast cuts, quick zooms and unsteady camera all emphasise the hectic nature of the scene.

La Haine uses much slower paced shots with a very deep depth of field in its cinematography. This conveys a sense that life is much slower in les banlieues with the boredom of the main characters being emphasised. The three youths look like they belong in their environment as they are constantly in focus and the camera often tracks them through the streets of their estates. There is one shot where the camera floats over the streets and flies high above the buildings as a DJ plays a tune from his window.  This one shot alludes to the sense of freedom provided by music. One scene in City of God is similar to La Haine with its use of depth of field as the story of the apartment is relayed to the viewer.  This scene is all one shot and fades between different moments in the story of the apartment as characters come and go. La Haine uses this same technique when Hubert is smoking in his room. The camera stays in the same position but the image jumps or fades to Hubert in different positions.  Both these scenes draw attention to the editing while using static shots of a single location. The cinematography of La Haine also changes when the youths arrive in Paris.  The depth of field becomes shallower and the youths suddenly stand out from their environment, reflecting the way they feel and their exclusion from the environment they find themselves in.

The editing also adds to the restlessness of the camera in City of God with lots of quick cutting and speeding up of footage.  La Haine, on the other hand, favours shots with a longer duration and the editing is less choppy than in City of God.  This emphasises the idea that life is fast in the favelas, whereas life is boring in les banlieues.  However tension is created by using a number of ‘explosive’ cuts at the beginning of La Haine.  The image cuts, for example, on Vinz pretending to shoot a gun at his mirror image and hitting a boxing bag.  The sound of a gunshot is used on each of these cuts.  This means the combination of lengthy shots punctuated by sharp, loud cuts keeps the viewer on edge and builds expectations of something abrupt happening after the youths spend so long sitting around being bored.

Overall the most noticeable visual features of the films are in the mise-en-scene. The striking realism of the locations is very powerful and gives audience a powerful sense that what they are watching is real. City of God’s flashy editing and handheld camera aesthetics work to both give the film a documentary feel but also to draw attention to the style of the film, perhaps taking away some of the realism. Tsotsi is the most traditionally shot of the films and again it is the mise-en-scene that is most powerful.  However the editing and cinematography of both La Haine and City of God add to the meanings created in the films and is rewarding on repeat viewings. Most of all they have several scenes that stand out in the memory for their effective and experimental visual features.

What do you think?  Do I get an A?  Any feedback always welcome.