Humanity the winner in Dunkirk

By Diane de Beer

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DUNKIRK
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
CAST: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

 

Recently watched Cries from Syria on the Sundance TV channel on DStv (still available) followed by Dunkirk on IMAX (best way to see it) and I was struck how all these years later, the war – whatever shape it takes – remains the same.

If only it was shoot and kill, at least you would be gone and the suffering would be over. It’s not that easy. And as to be expected, it is usually the innocent, those who didn’t want this or see it coming, that pay the highest price.

The Syrian story, still ongoing and getting worse after five years and counting with the Syrian leader whose appalling regime started all this, going even stronger albeit without a livable country and less than half its people, tells the horror.

In Cries of Syria, a young boy (perhaps 8 years old) reaches what he thinks is a place of safety after he has fled his country following years of hardship and fear of dying, crossed the seas with a 50 percent chance of drowning, and stayed in a kind of clearance camp before moving further on foot to find refuge.

He finally reaches what he thinks is perhaps a haven only to find what he describes as the following: “They threw bread at us as if we are dogs!” Eight years old and at the end of a journey crossing half the world to find somewhere safe – and that is what he finds?

All this while the world is watching and talking about the refugee crisis. These are real people being affected – on a daily basis. Not even a toddler’s body discarded by the sea on a beach make a difference.

Perhaps then it is easier to look back at a Dunkirk with the focus on individual stories but also heroism as people go to the rescue of their countrymen in the face of great personal danger.

It was an extraordinary time and because of that, the director wanted to hone in on what it was like to be there. It’s not about huge fighting scenes or masses of people (all 400 000 of them) waiting to die, gathering on a beach with nowhere to go.

He didn’t want to make use of CGI or as little as possible. He wanted it to be up close and personal so that you could experience not the bravado of wars but the intensity, the fight for survival and life. Similarly to that young boy waiting to be fed after years of battling simply to survive.

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Fionn Whitehead personifies the struggle for survival

He does have the big names but someone like Tom Hardy playing a fighter pilot for example sets off in a plane at the start of the film and then disappears off the screen until right at the end. Kenneth Branagh as the commander, Mark Rylance as the brave boat owner who takes off for Dunkirk to save as many soldiers as he can with the unknown Fionn Whitehead as the young soldier battling for his life, are the few faces we get to see more of.

Yet Dunkirk is not about the actors, who in fact get very little time to speak. It’s about the stories, the way war works, the savagery of thinking you have survived only to be tumbled into yet another crisis which has to be overcome.

Nolan has made many films, most of them in different genres, and he knows what he’s doing whether you’re a fan or not. With this one he set out to tell a very particular story and probably we take from it where we come from and who we are.

We live in a world with not only vicious wars being waged but nuclear battles being threatened by two power-drunk men. This is when we have to ponder the results achieved of those fighting their battles in this way.

Those young men on the beaches didn’t ask to be there at that particular time and whether they fought well or valiantly didn’t define their lives. For each one of them it was probably about getting out at the end – some do and others don’t.

So when given a choice, we shouldn’t turn our heads, we should talk rather than feed that war machine that rules the world in so many ways.

Dunkirk confirms that message in many different ways.

PS: Saw Hokusai, a documentary  of the British Museum exhibition, Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at Brooklyn Cinema Nouveau, which my sister had just been to see at the British Museum.

Filmed in Japan, the US and the UK, Hokusai focuses on the work, life and times of Katsushika Hokusai, painter and printmaker of the Edo (Modern Tokyo) period. Hokusai is regarded Japan’s greatest artist, who influenced Monet, Van Gogh and other Impressionists.

It was amazing and the cinema quite empty (which isn’t always the case when the artist names are perhaps more familiar) But again I was reminded of this extraordinary privilege we have with these screenings on artists and their current exhibitions.

Similarly for the NT Live theatre productions which allow us to see the latest work at London’s National Theatre or the Young and Old Vic, the Donmar and others.

Check it out. And watch those screening times. These are short runs but all worth seeing. It is as close as you will come this far away to see people like Helen Mirren and Judy Dench on stage while the play is still running in London.

The next screenings to watch out for later this month in Cinema Nouveau around the country is Renoir – Revered and Reviled from August 26; and the theatre productions of  Angels in America Part 1 (starting August 19) and Angels in America Part 2 (starting on September 2).

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