Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017
Name: Alan Nguyen
Length: 17 minutes
Narrative film is potentially a powerful means to reflect, reinforce or alter attitudes within society. In Asia, popular martial arts films frequently depict acts of violent vengeance as arising from a sense of duty, honour, or justice. As for the West, Simkin (2006) points out that while many revenge films of the 1970s and of the post-September-11 era portray vengeance as heroic acts of justice, earlier revenge tragedy narratives of Elizabethan theatre tended to provide a more complex and critical treatment of vengeance.
Given the prevalent use of violence to achieve catharsis in films of this kind, it is of interest to enquire how themes of anti-violence and anti-vengeance can successfully be communicated in such films.
The short science-fiction revenge film Firebird (2016), was produced to explore the use of a revenge film in questioning the notion of vengeance as an effective and desirable means of obtaining justice. Various cinematic techniques within the scripting, cinematography, sound design and editing processes have been employed to portray the use of violence and vengeance in an ambivalent or critical manner.
Firebird serves as the studio component of writer, director, producer Alan Nguyen’s Doctor of Visual Arts research at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.
Peer Review 1 (Stuart Bender)
Firebird is a visually impressive and ambitious short film. It certainly has the highly polished aesthetic of a commercial film and very high quality audio production and some very impressive use of visual effects. The narrative follows a familiar line of vengeance, told in an engaging manner. Overall the film succeeds in creating a very convincing sense of the world in which it is set, which is a highly imaginative world and which the filmmaker should be applauded for achieving.
While this polish and aesthetic is the film’s key strength, at the same time it does make the text difficult to assess in research terms. It could be argued that the film attempts to unsettle or disrupt the conventional vendetta narrative when the main character falls short of his aim to kill the “Phoenix” in two ways: first, he dies in the process, and second – unlike many sacrifice narratives – he does not even manage to kill the Phoenix in the process. Thus, the film can be read in these terms, and it appears from the research statement that this is intended to be a key aspects of the work:
The short science-fiction revenge film Firebird (2016), was produced to explore the use of a revenge film in questioning the notion of vengeance as an effective and desirable means of obtaining justice.
In addition, where traditional “catharsis” narratives – such as Death Wish and more recently John Wick – appeal to a form of kinship empathy to justify the lead character’s use of violence, Firebird is more difficult because in its abstract dystopian setting the characters and their connections are somewhat rarefied. Certainly this represents an anti-conventional approach to the narrative, although while it is “more difficult” than a film like John Wick I would not suggest it is radically so.
I’m not convinced this moderately unconventional narrative is enough to i) justify the piece as “research” and ii) justify it as “practice-led” research. The statement does note that: “Various cinematic techniques […] have been employed to portray the use of violence and vengeance in an ambivalent or critical manner.” But, how does the filmmaker/researcher intend the academic audience to engage with these things? Given that the work’s narration – while engaging and creative – very clearly obeys normative rules of “intensified continuity” (Bordwell 2002) I feel that we need a greater sense of the research question and/or line of inquiry apparently explored in the praxis.
With the information provided, I remain unconvinced that there is a particular question or innovation being explored in the work that could be justified as “research.” Of course, I believe that all praxis involves research and innovation on the part of the practitioner and that much of this cannot be expected to be apparent in the work itself. But in cases like Firebird it is important for a research statement to point the way to where an academic audience may be able to understand the significance of this research. This is a shame, because the film is engaging and intriguing and I think academic screen works should be creating texts that appear mainstream while at the same time exploring ways of working with and against these conventions to challenge narrative and form of narration.
Bordwell, D. 2002. “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film.” Film Quarterly (55) 3: 16-28.
Peer Review 2 (Name withheld)
Firebird is a short science fiction film set in a dystopian street gang world. The main character is a young man (Liam) who is desperate to avenge the death of his brother and uncle by killing the feared leader of a rival gang (Atum). It is made in a style consistent with commercial genre films, with particularly creative sound design and generally high production values in areas such as lighting, production design, editing and post-production effects. The narrative is conventionally structured within a fictional world where the drama between the characters plays out through episodes of action and violence and with a primary focus on the relationship that develops between the young protagonist and the older man who is the object of his planned vengeance.
I think this film is quite effective as a work of screen drama but to what extent is it also successful as a research project? For the field of screen production research, this is an important question, as it is much easier to argue that documentaries can undertake research than fiction films, and particularly fiction films made using mainstream genre conventions. The filmmaker’s research statement argues that the film is working in both narrative and stylistic terms to present vengeance in a more ambivalent and critical manner than conventionally occurs. It was easier to identify how this might be working in relation to the story than through the use of production techniques in lighting, production design and editing. Most obviously, the attempted act of vengeance was a failure and it could be argued that the way this was portrayed undermined any sense of heroism in the protagonist Liam’s actions. I also felt the repeating at the film’s end of the opening action of Liam approaching his gang to hear the news of his brother’s death suggested there was an alternative possible to the actions we had just witnessed. The building of empathy between Liam and Atum and humanising Atum as a character as the narrative unfolds were also strategies used to ethically complicate the act of vengeance.
I closely watched the film twice after reading the filmmaker’s statement that cinematic techniques within the ‘cinematography, sound design and editing processes have been employed to portray the use of violence and vengeance in an ambivalent or critical manner.’ I am sure this has been done thoughtfully and carefully by the filmmaker and, in many ways, this is where the creative research is at its most interesting. However, I feel that the effect of these techniques is not self-evident and, given the ambiguity of much visual and aural creative storytelling techniques, would need to be more explicitly spelled out to be properly evaluated in a research context. Exploring a research question within the conventions of a genre film raises other challenges to the filmmaker/researcher. Can reworking or subverting genre conventions be seen as a contribution to knowledge? This reviewer is inclined to be sympathetic to this view, if knowledge is viewed as the accepted practices of the filmmaking discipline. In many ways it is refreshing and significant for research films to be made that resonate with mainstream commercial practice, given that this sector is such a substantial part of the filmmaking field.
I thank both reviewers for their thoughtful comments. With hindsight I do accept that the original research statement, submitted at the same time as the film, is too brief and does not provide sufficient information to explain why I believe the work should be considered “research” in a screen production context. I welcome this opportunity to more clearly frame my film work in its research context.
There has been growing discussion during recent years regarding what constitutes research in the context of filmmaking in academia, including doctoral research. For example, while many people in academia may accept that “making a documentary film involves activities commonly associated with research,” they will generally not consider “a fiction film, a drama or a comedy” as research (Berkeley 2014, online). Against this narrow view, Berkeley argues that “research is about new knowledge” and that both fiction and non-fiction films could potentially contribute knowledge to the field of film production, for example, by “exploring and extending our knowledge of the potential of the medium”.
A recent comparative analysis of five Australian doctorates, all completed by early exponents of filmmaking research, finds that they “share a common purpose, designed to create new knowledge about screen production processes through creative practice research” (Kerrigan et al. 2015, 94). A common viewpoint shared by these doctorates, and by Berkeley, is that research is essentially about new knowledge.
Firebird was created as the studio component of a Doctor of Visual Arts, whose central research question is: How can anti-violence and anti-vengeance themes be communicated through images in a revenge film? As such, the film and its accompanying exegesis seek to explore and extend knowledge of the potential of a particular type of commercially-oriented cinema – specifically, revenge films.
These films typically gain audience sympathy for the protagonist through the presentation of an initial wrongdoing or harm, which then gives licence for viewers to enjoy the portrayal of violent acts that the protagonist subsequently enacts on his/her revenge-targets. As a filmmaker and film researcher, I have a particular interest in revenge films that provide a more critical approach to the portrayal of vengeance and violence.
I believe the present film research project has made three main contributions.
First, the film explores new ways of communicating anti-violence sentiments. One example is the gradual evolution of its portrayal of the revenge’s target, who is also the lead antagonist. Initially, this character is depicted as mysterious, powerful and menacing, but as the film progresses, it allows the audience to see him in a far more humanistic and sympathetic light, thereby undermining the notion of vengeance, and sowing the seeds of audience sympathy for its anti-violence messages.
This nuanced treatment contrasts with the way many revenge films other targets of revenge. While revenge films that feature anti-vengeance themes generally avoid such depictions, they tend to present a static, rather than evolving, view of these characters. In this context, the ‘gradual improvement in understanding’ approach employed in Firebird is arguably an innovation within the field of revenge films.
To implement this approach, initial shots of the antagonist were taken from low-angle placements that showed little of his face but suggested a dominating presence. Subsequent shots included more humanistic aspects (e.g., warm-toned lighting cast on his face) and were further enhanced through post-production (e.g., selective brightening and resizing of shots) to provide greater intimacy. The antagonist’s perspective is explored, through both dialogue and flashback imagery. Various techniques were used to support the notion of images coming from within the antagonist’s mind (eg. the antagonist’s first flashback scene consists entirely of steadicam shots which contrasts with the surrounding handheld camerawork of the ‘present’ time-line; for a point-of-view shot upon the antagonist’s fallen victim, lighting was designed to fall off at the edges — support the notion of a memory-image). The film also shows the antagonist as suffering from the negative psychological consequences of his own violent acts. In one particular scene, where he expresses a deep sense of guilt, blacks were used to isolate the figure, top-lighting was used to support the notion of psychological anguish, while green-gels on lighting were used to give a cold, uncomfortable atmosphere.
Another example of innovation in this context is the film’s ending. Amongst contemporary revenge films, Firebird’s ending has multiple aspects that are uncommon: the protagonist fails in his revenge attempt; he dies at the end of the film; he is killed at the hands of the antagonist; and the antagonist is shown to be remorseful if not devastated by this action. These aspects combine to create an ending that is rare amongst contemporary revenge films. The climactic scene ends with an image of the dying protagonist shown from what might be the antagonist’s point-of-view, followed by a lingering close-up of the antagonist’s horrified and grief-filled expression. As the antagonist gasps, the screen cuts to black.
In this film, the pursuit of revenge is shown as escalating conflict and perpetuating cycles of violence and retaliation, with no satisfaction or redeeming benefits for anyone involved. Overall, Firebird represents a rare example of a revenge film made with the conscious intention of communicating anti-violence themes.
The second and third contributions of this creative-art research project are closely related to the making of the film itself, but can be seen more readily in the accompanying exegesis. Smith and Dean (2009) describe ‘practice research’ in the following terms:
It can be basic research carried out independent of creative work (though it may be subsequently applied to it); research conducted in the process of shaping an artwork; or research which is the documentation, theorization and contextualization of an artwork – and the process of making it – by its creator (Smith and Dean 2009, 3).
Most of the exegesis fits under the last part of the above description – the documentation, contextualization and conceptualization of Firebird and the process of making it. Thus, the project’s second contribution is the detailed documentation of my experiences: the challenges I faced, my decision-making processes, and the techniques I adopted, all of which may be of some interest to other filmmakers.
In addition, one chapter (Chapter 2, which provides an analysis of key contemporary revenge films) can be seen as fitting under the first two headings: research that was conducted to help shape this creative work, but could also have been carried out independently of it. The third contribution is a systematic analysis of cinematic image techniques used in a number of contemporary revenge films to support either anti- or pro-vengeance sentiments. Analyses of this type have long been considered a legitimate form of research in film studies. The study resulted in the identification and analysis of approaches used in revenge films that support either anti- or pro-vengeance themes: (1) sympathetic vs. othering portrayal of revenge-target/s; (2) revenge-target’s perspective portrayed vs. not portrayed; (3) portrayal of negative psychological consequences of committing violence vs. stoicism; (4) deterioration vs. strengthening of the revenger-protagonist’s self-assuredness, resolve, and well-being; (5) indirect/suggestive portrayal of violence that focuses mainly on the effects of violence on the victim(s) vs heightened visual captures of the moment of violent action; (6) whether the pursuit of vengeance is shown to lead to an escalation of violence or a quelling of violence; and (7) tragic ending vs. triumphant ending. The manner in which these approaches are enacted through various aspects of filmmaking is varied and therefore cannot be boiled down to a number of set techniques. However, many examples of techniques employed are discussed and analysed in the exegesis.
Berkeley, L. 2014, “Should film-making count as research? That’s debatable”, The Conversation, accessed 3 August 2017.
Kerrigan, S., Berkeley, L., Maher, S., Sergi, M. & Wotherspoon, A. 2015, “Screen Production Enquiry: A study of five Australian doctorates”, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Vol. 9 (2): 93-109.
Smith, H. & Dean, R. 2009. Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, Edinburgh University Press.