55th BFI London Film Festival – ‘The Somnambulists’: less documentary than political screed

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The Somnambulists

Directed by Richard Jobson

UK, 2011

The title of Richard Jobson’s second film, one part political screed and one part disturbing documentary on the terrible Iraq debacle serves twin purposes – to witness the hypnotised fashion in which a sleep-walking population was seduced into supporting the war by a complacent media, and to honour the dead and wounded, both emotionally and physically, who have suffered in the appalling carnage of the past eight years. The film straddles that fine line between documentary and fiction with Jobson scribing fifteen soliloquies, some moving and some harrowing reports from the home and foreign fronts that he has culled from years of interviewing over 200 servicemen and women who served and some who have perished in a brutal war that already seems to be receding into the history books.

After a context-setting text crawl, a series of actors and actresses perform their speeches, shot as spectral heads framed against a black background, the design evoking voices from beyond the grave, as dissolves and framing adjustments complement the dialogue and serve to break up the static imagery. Although the design does get repetitive Jobson has the sense to bookmark each sector with a cut to an interior or exterior scene, taking us to the soldiers home, to their friends or their families, illuminated in stark black and white photography as they silently stare to the camera and elucidate the true consequence of war. These sections ambit across a range of military personnel, from medics to infantrymen, snipers to bomb disposal  experts, to provide a full portrait of impressions from the experienced warriors to the wet-nosed noobs, all given voice through a procession of authentically accented avatars. Some of these sections work better than others, the sniper’s speech for example is horrifying but somewhat diluted when followed by a poorly written socio-economic themed observation on the comparisons between an officer who prefers to play Górecki when given access to his squads stereo while his working class men prefer the likes of The Streets or Oasis – this seems neither pertinent or revelatory.

The cumulative effect is of a hell on earth where any romantic notions of conflict are soon expunged from any new recruits raised on a diet of arcade games and Schwarzenegger movies, and the film has a powerful punch that will leave some reeling. I’m not sure why Jobson chose to translate his interviews into more manufactured dialogue as perhaps the original discussions would have been more emotionally wrenching than his overtly mannered stanza’s, and the piece has a feel more akin to political theatre than giving voice to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Closing with a direct assault on Tony Blair, the chief architect of the UK involvement in the war by counter-posing his unrepentant 2010 testimony to the Chilcot sub-committee on Iraq with the suicide of a PTSD afflicted army victim The Somnambulists is less documentary than a political screech, which is unlikely to convert the unconverted, but remains as a powerful testament to a concealed crusade with motives more commercial than moral.

John McEntee

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival

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