Texas Art & Film's Dr. Donna Copeland's Film Reviews & Features
 
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I Declare War could be considered an updated version of Lord of the Flies (1990) in terms of the behavior of boys around 12 years old left to their own devices.  The boys in both films have to deal with questions such as whether or not to adhere to rules, what constitutes leadership, what the obligations of friendship are, and religious beliefs.  There are some significant differences in the two films, however, in that War takes place in the context of a game, and it includes the feminine influence. 
The game consists of a “war” between two sides conducted out in the woods near the boys’ homes, each side directed by a commander.  There are a few rules (to which not all participants agree to follow), such as not taking any prisoners; the captured one is supposed to be killed, and then must go home.  Killing is done by throwing a paint-filled balloon at the loser.  One of the commanders, PK (Gage Munroe) has never lost a war and has a string of flags to prove it (Winning is by taking the other side’s flag.). 
            As with adult “games”, social and psychological issues arise and complicate the process.  For instance, the girl—who is surprisingly accepted into the games—introduces a romantic element that is not necessarily welcomed, even though most of the boys are susceptible to it.  Not surprisingly, friendship and loyalty are paramount among the boys, and when one of them feels betrayed, the pain is palpable.  Revenge takes the form of torture—although not necessarily against the perpetrator.  Self-doubts arise, primarily in terms of how much one is liked and accepted/respected within a group. 
            The part of the film that is most striking is the model of leadership shown by PK, who holds it together until the very end when he, too, is in a quandary, and Munroe capably handles the role.  During most of the film the character is a good model in his use of authority, his willingness to listen to another point of view, and his common sense. Realistically, he is human in the end when he begins to see that loyalty in friendship is not something to be taken lightly, and a bit of self-doubt seeps in.
            Writer Jason Lapeyre and his co-director Robert Wilson should be commended for their astuteness in understanding and portraying human relationships at this age and the issues they must deal with.  Young people are not given credit often enough for their wisdom and their ability to size up a situation and pick up on what transpires behind the scenes, e.g., why the other side has a new leader, which is just one of the strong points of this production.  Another strength is the quality of the acting among all the participants.  Siam Yu as Kwon especially shows promise in his ability to show different aspects of a character and its development across time. 
            I Declare War is a fine movie for kids that will pull for good discussions between them and their parents and other adults.  Just as much, it is entertaining, interesting, and suspenseful.    Grade:  A                 I had a very interesting and informative telephone session with the Canadian directors.  Jason Lapeyre is also the writer.  Following is a summary of our conversation after I congratulated them on a very fine production.

Child Development

            Since I was struck by their apparent understanding of child development, I wanted to know how they acquired this knowledge.  Lapeyre immediately said with a chuckle that he thought that it was related to his refusing to grow up.  More seriously, he added, “On the one hand, it was something that happened naturally; on the other hand, as a kid I read a lot, and one of the things I remember reading about was an adult saying that his childhood was his golden years, a wonderfully nostalgic time that he wished he could go back to.  My reaction as a 12 year-old was that that’s b------t.  This person clearly doesn’t remember how hard this time is, how anxiety-provoking it can be.  I thought, ‘You mean these were your golden years?’…that really sucks!  So I promised myself at 12 not to ever forget how hard it was being a kid.”
            When Lapeyre and Wilson started working together on the film, they had a shared understanding that they would not patronize the kids or talk down to them, even though we were aware that they sometimes think differently from adults.  “When we worked with the actors, it was always in a place of equality.”
I Declare War vs. Animated Films
            JL and RW:  We are nostalgic and reminiscent of movies that we watched with our parents that don’t seem to be made any more; but another issue is, say, 20 year-olds playing 14 year-olds, as Colin Farrell’s voicing a 14 year-old character.  We do not know why this would be preferable to having a 14 year-old voice the character.  Also, you have to make a distinction between films that are about kids and those that are for kids.  Films aimed for a younger audience do tend to talk down to their audience, but when we made our film, we did not have a specific audience of children in mind.  It never occurred to us that kids are not capable of a larger scope of imaginings and the importance of social dynamics in relationships.
Directing Children
            “As long as there are no adults around, it is amazing”, JL said, smiling.  RW said it was a really great experience for them.  “You’ve heard it said in show business, ‘Never work with children or animals’, but we found their enthusiasm was totally infectious; they engaged with the material so passionately and so intensely, and they created their characters so convincingly, that, as directors, it was a real collaboration for us. 
            How closely the script was followed.  RW:  We followed the script fairly strictly.  If the slang was a bit out of date, we encouraged them to make the stuff their own, but they weren’t running wild with the scenes.  We gave them the liberty to personalize it, keep it relevant, and to fix it where they felt like it was wrong, but 90% of the text was as it was written. 
Violence in Films
            JL:  Although I include violence in films, I never do it flippantly.  But one of the things I enjoy the most about movies is the cathartic value of watching violence.  It is something very primal and very human, and so I think catharsis has a lot to do with it.  There is also an irrational fascination with violence, which is relevant to both my Cold Blooded film and I Declare War.  For instance, the kids in I Declare War have very strong emotions that are expressed in violent ways—both physical and emotional violence.  I don’t have a giant Freudian insight as to why that is, but certainly I think it is something directly connected to human nature. 
            RW:  When I was growing up, I was told that playing Dungeons and Dragons would make me a Satanist.  I was told by a teacher in 7th grade to put down the comic books, that I was wasting my time, that they meant nothing and were going to be nothing.  But you turn around and Marvel Comics is a billion-dollar franchise.  We’re all inherently violent; it’s a part of growing up.  So, in terms of the responsibility in putting violence in things—I wouldn’t want any of that part of growing up taken away from me.  It’s important to let that be part of the process.  Are we supposed to self-censor how much violence goes in, in case the audience isn’t quite ready for it?
            JL:  I don’t agree with that; it sounds like I would be parenting someone else’s children.
            RW:  I think one of the misconceptions about violence in entertainment is that it’s a one-directional thing—that violence is injected into the minds of the viewers, and they have no power over it.  But it’s a two-way street.  The viewers are engaging, interpreting, and maybe even rejecting what they’re being shown, so I think it’s way more complicated than just being a “negative” influence.
            Part of a filmmaker’s job is being your own first best audience.  The trick is to make things that have never been seen before, but need to be made, not so much to follow a set of rules that lead you to an acceptable middle ground that works for everyone.  The whole idea of making a film or writing a book is to create something that previously did not exist, and if that contains violence, so be it.
            JL:  From the beginning of making I Declare War, using violence as a symbol for the emotional intensity of being 12 years old felt so right to us.  And there’s a real potency in that.  We wanted it to be potent, to have this shocking image of a 12 year-old holding a machine gun to “plant a flag”, and let people know how serious we were about representing this age and how it feels to be that age.
Working with a Cinematographer
            RW:  The best experience you’re going to have with the cinematographer is someone who inherently understands the story.  In this case, Ray Dumas, a master cinematographer, was 110% behind the story that wanted to be told; he told us he was those kids.  It’s not just the technical aptitude that is important.
Fundamental Differences between Canadian and U.S. films?
            JL and RW:  Yes and no.  There is a difference in the cinema, just as there is between any two different nations.  Yet, Canadians are born, bred, and raised on American fare, and the idea that their storytelling is different from what you find in the U.S. is debatable.




 
 
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This is a distressing documentary about whales at SeaWorld and their trainers.  Quite surprising, but what is said appears to be valid.  Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres, it covers the history of whales in parks, interviews former trainers and visitors to the parks, and draws on background research by scientists.  SeaWorld declined to be interviewed and is currently appealing a judge’s ruling that trainers must be kept behind barriers during shows after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took them to court.  Cowperthwaite, an experienced documentarian for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Discovery and History channels, obtained material for the film from personal interviews with experts and former trainers, news footage, and the Freedom of Information Act.
                  The issue for the film is in the interest of both the whales and their trainers.  The whales are confined in small spaces, and are put in a 20 X 30 foot pool for the night from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am the next day without any light.  This makes up about 2/3 of their life.  It is not clear whether the practice still continues, but they have been trained with both positive reinforcement (food, praise) and punishment (deprivation of food and allowing other whales to “rake” them with teeth if they do not perform properly). 
                  We learn from scientists and animal behavior experts that in the wild whales live in families that stay intact throughout their lives.  Female whales live to be 100 (although in captivity they die in 25-30 years), and their young stay with them continuously.  They are considered to be very intelligent (as in a group cooperating with a complex plan toward an agreed upon goal) and have language.  MRI scanning shows a brain structure that humans lack, the paralimbic cleft, which allows for “highly elaborated emotional lives”, according to Lois Marino, a neuroscientist.   When SeaWorld and similar groups capture the whales and later when they own them, they think nothing of separating children from their mothers, leaving the mothers wailing and in a deep state of grief.  SeaWorld claims they have not captured whales for 35 years, and that all their whales have been born in captivity.  Nevertheless, they are still separating them from their families by selling them to other facilities or moving them around at their convenience.
By the way, orcas’ reputation as “killer” whales seems to be based on superstition; they have apparently only killed humans when they have been in captivity.  Normally, if encountered in the wild, they are friendly and social.  A number of injuries and death have occurred among trainers, and whereas SeaWorld always blames it on trainer error, the filmmakers and former trainers have good evidence that this is “spin”, and that the whales are aggressive because of their living conditions.
Therefore, the appeal of this film and of former trainers is that we need to end SeaWorld environments because it is inhumane to capture whales, separate them from their families, and confine them to small pools simply for our entertainment. 

Grade:  A                                    By:  Donna R. Copeland