All posts by Cassandra Milbrandt

I'm an American pursuing a Master's in Film, Television and Screen Media at Birkbeck. My favorite genre of film is the period drama, and my favorite movie to date would have to be Vanity Fair directed by Mira Nair, starring Reese Witherspoon. I love reading, tea, psychology, going to the theatre and cinema, dogs, golf, and of course, long walks on the beach. But truly, at the heart of it all, I have an immense admiration for stories and storytelling.

Review: Kingsman

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman is not your mother’s spy film. Hip and modern, infused with a classic air of British sophistication, this film aficionado left the cinema touting a wide grin and two thumbs up.

The film starts with an introduction to Harry Hart, played by none other than Colin Firth (heritage cinema actor, tried and true…check). He is part of an elite team of spies, headquartered in London (though they’re unaffiliated with any government), working for the international good. One of Harry’s team members, Lee, sacrifices his life early in the film, leaving behind a wife and son. Harry bears this stoically (like any proper Brit), though he offers his assistance should the wife or child of his fallen comrade need help in the future.

Kingsman 2

Fast-forward a few years: Eggsy, the son of our fallen hero is now grown. He’s a bright young man, although raised on what might be called the wrong side of the tracks. His mother has remarried a drunken lowlife, and Eggsy’s only solace is getting away from their council estate flat to cause a bit of mischief with his friends.

Without giving too much away, Eggsy finds himself in trouble with the law. He contacts Harry, and a whole new life is opened up to him. Although unsure of himself, Eggsy proceeds to be trained as a spy, with a class of ‘uppers’ who constantly remark on his origins. In this way, I found the film to be refreshing. So much of British cinema focuses on the divide of classes, whilst Kingsman focused on not just transcendence of class, but transcendence of self, set in a modern and recognisable world. Eggsy doesn’t believe in his abilities coming into training, and the chip on his shoulder is very nearly physically visible. He finds in Harry a patient father figure who teaches him a lesson, quoting Hemingway:

“‘There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.’”

This was the perfect juxtaposition to the classist philosophy. Given Britain’s past with a rigid class system, the recognition of true nobility coming from within resonated with me. It’s been said in other reviews that the film caters to an American audience, with their love for high-class British culture or “bit of posh”. It would be my suspicion that this film catered to a wider British audience, even more so than a general American one. In Eggsy, we have the underdog, the young man raised with little privilege. Harry gives us the true soul of nobility, and Michael Caine’s character, Chester, represents ‘The Establishment’, if you will. These three faces allow us to see the humans beyond their classes, and if you’ve been raised as a Briton, I imagine the contrast here is even more apparent. Of course we know the Uppers don’t always behave righteously. Then again, neither do the rest, regardless of where in the world you are. But these relationships gave more credence to a theory of mine: the British class structure is changing, and is perhaps more fluid than it ever was before. When social changes become apparent on the silver screen, chances are they’re taking place in the real world.

Both The Telegraph and The Guardian were quick to point out faults in the film. The Telegraph’s limited coverage seemed displeased with the film’s references to the Bond franchise, as well as a tasteless and really unnecessary line about anal sex by the Swedish princess (that The Telegraph and I agree on). The Guardian was more concerned with the stereotyping of Samuel L. Jackson and racism featured in the American South scene, where rednecks are Bible-thumping away about “the gays and the liberals”. I think, as an American, it’s fair to say most people don’t have a huge problem with an attack on Westboro-esque ideals. And Jackson’s megalomaniac antagonist was massively entertaining and provided some leeway for our suspension of disbelief. However, the presentation of violence in the American South church scene I did find problematic.

The film itself was fun, packed with excellent action sequences accompanied by music I wouldn’t generally expect from an action/spy film. Keeping to my expectation of British culture, I assumed by using almost techno/club beats, there was less emotion involved with the horrific, if not spectacular, mass slaughter sequences. This juxtaposition served as a guiding factor for the collective emotional response of the audience. Manipulative? Perhaps. But a certain degree of violence is expected when watching a spy film. The actual violence in the film was not my biggest issue, in comparison to the length of time spent on the violence and violent images. It is clearly an adaptation of a comic book franchise, and this is fairly obvious in said images. Whilst the adaptation element needs to be taken into account, I still feel strongly that the violence could have been less, and indeed, should have been.

Overall, however, Kingsman was a great bit of fun. I enjoyed the constant references to British-isms (breeds of dogs, the British unwavering value of politeness), the wry humour, the relationship between Harry and Eggsy, and Eggsy’s revival of confidence in himself. Something for everyone, as the old adage goes. There have been whispers of a sequel. And I know I’d happily queue up for Kingsman II.

The Act of Killing: A Meditation on Human Guilt

The Act of Killing (theatrical release) – 2012

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer


Organised by:

Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, and

The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, Guilt Working Group


Venue: Birkbeck Cinema


What is the significance of guilt in a modern society? How does our perception of guilt affect our actions, laws, relationships, and cultures? The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research screened The Act of Killing on the 28th of February, to illustrate the need for interdisciplinary debate on the concept of guilt.

The Act of Killing is visually arresting and psychologically taxing. From the perspective of present-day Indonesia, director Joshua Oppenheimer explores the genocide that took place during 1965 and 1966, killing over a million people, through the eyes of its perpetrators: the so-called “free men” gangsters of the island nation.

Meet Anwar Congo. Something of a celebrity among Indonesians, Anwar is a grandfather with a sweet face and gentle disposition. He is quick to smile, revealing a nice set of chompers. It is not the smile one would expect from a mass murderer, though that is exactly what he is. During the purges, Congo was a gangster. He earned money as an executioner for paramilitary thugs, killing named “communists” who were accused of posing a threat to the nation. Seemingly proud of their brutal past, he and his friend, fellow enforcer Herman Koto, feel it is time to reveal their part in the nation’s history, so they agree to help Oppenheimer by re-enacting their part in the genocide on film.

Herman’s personality is in stark contrast to Anwar’s. A paramilitary leader, husband, father, and sometimes drag queen, he has a greater physical presence and seems more at ease with the dramatisation of the killings. He even engages his own children in re-enacting scenes from the murderous rampages. Herman definitely plays to the camera. He believes he and Anwar could be great stars, in spite of their bloody pasts.

Perhaps the toughest of the three, Adi Zulkadry is also a father and husband, and has obviously had some financial success since his gangster days. He feels no guilt over his actions during the coup. He believes the drive for survival is justification of the act of killing, which he freely admits is the worst crime one can possibly commit. Where human rights are concerned, the winners write history; they judge what is right and what is wrong.

The film that these former gangsters are making with Oppenheimer isn’t actually real. It is a device intended to reveal the natures of the individual killers, the cultural and political atmosphere of present day Indonesia (now run by a military dictatorship) and the humanisation (or lack thereof) of the act of killing. It is made on behalf of people who can’t speak out for fear of prosecution or death; when the credits roll, many contributors and crew are listed only as ‘anonymous’. Today, Indonesians still fear for their safety and that of their families.

The re-enactments of the banal brutality are shocking, but perhaps more shocking is the frankness of the interviews with the three former gangsters as they decide on scenes and blocking. Two specific sequences stand out. Firstly, the burning of a village. Actors are chosen off the streets, with the organisation Pancasila Youth playing themselves but 45 years in the past. This was the paramilitary group responsible for most if not all of the deaths during the coup. The re-enactment is meant to depict the torching and pillaging of a village in North Sumatra, home to “communists” and Chinese Indonesians. Here though, the line between dramatisation and reality is blurred: a woman, clearly stunned, is overwhelmed by the scene. She sits on the ground, her eyes unfocused. The men who were just playing the parts of thugs and rapists now try to help and bring her water. Children continue to cry, even after the scene has wrapped. Everyone on set now seems to realise that the sanctioned arson, the twisted cruelty, the unreasonable torture and murders actually happened.

In another powerful scene, Anwar takes the role of a Chinese man facing execution. As all had cited Hollywood gangster films of the 1960s as inspirations to their gangster personae, this is set in an office, the interrogators donning fedoras and smart-looking suits. Anwar, initially committed to acting in the film, now has the tables turned on him. When the time comes for his “execution”, he signals he has had enough, and the scene must stop. Anwar cannot speak, much less continue acting. He has experienced some of the terror he invoked in thousands of victims. When we view Anwar watching the completed scene, he appears his usual self, but the experience has clearly left an impression on his already conflicted mind. Anwar admits early on to having terrible nightmares about the deaths of his many victims. Now he wonders if he actually has sinned, as though it never occurred to him before.

I find The Act of Killing to be at a crossroads of humanity and banality. In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker states that we all are capable of murder, given the appropriate motivation. I find this difficult to swallow, but watching the film, I am constantly reminded of how the animalistic side of our human nature can be encouraged and sustained. I don’t condone the acts of the gangsters, nor do I pretend to understand the motivations of those who seized power or ordered the murders. However, on a human level, I understand the allure of power, the formation of identity, the natural respect for authority, and the comforting effects of luxury.

Most of the documentary subjects are ill-educated and have had little opportunity or encouragement to develop a rounded conscience, thus their differing understandings of guilt. It is my belief that they are all products of a restless society, and given their lack of understanding of compassion, it doesn’t surprise me that they could revel in such violence without remorse.

The only positive to come of this dark chapter of Indonesian history is that it is finally being brought to the global stage. Blatant disregard for the value of human life can no longer be excused. The time for educating and upholding the rights of each person, living or dead, is now. Oppenheimer risked a great deal in making this film, as did many Indonesians. It is an honour to live in an age where this film is celebrated for its achievements. The Act of Killing is utterly, tragically remarkable, and an effective catalyst for change.

Nordic Factory

Deeply rooted in the genre dubbed ‘Nordic Noir,’ Nordic Factory is a compilation of short films by a group of filmmakers from Scandinavia and all around the world.  The directors share a common theme, but have additional flairs from their own cultures and technical stylings.

Characterised by repression, guilt and regret, Scandinavian dramas have introduced a sense of new and original content into British television and film. The four shorts that comprise Nordic Factory (SundaysListenVoid, and The Girls and the Dogs) focus on these qualities. In a succinct manner, being shorts, they emphasise the problem and the atmosphere without the suggestion of hope or redemption. Perhaps it is this realism that appeals to a British audience? You be the judge.


Directed by Kræsten Kusk (Denmark) & Natalia Garagiola (Argentina), Sundays is a meditation on the loose sense of duty Anne feels for her ailing father, Theodor. The unsaturated colouring of the picture compliments the coldness of their relationship. It is a character-driven narrative with a pacing perfectly suited for a short film: the revelation of information is well timed. We only learn why Anne acts purely out of duty when visiting her father once we’ve established the characters and their general dispositions, which in turn reveals the reason she controls her emotions and reactions so carefully. The end of the film leaves us without a suggestion of hope for Anne. Her situation simply “is,” and she copes with it as best she can. The story’s realistic depiction reflects many personal stories that play out in much the same fashion. There is no commentary about the inner lives of many seemingly ordinary people, be it individuals on the street, in the market, or at the desk adjacent to one’s own. Sundays is an honest and realistic, albeit quite depressing, storytelling venture.


The second short film, Listen, directed by Hamy Ramezan and Rungano Nyoni is a joint Finnish/Zambian effort. Whilst the colouring is much the same as Sundays, the contrast is noticeably starker, as befits the film’s content.

An interesting technique at the beginning gives some insight into the perspectives of the characters. A woman, fully veiled, tells of her husband’s constant abuse and her fear for the lives of both her son and herself. Next, we hear the same words but we see another woman, with only her face exposed. The same begins again, only this time, we see a male police officer. Midway through the veiled woman’s monologue, the camera cuts to a female police officer. From here, continuity editing picks up as the narrative moves forward and we learn the second woman is meant to be an interpreter at a Danish police station. However, the purpose of being shown all three perspectives one after the other is to give a sense of differing motivations of the characters. The veiled woman is prostrating herself to find safety; the interpreter fears for the woman’s long-term safety and thus gives a false account to the police officers, who don’t speak the veiled woman’s language and mistake her for being loud, unruly, and impolite. It is an interesting take on miscommunication and possibly a commentary on the danger of stereotypes and racial frustrations.

The title says it all.


The third short, directed by Milad Alami (Denmark) and Aygul Bakanova (Kyrgyzstan), takes place (predictably) at night on a ferry towards Bornholm. Daniel, Scandinavian by descent, befriends Amir, a Palestinian from Copenhagen. The acquaintance seems dodgy to start, as Daniel, played by Lars Mikkelsen (Borgen and Sherlock 2010), seems to be coming on to Amir. But as with all uncomfortable characters, we find ourselves warming to him when he charmingly brings up his wife. Daniel now seems safe, and we mentally chastise ourselves for seeing something where there is nothing.

As the evening goes on, we are drawn to Daniel’s face. His gaze is distinctly predatory at certain moments, and when a close-up of him in the bathroom holds for just a second too long, we know that something is off with this encounter. Daniel has succeeded in befriending Amir, but he has an alternative agenda. He confronts Amir and tells him he wants him to have sex with his wife whilst he watches. Amir is alarmed and casts Daniel off him. He then takes pity on Daniel, seeing his odd behaviour as an act coming from pain, and agrees to go down to he and his wife’s room.

Again, the title says everything. Daniel has a void in his life and his behaviour is a sort of fetishised coping mechanism. The tragic beauty in a film like this is how perfectly it fits into its genre. Trying to relieve suffering by bringing another human into it does not always alleviate it. The message applies to the wider concept that life isn’t always positive. Realism better serves people than optimism, which sets them up for failure.

The Girls and the Dogs

The sunniest and most colourful of the shorts, this Nordic Noir was directed by Selma Vilhunen (Finland) and Guillaume Mainguet (France).

In their early teens, Mette, Lina and Anna Sophie are going to a party. But – they must pass through the woods and cross the beach to get their destination. (Sounds like a fairytale we’ve all heard of?). Chatting about the usual artifices of teenage life, the girls set out. In the midst of an important discussion about which boys will be at the party, Mette, the most thoughtful of the three, sees two shapes out on the beach. They turn out to be dead dogs, and, reminded of a story told to her by her granny, Mette proceeds to tell a Greenlandic story of creation. This story proves to be the most realistic element of the entire short. Instead of an Adam and Eve story of creation, Mette retells the story of a young girl, her rape, and the resulting offspring. The girls put the dogs to rest out at sea, then proceed with their banal chatter as they approach the complex where we assume the party will be taking place.

When Mette tells the story, the camera seldom deviates from her face, except for a couple reaction shots from Lina and Anna Sophie. It serves as a meta-narrative, that is, a story within a story, that comments on the larger story, i.e. the film The Girls and the Dogs. Being violent and desperate, the Greenlandic story of creation serves as contrast to the youth and promise of the girls, the sunny day, and their party. It reminisces about the uncertainty of life and that it is a process of destruction and creation, one we sometimes have little control over.

Nordic Factory is an excellent introductory Nordic Noir film for those unfamiliar with the genre and may pique interest in other television programmes of its kind (e.g. The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, Wallander, The Hunt, Adam’s Apples). It’s equally as enjoyable if you’re already familiar with Scandinavian shows. Riddled with troubles, secrets, sadness, and gloom, you’re sure to think deeply about the broody tendencies on your telly that Brits just can’t get enough of.