Prison System 4614, an act of mise en scène (English Version)

*This is an English version of my review of Prison System 4614 (Haftanlage 4614), originally published in Portuguese, my native language, as part of my coverage of Olhar de Cinema – Curitiba Intl Film Festival. Click here to read the Portuguese version.

At Olhar de Cinema – Curitiba Intl Film Festival, Prison System 4614 (Haftanlage 4614) might be the film that I am most stimulated to write and reflect about. In Jan Soldat’s documentary our place of spectatorship is far from adjectives such as “safe”, “comfortable”or “protected”. In order to have a frontal interaction with this film we must investigate – and question – any rhetorical tool that we critical moviegoers regularly use to keep ourselves secure and sheltered under a projection of blaseness.

Prison System 4614 is a film about a fetish: gay men ensconce themselves in a place built to resemble a jail where torture sessions are held for sexual pleasure. Soldat’s approach is straight forward: a still camera simply registers and describes the action. We become familiar with a variety of handcuffs and shackles, witness hard spanking, waterboarding and even watch a man kept in a solitary cell where the light is never turned off.

While a softer, less threatening approach would make it easier on the audience and could turn the film to an investigation of the personality of the characters (what drive these men to get aroused by certain practices that are seen as degrading by our society?), Soldat goes raw: there they are, physical and mental pain and there are the people who get a kick out of them.

What takes place inside Prison System 4614 is a pure act of mise en scène. The torturer is a legitimate metteur en scène. Therefore we are forced to wonder: if the torturer stages the scene and Soldat functions as a mediator between us and the acts orchestrated by the master, which role does the spectator occupy? The answer to this question brings to the surface what is most interesting about Soldat’s documentary: it’s not the role of the tortured that is being investigated, but the one from here, outside the screen, the role of those of us watching the film.

For a moviegoer it would be socially comfortable and aesthetically convenient to watch those images, characterize the film as “bizarre” or “weird” and keep going with one’s life, building an uncrossable bridge between “me myself” – who stays still – and “those images” – from afar, with which I have nothing to do. This is a quite common way of operating among us, film critics, who so seldom show any willingness to be impacted by movies that deal with sex outside of the clichéd approach of art house films. This film only works if we, the audience, acknowledge our active and reflective role. There is no way out.

As a footnote I bring back a quick comment on Facebook made by Dana Linssen, editor-in-chief of the Dutch film criticism magazine de Filmkrant: “I wonder if ‘boring’ is just a critic’s defense mechanism, rationalization or smoke screen for not engaging with the (a) film. How many critics have found Nymphomaniac or 50 Shades of Grey ‘boring’? Is it like laughing about the terror in horror films? What would have happened if a critic admitted (not) being aroused? Could that have been part of a critical analysis/discourse?”.

What impelled Linssen’s speculation was a general reaction from the critics to Gaspar Noé’s Love. Aside from one’s particular regard for the film (I particularly dislike it), what’s important from this point of view is what happens at this side of the equation, the side of spectatorship. Prison System 4614 made me strongly question my role as a spectator as well as investigate my own mechanisms of alienation. What lies hidden behind the arbitrary words (usually, adjectives) with which we critics recuse ourselves from having to accept any engagement with a film. If sex in general has numerous layers of repression, fetishes like these approached by Soldat’s film unavoidably trigger social judgment.

To look at the “Other” in the film is to look at ourselves. It seems to me that to cause a reflective awareness is one of the aspirations of Soldat’s unblinking directness. We sense this from the very first shot, filmed at a medium distance, registering a waterboarding, in which the master plays his role as the inflicter of pain and, in the middle of his act, acknowledges the presence of the camera from the corner of his eye, admitting that he’s acting for an observer.

That corner-of-the-eye glance summarizes the whole spirit of the film, for it conveys right to the surface the inevitable question: what about you, dear spectator, how are you implied in this interaction?

*Heitor Augusto is a film critic, researcher, lecturer and journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. He can be reached at [email protected] or @ursodelata on Twitter.

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