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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

TIM PORTER’S ‘JOSHUA’ (2012) ~ Cyrus Trafford and Nancy Orchis-Evans face a "A RAGING STORM BEFORE A DREADFUL CALM”. . .

*This review contains plot spoilers - read after watching: JOSHUA*

JOSHUA (2012) is a short film that started life as part of a planned two-feature project called THE EILEEN CHRONICLES (the next film to be called, simply - EILEEN and show the other side of the story; from the point of view of the young girl involved rather than the man who commits the most dreadful of crimes on display here). It's a work of huge style and substance from Tim Porter, one of the most exciting and determined of young British filmmakers.
You're probably not supposed to 'enjoy' this film as such; it's looking more to force an emotional response (although the work is unashamedly cinematic and while serious in intent, is clearly influenced by the horror genre at times). ‘Joshua’ isn’t a film that’s supposed to make any kind of viewing experience an easy task. There’s no clearly signposted knee-jerk reaction to grab hold of. You make of this film what you will – for me, I was lured in by a general sense of unease and by the end; I mostly wanted at least some of this unease to be gone. Just watching this movie stains you with a sense of guilt.
Tim, who makes films under his own leftfield production company - Pushing Buttons, launched this new film in October 2012 with advance warnings about disturbing scenes and preparing yourself for what you are about to see. This is a man who clearly knows how to publicise his own work and earn a reaction, but he wasn’t joking. It’s entirely appropriate to describe this film as 'disturbing'. This isn’t due to explicit content as such: the movie shocks quietly, disturbs through script, sights and sounds. At the UK premier of JOSHUA, the screening gallery was made up to resemble a few of the most memorable sets from the movie complete with Tim himself walking around dressed in blood-stained overalls and mask - not revealing his identity until halfway through the Q&A straight after the screening; a playful, bold artistic vision for a low budget independent movie and a warning that Tim Porter is a director who doesn’t let up or pause for breath in the promotion of his work. This is event cinema; whether you like it or not!

The horror of JOSHUA is more subversive and creeping than sudden jolt scary. It’s an awfully focused and quietly unhinged vision of real evil on display here, focusing far too clearly for comfort on a character that oozes ‘paedophilic predator’ as a badge of conduct in his modus operandi. This man's actions are never explicitly shown - but his way of life is explicitly distressing to watch and become a part of.
Earlier this year, I followed the progress of the young and upcoming director, writer and star of a new film project called JUGGLING and chronicled the process (and various trials, walkouts, accusations, headaches and random mood swings) of making a short film in a review for Seat at the Back called ‘SHORTSHOCK’. The man being followed was, of course, Tim Porter, working then on his first major short film. JUGGLING was a unique experience especially in the way the film reflected Tim’s own obsessions with anxiety, especially separation anxiety – and became, you couldn’t help believing; something of a personal exorcism for the filmmaker who revealed (in an interview mid-shoot) that the work was semi-autobiographical, but still wanted to make clear; not entirely!
Clocking in at a breezy 15 minutes, JOSHUA follows the shadowy figure of a London-based, Irish-born, job-to-job, cash-in-hand drifter – the ‘Joshua’ of the title, played by Cyrus Trafford in a hulking, lean-predatory performance of utter sadness and complete immersion in deadly, desperate, deviant obsession. Trafford has said that he deliberately didn’t talk to other cast members during the shoot and only met the young girl playing Eileen on the moment their scene together came up. We don’t get to see Joshua’s face until the end of the film; until that point we have only a black hat and shadows in mirrors and windows to suggest hints of the man behind the mask of normality. There is also a lot of focus on the tattoo of a scorpion on his back – a traditional symbol of protection from evil.
Joshua spends the odd day in a week working at godforsaken places such as the demolition site where we see him shovelling crap into skips and watching landfill dust rise up and breeze across the skyline. On other days, when there is no work, he sits at home watching kids TV - focusing on the shows intently and the young girls who feature in them.
Of course, this new film comes out at a time when the media is filled with awful stories of child neglect, abuse and abduction. It’s hard not to feel especially upset at the themes being explored as a result. While the film is horrific, it’s not exploitative. In many ways, JOSHUA is a film that has some importance into delving into the minds of those who commit such crimes – and why. For Joshua himself, his life is one big obsession and it’s a life shot and lived in black and white until the colour arrives with the acted-upon horror or the brightening of a day upon sighting a pretty girl at the park (in this case – Eileen, played here with either quiet resentment or utter resignation, it’s rather brilliantly hard to tell which, by the superb 7-year-old; Nancy Orchis-Evans).

Headshot by Claire Grogan/ 2012
Tim Porter on working with Nancy:
"What's interesting is that this is the first time I've ever worked with children and in fact it was a filmmaker who'd worked with Nancy who got in touch with me and put her up for this project. I'd spoken with her mum and she read the script and showed it to Nancy. They both liked the film and surprisingly Nancy is already watching some great horror classics so I think she was jumping for joy with this one!
"What's interesting is that when we did the darker takes, and we only had Nancy for one day out of a three day shoot, when we'd roll, she was utterly serious but the moment we cut - she was the happiest girl you could ever come across and made the set so much more energetic and lovely to be around. For example, there's a thing that me and Nancy keep doing in public that confuses people - we do a kind of smacking thing with our hands, a clapping them together that was instead of a clapperboard and we named it 'the crocodile' - "oh no, not that crocodile again"!
"The only disturbing shot she did was in the McDonald's and that was the first time we realised how disturbing this film was. *Note: this sequence has Eileen menaced by her two captors in a busy restaurant while all the other diners and families seem oblivious to her situation - at one point, Joshua massages the girl's knee; the moment we realise something dreadful is happening here.*
"I was in an awful position because - while her mum was watching it all with us - so she was 100% with what we were doing - I had to wait to know when to cut and when I thought it was right to cut and one of these takes went on for 4 or 5 minutes. It's hard to put yourself in that position - even though you know it's only acting it's still difficult to do. But she wasn't affected in any way, in fact she gave me this business card that her mum said she only gives out to people that she likes and wants to work with again. Nancy came down to the premier and was very proud of the film, so it was great working with her."
The sudden surges into colour throughout JOSHUA are especially effective against the rest of the movie's black and white canvas of sterility and hopelessness. Clearly it’s Eileen who gives Joshua hope and vitality. It’s a false hope and vitality; leading to a furtive and pathetic state of mind, where consequences are always playing 'catch-up'. There’s a certainty that eventually they will catch up. Punishment for Joshua’s crimes - even if not resolved by the end of this short film - seem aching to be fully realised the next time we return to this lonely North London location and the world as seen through the eyes of young Eileen.

There’s an especially effective moment in this film in the park location, where Joshua’s friend Paul is calling over to a couple of young women fooling around – as adults often do – on some of the children’s playground equipment, probably on their way home from work. Paul shouts over, asking the girls whether they want to ‘go for a drink’ and Joshua gets up, looks over in the same direction and the two women walk out of shot. But Joshua’s gaze remains focused straight ahead at the playground – at a young girl in the distance playing on the swings. Haunting dialogue follows:

Paul: “The Irish charm - use it, use it.”
Joshua: “Do you fancy a drink? (Pause) Orange, c’mon.”

It’s an awful moment of reveal. As good as any kind of horror movie moment when a serial killer comes down into a cellar dressed as his dead mother or something. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s a uniquely chilling scene.

Best friend Paul is a character who confuses; on the one hand he’s laddish and aggressive and the next he’s sickly supporting his pal’s (and probably his own) perversions. By the close of the movie he almost appears to have a relationship with Joshua that may go beyond friendship, although this may not be the case at all; maybe it’s just a new bond that’s been created; born of a bad thing they’ve done.
“It changes things, makes it more real” says Joshua after we see blood on his hands; referring to his relationship with the young girl, Eileen. An unobtainable mutual relationship then but a link that can be forged in kind, by Joshua, through a terrible crime – it’s an awful thought, but it hits home with possible brutal authenticity as to why such crimes may have motivation for some.

The role of Joshua’s best friend Paul is played by Christian Okoli and it’s a delicately subdued portrayal. It’s especially creepy and difficult to guess at the motivation of this character - at least out loud. Such motivation is probably deliberately uncertain but this determined ‘normality’ (so clearly stamped by an overly cheeky-chappy performance in public, contrasted with a subdued, quiet and brooding demeanour when safe at home) – makes the flesh cringe.

There are more similar shocks, similar to the scene in the park, to come - quiet, understated shocks; well thought out and also fairly awful to witness. Small things you notice take on significance in this film: Joshua reclaiming children’s plastic toys from the rubbish site he works at, then using these as ‘bait’ outside a local school. Or the moment in the car when the two men in the front seats talk about what DVD they are going to rent, before you realise they are talking to an unseen child on the back seat (you have to watch the film a few times to realise many of these pockets of shame).

Then, worst of all; the sequence in a local McDonald’s (a thanks is given to McDonald’s in Plumstead in the end credits!) where the young girl sits perched alone on a seat at a table in front of her two huge-framed, imposing (but uncomfortable looking) abductors (their backs turned to us, almost in shame) and looks from side to side (wondering if she can get away perhaps) before doing as she is told and clearing away the table: the two men watch her every move, almost victoriously.

The moment that really drags the film into real horror territory though is the sudden glimpse (in slowly developing full colour from a black and white start until it’s almost achingly vibrant - like a TV with the colour control turned up too high) of a bloody item unexpectedly chucked into a toilet in close-up. This is the moment we realise there's no happy ending to come.
The stark, living-and-breathing look of the film, from Director of Photography Jonathan Maguire, is as much a willing conspirator in the dreadful deeds on display in JOSHUA as anything (or anyone) else. In the McDonald’s scene (where the muted tones of the restaurant’s zebra-like furnishings and of the drab two men are offset by the more colourful clothing worn on the little girl they sit facing - the colours on her clothing bleeding through into shot as if through a black and white wound), Eileen is clearly the only focus of the two men - and the camera’s only focus. More chillingly – she is also at this point, our only focus too.
The horror in JOSHUA comes complete with a real-life, normal-on-the-outside, suburban bogeyman. There’s no need for a hockey mask here as the stalker’s tall, black, wide-brimmed hat is a point of reference, and serves as a mask in kind until the end reveal. The face eventually reflected suddenly in the mirror, any mask or pretence now abandoned – shows a man hardly able to look himself in the eye before breaking down into absolute hysteria. The deed – whatever the deed is – has been done.

Tim Porter on that hat:
"One of the reasons we chose the hat, and the beard as well, is that it's almost like a protection barrier, as if he's hiding under multiple layers - he's withholding his identity effectively and we are not connecting with him at all, which is the film's goal. You understand the guy, and know where he works - but you don't connect with him. In many films, the first shot you often see is an establishing one of the character and I wanted to subvert that and do something completely the opposite - almost like you'll get that kind of shot at the end of the film instead of the beginning, so that it's harder for you to connect with the character. It makes perfect sense with the rest of the material in the film for it to be that way."

Another scene in this film that remains especially affecting is the one where young Eileen goes down a slide as if pulled at the ankles, shot from above - but when the camera rears up and switches to a longshot, there is only the girl blankly looking up; an eerily disheartening point of view (and presumably the point of abduction). The shadowy world of Joshua’s predatory stalking and watching (often shown in subtle ways such as the glimpse in the distance of a family with young children seen from a bus, we suddenly realise that Joshua’s head at this point is turned in their direction; his gaze eerily set and focused) is one that you could hardly guess at, most of the time.

The sound mixing throughout the movie is inspired, with sound editor Robbie Derrick juggling on the one hand some muffled near-silence (that allows for a moment of pin-droppingly haunting reflection) and on the other; a kind of mental breakdown of garbled sound that you might expect a radio tuner dial on random spin to come up with. The sound mix is especially striking when balancing, for instance, a voiceover from Joshua about 'imperfections to beauty' - here of a young pretty girl picking her nose (although it turns out I'm wrong about this one - see Tim Porter's rather shocking explanation of his metaphor below!) with audio (of a presenter, children shouting and various 'funny' sounds) from a kid's TV show. There’s also some playfulness in the sudden numbing of volume as Joshua walks past a road bridge, as if his mind is suddenly in some dislocated place in the build-up to the abduction of the girl, before quickly returning to the more familiar busy London street kind of sounds.

Tim Porter on the 'picking your nose' monologue:
"I wanted to make something almost subliminal, something that if you watched 3 or 4 times you could pick up different things within it, so - there's a metaphor within the film about picking a nose, but it's not actually talking about Eileen picking her nose, it's actually talking about himself fondling young girls, effectively the nasal cavity is a very specific image and refers to his addictive behaviour - not knowing how many times he's done this."

The film’s soundtrack from Simon Porter and Moa Pillar is suitably, and quite chillingly, evocative of childhood - all nursery-like and full of childish piano plinking and plonking and the occasional flourish into something more vibrant and excited (presumably reflecting Joshua’s bursts of energy when out prowling) over the end credits.

Nancy Orchis-Evans as Eileen is the film’s real star of course – and who would dare say otherwise! Hugely charismatic and endearing (perhaps worryingly so – making the rest of the film more upsetting as a result); it’s a genuine standout, confident performance from such a young actress. I’m not exactly sure what Eileen is feeling at times, but I certainly felt sickened and increasingly panicky as soon as this trapped little girl starts looking (with increasing agitation)  all around her while sitting quietly between two eerily passive abductors in the McDonald’s restaurant scene; gradually realising that all she wants to do now is go home (while still trusting, in a way; as a last chance - the people she is with).

Already known for her work in short films and adverts and with roles in two upcoming British independent horror movies: ANY MINUTE NOW (2013) and WITCH (2015),  Nancy is the very definition of cinematic child prodigy - she's written her own film scripts, recorded her own songs and seems to have a preference for more fantastical, quirky work, all at the age of just seven. On-set photos during the shooting of JOSHUA show director and cast having fun with their young star - making those crocodile shapes Tim talked about earlier and everyone involved doing their best to lighten the mood. It clearly worked as you can probably tell from the picture below, taken at a first screening of the film and showing Nancy sharing a joke with cast and crew!
One thing that JOSHUA does best, perhaps (in a subtle, stark way) is explore the dangers and consequences of predatory behaviour. Director and writer Tim Porter gets to look up close at the way such dangerous individuals can operate; not as  clearly-defined monsters, but as real people with veneers of varying degrees of respectability protecting them in a day-to-day world. The decay inside only revealed when that outer shell splits open and an unspeakable act occurs.
Tim Porter on the serious themes in 'Joshua' and how the film was affected by recent stories in the media:
"Well, on the back of this film there's been the terrible incident in Wales [April Jones murder]and now the Jimmy Savile cases that are in the media. Obviously while we were making this, we didn't know those events were going to happen and my intentions with the film were to show a normalising of evil among people within society - you don't know who is normal and who isn't. There's the whole idea of 'what is normal anymore' and I wanted to play with that, I wanted to have a HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and MAN BITES DOG vibe to this movie, almost as if we aren't sure if someone is following Joshua or if a camera just happened to be filming this situation - so it's great there's no explanation for all that. I did want this film to be taken seriously although the genesis of the project is that I never set out to direct anything of this magnitude.
"I'm terrified by the subject (of child abuse) and I guess that's why I've reverted to this theme for my first proper film. I want serious horror. I don't want gore. I want something that connects with the audience, that transcends the genre and does something new and interesting with it.
"I was a great lover, an advocate, of A SERBIAN FILM (a film that was cut of almost 4 minutes in 2010 by the BBFC for 'portrayals of children in an abusive context and images of sexualised violence') but while I support that film, I can also understand why there was so much controversy - because they went the full force even though they didn't show that much. I felt that - for us to be taken seriously on JOSHUA, we had to do this in a completely controlled way, because otherwise it could have veered off into a terrifying direction that's just gratuitous.

"I believe that men are fragile creatures effectively and beneath the skin there's still a child. No one ever really grows up and - it's the same for women as well - when they get older, there's still a child within them that wants to be young, but monotony and day to day routine emotionally drains them and kills that free spirit which children have. I think a lot of people battle with that idea in later years and I thought this was an important theme to explore as well.
"Regarding the recent headlines in the press and whether they affected the screenings of the film - interestingly the screening went down very well as we kept a lot of secrecy around it. Even when we made the trailer we made sure no one knew what the film was about so they could go in with an open mind. I hate sensationalistic kind of headlines where you instantly get that stereotype of 'the person that did that, they're a monster' but I always think personally, for me - they're normal people that just do horrible things and effectively nobody is truly evil. Nobody is born evil, you can only become evil through certain situations. I'm so happy that people who have seen the film have had an open mind - you can take away whatever you want from it and it's your right, your opinion."
While I personally appreciate JOSHUA as a film showing some certain restraint for such a difficult and topical subject, and without meaning to negate that energy in any way - I also hope (if only for personal comfort) that the little girl here gets to fight back, escape or get some kind of revenge in the planned follow-up film - EILEEN, even though, it’s clear by the end of this film that she has almost certainly met a tragic end. I expect, whatever the next film brings, we will be surprised at the developments - and they will be entirely unexpected.
Tim Porter on the follow-up movie to JOSHUA:
"EILEEN will be a feature film, not a short. It has the exact same storyline - but it does alter radically from the first one. The film will start the same but the perspective will change to that of Eileen's and then link from when she's seven to fourteen. I can't say more than that as this point - but it's not what you might expect!" Tim also tells me to watch for the moment in the follow-up for the point where the two men open the disposal bin (already glimpsed in JOSHUA) as this is the moment the film moves in an unexpected direction.
Director Tim Porter on location for JOSHUA

Tim Porter's JOSHUA, then, is a short film of undoubted skill, vision and passion. It's upsetting of theme (and execution of this theme) and has a timely release at a boiling point in the media's reporting of the historic abuse crimes (crimes that turned out to be in their hundreds) of BBC TV presenter, DJ and charity fundraiser Jimmy Savile - a man once so respected and trusted (and probably feared) by so many of those in positions of authority that his crimes went unhalted.
This is a film that determinedly takes a serious stance on an often sensationalised subject without losing any of the authentic edginess that its director is becoming known for. It’s important that we are sometimes confronted by subversive, serious cinema and this film dabbles in transgressive filmmaking effortlessly - presenting us with a bitingly modern British urban horror full of Russian Doll-like unsavoury surprises. Although still a fledgling director with just a few short films to his name, Tim Porter is quickly laying down his very own brand of cinematic anxiety attack. I like to think it's only going to get worse.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

All pictures are © Pushing Buttons/ Tim Porter/ 2012

Except: 'Headshot of Nancy Boo Orchis-Evans'
© Claire Grogan/ 2012

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