One of the more interesting stylistic trends in recent genre history has been the popularity of films composed of footage supposedly shot by the characters themselves.
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This trend for ‘camcorder footage’ began with Avalos and Weller’s The Last Broadcast (1998), but it really took off in the wake of Myrick and Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), a film whose influence continues to be seen today in works like The Zombie Diaries, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield. This trend towards the use of camcorder and ‘found’ footage draws from two separate cultural strands.
Firstly, the use of supposedly found footage taps into a tradition, stretching back at least as far as Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), of making horror films that purport to be documentaries or composed of real footage. This tradition, itself a spin on the idea that a horror film might be based on real-life events, places a premium on realism and naturalism. These are not just horrific and terrifying events, they are horrific and terrifying events that really happened. The marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project drew particularly deeply from this tradition by trailing the film using faux-documentaries about the ‘Blair witch’ myth.
Secondly, these films draw upon the audience’s increasing familiarity with other people’s home movies. TV programmes such as You’ve Been Framed introduced people to the aesthetics of the form: the shaky camerawork, the booming voice of the camera operator, the loss of focus, the bad lighting, the bad film quality, the sudden zipping movements of the camera, and so on. We are used to accepting these videos as real and so films that ape their stylistic quirks feel much more real to us than more competently and cinematically filmed works. With the explosion in digital photography and the popularity of You Tube, camcorder footage is now part of the way in which we see ourselves and our surroundings.
Dom Rotheroe’s Exhibit A – winner of a 2007 Raindance festival jury prize for best UK feature – draws upon both of these sets of associations by presenting itself as a collection of footage found by police at the scene of a murder. A screen of text informing us of this is the first thing we see: now we know that there will be a murder. The clock is ticking.
Exhibit A tells the story of the King family. Purchased to replace some other machine, the camcorder is adopted by teenaged daughter Judith who uses the camera to stalk the pretty neighbour while she tries to understand her own homosexual feelings and lusts. Judith (Brittany Ashworth) also uses the camera to film her family, painting an initial picture of a happy and loving bunch of people who are just about to move to a larger house as soon as dad Andy’s (Bradley Cole) promotion comes through. But it never does.
Exhibit A’s strength lies in its commitment to the mundane. Throughout the first act we are gently introduced to the family, the personalities and the various tensions that bubble away under the surface. In one brilliant scene, Andy and the kids burst into the master bedroom with a tray of breakfast. The camera picks up a low buzzing sound from beneath the covers and mum Sheila (Angela Forrest) scrambles to hide something whilst muttering about getting caught up in the duvet.
These little moments suggest that, while things may appear happy in the King household, something is not quite right. The fulcrum of this wrongness is Andy. A big doltish red-headed man forever quoting catchphrases from 1970s’ comedians, Andy is utterly devoted to maintaining the illusion of happiness that hangs over his family. When the expected promotion does not turn up, he refuses to tell his family and instead starts making a series of bad decisions that take the family’s finances from bad to worse. Pay particular attention to the symbolism of the ever deepening backyard pool and its tendency to serve as a touchstone for bigger arguments, particularly Andy’s increasingly aggressive and desperate attempts to fake a hilariously caught-on-camera accident that he might sell to a TV programme.
Because Andy and his family are so likeable and because the camcorder here is capturing not supernatural events but mundane ones, Exhibit A is gruellingly realistic. In fact, a number of times, events on screen were a little too much even for a veteran doom-and-gloom fan like myself. Exhibit A is heartbreaking, uncomfortable viewing.
What makes Exhibit A so effective is Rotherhoe’s superb grasp of not only the stylistic quirks of camcorder-based films, but also his acute awareness of the place that camcorder footage now occupies in our culture. For example, throughout the film, at moments of great emotional turmoil, the film will jolt back to footage of the family on the beach. The more miserable the family become, the more often the camera glitches drag us back to that moment of happiness. This is a technique that also pops up in Cloverfield but rather than serving to fill in backstory, the apparent glitches serve as an emotional touchstone, a constant reminder of what the family could have been if all had gone well.
Also interesting is the way that, when Andy’s lies are uncovered, he turns to the camera as the instrument of his deliverance. Just as the forces of law and order turn to CCTV footage to solve their problems and self-serving reality TV producers urge the public to share their problems with the world, Andy believes that as long as everything is brought out into the open then the healing can begin. But obviously this is not always true, when Andy outs his daughter and claims that he understands her, Judith angrily responds that if she does not understand herself then how can he possibly hope to understand?
Exhibit A is a brilliantly made and brilliantly acted piece of British independent filmmaking. It not only provides blisteringly powerful human drama, it also comments insightfully upon the ever-growing belief that emotional openness and surveillance can solve complex social and psychological problems. The DVD received contained no extras, which is something of a pity.