|© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Russian-born filmmaker Julia Loktev garnered acclaim and won several prizes for
her debut documentary MOMENT OF IMPACT (1998), which recounted the very
personal story of her father who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by
a car. It was also a portrait of family dynamics. Loktev has applied some of the same
techniques to her first fictional feature DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT which also has
made the festival circuit (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto) where it has picked up prizes
as well. This film centers on a 19-year-old girl who arrives in New York City with the
intention of being a suicide bomber.
Loktev was inspired by reading about Chechen girls who have been recruited for this
task. One stopped to buy bananas at a market before detonating her bomb. Another
reportedly underwent training but ended up at the wrong location and wandered
around Moscow trying to find a suitable place. When she tried to engage the device,
it failed. She was caught and at her trial claimed that she had fabricated much of the
story and that the bomb did not go off because she had decided not to go through
with the plan. Using those stories as a jumping off point, Loktev concocted her film.
Her main character, referred to only as "she" in the credits (and portrayed by
newcomer Luisa Williams, a native New Yorker who was working as a nanny at the
time she auditioned for the role), is a tabula rasa. The audience is given little
information about the young woman. She is first seen with her back to the camera
and she is in a bus station. Her cell phone rings and she is given instructions and
heads out to meet her ride. After stopping for food, the girl is taken to a hotel where
she bathes in what can be construed as a ritual manner, clips her nails and sleeps.
Eventually she is called by the men who are planning the incident and this very polite
girl prepares herself for the big event.
The tension builds as she wanders around Times Square, buying various sweets
(like a candied apple) and trying to decide when and where to detonate the bomb
she is carrying in a very bright yellow backpack.
My biggest problems with the film were twofold. By deliberately withholding
information about the girl and her motives, the filmmaker cheats the audience. In the
press notes, Loktev says that her concern isn't with the why but with how the
certainty gets worn down and doubt creeps in. While that may have been her
intention, I did not see that played on screen. The only snippets about this girl that are
made known are that she traveled across the country by bus, she has a younger
brother, wears a necklace that holds some special meaning for her (she retains it
despite being told to lose anything that might help to identify her) and she claims that
her parents are dead. Whether the latter is a lie or not is something that is never
I understand that the filmmaker wants the audience to go on the journey with this
character, but by concentrating on the repetitious and mundane aspects of her last
days, the movie bogs down considerably. It isn't necessary that the audience watch
as the girl vigorously brushes her teeth in real time or clips her toenails and
fingernails. Scenes like that felt like padding to me to make what might have been a
terrific short film into a feature length movie.
There are some amusing set pieces though. Having "she" parade around in various
clothes so her comrades (who all wear ski masks) can decide what she should wear
to do the deed is blackly comic. There's also a bit with the men shooting her suicide
video with changeable backgrounds, various garments and a machine gun.
Because Williams is a novice, she doesn't completely know how to project the
various range of emotions that the role calls for. She starts off meek, all polite and
almost masochistic, but as the film progresses she doesn't alter that much -- until the
last sequence. Shot on location in Times Squares, undoubtedly in guerrilla
filmmaking style, these scenes have an immediacy to them that are gripping. When
"she" cadges quarters from strangers in order to make a telephone call, one is not
certain if those stopped are actors or just real-life passers-by. At this point, Williams
rises to the challenge and allows the audience to see the scared girl beneath the
surface. Still, I did not feel terribly empathetic to her plight and by a certain point in
the movie I was hoping she would walk the few block west to the Hudson River and
jump in. (My luck she would be a champion swimmer.)
DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT has an intriguing premise but I did feel that the filmmaker
failed to deliver on her intentions.
|Luisa Williams in
DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT.
Directed by Julia Loktev,
US, 2006; 94m
Photo Credit: Benoît Debie