Death in the streets, homes, parks and factories of Belfast. Alan Clarke’s drama – without character or narrative and shot in documentary style – is a shockingly frank depiction of the futility of sectarian murder.
Elephant is without question Alan Clarke’s bleakest film. Essentially a compilation of eighteen murders on the streets of Belfast, without explanatory narrative or characterisation and shot in a cold, dispassionate documentary style, the film succinctly captures the horror of sectarian killing.
The lack of narrative removes any scope for justification of the killings on religious, political or any other grounds and the matter-of-factness of Clarke’s approach debases the often-heroic portrayal – by all sides – of the individuals involved in sectarian murder. Moreover, Clarke’s use of a Steadicam to follow the killers before and during the murders casts the viewer as at best a willing voyeur, at worst an accomplice. After each killing, the camera dwells on the bodies slumped on floors or draped over desks for longer than is comfortable, forcing the viewer to confront the brutality of their deaths.
Filmed on location in Belfast and produced by future director Danny Boyle, Elephant was one of only two of the more than fifty dramas that Clarke directed which he is also credited with writing. The title comes from a quote by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty who described the Troubles as like having an elephant in your living room, getting in the way of everything – but after a while you learn to live with it. —BFI screenonline
Alan Clarke (28 October 1935 – 24 July 1990) was a television and film director, producer and writer, born in Wallasey, Cheshire, England.
Most of Clarke’s output was for television rather than cinema, including work for the famous play strands The Wednesday Play and Play for Today. His subject matter tended towards social realism, especially with respect to deprived or oppressed communities.
As Rolinson’s book on Clarke details, between 1962 and 1966 Clarke directed several plays at The Questors Theatre in Ealing, London. Between 1967 and 1969 he directed various ITV productions including plays by Alun Owen (Shelter, George’s Room, Stella, Thief, Gareth), Edna O’Brien (Which Of These Two Ladies Is He Married To? and Nothing’s Ever Over) and Roy Minton (The Gentleman Caller, Goodnight Albert, Stand By Your Screen). He also worked on the series The Informer, The Gold Robbers and A Man Of Our Times (but not, as Sight and Sound once claimed, Big Breadwinner Hog). Clarke continued… read more
By tracking the shooters and leaving us just a few seconds with the dead victims the film creates a point of view more on the side of the killers than on the side of the victims. It all may come from the desire to represent the brute impact of death, but death itself is irrepresentable. To try and film it in a "neutral" way is to be omissive, is to be unethical, is to also commit an act of violence.
This film was needed. Enough of glorifying murder and shootouts, this is the reality.
Vanessa Nica Mueller made a documentary short last year called Traces of an Elephant in which she interviews people about this film and changes that have been made to Belfast. Pretty interesting film which also won a price at Oberhausen Film Festival.