CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 19 . . . . May 26, 2006
"What do you do with a secret that is not yours?"
This question is posed at the start of Truth and Betrayal. The film begins with a teenage boy, later identified as James, walking at night along a street, his lip bleeding. Violent images in his thoughts are presented surrealistically: a girl struggling in a man's embrace, a police raid, a young woman in a bathrobe wandering outdoors at night. The words "One Year Earlier" appear on the screen. Then, images of the present, the recent past, and a year ago shift rapidly, with James' often-blurred, oddly-lit face the only reference point for the viewer. Experiments with chronology and lighting and the mingling of nightmare images with actual memories leave the viewer struggling to grasp the story line and distinguish the main characters from those in a supporting role.
Do such techniques engage young viewers? In a classroom setting, for which Truth and Betrayal is intended, a flick of the remote would not be an option.
The plot consists of two stories involving James. When swimming with his girlfriend, Nikki, he notices bruises on her upper arm, and when she says that her father, Len, did it, James asks, with gestures rather than words, if he has been doing anything else to her. First Nikki says no, then she burst into tears and begs James not to tell his mother or anyone. The lovely red-haired girl declines James' offer to move in with him and rejects his advice to "turn the pervert in.” She will be 18 in June, she says, and will leave then; in the meantime, she doesn't want to be kicked out of her home.
The other plot involves James' best friend Rick who has been invited by three young men of African descent to join them in robbing a video store. Later, they decide to exclude Rick because the owner of the store is a family friend of his. The police arrive during the robbery, and we see Rick waiting beneath a cross in a hospital corridor while an African-Canadian police officer embraces some family members of the youth who got shot. Later, in what may be the recent past or the present, we see James beside a young man in a wheelchair. "We probably should have had this conversation before," he says. "I told you not to go, so I'm not going to feel guilty for setting you up."
Back to the other plot: James happens to be going past Nikki's place when her father, Len, comes home after dark night for something (cigarettes?), finds Nikki in the bathroom and forces himself upon her. When James arrives, Nikki has escaped in her bathrobe. James attacks Len who knocks him down and leaves. James picks himself up and follows Len to a convenience store where he locates a stick as thick as a baseball bat, and he waits for Len to emerge. Then he hears his name called. He turns, and there are two men of African descent - the one in the wheelchair, the other, the police officer. Are they actually present, or are they figments of his imagination? "James, what are you doing?" they ask. The end.
Truth and Betrayal is intended for class discussion in courses on conflict resolution, health and personal development and social studies. British Columbia Housing Management is thanked in the credits, so, presumably, the setting is a BC public housing project. The movie is aimed at youth at risk, and, in fact, presents a universal human dilemma: how far out on a limb should you go, for a loved one or for the good of the community?
Unfortunately, the artiness of this film detracts from its larger purpose. Before we can discuss what James should or should not have done, we must first have a firm handle on what took place. After viewing Truth and Betrayal twice to get the plot reasonably clear in my mind, I wondered if I was losing my wits and was no longer capable of processing anything that wasn't linear and chronological. Yet recently I comprehended without difficulty a Robert de Niro gangster movie, Once Upon a Time in America, with many characters and time shifts. The Hours hopped around in time, but I grasped it and enjoyed it, too. Also, I just finished Frank McCourt's latest memoir, Teacher Man, in which he shifts back and forth in time, with himself as the main reference point.
No, I'm not losing my marbles, judging from what I read in the user guide on the inside cover. "This is a complex film," the instructions for teachers advise, "so be sure to review the story line with students. They may benefit from seeing it again. You may need to clarify that James is the same person in both stories."
To be chronological or not to be? It's a concern for all storytellers, whether they write a story, a novel or a film. Virginia Woolf once wrote that reality is not a series of 'gig lamps' (street lights) proceeding at regular intervals towards a vanishing point, but is like standing under a light, or in the rain, with a great many beams, or droplets, impinging upon you all at once. These impinging impressions may be from yesterday, today or long ago. An experimental novel or movie attempts to take a reader or viewer through an experience, rather than tell him or her about it.
That being said, storytellers in all genres should realize that you won't engage an audience by making viewers or readers feel stupid. Reference points are needed. Weird camera angles and odd green and red lighting hinder character recognition. In her cinematic novels (Mrs. Dalloway for instance), Woolf employed an easily-graspable verbal pattern as a signal toreaders that she was about to shift the point of view or the time.
What do you do with an artistic experiment that is not yours? Praise its worthy intentions, or say frankly that it doesn't work?
In Ottawa, ON, Ruth Latta works sporadically on a screen play based on her 2004 novel, Tea With Delilah. Her latest novel, The Secret of White Birch Road, was published in 2005 by Baico Publishing, Gatineau, QC.
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