TV Reviews of Dunblane: Remembering Our Children and Modern Times

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The Independent Culture
Dunblane: Remembering Our Children (ITV) opened with the critical equivalent of a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. A white title on silent black (television's most frequently used code for solemnity) told how 16 children and their teacher had "died" a year ago. And even as you were beginning to take issue with the reticence of that word, your eye caught the end of the epigraph: "This is their film". In other words, it was an act of commemoration, and so effectively beyond criticism. What sort of person would anatomise the flower arrangements on a child's grave?

What immediately followed confirmed the sense that a dignified silence might be the only reasonable response. So even if you initially felt that these children had been removed from real life and into a realm where there were no tantrums, where every child is "full of life" and has a twinkle in their eye, it hardly seemed pertinent to note the fact. Even if you felt that the softly fogged camera was an unnecessary touch of tenderness (who really needs that conventional persuasion to sympathy?), it seemed pointless to point it out. But I only raise these first suppressed demurrals because the film as a whole proved to be far more complex and useful as an artefact of mourning than a simple spray of flowers. If it proved adept at wrenching your feelings - in particular with family snapshots and video footage - it also made you think about grief; that part of the reason it is so difficult to bear is because there are such formal expectations about how it should be acted out. It might sound odd to say it (a defensive phrase which occurred several times in the parents' interviews), but the best thing about the film was the way in which those taking part were determined to pass on what they had gained in the last dreadful year, not just how much they had lost.

"My relationship with Mick probably makes me happier than things in the past that I thought were achievements," said one man about a friendship based on shared bereavement. "We're actually a happy group," said another woman about the regular weekly meetings of parents, explaining that it was not so much people to cry with that the parents needed as people with whom they could laugh without apology or guilt. I was reluctant to weep myself - it seemed faintly impertinent as a mere bystander (or perhaps it was just a stubborness about obeying any film's orders to feel on command) - but the manner in which the parents struggled to master their own tears undid me more than once.

"Jewish Wedding", Stephen Walker's film for Modern Times (BBC2), suffered from an insurmountable structural problem - it had two natural climaxes, and by far the most interesting one was out of the way halfway through. So, after Steve had passed the vital Beth Din examination which would admit him to the Jewish faith (and thus allow him to marry Michaela), you were left only with a film you'd seen many times before - the big-do documentary, with its trite dramas of last-minute nerves and conspicuous consumption. By the time the honeymoon-suite door swung shut, you were as deflated as the bride's parents, slumped in the function room with an expectation hangover. Walker knew he was in trouble because he kept on slipping in flashbacks, to ease you through the final stretch.

It didn't help that there was no trick of comic amplification that the director was unwilling to use, from introducing his subjects as though they were characters in a satirical movie, through wide-angled distortions (a chiropodist's-eye view for several interviews), to a Hollywood Women style of fast and impertinent cutting, interrupting the subjects for sardonic cutaways and mocking details. Just in case you didn't get the point, a klezmer band chortled away manically in the background, giving you permission to laugh. Sometimes, it's true, people do look like caricatures of the groups to which they belong. Sometimes they knowingly fill in the caricature themselves. But a better film would have let you make your own mind up, and allowed for the fact that even human cartoons can have real feelings.

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