Dir: Jake Mahaffy. USA 2004. 84 mins.
Virtually a one-man labour of love, Jake Mahaffy's War is one of those works that French critics sometimes term a 'UFO' - a film that comes out of nowhere, or comes direct and unmediated from its director's unconscious. Working over four years without no crew and no sound, Mahaffy shot the film himself on a hand-cranked camera - accounting for some evocative flickers and variations of light and speed - then added a dense soundtrack of voice-overs, background noise and cacophonous radio. A film in the true American primitive tradition, War will certainly make its mark on the festival circuit, but will be tough to place commercially, except among distributors committed to the adventurous and outre. It comes to the Homefront USA section at Rotterdam after also playing the Frontier sidebar at Sundance.
The action unfolds in a rural landscape in Pennsylvania. The film starts with a dilapidated house collapsing, and Samuel (Bertch), a young boy in makeshift protective gear, telling us in voice-over, "This is all that's left' This is the world after the end of the world." We never know whether we are literally seeing a post-apocalypse landscape, a more metaphorical expression of the contemporary state of agricultural America, or possibly a representation of the boy's inner world. At any rate, this world appears to function relatively normally: trains still run, radios still broadcast (mainly ranting evangelists), and the local diner is apparently still serving.
At first, little happens: portly pastor Jack Masters (Clark) sits in his car and muses about his favourite all-you-can-eat buffet, Samuel's farmer father Jacob Jenkins (Yurick) inspects his fenceposts, and Hanky, a bald junkman (Paul Mahaffy) adjusts a strange cobbled-together network of pump machinery and inveighs against the local frog population. About an hour in, the pastor runs over Samuel's dog, then presides over its impromptu funeral, and the film with a dazzling tableau of conflagration.
For the most part, War could justifiably be described as a bunch of people (and animals) trudging around an inhospitable landscape in bad weather: inconsistently bad weather, at that, since Mahaffy's informal shooting schedule means that we often slip from autumn to snow-covered winter and back in the course of a single sequence. War is a figures-in-a-landscape film par excellence, and the handful of people we meet truly are figures rather than characters in the proper sense. Voice-overs, often tinged with surreal black humour, supposedly take us into their heads, but in practice the overdubbing keeps us unsettlingly detached from them, a discrepancy contributing to the film's distinctively alien feel. A complex sound design - an elemental storm of radio and other background effects - adds to the extreme sensory vividness.
The film entirely creates its own world, but the closest recent comparisons might be with Damien Odoul's similarly low-budget rural nightmare Le Souffle and with the sombre works of Hungary's Bela Tarr. Even at 84 minutes, War feels slightly over-stretched, with not enough variation of tone to keep the viewer hooked, but at its most powerful, it creates a mood and a set of images guaranteed to haunt the viewer. Ragged as it is, this may well be the most primally odd US debut since Eraserhead.
Producer/int'l sales/screenplay/cinematography/editor: Jake Mahaffy
Sound: Jake Mahaffy, Will Weatherby
Main cast: Paul Mahaffy, Jef Clark, Andy Yurick, Dustin Bertch