A Terrorist in Our Midst

day_night.jpgA young woman is riding on a bus, and you can’t see her face. But you hear her mumbling about death, all sorts of death (she mentions “lung cancer… smoking …some get bitten by dogs”). She seems disturbed, and yet her words also appear as a kind of mantra or prayer. When she descends from the bus in an anonymous station, we don’t see her face for a while, just her back, her long baggy skirt, her sneakers, her denim shirt, her black straight hair. When we finally see her face, it is a relief—she is pretty—but also a puzzle—those deep-set, haunted eyes, the sense of alonEness. She is clearly going somewhere, but at the same time appears lost. She is on a mission, which we discover over time to be that of a suicide bomber, the kind that stands alone and blows herself up in a busy public place. The chosen place in this film is Times Square.

The truth is, I found the film Day Night Day Night both compelling and tedious as I watched it. By the end, it seemed too long and too mysterious. Since it’s only 94 minutes in length, that’s a problem. But the mystery which leaves one aggravated moments after the conclusion (apparently thinking I looked like someone who might have the answer, one angry woman accosted me in the loo: “What did it mean?”), served to keep it in my consciousness, and I found my thoughts returning to it during the following days. I wanted to discuss it with someone, untangle it, question its premise, but also simply re-experience the unsettling experience, perhaps even wallow in its in-your-face physicality.

Style is as much an issue as content in this film written and directed by Julia Loktev. The camera work is often very tight, with many long, lingering close-ups of the unnamed protagonist’s face, tight shots of her washing her face, brushing her teeth, hand-washing her clothes in the sink – all accompanied only by the loud sounds of these ordinary activities. There is no music soundtrack. It is cinema verite, the grandchild of Warhol’s early films such as Empire State Building. Put on the camera and let it roll.

The storyline follows the two days she spends near and then in New York City preparing for the terrorist moment. Filmmaker Loktev calls the two sections of the film “Preparation” and “Action,” and gives more than sufficient time to each. She teaches us the tedium of waiting for an apocalyptic moment. The process has some of the characteristics of a “dead man walking” situation – the knowledge that this character is doomed, and doomed very soon. The girl/woman, “she” (in the director’s notes), is docile for the most part, ready, for reasons never delved into, to strap herself into a heavy back pack of explosives, walk into Times Square, and detonate them.

She is played very effectively by film newcomer Luisa Williams, who answered a casting call notice she saw on a lamppost in Brooklyn while working as a nanny. Williams’s embodiment of “she”’s commitment to her mission is both child-like and eerie. Her combination of shy awkwardness and absolute determination compels the viewer to stay involved.

We don’t know her cause or why she is willing to die for it. Her trainers are men who wear black hoods on their heads and faces. They speak to her slowly and patiently and she learns their rules like a good child. In the “Preparation” part of the film, the colors are pale grays and blues, washed out like the anonymous spaces she inhabits before her second bus trip, this one into Manhattan.

Once she is headed for her target, the mood changes, and when she alights in the Port Authority area, the noise level grows, and the color tone goes Technicolor. Even her outfit is different from how she arrived. Now she wears a bright turquoise jacket and jeans. She is joining the crowded stream of humanity drawn to the bright lights of Times Square. She has a fake ID and only a little cash. The clock is ticking. But before the final moment, she’s hungry. She buys herself a couple of large pretzels with mustard—the touch of the little girl, the tourist. A couple even asks her to take their picture and she starts to do it, then balks and hands them back their camera.

This long scene of movement towards target, with its delays, its side trips, its snacks, attempted pick up, phone calls, etc. has the power of its dangerous immediacy. We are there, we are with her, we understand that minutes mean more than usual as day moves on towards night. She has a hand remote to detonate the bomb. She’s been taught how to use it. So the question becomes when she will use it. When she buys a candy apple, the vendor says, “Have a nice day,” and the irony sparkles as brightly as the apple.

Loktev, a New Yorker, born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1969, traces her film influences to Robert Bresson, Kurosawa, and Jacques Tati. She does succeed in taking us into the experience if not the mind of a suicide bomber. She puts us on the street in real time. She makes us feel the panicky pressure on her protagonist to act. But to what end? This is where the Warhol influence is strongest, a kind of “I do it because I do it. I show it because it is there to be shown.” Both Warhol and Loktev resist explanation. Loktev says, “Spelling out motivation would overwhelm this fragile story, pull it into a quicksand of standard debates and stereotypes. The film would become all about the why, and that’s a different story. How much why would be ‘enough’?” Certainly she has a right to this approach and may be appropriately post-modern in her vision. These days we live in a world of surfaces, and so many lies are told that sometimes no explanation is the best explanation. Bombs happen. – Victoria Sullivan

Day Night Day Night is showing in NYC at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West 3rd St.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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