Just a week before the theatrical release of Afterschool, there was an item on BBC News 24 about the proposed release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from prison in Scotland, a decision that provoked very different responses on either side of the Atlantic. By and large the relatives of Lockerbie victims in the UK, doubting the correctness of the original conviction, welcomed the decision, while relatives in the USA were simply outraged at the news and violently opposed to his release. When asked to account for such a disparity of views, the correspondent rather astutely suggested that the notion of closure and the idea of justice being seen to be done is more important to Americans, regardless, it would seem, of whether the conviction was the right one or not.
That might seem like it has little to do with Afterschool, the debut feature from Antonio Campos, set in an elite East Coast American preparatory school and dealing as it does with the availability of violent and pornographic clips over the internet and their impact on young alienated teenagers under the influence of prescription and recreational drugs, but essentially the message is the same one. Rather than address the underlying issues that are raised when a violent incident occurs there, what seems to be more important to the school is to cover-up and erase any trace of scandal, wrapping it all up with a sentimental little tribute, a homily and a brief moment’s reflection to achieve “closure”, and then putting it into the past until the next time it occurs, learning no lessons from the experience. It might also explain why, even though an American film, Afterschool is being released in the UK before it has found distribution in the US.
Using what is a relatively small incident, but clearly applying it in a wider context to a particular mentality that causes wider problems for America, particularly in relation to shootings at American High Schools and even in regard to the reaction of the American government to 9/11, this would certainly seem to be the kind of material that you would normally associate with Michael Haneke. While Haneke failed utterly however to say anything meaningful about American attitudes towards screen violence in his Funny Games U.S. remake and its self-reflexive, academic, dated and ultimately inconsequential treatise on horror movies, Campos takes a much more modern and relevant viewpoint and applies it to the youth of today.
Haneke certainly comes to mind however from the very first shocking images of the film - a series of low quality clips, clearly derived from YouTube and the internet, showing among other things Saddam Hussein’s execution, violent scenes from the war in Iraq and pornographic material, which we discover are being viewed and masturbated over by a young boy Rob (Ezra Miller) on his PC from his darkened room. Rob, clearly, has problems at school, not fitting in with the other guys, his adolescent sex drive causing him to obsess over porn, while his roommate Dave (Jeremy Allen White) boasts graphically about conquests with real girls. Rob however gets close to a young girl at the college, Amy (Addison Timlin), the two of them working together on an audio-video project for one of the mandatory afterschool activities, but in his inexperience with girls Rob troublingly associates the relationship with some of the violent video clips he has been watching. Rob’s camera however, is to become witness to another equally troubling event at the school...
With this as a premise, Afterschool certainly establishes a tone that indeed sets out to provoke an extreme reaction, but unlike say, Benny’s Video – which inevitably comes to mind here (one could almost call Afterschool Benny’s Video for the YouTube generation but for the fact that it sounds like a corny tagline and kind of misses the point) – the intention is not to make a dubious moralistic point about the connection between the material being viewed and the behaviour of the youth viewing it, nor does the film attempt to apportion blame for the state of the country on the widespread and easily availability of violent imagery. Certainly the effects are pernicious on a vulnerable mind, and the camera captures the nature of the problem with cool distancing techniques (films within films, home video footage, low-res mobile phone clips), objectifying and commodifying in a manner that emphasises the sense of alienation – but what is infinitely more disturbing is the reaction of the school authorities to the tragedy that occurs. Looking for scapegoats and a sense of closure, those with the duty to provide responsible guidance and direction fail to deal with the reality, allowing the media to smother it in false sentiment, espouse the putting of a brave face on things, denying any self-responsibility, seeing anything else undoubtedly as “unpatriotic” and not the American way. Never Forget, a banner at the school says, and the implication and connection to the reaction to 9/11 – one of the director’s motivations for making the film – is evident. It might as well say Never Learn.
Afterschool opens on 21st August 2009 at cinemas including the Odeon Panton Street, Watershed Bristol, Cornerhouse Manchester, Broadway Nottingham and Showroom Sheffield.
The film's trailer can be viewed here - Afterschool.