Movie Review: Elephant

By Moira Sullivan
Movie Magazine International

Gus Van Sant is another filmmaker interested in the Columbine High school shootings where 13 students died. His new drama documentary, Elephant, which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in May, powerful but subtly explores the enigma of high school violence. The film tracks the lives of ten teenagers from Portland Oregon during one day that ends in a bloody tragedy.
Elephant investigates the breeding ground of potential senseless violence and is played by young amateur students. The investigation is not only confined to the story but ebbs and flows with the offscreen daily terrain of mediated imagery. Factors that precipitate violence may come up from the film, or as Van Sant would wish, the interaction of the spectator with Elephant. This is a different style for a Columbine expose than we are used to such as television documentaries and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. The problem with a conventional documentary is that it's a fiction of facts. The open-ended style of Elephant allows the spectator to put his or her own background into the film rather than be manipulated by images and sound.
There are all kinds of understandings of what makes young people tick but no one would disagree that students are forced to survive in an unpredictable violent state today. Van Sant's approach to understanding youth and violence was inspired by the work of documentary realist Frederick Wiseman, master of long super realist documentaries where the interference of filmmaker is minimum. But ultimately it is hard to hand it all over to the spectator to make sense of the material. Elephant in its supposed non-interference has a personal stamp as well but one that pushes the boundaries of the medium.

An openly gay director, his eclectic bag of rarities includes Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix (1992). These last two films profoundly portray and in turn have influenced the lives of young people.

Van Sant was also executive producer of Larry Clarks Kids (1995) so the subject matter of his current feature Elephant reveals an ongoing relationship with exploring the complexities and turmoil of young people in new ways.

More Information:
USA - 2003