Family Above All?

THE CLAN (15) 2015 Argentina (Spanish with English subtitles) 110mins. Directed by Pablo Trapero, with Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovic.

It's a perennial problem, how to make a film about something which defies imagination, which is too grave, too horrific, to encapsulate in 100 odd minutes. It's not just the danger that the events will seem inconsequential, irrelevant, the real challenge is how to make the issues resonate in the wider world, how to make a film which has impact, which will make a real difference.

The Clan is that rare film which makes this work.

It achieves this extraordinary feat by subverting or undermining the very form in which the filmmakers have chosen to tell the story.

An example of a film which doesn't work: The Big Short. Yes, an entertaining, funny depiction of the financial meltdown in 2008. Maybe people weren't being thrown out of planes over the sea (a favourite disappearing trick) but plenty suffered (and are still suffering) genuine deprivation from that period of criminality in the sub-prime mortgage bonanza.

That film chose to tell the story through a number of characters who, by overcoming various challenges, took on the system and triumphed. In other words, this was a story of heroic individualism, the exact behaviour which caused the problem in the first place. The film was trapped in its form, ultimately trivialised by those stylistic tropes which were inescapable, and so the events it depicted became trivial.

Argentina's 'Dirty War' of the 1970s and early 1980s, during which something in the order of at least 13,000 people became 'The Disappeared' is an historical fact before which imagination fails, the rule of the Military Junta only brought to an end by the adventurism of General Galtieri of Falklands infamy, an event with especial significance here in the UK, the barbarity still reverberating not that many years later.

Rather than trying to depict the whole sorry sweep of history, The Clan focusses on one fairly lowly, even peripheral player, a member of the security services, a lone criminal, a rogue operator within a corrupt and criminal system which has spiralled out of control.

And how do the filmmakers choose to tell this story, what form do they employ? Soap opera.

Stay with me here. I'm not joking.

Soap opera, as the name implies began life as advertising: let's show our product being used in a domestic situation. Advertising has long moved on from simply advocating the benefits of one product over its competitors. Advertising now is all about what the product does for you, as an individual (see The Big Short above) and individual genius is an indispensable concept to advertisers, or, and this is a natural extension of the individual genius, the concept of the family unit, the reward, the culmination of the individual genius' exertions. (Donald Trump, narcissist extraordinaire, is also a family man, multiple times over.)

The family unit as a concept has now entered the consciousness of Western civilisation almost as a religious movement. This can have unintended consequences. For example, against the advice of countless economists, it is widely accepted that a country should manage their finances as though the country was a family. In other words don't spend more than you earn. Hence austerity, hence economic stagnation and terrible suffering for countless families. We are incapable of seeing any social grouping except through the reverse telescope of the family.

In other words, belief in the family has trumped (get it?) belief in other ideas, such as community or country. An abstract concept has now become an article of faith, underwriting house prices and social interactions of all kinds.

Once an abstract concept takes hold of reality in this way bad things invariably follow.

Soap opera is an ongoing, daily (being the foundation of many television network schedules) reinforcement of the importance of the family.

The Clan shows, with utter ruthlessness, the fallacy, the horror embedded in this idea.

When it's family above all, anything is possible, including kidnap, murder, extortion, corruption at government level, coups, state sponsored violence, all of which is somehow, mysteriously, invisible to the family, who are daily witnesses to happenings which are, literally, under their noses.

What is genuinely, shocking is that the family, the wife and children of the man perpetrating the evil, can ignore, can actually not see or hear what is going on. They may attempt to leave, to rebel, and occasionally something may break through, but the family comes above all.

Ultimately the strength and appeal of soap opera is that we identify with the characters and situations; they could be anyone, not some remote superhero or genius. And The Clan uses this tendency to identify to utterly devastate our own certainties.

These people could be us. This is how easily we could enter this kind of hell. This isn't something distant in history or geography. This is something we see and are complicit in every single day of our lives.

The Clan is an utterly devastating film. A must see.

Paul Corcoran