In 1999, 12 students and 1 teacher were shot dead at the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, USA, by 2 other students who then turned the guns on themselves.
In 2003, Gus Van Sant released Elephant, a cinematic reimagining of these events, which controversially won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.
Van Sant assembles a series of sequences following individual students around the high school; the camera tracks the students from behind, as if we are personally following them. The clean cinematography and real-time shooting brings the fiction to a realistic level, which is further enhanced by the lack of a script – all of the student actors improvised their speech, though dialogue is kept to a minimum. These intertwining docu-style pieces feature only diegetic sound: speech, footsteps, wind, a camera shutter, doors and lockers slamming, cars in the street. The effect is that one doesn’t feel their emotions are manipulated; it’s just as if ordinary life is taking place.
This is what really differentiates Elephant from the likes of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine (2002). Where Moore grills various people about the state of America’s gun culture and implements some in-your-face cartoons to illustrate major issues, we are aware of how blatantly he is making his point. Van Sant’s film, though fictional, is much more subtle. Though perhaps, as I felt, I was more emotionally involved with Moore because the footage and phone calls from Columbine were actually real, whereas Van Sant can only get so close to creating a reality.
The only time Van Sant ruptures his film’s subtlety is by explicitly making the link between violent video games and the actual events. A video game in which a shooter follows people (as the camera followed students during earlier scenes in the film) is played out on a laptop, later to be regurgitated into the film reality. The same classical Beethoven plays, creating a new dynamic which focuses us on the sadness of the whole situation.
You would perhaps expect Van Sant to interrogate the motives behind the massacre, maybe even on a sympathetic level, but he merely touches on parts of the boys’ lives and only as much as any of the other students. Van Sant uses his own artistic stamp to create poignant personal moments, from the drunk-driving father to the girl who hates to wear shorts and a homosexual shower scene between the massacrists.
However touching the characterisations, the reality behind the fiction is grim; the stormy clouds from the film’s onset certainly seem apt by the end.
Elephant, dir. Gus Van Sant (2003, USA)
Winner 2003 Palme d’Or
Van Sant noted, “They [his ‘Death Trilogy,’ of which Elephant is the second] are just movies that sort of imagine what may have happened, visually” (Guardian, 2009). But for sake of interest, CCTV footage of the actual events, as included in Moore’s Bowling For Columbine, can be watched: