You All Are Captains

Dir: Oliver Laxe

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Zeitun Films

78 Minutes

There’s a group of young boys in Tangiers, Morocco. They live together in a shelter and attend classes in a modest school, where their teachers guide them through different projects. One of them, a visiting Frenchman, instructs the students in the art of filmmaking, letting them film different scenes, even as he gets testy with them, and guiding them through a loose, improvisational story about life on the streets. This is the truth behind the new movie You All Are Captains, and it is simultaneously the fiction it creates.

First time director Oliver Laxe (who looks like Russell Brand transmogrified into a gentle, artsy hippie) plays the French teacher and also clearly served in that role, coaching his young charges through the process of reacting for the camera without gazing into the lens. The film is a slippery mix of observational documentary and pure invention, merging them into a single artery that courses throughout the relatively brief running time. Most of the film is played loose and free, with Laxe simply pointing the camera at the boys and capturing the rugby scrum of youth. Even when the regiments of plot come into play, there is an obvious reluctance to impose too much artifice upon the naturalistic interactions.

Indeed, for a significant portion of the film, it’s hard to tell if Laxe is going to develop much of a story at all. He and the boys move through the city, squabble over who gets to use the camera at any given moment and try to formulate different scenes to shoot. They conceive of a scene involving the theft of a chicken from a butcher shop, strategize about how to approach it, shoot the scene and then discuss how effective it was. It’s all presented with a commitment to grinding verisimilitude that recalls the hallmarks of cinéma vérité. Laxe doesn’t try to develop the boys as characters or get into deeper considerations of the state of their troubled lives, expecting that the tireless gaze of the camera will accomplish those goals well enough.

Later in the film, other teachers raise concerns that Laxe is taking advantage of the children, putting the completion of the project ahead of their well-being. He’s removed from his teaching role, which leads him to recruit a local named Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar) to become his assistant and surreptitiously work with the boys to finish the film. Just as it seems Captains is going to lock into a structured story, its framework falls away again, leaving scenes of the boys casually interacting in the countryside, the camera standing static as they walk away from it through the woods or fields of grain or flowers that pulse in the breeze. Shot in a strikingly handsome and evocative black-and-white, the film can become almost mesmerizing as it wallows in its own consideration of landscapes and unremarkable interactions.

Every documentary is somewhat reliant on techniques of fiction in their construction – even the most unobtrusive non-fiction filmmakers inevitably reshape truths in the editing room – and the most fantastic Hollywood storytelling relies on connections to plausible reality to generate emotional impact. The lines drawn between the two styles are, in a way, their own falsehood. There’s no real harm, then, in a filmmaker choosing to erase those lines, or, better yet, never etch them into being in the first place. The unobtrusive nature of Laxe’s approach in You All Are Captains can sometimes make it seem as if he doesn’t actually have all that much to say about his experience, but the method he chooses to convey his interactions with the students just might say enough all on its own.

by Dan Seeger

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