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Non-Review Review: Shoulder the Lion

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Shoulder the Lion is a visual sumptuous documentary from the creative team of Erinnisse and Patryk Rebisz.

The duo have a long history behind the scenes. Patryk is an accomplished cinematographer and Erinnisse is a veteran editor. However, barring a short film written and produced by Patryk a decade ago, Shoulder the Lion is the first time that the duo have taken complete charge of a film. The result is visually stunning. Shoulder the Lion is a documentary that divides its focus among three subjects – each dealing with a debilitating condition. However, the key is in how Shoulder the Lion attempts to relate to its subjects.

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Shoulder the Lion attempts to convey to the audience – visually and aurally – what it must be like to see the world through the perspective of its three subjects. There are any number of striking compositions and sequences in the film, as the Rebiszes invite the audience to experience even some small segment of what day-to-day life must be like for its three central individuals. As Alice Wingwall describes her deteriorating vision, the camera filters out the colours. As Fergal Sharpe describes the agony of tinnitus, a painful electronic buzz builds.

There are structural problems with Shoulder the Lion. Most obviously, the fact that it divides its attention between three subjects while devoting so much energy towards its visuals means that not all of the three central figures emerge fully-formed. Indeed, it could be argued that the film expends more time trying to replicate their disabilities than exploring their experiences beyond that. However, the result is a thought-provoking and well-constructed piece of film. It is a beautiful piece of work, if not quite as deep as it might have been.

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On a visual and auditory level, Shoulder the Lion is a stunning accomplishment. In an interview after the film, Patryk Rebisz argued that if you can convey a movie through any medium beyond film then you really need to consider whether the movie justifies its own existence. It is a very thoughtful and artistic perspective, and perhaps one that explains a lot about the approach and aesthetic that Erinnisse and Patryk Rebisz adopted towards their subject material. Shoulder the Lion is a piece of work that quite clearly and quite loudly would not work in any other medium.

Indeed, it has hard to do just to the rich tapestry created by Shoulder the Lion. Patryk’s background as a cinematographer serves the couple well, with the film managing to find incredible beauty in surroundings that range from the relatively mundane (fields) to the unconventional (an anechoic chamber). Similarly, Erinnisse’s skills as an editor help to keep the documentary moving along, helping to convey a lot of information in a visual and linear manner. This is a documentary that seems to demand the largest possible screen.

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Visually, Shoulder the Lion is an absolute joy to watch. It is striking and arresting, clever and slick. The inserts are meticulously chosen, the images are all build with a very clear and specific purpose. There are points where Shoulder the Lion feels almost like a living breathing art exhibition, asking its three subjects to pose in environments that are intended to convey some abstract sense of what their day-to-day experience must be like. The work of Erinnisse and Patryk Rebisz recalls that of Godfrey Reggio, using the medium to relay an incredible amount of information to the viewer.

Of course, Reggio’s films were generally quite silent. Reggio counted on a unique soundtrack and distinctive (and carefully compiled) visuals to tell a story without recourse to narration or dialogue. Perhaps Shoulder the Lion would be a much stronger film had it adopted a similar approach. The film focuses on three subjects, each living with a debilitating condition. Alice Wingwall is a photographer who is blind, Fergal Sharpe is a musician living with tinnitus, and Katie Dallam is an artist and sculptor whose brain was severely damaged during a boxing match.

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The film adopts a clear structure in how these individuals tell their stories. It explains what life was like before and during the onset of their injuries, what it is like to live with these conditions, and how each individual has found a way to work through the challenges posed. Each of the three individuals articulate themselves very well, and Shoulder the Lion pays a lot of attention to their output. Wingwall’s photography is heavily featured, while Sharpe scores his own section of the film, and Dallam’s art also appears.

The problem is that sometimes Shoulder the Lion feels a little too clean and too clear-cut in the way that it lays these stories out for the audience. The way that the film builds its narratives feels almost archetypal. Although each of the three individuals have their own unique voice, there is not enough room in the film to properly explore their unique stories. Their individual conditions are well explored through imagery and sound, but their journeys are all structured so as to feel almost interchangeable. There isn’t enough time to dig into any of the stories, with what should be big moments often reduced to footnotes.

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Still, that is a relatively minor problem with an otherwise strong documentary. Visually, Shoulder the Lion is a striking and memorable accomplishment. It is a bold and intriguing piece of film-making that really speaks to both the ambition and the ability of all involved. While it does feel a little too sleek and stylish for its own good in a few places, it remains an impressive piece of work.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for great review and yes the structure IS something that we struggled with for a very long time. Ultimately we settled on “almost archetypal” because in early edits where structure was much more abstract we didn’t pay enough respect to the characters. The stories of the three characters provide the backbone of the film but on a subconscious level the film also deals with other issues as through sight, audio and ideas the characters highlight our interdependence on various media to pursue our understanding of reality. Thanks again!!

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