English filmmaker and writer Alan Clarke is remembered by many for his bold experiments with the cinematic medium, daring to show what most people turned away from. His television plays like Made in Britain, which was about a 16-year old skinhead extremist, have inspired generations of actors and directors like Harmony Korine who claimed that Clarke’s works had a formative influence on him as a young artist.
His 1989 short film Elephant might just be the apotheosis of his unforgiving artistic vision. Set in Northern Ireland during a period of ethno-nationalist conflict called “The Troubles”, the bleak and minimalistic work explores the underlying social problems of the country through repetitive acts of unprovoked violence which shocked and unsettle the viewer.
Through the use of Steadicam and almost surreal tracking shots that manage to turn walking into a menacing absurdity, Elephant forces the audience to confront the “elephant in their living room”. There is little dialogue because words are unnecessary in a world where death is art and blood is paint. Clarke does away with the conventions of narrative techniques, filmmaking codes and all other pretensions to focus on the brutality of the human condition.
Clarke’s contemporary David Leland considered Elephant to be the film that changed his life. He explained, “It taught me to think in a different way and to be independent in my thought. If there’s any originality in my writing and the way in which I write, it is because, at least in part, a film like Elephant teaches one about just how powerful film can be without its conventional props.”
Watch the brilliant 1989 short film in its entirety, below.