Cock Fight - a short film
Some thoughts about war and films about war

Gunnar Wille

Films about war are very widespread, which is hardly surprising, as war is a very widespread phenomenon. A general human condition that it is difficult to avoid coming into contact with. I have here four recent short films, three of which are about war. Two of these three are from Israel, one from Holland. One is about war in the future, one about memories of war, and then there is one about war in the present: this is called Cock Fight, and this article will be mostly about this film.

The film that is not about war is about a man who cannot make a decision, and if you analyse the other films you realise that they are also about having to make decisions. That's what these films are about, which is interesting. Decisions and the consequences of these decisions. A little batch of films on the subject of war and decisions.

In the film entitled Draft there is a young man who has decided to go to war for his native land of Israel, causing his father major emotional problems. I can certainly identify with that, as I too am a father, of about the same age, with two boys. In the film entitled Heritage we follow one man's journey back into the past, to the day when he leads a group of soldiers to his family. They appear to be soldiers from the Second World War, and we see how he/the boy escapes, while the rest of the family is wiped out. Again, a man of my age, who wrestles with terrible problems that arise due to a fatal decision on his part. Films about people and their terrible actions.

So you sit comfortably, leaning back in your Danish armchair, and look out of the window onto a world where there has been peace for almost 60 years. 60 years that cover almost your whole life. And when you then see a film about war, made by a young person living in a country that has been at war just as long, you become troubled. Because you are a person who has lived in peace and has never been in situations where small, banal decisions can have major, fatal consequences. There is a risk that you become lazy and intolerant. And it is difficult for you to understand the conflict and the symbolic layers that maybe, maybe not, are present in the film. I recall numerous films from the former Soviet Union, critical of the system, which I enjoyed yet did not appreciate in full, as I was unaware of all the secret hints contained in the films.

The same is true of Cock Fight. It is a very simple story. A truck laden with live chickens comes to a checkpoint in the middle of a plain. There is just a road, a shed and a barrier, otherwise just a desolate, deserted landscape on all sides. The chicken farmer, the boss with a Jewish appearance, sits behind the wheel and beside him his employee, a linguistically handicapped, very hungry, young man from Eastern Europe. At the checkpoint are the commandant in the shed and his subordinate soldier, hair combed over his bald head, by the barrier. It is very hot, probably in the middle of the day under the pitiless sun. The commandant has photos on the walls of all the key people in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. We see American presidents, Israeli prime ministers and Palestinian leaders. The chicken farmer has no interest in politics, he'd rather listen to local pop music. As the truck approaches the barrier the order is given to close it, and the truck stops in the midday heat with all its chickens. The boss tries to bribe the guard with a chicken, but in vain. The commandant is called, and it turns out that he was once employed by the boss of the chicken farm. Formalities are exchanged, but we sense an underlying tone of hostility. The commandant refuses to raise the barrier. So the truck stands there, and it is so hot that the Rumanian employee can fry eggs on the radiator. The boss uses his last drop of water to cool down the chickens. A chicken dies, and he tries to appeal to the commandant's sympathy, but orders are orders, they cannot pass. A violent argument develops, and they try to break through. Guns are primed and the drama comes to a head. A chicken escapes and breaches the blockade. The Rumanian manages to reason with everyone, and the commandant agrees to raise the barrier. All is well for a moment. But the boss cannot bear the humiliation, and throws all the dead chickens out of the cages and scatters them across the road. He then backs away. He does not pass the border, but drives away having renewed this hostility.

A short film and a simple story, which is how it should be. Short films should not have complicated plots, but I wonder whether this is too simple. Does it have enough material to satisfy my intellect? Is there anything there that I, from my comfortable armchair, can transfer to my own experience, or do I need to have a deeper understanding of local conflicts to get the most out of it? For example, I don't know why there is a checkpoint in the middle of the desert, and I am surprised that it is manned by Palestinians. I can understand the employer-employee conflict and I can understand the power shift taking place across the border. But I can't help thinking that the employer comes from Israel and he meets a former employee, a Palestinian, who has now become a commandant. He may well be an uncertain commandant with his newly-acquired power, but there is clearly an old grudge against the employer. As I watch the film I call to mind the history of the expulsion of the Jews and their extermination down the centuries. And I think of Israel's more recent history and injustices against a new people who are being driven out of the region. I think about historical repetitions. I think about the story's interminability and mankind's inability to improve, and it is perhaps this that the film tries to depict with its surprising, depressing conclusion. And I wonder how this film is perceived in Israel. Is it something that they perceive in just the same way as I did, or is there something that I missed that is why they are so crazy about the film?

I'm not sure. Does it contain material that can create associations with my own experiences? For example, do I suddenly think of the conscientious police officer who once stopped me from running a red light without lights? Is the film structured in such a way that it could happen anywhere in the world? Does it describe something specific yet at the same time general? I don't know, and it nags at me. I watch the film and become irritated. Is the symbolism not clear enough? Or too heavy? Is the main character too unsympathetic? Is it unreasonable that he just stands there, and stays there with his stupid chickens? And why does he sprinkle water on the chickens rather than let them drink it?

There is no easy answer, and maybe there shouldn't be, as it is after all a very good story, two men meeting in a fatuous power struggle about political principle and dead chickens. And it's not easy to experience the helpless, insoluble situation. The soldier with the comb-over is the film's only balanced, sympathetic character. He lurks around the edge of events and mirrors the plot in an amusing way. The Rumanian is irritating, eating all the time. The main character is a person you cannot like, and you find it hard to accept his decision at the end. It is a very disjointed experience. Your heart tells you that it's all incredibly irritating, but it's with the head that you come up with an acceptable interpretation of the story.

A good thing? Maybe. Sitting in my comfortable armchair with a view of all of the world's troubles, wars and floods on TV, it seems necessary. It is necessary to produce vague responses to incomprehensible events. And these extraordinary conflicts between people who share countries or villages are still there. Time after time we believe that we've found the solution, but there's always someone or other whose pride gets in the way of a solution. It seems to be part of the way people live. It exists on a microscopic level between children who inherit hostility towards children from the next street, in endless divorce cases, in inheritance cases that can have an impact on generations, and on a macroscopic level between nations who never resolve historical hostilities.

I walk down to my greengrocer, who looks wearily at me. I've not done anything to him personally and I buy from him almost every day, yet he still looks wearily at me, unlike the girl in the butcher's shop, where they smile warmly and show that they recognise me when I buy half a kilo of minced lamb. At the greengrocer they just look tired. And I tell myself that they work from early morning until late evening. The butcher closes at five thirty, while the greengrocer is there until 10 in the evening 7 days a week. He lives in that fucking shop. Which I'm grateful for, because I've always forgotten something or other or get back too late from work. And there he stands, and I know why he's tired, because I'm tired too and maybe I look angrily at him and he must have met lots of racist Danes who treat him like shit and say terrible things to him or suspect him of not declaring his income and claiming benefits. OK, OK, I know how things are and I've nothing against him being here and it's a good shop, but he could at least smile.

Maybe that's what creates all the disorder in the world. The Jews were blamed for the crucifixion of Christ, starting off two thousand years of conflict, which has ended in the mess that Israel is now at the heart of. But as far as I know the Irish cannot be blamed for murdering any saints, yet they have still been killing one another for hundreds of years. And the Swedes with whom we have had problems for several hundred years, which are only resolved on the surface. Or my mother who grew up on Østergade in Ringkøbing and my father who came from Vestergade in the same town, which also caused problems, etc., etc. There is no doubt that any attempt to create an easy solution to the problem of the chicken truck and the checkpoint would be met by derisive laughter, because we all know better. Mankind is not able to solve the problems that it has created itself.

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