Director: Tim Porter
Cast: Maia Watkins, Jonathan Hansler
Plot: A young, impressionable girl (Watkins) is swept up in the patriotism of the media and enlists in the army.
Tim Porter’s latest short film opens up with a no-expense spared patriotic advert blaring out. The stars and stripes are in full swing, the happy families with the beaming soldier in the middle brought out over the usual montage of fireworks. The short cuts away to see Maia Watkins gazing at her television set, eyes sparkling with wonder, totally swept into the American dream of protecting your country and standing up for freedom. She shortly enlists and Tim Porter’s short is all about comparing the American army she saw on that television to the American army she finds waiting for her, once she is shipped off to Iraq.
Maia Watkins is on fine form here. She plays it awkwardly naïve, the army never quite taking the nervous step out of her walk. The naïve bit is quite heart-breaking, as you watch the journey of the spark in Maia’s eye slowly get snuffed out. Porter’s excellent camera quality does a marvellous job of really highlighting that first sparkle as Maia sits in front of that television set. Her love for the army is a very real and genuine one (even if it is arguably unrequited), and that fact is very prominent throughout the short. As Maia’s character begins her enlistment into the army, there is always the sense she doesn’t quite belong. She comes across as ungainly, unsure of her footing and as the short progresses, she walks with the sense that every step requires the utmost caution. She isn’t sure where her path leads. Tim Porter is sure to comment on how liberal this makes the army’s description of freedom. The astonishing thing about Maia’s performance is how the naivety never fades. Most pieces of fiction involving the army takes the stock naïve, awkward figure and shows the army mould them into a more confident, athletic being. There is a sense here that the army actually thrives on keeping the recruits as naïve and dependent as possible. As Maia is led through ordeal after ordeal, you cannot shake the feeling that the army is relying on her nervous, yet undying support of her country to manipulate her into committing the actions she does. It doesn’t want strong, thinking soldiers – the army wants puppets. The title of the short is very important, because the role of a soldier is almost questioned here. There is no fighting, no protecting, no interaction with anything remotely stereotypically army. Maia’s role is more like a glorified henchman for the government and Maia’s character arc never leaving that naïve, awkward young girl really helps that message hit home.
Porter’s message is always strong here. His cinematography highlights all of the subtext bubbling under the surface. Army life is never as polished as the television ad makes it out to be. Right from the off, Maia is training in a grimy room, doing push-ups over a dirty puddle of water. The end of the film sees her funnelled into a poorly-lit, claustrophobic tunnel system, literally a mouse in a maze at this point of the story. The world Maia finds waiting for her after enlisting is nothing like the life she was promised, suggesting that the army is built upon a bed of lies and misinformation. To boil it down to as simple as the story will go, Maia is essentially on the rough end of a bad decision, blinded by a dodgy salesman. It is up to the audience whether this is a microcosm for the army as a whole. Other shots see Maia performing her dialogue in a pitch black room, her figure the only thing in sight. It really highlights how alone she is, which is especially powerful as the advert at the start’s main selling point was the togetherness that enlisting would provide. This is one of the main things the army sells, so having that be uncovered as a lie is a very disturbing revelation. Eventually, Jonathan Hansler’s superior is introduced into that pitch black, highlighting that the army has conditioned her to see only him. His addition to Soldier lines up the end of the film, which I shall not discuss as the power of the moment speaks for itself and the unsettling sucker punch of a finish really sets this short apart from the crowd.
Final Verdict: A brief insight on how the army uses misinformation to gather support, told amazingly well by a stand-out performance from Maia Watkins and excellent direction from Tim Porter.
Soldier will be shown at the British Urban Film Festival shown on September 14 – 20 and be avaliable to watch free on Vimeo afterwards.