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15 Nov 12
A Question of Authority

Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Craig Zobel's Compliance has become one of the most controversial films of the year, prompting walk outs wherever it has screened. (At the London Film Festival last month, one outraged viewer recommended that the entire audience vacate the cinema in protest.) Amidst accusations of exploitation and misogyny, is the film so easy to write off, or is Zobel's exploration of our subjugation to authority, even in the most innocuous of environments, the reason why Compliance is so difficult to watch? Whatever the case, the central tenet of the film recalls an infamous social experiment that highlights our compliant nature.

In 1961 the psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments at Yale University that would eventually become the basis of his book 'Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View'. Two volunteers were placed in adjacent rooms. One – the 'leaner' – was wired up to a generator, while the other – the 'teacher' – asked a series of questions. If the learner supplied an incorrect answer, the teacher punished them with an electric shock. With each subsequent shock, the charge was increased by increments of 15 volts until it reached a maximum of 450 volts.

What the teacher volunteers did not know was that the learner was played by an actor and no punishment was ever administered. However, their ignorance of this did not stop them continuing the shock treatment. Many would pause at some point, questioning the directive to increase the voltage, but were told by Milgram that they should continue, even against the sound of the learner banging on the wall, begging the teacher to stop, sometimes revealing that they had a heart condition. Most continued in applying the shocks.

Coming so soon after the commencement of Adolf Eichmann's trial for war crimes in Jerusalem, Milgram was attempting to explore the role of authority in our lives; the experiment showed the insidious nature of power and the way it can affect the individual and collective psyche, as well as detailing abnormal behaviour that occurs amongst seemingly normal people placed under excessive degrees of duress. Miligram's research is a key factor in Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure (2008), which investigated the role of ordinary US soldiers in committing acts of torture at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Miligram's conclusions also go some way to accounting for what unfolds in Compliance.

Based on dozens of true incidents across the US, Zobel's film unfolds on a typically busy Friday night at a fast food restaurant in suburban America. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the restaurant's manager, receives a call from a man claiming to be a police detective – we immediately know this to be untrue – telling her that Becky (Dreama Walker), an attractive young employee, has stolen money from a customer's purse and needs to be detained in a room away from the other staff. He assures her that the police will arrive shortly to pick her up. Becky is taken to a store room and is told to hand over her mobile phone. From there, the imposter informs Sandra that this alleged incident is part of a more serious investigation into drugs trafficking, which also involves Becky's brother. As a result, the imposter demands that the suspect be strip-searched and, with the involvement of male characters, further humiliations, indignities and abuses are carried out upon her. All the time, life in the restaurant carries on as normal.

Zobel focuses on the minutiae of working life at the fast food chain, detailing the employees chores. We see, in extreme close-up, food being prepared, chicken frying, fries divided into portions, utensils being washed. It is a simple, but effective, ploy; Zobel details the chores that ensure the restaurant operates like a machine, conveying how intense a busy shift could be and how life outside of the restaurant becomes an irrelevance. This may not be an air force base or a military prison, but for it to work, it requires that the employees close themselves off from the rest of the world and focus on the job at hand. The imposter is merely playing on people's susceptibility in such situations, knowing that a commanding voice and the appearance of authority is all that is needed to manipulate and coerce, even if it involves some people acting in a way that they would otherwise consider reprehensible.

Zobel's film avoids exploitation. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch, but each scene is precise, almost clinical, in what it reveals, which is only ever enough for us to know exactly what is happening. The controversy surrounding the film might be because the director implicates us in the events that unfold in the store room. We know it is not a real detective and therefore have more information than those mistreating Becky, yet by the very fact of our watching what unfolds, we become a part of it. As Variety's Justin Chang pointed out, 'it is at once tough to turn away from and, by design, extremely difficult to watch'.

Kathryn Bigelow employed a similar technique in her dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days (1995). In one sequence, through the use of a contraption that allows one to experience the fears and emotions of another, a rapist attacks a woman, at once experiencing his and her feelings in that moment. As she is also wearing the contraption, the victim likewise experiences the rapist's euphoria as he attacks her. With this scene Bigelow deconstructed the use of sexual violence as a form of entertainment. The relationship between violence, particularly of a sexual nature, and audiences, was also explored in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and Man Bites Dog (1992). In each case, it is the complicity on the part of the viewer that has attracted controversy. However, if Compliance were easy to watch, if we were not affected by what we saw, and by extension questioned the way we might behave in such a situation, wouldn't the film have failed? Moreover, would this not make it exploitation?

If Becky's humiliation were all Compliance was comprised of, the film's critics would have a point, but the final section allows us to stand back from what has happened and understand that Sandra and the other employees are also victims. If we did not understand, intimately, what was inflicted on Becky and why such a situation got out of control, we would remain like the media figures and investigating officers in failing to grasp how such an incident could have taken place. As such, Zobel's film pans out in its final scenes, criticising our finger-pointing culture, which finds it so easy to damn and rarely attempts to understand.

 

Ian Haydn Smith
AFF English Daily Editor

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