Channel 4 aired Penny Woolcock's film "Exodus" on Monday night past (19th November 2007). It was a, that dreaded word, "reworking" of the second book of the Old Testament, and like many Channel 4 Films, and films with a religious/Biblical dimension, it was both interesting and frustrating at the same time.

The director, Penny Woolcock, has a history of making films in avant garde ways, and are usually imbued with a strong sense of social conscience, from her first film When the Dog Bites to Shakespeare on the Estate and the drama trilogy Tina Goes Shopping, Tina Takes a Break and the controversial 2006 release, Mischief Night. She often uses "real" people rather than actors (as a former actor I am not sure about that contrast!), and that was very much the case here, with a number of the set pieces being filmed at a special Exodus Day Festival in Margate, a somewhat run-down seaside resort on the Isle of Thanet in Kent.

The broad gist of the plot is this, Pharoah Mann is a populist politician who has found the perfect solution for those refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants who have arrived in his country seeking the Promised Land. He dumps all of them, and the other unwanted elements of society - the long-term unemployed and petty criminals - into Dreamland, a derelict theme park.
Moses is the son of Pharaoh (does this sound familiar?) but when he reaches adulthood, he discovers that his birth mother is a poor Romany woman, Levi, incarcerated in Dreamland, who gave him away as a baby so that he might have the chance of a better life. He then gets involved with a young black serving girl from Dreamland, Zipporah, but his father dismisses her for pilfering. Moses visits Dreamland to find her and kills the guard who assaults her when she tries to approach him. The hue and cry goes up and Moses flees into the heart of Dreamland. He and Zipporah have a child together, but when her father, the wise and gentle Jethro is then killed by one of the "pest control" guards, Moses organises a huge funeral pyre of rubbish in the shape of a man, and hears God speaking to him, commissioning him to set his people free. He is then sucked into a series of increasingly violent acts of terrorism, culminating in the a school bombing.

I have no qualms in telling you most of the plot because it was so predictable, and not just because it was largely straight from the Bible with a modern/revisionist "tweak".

The writing was incredibly clumsy. The "real" actors, such as Bernard Hill, who played Pharaoh, could carry it off with aplomb (despite a ludicrous hairstyle which was probably there as a visual echo of the Egyptian Pharaoh's tiara), but the real people couldn't. At times it came across as a piece of bad 1980s agit-prop student theatre. And I know a bit about that having acted in and directed a fair bit of bad 1980s agip-prop student theatre.

Visually it was stunning at times: especially the the burning effigy, created especially by Anthony Gormley, the sculptor behind the Angel of the North, but I wouldn't imagine that Margate will want to use the film for their tourist information as it painted a fairly bleak picture. Indeed, between the publicity and the actual programme the word Margate was dropped from the title.

And just as the finished film probably alienated the people of Margate, it probably alienated a fair number of the audience too. There was nothing emotionally engaging about the whole thing. All of the characters were generally unappealling... So in the end you just didn't care. It also wasn't helped by a soundtrack that even Leonard Cohen would have found depressing.

Which is all a shame, because many of the themes that the film touched on, like immigration, how we deal with the marginalised, the theological justification of terrorism are all worthwhile considering.

But what must have made an interesting day of community theatre, made a disappointing 2 hours of television.

Next stop the Liverpool nativity apparently...


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