Message ahead of its time

What would happen if a lone terrorist, driven by unexplained hatred, were to target a specific group of people using simple means available over the Internet and to attack them with the anthrax virus? Scottish director Kenny Glenaan posed this question a year before the answer became all-too-clear across the world. The director of Gas Attack – a suddenly prophetic film that competed in the international category of the Thessaloniki Film Festival after winning the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Festival last August – said in an interview in Thessaloniki with Kathimerini’s English Edition, I wanted to make a film about the things that concern us: racism, epidemics from genetically modified foods like foot-and-mouth, extremism and the inability of the authorities to deal with these crises. Glenaan is presently the associate director of the Communicado Theater Company and a founding member of Calypso Productions. With extensive experience in directing television dramas in Britain such as Eastenders and Cops, Glenaan applied many similar techniques to this, his first feature film. The protagonists, the majority of whom simply play who they really are (Kurdish refugees, health authorities, social services, etc.), and a Big Brother feel, rendered by footage from closed circuit cameras (CCTV) in realistic, grainy, faded shots, all create a television aesthetic which, considering the production’s shoestring budget, is highly effective in building suspense. I wanted to give a sense of the role technology plays in societies, said Glenaan. CCTV, for example, is increasingly being used in Britain, while any budding terrorist can find all the information he needs – technology, town plans, etc. – by downloading it from the Internet. Of course, these are also the devices that allow the police to trace terrorists. Briefly, the film is about an outbreak of anthrax in a large block of flats housing mostly Kurdish asylum-seekers. The main characters are a man and his young daughter who fled Iraq after their village was attacked by biological weapons, and a young social worker who befriends them. The young girl suddenly develops a rough cough and her father, haunted by images of the past and fearful of the authorities, hesitantly takes her to the hospital. The story of the three main characters serves to focus on the development of the epidemic as more and more patients – all living at the Sighthill Estate – are rushed in with the same symptoms, victims of one madman who has repeatedly e-mailed the police and threatened other attacks if all non-whites are not deported from Glasgow within a specific period of time. Only the social worker and a friendly nurse suspect a malicious plan at work as the authorities in charge try to save face and the public peace of mind by downplaying the ever-increasing incidents. When preparing for the film, Glenaan and screenplay writer Rowan Joffe interviewed several people from the Scottish health authority and asked them what would happen if such an attack were to take place. The majority, according to Glenaan, admitted being unprepared to handle a large epidemic, while the local state epidemiologist foresaw a similar attack happening within the next 10-15 years. Little did he know that it would only be several months before the USA was gripped by the terror of this exact virus. Accompanying Glenaan at the film festival in Thessaloniki was lead actress Robina Qureshi, a social worker for refugees playing a social worker for refugees. Of Pakistani descent, Qureshi said that she often felt the sting of racism both at work and in her social environment. The film really meant something to me, she said. I felt that it was trying to say something about racism and extremism. It showed that a racist is not just someone who abuses you to your face, but someone who shows it by not supporting your actions, or in more insidious ways. A good portion of Gas Attack deals with the authorities’ inability to communicate with the people they should be helping. It also looks at how at the level of authority, the structures are fixed to allow many games of evasive political maneuvering. Unfortunately, Gas Attack was not singled out for special praise at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, neither by critics nor by the distributors who have picked up other films from the competition this season. Given that another controversial political film shown at the festival, John Gianvito’s The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, was not featured either, one has to wonder whether such strong political comments are being downplayed in this period of international turmoil. 2.5 kilos clarified must

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