Film, Reviews

Can Art Stop a Bullet? review

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Can art stop a bullet? William Kelly, the star and prime focus of this film of the same name, certainly thinks so. In that sense, Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture is simultaneously a documentary and thesis on the relationship between artistic expression and conflict. Director Mark Street’s chronicle takes the viewer through a history of humanity’s worst excesses and most depraved acts of violence, all executed through the prism of the artwork central to the film – the eponymous Big Picture.

The Big Picture (Alternately dubbed ‘Peace and War’) itself is a compilation of pieces by Kelly, seamlessly tied together onto a 12.6 x 1.65 meter roll, which was displayed as a wall hanging at the State Library of Victoria in 2016. It features a series of references to historical events of war and violence, and this film is an account of its making.

Kelly travels around the world looking for inspiration, interviewing a handful of social activists, academics and artists who in some way have contributed to his thinking and expression. At the start of the film, the roll is blank, but as each segment is concluded the specific artwork to which it pertains is superimposed over the canvas, akin to the gradual piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle.

[The film] is an intriguing journey through the history of violence and a study of the human condition.

At the film’s conclusion, Kelly’s work is unfurled in a dramatic apotheosis. As the veteran artist jumps back and forth through history and present time, the viewer is invited to visually map his progress on the screen, accompanied by explanations of why he made the creative choices he did, and how they can be related back to his underlying contention.

It is clear from the get-go that Kelly and his collaborators interpret the role of an artist as indivisible from that of an activist. In his view, an artist simply shows the world ‘as it is’, and in the case of the conflicts explored in this film, that reality is exceptionally cruel and bleak.

On one level, the viewer can think of this as an inherent shock value, clearly seen in grotesque imagery such as that of photographer Nick Ut’s ‘napalm girl’, which appears in the film and makes you want to turn away in horror. Kelly views this shock value as a subsidiary of a greater concept – the idea that good art can scratch away at the veneer of cognitive dissonance, eroding at the misconceptions, perceived differences and falsehoods that spark conflict in the first place

In one memorable anecdote, artist (and former member of the Irish Republican Army) Raymond Watson exhibits his ‘Hands of History’, a sculpture assortment of bronze hand casts reaching up to the sky, each taken from key figures in the Troubles who compromised to reach the Good Friday Agreement. He tells the story of a Unionist woman who, when invited to guess which cast belonged to Unionist leader David Trimble, selected a particular bronze hand because she saw it as “slender, tall and intelligent” – like, she says, the man himself. The hand belonged to Sinn Fein’s most infamous republican, Gerry Adams.

For the most part the film remains accessible to viewers far removed from the sphere of art theory … It explores far greater questions of human nature.

It is that core ability of artists to show the world ‘as it is’ that in Kelly’s eyes cements their duty as proponents of peace. It is also, he says, the reason that war-machine governments often feel threatened by artists, which is another key theme of his works. This is the power of art that Kelly frequently references in the film – to serve as a philosophical bulwark, or even an inoculation, to bloodshed.

The film endeavours to present itself and its participants as the pinnacle of social awareness, pulling out all the stops to do so. In terms of the variety and exhaustiveness of historical snapshots explored in Kelly’s travels, this is to the film’s advantage. He covers a diverse spread of violent flash points from the last century, from Northern Ireland to Vietnam to Hoddle Street to Iraq, hoping to incorporate references to them into the Big Picture.

But the film occasionally lapses into the eulogistic and self-laudatory, especially where Kelly and his biography is concerned. Amid interviewing survivors of the most horrifying expressions of human savagery, like the Holocaust or the bombing of Guernica, the film juxtaposes segments on Kelly’s upbringing in blue-collar, upstate New York, and his later journey to become dean of the Victorian College of the Arts. This inclusion is mostly harmless in the instances when it provides some relevant background for his artwork, but at other times feels like a shameless self-insertion. But then, the film’s very title is Kelly’s own quotation.

You can be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that some of the film’s contributors delve into the esoteric at times. This is not necessarily the case, and for the most part the film remains accessible to viewers far removed from the sphere of art theory, or even any knowledge of Kelly or his portfolio. It explores far greater questions of human nature.

As Halina Wagowska, an Australian survivor of the Holocaust, poignantly says: without access to art, people often become brutalised and savage. She illustrates this from the perspective of her own experience in a concentration camp.

Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture is an intriguing journey through the history of violence and a study of the human condition. Whether you agree with Kelly or not on the titular question, it is worth seeing to get you thinking on the topic.

Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture is screening in various locations across Australia.

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