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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: Elephant, 2003

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Elephant, 2003

Palme d’Or – Gus Van Sant

Prix de la mise en scène – Gus Van Sant

Cinema Prize of the French National Education System

The subject of mass shootings is almost, always a difficult one to address. How does a filmmaker present a tragedy without being disrespectful to any of the survivors, without glamourising the crime and without depicting the killers as blood thirsty deranged monsters?

Mass shootings have sadly become a major part of contemporary society. Many of us will recall the unfortunate cases of the Columbine massacre, which Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is loosely based upon). But also, the Sandy Hook massacre, and Virginia Tech massacre. Just to name a few (of course, there are many more which just goes to show the extent of the problem).

While we consider mass shootings a relatively modern phenomena, (with the first incident that gained mass media attention being the University of Texas’ tower shootings of August 1st, 1966), disturbing and senseless shootings have occurred since 1891 in America. On March 28, 1891 a man with a doubled barreled shotgun fired upon a crowd of students and faculty attending a school exhibition in Parson Hall School House in Liberty, Mississippi.

“Films like Elephant are necessary in order to address the issue and to start the discussion.”

The sad truth is that mass shootings and murders have been a major part of US history (and across much of the Western society) throughout the late 19th Century. While we would almost like to believe that these incidents are a reflection of how lost and fragmented our society has become in the modern era, the truth is that the issue is so firmly rooted within our culture that it’s almost impossible to eradicate it.


With this in mind, why even make a films like Elephant and Utøya: July 22? Why make documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine, and The Killing of America? Are these just a futile effort, with their messages of anti-gun and anti-violence falling on deaf ears? This is such a pessimistic objection, that it is ill conceived to suggest that we can’t learn from our past mistakes as a society.

Films like Elephant are necessary in order to address the issue and to start the discussion. If we fail to even acknowledge the problem, and these incidents, then surely we are simply accepting that we can not change and that we lack the power to make a difference. Surely, we all know that this is not the case?

In an excellent and informative piece entitled A Brief History of Mass Shootings, by Maria Esther Hammack, she states that, “The number of mass shootings in the past two decades have desensitized us or perhaps just helped suppress the memory of violent crimes, and how often these have actually happened. Mass shootings have render our society a sort of collective amnesia. This amnesia is hard to comprehend and examining the history of mass shootings creates more questions than lessons for us today.”

“The film has a short runtime of 81 minutes, with a fly on the wall documentary-like approach.”

We can’t allow for ourselves to become desensitized as a collective. We need to be fully conscious that these crimes are taking place and we need to question what is the root cause of these cases. Is it violent video games (which some argued was the cause of the Columbine shooting), is it relaxed gun laws, is it anti-depressants, or is it a lack of resources for those suffering from mental health issues?

With Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, he suggests that the cause for these brutal acts of violence is rooted in the mental health of the perpetrators. The film follows high school students Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who have developed elaborate plans to enter their school and gun down as many of their peers as possible. Very similar to how the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre planned their attack.


Although Alex and Eric are seen as the victims of bullying, and the pair have carefully plotted their attack. Most of the violence is committed with a detached sense of randomness. Scott Macaulay for Filmmaker Magazine, stated that “by depicting the most notorious episode of American teen violence, the film peels open the psychological and emotional underpinnings of adolescent life within our school system.”

Elephant was generally praised by critics and received the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. With critic Jeffrey M. Anderson stating that “Gus Van Sant takes a powerful approach to this material, without being heavy-handed.” The film has a short runtime of 81 minutes, with a fly on the wall documentary-like approach to filmmaking. And stunning cinematography from Harris Savides.

As Macaulay observes, Elephant “is shot in the square 1:1:33 aspect ratio (like, as Van Sant has noted, high school educational films).” The film’s effectiveness lies in its performances by non-professional actors, which heightens the sense of realism despite the film’s slightly surreal dreamlike quality.

“Elephant is 16 years old, but is still very relevant and remains one of the most impactful films of the 21st Century.”

Elephant remains one of the most effective films to approach this subject matter, as detailed by Matt Barone for Tribeca Film, “[It] presents a Columbine-like and Umpqua-like event in a purely observational fashion, and, in the process, grapples with their inexplicable nature and abject terror.” Elephant is 16 years old, but is still very relevant and remains one of the most impactful films of the 21st Century.


In regards to its unusual title, Van Sant used it as a tribute to the 1989 BBC short film of the same name, directed by Alan Clarke. Van Sant originally believed Clarke’s title referred to the parable of the blind men and an elephant. In which several blind men try to describe an elephant, and each draws different conclusions based on which body part he touched. And Van Sant’s film uses that interpretation, as the same general timeline is shown multiple times from multiple viewpoints.

Clarke’s title actually came from the saying ‘elephant in the room’ which refers to metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss. With Van Sant’s film, we have to address the fact, that this elephant has now outgrown the space of the room. We can no longer ignore the fact. And it’s time that we cure ourselves from this amnesia.


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