Reviews Short Narrative

The Mind Festers First (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Cameron Bonham

Writer: Cameron Bonham

Cast: Mason Bosworth, Matt Zone, Cailey Horan

Running time: 12 mins

The First World War was the first conflict to truly mechanise mass slaughter. The squabble between Europe’s imperial powers ultimately claimed 20 million lives, and left some 21 million wounded; but the devastation wrought was not only physical – it was also mental.

By the end of the war, the British Army alone ‘dealt with’ more than 80,000 cases of shell shock. A kind of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the intensity of the bombardment and fighting, shell shock manifested variously as panic attacks, fleeing the battle field, or an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk – something which saw the British Army often put sufferers on trial, and even execute them for military crimes including ‘desertion’ and ‘cowardice.’

Much like the tortured psyches of those forced over the top of the trenches, the horrors of the war left an indelible scar on the 20th century; a generation of breadwinners decimated by the slaughter and the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic its conditions gave rise to, while the economic and political infrastructure was thrown into such disarray that it would not recover until decades after a second, even more barbaric war had torn the continent asunder again. This makes the current battle for the legacy of World War One incredibly important – our understanding of this toxic, entirely preventable chapter in history is key if humanity is to avoid an even more lethal sequel, and painting the First World War as a ‘heroic sacrifice’ will only help justify such a future event.

Cameron Bonham’s The Mind Festers is a timely intervention on the matter, emerging as conservative voices either side of the Atlantic bid to reimagine the 1914-18 war, and creating a sufficiently hellish rebuttal of this process, despite being produced with a barebones cast and budget. The action takes place as Gerald (Matt Zone) Jack (Mason Bosworth) trek through the Belleau Wood in France, in 1918. The pair is tasked with disarming unexploded shells in the area, bantering affably during the long stretches between bombs.

The Hurt Locker-ish vibe is not to last, however. The devil-may-care, adrenaline-junky attitude toward the bombs quickly dissipates, as one Jack wrongly labels a “dud” spews a potent cloud of hallucinogenic gas into the surrounding air. We are flung headfirst with Jack and Gerald into a mind-bending trip, where they will be stripped of the mind-set that paints their war-time efforts as inherently ‘heroic’, and come face to face with the horrific acts they have seen and committed as soldiers.

Jack in particular clings determinedly to his ideological security blanket as disembodied laughter taunts him from the edge of the treeline. Routinely insisting that he only saves lives, and never takes them, Jack embodies the recruitment propaganda the modern armies serve up to school leavers in deprived areas; you know, the literature which plays up the skills the army provides, or emphasises the CSR activities it undertakes like building schools in Africa, while being conspicuously bereft of weapons, or references to shooting. It’s an unspoken rule that these things occur, but according to the proponents of the forces, that’s “not what the army is about”, and even if it were, we certainly shouldn’t talk about it! The problem is, once you do start to talk about it, the façade that life in the forces is some kind of benign humanitarian project falls to pieces, as it becomes apparent that the material function of the army is to reinforce the power of a nation-state at any cost. The moment niceties like providing food or medicine to the locals threatens to compromise that, it will be dispensed with.

Mason Bosworth (who directed IFL Student Short Narrative Winner A Trip to the Store) is near-flawless Jack in this regard. At first cocksure of himself, and his role in the current conflict, distinct looks of confusion, terror and utter malice pass over Bosworth’s face, as he is routinely faced with the consequences of did or didn’t do to Greta (Cailey Horan), allegedly a German girl he encountered during his and Gerald’s mission. He quickly comes to realise his real place in the world, and as his face twists and voice lowers, Bosworth becomes legitimately frightening. Having seemed chummy enough to begin with, and helped us feel safe in the strange world of war we have been injected into as viewers, it emerges he was a proponent of the horror we thought he shielded us from. As he growls and paces toward a stumbling Gerald, we’re given a fascinating deconstruction of World War One’s ‘heroes’, and their modern counterparts.

Matt Zone should also be lauded for his performance as Gerald. He executes a fine balancing act by serving as a vessel for the audience’s vicarious feelings and thoughts, but not being so bland that he could not embody his own unique set of hopes and fears. His tone never seems to have just one meaning, and whether he is laughing, crying, or screaming, he seems to be capable of moving from one to another in an instant, and coming across as if he is feeling a complex cocktail of emotions all at once. At times, he seems scared witless by the strange, empty hell-scape he and his friend fall into, but also relieved, because there seem to be rules he can manipulate to at least get moments of respite that could not come in reality – in particular that his journal seems to be a way of manifesting physical objects.

What would have been nice here is for more of a blending between ‘reality’ and the perceptions of Jack and Gerald; allowing for a more direct link to be made between the vibrant, otherworldly realisations of the pair to contrast with the visceral truth they are part of. In Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun for instance, American soldier Joe (Timothy Bottoms) is left in a state of living death after being hit by a German shell. Trapped in his head, the rapidly blurring line between his dreams and memories cause Joe to decode the harsh reality of the American dream, and the hypocrisy of making war in the name of democracy.

Meanwhile, there are some technical details which let The Mind Festers down more than a little. While Bonham might have got the best out of his cast, editing and continuity issues undermine the hallucinations in the film’s second half. The opening dialogue between Jack and Gerald, for example, sounds as though it is ADR recorded on a lapel-mic, while the muffled speech does not seem to be synchronised especially well with the actors’ lips.

Later, the mysterious shell which the entire film hinges upon seems to reposition itself after Jack tugs it over with a rope. The bomb is clearly on its side before the two soldiers approach, but by the time they are next to it, it is upright again. Occurrences such as this greatly diminish the impact of the hallucinations later on, because viewers will often find themselves wondering if the strange things they witness after the gas are intended parts of the trip, or legitimate errors.

All in all, there is plenty of meat here for a proof-of-concept, a reason for producers to take a punt on Bonham and his team – and I sincerely hope that they do – however little technical details are holding The Mind Festers back as a standalone short in its own right. My hope is that with a little money behind them, and more time and space to examine a topic beyond a miserly 10-minute runtime, this crew will be able to make a great many ideologically incisive and technically polished films in the future.

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