Exodus (or Margate Exodus) was a film shown on Channel 4 towards the end of November. But as part of a one man bid to help speed the death of linear television, I picked it up on 4oD (Channel 4’s on-demand catch-up service) and watched it tonight just before it was due to expire.
It’s a modern day retelling of the biblical Exodus story – seems to be all the rage at the moment – written and directed by Penny Woolcock. Set in a mythical country that bears an uncanny resemblance to Margate, its leader Pharoah [sic] condemns all undesirables to live in a secure camp, based in the disused Dreamland amusement park. (It has more than a touch of Children of Men about it.)
As a baby, Moses was abandoned on a beach by his mother, found by Pharoah’s wife, and brought up in his privileged household. Played by Daniel Percival, Moses’ social conscience ran against his father’s beliefs (Bernard Hill). Witnessing an attack on a young woman while on a guided tour of Dreamland, Moses hits a soldier with the butt of a gun and accidentally kills him. So finds himself trapped, hiding inside the camp. Over time he meets his real Mum as well as his sweetheart Zipporah – the house-maid his father sacked.
The film’s website explains the parallels:
"The story of Exodus is thousands of years old and cuts across many faiths and cultures. Immigration has never been more meaningful than it is today. Exodus begins with the Egyptians complaining about the immigrant Hebrews – there are too many of them, they’re having too many children. They are ‘the undesirables’ and a problem to get rid of."
Filmed in Margate – itself a major UK entry point for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – we follow Moses as he adapts to camp life, throws himself into education, and wrestles with the military pressure Pharoah puts on the camp.
When Jethro the school headmaster is shot, the undesirables erect a massive wooden sculpture as a funeral pyre – the burning bush - and Moses sends a stark message to those outside the camp, including his father. But is that the voice of God he hears? (The burning man was actually created by Antony Gormley.)
But his non-violent approach isn’t working. How can Moses lead the people out of the camp? And so a series of plagues are released on the outside world. Algae contaminate the water. A computer virus infiltrates broadcast and IT systems. Food is poisoned. People start dying. Are they innocent or complicit in Dreamland’s suffering? God’s voice is no longer heard. As the military retaliate by storming the camp and shooting randomly, is Moses really following the right course of action?
As the plagues continue, we see Pharoah become more and more irate and crazy.
But when the undesirables are eventually free to leave, can they control their anger and need for revenge? Can Moses live with the consequences of the domino chain he started to topple? Thou shalt not kill doesn’t seem to be commandment of the month now.
It’s a superbly shot film with understated music. Part of the film’s creation was the involvement of the multi-ethnic resident and immigrant community in Margate, culminating in Exodus Day on Saturday 30 September 2006, when the major crowd scenes were film along with the burning of the waste sculpture.
A film that doesn’t duck the big questions of how to counter loss of identity, intolerance and social inequity? A film that doesn’t stop short of asking what sort of God would kill the Egyptian first borns?
Yet the ending – spoilers ahoy! – stops short of the undesirables escaping their oppression through a parting of the English Channel. There is no solution. Instead, Moses fails to bring complete liberation, and the cycle of violence and oppression seems to start again, this time with the roles of oppressed and oppressor reversed.
It’s an ending, and perhaps not as clichéd as it would otherwise have been, but it’s imperfect and perhaps the film deserved better.