Major news stories are a gift for film makers. Dip into the dustbin of history and you will come out with a fistful of global events that have produced classic films, not just from Hollywood but anywhere in the world with a cinema culture which have passed into cinema legend.
This production line will never stop. Recent events are already the stuff of film drama – the overthrow of the Egyptian President Morsi last year has produced a documentary account of what happened in Tahrir Square in Cairo prior to the army's intervention, which was a contender at this year's Oscars. It's only a matter of time before events in Syria and Ukraine will become a rich vein of material fit to be mined. An event of global significance is no guarantee of quality film drama, however.
Almost before the dust had settled after 9/11, studios wanted to get in on the act. Sadly, the clutch of films that appeared weren't especially memorable. The exceptions were Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Paul Greengrass's United 93 which, in their different ways, gave riveting accounts – but the rest are utterly forgettable.
The film society's next two presentations both explore major events set in the not too distant past. Both are exceptional. A Hijacking is about piracy in the Indian Ocean, while Barbara returns us to East Germany and the days of the Cold War.
The film shares the same subject matter as Captain Phillips, but the fuss about the latter has all but obscured the fact that A Hijacking exists at all. Yet it is every bit as good and, in many ways, it's a lot better. Made in 2012 and based on real events, it's from Denmark – and that means quality.
The director is Tobias Lindholm, whom society audiences have already met this season as the writer of Oscar nominated drama The Hunt (shown in November). Many of the cast too will also be recognisable to anyone who has become hooked on Borgen, the highly-rated TV political drama.
Such a pedigree suggests that the film should be riveting watching – and it is. Filmed on location off the coast of East Africa, on a freighter that had actually been hijacked, it is a lesson in how to build tension without resorting to action clichés.
Peter Lundgren (Søren Malling), the head of the company that owns the ship, is cock-a-hoop at having clinched a big deal by outbidding a business rival. Buoyed by this success, when the news breaks that the ship has been hijacked, he decides he's the man for the job.
But his self confidence is given a reality check by the hijackers' resistance to a deal. The bargaining that then takes place over the phone is a real strength of the story. Filming the conversations between the ship and its head office in Copenhagen in real time, with delays on the line, bad reception and all, makes the whole business utterly life-like. Add the fact that Lundgren's opposite number is played by a real-life hostage negotiator, the claustrophobia of the confined spaces in which events take place and the understanding of the pressure both men are under, and, by the end, the tension is all but unbearable.
Tension is also present in Barbara, but it's of a much less obvious kind. Barbara is a doctor who, we gradually learn, lives in East Germany and has recently been in prison for an offence that is never made clear. She wants to join her lover in the west but realises she is under constant surveillance which makes escape very difficult.
This surveillance is done explicitly – her apartment is searched and she is interrogated – and also very subtly. Director Christian Petzold creates a mood of unease and distrust as we realise that any of the people she meets could be an informer. The result is she rarely shows any emotion, emphasising that what is really going on must be kept hidden from outside scrutiny. Nina Hoss, in the title role, plays this to perfection.
Both films demonstrate how well the best dramas stem from the way human beings deal with extreme pressure. There is no high octane action, but you never take your eyes from the screen for one moment.
A Hijacking (15): showing at The Venue, March 14, 7.30pm
Barbara (12a): showing at The Venue, March 16, 7.30pm
Also at The Venue
Pinocchio (U): Family Film Club, March 15, 2.30pm. An animated classic and a real treat.
The Wolf of Wall Street (18): March 15, 7.30pm and March 19, 2.30pm. Leonardo Di Caprio stars in a Martin Scorsese biopic of notorious trader Jordan Belfort.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (18): March 19, 7.30pm. The highly controversial winner of the 2013 Palme D'Or at Cannes gets a screening.