It is rare to come across a film festival so honest in intent that it charges nothing in admission and wants nothing from its audience other than their attention. But Australians are lucky; Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival, now in its 11th year, would rather focus on exhibiting and communicating the stories of a people than just making money. It is “the only festival in the country that is solely committed to presenting films made by and about Indigenous people and all screenings are free.”

Having visited most of its Australian city destinations already, Message Sticks concludes its 2010 tour at Carlton’s Melbourne Museum with screenings showing this Saturday 4 – Tuesday 7 September. Showcasing mostly shorts, the program are well framed by two feature documentary sessions that offer a contrasting real life and reel life context for the recurring themes within the festival program.

Lani's Story

Lani’s Story: Followed by a Q&A with Lani Brennan, Lani’s Story is a documentary about a woman who suffered an horrific spate of repression and self-loathing due to the persistent combination of substance abuse, small community, extreme domestic violence and a failed justice system. Experimenting with alcohol as early as eleven, Lani was a self-professed “daily drunk” at just thirteen. Having grown up with alcoholism and domestic violence as something that just occurred but wasn’t openly talked about, Lani quickly fell into a destructive pattern that continued to feed on her personal shame. It was only after sobering up and meeting someone else, a man who finally showed her the kindness and support she deserved, that Lani was able to throw off the shackles of her own fear and speak out against her perpetrator.

Nin's Brother

Shorts: From the nine shorts (ranging in duration from between 5 min to 52 min) at the heart of the festival, Message Sticks brings disparate filmmakers (from New Zealand, Canada, the USA and, of course, Australia) and diverse subject matter to create an overarching narrative of untold Indigenous tales. Nin’s Brother sees one young woman search for a connection to and the truth surrounding suspicious events in her family’s past; Big Fella documents one man’s struggle to overcome mental illness and its symptomatic morbid obesity; Nundhirribala’s Dream is a gentle rendering of subconscious spiritual connection; Shimasani is the beautifully shot story of a young woman who wants more from the world; The Cave quite literally shows the proximity between the living world and the spirit world; Barngngrnn Marrangu Story gives a heart wrenching view of the confines of the reserve; Redemption is a sad, prophetic tale about the bleak future for a young, apathetic generation; Daniel’s 21st reveals a desperation that spurs denial; and Boxing for Palm Island is a tale about fight and survival. Each of these shorts do, in the first instance, the same two essential things; 1) they tell an untold story 2) they communicate just how important it is that the untold story gets told.

Reel Injun: “Hollywood has made over 4000 films about Native people; over 100 years of movies defining how Indians are seen by the world.” Whilst a vast majority of film-goers will already know, Hollywood is, to some relative degree, responsible for the construction of what’s often known as “collective memory” or “social memory” and, moreover, that a considerable proportion of it is either undesirable or just plain untrue. Certainly their representations of Indigenous people have always been misrepresentative in their stereotyping as a result of their being driven by greater social/political agendas that in turn continue to perpetuate prejudice.

Reel Injun is the film that takes the time to sift through these representations and talk about them – openly and honestly. Holding nothing back; from the “great American plains” as backdrop, to altered historical accounts turning battle into myth to the ludicrous US summer camps that keep the Hollywood notion of a “noble savage” “alive and well”; this documentary tells it like it is – and how it’s always been. With commentary from the likes of Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch, the taking to task of iconic westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), and with some pretty damn sarcastic comedy, “Chuck Conners as Geronimo – it’s like Adam Sandler as Malcolm X”, Reel Injun is the film of the festival – and if you do only have the time to go see one thing, make sure it’s this – because it’s absolutely brilliant.

Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival takes place at Melbourne Museum in Carlton from Saturday September 4 – Tuesday September 7. Admission to all screenings is FREE.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.


July 26, 2010

Said to be inspired by “actual events”, Bill Bennett’s latest, Uninhabited (2010) had its very first public screening, complete with director and cast Q&A, on Saturday night at Melbourne’s Forum. Set and shot on one of many small secluded islands off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Uninhabited saw a twenty-five strong cast and crew set up with limited access to electricity and little resources to film an old fashioned ghost-story, hinged upon an idea laid dormant in Bill Bennett’s psyche for years.

Young couple Beth (Geraldine Hakewill) and Harry (Henry James) decide to take a ten-day break where they can truly relax, and where better for a romantic love-in than a remote island sans communicado? At first their holiday is great but as the night’s close in it becomes increasingly clear that they are not on the island alone. The discovery of an eerily hidden hut that colonial history left behind and its in tact visitor book filled with entries motivated solely by fear, the couple find themselves up against a relentlessly vengeful spirit determined not to let them get off the island alive.

Visually stunning and a thematically thoughtful dramatic-thriller, Uninhabited displays and confirms many of Bennett’s filmmaking talents. It is however disappointingly let down by a weak script and some not so hot acting from its leads. An interesting development in Bennett’s oeuvre and one for his fans to catch, Uninhabited ultimately plateaus at average.

Uninhabited screens as part of this year’s MIFF and is screening again as part of the Late Night at Nova Program 2 on Saturday July 31 2010, 11pm

Who’s(e) Home

June 2, 2010

Liminal Vision, like its author, was born in the UK but its identity and sense of ‘home’ has always been Australia. So moving back to Melbourne it seemed only appropriate that the first official blog post following the big move would look at visual material that contemplates the issue of identity politics and, more specifically, how they pertain to this city, for Melbourne is the new foundation upon which the cultural content for this blog will build.

The St Kilda Film Festival, though semi-international in content, is ultimately a local festival in terms of its historical existence; its primary source of funding and support owing to the City of Port Phillip. As such, it was something of a pleasant surprise for me to see the festival assume a fair portion of responsibility for post-colonial issues embedded in its contextual cultural locality. 

The City of Port Phillip is an historically significant place in Melbourne, and as Victoria’s foremost port it is an important site within the context of Australian “settlement”, thus today it pulsates as a palimpsest.  In accordance with the City of Port Phillip; Open Channel, Film Victoria and The Torch Project teamed up to create a short documentary film about a ten minute dance piece, on a mere $10,000 budget no less, its moral project aspiring to “revive local Indigenous traditions” and “make something culturally relevant”.

Introduced first by Festival Director Paul Harris, and then handed over to Hank Kerr, the principal dancer in the piece, the audience was welcomed not to the screening but to the land. Spoken in the Boonwurrung dialect, then translated into English, Kerr’s words were kind and open, “Welcome to my country, our great bay… I welcome you to our land…the spirit of our traditions.” It was refreshing to see an establishment support the truth that this great land belongs to its Indigenous people and that Westerners are privileged to be here. But what followed was of even greater interest to me; Frank O’Connor, Mayor of Port Phillip, when he came to speak, used the powerful linguistic discourse “us” and “them”, but in a new and transformative way. Having lived in the UK where “us” and “them” is sadly synonymous with the BNP (British National Party) in the first instance, it was a revelation to hear an altered usage whereby “us” was replaced so simply with “we” and “them” replaced with “their” so that the discourse was productive rather than destructive. Respectfully reiterating that much of “their” culture had been lost through the process of colonisation, and that “we” have a responsibility to help in reviving “their” culture, as well as creating a connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the Mayor’s words were sincere and poignant. Perhaps to Australian readers who have lived at home through the initiation of Reconciliation this might seem less than remarkable, but to someone whose last experience of living in the country was under the Howard government, it was quite simply a very moving and significant moment; a sign that more than two hundred years since “settlement” began, the country has at least begun to heal.

The film and dance are both titled Lu’Arn and reveal the near lost story of a Boonwurrung man who followed the feather of a swan on a physical and spiritual journey down the Birrarung to learn the Law developed by his ancestors, given to men to care for Country. Lu’Arn becomes a demi-god of spiritual enlightenment to stand up for and look after Country, a story told by Aunty Carolyn Briggs to choreographer Jacob Boehme who is responsible for creating the contemporary dance piece that re-creates and re-adapts the integrity of the past into a new language for a new audience of primarily non-Indigenous Australians.  This is one such revelation the film provides; the difficulty of transition due to the diminished population of Boonwurrung people in Victoria, and the subsequent art of the dance not having been practiced in almost 300 years. To its credit the film reveals this difficulty as merely another challenge that can be overcome when a moral project is so determined, and significant to the Australian people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

One of the more touching moments in the film is where Kerr speaks about his experience of performing the piece in St Kilda where he says he used to be one of the “parkies” – demonstrating further that individuals and our country as a whole can, over time, begin to heal where “we” have caused damage to “their” culture, traditions and land. But even with this productive linguistic discourse whereby “we” and “their” are used respectfully and rightfully there is future hope for another linguistic discourse whereby “we” might come to include us all in a more positive and cohesive cultural context; Aunty Carolyn Briggs’ words so honest and hopeful they brought the right kind of  tear to my eye, “We can move forward. We are different, but we can be one, as Australians… From the old to the new our culture allows that because culture can’t stagnate… the elements, values, beliefs, systems, customs, culture, still alive today, just in new forms.” For all our country’s past mistakes, Lu’Arn suggests there is hope for the future, and if the film and the dance it documents are any mark of things to come – visually beautifully, socially fluid and politically resonant – then it is without doubt that I say I am pleased, and moved, to be welcomed to where I too call home.