Admittedly far less offensive than Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), multitasking writer/director/producer Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City (2009) is a film best described as “tourist cinema”. Much like the middle classes who find the time and fortunes to “travel” (an extended and supposedly more valid word for ‘holiday’ so far as this writer is concerned), The Waiting City offers a view of a “foreign” country that is terribly unsophisticated and worse yet condescending for its incessant, naive use of cliché.

It is difficult to ascertain whether or not McCarthy’s choosing India as the location and “backdrop” is incidental or politically motivated. Purportedly based on “a number of Australian adoption experiences in India” (Screen Daily) it is entirely possible that the film is just very poorly timed in terms of the recent controversy surrounding Australian violence against Indian people in Victoria and NSW.  But whether or not there is a connection I dare say that the often generalised view of Indian people the film offers; charming yet somehow amusing and entertaining for their idiosyncratic naivety; admirable and yet somehow still puzzlingly simplistic in culture and thus outlook; is likely to be something of a sore point in its wider viewer reception. But when you really get down to it, India is just the film’s backdrop against which a white heteronormative couple face their only real problem in life: that they cannot procreate – a problem, as it so turns out, that they have themselves created.

Fiona (Radha Mitchell) and Ben (Joel Edgerton) Simmons are a married couple who are a) travelling to Kolkata to adopt a child and b) suffering a crisis in their relationship. Fiona is a highly strung, always preoccupied, almost-uber-bitch, business minded lawyer and Ben is a failed musician; the two extremes set against each other as a thinly veiled guise for how indulging in any extreme – be it corporate or creative – is an essential human fault. The premise of the film is that through the process of “waiting” (the pace of life and bureaucracy in India being much less efficient than in the converse western world) they find more of themselves and ultimately therefore, each other. The film is heavy on not so subtly suggestive dialogue, free spirit Ben telling Fiona, “Go on, jump in” at the poolside when she nears the precipice of loosening up, allowing life to “happen”, and undergoing a transparent, simultaneous wardrobe/life change.

Essentially, the two learn from their experience abroad that life is a journey rather than a destination, which, is absolutely fine, but not exactly insightful when even last week’s episode of Glee managed to draw this apparent life conclusion. Perhaps the biggest point of contention is whether or not the viewer is supposed to align him/herself with the two clueless, cliché ridden protagonists? If the answer is yes (which I strongly suspect it is) then the film is as uninteresting and impertinent as I’ve indicated. If however the answer is no, then it’s just possible that the film is attempting to (negatively) comment upon the well established stereotype of annoying westerners who go abroad to “find themselves” (certainly, at the very least, the character Scarlett so irritatingly played by Isabel Lucas must fit this mould.) However, it seems overall more likely that the viewer is “supposed” to identify with and have empathy for Ben and Fiona.

As it ebbs and flows between being respectful of Indian culture; showing, not laughing, at wedding tradition one minute then having Fiona literally and figuratively try on a culture as she veils herself to dance in front of a hotel mirror the next; so too does it sway between being something of a decent drama and a somewhat xenophobic piece of trite. Not one that I’d really recommend, its flaws ultimately outweighing its merits, The Waiting City is a disappointment in the first instance and it verges on being an embarrassment in the second.

The Waiting City will be released in Australia on July 15 2010 through Hopscotch Films.

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.