In a time where everything appears to have a price tag, writer/director Tom Dicillo’s statement rings true; “The Doors, they never sold out. It was deeply inspirational to be reminded that not everything is for sale.” More than just a documentary about the formation of an iconic band, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009), is about that historical, social and political synthesis that occurs when music engages with and permeates its temporal context.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the music itself stands strong “against time” (so to speak), it is also true that The Doors are a band, and that their music is an output, that captures something significant of its own time. Perhaps the very reason it resonates still today is that what it captured was a transient and hopeful moment never fully realised; its relevancy today, therefore, permeating and immovable.

Refreshingly for a documentary about so famous a group as The Doors, Dicillo doesn’t go down the tired and frankly rather fruitless line of “talking heads” and instead uses fine filmmaking craft to find the most piercing way to start a story: “The sixties began with a shot.” Tracing from here the events and awakenings of the time, Dicillo moves from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through the Civil Rights Movement and up to the Vietnam War. Commenting upon whilst chartering these significant events, When You’re Strange is as much about historically significant values and moments of cultural change as it is the band. Dicillo doesn’t just pose history as a backdrop for their advent to fame but rather as the symbiotic, organic relationship that evolved between the two; “The establishment exists but a genuine counter-culture is growing.”

Making full use of remarkable stock footage of the band playing gigs as well of their fans and contemporaries, When You’re Strange is told simultaneously through voice-over narration and musical progression. A surprisingly rare feat for a music documentary, When You’re Strange actually considers the quality and aspects of their music and why that was not only unique but how it engaged and informed their displays of revelry and the carnivalesque in relation to the emerging counter-culture of the time. There is of course a tendency towards focus on Jim Morrison above other members of the band, but at no time does the film ignore the other three members; John Densmore, Robby Krieger,  Ray Manzarek; in preference of the notorious front man, always ensuring the focus is in relation to his effect on the group as a whole.

Contemplating violence as an American tradition and with the advent of Richard Nixon to the presidency, the film culminates in an extraordinarily moving montage set to “Riders on the Storm”. Contrasting war footage and an all-American child on the home front swinging like a monkey set perfectly to the lyric “let your children play”, When You’re Strange highlights how mimicry can lead to devastation. Revealing how political unrest ebbs and flows between counter-culture and conservatism just as artistic expression moves between its own motivating forces, When You’re Strange is never over dramatised or condescending to its audience and allows the incredible imagery and music of its subject to do so much of “the talking”. That said, the film is still scripted and operates as an “informative” documentary in the first instance, the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp narrating and guiding the experience. A fantastic documentary that reveals compelling subject matter, this is certainly one to make time for.

When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors is screening exclusively as part of an ACMI’s long-play season from December 27 2010 to January 3 2011 and is distributed through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Tron: Legacy

December 17, 2010

“I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see.” Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tells his son in the establishing story scene of Tron: Legacy (2010). Having studied IMAX 3D extensively for the better part of a year back in 2008 this is exactly how I’ve been feeling ever since. With my hopes – and fears – for the medium on edge for the past two years, I feel as though someone has finally understood what the technology is capable of and, with Tron: Legacy, I believe they have created a stunning, yet still reserved, display of what wonderful visual and immersive spectaculars simplistic, narrative film can offer to enhance and (quite literally) expand upon its content.

What interests me most about IMAX 3D is its relationship to the historical real and the way in which it uses immersion to enhance the comprehension of filmic content rather than just offer an entertaining experience in the first instance. With the recent spate of 3D films including a lot of crappy 2D to 3D conversion and an inordinate number of kids flicks I’ve been concerned for some time now that the medium would be lost to gimmick and glamour forever, subsequently failing to explore its more fascinating and significant relationship with tracing the historical real. Thankfully, Tron: Legacy has, in a compelling and incredibly innovative way, restored its trajectory to thinking through the links between history and experience and how any visual representation of the former requires comprehensive formal consideration to elucidate the theoretical and narrative ideas it holds.

The original Tron (1982), in addition to being a childhood favourite for many a now adult who grew up in the ’80s, is an incredible vision, and subsequent historical document of what I like to call the “future past”. The “future past” in film is a depiction of futurism that documents a contextual comprehension of what the future might either look like or the capabilities they are expected of it, and thus, necessarily, it becomes immediately after depiction, itself a document of the past. Tron: Legacy is one film that I am absolutely certain will, like its original, come to be a document of its own contextual “future past”. However, with Tron: Legacy (and indeed even Tron to some extent) the depiction of the “future past” is not so much in theorising how we might live in the future or what technological advancements might mean to society so much as it is a continuation of the contemplation surrounding interactivity and where it is that escapism intersects with real life.

The idea that both films are predicated upon concerns sharing of or access to information. Given the technological revolution called the Internet that has arrived in homes during the time spanning the two films’ release dates, notions of sharing and access have never been more relevant concerns. The issue addressed however is mostly to do with the relational converse: control. All systems of power are built upon a relational set up and so for there even to be a question of “sharing” or “access” there must first be a structure that prevents this.

Mirroring so very many times throughout the film are the structures of the real world  - where corporations and authoritative figures are in control – and the structures of “the Grid” (itself a mirror image of the “games” played in the real world) where multiple mirror imagings occur; its own creator up against an image of himself. But perhaps most significant is his inability to return to the real world and even to any longer engage in the confines of his own creation. Set aside and decidedly “off the grid” both Kevin Flynn and his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) occupy liminal spaces between reality and fantasy. Prior to entering the Grid, we have seen Sam as an outcast who has made a “home” for himself based upon extraction from the human world and their prescribed rules. The company in which he is the major shareholder, Encom, is nothing more than a bankrolling joke to him. In a wonderfully indicative bike chase sequence early on we see Sam ride in the real world as he will once he enters the Grid: recklessly and with enough balls and abandon to physically ride off an overpass, breaking the established barriers.

Just as Sam breaks through established barriers within the narrative; hacking into Encom’s system and posting their technology for all the world to see and passing through the boundaries between the real world and the digital one; Tron: Legacy itself repeatedly breaks cinematic boundaries, creating yet another mirror between form and content. From using the most visceral and immersive thirty or forty seconds of 3D I have ever seen in cinema as its opening shot (this honestly feels more like a simulator ride than a static viewing experience), to seven times in the film expanding the dimensions of the IMAX screen to allow for an enhanced and enlarged view of the spectacle, to seamlessly switching between 2D and 3D as and when the effects call for it yet never appearing gimmicky or clunky in doing so, Tron: Legacy is an exemplary exercise in experimenta.

But returning to the narrative of the film and its relation to an historical real, there is one character in the film, Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who represents a new phase in the human/digital (r)evolution. Her role and what she represents suggests an internal evolution within gaming and the digital world. The implications of this are astronomical, particularly as she transcends the barrier between the real world and the Grid, leaving the film with “integration” as its final frontier. What Tron: Legacy is tracing here is the fascinating move from an historical document (Tron) to its conceived progression (Tron: Legacy) which then charters the transcendence of the real to computer generating and digital enhancement, through an onscreen evolutionary event and back to the real (diegetic) world. Both spatially and temporally this is an entirely new way of viewing historical representation and yet so wonderfully is in and of itself an historical document as it suggests to us; its own vision of the future for “user interactivity”, human/digital integration and a move beyond understanding history as a series of “events” and into understanding history as a constant, evolving process that occurs across a multitude of platforms and instantaneously through communicable affect. Whilst I appreciate it can be said of any film that it is in and of itself an historical document of one form or another, Tron: Legacy is unique in that its central call for viewing and experiencing cinema is as an onscreen process of evolution in interactivity, not just technologically speaking, but also with regards to the very linear understanding we hold towards historical discourse.

“Sometimes life has a way of moving you past life and hope.” is what Kevin Flynn tells Sam towards the film’s end and I would venture that sometimes cinema has a way of moving its audiences past traditional and expected viewing experiences and the hope for what they might achieve. Tron: Legacy is not only an incredible and deeply affecting experience in immersive IMAX 3D (and it would remiss of me not to at least mention how truly awesome the Daft Punk soundtrack is at achieving a large proportion of that affect), but it is also a pioneering film for our continued understanding not only of modes of viewing experience, but also the way in which they construct contextual comprehension. Aware of itself to the last, Tron: Legacy is a signpost for what cinema can be and it is one of the most beautiful visions I have ever seen.

Tron: Legacy is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday December 16 but despite wherever else it might be playing there is only one way to see this film and that is in immersive IMAX with 3D. For Melbournian readers of LV, you can see Tron: Legacy at the Melbourne Museum IMAX in Carlton and I implore you to do so.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Gasland

November 16, 2010

It’s not all too often that a film will bring a tear to my eye. Call me a cold-hearted cognitivist (I’ve been called worse) but it is rare that I find cinematic subject matter so emotionally affective as to move me to tears. But one thing that time and again proves for me a faultless trigger is the sincere endeavour of a documentary filmmaker to communicate a heinous crime against humanity, especially when that crime is one that we ourselves inflict upon other human beings and/or our planet.

Josh Fox’s new documentary film Gasland (2010) is one such film whereby the very seed of hope and a genuine effort to incite positive activism hold the power to shake an otherwise often too apathetic core. We all have an ethical responsibility to each other and to our environment. That seems to be a simple enough statement and one that we might all take as a given. But apparently “we” humans are more interested in industry and commerce than health and environment and the result is water that catches on fire and individuals who die slow, painful and unvoiced deaths. Thankfully, filmmaker Josh Fox still holds an optimistic view for our ability to find real, workable solutions, his opening voice-over announcing, “I’m not a pessimist. I’ve always had a great deal of faith in people.” And it is from this admirable perspective that Fox begins his investigative documentary project on the processes, lies and effects of the act of “fracking”.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water and a veritable cocktail of chemicals (known as frack fluid) into the ground to cause a sort of mini explosion that cause the land to crack and fracture, releasing the earth’s natural gases which is, according to some people in positions of authority, a real “sustainable” energy source . But, as we all know, and as one of the aforementioned authoritative folk tells Fox in his film, “There is no such thing as a perfect source of energy.” A clever statement because 1) it’s indisputable and 2) it’s so definitive in and of itself that it almost denies the counter argument which is that just because there is no “perfect” source, doesn’t mean there aren’t some sources which would be preferable to others, or indeed other solutions that might involve humans cutting down on energy use rather than using with wild abandon and hoping the pursuit of something to replace it will just work out somehow.

With so many incredibly negative side effects, it’s difficult to decide what exactly about “fracking” is most troubling; that long-term exposure to the gases and contaminated water can lead to irreversible brain damage; that the people working on extracting the gases don’t know the truth about close-quarter effects; that the corporations involved refuse to divulge the full list of “chemicals” used in the process; that the process leaves behind “produced” water which further contaminates the earth; that the government are involved in ignoring their own clean air and clean water acts and are thus implicated in an almighty cover up; that even if it wasn’t dangerous the civilians who complained about their contaminated water were refused even an investigation; or that no one other than a filmmaker seems to care enough to try to stop it from happening. Is the only solution then to stop focusing on the problems already caused and start thinking about finding a solution that might stop it from continuing/happening elsewhere?

Fox’s film is highly contemplative and has fantastic and admirable intent but ultimately; against global corporations including Shell, Exonn, Mobil, BP, Halliburton (all of whom quite clearly and understandably declined to interview for the film) and governments; what chance does the common man have? There is certainly an element of hope that he/she has some and there are various websites set up for subsequent community action (including ones relating to fracking in Australia too)*. But the one thing that Fox fails to acknowledge in his film is that the whole orchestration of these events comes down to that one dirty word we just can’t escape: capitalism. In a system that controls and effects everything (truly everything) it will never be the case that we get the “best” or even the “less bad” of the supposedly available energy sources. Fox’s film finishes on imagery of wind turbines but with so many positions in authority voting against them for purely aesthetic objections (as is the case in the UK) it’s absolutely clear that the deciding motivators aren’t necessarily the same for farmers as they are councillors.

Moving, infuriating, incredulous: Gasland is a film of much merit. Unfortunately it will likely preach (as so many of these films do) to the already converted or, worse still, long time apathetic anti-activists who cogitate and leave it at that. Further to this, the quality of filmmaking, due largely to and absolutely forgivable for its one-man low-budget constrictions, is really rather poor. But these points notwithstanding I’d still hope everyone go out and see the film, because the cause and the fight are important.

With the extraction of an energy source contaminating arguably the most important resource on our planet (water) perhaps the most significant question Fox asks is at the very end of his film, “How much water could you replace?” If we’re lucky, those proverbial “powers that be” will find a way to convert the very tears of humanity into an energy source – because that’s probably the most “sustainable” source we’ve got.

Gasland is released in Australian cinemas Thursday November 18 through Palace Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

* Western Downs Alliance / The Basin Sustainability Alliance / The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance

Whether or not you’re familiar with Bill Hicks’ stand up this is a film you really ought to make the effort to go and see. American: The Bill Hicks Story, screening in Melbourne as part of an ACMI Long Play season, is a documentary about the late great man who changed the face of comedy and reinvented the term “stand up” for the better. Including familiar footage from some of his infamous routines as well as rare footage of his early days and interviews with his family and friends, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a timely reminder that when we laugh we also cry a little because the home truths that subversive “comedy” reveals are as sobering as they are welcome.

Straight forward and straight up, British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ filmmaking style gets to the point quickly and clearly, just like Hicks did when he addressed an audience. Charting a simple but sound trajectory of Hicks’ physical and mental journey from his deep southern roots in Houston, Texas to an international stage across Canada, the US, Australia and the UK, American shows how someone who really cared about the words that came out of his mouth built a career out of progressive thought.

Not exactly a stranger to controversy, Hicks was more than just a “comedian”. Probably more politically astute than the entirety of any western country’s governmental administration, Hicks was on a militant mission to change the minds of the masses and, if he could, to quite literally shake consciousness into a populace who, at least in his early days, weren’t expecting to learn something when they turned up to hear his “routine”. But with such great intellect and wit there comes a price. It is not anomalous for someone so perceptive and affected by the problems of the world to find solace in substance abuse and self-destruction and so, we see too a side to Hicks we might prefer to forget, but it is one that we most certainly shouldn’t.

Inter-cutting interview footage of Hicks’ closest family and friends with the stock footage of his stand up routines, American gives its audience – newcomers and veterans alike – a view of how Hicks’ personal life simultaneously informed and was informed by his measurable successes and failures. A product of his own mythology, Hicks couldn’t abide the self-destructive nature of a society so filled with fear and hate.

Demonstrating perhaps more perfectly than even his own words were able, Hicks’ life – at least insofar as it is presented in the film – outlines a wonderful “how-to” guide for reaching enlightenment:  first look at yourself and where you come from, then examine the influences and the surroundings of which you are – whether you like it or not – a product, and finally, look and examine again. One thing that is always present in Hicks’ stand up is the central idea that everything in life, including life itself, is subject to limitation – except of course for the critical use of the human mind.

If you love Bill Hicks then get off your lazy ass and leave your living room to learn a little more about the man’s life and journey as it informed his work. And if you don’t know who Bill Hicks is – well, I’d still implore you to get off your ass and go see it. It doesn’t matter if you know everything or nothing about this man before you see this film: whatever Hicks’ material you come to first is the right one, because believe me, everything this man ever said is enough to change something in you for the better.

American: The Bill Hicks Story opens in Melbourne at ACMI Thursday November 4 and screens until Tuesday November 23.

As anyone who works in the elusive mire that is “the arts” will know, the work is hard and the compensation not always entirely desirable. Knowing just how difficult it is to embark upon and maintain a career as an artist and understanding the discipline and dedication each gifted individual must give of themselves in order to “succeed” is precisely what Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009) is all about. Showing various “behind the scenes” footage from the struggles to cut through bureaucratic red tape to the tiresome necessity of endless rehearsals, La Danse is an exemplary portrait of the true slog that goes on behind the grand closed doors of so prestigious a dance academy as the Paris Opera Ballet.

The finished product is “a gift to the public” and the thought behind the giving of this gift is a collective, tireless pursuit of perfection. From hand-beading seamstress to cafeteria chef, everyone who works at the Paris Opera Ballet is part of a greater whole striving for the absolute best; for both themselves and for the audiences who will come to witness the final product. Very much like a carefully constructed building (and we are reminded of this intermittently as Wiseman shows us the corridors, staircases, exterior architectural design and other foundational elements of the literal building that houses the company), the whole is only so strong as its individual parts. Not quite a socialist outlook, but certainly an argument for the prevailing presence of the body politic as a whole and how its strength is derived of its solidarity, La Danse offers a glimpse into how individuals can be stronger as a group and how they can, if they work for it, reach collective goals.

France is a progressive nation when it comes to the arts and their strengths across many artistic disciplines from literature, to dance, to film and fine art (to name but a few forms) is testament to this. Their success in this area owing largely to the standard that must be met in order for further resources to then become available. Both a matter of public and private funding, France maintains its word standard and reputation by ensuring each individual falls in line with the shared goal of absolute artistic excellency.

It is no coincidence either that Wiseman has chosen ballet as the subject for a documentary on the strength of the artist; the physical strength required for ballet is immense and both the poise and elegance with which the dancers move in rehearsal as in production is truly incredible; their physical strength a manifestation of their stoical disposition as they continue to strive for excellence and reject complacency in lieu of their already outstanding achievements. The director of the company tells her dancers, “the continuity of the ballet will help you”, meaning that the standards of excellency filter down to individual strength. Furthermore, in their pursuit of a better “retirement system” (most dancers retire much younger than other professionals, often at forty, younger even than most artists in other disciplines due to the physical demands of the work), their “special differences” which stem from “the consciousness formed in our school” is ultimately what they must both rely on and continue to fight to produce.

An engaging and enlightening documentary, La Danse includes rehearsal and performance footage from Paquita, The Nutcracker, Genus, Medea, The House of Bernarda Alba, Romeo and Juliet, and Orpheus and Eurydyce.

La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 21 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

It would seem as though the so-called Queen of Comedy was right on the money with her declaration: “I’m back, you bastards.” After doing the rounds at Sundance (where it won an award for Documentary Film Editing) and Tribeca as well as being part of the official selection at both the Sydney Film Festival and the New Zealand International Film Festival, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) made its way to ACMI where it enjoyed a sell-out season, and now, thanks to the good people at Madman Entertainment, the film enjoys a new lease of life screening in; Melbourne (exclusively at Cinema Nova from September 30th), and Sydney, Perth and Hobart (from October 7th).

Rivers is only careful when it comes to cataloguing. her jokes.

For a woman who has been acting and doing stand-up since 1966, Joan Rivers already has more than enough to show for a life in show biz. But it’s just not enough.Still as hungry for it at 75 as she was 44 years ago when she started out, Rivers is dissatisfied with the thanks she receives for opening the proverbial door to women comediennes, barking back with “Fuck you, I’m still opening doors!” Refusing to fade into the distance and with about as much determination as she’s had plastic surgery, Rivers takes no prisoners.With absolutely no intention of going anywhere even slightly left or right of the limelight Rivers isn’t interested in retiring into an ordinary existence, “I could stop and live carefully but that’s ridiculous. I don’t want to live carefully.”

Considering herself “a small industry” with a staff that supports her claim, Rivers categorises and catalogues her jokes - all of them, on speech cards. Proud of her body of work and the performances that were so shocking for their time that Jack Lemmon famously walked out on one, Rivers makes no apologies and no concessions for the affect her biting satire is responsible for; her only weakness being her need to be loved and her genuine disappointment that “No one will ever take me seriously as an actor.”

While it’s difficult to believe that someone so brazen as Rivers could be disappointed not to be taken seriously, the documentary works hard to show her softer side (or at least it explores the idea that she might have one.) Filming and focusing on the present, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work includes just mere glimpses of a coloured past, hoping to build up the story of Joan now: on the rise to become a *star*. Again. From a blank calendar to a fully booked diary the film builds its tension along with the trajectory of Joan’s (re)career. Re-building block by block, day by day, until the grid is full, Rivers clearly won’t rest even when she is back on top; self-achievement too important; “in spite of being a woman, in spite of being 75 and in spite of being black-balled by NBC.”

Does Rivers have a softer side?

With comedy so clearly fuelled by anger and defiance, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is the first installment of a come-back PR propaganda campaign. Pushing her clout in equal proportion to her humility (if, as the film would have us believe, she actually has any), it hopes to gain her the respect and empathy of an entirely new audience whilst simultaneously re-kindling a lost love affair with the old. There are moments in the film where Rivers even makes attempts to tear-up, but her face just won’t allow it, oftentimes making it difficult to determine just how sincere she really is being. But, she is a funny woman, and even if her face won’t crack up, no doubt you will.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Dolphins and Whales 3D

September 14, 2010

Commercial cinema 3D may well be taking the world by storm following the success of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), the recent spate of Pixar/Dreamworks animations and the occasional horror flick indulging in splatter-D, but before it became standard to have your own set of 3D glasses there was something called the IMAX. It really has to be said that IMAX 3D is still superior to the strange, conversely subtle and gimmicky modes of 3D that contemporary audiences have come to expect. And moreover, it’s worth saying that the immersive qualities of IMAX 3D, as they correlate to the content of their predominantly educational documentary short features, are absolutely preferable to the aforementioned popcorn fodder in every possible way. Melbournians are lucky enough to have the world’s third largest screen at their disposal and with the latest release of Dolphins and Whales 3D there’s really no excuse not to get yourself to Carlton to go see it.

Dolphins and Whales 3D does three things: 1) it educates audiences on a variety of species of the aforementioned dolphins and whales by giving an extreme, close “view” to their lives undersea; 2) it offers experiential cinematic engagement founded upon haptic, immersive theoretical discourse and 3) it reveals its moral project (cautioning against the farming and polluting of sea life) through a thematic thread that is enhanced and reiterated by its technology’s unique ability to inherently reference an historical real.

Ocean life is threatened by the continued human slaughter of dolphins and whales and by human pollution of the earth which in turn severely damages and endangers their habitat and food resources. Told, by Daryl Hannah no less (she of Splash (1984) fame) that many of these remarkable creatures “may soon become a ghostly shadow of the arctic, a mere memory”, the film highlights both the real threat that we pose to their existence whilst indexing their historical and anthropological significance.  Furthermore, the documentary also suggests in its concluding remarks that “we can change our way of life” which resonates so much more as it is being communicated through a pioneering technology that quite literally changes the way in which we see these (often hidden from plain view) mammals.

With the assistance of a heavily emotive score the images figuratively (and sometimes literally) wash over its audience like to a wave of consciousness, imploring those in the auditorium to take an active role in “viewing” so that it develops into “perceiving” and ultimately therefore an experience in educational comprehension. Upon leaving the theatre audiences will find themselves amidst a museum environment which is hardly incidental; the experience as it occurred in the auditorium fully intended to be built upon back in the “real” (temporally at least) world. In just 45 minutes the experience of IMAX 3D could truly alter your perception, a far greater feat than Cameron’s 162 minutes of “blue people” (IMHO!)

Dolphins and Whales 3D is playing now at the Melbourne Museum IMAX 3D theatre in Carlton. Click here to view the trailer.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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.

It may still feel like the middle of Winter, but actually Spring is just around the corner which means so too is Melbourne Spring Fashion Week. In lieu of this year’s upcoming fix for fashionistas, and as part of the cultural program surrounding MSFW, ACMI present a short season of Fashion Icons on Film; featuring four premiere documentaries celebrating the fabulous world of fashion and four of its most distinct and influential designers; Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (2009), Beyond Biba: A Portrait of Barbara Hulanicki (2009), Ralph Rucci: A Designer and His House (2008) and Celebration (2007) about the late, great, Yves Saint Laurent.

Beyond Biba: A Portrait of Barbara Hulanicki - It’s thirty-five years since the doors closed on Biba for good and designer/founder Barbara Hulanicki is now quite comfortably situated on the other side of the world immersed in her latest creative design endeavour on Miami’s South Beach: hotel and nightclub interiors. Looking back over a life and a brand, Beyond Biba concentrates largely on the woman Hulanicki has become today as owing to the experiences that shaped her iconic foray into fashion and later, interior design.

Broken up into six main segments the documentary begins where it ought; Childhood, with Hulanicki talking about her memories of living in Warsaw, Poland and later in Palestine; it then moves on to her main passion which, perhaps surprisingly for some, is not “fashion” as such, but rather Drawing; the act of which leads to her infamous “big start” starring The Gingham Dress as featured in the Daily Mirror; but it wasn’t just Hulanicki’s passion for drawing and keen eye for fashion that led to the great success of Biba, it was – as with most profitable business endeavours – the product of a dream partnership with a man who simultaneously became her lover, Fitz; this led to The Shops: Abingdon Road, Kensington Church Street and finally, the coveted Kensington High Street; but creative differences between Hulanicki and her financiers was what ultimately put the nail in the coffin on Biba in 1974 when Hulanicki walked away from her once booming business, something she now views with deep Nostalgia.

Watching the woman “who gave us high street high fashion” as comfortable and passionate in her new life as an interior designer to the likes of Chris Blackwood as she was giving ordinary English women in the late 1960s the opportunity to look chic and sophisticated without breaking the bank, is as warm as the woman herself.

Beyond Biba: A Portrait of Barbara Hulanicki screens at ACMI on Sunday August 29 7.30pm, Wednesday September 1 2.30pm and Thursday September 2 8pm as part of their Fashion Icons on Film 2010 Melbourne Spring Fashion Week season.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Other Film Festival

August 20, 2010

The question of ethics and the way in which we understand “the Other” through visual media, and more specifically through film, is something that is often touched upon (though not always in as much depth as I’d like) in the writing here at Liminal Vision. The idea that when we sit down to view a film we enter into an unspoken “contract” whereby we agree to substitute reality for spectacle for the duration of the film is a fundamental in spectatorship theory and a kind of “given” that possibly isn’t contested as often as it ought to be. There is one text I’d like to mention in which earlier models of spectatorship theory are brought into question through a theoretical discourse concerned with ethics, as expressed through both the content of any given film and also through the ethics that inform the act of viewing any given film: Michele Aaron’s Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. The most significant phraseology, for me, to come from Aaron’s writing is “responsive responsibility”.

Although Aaron’s writing is applicable to and engages with all modes of visual media, it bears particular relevance to two films I wish to discuss here and that are featured in the upcoming program for The Other Film Festival; a festival of “New cinema by, with and about people with a disability.” What It’s Like To Be My Mother (2007) and Blind Loves (2008), both focus – though in remarkably different ways – on the question of assuming responsibility, in equal measure, for the content of that which we do and do not see.

What It’s Like To Be My Mother: More than just raising an awareness surrounding what it is like to live with disability, What It’s Like To Be My Mother actually asks the viewer to think about what it is like to live being seen by Others as disabled. Featuring a film within a film, What It’s Like is knowing in its express implication of the viewers’ role in constructing a notion of “otherness”.

When  Julia’s film about her disabled mother Monika qualifies for a Warsaw festival of “disability and art” she soon learns that the ownership of the film is not entirely her own; the subject, her mother, claiming equal if not primary concern for its exhibition, tells her daughter that exhibiting the film is not her decision to own “because you’re not disabled.” Being made to feel “naked” as viewers look on but importantly do not experience her disability it becomes clear that whilst Monika attributes the ownership of film as object to her daughter, “It’s her masterpiece, not mine”, she is painfully aware even before Julia verbalises the sentiment, that the film only exists in lieu of Monika’s indomitable spirit, “But you’re the masterpiece.”

Often using humour to distract attention from herself as a “disabled woman” in the first instance, Monika opens up to her daughter and, vicariously to us. Through her honestly we might begin to understand the complexity and contradiction within the limitations of what we see, “I would be happier if people didn’t notice me…You see when you look, but you don’t look.” Through Monika filmmaker Norah McGettigan successfully conveys the complex ethical implications involved in seeing an Other, specifically as it pertains to the way in which they are conveyed or shown on film; Monika’s honest answer to the question, “Did losing your legs change your life?” being that it is “a feeling”, and moreover, “one you won’t capture on your camera.”

Blind Loves: Broken up into four vignettes each focussing on an interpretation of love and “blindness” (both as a physical and metaphorical affliction), Blind Loves interpolates the space between screen and viewer, providing an acute awareness of the act of watching individuals who themselves cannot see.

Peter is a music teacher who is blind to obstacle and whose love for music allows him to create his own liminal space between fantasy and reality. Miro is passionately in love with Monika but he is blind to her parents’ concerns for their interracial relationship in a small village where people talk. Elena is blind to the power of how much love she is capable of giving to the life she has created, questioning her own ability to mother and afraid her newborn will be taken away from her. Zuzana loves being a regular teenage girl but her kindness is a form of naiveté and she is blind to the prejudice of Others.

In simultaneously highlighting “sameness” and “otherness” as it exists in individuals with disability, these films ask something significant of their audience, something far more piercing than “acceptance” or “awareness”. What these films are asking is The Ethical Question. Not just our responsibility to the Other, but also in viewing, our responsive responsibility to the images we have just seen.

“An ethics of spectatorship requires us to think about how we are positioned, and interpellated, with regard to the morality, immorality and amorality of film. It does not just acknowledge how we consent to our submission to the spectacle, but asks us to consider how we are rendered accountable or not to what we have consented to, and part of the contract of spectatorship, of course, is that we do not renege on the deal.” – Michele Aaron, Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On (2007)

The Other Film Festival runs Wednesday August 25 to Sunday August 29 at the Melbourne Museum. The festival is in association with Arts Access Victoria and as such all films screened during the festival will be captioned or subtitled and audio described and all public areas are wheelchair accessible.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision

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