Catfish

August 9, 2010

Everyone said it was best not to know anything about Catfish (2010) before seeing it. So, trusting in at least some of the illusive collective, I refrained from reading the write-up, was sure not to watch the trailer and wouldn’t allow any of my fellow MIFFophiles to speak of its content in my company. Attending its second screening at the festival, I found the film to be highly enjoyable but not so incredibly shocking or perhaps even surprising as I had been led to believe it might be. In lieu of my own post-viewing assessment, be warned, the words that follow do talk about what actually happens in the film.

Documenting filmmaker Ariel Schulman’s brother Nev, a twenty-four year old photographer, and his incredibly funny yet incredibly sad experience of taking a Facebook “friend” to the next level, Catfish is about the fundamental desire we have to connect with other human beings. Now, the idea of finding interesting people via social networking sites and later meeting them in real life isn’t exactly foreign to me (hi to the many friendly twitter folk I’ve met during MIFF), however, Nev’s “connections” happen in a very different – and far more intense – manner than most of us (I at least speak for myself here) are familiar with.

Connecting first with an eight-year-old girl named Abby who is a talented painter, followed by correspondence with her mother Angela and finally “friending” Abby’s beautiful, older, dancer/singer-songwriter sister Megan, Nev has found himself a “Facebook family.” A seemingly great connection with an interesting and artistic family, Nev is happy to call, email and Facebook the entire family and their friends – until Megan records and posts a song that sounds suspiciously similar to a professional post on YouTube – suddenly it becomes clear that at least one of member of the family isn’t all she says she is…

Exposing a sad individual for the pathological liar she is comes across as a fault that resides ultimately with both parties; Nev’s involvement being implicit despite his naiveté to the contrary, “They didn’t fool me, they just told me things I didn’t care to question.” Handling the apparent situation with more than the appropriate level of tact and kindness it warrants, Catfish is a film that hopes to warn the gullible and lecture the weak. Entertaining if inconsequential viewing.

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Green Days

August 9, 2010

The youngest daughter of acclaimed Iranian new wave director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf, proves to any non-believers that talented filmmaking really does run in the family with her outstanding second feature film, Green Days (2009). By inter-cutting mobile phone and other amateur digital footage of shocking police brutality following the protests against rigged results re-electing the oppressive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s 2009 election with a series of hopeful pre-election footage, young Makhmalbaf offers a compelling and horrific vision of the extremity of a nation full of hope descending into a nation defiled and defeated. A far cry from ‘entertaining’ or ‘enjoyable’, Green Days is an appropriately and overwhelmingly distressing viewing experience.

The film focuses predominantly on the lead up to the election in the country’s capital city, Tehran. A place that is home to some 17 million people and has been fighting for its freedom for 100 years, Tehran is described as “A city full of tears.” A continuous cycle of hope and deflation is subsequently expressed as both clinically depressing and infinite as, “Every four years we all get our hopes up…[then[ we lose everything.” Much of the documentary is informed by a young woman’s (Ava) disillusioned perspective through her search for medical help to ” Please stop this nightmare.” In a country where women can’t become president and where Ava’s work as a theatre director is politically banned, she is left to feel both politically and emotionally deflated. Proclaiming “Happiness is forbidden here”, Ava continues to work on her theatre pieces regardless, strongly reiterating the crime against humanity that is an endless cycle of hope (rehearsing) without victory (performance).

Essential but not easy viewing, Green Days is a brave piece of filmmaking that everyone who considers themselves remotely humanist really ought to see.

Videocracy

August 5, 2010

Although labeled a “cultural revolution”, the unhealthy obsession with fame that is now bred into the vast majority of children and youths is actually more a powerful political tool for the continued and unchallenged repression of the lower socio-economic classes. Erik Gandini’s documentary film Videocracy (2009) reveals the rise and shame of an appallingly strong “media oppression” in Italy.  Though the notion is not exactly “news”, the film successfully communicates an aptly bleak and depressing picture – not so much of “the power of television”, but rather of the power of the social and political elite.

There is an entire generation who believe that the greatest achievement in life is fame and furthermore that being seen on television is a form of validation because it means others will “remember” you – rendering you (in a manner of speaking) “immortal”. Belief in this ludicrous notion is what continues to keep those of low social-economic standing repressed, something the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Lele Mora know all too well. Berlusconi, the current Prime Minister of Italy, also owns 90% of Italian television media, a devastating conflict of interests, but one that helps to successfully breed the controlled climate that produces such questions from “average citizens” like, “Why should I have to be a mechanic all my life?” By giving the masses an “aspiration” of this kind, those in power distract and mask the corruption within the political system, focussing the masses on achieving within it rather than challenging it.

Filled with a plethora of dirty facts such as “the minister for gender equality was a former showgirl”; and a ream of baffling ideologies; “I’m like Robin Hood, I rob from the rich, but instead of giving to the poor, I give to myself”; Videocracy is an important and blunt reminder that we are far from “free”.

MIFF Shorts Awards

August 3, 2010

Having not really had time to check out all of this year’s Shorts strand at MIFF, I thought heading along to the Shorts Awards would at least afford me with a working knowledge of and opportunity to see the festival’s most outstanding highlights. After a fair bit of talking and some occasionally amusing anecdotes, the actual award ceremony got under way and the winners in each category were announced. They are as follows:

  • Jury Special Mention: Out of Love (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Experimental Short Film: Long Live the New Flesh (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Animation Short Film: Angry Man (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Documentary Short Film: The Mystery of Flying Kicks (2009)
  • Cinema Nova for Best Fiction Short Film: Autumn Man (2009)
  • Melbourne Airport Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker: The Kiss (2010)
  • Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film: Franswa Sharl (2009)
  • City Of Melbourne Grand Prix for Best Short Film: The Lost Thing (2010)

Somewhat disappointingly they didn’t quite have enough time to show all the shorts (although I dare say that if they’d cut some of the comedy intro – no offense to Colin Lane intended – along with the absolutely pointless “montage” of shorts’ opening credits that some poor bastard spend time needlessly editing together, then they could have fit them all in), but the majority of those shown were of a very high standard.

First up was The Kiss, a well observed Australian “coming of age” dramatic short that was well shot and suitably atmospheric.

Next was the fascinating documentary surrounding the act of “shoe tossing” which illuminates a number of global theories on the “origin” and “meaning” behind the phenomenon. Amongst the reasons cited are; marking the loss of one’s virginity; signaling a crack house; indicating gang territory; a sign of bullying and performance art. Using mixed media and with a strong but not omniscient voice, The Mystery of Flying Kicks is a tidy little film with peculiar yet intriguing subject matter.

The less said about Franswa Sharl the better – let’s just leave it at this: sometimes it seems Australian filmmakers don’t know where the line is – no matter what the motivation, an intentionally comedic character who “blacks up” is wildly inappropriate and always offensive.

Finally, The Lost Thing: a sweet, endearing, well animated tale about individuality and imagination. A kind, subtle metaphor for the anomalous nature of pure imagination within an industrial cityscape: “A place you wouldn’t know exists.”

Thomas Caldwell said it best in his brief intro when he urged the filmmakers present, “Please continue to make films that are true to your own visions because they’re going to be the good ones.” Just so long as they can leave the racial offenses aside, I wholeheartedly agree.

Every now and again the actual subject of a film is so incredibly engrossing that (upon its first viewing at least) the actual filmmaking presents as superfluous. The Invention of Dr Nakamats (2009) is one such film.

At a wee fifty-seven minutes long, Nakamats is just about as short and sweet as it gets. The documentary follows Japanese inventor Dr Nakamatsu whose thousands of patents include just about everything from the bizarre (but apparently effective) Love Jet (a type of “Viagra spray”) to the well-known and widely used Floppy Disk. Indeed the descriptions and demonstrations of his inventions are entertaining and fascinating in and of themselves, but really it’s the man who makes the movie…

Dr Nakamatsu is one of those incredibly endearing individuals who just about maintains the right kind of balance between genius and insanity. Keeping himself “active, aggressive, strong” through the use of many of his own crackpot inventions, an absolute maximum of four hours sleep a night and an unparalleled belief that 0.5 seconds before death is the optimum moment for brain activity and thus invention, Dr Nakamatsu reaches the ripe old age of 80 and not only hopes, but honestly anticipates, living to around about 143.

For some of the strangest yet most wonderfully wild mantras you’ll ever hear, including his “criteria” for buying a camera; “I smell the camera. Good smell is good camera. Bad smell or no smell, that is bad camera.”; The Invention of Dr Nakamats is an absolute must-see.

The Invention of Dr Nakamats is screening as part of the Flawed Geniuses strand of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again Sunday August 08 7pm at Greater Union Cinema 4.

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.

Starsuckers

April 12, 2010

It’s 2010 and a lot of us already know that we are constantly being had. But it’s always good to be reminded that many of us are either still in denial or just plain unawares. Starsuckers (2009) is a documentary film that hopefully does more than just preach to the converted about the oppressive cycles of capitalism, looking specifically at the utility of the fame factory within it. So if you didn’t know, or if you just weren’t quite sure, then Starsuckers is the kind of documentary that ought to help you find out.

The way in which the phenomena that is ‘fame’ operates is as an echo of the greater system within which it thrives: capitalism. Starsuckers purports that through convincing children that everybody can be famous  and that the key to happiness lies within the entertainment industry, the elusive and untouchable ‘powers that be’ (media networks, global corporations, et al) begin to control and direct our lives from the moment we enter the soul destroying system that is the capitalist western world. These claims seem fair and the world of fame is certainly a suitable target for mockery. But as always with this mode of ‘revelatory’ documentary (see anything by Michael Moore), it needs to be viewed with a pinch of cinematic salt.

Structured a lot like a persuasive essay or a series of debate cards, Starsuckers is segmented into clear points of contention to support its central thesis; that you’re being conned. Of course you are, but not just by the capitalist system, Starsuckers itself utilises many persuasive and manipulative visuals to convince its audience of its chosen agenda. For example, though I’m sure it is true that if there were a magic button you could press to make you smarter, stronger, more beautiful or famous, a majority of children probably would answer ‘famous’, but it might also be useful to know a little more about the reception studies at hand beyond the most obvious and binary opposition of gender, such as; socio-economic background, race and ethnicity, skills, aptitudes and abilities of the children surveyed. That is to say that the presentation of ‘factual’ information is at best partial and therefore subject to potential bias. Even when it asks questions that ought to be asked, such as, ‘to what extent are parents to blame and to what extent are the forces of capitalism at fault?’, it isn’t really asking. Having already suggested that we were all raised by “the system” it essentially absolves parents and individuals from any form of liability before it can even entertain the concept of responsibility.

The documentary goes to great pains to accredit itself and corroborate its message through the presentation of a great many talking heads authorities who include psychiatrists and university professors in related fields; their words weighty and their opinions valid. Inter-cut with humorous and at times eccentric found archive footage as well as undercover ‘observational’ documentary film bites, Starsuckers masterfully blends just about every mode of documentary filmmaking known to the discourse. Successfully alternating between serious persuasive argument, shock-factor footage or statistics and humorous eccentricities, Starsuckers is trying to reach the not-already-in-the-know “average television viewer”. If you’re not convinced then take into account the fact the film has been simultaneously released on terestrial television and on DVD. So, aspirationally, at least, it’s got its cinematic conscience in the right place.

One of the more contentious and therefore significant points the film raises is to do with the boundaries between “healthy enthusiasm” and “unhealthy obsession”. There is certainly a difference between the two and the film, to its credit, does attempt to address it. Its ultimate conclusion however is that the pervasive intent of the media is something of a responsible party in the increasing cases of mental illness amongst children. Little support for the claim is provided.  The film also indicates a central instigative problem of individuals necessarily copying one another since the dawn of mankind. Whilst there is certainly something to be said for the way in which we learn from others and are taught to repeat, mimic and copy, in terms of media reception there can hardly be such a suggestion without taking into consideration the history and evolution of art, film and televisual media, let alone theories of identification and spectatorial studies. Something the film sadly neglects.

The film focuses its watchful eye primarily on US and UK media, giving the British press an extra special mention when it comes to celebrity gossip. Revealing the farce that is the British popular press, Starsuckers shows how several publications don’t necessarily fact check their stories before going to print. The nature of celebrity gossip is in fact such that they don’t even go out looking for stories anymore, they just wait to see what endless amounts of tosh come to them. Suggesting that the view of free press and increased access to information via the internet has not actually given us a greater sharing of information and opinion – that being far too optimistic a view – Starsuckers lets you know in no uncertain terms that there is very little journalism out there and that most of what is on the internet is incomprehensible babble. I’m not going to argue against that, but I would like to put forward the idea that for all the babble there is still some cohesive criticism.

But for all its flaws there are equal measures of achievement. 1) In terms of persuasive argument, at least five members of parliament in Lithuania were previously famous pop stars, television presenters and/or entertainers, 2) in terms of cinematic shock-factor footage, so called “charity events” such as Live Aid and indeed Live 8 actually do more harm than good, enabling ethnic cleansing and preventing other charitable organisations (specifically those which make up Make Poverty History) from succeeding not only in supplying aid (alone, something that in fact acts to keep third world countries oppressed), but also in achieving fair trade and debt resolution (a strong combination of which would help alleviate a country’s third world status in the long term), and 3) in terms of humorous eccentricities, as the head of The New York Reality TV School claims, “I was actually, like, raised by a television.”

And if no none of the reasons above convince you, then you ought to watch it to find out just how much of a C**t Richard Curtis actually is.

An Education

March 4, 2010

Gerald Levy, a Jamaican dancehall sensation more commonly known as ‘Bogle’ (a name taken from Jamaican national hero Paul Bogle), was murdered in a motorcycle drive-by at a gas station on January 20 2005. His untimely death was most likely the result of tall poppy syndrome; his creative rivals John Hype and Bruce Golding thought to be the killers.

This is the backdrop against which the history and current climate of both reggae and dancehall music are set in Jerome Laperrousaz’s brilliant documentary Made in Jamaica (2006). Infinitely more than just a bit of bump’n’grind, Made in Jamaica examines a continued history of oppression and resistance as experienced through musical and lyrical revolution. Exploring the origins of both the music and the people who make it, Made in Jamaica considers everyone involved, from Bob Marley to Elephant Man who describes Levy’s murder as “a breakdown for Jamaica and the world”. Laperrousaz introduces one hero to the movement after another, including; Lady Saw, Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Bounty Killer, Third World, Capleton, Toots and Tanya Stephens. Through their vocal militancy the spirit of resistance and a hope for freedom overwhelmingly resounds.

Bunny Wailer

It is Elephant Man who explains the real meaning of the music in relation to its origins in Jamaican ghettos, describing it as a “saviour” for living persistently with ambition but no money. The experiences shared by Bounty Killer and Lady Saw reiterate strongly the tiresomeness and frustration that comes with being born into poverty, but it is this same frustration that lead their clear path to fame and fortune. The struggle however is in no uncertain terms over. Third World are resolute in their commitment to the continued fight for freedom, “We don’t have total control… but we have made some progress”, their insistence upon the absolute importance of making music with a message, something Tanya Stephens certainly shares in her own lyrical struggle against the oppression of women in Jamaica who undeniably suffer more than their male counterparts. But no one’s understanding of the gravity of the continual struggle that ensues is sounder than Bunny Wailer’s, his assertion that the chains of slavery have merely been replaced by metal guns sat all too comfortably upon the hips of a generation of hungry Jamaicans, “A hungry man is an angry man. You can’t put guns in the hands of a hungry man, because if everybody have guns and no food, then you’ve got to bite the bullet.”

Capleton

Both vehement and eloquent in its forward trajectory, the musical revolution continues to impress upon new generations the importance of educating, emancipating and re-educating themselves to continually build upon the successes of their forefathers. So recent as August 1962, the moment of Independence still tastes bittersweet, for many revolution is not yet won. Capleton knows as well as Bunny Wailer that the new struggle presents itself through slavery of a different kind: mental slavery, something that only an individual can free him/herself from, “Only the Fire they can’t take from us. The Fire burns from within.” And it is from within that the power and passion expressed through music and dancing starts, spreading far and wide beyond the confines of Kingston and Trench Town into the farthest places in the world, strong and determined.

An absorbing and affecting documentary regardless of your attitudes to reggae and dancehall music, Made in Jamaica is more than a colourful vision of a nation and a culture, ultimately, it’s an education.

Made in Jamaica is released on DVD March 8th 2010 through Network Releasing.