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Friday
Jan042019

SISTERS FOR SALE: THE BEN RANDALL INTERVIEW

In 2018, the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report stated that, “The Government of Vietnam does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” It has only been 12 months since Vietnamese penal code amendments criminalized all forms of labor trafficking took affect, yet they are changes that still fall short of outlawing all forms of child sex trafficking. For Ben Randall, the reality of the State Department findings motivate his every waking hour; the 2011 abduction and illegal trafficking into China of two of his young friends inspired the Australian filmmaker to make Sisters for Sale, a heartbreaking documentary that follows his attempts to not only find his missing friends, but also understand the social and political context in which such horrible acts can continue to occur.

Ahead of the film’s Australian Premiere at the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, Randall (pictured, above; in China's Guangdong province) spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the extraordinary lives of May and Pang, the young women at the centre of his documentary; the nature of his relationship with the Hmong community of North Vietnam; and, the formation of his anti-trafficking organization, The Human, Earth Project

SCREEN-SPACE: How did this become your crusade? Where were you in your life when you decided that engaging with the girl’s plight was your mission?

RANDALL: In 2012, I went through a very difficult time in my life. I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly with no home, no money, and no job in a city where I couldn't speak the language. A few people helped me get back on my feet, and I understood what a difference a good friend could make - not just in a material sense, but just knowing that someone cared. I wanted to pay that forward. My Hmong friend May had been kidnapped from Vietnam a few months earlier. I hadn't done anything because it didn't seem like there was anything much I could do. The trail had gone cold, and there was only a one-in-a-million chance of ever finding her - but I decided to give it my best shot. So I launched The Human, Earth Project. (Pictured, above; a street kidnapping in progress, from the film Sisters for Sale). 

SCREEN-SPACE: It is coming up on a decade since your English teaching assignment in Hmong became a lesson in the local custom of marriage-via-abduction. How altered was your life path and goals by the kidnapping of your friends in 2011-12?

RANDALL: The decision to return to Asia to search for May and Pang changed my life completely. The life I've lived over the past six years since the beginning of the project has been a difficult and occasionally dangerous one, with a huge amount of work and very little money - but I've been working towards something that's deeply important to me, which has given my life a real sense of meaning and purpose. I'd rather have that than be drifting through an easy, meaningless life, as I have been in the past. I've learned a lot about myself, what I'm capable of, and where my limitations lie, and my entire outlook on life has changed. (Pictured, left; Randall with Pang, centre, and her mother in Sapa, October 2014) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Much of the film is pure guerrilla-filmmaking, capturing what you can we you can in often very tense situations. Did local officials or the trafficking industry ever compromise the shoot?  

RANDALL: Sisters for Sale was shot in regions where there is a large and profitable industry in human lives. While it was never our intention to criticise Vietnam or China, both countries are highly sensitive to foreign media. In a sense, we were caught between the law and the outlaws, and it was critical to hide our investigation from both. We were living a strange double life. We relied on private contributions to continue the investigation, so while we were being extremely secretive about our work in person, we were publicising it online. It was risky work; we'll never know how close we were to being caught, but we were certainly lucky at times. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Has Sisters For Sale screened in Vietnam? Have the people of the village seen the film? 

RANDALL: As a filmmaker, I feel it's extremely important to spend time with your subject and do everything you can to understand it. Otherwise you're only passing on your own prejudices. I spent 15 months in Vietnam and China; Sapa, the primary location, was my home, the subjects of the film were my friends, and I was working closely with local people throughout production. Some of my friends from Sapa have seen the film and been extremely supportive of it. A planned screening in the capital city, Hanoi, fell through last month. We haven't yet made any other plans to screen in Vietnam, but will do so in the new year. (Pictured, above; young Hmong women in Sapa, from Sisters for Sale) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Are organisations such as your The Human, Earth Project and the similarly motivated Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation backed by western government dollars?

RANDALL: Blue Dragon Children's Foundation is a larger and longer-running organisation, which receives support from governments, organisations and individuals around the world. Our own project, The Human, Earth Project, is yet to acquire any major funding, and relies on the support of individuals. The Australian government has had no direct involvement with our work in Vietnam, and I'm not aware of their involvement in the region. Over the past six years, our work has been supported by thousands of people from over 70 countries. We're aware that there's always more we can be doing to raise awareness of human trafficking.

SCREEN-SPACE: This has been a long journey – for you, the girls, and the film; in every sense, it has proven a mammoth undertaking. What are the tangible benefits of the project’s existence? And what role does it need to play into the future?

RANDALL: It has been a long, strange journey for all of us, and it's fantastic to finally be sharing Sisters for Sale with the world. In making the film, I've been very careful not to oversimplify the human trafficking crisis in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys", as it is often presented in the media. It's a very complex issue, and I've worked hard to understand all points of view. The first step in solving any problem is awareness, and that's our goal. Our work has already reached millions of people around the world, even before the film's release. Many people have been surprised by the depth and nuance in the story. It has already sparked countless discussions around human trafficking and women's rights, and encouraged many people to support anti-trafficking efforts. The film itself will be used to raise awareness and support for Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, Alliance Anti-Trafic, and our own ongoing work. We're making plans to tour the film, and have been approached by a major publisher interested to develop the story as a book, which I'm writing now. Sisters for Sale is a fascinating and unique story, one that can make a real difference in the fight against the global human trafficking crisis. We'll keep working to get it out there. (Pictured, above; Hmong women from the Sapa valley in North Vietnam, as seen in Sisters for Sale)

SISTERS FOR SALE will screen Wednesday January 16 at the Screenwave International Film Festival. Full ticketing and session details can be found at the event's official website.

SCREEN-SPACE supports the efforts of The Human, Earth Project. The organization requires the generosity of donors to continue its work. Please follow this link to contribute to their mission.

 

Wednesday
Dec192018

PENNY MARSHALL AND THE BEAUTY OF BIG

Post-2000, the typical Hollywood slate – comic book pics, YA franchise gambles, teen vampire romances, PG horror – has not suited the storytelling skills of Penny Marshall. The director, who passed away overnight aged 75, found occasional gigs on the small screen; her last directing credit was a 2011 episode of The United States of Tara. But in the mid 1980s, when studios developed a broad roster of projects with both commercial and critical ambitions, Penny Marshall became an overnight sensation when her second feature delivered on both. That film, in every sense of the word, was Big.

Penny Marshall had directed a few episodes of her iconic TV series Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983) and ceded control of the comedy Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) to Francis Ford Coppola when 20th Century Fox recruited her to rescue the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash in late 1985. Director Howard Zieff (The Main Event, 1979; Private Benjamin, 1980) had been removed and Marshall would be stepping into a shoot behind schedule and leaking money. Her sitcom training and natural comic timing ensured Jumpin’ Jack Flash sped to the finish line and became a sleeper hit for the studio.  

Marshall was rewarded with her choice of projects and zeroed in on a fantasy/comedy script about a young boy who wishes himself into adulthood. Big had been written by Anne Spielberg as a project for her brother Steven to develop with Harrison Ford attached, but their workloads meant the Fox property languished. Oscar-winning industry heavyweight James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983), a staple at the studio with film (Broadcast News, 1987) and television (The Tracey Ullman Show; The Simpsons) works in development, brought the screenplay to Marshall. She warmed to it immediately, and began a casting search for the role of 12 year-old Josh Baskin (pictured, from left; Marshall with actors Jared Rushton and David Moscow)

Marshall’s attachment to the resurgent production meant the Fox brass started to weigh in on key pre-production decision-making. Marshall toyed with a rewrite that made the lead character female, hoping to cast Debra Winger (with whom she had almost shot her aborted Peggy Sue… project). When this proved unworkable, the casting call went out Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Bill Murray, Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Judge Reinhold, Albert Brooks, Dennis Quaid, Sean Penn, Gary Busey and Steve Guttenberg. Marshall zeroed in on two favourites, both of which were nixed by the studio – John Travolta, who was in the worst box office slump of his career, and Robert De Niro, America’s greatest living actor (and dear friend of Marshall) though untested as a comedy lead (pictured, left; Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin in Big)

Instead, the studio and their director decided to hold out for Tom Hanks, who had hit big with Bachelor Party and Splash (both 1984), though had lost momentum after a string of underperformers (The Man With One Red Shoe, 1985; Volunteers, 1985; The Money Pit, 1986; Nothing in Common, 1986). With young David Moscow cast as boy Josh (outfitted with contact lenses to match Hanks’ eye colour), support players Elizabeth Perkins, John Heard, Mercedes Ruehl and Robert Loggia adding dramatic heft onscreen and top-tier talent such as DOP Barry Sonnenfeld, composer Howard Shore and writer Gary Ross (who did a WGA-recognised polish on the script) in the mix, the US$18million film began shooting at locations in New York City and New Jersey in mid-1987, eyeing the prime summer release date of June 3, 1988 (pictured, from left; Marshall, DOP Barry Sonnenfeld and Hanks on-set).

Marshall has been forthright about her anxiety during the shoot. Dailies were certainly supporting the decision to cast Hanks; the now iconic scene in which he and Loggia dance on the giant piano keys had Fox executives thrilled. The comedic chemistry between Hanks and Jared Rushton, cast as Josh’s boyhood friend Billy and the only character in on Josh’s secret, was plainly evident. But the director spent much of the shoot diplomatically fending of studio interference, most notably their insistence that love-interest Susan, played by Elizabeth Perkins, make the journey back to childhood with Josh in the film’s final scenes.

Several of the film’s biggest laughs were workshopped/improvised, such as Billy and adult Josh’s classic silly-string fight or Hanks chewing on a baby-corn cob; the ‘Shimmy Shimmy Coco-Pop’ song was entirely Hanks’ idea, inspired by a tune his own kids came home from summer camp humming. Marshall had no idea if they would cut into the finished film at all, leaving her to ponder its potential as a ‘laughless comedy’.

To further complicate principal photography, four other ‘body-swap’ storylines hit theatres while Big was in production – in order of release, Like Father Like Son (1987), with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron; the Italian comedy, Da Grande (1987); Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold in Vice Versa! (1988);and, 18 Again (1988) with Charlie Schlatter and George Burns. Each was met with middling critical and commercial interest, ensuring further concerns for Marshall and her producers.

In hindsight, any concern was unwarranted. Big became one of 1988’s biggest hits, earning US$114million domestically (in 2018 dollars, a whopping US$243million) and placing it as the years’ #4 box-office earner, behind Rain Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Coming to America. It was record-setting triumph for Penny Marshall; her comedy was the first film directed by a woman to break the US$100million barrier and would earn Academy Award nominations for Hanks in the Best Actor category and for its Original Screenplay. In 2000, the American Film Institute included Big on its ‘100 Years…100 Laughs’ list, honouring the best American comedies of all time (pictured, above; from, left, Marshall, Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks).

In an interview with The Washington Post following the film’s release, Penny Marshall was typically acerbic about her beloved comedy classic. "I hated it for a long time," she says. "You go through different phases, so I'm told. 'Oh, God. What did I do here? What is this? This is crap.' And then your saving grace is you see it with an audience. They give you feedback and they give you the energy to go on."

Saturday
Dec082018

PREVIEW: 2019 SCREENWAVE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

The strengthening of Coffs Harbour as a thriving film culture hub continues on January 10 when the 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival (SWIFF) rolls out the sandy red carpet. One of New South Wales’ most prestigious yet relaxed screening events, SWIFF has crafted a rigorously challenging roster, both artistically and intellectually, with bold new works from such fearless filmmakers as Lars Von Trier, Michael Moore, Lynne Ramsay and Gaspar Noé.

The two-pronged festival directing team of Dave Horsley and Kate Howat signal this year’s direction from Opening Night, with the hot-button social satire Terror Nullius kicking off the 16-day festival. A coarse, canny and brutally funny skewering of racism, patriarchy and social injustice, it is the work of Melbourne creative team Soda Jerk (pictured, below; Soda Jerk's Dan and Dominique Angeloro) who employ montage technique to rework classic Australian film scenes into fresh contemporary commentary. Closing Night honours have been bestowed upon Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, featuring a Golden Globe nominated Willem Dafoe as painter Vincent van Gogh.

The 2019 program statistics are impressive -60 films from 20 countries, including 14 Australian works and 30 films from women directors. Female identity and gender politics are addressed in the strand ‘Women of Action’, which highlights five films shot through the lens of women filmmakers. These include ¡Las Sandanistas!, documentarian Jenny Murray’s account of Nicaraguan warrior women; Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Blowin’ Up, an insider’s perspective of the lawyers fighting for the rights of sex workers in America’s broken justice system; and, Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between, an Israeli-French co-production examining the clash of old and new cultures for three Palestinian women.

The vast World Cinema line-up fully justifies SWIFF’s standing on the international festival circuit, with 21 films set to unspool. Arriving uncut after inspiring shocked walkouts at its Cannes screening is Lars Von Trier’s serial killer saga, The House That Jack Built; bad boy Gaspar Noé captures a drug-addled descent into dance-party hell in Climax (pictured, top); and, the enigmatic Lynne Ramsay explores the nature of violence with leading man Joaquin Phoenix in her hitman thriller, You Were Never Really Here.

Some of the most acclaimed films from our global region will screen in World Cinema, with Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Georgia/Estonia), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (Japan) and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) all earning kudos from the Asia Pacific Screen Academy’s award body. Other countries represented include The Netherlands (Lukas Dhont’s Cannes FIPRESCI prize winner, Girl); Kenya (Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki; pictured, right); Bulgaria (Milko lazarov’s Aga); and, Poland (Spoor, from the directing team of Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik).

Of course, Australian filmmakers are at the fore with strands covering fiction and non-fiction features. Heath Davis’ crowd-pleaser Book Week, Jason Raftopoulos’ father/son drama West of Sunshine starring the late Damian Hill, and Ted Wilson’s Tassie-set drama Under The Cover of Cloud are set to screen. The documentary sector will be represented by such acclaimed works as Ben Lawrence’s riveting Ghosthunter, Gabrielle Brady’s heartbreaking Island of The Hungry Ghosts, and Ben Randall’s teen-girl trafficking expose, Sisters For Sale, as well as the World Premiere of local filmmaker Ian Thompson’s Becoming Colleen.

International factual films will be presented under the banner ‘Pop Docs’, including Fahrenheit 11/9, the latest from political agitator Michael Moore, and Daniel J Clark’s flat-earther think piece, Behind the Curve. Mixing up fact and fiction will be the always popular ‘Music and The Makers’ line-up, which this year features Brett Haley’s feel-good hit Hearts Beat Loud, with Nick Offerman; Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A, Stephen Loveridge’s fly-on-the-wall coverage of the controversial UK rap sensation; and, Stephen Schible’s mesmerizing profile on the great Ryuichi Sakamoto, Coda.

SWIFF understand the breadth of its local audience and has ensured upmarket film festival types and the North Coast cool kids will be able to connect through the program. The surf film strand ‘Call of The Surf’ features the latest in ocean-themed cinema, including the late Rob Stewart’s final shark industry exposé Sharkwater Extinction and The Zimbalist Brothers profile of the Hawaiian surfing ‘new wave’ of the 1990s, Momentum Generation (pictured, right). And the amusingly-titled skater line-up, ‘Make America Skate Again’, will present three films including Bing Lui’s universally acclaimed Minding the Gap, a look at three friends who bond over their boards in America’s rust belt interior.

Two retrospective special presentations will delight cinema purists. The Coen Brothers’ cult classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? will screen accompanied by live music supplied by renowned local musos The Mid North Damn; and, in honour of the 130th birthday of the late master of cinema Charlie Chaplin, SWIFF with screen his timeless political satire The Great Dictator.

Indicative of the festival’s commitment to regional cinema and support of young filmmakers, SWIFF will screen the work of the 20 finalists in the Nextwave youth filmmaking contest. A year-long statewide high-school and community initiative which has seen 50 workshops held in 11 New South Wales’ regions will culminate with the award ceremony on January 18 at the C.ex Coffs Auditorium, where $40,000 prize money will be distributed amongst the next generation of Australian filmmaking talent. (Pictured, right; SWIFF festival director Dave Horsley)

Read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with Scary Mother director Ana Urushadze and star Nato Murvandze here.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE review of Book Week here.

The 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival will run January 10-25 at two locations, The Jetty Memorial Theatre in Coffs Harbour and the Bellingen Memorial Hall. Full session and ticket information can be found at the official SWIFF website.

Thursday
Dec062018

WHY PINOY BOY FROM OZ MATTHEW VICTOR PASTOR IS LOCAL INDIE SECTOR'S M.V.P.

Matthew Victor Pastor has been at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova complex since mid-morning, exhibiting levels of nervous energy entirely reasonable for a young director on the day he launches his latest feature. That said, with eleven hours until the World Premiere of MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man, isn’t Matthew Victor Pastor likely to fade well before the post-screening Q&A, scheduled for midnight?

As it turns out, ‘energy levels’ aren’t a problem for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) graduate. Pastor is out of his seat and fronting the sold-out Monster Fest session as soon as the end credits roll. Despite the early hour (closer to 12.30am, as it transpires), almost the entire audience has stayed. Having experienced MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man, hearing what its creator has to say about its journey to the screen suddenly holds a deep fascination.

“I see myself as a boy from the 3174 Noble Park, who is very lucky to be making movies, happens to be of Asian heritage, of mixed nationalities, who grew up in this great country,” says Pastor, who co-wrote (with Kiefer Findlow), directed and stars in what might best be described as a social satire/B-movie homage/personal drama hybrid born of Melbourne’s underground movie scene and pulsing with in-your-face observations on race, gender, sex, family and the nature of filmmaking. “Making films is a really hard thing to do and when they come from a place that is a bit crazy and feature characters that are marginalised and the kind that you are not supposed to make films about…well, that makes it all very exciting.”

Self-effacing, polite and unwaveringly upbeat in person Pastor transforms into the tortured, insecure, struggling director ‘Angelo’ onscreen. Between desperate encounters with his ex-girlfriend Jupiter (regular collaborator Celine Yuen; pictured, above), sexual failings with a patient prostitute (Kristen Condon) and anguished sessions with his family (played by the director’s real-life mother and sister), Pastor’s protagonist contemplates with increasing frustration his Filipino/Australian heritage and the social perception of his culture.

“It can be very hard to both create and live with that kind of character and then to ask an audience to sit with him for two hours,” admits Pastor, refreshingly frank in his assessment of his lead character. “When Angelo says, ‘I wonder what it would be like to wake up in a white man’s skin, with a white man’s cock,’ he reveals a character that is so self-deprecating and hates himself so much. The challenge was to bring some empathy for a character that can outwardly be so unlikable.” (Pictured, left; Anthony Lawang as 'Pinoy Boy')

Pastor pitches his performance in the upper range, but assures his audience that the character’s anxiety and increasingly unhinged persona comes from research and experience. “I spend a lot of times in online forums, reading a lot of people’s comments about identity politics. ‘Angelo’ is the combination of different ideals in that sphere,” he says. “He’s actually a lot more common than you think; a lot of what he says and who he is comes directly from discussions on Asian identity in those discussions.”

It is the third of Pastor’s films to explore the Asian experience in Australia, specifically from the Filipino point-of-view. Dubbed the ‘Aus-Filo Trilogy’, it began with his VCA Masters project, I am JUPITER I am the BIGGEST PLANET (2016), followed by the music video-influenced docu-drama Melodrama! Random! Melbourne!, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.  Says Pastor, “I am making films from a different perspective, in the context of the diaspora of Asian cinema, and that’s the space that I am happy and proud to occupy.”

If MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man is sounding a lot more serious than its title might suggest, the laughs come in the form of Pastor’s film-within-a-film. Recalling the scratched-negative aesthetics of VHS-era Filipino actioners, the subplot stars Koki Kaneko as a racist dairy farmer/serial killer, clad entirely in a white bodystocking, targeting Asian women on his murderous spree; on his trail is Pinoy Boy (Anthony Lawang, aka Lamaroc), a Filipino super-cop, and two local scumbag detectives, Shannon (the great Glenn Maynard) and Noll (fellow Melbourne underground auteur Stuart Simpson).            

There are moments in Pastor’s film where the improv comedy stylings (“We improvised a lot,” he laughs) and lo-fi stunt work inspires eye-rolls and giggles, but the director assured his audience that the themes and issues that he set out to address were always paramount. “It is about two worlds coming together,” says Pastor. “I don’t necessarily offer any resolution, but instead create an entry point for those worlds for the audience. There are multiple layers to achieve that - it could be the A-film, the more arthouse aspects, or the B-film genre stuff, but they both represent the same story told via different cinematic language. Is that not what coming from ‘two worlds’ means? This film is about what its like to fall between the cracks of those two worlds.”

MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man will screen throughout Australia in 2019. It is currently seeking representation in overseas markets.

Saturday
Nov172018

STAR WARS IDENTITIES: THE LAELA FRENCH INTERVIEW

One of the defining thematic elements of the Star Wars films is ‘identity’. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, seeks the truth about his heritage; before him, his father Annakin is torn between destinies forged by the duality of The Force. Origins, influences and choices are central to their heroic journeys, just as they are to us all. STAR WARS Identities is a new exhibit that asks visitors to create their own Star Wars characters based upon key developmental stages – our genetic make-up, cultural influences, parental guidance, and adult belief system. Laela French, Director of Archives at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and one of America’s pre-eminent art historians, oversaw the exhibition from concept to creation and has brought over 200 original Lucasfilm artefacts to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum for the Australian season of Identities.

“It is an exhibit that communicates the story of us, of who we are,” she said at the launch of the event last Thursday at the iconic Powerhouse building. “It helps us explore the universal factors that helped shape not only the Star Wars characters, but also that shapes us.” Ms French sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss her latest project… 

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the concept for STAR WARS Identities take shape?

FRENCH: We’re always looking ahead, wondering what it is that we can do that’s new. When someone pitched the ‘science of identity’ within the Star Wars universe, the response was immediate. Annakin and Luke’s story arcs were a great through-thread, then putting the visitors into the experience and having them create their own identity took shape.

SCREEN-SPACE: There is a fascinating ‘meta’ element about the Star Wars universe peeking inside the minds of its fans…  

FRENCH: And every fan wants to step into Star Wars, that’s really the essence of their fan fascination. That’s why we have legions like the 501st and the fan clubs and that’s always been the focus of our exhibits. But the exhibits also have to be educational; that’s of paramount importance. Above all else, we have to ensure they are rooted in science, whatever we are working on. So we had a huge scientific committee, working from the perspective of psychology or biometrics, utilising every iteration of the human experience that we could think of. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Identities seems to particularly reflect the living, breathing ‘human quality’ of the Star Wars story… 

FRENCH: When you pick your ‘identity quest’ you get to pick your alien species. But there are no robots there, which caused a huge debate, with some arguing, “Oh, but the kids will want to be R2,” while others rightly argued, “But it’s an artificial intelligence, and this exhibit is about organic evolution versus exactly that.” So, it was decided that, well, the kids will be disappointed but there’ll get it. The aim was to help them learn about science by putting them in the driver’s seat of the ‘identities experiment’. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Put on your ‘art historian’ hat for a moment. When do ‘pre-production drawings’ and ‘conceptual paintings’ servicing a film cross the line into ‘contemporary American art’?

FRENCH: That line was crossed the minute the stuff was made. Back in 1975, when George had this idea to create a ‘space western mythology’, he was making art. Anytime a filmmaker sets out to make something, they are creating art. My argument is that this has always been artwork, and we are just letting everyone else catch up to that way of thinking. I’ve been touring these exhibits for many years and in the early days, we were getting slammed by the art curators. Every new museum boss would scream, “This doesn’t belong in a museum, it’s not art.” In the ‘Identities’ exhibit alone, there are 200 artefacts, half of which are sketches and paintings. How can anyone not call that artwork? Just showing people the degree of artistry that goes into every film, and preserving that work just like any museum would preserve a Da Vinci or a Rodan sculpture, is one of our main aims (pictured, above; Laela French, in the Lucasfilm Archive). 

SCREEN-SPACE: How has Star Wars defied the effects of time? Why don’t those 40 year old films seem overly kitschy or quaint?

FRENCH: The answer lies in George’s original vision. Like all true visionaries, he wove a few magic moments together. The timing was amazing; in the mid-70s, there was a kind of emptiness in films, a void where a strong imaginative vision should have been. No one was doing what George envisioned. The epic visual effects, which have been talked about to death, were off the charts. He refused to settle for what was good enough at the time, instead pushing his entire special effects team to ‘create’. The hidden ingredient that’s harder to see is that the design aesthetic – all the costuming, the planets, the vehicles, everything within his field of vision – was pulled from cultures across the globe. Even the smallest element has some tie to some culture from some point in time. That means they take on a familiarity, before you’ve even seen the film, and ultimately reflect that timeless quality you refer to. Of course, the story itself is the classic ‘hero’s journey’ and brings together all those associated archetypes, so its rooted in a traditional literary formula that stays viable and meaningful forever.

SCREEN-SPACE: How would define the term ‘narrative art’ as it pertains to the Star Wars universe?

FRENCH: Narrative art is simply visual storytelling. Lasco cave paintings? Narrative art. The Last Supper? Narrative art. As technology evolves, so does the type of narrative art that we share with each other. In George’s mind, film is narrative art, taken to an epic level by advances in technology. So that’s how this exhibits fits beautifully into the Lucasfilm definition of narrative art. It is why George has created a narrative art museum; he believes the museum world is stuck in a kind of 19th century mindset and, being the kind of visionary able to see a reality much further down our time line, he wants pop culture to be treated as great art, narrative art, that resonates and that humans will respond to for years to come. It’s what defines ‘pop culture’; not everyone responds to a contemporary painting, but millions of people respond to film.

STAR WARS Identities runs at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum from November 16. Ticketing and all venue details can be found at the official website