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Entries in Documentary (22)

Saturday
Jul082017

FIVE FAVOURITES FROM MELBOURNE'S FESTIVAL OF FACTUAL FILM

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Festival Director Lyndon Stone and his programming team have collated a catalogue of factual films that have wowed audiences at the planet’s most prestigious 2017 documentary showcases. SCREEN-SPACE got a peek at this year’s line-up and offers our opinion of five films that deserve attention, discussion and sold-out auditoriums. Each is a unique vision, certain to engage, infuriate, inspire and enlighten, as all good documentaries should…

MISS KIET’S CHILDREN (Dirs. Peter Lataster, Petra Lataster-Czish; The Netherlands, 115 mins; pictured, above)
A Dutch school marm exhibits a warrior’s spirit, a saint’s heart and...well, a great teacher's patience in this understated yet soaring study of what the term ‘assimilation’ means to a classroom in Holland. Refugee children, each displaying resilience and depth of character beyond their years, are captured with an extraordinary intimacy by the lens of husband/wife filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czish. The politics of age and gender are glimpsed in the kids’ behaviour; most profoundly, the impact of the conflict they have fled is slowly expos ed by the filmmaker’s sublime technique. When awkward pre-teen Jorg reveals why he might be less studious than is expected of him, have the tissues ready.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 13 @ 6.30pm.

PLAY YOUR GENDER (Dir: Stephanie Clattenburg; U.S.A.; 80 mins.)
While the gender divide within the American film industry has made headlines of late, little mention has been made of the fact that only 5% of the producers working the panels in the music industry are women, or that only 20% of published songs are by women lyricists. Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr and first-time director Stephanie Clattenberg pair up to pile revelation upon revelation in this blood-boiling expose of the music sector’s traditional gender bias and ‘glass ceiling’ mindset. That such a film needs to exist in this day and age is outrage enough; that it runs rich with passionate, talented, intelligent woman who have seen their careers hindered by sexism and misogyny demands action. Features such groundbreaking artists as ‘Hole’ bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and drummer Patty Schemel; Sara Quin of ‘Tegan and Sara’; and, ‘The Stolen Minks’ frontwoman Stephanie Johns.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 1.45pm.

THE ROAD MOVIE (Dir: Dmitrii Kalishnikov; Belarus; 67mins)
The dashcam phenomena has swept Russia and its territories; insurance scams, police misbehaviour and road rage incidents has led to almost every car being fitted with a windscreen lens. So director Dmitrii Kalishnikov had a lot of footage to work with when he conceptualised a vision of modern Russian life as captured by the population itself. Of course, he indulges in the extraordinary – truck crashes, speedsters on snowy roads, cows being hit (they walk away, incredibly) and the ‘comet footage’ that went viral. But The Road Movie is at its most compelling when it focuses on the voices of the unseen within the vehicle. Waves of emotion emerge in an instant; moments of terror, exhilaration, hilarity, even first love unite in a flowing cinematic essay. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Russia’s favourite dashboard gadget has delivered a forceful social experience.
Rating: 4.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 9.30pm.

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (Dir: Leslie Iwerks; U.S.A.; 96 mins.)
She is La grande dame of the American restaurant landscape, the matriarch of a New Orleans culinary clan that has shaped the nation’s cuisine for a century. Ella Brennan makes for a mighty cinematic figure, her iron-willed charisma ideally suited for Leslie Iwerks’ boisterous celebration of spirit, showmanship and determination. Occasionally it teeters on hagiography; viewers aren’t left wondering what a wonderful time is to be had at Brennan’s legendary Big Easy establishment, Commander’s Palace. It’s a minor complaint; one can’t begrudge the party atmosphere Commanding The Table captures and the extraordinary legacy Ella and her clan have forged.
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 12 @ 6.00pm.  

DOGS OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Mary Zournazi; Australia/Greece; 58 mins.)
They have become the spiritual symbol of modern Athens, guardians of the streets who exist with dignity intact and the acceptance of the population. First-time director Mary Zournazi captures the stray dogs of the Greek capital with a deeply respectful and compassionate lens, acknowledging the hope they represent to a people who themselves are often portrayed as the ‘stray dogs of the EU’. Most affectionately, Zournazi relates the legend of Loukanikos, a magnificent beast who would fearlessly lead those protesting the government’s austerity measures against riot squad heavy-handedness.  
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 16 @ 9.30am.

(SCREEN-SPACE Managing Editor Simon Foster is a judge at the 2017 MDFF and will be a guest of the festival)  

The 2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL screens from July 9-16. Session, venue and ticketing information can be found at the events official website.

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.

Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

Screens at Sydney Film Festival on June 7th and 9th, then in national wide release from June 15.

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Thursday
May182017

LOVE AND SAUCERS

Featuring: David Huggins.
Director: Brad Abrahams.

Rating: 4/5

Director Brad Abrahams makes a lot of smart storytelling decisions from the very first frame of his documentary Love and Saucers, an account of one man’s ongoing and intimate experiences with beings of unidentifiable origins and of the struggle to reconcile a ‘normal’ life with the intrusion of denizens from beyond our realm.   

From his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, 72 year-old artist David Huggins makes the fantastic claim directly to camera that, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial.” A natural camera presence that imparts his abduction memories with a compelling earnestness, Huggins timelines key moments from his childhood during which groups of ‘greys’, mantis-like insectoids and hairy beasts with glowing eyes would visit him on the grounds of his family home in rural Georgia. The purpose of the visitations is finally revealed when, alone in a wooded clearing, a pale-skinned seductress named Crescent engages the teenage Huggins and the coming-together of human and alien species takes place. 

Abrahams is entirely aware that such claims are usually met by the wider population with derision and only serve to conjure notions of B-movie/pop-culture silliness. His camera floating towards the front door of Huggins’ home just as the visitors might, the director’s opening salvo of imagery and audio cues embraces this cynicism, interspersing recollections of the encounters with zooms and jump-cuts that play like comic-book panels.

He reveals that Huggins is a sci-fi nerd, with a collection of over 2000 films (on beautiful VHS, no less), many of which deal directly with themes of alien visitation (Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, 1951), interspecies genealogy (Bernard Kowalski’s Sssssss, 1974) and otherworldly home intrusion (Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited, 1944). The filmmaker almost seems to be setting his subject up for a takedown, positioning Huggins’ as a man living a sheltered life, perhaps unable to disengage from some form of childhood trauma (a boozy, womanising father who tended towards intolerance and violence is recalled).

But the Canadian-born director, who brought a level-headed decency to his 2015 swamp-monster doco short Swan Song of The Skunk Ape, has loftier ambitions than scorn and cheap thrills. As hinted at by the title, Love and Saucers is a heartfelt profile of an entirely ordinary man, albeit one whose life has been shaped by extraordinary events. Abrahams curbs the stylistic flourishes of his first act and embraces the softer, genuine emotions and real-world sensations that Huggins lives as his relationship with Crescent extends into adulthood. Although claims of hybrid children and visitation phenomena in the heart of New York City are no less astonishing, the human bond that Huggins shares with his decidedly non-human circle of friends dissolves any remaining fissure of viewer disbelief or ridicule.

Love and Saucers also speaks directly to the curative relationship between the artist and his art. Huggins recalls his relationship with the visitors via canvas, his simple yet striking surrealist oils capturing the detail behind the encounters and freeing him of deeply embedded memories. These include some graphic renditions of the intricate physical relationship he shared with Crescent; the X-rated Files, as it were.

Abrahams doesn’t ignore the abduction phenomena, acknowledging that much of the imagery and emotions that Huggins imparts is common amongst abductees. The production references the works of the late author and experiencer expert Budd Hopkins and the observations of Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Texas’ Rice University to give credence to the details in Huggins’ recollections and to counter any concern that his beliefs are the result of emotional or psychological stresses.

Ultimately, these sequences merely enhance the purely humanistic perspective that Abrahams seems most determined to impart. As intrinsically fascinating as first person accounts of extra-terrestrial interaction prove to be, it is how one man has dealt with such moments that most enthuse the filmmaker. In a film with an act of intergalactic seduction at its core, it may be the image of an elderly man sitting contentedly in a car after his first gallery showing that resonates most profoundly.

Love and Saucers: Trailer from Brad Abrahams on Vimeo.

 

Saturday
Apr012017

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Featuring: Mark Henderson, Sibylle Günter, Eric Lerner and Michael Lebarge.
Writer/director: Mila Aung-Thwin.

Rating: 4/5

Harnessing the power of the very star that ensures our planet’s survival provides a captivating premise for Mila Aung-Thwin’s documentary, Let There Be Light. Following driven, visionary scientists as they work towards the long-term goal of a global energy grid powered by hydrogen fusion technology, the Canadian-based filmmaker has crafted an elegant, insightful and entertaining work of understated urgency.

That urgency is conveyed in Aung-Thwin’s opening salvo of images. The sun is seen as a perfectly spherical mass, fizzing with energy. The clearly defined edge of our galaxy’s largest object is a stylistic representation that recalls the smallest - the atom, the building block of life. The director then morphs a series of earthbound images that mirror the same round shape, drone-shot from high above in an effective application of the ‘God’s Eye View’ camera perspective.

The message is clear; as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, the implementation of new, clean energies is an issue of biblical importance. Look no further than the film’s title for further evidence of that.

 
The primary focus is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (I.T.E.R.), a massive undertaking that has drawn together great thinkers from 37 countries. The international body must solve the mammoth logistical and scientific task of constructing ‘Tokamak’, an ‘artificial sun’ that creates magnetically-charged hydrogen gas via the smashing together of immense heat and chilled water. The passion to find a fusion-based solution to our energy concerns is captured not only in the dedicated ITER team but also in their interaction with the fusion scientists working on the W7-X Stellerator, under the brilliant German physicist Sibylle Günter, and smaller-scale operations whose often eccentric but brilliant overseers are just as obsessed with the end goal.       

Tech talk is kept concise and focussed, the production more concerned with the scale of the undertaking and the personalities involved than providing tuition in thermonuclear physics. Aung-Thwin and his DOP/co-director Van Royko find beauty in the most unexpected places; amidst the steel and concrete vastness of the ITER construction site, chief scientist Mark Henderson connects with the workers who don’t fully understand what it is they are building but find pride knowing it is for future generations the world over. Man’s long struggle to conquer fusion practicalities dates back decades, a history captured in beautifully animated interstitials. 

Most rewardingly, Let There Be Light deals with the intellect of our finest minds in a warmly humanistic manner, with special regard for the hope they afford future generations. As one learned participant states with resonance, “We have to prove we have the intelligence to prevent our own extinction.” The stakes are high; not just for the ITER team, who deal daily with the pressures of commanding one of mankind’s most expensive scientific experiments but also for the population of Earth, whose survival depends upon the understanding, acceptance and implementation of a clean, renewable fuel source.

 

Monday
Mar272017

78/52

Featuring: Walter Murch, Elijah Wood, Osgood Perkins, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell, Mick Garris, Danny Elfman, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Stephen Rebello and Marli Renfro.
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe.

Rating: 4.5/5

The images and emotions instantly conjured when one hears the words ‘the shower scene’ are reason enough for the existence of Alexandre O. Phillipe’s absorbing documentary, 78/52.  From Robert Bloch’s source novel, Saul Bass’ pre-production storyboarding and the precision of its staging, to the impact it had on audiences and the legacy it has forged, no scene in world cinema history has impacted the medium like Alfred Hitchcock’s butchering of Marion Crane by the blade of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Having dug deep into film pop-culture with previous works The People vs. George Lucas (2010) and Doc of The Dead (2014), the director turns his insightful fan-boy gaze up a notch in this forensic-like examination of the minutiae of the Bates Motel murder. Not all of the content will be revelatory to hard-core film buffs (Hitch’s use of Hershey chocolate sauce; the censorship-pushing flashes of the bare skin of Janet Leigh’s stand-in, Playboy bunny Marli Renfro), but no film has stared so deeply into the long shadow cast by onscreen violence as Phillipe’s often-mesmerising study (fittingly lensed in beautiful monochrome).

Deriving its title from the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits that ‘Hitch’ employed to change the course of film storytelling, the documentary, like Anthony Perkin’s iconic protagonist, exhibits two distinct personalities. It is first and foremost the great ‘Making of…’ dissection, an infinitely intricate journey into the minds and methodologies that created the sequence. Phillipe has assembled a battalion of industry giants to breakdown its staging, including editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now; The Conversation); horror heavyweights Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris and Neil Marshall; composer Danny Elfman; author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho); and such esteemed minds as journalist Stephen Rebello and critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (whose recollections of attending the 10am screening in Times Square on the first day of release are priceless).

78/52 is also an examination of the power of Hitchcock’s film to enthral and terrify every generation since its release, remaining hypnotically watchable to this day.. As has been repeatedly stated, the initial release of Psycho rocked American cinemagoers to the core; Phillipe goes a step further, implying that it played a significant role in ushering out the dangerous naivety of a nation basking in post-WWII glory and forging a path for the social upheaval of the 1960s. Mirroring the means by which later generations first encountered its horror, the director has several of his contributors sit before a TV screen, in a dreamlike recreation of a late-1950s living room, and take in the film for the umpteenth time. Hipster icons Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah, founders of the cutting edge production outfit Spectrevision (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; The Greasy Strangler) share a couch and riff on the vice-like grip Hitchcock’s masterwork holds to this day.

This stylistic flourish ensures the doco avoids becoming a stuffy exercise in academia, along with some well-placed humour. Watching Marion do some basic maths in her notebook ledger, Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood (director of the well-received 2016 thriller, February) wryly comments, “this is a really old film,”; playfully recalling days of being all but nude in front of the notoriously lascivious director, the delightful Renfro is a joy.

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is a giddy, engaging study in filmmaking bravado and of the passionate response such ambitious talent and dark psychology is able to evoke. It works ingeniously because it is simultaneously the voyeur and the subject of the voyeur’s eye; we are watching Norman with the same pulsating thrill as he feels watching Marion through that hole in the wall. 78/52 peels back and peers deeply into half-a-century of cinephile adoration for Hitchcock’s groundbreaking take on Oedipal psychosis.

Saturday
Feb182017

GIVEN

Featuring: Aamion, Daize, Given and True Goodwin.
Writers: Jess Bianchi, Malia Mau and Yvonne Puig.
Director: Jess Bianchi.

Rating: 4/5

The ambitious scale and humanistic themes of Jess Bianchi’s Given come through with dazzling clarity from the opening frames of his beautiful familial odyssey. The debutant director’s chronicle of discovery and humanity is a wake-up call – an early close-up of a rooster in full morning voice attests to that. This is followed by images of a father, enigmatic surfing great Aamion Goodwin, and his 6 year-old son, Given, soaking themselves in the muddy goodness of the earth, while heavily pregnant wife and mum Daize swims deeply and naturally in the pristine ocean, the birthplace of our species.

The sequence sets in motion a grandly mounted, profound celebration of the family unit and the importance of the people and planet with which they share life’s path.

As the title suggests, the focal point of the narrative is Given, for whom the journey – 15 countries over 14 months – is tethered to his father’s own naturalistic upbringing and a mystical quest for ‘The Big Fish’, a symbol of fulfilment and goal attainment for the family. While the occasional use of  ‘movie magic’ undoubtedly helped create the angelic wonder with which he and his newborn sister True embrace the patience-testing nature of global travel, Given proves an engaging screen presence, for whom the wonders of the world hold infinite awe. His wise observations, often dreamlike in their interpretation of his journey’s arc, are mature beyond his years; the measured tone and philosophical musings feel very much of the filmmaker’s doing, but prove tonally appropriate and in line with the heightened reality of Devin Whetstone’s exquisite camerawork.

Bianchi embraces the tried-and-tested surf doco formula of utilising minimal on-screen dialogue, instead letting the boy’s narration and the stunning images do the talking. Most affecting are direct-to-camera portraits of people from countries as far afield as Iceland, Israel, Thailand, Senegal and Peru, to name just a few of the destinations for the cast and crew. The eyes of the world staring into Bianchi’s lens reinforce that regardless of cultural trappings and vast distances, a soulful singularity exists between us all.

The breathtakingly immersive, free-flowing lensing and the central parent/child dynamic recall Terence Malick’s infinitely darker drama The Tree of Life, which also examined the legacy of patriarchal influence. While that work focussed on the transference of demons between generations, Given portrays a more enlightened, wondrously unified bond between father, son and Mother Earth. Bianchi’s capturing of a family’s reconnection with nature, both their own and on a planetary scale, provides a bracing refresher course on the goodness of humanity.

Given will have its Australian premiere as the Opening Night feature at the Byron Bay Surf Festival. Full details can be found at the events official website.

Wednesday
Feb152017

UNDER THE GUN

Narrated by Katie Couric.
Featuring Mark Barden, Jackie Barden, Pamela Bosley, Shannon Watts, Richard Martinez, Sandy Phillips, Lonnie Phillips, Gabrielle Gifford, Mark Kelly, Victoria Montgomery, Michael Pfleger, Mark Follman, William Vizzard, Robyn Thomas, Tom Diaz, Michael Waldman, Richard Feldman and Robin Kelly.
Writers: Brian Lazarte, Mark Monroe and Stephanie Soechtig.
Director: Stephanie Soechtig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The form and functionality of the modern ‘advocacy documentary’ genre reaches tragic and infuriating new heights in the heartbreaking arms-control exposé, Under the Gun.

Combining layered research, focussed discussion and harrowing accounts of shootings and their devastating aftermath, director Stephanie Soechtig and narrator/EP Katie Couric construct an indelibly moving and quietly shattering examination of the state of firearm violence and the fight for regulation in the wake of a wave of horrific mass shootings. Having shed cold light on the fast food industry in 2014’s Fed Up, the pair employs a similarly fearless tact in their dissection of the social, industrial and political forces that continue to obstruct the legal and constitutional reform needed to bring about common-sense change.

No study of the impact of guns on American society could be complete without insight into the upper echelon role of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the fear baiting 2nd Amendment rhetoric of its leader, Wayne LaPierre. Also revealed in full is the extant of arms manufacturing industry funding that flows into the Association's coffers and the long history of powerbrokers sitting in the NRA boardrooms, from where some of the most hardline lobbying, political influence and legal maneuvering in American social history has been formulated.  

Under the Gun is not the first documentary to point out that rich, white men working in a moral vacuum and motivated by profit are a primary source of America’s ills; most recently, Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated (and stylistically similar) 13th noted historical precedent in the ongoing oppression of and subsequent commercial gain from locking up America’s black population. Alongside angry works like Richard Todd’s Frackman (2015), Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989), Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), and Josh Fox’s Gasland, Parts 1 (2010) and 2 (2013), a picture emerges of a modern society misused and abused in the name of capitalism, careening towards an inevitable restructuring on the back of a new wave of activism.

The profits-over-people approach of the gun industry is brought into sharper focus when viewed through the prism of soul-crushing grief. Soechtig and Couric (who remains off-camera) capture the fragile existential void being lived by: The Barden family, who lost 7 year-old son Daniel, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook; Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, parents of slain Aurora theatre patron, Jessica Ghawi; Pamela and Tom Bosley, whose son Terrell was shot in a Chicago church carpark; and, Richard Martinez, father of murdered 20 year-old college student Chris, one of six people killed in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Exhibiting the determination of spirit required to recover from the impact of a shooting is former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of 19 shot in January 2011 outside a Tucson grocery store; six died.

Footage of the mass murders and other gun violence (including one blackly funny moment of self-inflicted pain) is used with the utmost respect by the production, yet remains truly shocking and deeply affecting. In particular, CCTV footage of patrons fleeing the Aurora cinema complex to the audio of the 911 pleas of those trapped inside (“I’m only seventeen,” screams one caller) are impossible to forget. 

Detractors will cite an unevenness of debate; that the NRA members may not have been afforded fair right of reply or been misrepresented.* But the NRA has wielded its influence with a loud voice for more than 145 years. It would be an act of callous inhumanity to cry foul of Soechtig’s methodology, given the means by which LaPierre and his organisation have manipulated the right of the American population (including felons, terrorists and violent re-offenders) to bear as many arms as they can find room for.

Under the Gun exists for those that do not have the network of Washington swamp dwellers who call LaPierre ‘friend’ or ‘contributor’. It is a film to inspire anger and incite change and emerges as one of the best of its kind. 

*The producers acknowledged that an early version of the film did feature one sequence edited to imply pro-gun advocates struggled with one line of enquiry.

Help take action against gun violence by visiting a member of the Under the Gun partnership network:

Wednesday
Dec072016

THE RED PILL

Featuring: Cassie Jaye, Paul Elam, Warren Farrell, Marc Angelucci, Harry Crouch and Dean Esmay.
Director: Cassie Jaye.

Rating: 1.5/5

The jagged histrionics of documentarian Cassie Jaye’s disjointed pro-Men’s Right advocacy film, The Red Pill, serves two masters well. Her softly-softly proselytizing and spurious arguments serve to sweeten the image of Men’s Rights mouthpieces and the ‘regressive progress’ platform they present. And speaking directly to her own camera as she journeys from feminist to ‘enlightened humanist’ serves Jaye as well, her frowns and tears recalling an acting class show reel.

As she painstakingly overstates, Jaye’s body of work outwardly presents an empathetic view of society – patriarchal rule within dogmatic Christian lives, with specific adherence to pre-marital abstinence (Daddy I Do, 2010); the impact of ‘food insecurity’ on the upper-middle class and those that serve them in Marin County (Faces Overlooked, 2010); and, the struggle of two gay white guys to raise a family as California’s Proposition 8 debate raged (The Right to Love: An American Family, 2008). But even if you include a couple of shorts about women’s issues (Blackeye, 2009; The Story of GoldieBlox, 2012), her oeuvre is one of narrow experience rife with hot button issues and moderate-right conservatism.

Jaye would have her audience believe that she stumbled upon the Men’s Right Movement with a wide-eyed innocence; we get to see her literally type ‘Men’s Rights’ into a search engine. She barely registers vile online misogyny (the kind that has seen MRA advocates labelled ‘rape apologists’) as if it was a dirty limerick. In no time at all, she is in warm conversation with the likes of Paul Elam, President of A Voice for Men, a voice that spoke the now infamous call-to-action quote, “I am proclaiming October to be Bash a Violent Bitch Month”; Dr. Warren Farrell (pictured, top; with Jaye), author of the MRA diatribe, The Myth of Male Power and spouter of wisdom pearls like, “Women are the only 'oppressed' group that is able to buy $10 billion worth of cosmetics each year,”; and, Harry Crouch and Marc Angelucci, executives from The National Council for Men, MRA heavy-hitters who once lobbied to defund domestic violence programs if men’s rights were not addressed.

So follows a whirlwind of male-perspective theories and twisty statistics eager to convince how work place deaths, suicide rates and financial hardship have impacted men since the Women’s Liberation uprising of the 1960’s (seen as a monochrome montage of screeching girl-power rallies with some laughable hippy-funk backing track). Elam and his brothers are presented as warm, composed, homely types; in one moment of un-ironic inspiration that could have come from a Christopher Guest-penned satire, Farrell (who greets his director with, “I thought you’d be a man! But I’m glad you’re a woman!”) all but serenades his director in his living room ‘man-cave’, striving to convey a portrait of perfect patriarchal stability yet coming off as desperate and smug.

Jaye will claim that non-MR dissenters are giving equal voice in her film. The likes of Feminist Majority Foundation executive director and MS. magazine editor Katherine Spillar and USC academic Dr Michael Messner get air time, but are portrayed as tsk-tsking, head-shaking elitists who simply perpetuate anti-MRA myths about it being a ‘man’s world’ and how the white male paradigm is more powerful than ever. More troubling is the footage chosen of anti-MR rallies, seemingly peopled solely by extremist gay and/or ‘feminazi’ activists bent on some form of pro-feminist anarchy. Or the extreme close-up afforded ‘male genital mutilation’, aka circumcision, used to convey how abhorrent MRA guys find it to have the fate of their body parts dictated by standards and traditions (a view probably shared by pro-choice supporters and those who have had their p***y grabbed by The President-Elect).

An extended mid-section about the lack of balance in the U.S. family court system seems to be from another documentary entirely, legitimately raising issues of gender inequality. But any insightful analysis is muted by the purely outrageous, none more so than the ‘Disposable Male’ theory. It posits that because only men traditionally take on roles such as soldier, fireman, oil rig worker, coal miner, etc., the male of the species is now perceived as disposable. A litany of statistics are presented, indicating the greater mortal sacrifice men have made in the last 100 years of societal formation (the disrespect afforded slain U.S. female soldiers, their deaths reduced to a percentage to drive home how many more men died, is breathtaking).

What Cassie Jaye and her all-white male chorus wilfully ignore is that the patriarchal stronghold on modern western life was not dictated by women or gays or lefty academics or any one else at whom Elam or Farrell or Cassie Jaye wag a disingenuous finger. It was determined by those in power i.e. the straight, white men of means who were the very forefathers of the MRA executives, who deemed that men of lesser standing be the ones who fought and died, worked and died. Once, men were viewed as warriors, not whiners, sent to die for the society, however flawed, that their leaders were forming. The best of these bygone men fought and died for the rights of every man and woman in a unified society. Cassie Jaye’s men, and by association the filmmaker herself, are not serving a greater good or inspiring discourse, but instead fuelling a social divide and dishonouring their respective genders.

Sunday
Sep182016

57 LAWSON

Featuring: Sara Armanfar, Carolyn Athan, Lou Athan, Mary Athan, Melissa Athan, Hussein Atik, Anthea Hewitt, Marta Klimenko, Gary Lonesborough and Olga Markovic.
Director: Ben Ferris.

Reviewed at the World Premiere at The Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday September 16; screened in Cinema 4 at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

Rating: 4/5

An unwavering focus records seemingly random but deeply honest, inherently captivating moments in time in Ben Ferris’ 57 Lawson, a study in humanity set against the backdrop of an ageing unit precinct in Sydney’s inner city. From the very first frame, which captures the low-rise towers as their day fades into night, the director’s docu-drama masterfully draws upon the objective observational cinema of Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker and Frederick Wiseman in examining the inevitability of change while archiving the latest redefinition of the role of ‘people’ in the city landscape.   

The multi-level apartment complex of the title was borne of an era when inner city population growth was high on the State government agenda. In 1941, the New South Wales Housing Commission was formed to encourage settlement in the area and provide homes for a burgeoning population; in 1965, the three apartment blocks named Kendall, Gilmore and Lawson, aka ‘Poets Corner’, that are featured in the film were opened. By 2016, the occupants are at the mercy of a new local government agenda, one that is handing these prime pockets of city real estate over to billionaire developers with no consideration for heritage or, more importantly, the residents.

Revealed in long, unbroken takes, the lives of the apartment dwellers are both unremarkable and beautiful in their apparent anonymity. Among them are a matriarch and her family, downplaying a traumatic hospital stint; a woman, dipping in and out of her native tongue while reading a cake recipe; and, an Iranian student, living a modern life while remaining respectful of her ancestry. Some of the extended takes are frustratingly abstract; a cruise ship passing the Opera House is a particularly bewildering insert. Yet the engagement between Ferris’ lens, the footpaths and corridors of the complex and those that call it home remains endlessly captivating.

The mosaic of everyday life begins to unravel when Department of Family and Community Services officials arrive at 57 Lawson to begin the relocation process of the longterm tenants. These scenes are staged, but they are realised with no less of an impact than the observational factual footage; particularly heartbreaking is the ageing Turkish man and the moment of realisation that the two women in his home are preparing to move him after 40 years of living at Poet’s Corner.  

Despite flagging a point-of-view with a pre-title quote from Mahatma Gandhi (“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”), Ferris’ methodolgy does not dictate a socio-political message. Instead, his camera is an observer of the existential complexity behind the case numbers and bureaucracy. The influence of Akerman’s ‘slow-cinema’ is obvious, notably her masterwork All One Night (1982); like the late director’s finest films, 57 Lawson is an exercise in minimalism to the point of near abstract detachment. Yet while the very presence of Ferris’ camera seems oblivious to his subjects, it achieves a gripping intensity of personal focus and tangible sense of time and place.