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Entries in Documentary (41)

Tuesday
Jun042019

63 UP

With: Andrew Brackfield, Peter Davies, Neil Hughes, Bruce Balden, Nicholas Hitchon, Tony Walker, Suzanne Dewey, Symon Basterfield, Jacqueline Bassett, John Brisby, Susan Sullivan and Paul Kligerman; featuring Charles Furneaux and Lynn Johnson.
Director: Michael Apted

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

From director Paul Almond’s 1964 launch episode to the subsequent installments helmed by Michael Apted, the Seven Up series, the slice-of-British-life documentaries that have explored the U.K. class system via the proverb, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” has captured the hearts of generations of viewers. In the ninth installment 63 Up, the social experiment faces its own end goal; were the children introduced 56 years ago tiny blueprints of the men and women now before Apted’s camera in 2019? (Pictured, above; Nicholas Hitchon)

When Apted poses that question to the participants (as he has done repeatedly since his series hit mature age status in 1998, with 42 Up), their general response is, “Yes, mostly.” In Episode 1, lifetime cabbie Tony Walker is unmistakably the lad he was six decades ago, referring to himself as, “the same cheeky chappy”; upper-middle classman Andrew Brackfield (pictured, below) is every inch the successful, if slightly stressed, business executive he envisioned for himself (by his own reckoning, he has lived a, “happy, fulfilling life”); and, Sue Sullivan, despite a troubled romantic history (a typically common trait amongst the adult Uppers), maintains the confident glow of the vibrant little one she was at 7.

Episode 2 presents a more nuanced, slightly sadder appraisal of the aging process. A particularly understated Bruce Baldon has retired from teaching, falling short of attaining an executive position in the profession, and finds himself facing old age fighting weight gain and the dissolution of the family unit as his sons prepare to leave the nest; and, Jacqueline Bassett, who takes on Apted over questions asked in past episodes that reflect the casual misogyny of 70s/80s society, reveals the sadness that has shaped her later life.

In the third episode of 63 Up, the bond between boarding school housemates Paul Kligerman and Symon Basterfield is explored, the pair reuniting in Kligerman’s adopted home of Australia; John Brigsby, perhaps the most toffee of the 7 Up children, but who, in adulthood, has delivered on his promise to use wealth and status to help the less privileged; and, saving the most compelling portrait of his series until its conclusion, Apted revisits Neil Hughes, the bright-eyed moppet who has morphed into, at different intervals, a drifter, a Liberal Democrat politician and a lay priest, all while battling mental health torment.

Age withers us all, and so Apted and his audience must face the tragedy of mortality. Two of the series most popular ‘stars’ are confronted with their final days; one ponders on a life that will soon be left behind, while another is remembered by surviving family and archive footage. For those of us who have grown up alongside these personalities, these are heartbreaking moments that speak to the strength of first-person documentary storytelling. The scenes drive home the extraordinarily unique impact that Almond’s and Apted’s perfectly ordinary subjects have had upon those that have shared in this journey.

It is in the views of the participants that the effectiveness of the Seven Up series as social commentary emerges. Baldon cites the brutality of boarding school beatings as key to perpetuating repressed emotion, an accepted symbol of his middle-class life; Dewey, a working-class East-ender, still believes “You are what you are born into,” her friend Jackie says, “I’ve never changed.” The plummy comforts of life in society’s upper tier seemed pre-ordained for Andrew and John (you’ll recall their discussion, aged 7, about which newspapers they favoured), but they are humble with respect to their wealth and family stability.

63 Up captures the universal essence of mature-age happiness – pride and faith in one’s children, a levelheaded perspective on life’s highs and lows, firm but softening views on the society one has helped to shape (just as Margaret Thatcher’s divisive social policies in the 1980s were addressed in past installments, so is Brexit in sufficient measure). Yet it soars as that most rare of cinematic works – a project that exist long enough to both consider and continue to shape its own legacy.

Before the cameras, Apted’s cross-section of British lives has delivered on the promise of its premise; the men and women glimpsed in the boys and girls all those years have emerged as remarkably good people, irrespective of class. Behind the cameras, Apted has exhibited the same degree of intellectual growth and determination to capture life with truth and integrity. If 63 Up is the last chapter of the Seven Up series (as has been rumoured), it will finalise a monumentally personal, profoundly important work deserving of timeless reverence.

63 UP will screen on ITV in The United Kingdom from June 4. The series will have its Australian Premiere on SBS from June 10. Please checkguides for your local screening times.

     

Tuesday
May142019

PARIAH DOG

Features: Kajal, Pinku, Milly and Subrata.
Writers; Jesse Alk, Koustav Sinha.
Director: Jesse Alk

Screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 19-29.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: The opening scene of the documentary Pariah Dog is one of heartbreaking poignancy; a beautiful young adult male pariah (or desi) dog, the native canine breed of South East Asia, sits alone in an empty street in Kolkata, the tips of his golden coat covered in the city’s dirt, his yearning howl a cry in the night for other members of his long-dissolved pack. The life he cries for – the wilderness existence with which every one of his instincts is primed to interact - has long been consumed by man’s industrial expansion. He is native to a land that he no longer recognises, and one whose society has wilfully neglected to recognise him.

Director Jesse Alk takes the outsider’s plight of the urbanized native dog as the starting point for a lyrical examination of four humans for whom modern Indian society is equally unforgiving. Pinku is an artist, his wooden carvings things of rare beauty but unsellable in a modern metropolis; Subrata is ageing into irrelevance, his memories of a game show win and a fading dream of stardom all he has left; Milly was a once a woman of means with generational land rightfully hers being taken by squatters and corrupt local government; alongside Milly, her faithful assistant Kajal endures their complex love/hate relationship as her own life narrows in scope.

United only by the documentarian’s lens, these four Calcuttans share a passionate love for the street dogs of their city, dedicating hours and most of their meagre earnings towards their care. A great deal of bitter existential irony courses through the frames of Alk’s deeply humanistic film; as the population that surrounds them seems oblivious to the torment of their lives, these four remarkable people commit to providing shelter, food and affection to the similarly displaced dogs (as well as cats, a monkey and a parrot, if dogs aren’t your thing).

To the production’s credit, Alk and co-writer Koustav Sinha refuse to present their subjects as the antidote to the street dog’s harsh life. Scenes that convey the physical hardship and ultimate demise of some beautiful animals will be too much for some, as will the emotional toll that an animal’s passing takes upon the carer. The director also refuses to employ traditional narration, a decision that skilfully adds to an overall defiance of any prejudicial context; fittingly, Pariah Dogs will live a long, timeless life as a statement against selfish modern living.

The film is not without humour, of course; in one left-field moment that serves to both relieve tension and utterly bewilder, Alk helps Subrata realise his Desi-pop ambitions by crafting a music video for his self-penned, lower-caste anthem. The potential that factual filmmaking has for capturing fateful moments is realised when the elderly gentleman literally crosses paths with an anti-animal cruelty demonstration, which he soon joins in chorus.

The final frames, in which two of the protagonists reconnect on the traditional life-giving waterways far from the decay of the city, are a hopeful response to the call of that lonely, howling street dog. His India still exists, or at least the spirit of the land from which he came.

  

Tuesday
Jan222019

EMOCEAN

With: Brent Bielman, Baptiste Gossein, Mike Prickett, Jeff Schmucker, Dave Kalama, Jamie Mitchell, Jamie O’Brien, Trevor Carlson, Jeff Clarke, Matt Becker, Andrew Brooks, Paul Witzig, sacha Guggenheimer and Dave MacAuley.
Writer/Director: Tony Harrington

Screening at 2019 Gold Coast Film Festival, April 5 at the BCC Cinemas, Coolangatta.

Reviewed at 2019 Screenwave International Film Festival, January 20 at the Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour.

Rating: ★★★★½

Part lyrical ode to the lure of the sea, part giddy sports adventure travelogue, Tony Harrington’s latest epic ocean odyssey Emocean is as heartfelt a love letter as man has ever penned for The Big Blue. In seeking out the essence of our attraction to and affinity with the wild, natural wonder of the planet’s water environments, the legendary cameraman has profoundly defined humanity’s oceanic bond, while also redefining just how insightful and moving the sports-doc genre is capable of being. In the film's own words, "That metre, above and below the water, has got something special...".

Drawing upon his experiences exploring the world’s most majestic coastlines and a rolodex of global contacts whose lives are intricately linked to life underwater, Harrington finds tragedy, joy and wonder in the recollections of his interviewees. His film is most engaging when he tracks generational ties to the sea, such as the love that Western Australian pro-surfing great Dave MacAulay shares with his daughters, pro international Bronte amongst them; South Australian coastal conservation pioneer Andrew Brooks, whose vision preserved the beauty of vast waterfront bushland for surfers for years to come; and, fisherman Jeff Schmucker, whose family have lived off the bounty and beauty of the South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula for four generations.

Few documentarians can claim to have as unique an understanding of their subject’s psyche as Harrington clearly does. The families of surfers, fisherman, scientists or beach dwellers who view their connection to the ocean as integral to their very existence mirrors that of the filmmaker; in drawing out their experiences, he is exploring and questioning his own life choices in a manner that strengthens the community of which he is part. 

Most soulful of the on-camera personalities are those who have fallen victim to the dangers of the deep yet are still drawn to the life. Young French surfer Baptiste Gossein, rendered paraplegic surfing Teahupo’o, or cinematographer Mike Prickett, left wheelchair bound after rescuing his scuba partner but suffering a crippling attack of decompression sickness, aka ‘the bends’, open up to Harrington’s camera with a courage and matter-of-factness that is truly inspiring.

Of course, Harrington’s legend was built upon his surfing footage, and Emocean is most energised when it explores the compulsion that otherwise sane men have to surf waves four-storey’s high. To the surfing community, exploring the passion and personalities of such icons as Maverick’s groundbreaker Jeff Clarke, fearless conquerors of the Maui ‘Jaws’ swell like Trevor Carlson and Dave Kalama, and Pipeline great Jamie O’Brien will be worth the price of admission; the footage that accompanies their accounts of lives spent hurtling down the face of a water-walls that can reach 50-feet into the air is breathtaking (the frame-perfect editing of Trinity Ludlow Hudson is technically superb). Wipeout footage is used sparingly but delivers the bone-crunching feels when called upon.

There is an undeniable sense of destiny about Harrington’s assured direction and storytelling in Emocean, that his latest film is the one he has been building towards. It is a work that not only displays the consummate skill of a cinematic craftsman at the peak of his prowess, but also of a man who has tapped what is most profoundly essential to his life to help him forge his most potent creative statement to date.

EMOCEAN - Trailer from HarroArt on Vimeo.

 

Monday
Oct222018

SPITFIRE

It is arguably the greatest flying machine in aviation history; an instantly recognizable form that changed the course and ultimately the outcome of the greatest conflict in human history. The development, impact and legacy of the iconic British fighter plane is explored in Spitfire, a documentary by David Fairhead and Ant Palmer that will screen at the 2018 Veterans Film Festival on November 3 ahead of an Australian release on November 15 via Rialto Distribution. Guest columnist ADAM LUNNEY is the author of the new book Ready to Strike, a detailed account of the 453 RAAF Squadron, the Australians who flew Spitfires over the Normandy battlefront. SCREEN-SPACE invited him to cast an expert’s eye over the documentary for an informed perspective…

Spitfire: it’s more than just a word. The feature documentary Spitfire goes a long way towards illustrating why.

It opens with clouds and a blue sky, the English countryside – you’re flying, but are you in the Spitfire, or is it out there somewhere, hunting you? Soon enough the answer comes, as a Spitfire appears from the right. There is no sound but the whisper of air. What comes next is what people sometimes travel the world for. Thousands of people at airshows wait in total silence when they know a Spitfire is coming because a Spitfire is not just a word or a plane – it’s also a sound. Low and distant to start, but then growing, as if the pilot’s accelerating towards you. The combined roar and whine of the Merlin engine is loud and beautiful, then it passes. When the silence returns, you know that was worth waiting for.

The first words spoken in the documentary are from well-known Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot (and author) Geoffrey Wellum: “You can’t fly a Spitfire and forget about it. Stays with you forever.” Through the narrative and wonderful aerial shots blending wartime and contemporary footage, Spitfire doesn’t just tell you about the plane, it shows you.

The soundtrack is gentle. As much as a rousing Battle of Britain orchestral piece can get the blood pumping, these veterans are more contemplative, so the music is soft throughout, while the Merlin (or Griffon) engine is often the main accompaniment.

Lest everyone become too misty-eyed and romantic we are also reminded that, “You are aware that the purpose of this plane was to shoot and kill. It’s a killing machine.” There is, of course, no point being a fighter pilot if you can’t hit anything. These are just the first few minutes of the documentary, and like a pilot experiencing their first skyward ascent in a Spitfire – you’ll be hooked.

The documentary covers the development of the Spitfire and has the only remaining recording of the man responsible for it: Reginald Mitchell. There is footage from the seaplane races that led to its creation and we’re taken through the war and the evolution of the Spitfire. The story lingers almost a bit too long on the Battle of Britain, before moving on to Malta and Normandy. Here there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment for Australian viewers. The aircraft having the famous black and white ‘invasion’ or ‘D-Day’ stripes is from our own 453 Squadron, and at least two of the pilots at the scene of the briefing which follows are from the same squadron.  

Throughout, footage is blended from wartime manufacturing and modern assembly of virtually the same equipment – a reminder that they live on, as should the memories of those who built, maintained and flew them. There is something here for young and old, the pedantic and patriotic.

The legend of the Spitfire is said to be a post-war creation. It’s perhaps a way of saying thank you. Already, three of the veterans featured in this documentary have passed away. Marvel at their deeds and words.  How can so many feelings and memories be encompassed in a word? Spitfire.

Adam Lunney holds a Master of Arts (Military History) from U.N.S.W. College at the Australian Defence Force Academy, is a Friend of the Australian War Memorial and a member of the Spitfire Association (Australia). Ready to Strike, his first book, will have its Official Launch in conjunction with the Veterans Film Festival screening of Spitfire at the Capitol Theatre in Manuka, A.C.T. on November 3

Veterans Film Festival ticket and session details are available here; Ready to Strike can be ordered here.

©Content may be re-used in part or full with an accompanying acknowledgement crediting 'author Adam Lunney' and original source 'Screen-Space'.

Saturday
Aug042018

LIVING UNIVERSE

Narrator: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
Featuring: Natalie Batalha, Gentry Lee, Avi Loeb, Karin Öberg, Sar Seager, Steve Squyres and the voice of Prof. Tamara Davis.

Rating: 4/5

Melding mesmerizing CGI visions of interstellar starscapes and alien worlds with earthbound wisdom and state-of-the-art tech provided by some of the greatest minds in space science, the Australian/French co-production Living Universe will leave both dreamers and doers pining for what the future folds.

Not for the first time in movie history, posing the question ‘Are we alone?’ proves to be the entry point for a terrific film experience. Mulling over the connotations of that questions are the likes of Steve Squyres, NASA Space Science Advisory Committee chairperson; Swedish astrochemist Karin Öberg; JPL Chief Engineer Gentry Lee, currently serving NASA’s Planetary Flight Systems Drectorate; astrophysicist Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist on NASA’s Kepler initiative; and, Avi Loeb, Harvard’s Professor of Science.

As the collective might of this academic hive-mind ponders the hows, where and whys of intergalactic exploration, the journey of the A.I.-piloted spacecraft Aurora to the distant ‘exoplanet’ Minerva B unfolds, 150 years from now. These sequences are gorgeous flights of fancy, conjured by effects gurus tasked with crafting galaxy clouds, meteor storms and, ultimately, ‘flesh and bone’ manifestations in answer to the question originally posed.

The production stops short of going full-Avatar; to undertake a dirt-to-civilization exercise in world building is best left to the budgets of Hollywood studios. Living Universe instead imagines that the very first moments of contact and discovery, enabled by drone-tech and spider-bot androids, will be at a base biological level but no less wonderful or awe-inspiring because of it.   

The narration of Aussie celeb-scientist Dr Karl Kruszelnicki will play better with international audiences; local patrons may be too familiar with his floral-shirt public persona to fully accept him in such an earnest mood. That said, his contributions clearly convey information and succinctly posit theories and conjecture that may be otherwise daunting for non-space types.

Emerging as the most engaging presence is Australian astrophysicist Tamara Davis (pictured, above), who vocalises the A.I. operating system ‘Artemis’ aboard the Aurora. Unlike ‘Mother’, the femme-voiced super-computer of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, Davis’ cyber-conscience proves empathetic, inquisitive and ideal as Earth’s ambassador at the point of ‘first contact’.

The WORLD PREMIERE Australian Season of LIVING UNIVERSE commences August 9 at Event Cinemas nationally; from August 11 at Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (Sydney); and, from August 30 at IMAX Melbourne Museum. Check the official website for other venues.

Thursday
Jul262018

ANGIE

Featuring: Angie Meiklejohn, Bonnie Meiklejohn, Renee Meiklejohn, Carlos Meiklejohn, Angela Sharp, Jules Barber, Richard Langdon and Brian Bouzard.
Director: Costa Botes

Rating: 4.5/5

Costa Botes has delivered arguably the finest film of his 30-year directorial career with Angie, an intimate epic of vast emotional and psychological insight. Led into the dark subject matter then back to the hopeful light by his frank and fearless muse, abuse survivor Angie Meiklejohn, the veteran filmmaker has crafted a deeply empathetic narrative that spans a generation of one family’s dysfunction, mental health suffering and sexual and emotional torment.

Immediately earning a place alongside such similarly-themed works as Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and Rosie Jones’ The Family (2016), Botes’ incisive study of a family unit imploding focuses on the journey of Meiklejohn from her disrupted childhood and wayward teen years through a truly shocking rite of passage into adulthood. With siblings Bonnie, Renee and Carl weighing in with their own stark memories of family discord and early-life hardship, Botes captures how a group of related lost souls could fall for the false hope promised by cultist Bert Potter and his Centrepoint alternative lifestyle movement.

Botes examines such deeply human conditions as grief, addiction, intimacy and ultimately, hope through the tortured psyche and soulful presence of Angie Meiklejohn. Her Centrepoint ordeal, reliance upon alcohol to self-medicate and subsequent descent into life as a sex worker led to suicidal inclinations. Meiklejohn fronts Botes’ lens with a matter-of-factness that is startling, relating moments from a life that would have hardened many beyond redemption, had they survived at all. Yet Angie, whose last decade has centred on an earthy spirituality and reconciliation with her family, exudes a rare warmth and willingness to share. As her friend Richard Langdon observes, “It’s impossible to not love her.”

Despite the extensive New Zealand media coverage afforded the trial during the early 90s, which saw Potter and senior Centrepoint cohorts convicted of indecently assaulting minors, audiences will be disturbed by the details that Angie and her sisters provide regarding life inside the compound. Botes understands that to comprehend the person that Angie has become (and to shine further damning light upon those who preyed on her), details regarding sexual abuse trauma, drug manufacture and administering and psychological manipulation are relevant, yet no less shocking with the passage of time.

Costa Botes melds the many elements of Angie’s story with the technical expertise of a learned craftsman (its been 23 years since his breakthrough work, the iconic mockumentary Forgotten Silver). He commands the content, form and themes with consummate prowess; there is not a frame within the daunting 119-minute running time that is without potency or profundity. Botes respects and honours his subject, but also the genre within which he is working; like the lady herself, Angie is a deep, dark, daring wonder.

Angie will have its WORLD PREMIERE on July 29th at The ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, as part of the 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival. Further details available via the event’s official website.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE 'World Cinema - New Zealand' feature here.

Wednesday
Jul042018

ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT

Featuring: Jan Broberg, Mary Ann Broberg, Bob Broberg, Pete Welsh, Karen Campbell, Joe Berchtold, Susan Broberg, Cor Hoffman, Sinclair DuMont and Devin Ordoyne.
Director: Skye Borgman

Screening at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 12.

Rating: 4.5/5

As profoundly insightful as any bigscreen rendering of the psychology and methodology of the sociopathic paedophile, Abducted in Plain Sight sits alongside current standard-bearers Evil Genius, The Keepers and How to Make a Murderer in that top tier of contemporary true-crime factual films. Stripping her narrative back to bare facts and raw emotions, director Skye Borgman has crafted a gripping work of intrigue, horror and sadness that fully reveals one of America’s most extraordinary abduction and abuse cases.

Robert Berchtold was a husband and father when he and his family moved into the middle-class Idaho suburb of Pocatello in the early 1970s. An attractive, charming man, he immediately ingratiated himself with his new neighbours, good churchgoin' folk The Brobergs; shopkeeper dad Bob, housewife Mary Ann, and their three daughters Susan, Karen and the eldest, Jan. Affectionately called ‘B’ by his newly acquired prey, Robert Berchtold set in motion a meticulously planned, cold-blooded series of events that would compromise Bob and Mary Ann and, more insidiously, allow him to kidnap, psychologically manipulate and sexually abuse Jan.

Afforded an extraordinary level of intimacy by her on-camera subjects, Borgman paints a non-judgemental portrait of a family shrouded in the false warmth of their LDS faith and naïve to the manipulative skill of Berchtold. The parent’s own actions and the subsequent handling of their daughter’s ordeal is, frankly, beyond comprehension, yet in recounting one tragic mistake after another, Mary Ann and Bob Broberg emerge more as collateral victims of Berchtold’s predatory prowess. His psychopathology was of a medieval bluntness and cunning, at a time when suburban America was in the early soporific stages of a new comfortable, modern existence.

Steadfastly central to her own story is adult survivor Jan Broberg, who recounts with bracing frankness the psychological and subsequent sexual abuse inflicted by ‘B’ upon her between the ages of 12 and 15. Sisters Susan and Karen are given camera time to recall the shifting dynamic of the family from their own young perspectives, and Bob and Mary Ann are as open as any documentary subjects can be, but it is Jan’s spirit that soars above the putrid evil inherent to any retelling of Berchtold’s actions. Scenes in which she confronts an aging Berchtold in court exemplify her towering strength in understanding and defying the legacy of his actions.

Convincingly played by Devin Ordoyne in flashback sequences (each expertly shot on Super 8 film by Borgman to capture period mood and detail), Berchtold proves a compelling, utterly chilling figure. Borne of a twisted psyche traced back to his own childhood, he is afforded a few frames of expository backstory by Borgman, but not so much that his vile actions are lessened by why he is what he is and does what he does. The film utilises his brother Joe to provide insight into their family’s dark past; although central to the events, Berchtold’s wife and children are not featured. Former FBI agent Pete Welsh recounts the investigation and frustrated legal process that allowed Berchtold to manipulate the law and justice as efficiently as he did everyone and everything else that he targeted.

Saturday
Jun232018

LOTS OF KIDS, A MONKEY AND A CASTLE

Featuring: Julita Salmerón, Gustavo Salmerón, Antonio García Cabanes, Ramón García SalmerónPaloma García Salmerón, David García Salmerón, Ignacio García Salmerón and Julia García Salmerón.  
Screenplay: Gustavo Salmerón, Raúl de Torres, Beatriz Montañez.
Director: Gustavo Salmerón.

Screening at LALIFF, Los Angeles on June 23 and June 24.

Rating: 4/5

A Spanish matriarch’s recipe for happiness is examined through her son’s melancholy, bittersweet lens in Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, a charming study of family dynamics, shifting generational values and the challenge of just plain growing old from actor/director Gustavo Salmerón.

On her wedding day, Julita Salmerón wished for three things from her new life – a vast family, a pet monkey and a traditional dwelling that recalls the majesty of her homeland’s history. In Julita’s eyes, these are symbols of affluence but by the mid 00’s (the film utilises decades of footage, from family photos dating back a century to iPhone coverage), they have come to represent very different things.

Gustavo (a well-known actor in his homeland), his five siblings and their own families have gathered to empty their parent’s castle of its riches before the bank takes possession, the clan having lost much of its wealth in the economic crisis; the monkey is long gone, having turned from family pet into an objectionable pest who literally bit the hand that fed it once too often. As the family struggles with cumbersome relics such as chandeliers and knight’s armour, Julita recalls the moments, memories and dreams, both lived and unfulfilled, that have shaped her life.

As this lovely film unfolds, Julita transforms from the eccentric, feisty Spanish ‘abuela’ who hoards a lifetime of trinkets (from plastic pipes and knitting needles to her grandparents’ vertebra) into a deeply humanistic presence increasingly consumed with her own mortality and legacy. Both very funny (she convinces her family to indulge in a rehearsal for her own wake) and very sweet (she adores her husband, despite a long period without physical intimacy and his contrary views on Spain’s political past), she speaks directly to her son’s camera with the frankness of a septuagenarian with no reason to keep opinions or secrets to herself any longer.

Her circumstances are specific to her situation, but Julita’s sentimentality and desire for a life that has long passed her by has a universality that is instantly relatable. The intimacy of the footage, the forthright insight she conveys and the openness with which she embraces her newfound role as ‘documentary subject’ is wonderfully endearing. By the final frames of Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, one entirely understands why she is adored, held in awe and quietly tolerated in equal measure.

Wednesday
Jun132018

MY SAGA

With: Adam Harris, Jack Anakin Harris, Perry King, James Arnold Taylor, Steve Gawley, Charles Bailey, Vanessa Marshall, Bonnie Piesse and Erik Bauersfeld.
Writers: Adam Harris, Terry King and David Richardson.
Director: Adam Harris.

World Premiere; Wednesday 13th June at Event Cinemas North Lakes.

Rating: 4/5

There is a moment two-thirds into Adam Harris’ endearing documentary My Saga when the director/narrator utters an understatement as vast as the galaxy itself. In his typically easygoing manner, he observes without a hint of irony, “This was a bit of a geek moment for me.” Anyone who seeks out the Queensland-based filmmaker’s ode to George Lucas’ space opera mythology and how it has shaped and guided his own narrative will experience the same. It is a rousing paean to both fan culture and young fatherhood.

Harris plays cute with the opening moments; a header reads, “Not that long ago, in a country down under…,” before the famous title crawl begins to tell his story. One expects nothing less from a fan opus that wears its heart on its sleeve (who would make a Star Wars-themed film and not open in that way?), but the director and his mentoring co-helmer Terry King understand there is weighty themes at the heart of this story and quickly shift to a more serious tone .

Having established the origins of his Star Wars obsession (a 1983 session of Return of The Jedi at Brisbane’s Regent Theatre), Harris retells the wrenching moment when a scan revealed a dark spot on his brain. The subsequent period of existential introspection led to the realisation he needed to fast track a lifelong memory for his equally Star Wars-enamored son Jack (middle name Anakin, of course). Their destination is America; their plan, to absorb as much Star Wars experience that Jack’s age, Adam’s health and the young family's budget will allow.

The first act of My Saga occasionally teeters near to a ‘fan only’ myopia. The old and young fanboys wander with glassy-eyed wonder around Rancho Obi-wan, the merchandising museum overseen by Steve Sansweet; during a visit to Lucasfilm HQ, Harris interviews Steve Gawley and Charlie Bailey, two ageing Star Wars veterans who recall in detail working with effects gurus John Dykstra and Joe Johnston. Their memories are fascinating, but Jack and his father are largely off-screen for an extended period while these three men convey their own Star Wars journeys.

Harris’ film regains its surefootedness and emotional core when father and son undertake to conquer the madness of Star Wars Celebration 2015, the 4-day 2015 gathering in Anaheim during which the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was launched. The fan response to the teaser, in particular that first sight of an aged Han Solo and Chewbacca is now legendary. The footage of the moment it impacted father and son as it unfolds before them is extraordinary; the roar of a packed auditorium conveying the immensity of the moment, coupled with the profound affect it has on Harris (and the bemused awe conveyed by Jack), makes for a special cinematic moment.

These scenes turn My Saga into ours, as well; the audience engagement is complete. Scenes that reveal the burden that Harris carries – his breakdown when interviewing actor Perry King (the radio play version of Han Solo); his encounter with another father attending Celebration, with an ailing son – are deeply emotional. As Harris continues upon his journey, the essence of the bond it is forging between he and his boy takes on sharper focus. Patriarchal legacy is one of the most resonant themes of Lucas’ mythology and so it becomes with Harris’ beautiful film.

In recent days, the vile toxicity of contemporary fan culture and its impact upon The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran has darkened the Internet. Offering evidence that a shared understanding of and love for creations of the imagination can be life affirming, My Saga is the perfect counterpoint for anyone who harbours ill will within the Star Wars universe. The trolls should be forced to wake up to themselves and reconsider their allegiance from the perspective of Jack and Adam Harris.

Tuesday
May292018

RISKING LIGHT

Featuring: Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking, Kilong Ung and Oshea Israel.
Director: Dawn Mikkelson.

Screening July 14 at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Session and ticket details at the event website.

Rating: 4.5/5

The immense courage and spiritual will it takes to truly ‘forgive’ beams from the screen in director Dawn Mikkelson’s Risking Light, a triptych of heartbreaking, soul-enriching narratives that combine to present a study in scarred but soaring humanity. Largely foregoing the mawkish sentimentality that such tales of redemption may present, the filmmaker instead favours stark honesty and frank storytelling, resulting in a film of rare integrity and profound emotional involvement.

The production focuses on three individuals who have struggled to overcome the burden of grief and anger in the wake of a grave injustice. In Minneapolis, Mary Johnson relates directly to camera the depths of her despair after her teenage son Laramiun Byrd was killed in a shattering instance of gun violence in 1993; from the coast of Tasmania, Debra Hocking recounts the forced separation from her family as a toddler as part of Australia’s shameful ‘stolen generation’ period, and the subsequent decade of abuse in foster care; and, from the streets of Phnom Penh, Kilong Ung shares details with his young Cambodian-American family of his horrific existence navigating the infamous ‘killing fields’ under Khmer Rouge reign.

Seamlessly intercutting each story so as to find a through-line in their pained existence, Mikkelson then poses the question, ‘How strong must we be to truly create a compassionate society?’ Faced with lives of all-consuming psychological torment, existential angst and an urge for (often violent) retribution, the three sufferers instead forge a path of personal responsibility that refuses to perpetuate society’s heart of darkness. From lives that threatened to decay into insignificance emerge beacons of forgiveness that find personal salvation, while inspiring others to walk a similarly righteous, enlightened path.

An Emmy-award winner for Late Life, the 2014 PBS series on terminal and aged care practices, Mikkelson’s feature work (under her Emergence Pictures banner) has determinedly examined the strength of the human spirit to confront and reconcile with the unfair, often tragic direction modern life can take. Her 2003 debut This Obedience profiled a gay Lutheran pastor’s struggle for the acceptance in the face of conservatism, both in her church and the wider community; in 2007, she traced her supposedly ethical ‘green energy’ source back to its impact on indigenous Manitoba society in Green Green Water; her 2014 small-screen project Planting Creativity examined the revitalisation of struggling townships via the injection of collaborative arts-based initiatives.

Frankly, western society needs more filmmakers like Dawn Mikkelson, and more people like Mary Johnson, Debra Hocking and Kilong Ung. As the world grows darker under leaders determined to segregate and marginalise, the unifying actions of these everyday people as they undertake remarkable journeys of wilful forgiveness should make Risking Light required viewing in our halls of power.