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Entries in Spirituality (3)

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.

Wednesday
Dec062017

D-LOVE

Stars: Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss and Christine Fazzino.
Writer: Dave Rogers
Director: Elena Beuca

Rating: 4/5

Elena Beuca (pictured, above) and her husband Dave Rogers were at the lowest ebb of their married life when Ditlev Darmakaya, a stranger they met at the airport, energised their world by imparting a rare understanding of spiritual connectivity. So potent was the sense of calm and acceptance of destiny provided by Ditlev, Rogers wrote a screenplay to tell the world of the experience. In the compassionate, steady hands of debutant director Beuca, D-love (the nickname Rogers gave their new friend/spirit guide) proves precisely the tonic these toxic times need.

Small in narrative scope but vast in its universal themes of grief and disconnection from one’s self, this account of the couple’s true story proves remarkable and deeply moving. Rogers had just lost both parents in a short period of time, sending him into an alcohol-numbed depression that kept him homebound and jobless; Beuca was grieving the recent death of her brother (their life glimpsed in beautifully shot flashback sequences), while trying to reconcile their inability to have children. In cinematic terms, such backstories can seem leaden with clichés, but the couple play the plot beats with the authenticity and dignity of those who have lived and left behind such hurdles.

Rounding out the extraordinary behind-the-scenes detail of the film is the casting of the ‘Danish vagabond’ himself in the role of D-love. Though his acting range will never see him be confused with Daniel Day Lewis, Darmakaya conveys precisely the sweetness and life-affirming warmth that won over first Rogers, then Beuca (both engaging playing versions of themselves). Though it seems entirely unlikely that one’s salvation from pain and leader to life fulfilment will emerge from the crazies found in most airport terminals, it proves entirely believable that the physically striking Darmakaya could have such an impact on the struggling couple (pictured, below; Rogers, left, and Darmakaya in D-love).

D-love recalls a brief period from the 1990s when a new-agey spiritualism entered mainstream American cinema. Films that had audiences staring inwards included Bruce Joel Rubin’s My Life (1993), starring Michael Keaton as the terminal patient seeking truth in his final moments, and Lawrence Kasdan’s ensemble drama Grand Canyon (1991), in which middle-class suburbanites sought greater meaning in their existence. D-Love sits alongside such works, perhaps taking on greater importance given the current embrace of close-minded intolerance, as opposed to that pre-new millennium sense of hope and change for the better.   

Elena Beuca’s drama occasionally overplays its sweet-natured hand – Michael Monks’ heart-of-gold mechanic, whose soothing words comfort Elena after a fender-bender, is a bit too much; in one scene, Darmakaya (bound for Burning Man, no less) actually stops to smell the roses. Overall, however, these are minor digressions in an otherwise wonderful drama that benefits immeasurably if you beat down any inclination towards cynicism. D-Love is an irresistible addition to that under-serviced film genre that embraces a non-religious philosophy of love and acceptance; few films can boast timeliness so profound.

 

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.