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Talking About Trees

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.

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Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

On the surface it looks as big a contrast of highbrow and mainstream as you can get – Ron Howard, director of films like Splash, Apollo 13 and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci series, takes on the life story of the world’s most famous opera star, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007 ). Howard may be far from arthouse, deeply bedded in traditional Hollywood structures of filmmaking, but he knows how to tell a story.

“I look for peak moments,” he says in a Masterclass. In Pavarotti, the peak moments are dictated by the highlights of the singer’s actual life and shared with a global public.

And this is where the match of director and subject starts to make sense. Howard’s recent biography on the Beatles and their touring years in Eight Days a Week was a nice precursor to this biopic, as the more we discover about Pavarotti, especially for non-opera types, the more we understand him as one of the great rock stars, selling over 100 million albums and performing in front of 10 million people over the course of his 45 year career.

At the beginning of the film, Pavarotti is asked what he wants to be. He replies ‘I want to be a man who brought opera to the people.’

He achieved that aim with the aid of two promoters who understood his potential for mass appeal; Harvey Goldsmith, who was looking for a replacement act when Bruce Springsteen became unavailable, and formidable record producer Tibor Rudas who handled global pop acts like Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton.

From a 1984 sold out concert at Madison Square Garden, to the incredible 3 Tenors shows with Placido Domingo and Jose Carrera who topped the charts with their recording of ‘Nessus Dorma,’ to the charity concerts with Sting, U2 and many other rock stars, Pavarotti left a massive mark.

On the whole, Ron Howard has done well with a narrative that follows a loose chronology while looping back to images of a childhood in the Italian village of Modena where the singer learned technique and inherited his baker father’s singing gift. Cossetted by an extended family of mostly women, Pavarotti had relationships with devoted women who also acted as secretaries and managers.

His more casual womanising and his reputation for cancelling concerts are glossed over, but Howard allows some flaws to emerge. The singer could be difficult and demanding, he travelled with 28 suitcases, and was a perfectionist and something of a glutton, who described himself as a ‘peasant’. Other details are fascinating, such as his enduring stage fright, and the extraordinary technique that earned him the nickname ‘The King of the high Cs.’

Howard’s choice to feature extensive interviews with Pavarotti’s first wife Adua Veroni and their three daughters and Juilliard student and long-suffering lover Madalyn Renee is a strong frame for the story. The director manages to elicit generous, frank disclosures from Veroni and second wife Nicoletta Mantovani who was 35 years the singer’s junior, causing a huge scandal when he wed her.

Howard manages to capture many sides of the singer through the various quotes from managers, rock stars and other opera singers. There is a nice explanation of what makes a tenor voice so unique and compelling, and Bono’s description of being steam-rolled into writing and performing ‘Miss Sarajevo’ for charity is funny and revealing.

There are occasions when the director’s efforts to speak to a broad audience go beyond obvious, like the hillbilly soundtrack when Pavarotti tours the midwest, or Veroni’s mention of a chicken being illustrated by… a squawking chicken.

But he certainly showcases those ‘peak’ moments, especially his trademark aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 3 Tenors concert on the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

You certainly come away with a sense of Pavarotti’s extraordinary career and presence. Howard’s decision to aim for an impeccable sound recording, mastered at Abbey Road Studios, helps us appreciate the phenomenon of one of the greatest tenors of all time.

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The Australian Dream

Australian, Documentary, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Racism is the Schrödinger’s cat of Australian politics. A conversation that has been going on for decades and yet, because of continued insistence that racism isn’t a thing that happens around here, a conversation that no one is actually having. One particular figure that has repeatedly found himself in the spotlight of this non-conversation is Adam Goodes, former AFL player and Aussie sporting icon. Following in the footsteps of the recently-released The Final Quarter, The Australian Dream sets out to paint a picture of the man and, more importantly, his place within the cultures of his profession, his land and his people.

Using Goodes’ football career as a springboard to examine everything that occurred around it, director Daniel Gordon and writer/interviewee Stan Grant craft a flexible framework that allows Goodes’ genuine accomplishments to be celebrated, and the larger politique to wrap around without suffocating it. It’s definitely a fiery affair, one that wants to make the tragedy of this country’s recent Indigenous past and the frustration of Indigenous present as loud and clear as possible.

It highlights specific examples, both congratulatory like Nicky Winmar’s legendary photo and scandalous like Goodes’ ‘ape’ incident, as a means of providing a larger scope. A scope that includes the systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples and how even supposedly innocuous jokes can unearth cultural trauma. It’s little wonder why Australia Day remains a highly touchy subject to this day.

But simple muckraking would not only be too easy, it would also solidify the opinions of those who would outright avoid this documentary out of fear of being ‘lectured to’. Where this film ends up winning unexpected points is through the variety of interview subjects it has to offer. Alongside Goodes himself, we have other Aboriginal AFL stars like Gilbert McAdam, gold Olympian Nova Peris, and even Eddie McGuire and Andrew Bolt, public figures who themselves became part of the bigger Goodes story.

Rather than paint Bolt as an outright racist from the off, the interview format gives him a chance to tell his side of the story, not directly making any statements against him. Hell, McGuire ends up getting more of a third-degree than he does, and McGuire’s involvement gets written-off as someone seriously lacking in forethought; not hateful, just oblivious. This hasn’t stopped Bolt from going on the defensive concerning his portrayal here, but then again, his statements showing concern for the child at the centre of the ‘ape’ incident ring hollow, considering his staunch defence of Cardinal Pell over the years. Talk about “brought it on himself”.

This is not a pleasant film to watch by any stretch, but it’s certainly an impactful one. It highlights an ever-growing concern within Australian culture, regarding the treatment of Indigenous Aussies both then and now, and puts it on blast to create an informative and stomach-churning experience. Maybe now that the conversation surrounding Goodes has kicked up again, we can get past this fragility and actually start the larger discussion about racism and its existence in our culture.

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Morgana Rises

A documentary about Morgana Muses, an Australian housewife who reinvented herself as a feminist porn icon, is premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival. We spoke with the filmmakers to find out more.
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Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Keith Looby has a reputation for pissing off nearly every Australian art critic.

When you hear Keith Looby talk in person you will hear a soft-spoken artist with a deep resentment towards an ‘industry’ that just as easily celebrated him as it disposed of him.

Looby – which premieres as part of the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Festival – details the tumultuous career of the Archibald Prize Winner who wanted to be part of the arts conversation just as much as he tried to distance himself away from it.

Looby’s career is explored in a series of interviews detailing his perception among curators, critics and fellow artists. While critics of Looby recognise his remarkable ability to infuse politics into his artwork, his cantankerous antics left him ostracised from the Australian art scene.

Director Iain Knight does not attempt to paint Looby as a saint and affirms Looby’s reputation as being difficult through a multitude of sources. Looby would be the person talking too loudly on the train and speaking with his mouth full of food. Knight faces an uphill battle having the audience rally behind his subject but succeeds in separating the controversial artist from his art by recognising the social importance of his work against the backdrop of a pretentious industry hellbent on silencing him.

From Looby learning about the power of illustration when defiant at school, to his unpopular pursuit of the Archibald, the artist has always been under constant scrutiny by critics. His resentment at the culture-of-criticism is explored with a satirical gaze on an almost mafia-esque industry that would as soon dispose of its detractors as it would accept a non-conformist.

This disparagement for critique – whether hurt feelings or not – does not deter from Looby’s refusal to remain silent against a surveillant power. This ideology seeps through not only Looby’s personal life but also in the political nature of his artwork. The effects of Looby’s professional expulsion builds the emotional core of the film, with the artist now approaching the reality that most of his artwork will more likely be held in storage than presented in a gallery.

Radical? Maybe. Difficult? Most likely.

Keith Looby’s rejection from the art scene provides a fascinating exploration on art and critic-culture told through the eyes of an artist in constant disagreement with the establishment.


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Our Youth in Taiwan

Asian Cinema, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

After a decade of Beijing exerting its seemingly inexorable gravitational pull, China’s peripheries – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet – are renewing their pushback against the centre. Nowhere is this unequal struggle more acute than in Taiwan, the self-ruling, democratic island still officially called the Republic of China, neither under the actual control of the People’s Republic nor recognised as an independent state. Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary on 2014’s Sunflower Movement – a student-led push that successfully overturned a trade pact with mainland China – gains an extra frisson of resonance in light of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

This documentary’s director, Fu Yue, wears her political convictions on her sleeve: Our Youth in Taiwan builds on a short film she contributed to the anthology Sunflower Occupation, released in the year of the demonstrations. And at November’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, she sparked her own controversy when she called for Taiwanese independence.

This is a documentary crafted unmistakably from within its movement. Fu provides little background on the Sunflower Movement for international viewers, and never steps outside of the protest crowd for an alternative opinion. It’s the sort of embedded filmmaking that observes events as they develop and offers real-time commentary. Eventually, Fu directs her focus on two individuals, a young Taiwanese activist (Chen Wei-ting) and a mainland Chinese student and writer (Cai Boyi), subjects she follows for the rest of the film.

Our Youth in Taiwan is shaggy, exhaustive and arguably overlong, but it’s also as immediate and of-the-moment as you could hope for in a snapshot of China’s turbulent relations with the polities and peoples of its outlying regions in 2019. Fu adopts a lo-fi approach; the camerawork is grainy, footage is recycled and there is no soundtrack. She muses about ‘mutual understanding’ (between Taiwan and mainland China), and the eternal friction between ideals and politics is a theme in the film, yet its substance is more about how a protest movement lives and breathes, what drives its participants on a personal level.

Fu is also, despite her obvious political leanings, a sympathetic filmmaker, able to elicit openness from Chen and Cai and capture them in all their human complexity. The film, in following their abortive attempts at political careers, sidesteps the common inclination in documentaries to heroize its subjects: Chen is brought down by personal shortcomings, while Cai discovers that Taiwan’s democratic politics are as cruel and unsparing as everywhere else.

This collage of events leads to an uncertain resolution in which Fu grapples onscreen with her own expectations and emotions as a filmmaker. It’s unexpected, a violation of documentary convention that the director should remain at a distance, but in fusing the structural and the personal to seek closure outside the traditional form of a documentary, it’s a minor revelation. It’s that emotional core, and its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments, that sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.

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Stephen Amis: Film Shepherd

The Melbourne filmmaker makes a major leap forward with his latest film, Defend, Conserve, Protect, which documents activist group Sea Shepherd’s gripping mission to stop Japanese ‘research’ ships from killing Minke whales in the Antarctic.
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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The idea of pilgrimage, of walking to holy sites in the hope of expiating one’s sins, goes back to the Middle Ages. In one sense it is Catholic in as much as it originates pre-Reformation. It should perhaps have atrophied along with Mummers Plays and Ducking Stools. Therefore, you could say, there is something to be explained about the continuing cult of doing this 450-mile hike across Northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago (the way of Saint James). Is there something mysterious and personally epiphanic that persists in this ancient custom? Or is it really just a triumph of tourist ‘re-packaging’; inspiration-lite for the modern identity-obsessed, globalised age?

In Fergus Grady and Noel Smythe’s modest documentary such questions are deliberately not delved into. Instead, we follow a few people from New Zealand and other countries who have decided to do the big slog. They are ‘randoms’ in the modern parlance, and the filmmakers sensibly don’t make any great claims for them being especially interesting or unusual. Although some aspects of their histories and biographies are interesting and even moving. People are interesting. The film would just implode if that wasn’t the case. In a way they are ‘everyman’ and that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise to which so many nameless people have committed themselves over so many centuries.

The problem for the film though is not just in this dilemma (how much do these people want to show of their inner life? How much will be revealed just by the camera crew tagging along?), but also how to make a largely ‘interior’ journey interesting. Otherwise it becomes like a giant reality TV show – Ninja Warrior in the hills – with them as ‘contestants’ to which we cannot but assign tropes or stereotypes; the plucky overweight one, the frail old lady with arthritis, the unbearably mock-profound euro tourist. The focus on these particular people – let’s not call them pilgrims – has to carry the main load. In fact, they are listed in the credits under the cast heading.

As noted, the filmmakers eschew any attempt to situate the Way as a phenomenon, either historically or sociologically or theologically. Nor do they want it to dissolve into some scenery-displaying travel show. The wide shots are actually kept to a minimum. And sweeping, inspiring music is mostly sidelined in favour of a few touches of Spanish folk.

Looked at coldly, this is just 80 minutes of people tramping along a road, but somehow the film works (at least in places) despite itself. Perhaps there is a little bit of pilgrim in all of us.

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Trailer: Untouchable

Screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the documentary about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein looks appropriately hard-hitting.
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Peter Medak: Exorcising the Ghost of Peter Sellers

The director of The Ruling Class, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Changeling, The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo is Bleeding and various episodes of your favourite TV shows, opens up about his unreleased film starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and the documentary that he has made about the traumatic experience.