Published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath details the true-life mass migration of Texans after years of drought – known as the Dust Bowl – through the eyes of the fictional Joad Family. It’s a classic American novel, Pulitzer Prize winner and a staple of High School English in the US. It also made an impact on twenty-something Aussie Charlie Turnbull and inspired this travelogue, The Bikes of Wrath.
After a night’s spirited conversation, Turnbull and his friends, including co-director Cameron Ford, decide to replicate the Joads’ journey by cycling from Oklahoma to California in 30 days. What’s more, they’ll film the entire journey. Taking no more than US$420 (equivalent to the $18 the Joad family had for travel expenses), the men agree that they can earn any extra money needed by busking from town to town. Finding a place to sleep, meanwhile, will depend on the kindness of strangers and alleyways. For all of the men, it’ll be an adventure, but it’ll also be an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of America.
Let’s be up front, it’s very easy to read the above and go into The Bikes of Wrath thinking it to be nothing more than cinematic ‘begpacking’; a tabloid fad that saw western tourists – mainly middle class – busking and begging for money in the more impoverished areas of the world. It’s a criticism raised by someone who stumbles across the men outside a corner shop. ‘You look pretty fucking smart,’ he laughs. ‘Why you doing this? I have to do it!’
Fortunately, The Bikes of Wrath is quick to show how fast the five friends re-evaluate their endeavour once they land on American soil. The further they cycle to their finish line, the more they shed their preconceived notions of how they’re going to get there. It’s the little things they didn’t plan on that make the biggest impact. When one of them sprains his wrist, you can feel the air being taken from their sails.
It helps then that everyone they meet on their journey welcomes them with charity and bemusement. In small localised towns, there are people who are willing to help each other, simply so they can help these five crazy Aussies. In a current climate where the US is seen as red hatted, wall builders, The Bikes of Wrath reminds you that you can’t judge many by the actions of the few.
Amidst the group hugs and love-ins, the film echoes the faint heartbeat of a country that is successful in covering its cracks. Perhaps the biggest impact comes when the gang meet a homeless wanderer on the highway who admits to having deliberately left his home without food or water, as he doesn’t expect to come back. It’s one of the most sobering and strongest moments in the documentary.
Whilst the film never really does as deep a dive into Americana as perhaps some audiences would want, The Bikes of Wrath is an uplifting look at human kindness and reminds us that we can all try a little bit harder to be good to our neighbours.
Jean-Luc Godard helped spearhead the French New Wave movement of the ‘60s that in turn inspired and invigorated an entire generation of filmmakers, most notably the ‘New Hollywood’ generation of the 1970s: Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and particularly director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer).
Godard’s a difficult filmmaker to box and label, he’s not content with resting on his laurels and since the ‘70s has continually experimented with new media and formats. Digital has freed him somewhat, allowing him to mess with images in new and interesting ways. In the last few decades, he’s contented himself with producing ‘visual essays’ in preference to just pumping out the standard narrative films.
This, his latest, was awarded a ‘Special Palme d’Or’ at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s very much in keeping with his Histoire(s) du cinema, which was an epic 8-part video project that Godard started in the 1980s and completed in 1998. Running at nearly five hours, Histoire(s) du cinema examined the concept of cinema and how cinema reflected the 20th century and indeed, how the 20th century itself is perceived through the medium of cinema.
The 87-year-old Godard’s new film is very much a continuance on those themes. It has ‘sections’ that deal with different ideas, one with the West’s notion of the Middle East, over which Godard’s gravelly, booming voice discusses Albert Cossery’s book An Ambition in the Desert, a fictional story of an emirate that doesn’t produce oil and hence, is untouched by western influence.
During this section Godard assails us with images from Egyptian cinema, ISIS YouTube footage and newly shot street scenes, which are all digitally smeared, distressed and manipulated to intentionally deform and abstract the images. Godard utilises scenes from so many films, it’s almost impossible to recount them all. Imagery from such disparate films as John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard as well as Godard’s own works like King Lear, Weekend, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, all are grist for his intellectual mill.
Deliberately jarring in its execution and purposefully raw, amateurish and provocative, Godard’s musings and ruminations are certainly interesting and fascinating to a point, yet the grinding assault on your eyeballs reaches Guantanamo levels of mental torture after 90 minutes. Such cinematic naval-gazing may hold appeal for hardcore fans of his filmic essays, but Godard’s deliberate corruption of the narrative form makes this almost indigestible, showing that what might be the toast of Cannes, is simply an inscrutable and pretentious wank. As Werner Herzog once said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me, intellectual counterfeit money, when compared to a good Kung-Fu film.”
An insightful examination of the threats from irrigated agriculture, pastoralism and intense mining to Kimberley’s remote Aboriginal communities, Undermined – Tales From the Kimberley focuses attention on the often unheard voices and commentaries of people living amidst this ongoing struggle.
Written and developed with producer Stephanie King, Nicholas Wrathall’s (Gore Vidal – The United States of Amnesia) film is an eye-opening look at the impact of sustained pressure from big business on the culture and society of residents in the Kimberley. The film follows veteran cattleman Kevin Oscar, Senior Elder June Davis and community leader Albert Wiggan as they strive to preserve their country and their culture. Also including commentary from Dr. Anne Poelina, the film is an urgent call for greater communication and understanding.
The vast unspoilt wilderness of the spectacular Kimberley region in the north west and its superb coastlines are captured beautifully. The magnificent ancient land is set to the music and words of the people, with folk music from the communities involved painting an extra layer of meaning and resonance.
The Kimberley is currently at the centre of not only an unprecedented land grab, but is also the location of a spate of recent youth suicides. These are tragedies that have, after intense scrutiny, been judged by coroner Ros Fogliani to have been shaped by “the crushing effects of inter-generational trauma”.
Made before this judgement, but very much in full knowledge of the devastation experienced in the land, the film looks at the damage done to not only the land, but also to the culture and identity of First Nations people of the region. As deals and proposals for projects continue to roll in, it asks ‘for whose benefit is this development?’
The film skilfully deploys a non-traditional, hybrid style of documentary, driven not only by thorough investigative journalism, but most importantly by the personal stories of the characters at the front line.
It is the connection between country and culture that is at the heart of the tales detailed in the film. Panning out of the close ups on local communities whenever relevant in order to provide context and background, the painful facts surrounding the narratives of the central figures are given in full detail. We discover that attempts to develop and impose an outside way of using the land are often proposed quickly, with unfavourable terms offered. The status of land rights, and how they can be used to give authority to a proposed business venture, is also closely studied.
Inextricably linked to the process of unwanted development is the forced closure of communities and the relocation of First Nations residents; effectively leaving young people lost and homeless in towns and cities far away from the country that they so strongly identify with. The film visits lost Kimberley communities, where all the young have been forced to move, either through necessity or otherwise, and finds places lost in pain and hurt.
Acting as a stark reminder of the importance to look at issues that are at once both complex and straightforward, Undermined – Tales From the Kimberley is a powerful and enlightening film. It highlights the fundamental necessity to hear, listen and understand from those that know the realities of the situation far better than anyone else.
Cinema and tennis are not the most obvious of bedfellows, but here we are with John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a film that’s part sports document and part film essay. The majority of the footage in the film is down to the work of a one man, Gil de Kermadec, who made numerous instructional films on how to play tennis, one of which plays at the beginning of this film. It’s amusing in its stilted nature, with the film’s subject having to reduce the fluid nature of his talent to rigid, repetitive movements for the benefit of the viewer. Moving forward, de Kermadec knew that no film could capture the true feeling of watching sport, but cinema could help us understand it.
For the purpose of this documentary, director Julian Faraut uses footage that de Kermadec filmed of hot head tennis player, John McEnroe in the run up to what would be his defeat in the 1984 French Open. Narrated by Matthieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Faraut carries on de Kermadec’s work, drawing a line from John McEnroe’s performance to that of any film director in the quest for career defining perfection. Case in point: using a montage of McEnroe’s infamous court side tantrums, the suggestion is made that the player, like the filmmaker, can become easily upset by those who do not understand his vision. To some this will be a revelation, for others it just underlines that McEnroe acted like a spoilt child who’d never been told no before.
It perhaps goes without saying that In the Realm of Perfection is unusual in its subject matter and its delivery, being both interesting and unbearably dry. Seemingly aware of this, Faraut throws in splashes of absurdity to mitigate the overt seriousness of Almaric’s narration; at times the film feels like every character in a Wes Anderson movie got up and made a documentary on tennis. Faraut stops the film to take time out in order to watch McEnroe rest between sets, he uses audio samples from Raging Bull to soundtrack McEnroe’s dummy spits, and most interestingly he shows how de Kermadec’s quest for sport realism effected the very people he was filming. Already bristling because of the presence of a press pool, we see McEnroe fit to burst as he becomes increasingly aware of de Kermadec’s crew dotted around the crowd; leading to one moment where the frustrated player threatens to force-feed someone his racquet.
Does the film work as a portrait of a sport star in his prime? In a way, yes. Like Douglas Gordon’s Zidane – which saw Gordon keep his cameras locked on footballer Zinedine Zidane for a whole match – there’s something hypnotic about watching McEnroe trapped within the confines of the frame; reacting to things only he is witnessing. Being forced to watch only him, you can’t help but study his movements which is likely the kind of thing de Kermadec wanted you to do in the first place.
Maria Callas was a superstar before the word existed. Unfortunately, her success came at a huge personal cost, and that’s the sad theme at the core of this documentary, which is drawn directly from her letters, TV interviews (especially one with David Frost), home movies and unpublished memoirs.
Born in New York City, but stuck in Greece during WWII, Callas owed her singing career –but also her deep regrets – to an extremely pushy mother and later an equally domineering husband.
She made no bones about the fact that she would gladly have swapped her vocation for the joys of motherhood and a happy private life. She was also deeply traumatised by the fickleness and cruelty of some of the media, who ‘lynched’ her over her failure to complete a concert performance in Milan. (Never mind that the poor woman had bronchitis!) And then there was her long and complicated relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who of course eventually married Jackie Kennedy.
Maria By Callas is unquestionably well made, and was exhaustively and meticulously researched. Some of the footage is fascinating, notably the brief scenes from the making of Pasolini’s Medea, in which she starred and acted. The catch is that the doco – being so subjective – is not quite satisfying in terms of giving a fully-rounded portrait of its subject, and we’re not always entirely sure what to take at face value. On the plus side, given her technically phenomenal voice, the footage of her singing will be thrilling to people who aren’t impervious to the charms of opera.
Imagine Dragons front man Dan Reynolds was born into the Mormon Church and was raised believing that homosexuality was a sin and therefore an impediment to reaching the afterlife.
As a result of this doctrine, the suicide rate amongst young gay Mormons has been escalating over the last decade, calling into question the condemnation of gay women and men by the Mormon Church, who, once they come out, are expected to live celibate because the Mormon Church believes it’s OK to be gay, you just can’t ever act on those feelings.
When Dan Reynolds is written to, by numerous fans of his music, many tell stories of being gay and Mormon and struggling to survive within the LDS Church. Reynolds sets about organising a rock concert in Orem, Utah called Loveloud, that’ll spotlight the issue. He invites the participation of the lead singer of the band Neon Trees, Tyler Glenn, who’s also a Mormon and was excommunicated from the church for being gay.
Focusing on the lead up to the Loveloud festival, Reynolds promotes the concert on local radio and discusses his concerns about the local opposition to organising and staging the concert, as he awaits an official response from The Mormon Church regarding the event and moving forward, whether it would be open to altering its doctrine on the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals.
This is a fairly earnest documentary and Reynolds’ heart seems in the right place, but there’s a deodorised sheen to the treatment of the topic, most likely because it’s clearly targeted at Mormons, so it doesn’t seek to offend anyone who is in the LDS Church. Being largely non-confrontational and just focusing on Reynolds, who is a recognisable Mormon-friendly face, it feels odd then, when Tyler Glenn’s story (which seems to strike more succinctly at the heart of the documentary’s themes) shows someone who is way more invested in the issue, having experienced excommunication from the Mormon Church. Additionally, Reynolds’ wife, Aja Volkman, discusses her conversion to Mormonism in order to marry Reynolds (something that resulted in a number of her gay friends boycotting their wedding).
One wonders, why aren’t these people a larger part of this documentary? Why is a wealthy straight, white rock star selling the urgency of this gay rights issue, while people with actual ‘skin in the game’ aren’t? Granted, that’s a cheap shot because ultimately Reynolds acted on his sense of moral justice and did something, anything, in order to raise awareness of the issue. It’s enjoyable on that level, though ultimately it feels awkward how mawkish the film plays at certain times, like the anodyne slick of the Hillsong Channel or an ethereal Coldplay concert that won’t ever end.
That said, it’s undeniable that every fight for rights needs an ally, and it’s admirable that he’s intervening on an issue that Dan Reynolds can bring some awareness to.
We spoke with the co-directors/co-producers/subjects behind a documentary following five Australian blokes riding their bikes along the path taken by the depression-era Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Born in Lithuania, raised in Sweden by a Syrian father, rapper Silvana Imam has a lot to say about her roots, her gender and her sex. She’s a queer voice trying to be heard in a genre more likely to lean towards misogyny and violence, and when we first meet her in Silvana, it looks like Sweden is ready to listen.
Directed by Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring, and Christina Tsiobanelis, the documentary follows Imam over three years as she copes with fame and finds love. Dropping in on her in 2013, Imam’s new single has hit number one on the charts and she’s practically bouncing off the walls. The rapper appears to relish the opportunity to get her message out there and is unafraid to admit that she enjoys the recognition. To be fair, it’s not like she initially hides herself from the adulation; stalking around Sweden in an oversized black hoodie and clutching a megaphone, both emblazoned with her name and logo.
This, we soon realise, is just surface level Imam; the documentary’s directors quickly cracking through this layer to show us what runs underneath the posturing, and a large part of it sees Imam utterly head over heels in love with fellow musician, Beatrice Eli. Imam doesn’t hide her affection for the singer, whose music tackles the same themes with a pop music coating, and the filmmakers capture gorgeous glimpses of Imam watching her from a far. These moments will resonate with anyone who has been in love and it makes it all the more heart-warming to watch their fledgling romance become Europe’s answer to Jay Z and Beyoncé. Eli cuts through Imam’s pretence, and gleefully shows off her partner’s softer side for the camera.
Mixed into the music and romance are flashes of Imam’s life growing up with conservative parents. Knowing she liked girls from a very young age, Imam experimented with wanting to be a boy called Eric. Something which the rest of the family went with for some time. The documentary follows Imam on a trip to Lithuania to visit her mum, where the performer must hide her sexuality and relationship for fear of some kind of retaliation on her mother. The most sobering moment comes when Imam meets a priest who, following a long diatribe about why women are basically just necks for men (no, we don’t get it either), reprimands her for her musical themes.
It’s all fascinating to watch unfold, but there’s so much going on in Silvana that, at times, the documentary picks up threads only to forget about them later on. For example, Imam’s burnout from her sudden rise to fame is only touched upon in a montage that doesn’t really add anything to the discussion on mental health, even though that appears to be the aim.
However, with so many different facets to Imam it could be argued that focusing too closely on one or two would do a disservice to the artistic talent as a whole. With that in mind, think of Silvana as more of a living, breathing portrait than a documentary.