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Martha: A Picture Story

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Martha Cooper is best known for Subway Art, the groundbreaking 1984 book on which she collaborated with Henry Chalfont. There’s a paradox in this, because when she was first photographing the work of New York City’s graffiti artists it was widely dismissed as vandalism, and now that it’s appreciated (by both critics and the public) the walls and trains of the Big Apple are relatively bare.

But subway graffiti is only one of many objects of her fascination, as this engaging documentary makes abundantly clear. Born in Baltimore, she had a stint in the Peace Corps in Thailand, began her photographic career at the New York Post and moved on to National Geographic. Over the ensuing decades she’s focussed her lens on hip-hop, street life and urban folk culture in its myriad forms, tattoos in Japan, latter-day graffitists in Germany …  The unifying theme, as an admirer puts it, has been “people rising above their environment in one way or another”. That and an apparent cheerful disregard for danger and personal risk.

Martha Cooper comes across here as a likeably strong, self-contained and independent individual, who doesn’t care about posterity – “I’ll be dead” – and who refers modestly to taking rather than making photos because subject matter is the key. But therein lies her brilliance: having the ‘eye’ for a vibrant and photogenic subject, and always at a crucially opportune moment. At 76 she’s still quite a trooper, and this film – a visual document of visual documents – is an interesting testament to the massive archive she’s accrued in a lifetime of restless creative energy and observation.

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Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Maiden looks at the Whitbread Round the World Race (now named the Volvo Race) – a grueling male-dominated 9-month regatta. The documentary pays particular attention to the historic 1989-90 competition, notable for having the inclusion of the first all-female team.

The ‘Maiden’ in the title refers to the name of the 58-foot ocean racing yacht, skippered at the time by the valiant 26-year old British sailor Tracy Edwards. Through an array of Super-8 home videos we learn of her troubled childhood, including an abusive stepfather, disappointed mother and eventual migration/escape to Greece, where Tracy meets a group of like-minded fellow expats and talks her way into jobs on charter boats and yachts.

It is during this period of her life that Tracy learns of the Whitbread race but is met with rampant sexism and misogynistic remarks such as “Girls are for screwing when we get into port” when making enquiries to get involved. Her persistence eventually leads to a job as a cook on one of the 15 competing boats in the 1985-86 race and despite being treated like a servant, Tracy uses the experience to gain invaluable insights into sailing and the ocean. Returning to dry land, she sets out to form her own female crew and break into the old boys’ competition.

But the road is not an easy one – over several years, Tracy is met with numerus challenges and obstacles such as anxiety, financial detriments and sponsorship issues; eventually garnering the help of the King of Jordan. A flawed character by her own admission, Tracy has spent the majority of her life running away from something, be it her own responsibilities and failures.

The Maiden team are also met with biased press and patronising men who believe the women are doomed to fail, given the physical and emotional demands of the race – “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” reiterates Tracy.

Directed by Alex Holmes (Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story), the documentary effectively captures all 33,000 nautical miles of the journey – juxtaposing nostalgic archival footage with present-day articulate interviews. Tracy’s teammates and rivals (male journalists and yachtsmen) are all interesting characters who bring individualised and passionate context to what is effectively a rousing story about an indomitable woman.

Near-mutiny and near-death experiences abound, while we also learn of Tracy’s (often laborious) leadership and persistence throughout the different legs of the race, which take the ladies from Southampton to Uruguay, New Zealand and beyond.

A thrilling documentary about dreams and equality, Maiden also serves as an inspiring portrait of a remarkable woman (and group of women) that went against the tide and pioneered the sport of ocean racing.


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Don’t Be Nice

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

Slam poetry’s aim to communicate the hardships experienced by the marginalised, comprising of one-part confronting lyricism and one-part performance, becomes defanged thanks to a competitive poetry circuit whose round-robin nature resembles The Masked Singer. With no Lindsay Lohan or obscure Australian pop-star hidden beneath a mask in sight, this competitive world of slam poetry is explored in the honest-yet-doughy documentary Don’t Be Nice.

The film follows the journey of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team – a team comprised entirely of people of colour – in the lead up to the 2016 National Poetry Slam. The National Poetry Slam offers entrants more than just a soapbox to discuss inequality. For the competitors, it provides the opportunity to perform in front of large crowds and an entry point into the entertainment business.

Vulnerability is part of the game, with each competitor digging deep into their traumatic past to convey a confronting look at the current climate. It is not enough for these participants to say how they feel; they must bleed for it.

From ideation to fruition, director Max Powers invites the viewer to witness the creative process for these artists. For these vanguard poets, it is a journey that is equal parts rewarding as it is frustrating, with the fruit of their labour put under constant scrutiny by their coach.

Their handling of critique, whether destructive or constructive, allows Don’t Be Nice to introduce a discussion on criticism culture. To the detriment of the film, this theme is not explored further with the documentary unable to draw a satisfying point-of-view on the matter.

Don’t Be Nice is unafraid to question the legitimacy of its practice, with members of The Bowery Slam Poetry Team questioning those who ‘write good poetry’ with those who ‘write to win competitions.’ This question of artistic integrity versus crowd-pleasing is explored with thorough concern and demonstrates deep thinking on behalf of the filmmakers who remain committed to upholding the sanctity of slam poetry.

This degree of complex thinking is most evident in the slam poets’ performances, with each participant using every opportunity on-screen to leave an impression. They are performers who use words and expressions to provoke strong emotions; their everyday fears coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement being some of the prevalent themes in their work.

Slam poetry is an art-form that draws its intense power through a frenzy of provocative right-hooks that speak to the human experience. It is when the filmmakers decide to incorporate visual elements, the output having the same quality as a YouTube video, where Don’t be Nice breaks its neck trying to enhance the medium. It becomes an indie effort wanting to turn mainstream that ultimately clashes with the underground nature of slam poetry.

All sizzle and little pop, Don’t Be Nice offers a fascinating yet unfocused glimpse into the world of competitive slam poetry.

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Green Light

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

This documentary follows the efforts of two guys who grow and distribute medical cannabis ‘somewhere in Australia’.

One day, (hopefully) what they do will be neither clandestine nor remarkable; in fact, one of them predicts that their work will be superseded – when the supply and distribution is industrialised. For the moment, that seems a long way off and for the sufferers, the societal change can’t come soon enough.

Director Ned Donohoe makes the decision to stay close to his subjects rather than attempting to fill out the back story or editorialise too much. Also, the film doesn’t go into the science in detail, so we have to rely upon compelling but anecdotal accounts of the medicine’s effectiveness.

What is claimed most pointedly here is that the oil (made with high concentrations of CBD rather than the psychoactive THC) is highly effective in the treatment of tumours, and chronic and terminal illnesses. Given that it comes from a natural plant which has been grown (and used medicinally) for thousands of years, it does make you angry that the anti-‘drug’ lobby has demonised/criminalised it for so long.

This is an obvious dilemma for the understandably-biased documentary. It is preaching to the converted (it does not bother to dig up dinosaur defenders of prohibition). Frankly, there isn’t that much ‘action’. It follows the two protagonists as they are driving around and delivering the CBD or answering their mobiles on camera from sufferers or their relatives. The guys need to make a living, so they charge enough to stay in business, but they also give it away for free to those who can’t pay.

They talk about their customers as patients at times and in some cases, it is clear that they are part of a palliative care team. They also suffer the vicarious sadness when they hear that people they are helping have passed away. This is bound to take its toll on them psychologically.

Generally though, we don’t get to know too much about them (family details are sketched in but they also need to keep secret to some extent). They are obviously likable and sensitive, and the film demonstrates both their sense of a mission and their compassion. After the long-awaited, inevitable tipping point comes, they will be seen as pioneers not criminals.

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The Portal

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Feature-documentary The Portal was produced by ex-financier (Australia’s self-professed ‘Wolf of Wall Street’) turned meditation expert Tom Cronin, and directed by first-timer, Jacqui Fifer.

With climate crisis, political unrest and potential world catastrophe looming, the timing for this film couldn’t be better. Encouraging a new way of thinking, the film proposes: ‘Calm your mind. Open your heart. Transform the world’. Could mindfulness ignite a planetary shift and save humanity?

Inspired by the idea that crisis is the catalyst for change, The Portal shares the stories of six individuals who have used meditation as a device to help them through desperate moments, and is supported by compelling insights from futurists.

The film’s premise is altruistic, and the stories shared are honest and heartfelt. The cast are admirable human beings who have each encountered hardship and adversity in life. A ghetto kid turned military man; anxious immigrant Vietnamese daughter turned Harvard business success; United Nations human rights expert, and a former athlete/TV presenter. Each have turned their lives around and now work to support humanity teaching mindfulness in some form. The futurists help build the story and paint a picture as to what life could be like, sharing interesting (and somewhat disturbing) plans such as using AI to provide unconditional love and therefore emotional connection for humans.

For a film about stillness, The Portal is very busy. The narrative is split between nine individuals, whose stories are shared via a mixture of mediums from documentary to animation. Whilst the characters are diverse and have interesting memories and opinions to share, weaving in and out of their stories is at times confusing. The film presents an optimistic view, through stories of crisis and transformation, however, we are never privy to the transformation, just life before meditation and their professed improved, present day that now includes meditation. This missing piece makes the documentary disjointed and the editing – shifting from past, present and future – was also jarring.

Visually appealing – filmed in the US, Canada, Australia and a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan – the cinematography showcases nature in all its glory, with the film aiming to inspire humankind into a new era. Whilst not a transformational experience, The Portal is thoughtful and conveys hope and promise. Not for everyone – new age cynics and those who don’t think the planet is in trouble are unlikely to appreciate the message – its audience are those already on the path to enlightenment.

Enter The Portal

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Documentary, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

As the lawyers for disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein keep managing to push back his long awaited sexual assault trial – the latest postponement sees the trial commencing in January next year – a smart documentary by British filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane continues to remind us why Weinstein managed to escape incrimination for so long.

Together with his brother Bob, their Miramax film company achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in the late ‘80s when they would became one of the most influential producers in the American film industry thanks to a string of hits with sex, lies and videotape, My Left Foot and Cinema Paradiso.

While Bob kept a back seat, Harvey became a self-styled visionary and mogul. And, ultimately, a bully and a monster.

In his own words, we hear Weinstein describing himself as “the sheriff of this shit-ass fucking town” before putting a journalist in a head-lock on the streets of Manhattan – witnessed by about 100 paparazzi and press.

The fact that said pictures were never published anywhere proves his words to be true.

He owned the town.

But that was then, and this is now, and his years as an alleged sexual predator have given birth to an emboldened #MeToo generation of women who refuse to be silenced anymore.

Weinstein’s fortunes came crashing down under a barrage of allegations – harassment, blackmail, sexual assault, rape – published in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine in October 2017.

Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the documentary’s title is a nod to how Weinstein literally made himself untouchable and was able to bury his unsavoury private life for so long.

Macfarlane’s documentary answers a lot of those questions based on the testimony of former employees, investigative journalists and the courageous female prosecutors.

Untouchable avoids #MeToo’s most famous accusers like Asia Argento or Rose McGowan, focusing on lesser publicised victims Rosanna Arquette, Paz de la Huerta, Caitlin Dulaney and Erika Rosenbaum.

Macfarlane – a former BAFTA nominee for her titles Breaking up with the Joneses (2006) and One Deadly Weekend in America (2017) – also interviews key journalists Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Ken Auletta.

Their testimony is compelling and also shows the audience how Weinstein escaped prosecution for more than three decades by using lawyers to pay off his victims who, in turn, signed non-disclosure agreements. He furthermore hired Black Cube, an expensive private investigation company ran by former Mossad operatives.

Financed by Weinstein’s deep pockets, Black Cube spied on his accusers and hunted down photographs of his victims – looking happy in Weinstein’s company at glamorous parties – to cynically be used as evidence to refute their claims.

Almost as traumatised as his victims are former employees – like Zelda Perkins – who could no longer stay on his payroll after learning the truth. Perkins even outlines how legally binding non-disclosure agreements meant that his victims couldn’t even reveal his abuse to their therapists for fear of retribution.

As early as 1998, one victim was paid US$250,000 in return for her silence while, at the same time, Weinstein was feted as a genius for producing The Piano, Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love.

Since 2017, more than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape. Untouchable reminds us that nobody can escape the truth forever.

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Happy Sad Man

Australian, Documentary, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Cinema is going through a metamorphosis in terms of how it portrays male vulnerability on-screen. Going (if not gone) are the days of the hardened loner being rewarded with a personal breakthrough, in depictions that suggest grief and inner-turmoil are a self-development tool akin to a Tony Robbins conference. For many men, it is not a trope but a deep-seated issue that requires professional treatment.

Director Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven) intimately explores this subject matter in a series of interviews with a variety of men suffering from mental illness in the compassionately told Aussie documentary Happy Sad Man.

Inspired by her friendship with John, a larrikin and self-described ‘first hippie’ on the South East Coast of NSW, Bailey investigates modern masculinity from a grass-roots angle. In particular, she explores a culture of shame felt by men who do not express their emotions; a feat which the filmmakers interrogate with a respectful touch.

Bailey remains empathetic to the hardships of the men being interviewed. The diversity of the subjects – from inner-city progressives to bush folk – provides a relatively comprehensive scope of the issues at large, with the opportunity to explore the experiences of men of colour should a sequel be in the pipeline.

Happy Sad Man glosses over the history behind male toxicity. A smart move keeping the film focused on treatment and not causation. Bailey pushes an agenda of openness and discussion, with the struggles of the interviewees – depression, bipolar, mania, psychosis, suicide – providing an authentic account of the dangers of emotional suppression.

Bailey’s own narration interjects throughout the film, allowing the Director to digest the weight of the subject matter brought on by deeply-personal responses from interviewees. Too easily, this could have detracted, however, Bailey proves an ambitious director that remains laser-focused. Her commitment for betterment imbues Happy Sad Man with an optimistic tone that overpowers any self-serving misinterpretations.

The interviewees are just as dedicated as Bailey in raising awareness of male mental health. ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ and ‘no pain going to the doctor’ some of the many insightful statements spoken throughout Happy Sad Man. It is a film that finds power in giving the compassionate men a platform to offer relatable guidance that doesn’t come across as a PSA. For these men, a large portion of their lives is spent maintaining a balance somewhere between happy and sad, with their treatment (called their ‘recipe’) being put on offer to viewers as a message of solidarity.

Masculinity has taught men to bottle up their emotions so tightly that it proves difficult to re-open. Many films now present progressive attitudes, with recent releases Ad Astra and Good Boys challenging conventions of modern masculinity by highlighting the danger in apathy. Filmmakers should continue to challenge these constructs, with Happy Sad Man delivering genuinely powerful moments that exist as a hand of outreach.

Photo by Shannon Glasson

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The Eulogy

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Geoffrey Tozer was a child prodigy – he was playing Mozart at three and creating his own music at seven – who went on to become a phenomenally gifted and internationally acclaimed classical pianist. (Some say a genius.) He also died alone and destitute in 2009, aged only 54. This doco is an attempt to discover exactly what went wrong.

The title comes from Paul Keating’s searing speech at Tozer’s memorial service. Keating was a great admirer of Tozer’s talent, and a major (governmental) benefactor; he agreed to re-enact his speech – in which he slammed those who he believed treated Tozer shamefully – for the doco.

The tragic story is explored in a way that’s both nuanced and impassioned. It’s also both simple and complex, because key elements include a ‘stage’ mother who drove the young boy to excel… the Tall Poppy Syndrome… an ill-fated relationship… Tozer’s own utter lack of worldliness… alcohol abuse and unreliability…   the alleged abandonment of the man by the musical establishment (arguably the biggest factor of all)… and much more besides.

Most of the interviewees are highly eloquent. That includes the late conductor and educator Richard Gill, who completed his own involvement in the project during his final months. One of the highlights is, incidentally, the inspired and delightfully aesthetically pleasing use of animated graphics.

Keating claimed at one point in his eulogy that the way Tozer was overlooked by Melbourne and Sydney orchestras was “a case example of bitchiness and preciousness within the Australian arts”. Speaking of case examples, this film is one of how to make a fascinating, balanced and very moving documentary.

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Sam Zubrycki – Searching for Salsa

The Australian filmmaker has made an impressive debut with his feature length documentary Miguelito, which unravels the mystery of what happened to an 11-year-old boy who was discovered shining shoes and sang so poignantly on a classic album, translated as ‘I Sing to Puerto Rico’.