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Pluck (A Film Not Really About Chicken)

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

Ad pitch: Mugabe sits in his empty palatial dining room reminiscing about the friends he’s lost. Friends such as Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. As the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days reaches its crescendo, we’re reminded that no one should have to eat alone. The product? Nando’s 6 pack meal deal, obviously.

This is one of the many near knuckle marketing campaigns headed by the chicken restaurant that’s seen them become one of the most well-known brands in South Africa. The documentary Pluck compiles a selection of their best and worst campaigns in order to paint an alternative political history of the country, whilst those behind the brand talk about the real-world events that shape their creativity.

Let’s be honest, any documentary that focuses solely on a company’s legacy – particularly one which they’ve given their blessing to – is in danger of being indulgent from the beginning. Thankfully, Pluck manages to fall on the right side of back-slapping. Created in 1987, the Johannesburg franchise dropped into a political landscape that was – and still is – deeply complicated. Poking fun at the establishment wasn’t just a way to get noticed. For many at Nando’s it was about defusing tension. And if they sell a bit of peri peri sauce, then so much the better. In fact, one creative remembers that he got so involved in holding a mirror up to the society that they realised three ads into their campaign that they hadn’t actually mentioned any of the products they were selling.

Amidst the lampooning and caricatures, Pluck reminds the viewer of what could be at stake. Whilst Nando’s copped its fair share of viewer complaints, with ads involving blind people and, at one point, a certain Uruguayan rugby team trying to stay alive, they could also incur the wrath of the politicians that they mocked. The aforementioned Mugabe ad resulted in threats of violence and death being aimed at staff in Zimbabwe, whilst the then leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema took great offence to being portrayed as a literal political puppet, going so far as to demand a face to face apology.

Naturally, everything is a product of its time and some adverts will likely raise a quizzical eyebrow with their attitudes towards gender. In particular, it’s hard to fully rally for the ad exec who claims the stereotypically camp gay couple used in his campaign was championed by his LGBT friends who were just thankful for the representation. Thankfully, other talking heads are more candid when it comes to their company’s more problematic moments.

While its message of laughter is the best medicine and everyone is equal in the eyes of comedy is nothing ground-breaking, as an independent documentary, Pluck indeed wins for its approach to one of history’s more splintered political arenas.

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Tamra Simmons: Surviving R. Kelly

The game-changing six-part documentary was driven by Exec Producer Tamra Simmons, who Cassandra Nevin spoke with in Melbourne at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC)
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Island of the Hungry Ghosts

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

Director Gabrielle Brady has made a moving little documentary about refugee detention centres, in this case Christmas Island. Island of the Hungry Ghosts has a number of strands that reverberate with each other metaphorically. Firstly, Christmas Island is famous for its red crab migration, where literally thousands of the little crustaceans teem annually to the sea. We follow the park rangers as they smooth a path to the ocean. They even erect temporary road signs to warn cars that the crabs have priority (not that there is much traffic).

If only we spent as much care with the human inhabitants of the island. Brady also films the trauma therapist Poh-Lin Lee, who patiently listens to refugee accounts. Using ‘sand box therapy’ she gets the refugees to recount their perilous voyages in the hope of exorcising some of their trauma.

Lastly, there is issue of Malay-Chinese who visit the island to allay the suffering of the titular ‘hungry ghosts’ – ancestors of the early migrant labourers who worked on the island and did not receive a proper ritual/burial.

All three strands concern the need for justice and care. Like the crabs, the refugees cannot go forward, only sideways. Their future is blocked. They have little hope of being accepted. At times, their stories (even when Brady is tactful enough to let some details remain unfilmed) are almost too hard to bear. One wonders how Poh-Lin Lee feels listening to these accounts, day after day, and indeed she does seem to despair at not being able to change their outcomes. Her programme is itself under threat.

The true cruelty and human cost of the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ – the internment in camps of desperate people who have struggled to come and get a new life in Australia – is constantly in and out of the news. However, Brady could not have predicted that her film would be so suddenly and unfortunately contemporary. At great financial cost, the government says it is going to re-open Christmas Island as a detention centre following the debacle over getting sick refugees off Nauru.

As indicated, Brady’s low budget film is all the more powerful for being so quiet and unhistrionic. It has been doing the festival circuit but is now getting a small theatrical release. Hopefully it will continue to move people and raise awareness.

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Travis Beard: A Rockabul Story

Seven years in the making, and travelling to film festivals around the world, documentary Rockabul – following the turbulent journey of 'the only fucking metal band in Afghanistan', District Unknown – will finally screen in its filmmaker’s home town as part of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).
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Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving…

There’s a surreal moment in the opening moments of Australian Photojournalist Travis Beard’s new documentary RocKabul, where a masked Taliban judge named Hagmal is interviewed on camera. Beard asks him if he has ‘heard anything about Rock music?’ Hagmal replies: ‘If you listen to this ridiculous music, flames will come out of your ears on Judgement Day. It is permitted to kill people who choose this path’. Such insanity is par for the course for the average Afghan, living with this medieval lunacy on a daily basis though it bears much more significance for the documentary’s subjects, the four members of Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band: District Unknown.

Forming in 2009, the band rehearsed in any number of dark, graffiti covered-spaces in Kabul, honing their (then non-existent) guitar and drum skills. The band members: brothers Pedram and Qasem and cousins Lemar and Qais, ooze unbridled passion for heavy metal music and due in part to his own experiences of being in a band, Travis Beard begins to mentor the group and offers his modest home as a practice space; though they’re soon forced to find somewhere else to jam, as irate neighbours begin to complain about their rehearsal racket.

The band members struggle against their own families (guitarist Qais buys a guitar with the fees allotted for his computer-classes, having to hide it from his music-hating father) as well as struggling against themselves (when Travis organises a gig at a party for ex-patriots in Kabul’s District 3 in 2010,  Qais and Qasem both spend a majority of their set playing their instruments while facing the wall, overwhelmed by the attention.

Beard himself plays in a band with US soldiers and utilises connections with US military and an array of charities, to organise gigs and grow the band’s opportunities.

It’s not long after that, Lemar travels to Turkey to start a new life with his new wife. He’s done with the hard scrabble life in Afghanistan, at one point stating: ‘This is not my country any more. It’s a battlefield for drugs, for mafia, and for money.’

After Lemar’s departure, new lead singer Yousef fronts the band at ‘Sound Central’, a music festival that Beard organises in cahoots with US government liaisons. It’s Afghanistan’s first music festival in 35 years. Security concerns mean the festival is heavily patrolled by local police yet Beard still worries about rogue Taliban attacks.

Despite all the dangers, the day goes off without a hitch. Undaunted, Beard and the band push onwards, though whether you’d term it ‘fearless’ or ‘crazy’ depends on your point-of-view.

They decide to take the band on the road and play a gig in Northern Afghanistan, in Mazar-e-Sharif. This results in a rather uncomfortable confrontation with local authorities, a band member being detained, and the remaining members being forced to leave him there, all despite having gotten permission from local government.

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving, it renders Travis Beard’s mighty ode to the power of human expression something of a testament to the cathartic rage of heavy metal and demands that you defiantly raise your devil horns to the heavens in a salute to the sheer balls it took – to risk everything just to accomplish something that we take for granted, every single day.

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The Bikes of Wrath

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

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.