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Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits

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Documentary Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits tells the story of all-woman / woman-led punk band The Slits, from their formation in grim mid-seventies London, through to their initial demise in ‘82, surprising resurrection in 2005, and eventual end five years later. The quartet of women who formed the best known ‘punk’ iteration of the band – Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive – come across as strong, fearless, and driven. In a deeply sexist world they rightly refused to be the kind of invisible, silent women that conservative British society wanted. Despite facing incomprehension from some and outright hostility from others – as Viv Albertine says, faced with the group on the street, men “couldn’t decide if they wanted to fuck us or kill us” – The Slits remained dedicated to their vision.

Through interviews and archive footage the group, their contemporaries, and friends tell The Slits’ story. It’s refreshing also to see the inclusion of early founder members amongst the better known interviewees, which helps locate the group in the chaotic world of punk London. Other contributions from the likes of filmmaker, DJ, and one-time Slits manager, Don Letts and punk professor Vivien Goldman offer a broader context.

Ultimately, The Slits created their own sound, combining the energy and attitude of punk, reggae, and even ‘world music’. As a subculture, punk offered The Slits, and many others, the possibility of a true alternative and a way out. Driven by its own punk-aesthetic – bold intertitles, archive celluloid, and so on – Badgley’s film is a celebration of the band and their achievements.

Disclaimer: Jack is an occasional programmer for Sydney Underground Film Festival, but this film was programmed by GrooveScooter, and is nothing to do with him.

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Close up, the camera lingers on a richly decorated skull, butterflies, bird feathers and snakeskin, motifs that are at once primal and cultured, like details from a Jacobean painting with its connotations of death and mortality. This is the opening sequence of McQueen, a stunning, immersive documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, filmmakers at the top of their game and a passionate interest in celebrating the creative genius of fashion’s iconoclast, Lee Alexander McQueen.

The film documents McQueen’s journey, starting as the youngest of six children to a taxi driver father, He left school at 16 to apprentice himself on Savile Row then to Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno. When his talent was recognised by London’s prestigious St Martins School of Art, a relative paid his fees. A teacher from that time comments,

“He had no formal education so he was open, discovering everything like a sponge.”

The opportunities seem incredible for someone with no money, background or connections, but the film shows us that, every step of the way, McQueen’s extraordinary talent and thirst to learn rapidly opened doors. His undeniable gift was a prodigious and hard-working skill in the craft of making clothes, and he used that craft to express his own obsessions.

His show ‘Jack the Ripper stalks his Victims’ (1992) fused the violent history of east end London with outrageous couture. Stylist and cultural trailblazer Isabella Blow said she had never seen clothes move like that, and bought the whole collection. McQueen had erupted onto the catwalk in the way he was to continue. His shows were more theatre than runway with a blend of pageantry, social comment and surrealist art that was shocking and exciting. “You can be repulsed or exhilarated but if you don’t come out with an emotional reaction then I haven’t done my job,” McQueen says in one of the pieces of video footage threaded throughout the film.

What sets this documentary apart is a five act structure based around McQueen’s key collections. The device is compelling as we watch the designer’s creative trajectory, outdoing himself every time, each show more provocative than the last.

The assured narrative gives us a taste of why McQueen was considered a genius. Well cut footage from shows like ‘Highland Rape’ and ‘It’s a jungle out there’, documented from conception to catwalk, brings us some of the excitement of McQueen’s lavish, daring clothes that subvert fashion as much as applaud it.

McQueen’s sexuality brought influences from the ‘90s club scene and fetish, adding to his romantic identification with Scottish ancestry, and trauma from early sexual abuse and domestic violence. Everything was expressed in his creations.

Bonhote and Ettedgui are particularly well placed to handle this documentary of the fashion genius. Bonhote is a veteran of fashion and music films, while Ettedgui has several documentaries under his belt, including Listen to me Marlon and George Best: All by Himself. More specifically he had a lifelong connection to the fashion world and personal experience of the 1990s London scene.

It’s exciting to see McQueen’s story handled by filmmakers who bring their own strong energy and creative vision. You sense they really ‘get’ what McQueen was about and though they don’t shy away from his personal struggles and failings, they keep the overriding perspective on the designer’s talent and legacy.

In spite of his success McQueen was bread line poor until the fashion house of Givenchy, seeking to revitalise its brand, brought him on as couturier. It was a true ‘rags to riches’ moment for the 28-year-old. Suddenly he had massive status and budget.

McQueen tended to draw in people who could keep up with the punishing work demands and who he could rely on for emotional support. Some of these key people are interviewed in the film, and all express what excitement and fun they had, in the beginning at least. They gave hugely in terms of unpaid work, but their gratitude for the ride he took them on is palpable.

The filmmakers managed a coup when they were able to bring in McQueen’s sister Janet and nephew Gary as voices that anchor the designer’s family relationships and personal demons firmly in the narrative.

The alliance with Givenchy was a massive turning point. The first show wasn’t a success, though filmed scenes of the catwalk for the gold themed ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ are lavish and beautiful. McQueen buckled, employing his gifted craft to create ensuing collections, while building his own label from the money earned.

It was the McQueen collections, unrestricted by mainstream dictates, where his genius exploded. ‘It’s a jungle out there’ was a repost to the Givenchy rules as models prowled and growled like wild animals down the catwalk and a car burst into flames. “He was living his dream,” says his sister.

Video clips of McQueen have him mention how close he was to his dark side. He could pour the violence and romance of his inner world into public expression through his art.

The film shows how McQueen didn’t like the celebrity, and was basically shy except with friends. With the money came drugs, especially cocaine. Commentary by friends and video footage of McQueen show a rapid personality change. One commentator says he was shocked at the increasing paranoia and aggression. He transformed from the chubby, funny young boy to a skinnier figure in a Comme des Garçon suit, becoming something he didn’t want to be. He was increasingly more obsessive, working everyone to exhaustion. According to the people closest to him, including hair stylist Chai-Hyde and assistant Sebastian Pons, ‘none of it was fun anymore’.

Yet the genius was unstinting. The show ‘Voss’ (2001) looked directly at madness, with disintegrating clothes, models performing like asylum inmates and culminating with a naked model revealed inside a glass prism as butterflies swarm around her. The girl in the box was writer Michelle Olley and she points to the subversive nature of what McQueen was doing. “A fat girl and moths? It’s fashion’s worst nightmare isn’t it?”

Tom Ford comments that McQueen’s gift was in creating incredible conceptual work but also knowing how to create clothes to put on a hanger, a ‘blend of poetry and commerce’. It was Ford that brought McQueen onto the Gucci label in 2000.

Apart from the footage from the shows that make McQueen required viewing on the big screen, there are fascinating captures of the designer sculpting garments on a model with astonishing skill, ‘a magician’ as Pons described him.

‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was his last show, the one he was most personally satisfied with. It had themes of surveillance and paranoia, and the notion that we come from the land back into the sea. As a commentator noted, he loved the ocean and scuba diving, it was like going back to the womb, escapism from the pressures that he couldn’t relinquish. His sister recounts how he felt responsible for the fifty people he employed in his fashion house.

By then he had been awarded Designer of the Year four times and a CBE, but Pons describes how McQueen was so lost that he talked about killing himself onstage as a finale to ‘Plato.’. He was HIV positive, Isabella Blow, the mentor he had loved and rejected, had suicided with cancer. The dark side of his own past and trauma caught up with him and his mother’s death seemed to be the tipping point. He hung himself on the eve of her funeral. He was just 40 years old and arguably the most prestigious and notorious designer in history.

Wrapping up such a powerhouse film isn’t easy. The documentary could have ended with the last frame of McQueen disappearing through a doorway, but the filmmakers chose to add a montage of interview clips and fashion footage that celebrate the designer’s creative genius. We are reminded of his legacy, an unparalleled and subversive artistic vision, and how in spite of the madness and exploitation, his friends and associates wouldn’t have missed the ride for anything.

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Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith

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Jack Smith (1932-1989) was a pioneering and influential filmmaker of the underground (though he disliked the term) – as important in certain ways as Warhol or Kenneth Anger. So, he’s a potentially great subject for a film. This one is a “film essay” rather than a biography or linear documentary, which means that there are no talking heads, no critics, no friends… just extracts from Smith’s films and other archival visual material, overlaid by audio recordings of the man himself.

Unfortunately, Smith’s spoken delivery is monotonous, slow and riddled with “ums” and “ers”, while his conversational content veers between the embittered – “It’s a tale of nagging heartbreak” – and the oblique. And some of the ‘home movie’ stuff leaves a bit to be desired too. There is, for example, a point where successive stills of a man taking a toy penguin for a ‘walk’ around Rome on a leash cross over from the amusingly absurd into the tedious.

The good news is that some of the clips from Smith’s actual movies – shorts, for the most part – are terrific. Most impressive – and for many years quite notorious – is Flaming Creatures, a sumptuous and sometimes sinister 45-minute exercise in inspired high camp in which the cast seemed to be participating in some kind of ancient arcane ritual. The similarly titled Respectable Creatures (featuring Tiny Tim) is diverting too. And then there’s the comic androgyny of I Was A Male Yvonne De Carlo

Jack Smith’s cinematic world was an over-the-top one of drag queens, mummies, snakes, Cleopatra impersonators and operatic melodrama. It was also an intensely creative one.

Worth seeing for the movie clips.

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Whitney Houston was a phenomenally successful recording artist and live performer. But, as has become ever clearer in the years since her untimely death at the age of 48, she was not remotely happy.  Small wonder too, given that many of the people with whom she was surrounded were exploitative, disloyal and self-serving. This well-made and ingeniously edited documentary, the second in as many years, supplies some harrowing new examples – including alleged sexual abuse – of just how tragic the reality was behind the public myth.

Houston’s mother Cissy was of course a singer too, and arguably a better one. As a parent she could be pushy, and an unpleasant disciplinarian, but her shortcomings are easily matched by those of Whitney’s father John, who notoriously attempted to sue his megastar daughter for $100 million.

Very few people, in fact, emerge well from this film, and that includes most of the onscreen interviewees, few of whom made any attempt to arrest Houston’s decline into substance-abusing emaciation. (No one, it seems, wants to derail a gravy train if they’re a passenger.) The fall from ostensible grace is particularly spectacular given the singer’s early innocent image, and background in gospel music and religiosity. And Whitney is unfortunately not the only hapless figure in this sorry saga; her own daughter Bobbi Kristina had a short and blighted existence.

You don’t need to like Whitney Houston’s music to find this doco interesting. (Although the quorum of live concert footage will add to its appeal if you are.) It’s a very sad personal story, and pretty absorbing on that level.

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The Gospel According to Andre

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People make documentaries about all sorts of people and all sorts of worlds. What is really important, is that you pick something, or someone, that has an interesting story to tell. Director Kate Novack has at least passed one of these tests. Her somewhat overly-admiring film centres on the American fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley. To say that Andre is larger than life would be to state the obvious, but he does rather effortlessly own that cliché. For starters he is enormously tall. Though slim in his youth, he has now bulked up and his habit of wearing giant cloaks increases this impression. In full regalia he looks like one of those Marx Brothers style gags where two people hide inside the one coat. You half expect someone smaller to leap out and surprise you.

The film selectively tells his life, more or less, in sequence and without too much editorialising. It is all him just being himself on screen intercut with luminaries of fashion relishing stories of being his friend. We learn that he was born in humble (but not dirt poor) circumstances in the Deep South and brought up with a strict sense of decorum by his church-going grandma. In those days, the attendees of the black churches would put on their Sunday best to go to worship, so little Andre got an early sense of how to turn yourself out nicely. He makes his way to The Big Apple and becomes a fashion journalist, eventually writing for Vogue.

His is a very long career and, along the way, he hangs out with Warhol, gets mentored by fashion editor Diana Vreeland and is still going when Anna Wintour takes over Vogue.

He is quite engaging company and it is clear that he is thoughtful and likeable. He can also hold court but not in a boring way. He comes across as an aesthete with dignity.

The problem is that, as a film it is all a bit conflict-less. More or less everyone is reverential about him and whatever bust ups he might have had in this catty world are tastefully swept away. Andre’s sexual preferences do not need to be focused upon either, but he does vouchsafe that he never found the lifelong companion that some of his male fashion friends (like Tom Ford) did.

There is one sequence where he recalls the shocking racist comments and attitudes that he occasionally had to harden himself against (being called Queen Kong for example), but this is very much under-explored. What we are left with is just Andre as an icon being seen in all the best places and enthusing about various outfits and Haute Couture designers. It is, it must be said, a slightly rarefied world.

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It does seem like a watershed; the world pre, and post, Trump. The brute fact of his being in the White House means that every American documentary seems to have an elephant in the room. Whether it is just a momentary aberration, or the harbinger of a dangerous, global, anti-democratic lurch towards ‘strong leaders’ and authoritarian populism is too early to tell. However, this peon to the liberal supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg does end with this conundrum. Now, more than ever, we need the checks and balances to come into play. In the last few years she has consistently had to be a dissenter on the Supreme Court decisions as more and more regressive laws are adjudicated upon.

Ginsberg is indeed a remarkable person. She is a tiny Jewish lady with a great legal mind who trailblazed all her life to get more gender balance into the male dominated world. Today, at 85, she is something of a national treasure for liberals in America and nerdy female law graduates have even made social media memes and tee-shirts featuring her. In a nod to the rap generation they have dubbed her ‘Notorious RBG’, an epithet she finds highly amusing. The film gives us a potted life history as well as interview footage with the redoubtable Associate Justice of the Supreme Court herself, but it is a pretty straightforwardly told. She was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. Her mother was strict but kind.

Ginsberg tells us that she instilled two values in her: to be a ‘lady’ (i.e. to be temperate and treat people with equanimity) and to be of independent mind. This, and her marriage to the highly understanding and fully supportive partner, Marty carried her far. It is a portrait of a marriage as well as of her life and times. She admits that Marty was unusual among men of his generation in putting his career second and moving home to facilitate hers. He also learned to cook, thereby relieving her of this inessential skill. As her grown up children jokingly testify, their mum is still a terrible cook.

The film doesn’t need to do very much to trick up its subject and nor are there any skeletons in the cupboard. Once Ginsberg got to an Ivy League law school her ferocious work ethic and her sharp mind did the rest. In an era when women were still discriminated against in statutes as well as in social practice the principle that all citizens should be equal under the law gave her a lifelong orientation. Test case by test case she set about dismantling legal barriers to gender (and other) inequalities.

The problem for the film is not just that the narrative only runs in one direction, it is more that few seem to have a bad word to say about her. This is partly about the choices of the filmmakers, of course. Apart from some contemporary Alt-right sound bites in the opening sequence nothing else balances the hagiography. A collage of historical stills and lots of talking heads later, we come to the inevitable conclusion that Ginsberg set a lot of things to right. It is saved somewhat by the fact that she is a sprightly and nimble interviewee. Even there, though, she is too politic and circumspect to really dump on the dinosaurs that opposed her along the way.

As mentioned, we come right up to the Trump era. She did come out and speak publicly against the prospect of Trump coming to power (and was chastised for doing so) but it took something as egregious as that election to get her to do so. For decades she far preferred to win her battles with stealth and reason.

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Bam Bam

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Jemma van Loenen’s documentary introduces audiences to Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir, a young boxer from Canberra, on her quest to win a World Boxing Championship.

Elmir is a determined fighter who will let nothing get in her way. A Lebanese Muslim, who has won multiple Australian and International Championships, Elmir faces many obstacles – getting her family’s approval, the views of her community, opponents in the ring, among others. Elmir at one point is barred from fighting, due to a drugs ban.

Despite her unorthodox nature, and the odds stacked against her, the boxer revels in victory.

Winning supersedes everything. This is what she does it for. To stand victorious.

Elmir’s an individual who thrives on smashing expectations: she takes part in a Muslim Mardi Gras Event; her coach tells her not to go out and drink, she goes out until 4am; she enters a match a significant underdog, and wins handily.

She has no issues reflecting on, and savouring the gory blood of her opponent, and subverting her family’s expectations.

She relishes the fear in her opponent’s eyes, that moment before they receive the knockout punch.

But despite all her victories and tenacity, at the end of the day, Elmir doesn’t quite know how to deal with herself when she’s not fighting. This is what the documentary is about – identity and the subject’s life away from sport. Her biggest fight is within herself.

Elmir’s coach talks about the qualities of the boxer, how she gives back to the community. Unfortunately, at times this feels like a lecture.

Cinematographers William Sheridan and Stephen Ramplin provide intimate footage of the athlete’s struggle, capturing this flight.

Director Jemma van Loenen ultimately serves up an absorbing story of an athlete dedicated to their sport, a portrait of an individual fighting for, and fighting against herself.