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Backtrack Boys

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

Bernie Shakeshaft is a jackaroo, and this documentary is essentially about the residential youth programme he runs on the outskirts of Armidale in NSW. Kids (predominantly boys) who are troubled – and in trouble – go there to continue their education, as a last chance before “juvie”. A key part of the process is the way they work and bond with Shakeshaft’s dogs, preparing them for dog-jumping competitions.

So far so straightforward, and indeed after five or ten minutes it seems that the point – admirable though it may be – has been made, and that the feature length of Backtrack Boys is superfluous. Happily, this is not the case at all, though, because the film grows in depth and as we get to know more about some of the boys – and the personalities of them and their wonderfully big-hearted mentor – it becomes very moving and suspenseful.  (The dogs themselves are rather engaging too, incidentally.)

The focus is principally on two lads, a 12-year-old called Rusty and a very likeable older (aboriginal) guy called Zach. They’ve both had pretty tumultuous pasts, and they’re both facing the ghastly prospect of imminent incarceration. Shakeshaft calls a spade a spade – at one point he tells someone not to “carry on like a fuckwit” – but can also be almost poetic in the way he describes the crushing emotional effect of the inevitable disappointments. (“There’s only so many times you can suck the soul out of something before it turns pear-shaped”.)

This is very affecting viewing, by turns harrowing and inspiring.

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Putin’s Witnesses

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One of the titular witnesses here is the film’s director and narrator, Vitaly Mansky. “Tacit consent turns witnesses into accomplices,” he observes. And he should know, having been a key accomplice of Vladimir Putin’s from the get-go: most of the footage here was originally shot in order to help Putin’s first (2000) election campaign. Mansky has since ‘seen the light’, and now revisits that period in a mood of deep retrospective concern and apparent regret.

Anyone can change their mind, of course, but there’s something a tad uncomfortable – maybe disingenuous – here. Still, the result is interesting, and just occasionally fascinating. There is revelatory stuff – a mixture of interviews, chat and (rather too much) family footage – about Boris Yeltsin, of whom Putin was the carefully nurtured protege… some candid depiction of media manipulation…  snapshots of Kremlin life a year after Putin took power… and, most engrossing of all, an interview with Putin himself. Two things which didn’t feature much at all in the campaign were debates and promises!

Vitaly Mansky reveals that only one of Putin’s key supporters from those days is still with him, and succinctly summarises the crackdown on dissent and return to centralisation of power which have occurred. It should all have made for gripping viewing; in the event, it’s only intermittently compelling – and never anywhere near as much as The Putin Interviews by Oliver Stone.

Also screening at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, October 9 – 14, 2018

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The Cleaners

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

If you squint, you could probably picture the subject matter of The Cleaners setting the scene for a ‘60s Western. Within the first five minutes the big players are introduced: The government (Google) rules the planes, led by a few leading lawmakers (Executives). The common people (Users) are occasionally terrorised by evil outlaws (Who look just like us…), only to be saved by a group of heroes or vigilantes (The Cleaners). These heroes only have one purpose – to protect the innocent and serve justice to the perpetrators.

The problem is, the moderators in The Cleaners aren’t the same clear-cut band of vigilantes that you might see in, say, The Magnificent Seven. Given a strict set of guidelines and little to no context per case, the decisions made by these ‘internet police’ could be construed as unjust, censorship or promoting of hate speech and violence. The Cleaners sets out to explore this while also discussing the potentially devastating mental effects that such a job can have on its workers. ‘It’s slowly penetrating my brain…’ one says. ‘I need to stop. There’s something wrong happening.’

The Cleaners explores the darkest corners of the web while juggling the ethical implications of censorship on art, culture and politics. With so much content to discuss, the documentary does a commendable job at covering all bases. The Cleaners also does well to establish the dramatic contrast between how social media is presented by corporate execs and what actually goes on behind the scenes, occasionally cutting back to court cases which represent the legal side to internet exploitation. In the process however, the human side to The Cleaners is occasionally lost. Much like the cleaners themselves, the real emotion behind the documentary seems to be hidden somewhere behind its neutral facade. This is not aided by the fact that much of the content that distresses the moderators is not shown on camera.

The Cleaners is well produced, and the graphics littered throughout add to the overall aesthetic of the film. It comprehensively tackles controversial topics and provides food for thought, especially regarding the sacrifice made by so many moderators to keep the internet a safer place. It is an eye-opening experience, but one that could have perhaps been handled with a little more humanity.

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

Ghosthunter is a film about hunting ghosts, but not in the sense that Ghostbusters is a film about hunting ghosts. While ‘real’ ghost hunting does occasionally occur, the film’s title alludes to a far deeper meaning. Our protagonist, Jason, spends much of the film searching for the ghosts of his past; people and places long forgotten by him but vital to the sort of person he has become.

While Ghosthunter moves at an engaging pace, to the audience the real development is within Jason himself. Within the first few shots of the documentary he is presented as an intimidating figure: a scar running down the side of his face and tattoos up his arms. As the plot progresses, so does Jason, and by the end of the movie we are presented with a completely different person. A victim of abusive parents, Jason’s agitation is apparent – has he become his father or is he his own person? If it were not a documentary, Jason’s development could easily be the centre of a biopic. It’s undeniably heartbreaking but intriguing nonetheless.

Ghosthunter follows in the footsteps of many of its American contemporaries (Making a Murderer, among others) by pairing its gripping plot with stylishly heightened filmmaking. Hospital records and photos are enhanced, text messages are superimposed and key events are recreated with effective results. Telephone conversations are played back over shots of Jason at work – an idea that sounds mundane but has spectacularly eerie results. One particularly atmospheric scene, set in a security control room, feels like it could be straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive or the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. Although thematic transitions to and from these recreations feel clunky at times, they do stand as a testament to the skill of director Ben Lawrence (who, like his father Ray ‘Lantana, Bliss‘ Lawrence has mostly worked in the TVC space).

As it was filmed over a 6-year period, there are understandably a few instances where Ghosthunter loses its footing, particularly in the second half. The complications of the plot wrap themselves up within the first hour, and the final third of the movie shifts the focus back to Jason as he attempts to fix his forever-changed life. It is when the camera is on Jason, however, that Ghosthunter manages to spread its wings. Because of this, Ghosthunter works best as a character study – whether that study is Jason or his many friends and workmates, everyone seems to be hunting their own ghosts.

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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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Documentary, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

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.