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

Keith Looby has a reputation for pissing off nearly every Australian art critic.

When you hear Keith Looby talk in person you will hear a soft-spoken artist with a deep resentment towards an ‘industry’ that just as easily celebrated him as it disposed of him.

Looby – which premieres as part of the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Festival – details the tumultuous career of the Archibald Prize Winner who wanted to be part of the arts conversation just as much as he tried to distance himself away from it.

Looby’s career is explored in a series of interviews detailing his perception among curators, critics and fellow artists. While critics of Looby recognise his remarkable ability to infuse politics into his artwork, his cantankerous antics left him ostracised from the Australian art scene.

Director Iain Knight does not attempt to paint Looby as a saint and affirms Looby’s reputation as being difficult through a multitude of sources. Looby would be the person talking too loudly on the train and speaking with his mouth full of food. Knight faces an uphill battle having the audience rally behind his subject but succeeds in separating the controversial artist from his art by recognising the social importance of his work against the backdrop of a pretentious industry hellbent on silencing him.

From Looby learning about the power of illustration when defiant at school, to his unpopular pursuit of the Archibald, the artist has always been under constant scrutiny by critics. His resentment at the culture-of-criticism is explored with a satirical gaze on an almost mafia-esque industry that would as soon dispose of its detractors as it would accept a non-conformist.

This disparagement for critique – whether hurt feelings or not – does not deter from Looby’s refusal to remain silent against a surveillant power. This ideology seeps through not only Looby’s personal life but also in the political nature of his artwork. The effects of Looby’s professional expulsion builds the emotional core of the film, with the artist now approaching the reality that most of his artwork will more likely be held in storage than presented in a gallery.

Radical? Maybe. Difficult? Most likely.

Keith Looby’s rejection from the art scene provides a fascinating exploration on art and critic-culture told through the eyes of an artist in constant disagreement with the establishment.


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Our Youth in Taiwan

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

After a decade of Beijing exerting its seemingly inexorable gravitational pull, China’s peripheries – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet – are renewing their pushback against the centre. Nowhere is this unequal struggle more acute than in Taiwan, the self-ruling, democratic island still officially called the Republic of China, neither under the actual control of the People’s Republic nor recognised as an independent state. Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary on 2014’s Sunflower Movement – a student-led push that successfully overturned a trade pact with mainland China – gains an extra frisson of resonance in light of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

This documentary’s director, Fu Yue, wears her political convictions on her sleeve: Our Youth in Taiwan builds on a short film she contributed to the anthology Sunflower Occupation, released in the year of the demonstrations. And at November’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, she sparked her own controversy when she called for Taiwanese independence.

This is a documentary crafted unmistakably from within its movement. Fu provides little background on the Sunflower Movement for international viewers, and never steps outside of the protest crowd for an alternative opinion. It’s the sort of embedded filmmaking that observes events as they develop and offers real-time commentary. Eventually, Fu directs her focus on two individuals, a young Taiwanese activist (Chen Wei-ting) and a mainland Chinese student and writer (Cai Boyi), subjects she follows for the rest of the film.

Our Youth in Taiwan is shaggy, exhaustive and arguably overlong, but it’s also as immediate and of-the-moment as you could hope for in a snapshot of China’s turbulent relations with the polities and peoples of its outlying regions in 2019. Fu adopts a lo-fi approach; the camerawork is grainy, footage is recycled and there is no soundtrack. She muses about ‘mutual understanding’ (between Taiwan and mainland China), and the eternal friction between ideals and politics is a theme in the film, yet its substance is more about how a protest movement lives and breathes, what drives its participants on a personal level.

Fu is also, despite her obvious political leanings, a sympathetic filmmaker, able to elicit openness from Chen and Cai and capture them in all their human complexity. The film, in following their abortive attempts at political careers, sidesteps the common inclination in documentaries to heroize its subjects: Chen is brought down by personal shortcomings, while Cai discovers that Taiwan’s democratic politics are as cruel and unsparing as everywhere else.

This collage of events leads to an uncertain resolution in which Fu grapples onscreen with her own expectations and emotions as a filmmaker. It’s unexpected, a violation of documentary convention that the director should remain at a distance, but in fusing the structural and the personal to seek closure outside the traditional form of a documentary, it’s a minor revelation. It’s that emotional core, and its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments, that sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.

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Stephen Amis: Film Shepherd

The Melbourne filmmaker makes a major leap forward with his latest film, Defend, Conserve, Protect, which documents activist group Sea Shepherd’s gripping mission to stop Japanese ‘research’ ships from killing Minke whales in the Antarctic.
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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The idea of pilgrimage, of walking to holy sites in the hope of expiating one’s sins, goes back to the Middle Ages. In one sense it is Catholic in as much as it originates pre-Reformation. It should perhaps have atrophied along with Mummers Plays and Ducking Stools. Therefore, you could say, there is something to be explained about the continuing cult of doing this 450-mile hike across Northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago (the way of Saint James). Is there something mysterious and personally epiphanic that persists in this ancient custom? Or is it really just a triumph of tourist ‘re-packaging’; inspiration-lite for the modern identity-obsessed, globalised age?

In Fergus Grady and Noel Smythe’s modest documentary such questions are deliberately not delved into. Instead, we follow a few people from New Zealand and other countries who have decided to do the big slog. They are ‘randoms’ in the modern parlance, and the filmmakers sensibly don’t make any great claims for them being especially interesting or unusual. Although some aspects of their histories and biographies are interesting and even moving. People are interesting. The film would just implode if that wasn’t the case. In a way they are ‘everyman’ and that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise to which so many nameless people have committed themselves over so many centuries.

The problem for the film though is not just in this dilemma (how much do these people want to show of their inner life? How much will be revealed just by the camera crew tagging along?), but also how to make a largely ‘interior’ journey interesting. Otherwise it becomes like a giant reality TV show – Ninja Warrior in the hills – with them as ‘contestants’ to which we cannot but assign tropes or stereotypes; the plucky overweight one, the frail old lady with arthritis, the unbearably mock-profound euro tourist. The focus on these particular people – let’s not call them pilgrims – has to carry the main load. In fact, they are listed in the credits under the cast heading.

As noted, the filmmakers eschew any attempt to situate the Way as a phenomenon, either historically or sociologically or theologically. Nor do they want it to dissolve into some scenery-displaying travel show. The wide shots are actually kept to a minimum. And sweeping, inspiring music is mostly sidelined in favour of a few touches of Spanish folk.

Looked at coldly, this is just 80 minutes of people tramping along a road, but somehow the film works (at least in places) despite itself. Perhaps there is a little bit of pilgrim in all of us.

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Trailer: Untouchable

Screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the documentary about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein looks appropriately hard-hitting.
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Peter Medak: Exorcising the Ghost of Peter Sellers

The director of The Ruling Class, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Changeling, The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo is Bleeding and various episodes of your favourite TV shows, opens up about his unreleased film starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and the documentary that he has made about the traumatic experience.
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Victoria Stone: Circle of Life

The wildlife documentary maker has seen her first feature length film, The Elephant Queen, travel the world's biggest film festivals, and will next be available on Apple TV+.
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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Having worked on over a thousand films as a writer, producer or director, French pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché’s achievements are one for the history books.

Yet you will never find her name published in any of them.

Present at the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, Guy-Blaché’s absence from the annals of filmmaking is explored with vivid intrigue in documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.

Be Natural explores how Guy-Blaché became absconded from history through limitations of outdated technology in preserving her films and from her experiences working in an industry riddled with patriarchy and sexism.

Guy-Blaché’s belief that film could be used for more than documenting real-life created the template for all films with a narrative structure that have followed. There is an expression of authenticity in her work that carried through not just in the performances she drew from actors but in her creation of material that bravely addressed at-the-time taboo topics such as inequality. Guy-Blaché’s modesty did not detract from her ingenuity, with the filmmaker helping introduce colour, sound and special effects to cinema during a time when films were dark, silent and static.

Be Natural’s willingness to invite the audience in on the mystery behind Guy-Blaché’s deletion from history is alluring, resulting in a compelling watch that adds appeal to dry subject matter relating to film-preservation and archiving.

Director Pamela B. Green presents Guy-Blaché’s fighting-spirit through archival footage – allowing Guy-Blaché to showcase her intelligent and likeable personality. This is given more credence in recounts of her life through the admiring eyes of her daughter Simone, Francophile narrator Jodie Foster and in interviews with present-day Hollywood filmmakers shocked by Guy-Blaché’s lack of profile.

Green uses motion and graphics (which she has built a career on) throughout Be Natural to create a work that is accessible to the public and not just appealing to academics.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché exists as a testament to an industry clamouring for the equal treatment of women through the gaze of an innovator that fought a large part of her life to be recognised.

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Alex Winter: Bitcoin. Activism. Frank Zappa

As the internet breaks with excitement over Bill & Ted Face the Music, one of its stars, Alex Winter (Bill) continues his passion for documentary making and technology, with the latest, Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, set to premiere in Melbourne this month.