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1985 (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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Advertising executive Adrian (Corey Michael Smith, Gotham, Carol) returns to his childhood home in small town Texas for the first time in three years. Having left home as soon as he was able to, Adrian finds himself distanced from his conservative parents. Dale (Michael Chiklis), Adrian’s deeply repressed father, is uncertain how to communicate with his adult son, while his mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), hopes he will finally start a relationship with his long-time female childhood friend Carly (Jamie Chung).

Adrian’s strongest family bond is with younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), who has clearly missed his elder brother’s presence. Still a teenage student, Andrew is forced to live under the fundamentalist Christian values of his parents, he sneaks Madonna cassettes into his Walkman, listening to pop music against the religious advice of the family’s pastor. Unbeknown to everybody Adrian is living with two secrets; he is gay and is HIV positive.

Set in the early years of the AIDS crisis, when people living with HIV frequently faced stigma and some found themselves ostracised by their families, 1985 captures something of the tragedy and pain of the era, the politics and cultural effect of which are still felt today.

This powerful, moving drama is beautifully shot on 16mm black and white film, and thanks to its careful use of tone and texture, as well as long, slow takes, it allows the protagonists’ actions to unfold on the screen with a sense of genuine poignance. The cast deliver strong performances which lends a depth to the work.

In some respects, the black and white style plays to a different era of cinema, where stories unfold with a natural pace, but the film is not simply indie-cinema nostalgia, and the cinematography, alongside the minimal score, evoke a simple and direct form of communication. Deeply moving, 1985 is a film with a quiet effective power.

 
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Pluck (A Film Not Really About Chicken)

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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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The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others

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In 1963 South Africa, seven men were charged and put on trial for over 200 counts of sabotage with the intent to ‘ferment violent revolution’. Their names were: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and future president of the country Nelson Mandela. The trial was condemned by a branch of the United Nations and led to international sanctions.

The documentary The State Against Mandela and the Others is well aware that for many this trial is perhaps most famous for being the one that put Mandela in prison for nearly 30 years. Describing the rest of the group as ‘the others’ in its own title, the film is a tongue in cheek dig at this public knowledge, whilst also clearing a pathway to understanding who these other men were.

Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte sit down with those who were accused, and still alive, to talk about their lives before they fought apartheid and their thoughts and feelings during the court case itself. Those no longer present are represented by family members, such as Winnie Mandela, who cast light on how the men’s actions reverberated through their wives and children. Their conversations are frank and often charming, with the men still possessing the same sharpness they displayed in court.

Rather than simply being a series of talking heads, however, The State Against Mandela and the Others uses the 256 hours of court recordings to tell the men’s story through animation. Through surprisingly clear audio, we hear every word, cough and gavel slam as the men come under the scrutiny of chief prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar. Faced with the death penalty, the seven men used their time on trial to highlight their cause and it’s clearly frustrating for Yutar as they weave around the questions hurled at them.

Often surreal in its depictions of its ‘cast members’ – Yutar is portrayed as a giant Bela Lugosi type who glides into frame – the animation allows the men’s words to run loose into landscapes made up of shapes and patterns as well as more traditional means of depicting the story. It all becomes rather hypnotic and yet, manages to both bolster and distract from the words spoken.

A shortcoming of the film arrives in the condensing of the court audio. Whilst there’s perhaps no call to hear every single second of the trial, there is a thought at the back of the mind that Champeaux and Porte’s approach to the Rivonia trial could be best suited as a mini-series, allowing the story and its protagonists a chance to breathe. Instead of hurtling – understandably due to time constraints – to the end. This is a mild criticism perhaps that’s more a testament to what is happening on screen and the desire to know more.

With a heavy subject given a light touch via animation, The State Against Mandela and the Others is an interesting take on an important chapter in apartheid history.

 
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Through the Fire (Sauver ou périr)

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In Through the Fire, Frédéric Tellier expertly frames a story of personal sacrifice and professional courage. A powerfully moving examination of the kind of experiences those in the front-line of the emergency services have to contend with on a daily basis, the struggle of life as a firefighter is portrayed both realistically and humanely.

Franck (Pierre Niney) is a completely committed firefighter. His devotion towards his profession is matched by the love and duty of care he feels for his wife Cécile (Anaïs Demoustier) and their young children. Franck takes a stark view of the challenges involved in firefighting – his motto is ‘to save or perish’.

That belief in an absolute purpose is tested to the extreme when Frank suffers terrible burns to the face when called out with his team to a raging inferno. He somehow manages to survive, but the long and arduous road to recovery is one fraught with danger, both to himself, and to his familial relationships.

Both leads are excellent in this emotionally turbulent account of rebuilding after trauma. Franck appears with his face hidden by a mask of bandages and dressing for much of the film, yet Niney brilliantly portrays the internal pain and fear with subtlety and depth. Demoustier tells Cécile’s story beautifully, with the stress and worry forming cracks in a relationship that was once so grounded and stable.

The film sensitively looks at the big questions of life and meaning; our identities, our family, and perceptions of roles in life. It also shows how in extremis even the best of humanity can be put to the test. The biggest test of the audience, however, is how many will experience a teary eye or two…

 
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Dumped

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French filmmaker Eloise Lang (and collaborator Noémie Saglio) co-directed Harry Me! The Royal Bitch of Buckingham, a Borat-inspired hidden camera faux-doco that saw its boorish, aggressive and abusive star Camille Cottin carving her way through upper class English aristocracy in order to find and marry Prince Harry, or a similarly posh and wealthy man who could bridge the class divide for her and improve her station in life. Cottin and Lang have re-teamed on a more conventional, broader-aimed vehicle: a romantic comedy with a more US-oriented leaning (and also a remake of the Danish film All Inclusive).

It stars Cottin as a ne’er-do-well daughter and unrepentant party girl Rose who, along with her tightly-wound older sister Alice (Camille Chamoux) accompanies their mother Francoise (played by French star Miou-Miou, whose decades-long CV boasts collaborations with many of the French greats, from Louis Malle to Michel Gondry) on a tropical getaway to the idyllic Reunion island, in order to celebrate their mother’s birthday. There, the sisters decide to make the trip as positive an experience as possible for their newly divorced mother, whose ex-husband, we learn, has just announced to the sisters that he and his new paramour are expecting a child.

Deciding to keep this information on the down low, the sister’s set about trying to do their best to give their mother a holiday to remember. For Rose, it seems like a good idea to drunkenly ask fellow guest Thierry (Johan Heldenbergh), a man she’s just had a one-night fling with, to show her mother ‘a good time’ for an evening, by asking her to dance, buying her a drink and then making an excuse and leaving, presumably in an effort to boost her mother’s self-esteem. Things don’t go to plan and instead, a romance develops between Francoise and Thierry. Things get complicated quickly, as they often do in French romantic comedies and soon both sisters are trying to find a way to avoid their mother discovering that her new lover is her daughter’s old lover.

While very much in keeping with the operatic comedic pitch of Lang’s previous work, this is the kind of bright and shiny romantic farce that France is best known for (and usually get snapped up as remake fodder by US studios). It’s at times funny and silly though slightly tone deaf in the era of #metoo; ultimately, it’s eager to keep things enjoyably breezy and light.

Also screening at the Gold Coast Film Festival.

 
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At War (En Guerre)

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At War is an explosive account of the full extent workers are pushed to keep their jobs and lives together. Brizé and Lindon reunite after 2015’s The Measure of a Man, to explore similar territory of a proud working-class driven to take action by threats to their jobs and security.

Given the recent political events in France with the ‘gilet jaune’ (yellow vests) movement, any film covering sustained protest and civil unrest is bound to be viewed in light of contemporary news. This certainly does not harm Brizé’s vérité influenced film looking at a 1,100 strong workforce facing the prospect of redundancies following the forced shutdown of their factory. Despite personal financial loss and an uncertain future, the workers decide to fight the decision in any way they can.

Led by the fiercely committed Laurent Amédéo (Vincent Lindon), the group do their best to remain solid and strong in the face of hardships, in-fighting and corporate manoeuvring. The tension of the powder-keg situation is built up both by the excellent performances and through video footage and staged news reports.

The film expertly showcases how a group with a shared belief driven by a sense of injustice – it is continually pointed out that the factory was in fact performing well – will do anything when passionately fired up by what it perceives as malicious wrongdoing.

At certain points the main plot of the film feels overstretched, but it makes up for this with the pace picking up again in the final third. Frequently eye-catching and captivating when the emotional intensity really hits home, the film acts as a cri de coeur and rallying call for dispossessed working people everywhere. Examining the human cost of industrial and commercial upheaval, the film looks at people who are more than mere statistics or points on a spreadsheet’s profit margin.

The documentary style takes the audience straight to the heart of the action in a variety of locations, from the factory floor right up to an impassioned stand-off with the CEO of the factory’s ultimate owners. There is never any doubt that Laurent and his colleagues are being exploited by the profit-chasing company. The real question is how long they can continue to strike, and what will the fall-out be?

A provocative and powerful state of the nation address, At War delivers the stark message of a man and a movement that will not meekly step down.