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The Rise of the Synths

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

The chic 2019 documentary film The Rise of the Synths, written and directed by Iván Castell, takes viewers on a deep dive into a sub-genre of electronic music and the artists devoted to it. In it, Castell traverses the world to explore the origins and influences of Synthwave.

Guiding us on this journey is ‘The Synth Rider’ – some sort of mysterious loner figure from the future who navigates time driving a DeLorean in the desert. Charting his mythical quest, we occasionally hear (and see) narration from iconic filmmaker and composer John Carpenter.

Played by journalist and musician Rubén Martínez, ‘The Synth Rider’ is a tattooed tough guy. His mission is to uncover the origins of a worldwide grassroots music scene known as Synthwave, which is described as an irresistible blend of modern electronic compositions infused with ‘80s pop culture nostalgia. The film explores the origins and growth of this electronic music genre, charting its rise in popularity from the underground online music scene to its recent mainstream exposure following use in retro-themed soundtracks, notably the 2011 film Drive (directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn), and more recently the television series Stranger Things. In fact, Drive is frequently named as a catalyst, a defining moment for many of the musicians.

The film skips all over the globe, dropping into Nantes, Paris and Grenoble, as well as New York, Toronto and Antwerp, to conduct numerous interviews with both established and upcoming Synthwave artists. The conversations explore their respective sources of inspiration, which range from early electronic pioneers such as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream to a collective love of 1980s films and video games. The musicians are described as people that have abandoned the simplicity and limitations of pop music and are going for something more emotional, more atmospheric.

The doc does a good job of explaining how and why these specific sounds and iconic imagery hold such an alluring appeal. One of the most interesting things about this documentary is its nostalgia. The artists speak reverently about the ‘80s as if they’re intimately familiar with the decade, but most acknowledge they were not even born then.

One artist named OGRE Sound even describes having one foot in the past, one foot in the future and opining that what exists in the middle is Synthwave.

“The eighties were a less cynical time, a magical decade for film,” muses a member of the trio Gunship whole roasting marshmallows over an outdoor fire.

Carpenter relates his personal experiences, “as a guy starting out on the periphery of the film industry, making low-budget movies, I learned to do everything myself, including making the music for my films.”

He explains how others working with computers and electronics had come up with a computer that you could play; the first music synthesiser. “That gave someone like me an orchestra and sound effects,” says Carpenter.

Creating a moody atmosphere thanks to some stylish footage of glittering cityscapes and dark warehouses, as well as the pulsing soundtrack, we see interviews with the artists and composers in their homes or in gorgeous natural or urban locales, all over the world.

Some of the artists wistfully recall meeting up on Myspace groups and forming a collective of alternative music makers. Several of the musicians embrace their underground status and do not show their faces during the interviews.

The doco tracks how synth sounds fell out of fashion in the ‘90s with the emergence of the grunge sound. People grew weary of the abundant use of the DX-7 synthesiser sound in songs, in movies and commercials. Acknowledging the influence of metal and rock, one French composer named Perturbator remarks on how Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor “basically made fucking around with sequencers and drum machines cool again” in the ‘90s.

Then comes the Retrowave movement, when people start making music on personal computers on a wider scale and experimenting with sounds, which proved a lot cheaper and therefore more accessible than synthethiser-driven music. “To have synthesisers you needed money, gear, a studio…” Computers permitted the democratisation of music making. “Everything changed. We could make music in our bedroom,” recalls a French duo.

The old soundtrack of a new generation—The Rise of the Synths is both a documentary and a time travel capsule about the Synthwave Scene.

Artists featuring in the film include:

Carpenter Brut

Gunship

Perturbator

Electric Youth

The Midnight

NINA

Power Glove

Dance with the Dead

Robert Parker

Waveshaper

OGRE Sound

Miami Nights 1984

Valerie Collective (College, Maethelvin)

Lazerhawk

80’s Stallone

John Bergin

MPM Soundtracks

Night Crawler

Scandroid

Mecha Maiko

 
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Hamtramck, USA

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Hamtramck [pronounced Hamtram-ick], a small town near Detroit, Michigan is a melting pot of ethnicities; over twenty cultural backgrounds make up the diverse population and the multi-ethnic city prides itself on its mantra “The world in two square miles”.

This wasn’t always the case, as historically it thrived thanks to Polish Catholic immigrants drawn to the industrial boom of America. In the late 1990s, Bangladeshi and Yemeni Muslim immigrants revitalised this post industrialist city. Hamtramck’s become the first majority Muslim city in the good ole’ US of A, much to the chagrin of some locals. It’s also the first city to allow the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast five times a day. With local council elections looming, candidates face challenges and opportunities within each community, including their own.

Karen Majewski, Hamtramck’s Mayor is Polish. Majewski’s the first woman from a long line of Poles who’ve been in the mayoral role before her. She’s going for a fourth term and has to again convince the local constituents that she’s the one for the job. Her opponents, Mohammed Hassan and Asm ‘Kamal’ Raman want change which, they believe, can only happen with one of them at the helm. Fadel Al Marsoumi and Ian Perotta are young progressives with sound ideas and quiet confidence, they’re both running as city council candidates and through them we see what the future for the city, and indeed the USA, could be.

Producer/Directors Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri’s documentary showcases the vibrant life, celebrations and culture of the city’s inhabitants; it also highlights the political divisions. As the local election nears, problems arise – with so many factions it’s hard to unite locals into a cohesive community, and convincing them to vote is an uphill battle.

While the film attempts to showcase a sense of intercultural understanding and community respect, most of the townfolk appear to remain within their own ethnic communities, shining a powerful spotlight on a divided city and a country with a long battle for solidarity ahead.

 
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Forman Vs. Forman

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An intimate portrait of the Oscar-winning Czech director Miloš Forman, the documentary Forman vs. Forman plays out like an extended home movie. Co-directors Helena Třeštíková and Jakub Hejna have sourced existing footage of professional interviews conducted with the filmmaker (in English, French and Czech) and combined it with footage discovered in the collections of friends and colleagues. We also see behind-the-scenes footage from all stages of Milos Forman’s life, including him calling the shots on movie sets.

Throughout the 77-minute documentary, Forman’s life and career is charted chronologically. A card at the end notes that Forman died in April of 2018, shortly before the doc was screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival as well as at Cannes.

Miloš Forman was a film director, screenwriter, actor and professor who achieved fame in his native Czechoslovakia before emigrating to the United States in 1968. In the director’s narration, we discover that he was “Afraid of too much introspection… What did I learn about myself, is that I love telling stories.”

Paired with some lovely sepia-hued old family photos and footage, Forman recalls how the Gestapo took his parents to Concentration camps when he was a little boy. He talks of being shuttled from one family member to another, leaving him with a permanent sense of being an outsider, a fringe dweller. As he visits his old boarding school, he reminiscences about his school friends, including Vaclav Havel – the seditious playwright and political prisoner who later became their country’s President.

After the war, he fell in love with the cinema, remarking on the freedom he felt when he acquired his first camera, a silent 16mm one. Beautiful images from his early films show an eye for composition. Inspired by the freshness of Italian neo-realism, and railing at the painfully cringey Russian propaganda films, Forman gained early attention with his low-budget, satirical comedy The Firemen’s Ball, the last film that Miloš Forman made in his native country and language. It’s a lively comedy that demonstrates the director’s knack for extracting natural performances out of an entirely non-professional cast largely made up of actual firemen.

It was nominated for an Oscar, but the Czech Communist authorities were so convinced that it was a satirical allegory about official incompetence that the film was officially “banned forever,” or until the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

A 1967 Czechoslovak–Italian co-production, this was Forman’s first colour film and remains one of the best–known movies of the Czechoslovak New Wave.

Notably, The Firemen’s Ball was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 41st Academy Awards. It was also listed to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was cancelled due to the workers’ strikes in May 1968 in France.

“The world saw our films as a revelation,” Forman muses. Following a period of depression, ensconced at the Chelsea Hotel, the filmmaker went on to carve a stellar career in Hollywood after the offer to direct One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest fell into his lap and brought him out of his lengthy seclusion.

He goes on to conquer Hollywood and win Best Director for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) as well as for Amadeus (1984) and talks about the prestige and power the Oscar wins afforded him in negotiations with the studio suits.

While the latter two decades of his life are somewhat glossed over, Forman vs. Forman remains a thoughtful tribute to a singular director.

 
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A Hundred Years of Happiness

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

21-year-old Tram wanted to immigrate to Australia to earn enough money for herself and her family to live more comfortably in Vietnam, but when her chances are stymied, she pursues a new life in South Korea as a migrant bride.

The title of award-winning Australian filmmaker [Blush of Fruit, Dan Bau Lullaby] Jakeb Anhvu’s A Hundred Years of Happiness refers to a traditional expression of support for the bride and groom at Vietnamese weddings. It follows Tram and her family as they live, work, and prepare for Tram’s upcoming nuptials to Soo, a South Korean electronics worker, yet to arrive to collect his bride.

Anhvu’s camera observes but never intrudes on the journey of Tram and her family, capturing intricate details of rural life accompanied by beautiful music played mostly on traditional instruments. Tram’s family lovingly works together preparing meals, farming pineapple, durian, and longans; flowing water sustains the land and supports the family. Workers discuss issues over bowls of soup, followed by a nip of spirits, their discussions emotive and revealing.

As the wedding approaches, Tram’s father reminds her of the importance of caring for one’s aging parents. Future economic security is also a major point of discussion; can her future husband offer this? We’re never quite sure.

We meet an apprehensive Soo at the engagement party; it’s unclear if he’s ever met Tram except by text. Appearing to have travelled to Vietnam alone, he can’t speak the language – Tram’s modest understanding of her future husband’s vernacular makes for awkward greetings and moments of discomfort. Anhnvu has deliberately left Soo “untranslated so that the audience can be put in the same, alienating position that the bride is in”; this most certainly goes both ways, as Soo – surrounded by complete strangers that he can’t understand, celebrating this [hopefully] auspicious day – only appears to calm down after necking several large glasses of cold beer.

Originally intended as a two-part documentary, it’s unfortunate that Anhvu was cut off from the family and unable to complete the story from the South Korean side. As a trepidatious Tram waits for a flight out of Ho Chi Minh City to her new life, we hope that her pursuit of happiness indeed rewards and wasn’t right in front of her all along.

 

 
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The Plastic House

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

South Australian filmmaker Allison Chhorn’s Cambodian heritage is a major influence in her work; her documentary After Years explored the ‘silences and memory’ of Cambodian migrant families around the world. Her latest work The Plastic House, a 46-minute piece of experimental docu-fiction follows a similar trajectory, slowly unfolding a meditation examining family and identity.

A lone figure tends to a greenhouse after the death of her parents, completing simple tasks, planting, propagating and watering. We follow the journey of the crops, as they grow taller through, rain, thunder and wind until harvest. The plastic sheets of the greenhouse fall into disrepair, before being restored for the next season.

“I learnt a lot about building the film language of The Plastic House and trying to mimic the meditative experience of working in a greenhouse; by using long takes and sound design made up of natural sounds recorded on location,” says Chhorn.

The film is almost entirely without dialogue. In silence and the natural sounds of wind and rain, we can still feel the love for family and care in the work being done.

The Plastic House, filmed over four years entirely by Chhorn on her family farm in South Australia, is a reflection on the ordinariness of life, the simplicity of planting, tending, persistence and decay until the cycle begins again.

 
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Charter

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The Swedish feature film Charter starts with a night time distress call from a child. It’s Alice’s 9-year-old son on the phone and he’s crying incoherently. What would you do? As his mother, Alice must investigate, especially when her son and teenage daughter are living with their father pending a custody case. The father holds all the power. He has a well-to-do house, a supportive family, money and the legal system.

Director Amanda Kernell underlines Alice’s relatively disadvantaged position with repeated visuals of Alice isolated in the frame, outside of homes and structures, lost, unmoored. The exteriors are beautifully shot snowy landscapes, adding to the sense of Alice’s exposed vulnerability.

Kernell has been one to watch since her feature Sami Blood won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2017. Described as a ‘uniquely understated coming-of-age story that bucks the conventions of both process and form’, Sami Blood explored ethnic racism in Scandinavia, inspired by Kernell’s own Sami heritage.

In Charter, she has assembled the same team; Director of Photography Sophia Olsson, editor Anders Skov and producer Lars Lindström of Nordisk Film Production. Her new film doesn’t quite have the same deep impact as Kernell’s prize winner, but it’s an astute and sensitive exploration of the complexities of family breakdown.

Our first introduction to the father shows him as a bully. At the same time, we learn that it is Alice who left, but it’s unclear why. Kernell offers no back story. The blanks are filled in as the story unfolds. This is astute story telling that invites us to make our own judgements and assumptions based on what is revealed at each chapter.

As in Sami Blood, the direction is natural, powerfully focused. The kids are great, especially Elina (Tintin Poggats Sarri) as the hostile, complex teen who, like her younger brother, is trying to make sense of the family split, where to lay the blame, how to handle their pain. As Alice, Ane Dahl Torp is charismatic.

The story also explores issues of boundaries and secrets. How far should Alice pry into her daughter’s privacy if she believes it’s for her own safety? The choices she makes are difficult – sometimes she doesn’t go far enough and there’s a stressful scene where she puts one child at risk to save another.

The film is split between two locations that work well as contrasting environments, physical and emotional: the stark and snowy bleakness of Sweden and the semi tropical Canary Islands. Alice takes her kids to a holiday resort, with a tacky tourist aspect to it, where Kernell uses available environments to point up her story. The strength of her characters’ acting pulls it off, though a couple of scenes, like a karaoke night, verge on cheesy.

Mainly, what the film shows is the impossibility of a broken family situation. The car crash has already happened, there’s no fixing it, only each family member somehow pulling together enough resources to move on. The film certainly shows that nobody walks away without scars.

Kernell explained it eloquently in an interview with CineEuropa. “My film is a declaration of love to all divorced parents trying every day to do their best for their children… I want to show that if a person is being judged on their every action, you will inevitably find something that’s not right. No one can pass such a test.”

 
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Women of Steel

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, Sydney Film Festival, This Week 1 Comment

Filmmaker/steelworker Robynne Murphy’s previous film that appeared at the Sydney Film Festival was Bellbird, way back in 1974. She was part of the first intake to AFTRS’ [Australian Film Television & Radio School] filmmaking course. Women of Steel sees her combine knowledge accumulated in both careers.

Picturesque Wollongong, south of Sydney, was a different story in 1980 when the behemoth BHP Steelworks dominated the skyline, spewing forth pollution by the tonne, supporting over 20,000 mostly migrant workers. Among these, only a handful were women and ‘The Big Australian’ [BHP] wanted to keep it that way.

Denied jobs at the steelworks – the city’s main employer –working-class/migrant women refused to accept discrimination. Taking their cue from the Aboriginal Tent embassy set up in 1972 outside parliament house in Canberra, a group of shunned women set up a tent outside BHP’s factory gate demanding equal opportunity. Putting up banners, handing out fliers, creating petitions, they slowly gained the support of company employees, ironically burning coal in a steel bucket to keep warm, supplied by workers from one of BHP’s coal mines.

Their struggle unfolds into the first ‘class’ action suit against the company, taking them to the High Court of Australia and changing the rules for women throughout the country.

Murphy’s film is a story of perseverance and comradeship told with emotion and humour, mostly through archival footage and interviews. It’s an important piece of filmmaking about this country’s industrial relations history and should be seen by a wide audience.

 
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Zana

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

The film begins with a woman lying in a meadow, cradling her stomach, an image of fertility and pregnancy. We see her tending cattle, the farming life, close to the land; then other images break in, blood in the river, a severed cow, horror and bloodshed. The central premise of Zana is, how can a woman bring new life into the world when she is haunted and traumatised by horror, specifically the tragedies that occurred in Kosovo, right there in the fields and villages.

Writer and director Antoneta Kastrati is based in LA but her roots are in Kosovo. For the past ten years she has made documentaries. Zana is her feature-length debut and she carries a measured, pointed style from her past filmmaking experience. She also has a superb eye for detail and local specific dialogue.

Her strengths as a documentarian broaden the unrelenting story of a victim to a slice of life view of a culture caught between past and present, still deeply influenced by patriarchy and misogyny, twenty years after the conflict.

The title Zana is taken from folklore, referring to spirits that were said to haunt rural Albania and Kosovo.

With its themes of superstition and black magic, the main character is way beyond the help of modern medicine. When psychiatric treatment is suggested, the protagonist’s fierce mother in law states ‘we don’t have crazies in our family’, and later takes her to a series of faith healers.

Cinematography is by the director’s sister Sevdije Kastrati, who gives the film scope and gravitas as well as cleverly borrowing from the horror genre to draw us into the grieving, childless character’s traumatised state. Long slow takes that place her centre frame while events happen on the periphery, add to the general atmosphere of unease and dislocation.

Kastrati dedicated the film to her mother Ajshe and sister Luljeta who were both killed in the conflict 20 years ago.

Screening in Sydney Film Festival’s Europe! Voices of Women in Film strand, this isn’t an easy watch; be prepared for a sombre mood and slow pace but it is beautifully shot, and the themes are intelligently explored.

 
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Our Law

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, Sydney Film Festival, This Week Leave a Comment

Cornel Ozies started his extensive career as a video editor at his local TV station ‘Goolarri’ in Broome Western Australia; he went on to win awards for films including Jarlmadangah Dreams and Bollywood DreamingOur Law is his latest offering, produced and filmed on location in WA.

Set in Warakurna – a town located 330 kilometres west of Uluru at the base of the majestic yet oddly named ‘Rawlinson Ranges’. Brevet Senior Sergeant’s Revis Ryder and Wendy Kelly are the local cops presiding over the only police station run entirely by indigenous officers in Western Australia. Their main barrier to effective communication with the local community is the fact that many residents only speak the local dialect Ngaanyatjarra. They’ve realised that language builds rapport and are doing their best, with help from the locals to get a grip on it. It’s a difficult task; Papa means dog for example, not grandpa.

In contrast to most communities, the cops in Warakurna are beloved by the locals, policing by getting to know the community and talking through problems, building mutual respect.

Ryder coaches the footy team and Kelly works with the local women making bush medicines. It’s a sad day for the community when Sergeant Kelly leaves to take up a position 1100km’s away in Kalgoorlie, she’s off to work on a police reconciliation action plan and to train WA police in building relationships with aboriginal communities. Watching the nightly news, perhaps she could follow this up by training police officers in the USA as well?

Cinematographer Sam Bhodi Field beautifully captures the magnificent landscapes of outback Western Australia.

Our Law could be a blueprint for future policing techniques in Australia.

Audiences can watch Our Law on NITV on Karla Grant Presents on Monday 22 June at 8.30pm or purchase tickets to a sneak peek virtual screening at Sydney Film Festival, running online from 10 – 21 June 2020.

 
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Descent

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

Dutch Kiki Bosch sits in her car, shivering, her skin blue. Eyes closed; she calmly explains to the documentary crew that despite appearances, she is fine. The cold blood at her extremities is mixing with the warm blood in her core, bringing its temperature down and leading to her current situation. Again, she assures everyone that she is fine. There’s potentially good reason to feel concerned though. Before being in the vehicle, Kiki Bosch has just spent an extraordinarily long-time swimming in some of the coldest water in the world, wearing nothing but a regular bathing costume. For some, the contemplation of taking a cold bath is torture. However, for Bosch, freediving into icy depths is not just a career, it’s part of a continuous journey into expanding her mindset.

Directed by underwater cameraman, Nays Baghai, Descent allows Bosch to sit down and tell her story. Starting off as a psychology student, she discovered the joys of freediving, and she was soon taking tour groups around Thailand. Sadly, she was raped by a colleague who would go on to do the same to someone else. This, unsurprisingly, led to a downward spiral for the freediver. Feeling guilty for not reporting her rapist and blaming herself for the assault, Bosch goes on to associate her freediving hobby with what she went through.

Descent captures Bosch casting off the oppression of being a victim and being reborn as an ice free diver. For Bosch, plunging into cold water helps her focus. Those familiar with the practice of mindfulness will recognise a strain of this in her swimming. Jolted by the cold, she remains acutely aware of where she is at that given moment, not the future and certainly not the past.

Bosch’s lo-fi narration accentuates the gorgeous scenes of clear blue seas and lakes. As the audience, we’re introduced to a whole new way of seeing the world. And just in case we’re too swept away in its majesty, Descent reminds us how dangerous it can be by telling us about Bosch nearly dying of hyperthermia while shooting a short film.

The key theme for Descent is ‘uplifting’, so we’re never allowed to ponder too long on what propels someone to test their body to this extent. Even when Bosch admits that doctors have told her she could lose her sight, Descent never asks us to question her methods.

Is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. However, it does have the potential to paint an unrealistic picture of trauma/depression treatment. Just going for a run doesn’t automatically cure your anxiety, for example. For Bosch, freediving has allowed her to expand her mindset and reset her thinking. And then in the last minutes, we’re introduced to her new career as a Wim Hof method instructor, and the documentary essentially turns into a paid advert for the practice; the camera lingers on PowerPoints and graphics in her lectures, souring the au natural feeling of the overall documentary.

Is that a cynical note to take away from the whole thing? Perhaps. However, it doesn’t distract too much from Baghai’s direction and camerawork. Seriously, it needs to be seen at the highest definition. Bosch’s story, too, is one of reclamation and rebuilding. She was dealt a miserable hand, and she managed to rise above it. Given the current state of affairs, you can’t begrudge anybody for trying to find their place in the world and successfully doing so. More power to her and others like her.