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Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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If ever a film called for a SPOILER ALERT, it’s this one. The film’s very raison d’etre is also pretty much its ending, so read no further if you wish to remain in the dark. Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old TV reporter who committed suicide in 1974 with a handgun, live on air in Sarasota, Florida. This is her story, or at least the final few months of it.

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck, and her performance is absolutely superb. It’s nuanced, naturalistic, and (when appropriate) understated. Chubbuck was evidently a mess of contradictions: likeable and intelligent, but brusque and in some ways immature; self-deprecating yet also self-assertive to the point of being pushy; desperate for closeness but inclined, in her own words, to “push people away.”

The period detail here is fairly accurate, and Chubbuck’s professional context (a small-town TV news station) is well delineated, and so too are her often fraught relationships with her workmates. She has a serious but thus far unrequited crush on anchorman, George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), and an ongoing struggle against her boss’ pressure for a more “If it bleeds, its leads” approach to choosing stories. The irony in that could not, of course, be more bitter. And then there are her health problems.

Suicides are not always entirely explicable, and the mode of dispatch here made this tragedy rather more mysterious than many. But Christine – with its subtle depiction of inexorably rising stress and despair – at least succeeds in turning established fact into convincing drama.

Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 6 and August 12. To buy tickets to Christine, head to the official website.

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Kate Plays Christine (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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On July 5, 1974, newsreader, Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide live on air. The footage exists, albeit only one copy, and like Chubbuck, has become the subject of interest for the macabre corners of the internet. This year, Chubbuck also became the subject of two films at The Sundance Film Festival: the Rebecca Hall-starring biopic, Christine, from director, Antonio Campos; and this documentary from filmmaker, Rob Greene (Actress).

In Kate Plays Christine, Green follows actress, Kate Lyn Sheil (Queen Of Earth, The Girlfriend Experience, Outcast), as she begins preparations to play Christine for a film that ostensibly doesn’t exist, in a documentary which is less about Chubbuck’s final moments and more about the idea of trying to understand the unknown and the shaping of a narrative. Despite the reporter’s dramatic ending of her life, Chubbuck’s home town of Sarasota has moved on, and her family is unobtainable, leaving her to almost become an urban legend with no weight or purpose. With little to get to grips on, Greene shows Sheil’s frustration as she tries to establish some connection with the ill-fated woman, outside of wearing a wig and brown contact lenses.

And whilst Chubbuck has become an enigma built on some truth, so too is Sheil’s journey to become her. Greene doesn’t hide that there is an artifice to his work, keeping in scenes that most documentarians would leave on the cutting room floor. On camera, Sheil admits that what she does is only because Greene has asked her to: a dip in the sea to find her inner Chubbuck contains Greene’s off camera comments on how to behave, and overwrought re-enactments replete with emotive score deliberately shape Chubbuck into a dead-eyed tragic hero. Throughout the film, it’s hinted that Sheil may re-enact the suicide, and when the moment finally arrives, it’s delivered in a manner that would make Michael Haneke proud, concluding the film appropriately by making the audience evaluate their reasons for taking this journey in the first place.

Kate Plays Christine plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31 and August 2. To buy tickets to Kate Plays Christine, head to the official website.

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Fear Itself (The Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Although Fear Itself takes virtually all its onscreen material from other films, its unifying idea is interestingly original. What we have here is a succession of clips from innumerable horror movies, stretching all the way through from 1922’s original (silent) Nosferatu to the 2012 Mexican flick, Post Tenebras Lux. There’s an ongoing voiceover, in which the narrator discusses not only the genre and its many variations and themes, but also the nature of real-life human fear…not to mention its “sibling”, anxiety.

The aforementioned narrator has a monotonous delivery, which itself suggests not so much fear as dispirited misery and lifelessness. But never mind the form – some of the analytical content is thought-provoking, though disturbing: “If horror movies are built to take advantage of who we are and how we work, what does that say about us?” Of course, it’s the clips themselves which are the main attraction here, and what a cornucopia they comprise. You might imagine that they would lose some of their power when divested of their original contexts, or that the impact would lessen as the excerpts pile up. But in fact, the doco gets much better – and heavier – as it goes on, and as some of the chosen sources get more esoteric. The commentary jumps a gear or two as well, sidelining theory and moving on to discuss specific flicks and their particular disquieting effects.

If you’re a horror buff, you’ll be familiar with many of the sampled gems, but you’re bound to find some promising obscurities to add to your viewing list too. If for that purpose alone, Fear Itself is worth seeing.

Fear Itself plays at The Melbourne International Film Festival on July 29 and August 1. To buy tickets to Fear Itself, head to the official website.

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All Things Ablaze (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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An on the ground look at a rolling riot in action, All Things Ablaze has a visceral immediacy that is at times difficult to endure, such is the intensity of the situation and the oppressive, crushing weight of the possibility of violence.

Eschewing narrative coherence and focal characters, directors Oleksandr Techynskyi, Aleksey Solodunov and Dmitry Stoykov track the 2013/14 Maidan Riots in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from their beginnings as a relatively peaceful protest through their evolution into a violent, flaming maelstrom of violence.

“Apocalyptic” is not too heavy a word to use here, and the title is barely an exaggeration. The fly-on-the-wall film depicts clash after clash between angry citizens and armoured cops, and certainly does not shy away from showing that these events had a massive body count. Nor is it overtly polemical or partisan; agitators are shown eagerly trying to stir up violence on both sides, while more sober voices urge peace. There’s one fantastic moment where a former soldier tells a would-be firebrand that his best case scenario is a kicked-in head in a couple hours’ time; at other times we see Molotov cocktail-hurling dissidents blithely dousing the flames after they’ve accidentally set themselves on fire (again).

It’s confronting stuff, but there are moments of humanity and warmth: a matron ladling soup out to protesters from the boot of a car, sleeping citizens rugged up and sprawled out on the floor of a church, a makeshift field hospital tending the wounded. Also, moments of sheer surreality: an Orothodox priest taking a sledgehammer to a statue of Lenin, frozen stalactites covering every eave and ledge the morning after the firehoses have been deployed.

The value of a film like All Things Ablaze is that it puts you in the middle of events that are all too easy to ignore or dismiss through the lens of the news media. While the lack of context provided may be offputting and confusing, that’s kind of the point: this is the ugly, street-level side of politics, and a must-see.

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Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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German director Thorsten Schütte has combed through countless hours of concert and interview footage to assemble an electrifying, provocative and utterly entertaining account of the life and work of musician Frank Zappa. Eschewing memorial testimony and modern interviews, Schütte lets the man speak for himself, creating a portrait in montage.

And what a portrait it is. Zappa was an instinctive, unrepentant iconoclast, a radical free thinker, a counterculture hero who didn’t do drugs or drink and was smart enough to go toe to toe with pro-censorship forces at a senate hearing (that’d be Tipper Gore’s odious Parents Music Resource Centre, who wanted warning labels pasted on albums with “offensive” lyrics). A cynic with a dry, self-deprecating and cutting sense of humour, Zappa carried himself with a sense of authority and intelligence no matter where he was or who he was being questioned by; indeed, some of the funniest scenes of the film are of him deadpanning his way through interviews with MOR TV pundits who never seem quite sure what to make of him.

And let us not forget, Zappa was also a stupendously talented musician. There’s some fantastic live footage here, from Zappa’s early ’60s TV appearance using a couple of bicycles as instruments (he looks so clean cut!) to his long run with his band, The Mothers of Invention, to his orchestral work (known chiefly as an avant-garde rocker, Zappa was an accomplished classical composer as well). It’s a wealth of material, demonstrating Zappa’s incredible range and disdain of convention.

That disdain extended, at least to a certain degree, to the mores of his fans, or at least the culture that spawned them. Politically, Zappa could probably best be described as libertarian, and in interviews he repeatedly voiced his loathing of being labeled a hippie. A self-described small government conservative, Zappa’s devotion to the ideal of personal freedom saw him refuse a number of high profile shows that could see him linked to various political ides and institutions (he speaks of being invited to play by both the Vatican and the French Communist Party).

The picture that emerges is one of a true maverick, whose contrarian views seem at odds with, well, almost everyone to some degree or another. In an age where we hold out artists up to stringent political and moral criteria, Zappa is an incredibly contentious figure. Obviously Eat That Question is a slam dunk for extant Zappa fans, but it’s bound to mint a few fresh converts as well. A fascinating look at an important artist, this is an essential piece of cinema.

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Atmo Horrox (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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One of the great delights of attending a film festival is the opportunity to expose yourself to screen art that would otherwise have never crossed your field of vision – to dip into the outre and bizarre, to test yourself against visions far outside the norms of mainstream commercial filmmaking. It’s a rush, it’s an edifying experience, and it’s a reminder that film is not constrained by what finds its way into the multiplexes – it’s a broad church.

Broad enough, indeed, to contain Atmo Horrox, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaker, Pat Tremblay. Atmo Horrox is a true oddity; a surreal, grotesque journey into an alien and abominable world where possibly inhuman figures stalk their victims through a garish landscape while we, the audience, are left to our own devices to puzzle out the meaning of what we’re seeing on screen.

And there is a meaning; like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour, it’s an unconventional narrative that takes time and attention to parse. Catafuse (Laurent LeCompte), a bizarre figure dressed in stockings and balloons, hunts human targets, eliminating them by clopping a pair of ladies shoes on their heads. He is aided by Molosstrap (Roch Desrosiers, who feeds him information about his impending victims (presumably – all dialogue is unintelligible and we’re forced to gauge the meter of the conversations by other cues. As the film progresses, events grow more disturbing and unreal, culminating in…

Well, that would be telling. Atmo Horrox is clearly a low budget effort, held together with ingenuity and ambition rather than money, but its very cheapness allows it to do things and go places a more professional-looking film could not. Tremblay delights in transfiguring everyday objects and elements into something ominous and monstrous, combining disparate aesthetic pieces to create something fascinatingly ugly. That might be a good shorthand for the entire film, in fact.

In spite of its surface-level gruesomeness, Atmo Horrox demonstrates an excellent command of the visual language of cinema, and it demands the same from its audience. This is not a film to be treated lightly – you’ll need to bring your A game just to figure out what the hell is going on. If you’re willing to meet it on its level though, Atmo Horrox will shock and surprise you – something your more jaded stripe of cineaste should welcome.

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Fursonas (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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The geek may very well be inheriting the earth right as we speak, going by box office receipts and cultural trends, but there are still many pockets of fandom that are a long, long way from mainstream acceptance. Dominic Rodriguez’s documentary, Fursonas, expanded from his earlier short film, sheds light on one of them, and the topic is right there in the title.

A “fursona” is an animal identity taken on by a “furry” – someone who is into dressing up as anthropomorphic animal. Furries are pretty much the bottom of the nerd totem pole, looked down upon and derided by even the sweatiest of Magic the Gathering players, but Rodriguez attempts to show us the human faces behind the cartoon masks. There’s the guy who discovered his predilection in a flash of insight when he performed as a football mascot, the woman who wonders if her daughter will follow her into furry fandom, the guy obsessed with the early ’80s family TV show Here’s Boomer, and more.

And yeah, there are the people who are into the furry scene for sexual purposes, and that’s where the squick factor may kick in for viewers whose experiences of outre sexuality don’t go much beyond Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a lot of kink in the furry community, but the abstract knowledge of that fact may not stop your eyebrows from raising when you see the handiwork of sex toy manufacturer, Bad Dragon, who helps make furries “fully equipped” for after hours activities.

Where the film gets bogged down is in its investigations of the often fractious internal politics of the furry world, which seem to centre on the figure of Uncle Kage, runner of furry convention AnthroCon and self-appointed arbiter of the furry community and its interactions with the media. Kage is extremely protective of furry-doms image to the point of socially shunning furries who go against his wishes (our man Boomer earns his ire for a variety of reasons). What perhaps should have been a brief side excursion takes up far too much time, and for the uninitiated it’s pretty impenetrable stuff.

Which brings us to the key question: who is Fursonas for? Members of the furry community surely don’t need the Furry 101 explanations of the film’s first half (although a little balanced representation is a good thing) , while non-furries may be baffled or even bored by the minutiae of their social jostling. It’s definitely worth your time – if nothing else it’s a good litmus test of how accepting you really are – but its thesis is obscure and it’s perhaps not the definitive statement it could have been.

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Art of the Prank (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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You may not know Joey Skaggs, but odds are good you’ve come across his work, whether you knew it at the time or not. The irreverent art prankster has been doing his thing for decades now, sticking his middle finger up at the mainstream and the media through a series of audacious performances that blur the the line between political act and public nuisance. Director Andrea Marini builds a broad look at Skaggs’ life and career around his latest project, a fake documentary designed to provoke reactions to issues concerning genetically modified crops,the military-industrial complex and Hawaiian sovereignty (Skaggs likes to spread a wide net). But is there space for a guy like Skaggs to operate in the 21st century, where the online world makes fact-checking so quick and easy?

Well, yes, to be blunt – we’re just as credulous as we ever were, and the voracious content demands of the 24 hour news cycle means that due diligence is often abandoned in favour of timeliness – fertile ground for Skaggs, who since the late 1960s has convinced all manner of highly respected news organisations the veracity of such oddball ephemera as brothels for dogs, a celebrity sperm auction, and a portable confession booth for political delegates too busy to go to church. He does all this with the help of a small army of volunteer co-conspirators – writers, artists and actors who share his disdain for the middle of the road. Martini interviews a number of these, many of whom have worked with Skaggs for years and profess undying loyalty to their leader, noting that any journey with Skaggs, no matter how absurd the central conceit, is an adventure into creativity, comedy and anarchy.

Marini approaches Skaggs’ irreverence with reverence, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it all. Skaggs himself comes across as an affably angry individual who is fighting back against what he sees as pervasive institutional evil and corruption with the tools at his disposal, a hippie Quixote hoaxing monolithic media windmills. There are hints of dissatisfaction here and there – Skaggs, long a resident of New York and Hawaii, now lives in Kentucky for family reasons and is none too happy about it – but the film by and large prefers to lionise.

And why not? After decades working under various noms de guerre to further his plots, Joey Skaggs deserves a little time in the sun, and Art of the Prank is a fitting tribute.

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NotFilm (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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“I’ve never quite trusted films about film,” says filmmaker, Ross Lipman, who with his new documentary has curiously attempted to create a film about film. The result is NotFilm, a two-hour plus deep dive into the only cinematic undertaking of acclaimed Irish writer, Samuel Beckett. Film, a simply-titled experimental film written by Beckett and, somewhat surprisingly, starring silent film actor, Buster Keaton, was released in 1965 at The Venice Film Festival to simultaneous acclaim, controversy, and confusion.

Throughout the documentary, Lipman explains that despite Beckett being hugely successful in his creative endeavours, when he set out to make Film, he in fact had very little knowledge of film production. He assembled what on paper appeared to be a super-team of talented people. First and foremost, there was Beckett himself, a writer so celebrated that he would go on to win The Nobel Prize for Literature four years after the release of Film; there was theatre director, Alan Schneider, who directed the 1956 American premiere of Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting For Godot; Boris Kaufman, a cinematographer who in 1954 won an Academy Award for his work on Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront; and finally Buster Keaton, a genius silent film actor, albeit one whose star had declined by the time Film was made. When it came time for them all to work together, the collaboration wasn’t as smooth as you would imagine. Beckett’s vision was singular and uncompromising, and the film itself, with a running time of just over 20 minutes, was seen by many as flawed. Keaton openly admitted that he didn’t understand the script, but accepted the role because he needed the money.

Lipman does a respectable job of making the inaccessible seem accessible, and his fascination with Beckett’s project and its place in cinematic history shines through. NotFilm is at its best when it is alluding to the many and varied production troubles that were encountered during the making of Film, and you can’t help but be intrigued by the relationships of the four aforementioned men involved. In its final third, the film strays more toward the bizarre and, at times, downright confusing structural aspects of Film, and leaves the viewer trying to decode the philosophical aspects of Beckett’s film that perhaps only he fully understood.

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Chemsex (Revelation Perth International Film Festival)

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This gruelling documentary by William Fairman and Max Gogarty takes a look at the impact of “party” drugs (notably crystal meth and GHB) on the sexual lives of gay men in the UK. Arguably a promotional vehicle for the work done by 56 Dean St, a sexual-health outreach centre in the heart of London, it is a provocative, often shocking exposé about a “new norm.”

Talking to perceptions around happily coupled gay men and drugged up party boys, Australian health-worker, David Stuart, is emphatic that “there are no ‘good’ gays and ‘bad’ gays. It’s not binary.” His mission is to help people escape an addiction that he believes is consuming (decimating?) the community. This unflinching documentary would support that belief as we’re taken into basements, bedrooms, and bars across London to watch intravenous drug use and weekend-long sex parties first hand. It’s not for the squeamish. Out in the world, those same men – some psychotic, some suicidal – talk about the physical and mental health impacts that chemsex has had on their lives. Stuart is a voice of reason that puts balance to these distressing interviews.

Excellent production values and the unfiltered honesty of the documentary’s participants sets Chemsex apart. It asks big questions – notably, why? – for which there are no easy answers. Not that it pretends that there would be. This isn’t a self-help guide, but a discussion starter for a conversation that few people are willing to have. Fairman and Gogarty don’t pass judgement: Chemsex simply offers a glimpse into an otherwise hidden sub-culture of men in danger of killing themselves. Stuart argues that they’re not “greedy, promiscuous, self-indulgent gay boys”, but a generation of self-medicating men emerging from trauma. It’s a serious problem about which no one seems to care.