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Jirga

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After all the military and colonial interventions in Afghanistan over the centuries, one thing we can conclude is that the place is not easily subjugated. That doesn’t seem to have stopped various countries having a go. The problem is that the more you try to suppress a movement the more it hardens up. The Taliban have not disbanded or lost influence. Australia of course is implicated at a national level in this conundrum as we still have some presence there.

This is the backdrop to Benjamin Gilmour’s remarkable little film which has just played in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is also in competition at the upcoming CinefestOZ in WA.

Gilmour travelled in the country and mixed with both local people and Aussie soldiers. The heart of his screenplay was going to be about a soldier serving in Afghanistan who had shot a civilian and who had later traveled back to somehow make amends with the family of the victim. Gilmour cast the actor Sam Smith in the lead role.

They then went to make the film on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is where the story of the film rather overtakes the film itself. Whilst they were filming, the crew was receiving rumours that ‘various groups’ were none too happy about the project. This then escalated to death threats and the possibilities of IEDs being planted in the caves where they were shooting. Standing on the stage at the SFF for a Q&A, the director seemed quite relaxed about this in retrospect, but it clearly wasn’t a joke at the time. For those interested, Gilmour has just written a bestselling paperback about the making of the film called Cameras and Kalashnikovs.

The film itself is short and effective. Some will find it a moving anti-war piece. The look of the film is quite arresting; the large dusty vistas are contrasted with urgent hand-held, up-close action sequences. The acting and the plot have to take a back seat somewhat, but given that they had to improvise some of the story and sequences under extreme pressure this is understandable.

As noted, this film has a very particular provenance. To say that the back story is more interesting than the film would be dismissive. However, when the back story is this interesting and integral, it is more the case that they can work together.

 
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Skate Kitchen (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Skate Kitchen might just be 2018’s feminist answer to the dude-heavy culture of skating. It’s been three years since Crystal Moselle’s debut, The Wolfpack, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, scoring the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. This time Moselle returns to the big screen with a semi-biographical drama about an untainted underground New York City through the eyes of very-relatable teen skater girls, which was also screened at Sundance.

The film follows protagonist Camille (Rachel Vinberg, founding Skate Kitchen member), an introverted suburban teen from Long Island, who befriends an all-female posse of skateboarders from New York City’s Lower East Side. Despite her mother’s wishes for her to leave the life of skating behind, she runs away to be with her new friends, and although a tad clichéd – a daughter wanting to escape from her controlling mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and her traditional ways – there is much solace in Camille’s journey, as she earns full credibility with the crew and slowly comes out of her shell.

When the all-girl skater group welcomes Camille with open arms, she is suddenly immersed in a world of full of unapologetic youth; smoking weed, drinking, and just hanging out with friends. Camille soon finds a close friend in Janay (Ardeila Lovelace) who offers her a roof over her head, but it’s not long before she also finds comfort in another, Devon (Jaden Smith), a co-worker and member of the rival all-male skate crew. It’s quite refreshing to see Devon celebrate Camille’s talent as he follows her with a camera, carving up the streets of the Lower East Side. Typically, their skater girl-meets-skater boy ‘friendship’ is frowned upon and tension ensues within the girl-crew. This leaves Camille back at square one. The irony is that the mother she ran away from is now the very person she’s running back to, which can be a relatable aspect of the film for a young audience.

While Skate Kitchen combines the elements of a typical feel-good, coming of age hangout movie, the film is so much more than that. It’s a rare insight into what might possibly be the unheard youth of America; a rare representation of race, sexual preference and embracing those moments you have before adulthood. Additionally it’s a film to be congratulated for its strong representation and empowering female roles.

 
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American Animals (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Fear of mediocrity is what drives the action in American Animals, the new documentary/crime caper hybrid from writer and director Bart Layton (Imposter). Crucially, the four young men at the core of the story don’t need to commit the crime they set their hands to – they just want to, because their current quite comfortable lives don’t exactly jibe with the luxury and adventure to which they feel entitled. That’s a pretty terrible reason for resolving to rob the library at Transylvania University in Kentucky of a number of rare and valuable books, including a first edition of  John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, but awful choices can certainly make for awfully compelling cinema.

As in Imposter, which told the remarkable true story of a French conman who successfully impersonated a missing Texan teen, American Animals blurs the lines between factual and fictional filmmaking. The four co-conspirators are played by actors for most of the action – Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson – but the actual perpetrators are present as interview subjects, commenting on the action and occasionally providing an ironic counterpoint to what the film presents as the “true” events.

That’s only one metatextual conceit of many. The four youths, steeped in pop culture, see their crime as a Soderbergh-esque caper, or at worst a bloodless Tarantino riff. The reality is much more traumatic, of course, but these are laughably inept crooks we’ve got here, who begin their campaign by Googling “How to plan a heist” and proceed to pile misconception upon ignorance as events unfold, at one point making an abortive attempt to lift their prize disguised as old men. The tension comes not from wondering if things will go wrong, but when – in the context of the story we know these guys are doomed to failure, we just don’t know exactly how or how much collateral damage they’ll do in the process.

Yet while the known facts of the case are a matter of record, the precise truth of what happened remains elusive, thanks to contradictory interview answers from the actual participants. Warren Lipka (played in the reenactment scenes by Evan Peters) comes across as a particularly slippery customer, the film heavily implying that he engineered the whole scheme for his own amusement. Lipka himself denies this, of course, and we’re left to make up our own minds about him and his motives. There’s more than a hint of empty nihilism here, and at one point Lipka seems shocked at his own lack of remorse. This fascination with the hollowness at the core of its characters is what elevates American Animals above the run of the mill, resulting in a film that is hilarious and engaging, but more than a little disturbing, too.

 

 
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The Swan (Scandinavian Film Festival)

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A girl alone in the wild nature of the world and a girl alone with her thoughts in a beguiling and disruptive atmosphere. Two sides of the same coin in this magical debut feature from Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr, which draws on Icelandic folk tales and dreamworlds to produce an enchanting film of subtle intensity.

The ethereal landscape of rural Iceland is beautifully captured in a film seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the girl in question, rebellious nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir). She has been packed off to her great aunt and uncle’s in the countryside after being caught shoplifting.

“You don’t have the eyes of a thief,” are her great aunt’s welcoming words on her arrival, and the tone doesn’t get much easier for Sól, often preferring to converse with the farm animals rather than the local villagers.

One person she does find a connection with is seasonal farmhand Jón (Thor Kristjansson), a troubled young man who spends his nights penning extended diary entries that Sól can only begin to guess at the meaning of. Both characters feel hard done by the world and uncomfortable with the day to day business of the farm. It is in the untamed and enchanting surroundings of the hills, valleys and waterside that they find some brief respite from the pain of normal life.

Further disturbance to Sól’s reading of the day-to-day is brought with the appearance of her cousin   Ásta (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir). Pregnant and harbouring secrets, she becomes a muse for Sól’s more poetic and dramatic thoughts. The girl empathises with the young woman’s dilemma of whether to give birth to a fatherless child, even as she struggles to comprehend the full implications of it.

All across the film, Sól is given a crash course in just how tough adult life can be. Blood spills onto the flowers and in the farmland, where life is merely surviving and things either have a usefulness and purpose or they don’t.

The film blends the internal thoughts of Sól with dramatic shots of the impressive vistas of Iceland’s rural beauty to great effect. Even when the tone of the story threatens to get too bleak, there is always the idea of the unconstrained natural world coming to the rescue. The darkest of human thoughts and activities can pale and lose their power in the face of the power of nature. A sobering thought, brought to bear by this unusual and memorably reflective drama.

 
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Bam Bam

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

Jemma van Loenen’s documentary introduces audiences to Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir, a young boxer from Canberra, on her quest to win a World Boxing Championship.

Elmir is a determined fighter who will let nothing get in her way. A Lebanese Muslim, who has won multiple Australian and International Championships, Elmir faces many obstacles – getting her family’s approval, the views of her community, opponents in the ring, among others. Elmir at one point is barred from fighting, due to a drugs ban.

Despite her unorthodox nature, and the odds stacked against her, the boxer revels in victory.

Winning supersedes everything. This is what she does it for. To stand victorious.

Elmir’s an individual who thrives on smashing expectations: she takes part in a Muslim Mardi Gras Event; her coach tells her not to go out and drink, she goes out until 4am; she enters a match a significant underdog, and wins handily.

She has no issues reflecting on, and savouring the gory blood of her opponent, and subverting her family’s expectations.

She relishes the fear in her opponent’s eyes, that moment before they receive the knockout punch.

But despite all her victories and tenacity, at the end of the day, Elmir doesn’t quite know how to deal with herself when she’s not fighting. This is what the documentary is about – identity and the subject’s life away from sport. Her biggest fight is within herself.

Elmir’s coach talks about the qualities of the boxer, how she gives back to the community. Unfortunately, at times this feels like a lecture.

Cinematographers William Sheridan and Stephen Ramplin provide intimate footage of the athlete’s struggle, capturing this flight.

Director Jemma van Loenen ultimately serves up an absorbing story of an athlete dedicated to their sport, a portrait of an individual fighting for, and fighting against herself.

 
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Stooge (Revelation Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week 2 Comments

You might love Iggy Pop, but not as much as British fan Rob Pargiter, who has been the Wild One’s principal devotee since first seeing Iggy and his band, The Stooges, back in 1979. Pargiter doesn’t have a lot going for him – he’s long term unemployed, eccentric, and somewhat aimless, bar one burning drive: meet Iggy. Madeleine Farley’s documentary, Stooge, tracks Pargiter’s quest over the course of the three years leading up to his 50th birthday as the fan of all fans, having sold his house to underwrite his campaign, follows the Stooges on tour around the world in an attempt to meet his idol.

What price fandom? That’s the key question here, and one asked by the film overall and Pargiter’s best mate, the droll and philosophical Peter, specifically – he has, after all, seen Rob spend his entire life and meager fortune in pursuit of The Stooges. Yet Pargiter’s love of the band gives him such joy and such drive that it’s hard to fault it – especially when he confesses that Iggy’s music helped pull him out of a very dark place. His love of The Stooges is his raison d’etre.

The question remains: what would Rob do if he ever met Iggy? Perhaps ask him to play ping pong, as our hero once idly muses? The film gets really interesting when Rob has a few near misses with Pop, backing away from opportunities to interact with his idol lest he cross over into stalker territory. Then we learn that Rob has been on stage with the Stooges at various shows around the world, and drummer Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve MacKay note that they remember him dancing at shows – it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Iggy remembers him too. So why the reticence? Is it that, once his lifelong goal is achieved he might actually have, as he ruefully observes at one point, “…straighten up and fly right”?

Well, that would be telling. Does it give too much away to say that Stooge is ultimately a celebration of fandom rather than a condemnation of obsession? You might not love The Stooges (but you should), but you can love Rob for loving the Stooges – he’s an amiable, softly self-deprecating guy, and it’s easy to get in his corner and root for him to follow his dreams, even if his dreams might not make sense to the outside observer. At the end of the day, Stooge champions empathy and exults in small victories, and that’s rather wonderful.

If nothing else, you’ll be humming Iggy tunes for days after.

 
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More Human Than Human (Revelation Film Festival)

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The robots are coming! The pontificators are here! Taking its title from a line of dialogue in Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner, More Human Than Human tries to encapsulate both a whole swathe of theories and developments in the twin fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, and a whole matrix of anxieties regarding those theories and developments. Are we creating our own successors, either in the workplace or on the food chain? Is AI inevitable? What will it be like when it gets here? Will it like us? Can we make it like us?

It’s more or less successful, in a scattershot way, but lacks a strong central thesis. Rather, filmmakers Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting have created a kind high tech overview of the current state of droid affairs – and one that will date quickly, as these kinds of records always do.

The most engaging elements are the little human stories, wherein people have made use of currently emerging AI tech to service their own emotional needs. One harried mother to an autistic child hails Siri as a perfect and tireless babysitter, an endless well of answers for her kid’s unending questions. Elsewhere a bereaved woman has fed her her deceased partner’s texts into a chatbot to create a kind of virtual echo of the dead man. While the ongoing speculations about super-intelligent AI are interesting, they’re rather abstract – these anecdotes demonstrate the very ral and understandable ways in which humans and intuitive IT can and will continue to interact.

We also get a cultural overview of attitudes to androids mediated via cinema, from 2001 to The Terminator, 1984 to Star Wars, and the usual collection of talking heads (Chess wiz Gary Kasparov’s philosophical approach to his defeat at the hands of supercomputer Deep Blue back in the day is wry). For viewers who are already into this kind of bleeding edge speculative tech, More Human Than Human holds nothing too new or surprising. However, if you’re looking for a broad but thinly spread sampling of the (now not quite) current state of play, it does the job nicely.

 
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A Horrible Woman (Scandinavian Film Festival)

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The dark Danish comedy A Horrible Woman would certainly make for an uncomfortable date movie. It provides nervous chuckles and tense laughter, but falters when attempting to go further psychologically into its subject area of modern society’s gender roles. However, it’s not a docudrama and the tone of the film is immediately apparent from the credits, which display a graphic of the Venus symbol that grows devilish horns.

A bit childish, a bit funny and a bit silly, Christian Tafdrup’s second feature is sure to raise a few eyebrows in any case.

Rasmus (Anders Juul) is an affable enough young guy, with his social life firmly focused on playing football, hooking up with ladies and lots of drinking. So far, so blokey. He is also quite the innocent, with a distinct lack of self-confidence that becomes gradually more apparent as the story transpires. One night after beers with the lads – and a disarming group display of wanton drunken destruction in his flat – he meets friend of a friend Marie (Amanda Collin). They instantly hit it off, physically at least, and the sexual sparks fly, quickly leading to a new relationship status for the pair.

After a brief period of courting, the audience is then treated to long takes of claustrophobic scenes in the apartment, with passive aggressive point scoring – Marie winning and Rasmus conceding – between the two. It is telling that – and again not exactly subtle – that the camera lingers on long takes of the pair in close proximity to Rasmus’s cherished film posters of Attack of the 50ft Woman and The Dude from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski.

We are led to surmise that Rasmus’s freedom of young manhood is being stripped away by this cruel and callous female who sets about remodeling his flat and his life.

The poorly chosen title of the film itself lends the audience to immediately sympathise with Rasmus as the injured party in this love set-up. But a strong case is also made for Rasmus being an immature man-child, who is in need of a serious change and reassessment of his commitments. When he does change, physically at least – including growing a beard and an ill-advised top knot hairstyle – the disagreements become ever more vociferous.

Amanda Collin brings a well-measured performance as the controlling and pretentious Marie, a graduate of art history and traveller keen to keep her connections to London’s artistic community. The film includes one too many winks to the camera from Marie to be all that effective as a thriller, taking us out of the drama and making all the enmity risible, but as a grimly humorous fable looking at the interplay of heterosexual relationships it works up to a point.

Ultimately, neither of the lead characters are particularly sympathetic, but with a healthy message of communication and actually getting to know your partner before moving in with them, it is at least useful as relationship advice.

 
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Strange Colours (Sydney Film Festival)

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Alena Lodkina’s first feature, Strange Colours offers viewers a visually dazzling display of understated, enjoyable performances, and heady vistas. The unconventional film tracks the journey of soft spoken Milena (newcomer Kate Cheel), who travels to Lightning Ridge – a remote opal mining facility, to stay with her sick father (Daniel P Jones, Hail), who she’s been estranged from.

There, she meets a series of remarkable individuals who populate the mining town, goes to the local pub, has a fling, and tries to decide what to do with her life.

What is interesting about the film is the paucity of big moments, or stereotypical portrayals of outback life. There are very few melodramatic scenes. Instead, Lodkina is interested in the performances, the quiet moments between the characters.

Cinematographer Michael Latham (Casting JonBenet) and Lodkina use shots of barren landscapes, realistic portrayals of locals, simple gestures and actual locations, to give the film a documentary quality. There are no major plots. Instead, it is the ambience of Strange Colours that matters – the burning rays of the sun, the feeling that everyone knows everyone.

Kate Cheel’s performance in particular is impressively restrained. At times a quiet introvert, her character Milena is mostly silent – then suddenly erupts while dealing with her father.

Premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, Strange Colours is a considered contemplation of life in the Australian sticks in all of its earthy glory; a portrait which highlights the hidden side of small town life.

 
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Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (Sydney Film Festival)

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The 1959 murders of the Clutter farming family in rural Kansas is one of the most famous crimes in 20th century American history, bested only by celebrity-studded atrocities such as the Manson Family murders and the killing of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In point of fact, the spotlight of celebrity has a lot to do with that. News reports of the crime, which saw Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon killed in their home by drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in an attempted robbery, attracted the attention of celebrated writer Truman Capote, who in 1966 would publish the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, his account of the murders, investigation, trial, and eventual execution of the killers.

Capote’s novel was filmed twice (a feature in ’67, a TV miniseries in ’96) and the effete wordsmith’s own involvement spawned two recent movies: 2005’s Capote, which netted Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar, and 2006’s Infamous. Culturally speaking, this is well-turned earth. Still, true crime veteran Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) has seen fit to run the plough over it once more to see what gets uncovered.

The answer is not much that we haven’t seen before. Over the course of four episodes, Berlinger frames the Clutter case in the language of modern true crime filmmaking, assembling a montage narrative out of contemporary accounts and interviews with surviving witnesses and the relatives of the deceased. The recent uptick in this kind of series, which is all but ubiquitous on Netflix these days, means that the formal innovations Berlinger pioneered are very familiar to audiences now. The result is that Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is well made and engrossing, but doesn’t explore much in the way of new territory, either in content or execution.

It is very comprehensive, though, covering the murders, the personal histories of victims and perpetrators, the span from crime to punishment, and going beyond into the continuing effect on both those directly scarred by the events and those, like Capote, who chose to involve themselves in them. Still, if you know your way around the case and the cultural artifacts it spawned, this is pretty familiar stuff.