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Higher Love

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The title of this raw, fly on the wall doco from inner city America is from Steve Winwood’s much-covered song of the same name. In that song’s first verse, there is the following proposition” “There must be a higher love (..) without it life would be wasted time”. Not especially original sentiments, but not just a cliché either. The protagonists in this film are definitely getting wasted, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t glimpse the sheer uselessness of their current habits. In fact, it is when this truth flashes momentarily and brightly that we get the greatest pangs of sympathy.

It is set in a district called Camden. It is in New Jersey, but one could also suppose that it could be set in any number of poor, mostly black, run-down neighbourhoods in dozens of cities in the US.

We are flung more or less in the middle of it, with young woman Nani preparing a fix and then shooting up and drifting off. She has a partner, Daryl who was raised by a single (junkie) mother and who now has eight children of his own. He loves Nani. When she gets pregnant and, despites herself, can’t stop using, he begs her to break away and come with him to a better place.

The idea of generational disadvantage is openly discussed here, along with the ineluctability that guarantees the circularity and entrapment. The always-relevant, but recently near-universal Black Lives Matter movement cannot help but be in the viewer’s mind. Given that they alternate between heroin, crack and fentanyl, the scandalous epidemic of prescription opiates is also very much part of the picture.

Watching people get high on camera is not exactly edifying, and whatever negative glamour there is in drug taking for the crowd doing it, it is massively outweighed by the obvious sadness of the spectacle when you take in its full biographical meaning. More or less everyone in their immediate circle is either using or trying to stop. Everyone seems powerless or defeated in a way. As indicated, they all know it is a shit way of life but, unsurprisingly, they are sort of past caring. That is, after all, what the drugs are for; to dull the pain.

Director Hasan Oswald does take us up close and personal and that is part of the ‘appeal’ of the film. Its unedited rawness doubles for authenticity. He also refuses to editorialise or wag his finger. They know they are trapped, and it would be patronising to suggest otherwise.

Also, the film doesn’t go for easy answers, just as these are not available in real life. That said, despite small vistas of hope, we are stuck with the fact that this is quite a depressing watch.

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Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture

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

Filmmaker Fernando Solanas once said of his documentary film Memoria del saqueo that, “it aspires to prove that another world is possible.” Mark Street’s documentary film Can Art Stop a Bullet: William Kelly’s Big Picture, aspires to do the same. Or rather, it follows the work of a man – artist, William Kelly – who aspires to do the same.

In simple terms, it’s a documentary about Kelly. But it delves much deeper than that by exploring the relationship between art and activism; or, perhaps more to the point, between art and human consciousness; and subsequently, consciousness and the proclivity of our species to create war and commit acts of violence. It’s about creation versus destruction; it’s about the idea that art can deconstruct cognitive dissonance and transform ignorance and egoism, facilitating a deeper and more empathic view of the world around us.

The film focuses, in episodic increments, on the development of Kelly’s work, titled Peace or War/The Big Picture, which was displayed at the State Library of Victoria in 2016. Kelly’s interactions with people, places and ideas engender new artistic components of The Big Picture and we watch as this conglomerate work expands over time until its completion. Each new visual element of the work is brought to life by the use of a simple, elegant animation style.

Can Art Stop A Bullet was filmed on five continents and features appearances by painter John Keane, photographer Nick Ut, performance artist Rama Mani, philosopher A. C. Grayling, actor Martin Sheen, and many others.

While touching on esoteric and philosophical topics, the film remains clear and easy to understand. This is a film for everyone interested in the future of humanity; everyone who has asked themselves why war and conflict have been perpetually with us throughout recorded history. It’s an important, highly relevant documentary which is a worthy companion to Kelly’s The Big Picture and reminds us that there are people out there – many of them – who care passionately this subject.

Is it naïve to believe that art can potentially impact the actualisation of war and violence? William Kelly certainly doesn’t think so.

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The Rise of the Synths

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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

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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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What Goes Around

Australian, Home, Horror, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Taking its cue from the likes of I Know What you Did Last Summer and Heathers, What Goes Around manages to blend a teen drama and a checklist of slasher tropes into a bloody smoothie that goes down exceedingly well.

Erin (Catherine Morvell) is a socially awkward film student living with anxiety; the kind which makes you lock yourself in a club toilet and cry until there’s not a drop of water left in your body. While her BFF Rachel (Gabrielle Pearson) stands fast with her troubled friend, the other members of Erin’s social circle share varying degrees of impatience with her. Friends such as the political pillock Cameron (Charles Jazz Terrier) and the mouth on legs Marnie (Ace Whitman) seem like the very people you should stay away from, but seemingly wanting to appear ‘normal’, Erin hangs with them regularly.

Entering from stage left is Alex (Jesse Bouma), Erin’s class crush and very quickly her lover. Despite finding what appears to be a snuff film on his laptop, Erin lets herself get lost in Alex’s doe eyes. And that’s when the bodies start piling up. Someone is picking off Erin’s ‘friends’ and uploading their violent deaths online.

Like any good slasher, you’ll need to not question the fact that the police are rarely, if ever, seen investigating these public mutilations. Nor does Erin appear to have any kind of structured support despite clearly battling some kind of trauma. Writer/Director Sam Hamilton leaves them to fend for themselves before they’re vivisected in front of a go-pro camera during one of the film’s more tense moments.

In fact, at times, Erin doesn’t seem too fussed that her chums are being turned into chum.

Hamilton – making his strong feature-length debut – uses Erin’s apathy to their termination to throw the viewer off his scent. Sure, Alex acts a bit odd, but our hero also fantasises about slicing the face off the eternally cheerful Cara (Aly Zhang) while she’s at work. So, its anyone’s guess as to who is doing what. In fact, had What Goes Around been longer it would have been interesting to see the film play out this conceit a little bit more.

Acting like a swift, deep knife to the guts, What Goes Around is a nice throwback to the slashers of the ‘90s where kids rule and adults drool. While it can’t completely hide its rough edges, it does enough to be an entertaining 80 minutes that knows precisely what kind of film it is.

Available globally now via Prime Video, Genflix and Vimeo on Demand.

 

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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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Burden

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Told with the buttery, nay, insensitive, sensibilities of 2018’s Green Book, historical-drama Burden is a film about Black suffering designed for white self-gratification.

Based on the real-life story of small-town South Carolinian debt-collector Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), a reformed Ku Klux Klansman who accepts refuge in the house belonging to Black rights activist Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), the film takes to contrasting extreme ideologies to craft a rumination on class, masculinity, and racism in rural America.

Problematic storytelling elements – ‘white-man-learning’ and ‘magical-negro’ tropes – exist within Burden as misguided attempts to depict ‘history’. Andrew Heckler – who makes his writing and directorial debut – appears pushed by a desire to present progressivism, not as a form of righteousness, but as a response to despondency.

Even when Burden attempts to evoke distress by re-enacting the racial injustice of ‘90s America, the brunt of which still exists in present-day, the film becomes undercut by the perpetual use of lingering face shots of Klansmen to denote some inkling of remorse. The film sets its sights on offering a skerrick of hope that these figures have capacity to change, with Klansmen, even if for a moment, having the ability to comprehend the weight of their abuse. This, to the detriment of the film, inappropriately offers sympathy to problematic figures.

Supporting characters, including love-interest Judy (Andrea Riseborough), and head Klansman and proprietor of a newly acquired Klan museum (Tom Wilkinson) fall asunder to cardboard characterisation.

As Americans bravely protest against racial inequality, Burden’s optimism is well-intentioned, but becomes diffused by Heckler’s presentation of racism through the lens of a white character’s moral redemption.

The film, much like its title, becomes burdened by a history of filmmaking that whitewashes Black narrative.

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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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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.

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