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

The Middle East’s first all-female thrash metal band star in Rita Baghdadi’s documentary Sirens. Lead guitarist Lilas Mayassi states at one point in the film how “any time a woman wants to be anything other than what society wants, its always an issue”, setting the scene for how thrash metal is perceived in the Middle East, especially when it is crafted by a group of young, bold, non-conformist women.

Based in Beirut, Lebanon, the 5-piece Slave to Sirens is Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, lead guitarists and co-founders of the band, vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani and Tatyana Boughab on drums. The film draws its focus on Lilas and Sherry, focusing on the pair’s layered dynamic, creating music which strays from the societal norm, while Beirut’s social and political unrest plays into everyday life. Touching on themes of friendship, sexuality, purpose, freedom of expression and a love for music and art, Sirens brings a fresh perspective to the current state of self-expression in non-western nations.

Sirens offers a character-rich story while also creating a depiction of Arab women that is far from stereotyped, showcasing the multifaceted people that they are. Documentary filmmaker Rita Baghdadi, who operated both as director and cinematographer, has discussed that her vision of the film was to have Arab women star and not be reduced to subplot. Where they could be empowered young women and the narrative wasn’t just focusing on the hardships occurring in the Middle East. Even with this theme in mind, Beirut bubbles with turmoil throughout the 78-minute documentary.

Absolute powerhouses while performing on stage, Sirens also shares intimate moments of the girls interacting with one another, humming in tune, laughing, drinking and jamming. In one particular moment, the girls reveal online commentary that surrounds their thrash music, calling them sluts and whores and their music blasphemous. While Lebanon is still largely traditional, regions are becoming more progressive, however, metal is still looked upon as Satanic.

The documentary quickly establishes that Lilas and Sherry once had a romantic relationship which blossomed in secret. Although the two are not together during the course of the film, the tension between them is evident. While society’s general consensus to being queer in Lebanon is not explicitly stated, one of the opening shots of the film displays homophobic messages scribed on street walls.

At what feels like the climax of the film, the band reaches boiling point. Lilas and Sherry’s past romantic relationship seems to drive a wedge between the band. Alongside this, the documentary features the horrific explosion that occurred in Beirut in 2020 in one long gut-wrenching shot – tying together the band’s internal struggle with the external world of Lebanon. Lilas follows by commenting how “home doesn’t feel safe; friendship doesn’t feel safe; love doesn’t feel safe.”

Genuinely engaging with dialogue that feels delicately constructed, cinematic shots of Beirut that showcase its beauty as well as its hardship, complete with rich and complex characters, Sirens could almost be mistaken for an indie A24 coming of age film. With that being said, it only seems to skim the surface regarding the stories of these women. With most of the screen time devoted to either Sherry or Lilas, the remaining 3 members of the band receive little to no exploration. It would have been interesting to gain a deeper understanding of the metal scene in Lebanon and discover how the band was initially formed. However, Rita Baghdadi has shaped her footage into something memorable, bringing food for thought to freedom of creative expression that can often be taken for granted.

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Where is Anne Frank?

animation, family film, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, Where is Anne Frank? is a poignant, lovingly detailed animated film following the adventures of Kitty, the human manifestation of the imaginary friend of Anne Frank, world famous teenage diarist and victim of the Holocaust.

As a lonely girl hiding alongside her family in a crowded annex to avoid Nazi persecution, Anne invented Kitty as an outlet for her secrets and fears. Each entry in her famous diary was addressed to Kitty as if Anne were writing to a beloved friend. As the film opens, “one year from now” in the Frank House in Amsterdam, Kitty awakens from the printed page to find herself surrounded by tourists and museum guards, with Anne nowhere to be found. What follows is a fanciful tale of magical realism as Kitty embarks on a dreamlike journey to uncover the truth of what became of Anne after the last diary entry was penned.

The story unfolds in a classic, hand-drawn style of animation that has its own sort of charm. Aimed at an exclusively younger demographic, Folman’s screenplay does its level best to introduce audiences to this undeniably dark period of history without overwhelming them with the grief and horrors. Kitty is seeing the world with fresh eyes and struggling to make sense of it, relying on the connection she forges with Peter, a pickpocket who falls speedily and perplexingly in love with her. Amongst all this, the film also draws pointed parallels between Anne’s experiences beneath the Nazi regime and the current plight of asylum seekers in Europe, a family of whom Kitty befriends along the way.

Softening the tragedy of Anne’s fate by reframing the tale as a love story between a boy and the anthropomorphised personification of Anne’s private diary is certainly a fresh take on the subject. By contextualising the grim reality of the situation within Kitty’s own experiences of love and her sorrow over the loss of her best friend, Folman takes us on a fanciful flight of the imagination that, while soaring to impressive heights, never quite manages to stick the landing.

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Make Me Famous: The Art of Documentary

Director Brian Vincent and producer Heather Spore explain the making of their debut feature, a documentary about artist Edward Brazinski, who was a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton in New York's Lower East Side, but unlike them and various others, he never quite cracked the big time, or did he?
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The Humans

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

Writer/director Stephen Karam adapts his 2016 Tony Award winning one-act play The Humans into an intimate, at times universal, cinematic drama about the comfort and discomfort found in family gatherings.

Set in a dilapidated Manhattan pre-war duplex, the film weaves in themes of loss, religion, uncertainty about the future, familial divergence, and secrets kept that assuage conflict and personal reckonings. Although these themes are relatively common, what sets Karam’s film apart is how he allows the drama to unfold and the unsettling setting in which it does.

Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and her live-in boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun) have invited the Blake family to Thanksgiving in their barely furnished Chinatown apartment. Travelling from Scranton, Pennsylvania for the festivities are patriarch Erik (Richard Jenkins), matriarch Deirdre (Jane Houdyshell, reprising her role from the Broadway production), and Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb) who is in the grips of advanced Alzheimer’s. Joining the family is Aimee (Amy Schumer), the eldest daughter of Erik and Deirdre, who now lives in Philadelphia.

The Blake family appears to be functionally broken in many aspects, yet they also display love and loyalty to each other. Brigid, a graduate composer, is eking out a living bartending. Aimee has recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend and is about to be fired from her job as a lawyer due to time she has had to take off due to a chronic health condition. Deidre works as an office manager, but after over thirty-years in the company is being overtaken by younger and more educated co-workers. Erik’s job is janitorial at a prestigious religious school in Scranton – one he continued with so his daughters could get a subsidised private education. Richard is an eternal graduate student studying to be a social worker.

Karam’s dialogue teases out the frustration that the Boomer generation feels for their more educated offspring. Erik casually castigates Brigid for not going to a State college and instead opting for a more expensive course. The generational gap in the family is made more palpable as both daughters have rejected the religion that Erik and Deirdre tried to instil in them. Deirdre is extremely active in her church and community and although she doesn’t outright say it, she disapproves of both her daughters’ personal lives. She sends Aimee stories about lesbians committing suicide and not so subtly pressures Brigid to marry.

As the Blake family tussle with each other in small and sometimes cruel ways, the apartment acts as a (un)sympathetic background to the emotional state of those within it. The apartment is an uncanny space where ruin seeps through the walls. Explicable and inexplicable noises act as jump scares that increase in frequency as the family begins to peel back their own facades.

Production designer David Gropman has created a space that begets psychological horror. The apartment itself seems illogical in its floor plan. Many aspects of it are abject and provoke disgust, especially from Erik. Moreover, the wiring is faulty and as the evening progresses lightbulbs routinely go out, leaving the family in what seems a haunted space. In effect, the apartment acts almost as a character of its own, metaphorically hostile, yet for Brigid and Richard, a place they accept as their home.

Adapted plays that exist in a single location can often lack cinematic flair. In the case of The Humans, the frankly brilliant work by cinematographer Lol Crawley proves the opposite. The camera is often positioned to give an off-kilter flavour to the proceedings by setting shots through multiple rooms and doorways. Where it is necessary, the camera also captures micro-expressions on the characters’ faces. The push and pull of the cinematography adds immeasurably to the tension in the film.

The performances by the ensemble are in short, excellent. The naturalism of their work gives authenticity to the story. Amy Schumer as Aimee does career-best dramatic work. Richard Jenkins, the most seasoned dramatic actor in the cast, is utterly believable as the increasingly fragmented Erik – a man who is used to being the moral backbone of a community and family who has failed to fulfill his own expectations of self.

If there is a standout performance in the film, it belongs to Jayne Houdyshell who embodies her character’s complex fragility. Deirdre is perhaps the most derided character in the film but is given the least opportunity to verbally express the hurt she feels. Shamed for her overweight body and her busybody nature, Deirdre enacts gestures to convey her emotional state. Houdyshell gives a master class in acting from top to toe.

The Humans is very much a human story that is resonant because it is so real. The Blakes are unique but also representative of shifts in contemporary culture. One of the plot points revolves around Erik narrowly escaping death on 9/11 and for a while losing Aimee in the tumult after the Twin Towers came down. Erik’s nightmares are infused by trauma. Although Karam is not deliberately trying to capture an essential American zeitgeist with his story of one family, it can be argued that he certainly taps into it. What we fear most in the world isn’t necessarily outside us, it exists within us. When our external methods of validation fail, what do we hold on to? Karam’s drama is thought provoking and quite chilling, and as we move to the final act it is difficult not to feel a sense of profound unease. The Humans is a drama that has the power to live on in the mind of the audience as they ponder their own relationships to those they love, and more importantly, to their own selves.

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Jack Sargeant Reveals

The programmer of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival tells us about his approach to putting together one of this country’s best film culture events.
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Australian, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

This understated documentary achieves a lot in its short running time. Gorgeously filmed and focused on a pilgrimage by a community of First Australians, it turns out to be a spiritual journey for the viewer as well.

“Having created the world, the Wandjinas retired to the caves within the landscape,” explains Donny (Yorna) Woolagoodja, a Worrorra man. In those caves in the remote Kimberly coastal region of Western Australia are depictions of Namarali – the “big boss” Wandjina, or rainmaker spirit, who is a prime creative force.

Donny – a grey-haired artist with a somewhat boyish face – is the documentary’s narrator and the leader of the spiritual journey. He tells of the Worrorra being moved off their land (near Fresh Water Cove), south to the town of Derby – it’s another country, far from the Namarali caves.

His task is to travel with his community from Derby to the caves, and repaint and refresh the Namarali rock art. He does it to carry on a tradition, to replenish his culture, to keep the spirit of Namarali alive – and to pass on the knowledge to young Worrorra people. Bringing Namarali into the wider world is also part of Donny’s mission.

Donny’s father, Sam, led a filmmaking expedition to the caves in 1972. In 2002 – when this documentary was filmed – Donny returned, continuing his father’s work. The 1972 footage provides some of the archival images in this film that is 21 years in the making.

The depictions of Namarali are incredible – non-Indigenous Australians will recognise him, the illustration of a face with no mouth, a mystical kind of halo wrapped around his head. He was at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, a huge figure that rose to the sky – designed by Donny.

Between the haunting soundtrack, the rich colours of the landscape, the earthy colours of the Indigenous art, and watching Donny meditatively repaint Namarali, the film is like a therapy session. Donny’s serene presence and devotion to task are inspiring.

Director Tim Mummery – who co-produced this with Donny – appears to have had delays and other projects that protracted the making of this film. But with the Indigenous Voice to Parliament soon to become a national talking point, perhaps the delay was fortuitous. This could be the perfect time to experience Namarali.

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Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Remember the good old days when conspiracy theories were the prerogative of survivalist cults and basement dwellers that offered the general populace a slightly comedic sense of superiority? You know, before they became sanctioned political platforms and social movements causing real-world damage and social anarchy.

For most of us, conspiracy theories found popularity with rumours of a faked moon landing, speculation surrounding a second gunman, a grassy knoll and JFK’s very public, very final televised appearance, and the always entertaining Flat Earthers who continue to circulate their defective science around the globe.

However, it’s one of the quieter conspiracies associated with Nixon’s Watergate scandal that drives the narrative of 18½, a socio-political comedy from director Dan Mirvish [Between Us, Slamdance co-founder] that manages to walk a tightrope between fact, fiction, and outright satire.

For those needing a refresher of the Watergate scandal, then-President Nixon faced a political crisis after being connected with a break-in that targeted his political opponents, and then conspired to cover-up the incident and sparking a constitutional crisis. Where our friendly neighbourhood conspiracy theorists enter the picture is when 18½ minutes of recording is somehow mysteriously erased from the associated tapes. Supposedly, no one really knows what was contained in those 18½ minutes, who deleted them or what impact it could have had on Nixon’s subsequent pardon as he stepped down from the office of President.

It’s a great premise for a taut politic thriller and with the missing audio still debated by political commentors and academics, ripe for intrigue and speculation.

Mirvish thankfully abandons any Oliver Stone tropes in favour of a quirky, 1970s showcase of America stepping out of the indulgence of its free-love Hippy exploits into a more structured, social maturity as it faces escalating political and corporate threats exploiting its democracy. And while it sounds like heavy subject matter, 18½ is a fun, quirky and borderline satirical take on American culture.

The film is headlined by the versatile Willa Fitzgerald (Reacher, The Goldfinch) as a stenographer who happens on an unexpected recording of a playback of the original recording that contains the missing 18½ minutes, and John Magaro (The Many Saints of Newark, Orange is the New Black) as a young journalist looking to make a name for himself, albeit simply to burn his ex-fiancé who happens to work for a rival newspaper. The result is a feisty odd-couple comedy with the two leads posing as newlyweds in a small town resort with hopes of verifying the recording before exposing it through the media.

While the film does play into stereotypes and clichés on the regular, its ability to pick away at the social calamity and cultural idiosyncrasies of the era – thanks to some wonderfully diverse performances from a superb support ensemble that includes Richard Kind as a hapless receptionist, Sullivan Jones (The Gilded Age) as a militant hippy, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things) as a rather uncomfortably amorous couple, and the great Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead) as the voice of Nixon on the infamous tapes – allow 18½ to succeed unapologetically.

18½ may sound like it promises a lot in terms of revelation and intrigue; it doesn’t. But once you get past that expectation and allow the film’s charm and cast to take centre stage, what you’re left with is an entertaining, comedic and chaotic romp through mid-1970s nostalgia with contemporary, meta sensibilities.

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

Voyeuristic erotic melodrama? Taboo arthouse mystery? Perverse religious dramedy? Yes. Canadian iconoclast Bruce LaBruce’s latest opus is all these things and more. Remaining true to his roots as a Queercore artist exploring primal taboos and sexually explicit storytelling, LaBruce cleverly propells the Greek myth of self-obsessed youth Narcissus to extreme dramatic lengths. Saint-Narcisse is a loving homage to seventies filmmaking and an amusing mystery with flickers of dark humour.

Montréal, 1972. Classically handsome, 22-year-old Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval) is fascinated with his own image. He contemplates his form in front of the bathroom mirror, gazes at his own reflection in his motorbike’s side mirror and frequently takes selfies with his flash polaroid camera.

In an early scene, an aggressive street walker tries to pick him up. When Dominic rejects her, she enigmatically warns, “Don’t try to know yourself too much.” Meanwhile, he is haunted by glimpses of a tall, hooded man. But is he a figment of his imagination?

After his loving grandmother dies, Dominic uncovers a buried secret. Pleading letters from his mother Beatrice (Tania Kontoyanni) reveal she didn’t die giving birth to him after all. Immediately, Dominic embarks on quest to locate her and explore his family origins. He motors to a rural part of Québec, to the tiny village of Sainte-Narcisse (population less than 1,000) and inspects its graveyard by night. He is startled to see a child’s headstone that bears his own name. He learns that locals regard Beatrice Beauchamp as a witch who resides with a “woman who never gets old.” Dominic is drawn to a gaggle of monks. The head priest seems startled by Dominic’s appearance, and warns him against engaging with the monks while they are sequestered.

Curious, Dominic trespasses on Beatrice Beauchamp’s property and on the monastery grounds. Clues are everywhere for this inquisitive and impudent fellow.

Reunited with his mother, who believes the letters he furnishes are proof, she stubbornly states “I think I would know my own son.” Beatrice has a Gypsy-like beauty and claims she summoned him. Irene – her young companion – resents the intrusion. “He only takes pictures of himself. I mean, who does that?” sneers Irene (Alexandra Petrachuk). It’s a hilarious jab at today’s rampant navel-gazing.

Dominic also discovers that he has a twin brother Daniel (also played gorgeously by Duval). A foundling, Daniel was raised in a monastery run by a depraved priest Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis), who is unnaturally obsessed with both Saint Sebastian and the sweet-faced Daniel.

There’s some spiky dialogue to entertain us while the increasingly improbable story points intrigue us. Numerous orgasmic erotic scenes earn bonus points for tasteful representation of diverse encounters.

The film’s photography is exquisite, having been shot by legendary Québecois cinematographer Michel LaVeaux, a luminary of the Québec film scene since the seventies. Although digital, it has the style and atmosphere of a Québec 35mm movie from that era. The haunting original score by Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux adds frisson with its unsettling blend of dreamy romantic themes and contemporary refrains. An animated sequence comprised of sketches is stark and beautiful.

Mysterious and erotic – Bruce LaBruce’s twincestuous tale of doppelgängers is a bizarre odyssey into sexual depravity, revenge, and redemption.