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Dead Snow
Dead Snow

AS ALWAYS, THIS YEARS’ REVELATION PERTH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL HELPS REDEFINE THE CUTTING EDGE WITH A MIX OF BOLD, INFORMATIVE AND EXOTIC FARE. IN A PROGRAM PACKED WITH CHALLENGES AND SURPRISES, IT’S HARD TO SINGLE OUT A FEW FOR ATTENTION. NONETHELESS, IN A MEDIA-SATURATED WORLD, TODAY’S FESTIVAL-GOER CAN OFTEN USE ALL THE ADVICE THEY CAN GET, SO HERE ARE MY PICKS FROM A VERY TEMPTING PROGRAM.

Programmer Jack Sargeant’s expertise in underground culture and his affinity for outsiders and freaks is evident in the programming of NYC Foetus, the 2005 documentary about little-known post-punk legend JG Thirwell. Thirwell is way more interesting than some perhaps overexposed figures, though with the success of the fabulously neurotic Adult Swim cartoon Venture Bros, for which he’s been providing soundtracks, Thirwell is acquiring a new generation of hip young fans. Often regarded as the stereotypical ‘difficult’ artist, in NYC Foetus, Thirwell’s personality doesn’t grate at all; he comes across as thoughtful, complex and, prodigiously—almost scarily—talented. Director Clement Tuffreau has woven together reflective interview material with some of the New York underground’s key figures, shedding light not just on the artist but on the immensely creative post-punk/no-wave period as a whole. Music fans already familiar with this narrative will revel in the film’s loving incorporation of never before seen archival footage of Thirwell’s various incarnations as Foetus, Steroid Maximus and Manorexia as well as the liberal doses of his distinctive sound.

A very different music documentary unfolds over Soul Power’s 93 minutes. Crafted from the ‘outtakes’ of the 1973 documentary When We Were Kings which documented the infamous prize fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Soul Power charts the staging of the legendary black soul music festival in Kinshasa known as Zaire ‘74. This doco shows how that event achieved almost mythological status as the defining moment of 20th century African-American music: that amazing mid-70s Black Power moment of ‘the brotherman in the motherland’ is captured in all its glory here. The way the film’s extensive verité footage (apparently edited down from a mammoth 125 hours) cuts between the magic on stage and the chaos backstage reminded me of Gimme Shelter—unsurprising when you realise that one of the key cinematographers was the celebrated Albert Maysles. You don’t have to be a fan of soul—James Brown’s funkadelic finery and pure 1970s porno moustache is worth the price of entry alone.

Two other contemporary documentaries stand out: We Are Wizards and Saint Death. We Are Wizards follows the craze known as Pottermania—but if you think this is a standard fan-boy type of account, think again, because the film’s real story has less to do with the bespectacled boy-wizard Harry Potter than with the enormous corporate might marshalled against the actions of young acolytes. Big corporations disgracing themselves with wrong-headed and heavy-handed reprisals against the people who make their merchandise relevant is nothing new, but stories of young fans standing up to corporate lawyers still are. Personally, I find good documentaries on fan culture dangerously seductive—someone else’s obsession, told well, can be contagious–and though this didn’t quite convert me to the cult of Harry Potter it did endear me to his gutsy little fans. Those interested in contemporary cultural and legal machinations of intellectual property and copyfighting need to see this film.

 Santa Muerte Santa Muerte
Another cult with a growing legion of fans is the Mexican cult known as Saint Death, represented as a skeleton in a wedding dress. Revelation is screening the utterly fascinating 2007 Mexican documentary Santa Muerte, narrated by Gael Garcia Bernal (of Motorcycle Diaries fame), which explores how this surprisingly recent phenomenon has arisen, and how its devotees continue to multiply. Despite the condemnation of the Catholic Church, which won’t recognise the ‘death saint’, increasing numbers of Mexicans, it seems, are making offerings for love and luck at the flourishing portable shrines and ad hoc altars springing up in her honour around the country. With Mexico often in the news for the wrong reasons, this documentary by the indefatigable activist filmmaker Eva S Aridjis proves incredibly illuminating as to how the oddly charismatic figure of Santa Muerte fulfils a particular need in the Mexican people.

The merging of traditional and contemporary beliefs characterises the 2007 animation, Sita Sings the Blues. Remarkable Indian-Canadian artist Nina Paley wrote, directed and almost entirely animated this dazzling feature-length extravaganza. Brisbane International Film Festival audiences last year adored this film’s slightly manic form, which interweaves events from the Hindu legend of the Ramayana, a conversation between Indian shadow puppets, musical interludes with sultry blues numbers by Annette Hanshaw and raw, emotional scenes from the artist’s own life. The bizarre parallels the film draws out between the ancient mythological tale and the contemporary biographical story create a free-wheeling atmosphere reinforced by the virtuosic display of different 2D animation styles.

Two recent Nordic releases programmed at Revelation show the breadth of contemporary cinema in Scandinavia. The quirky 2009 indie film Original, about a hapless rube named Henry, is notable for its innovative use of the ready-made sets at a well-known budget furniture chain, and the stunning rockabilly turn of Tuva Novotny playing Henry’s eye-gougingly decorative love interest. No less visually engaging, but coming from a distinctly different generic place is the Norwegian feature Død Snø (Dead Snow), whose noteworthy cinematography is the work of Bond University graduate Matthew Weston. When we see a group of medical students embark on a skiing holiday at a remote shack in the woods, we know immediately that we’re in for a ‘vacation gone wrong’ flick—but the film’s twist can be summed up in four words: vengeance-seeking Nazi zombies. Død Snø is a film that knows its audience and gives them what they want: humour, titillation and bravery from sexy leads, and lovingly detailed flesh-eating from the undead.

Where Død Snø provides a frosty glimpse of Norwegian (and Finnish) alpine wonderlands, another Revelation film offers cinema-goers a trip to the jungle. The remote Amazonian setting of A Festa da Menina Morta (The Dead Girl’s Feast) is rare even in international film festivals. This often brutal Brazilian feature, about a young mystic channelling the spirit of a dead girl, has divided critics, some of whom have criticised its inclusion of ‘indie Latin’ hallmarks, such as animal bloodletting. Considering this is well contextualised as within the santeria tradition which powers the film, the animal cruelty scenes seemed less disturbing than some of its other confronting fare. While it won’t work for those with delicate sensibilities, there is much to like in this non-family-friendly film beside the eye-opening Amazon imagery and soundtrack, including the film’s unconventional approach to cinematography, which slips between shaky, observational documentary style in the wide shots to beautifully composed close shots.

The Brazilian rainforest may be the only gorgeous, exotic location which does not feature in The Fall. Made largely with director Tarsam Singh’s own funds in 2006 and released last year, The Fall is an adventure-fantasy which unfolds around the story told by an injured stuntman to a little girl he befriends in hospital. While others will swoon over the glorious costuming and dynamically choreographed action (as you’d expect from a director better known for video clips), it’s impossible not to fall for the headspinning range of locations—the Czech Republic, Sumatra, Fiji, Bali, The Dead Vlei claypan in Namibia, as well as some of the most extraordinary Indian locations—the labyrinth Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, the Andaman Islands, Pangong Lake in Ladakh, the ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur in Rajastan. The lush weirdness of this film typifies Revelation’s reputation for imaginative and risky programming, as well as the willingness of Perth audiences to embrace this film festival.


Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Perth, July 2-12, www.revelationfilmfest.org

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 25

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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