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Burma VJ; image courtesy of Distributors, First Hand Films; www.firsthandfilms.com Burma VJ; image courtesy of Distributors, First Hand Films; www.firsthandfilms.com
ISSUES OF LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL REPRESENTATION IN AUSTRALIAN DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING HAVE BEEN BROUGHT INTO THE LIMELIGHT. STOLEN, SCREENED AT THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL, PROPOSED THAT THERE IS SLAVERY IN THE POLISARIO REFUGEE CAMPS IN THE WESTERN SAHARA. BUT TRUTH WAS A STUMBLING POINT FOR THIS DOCUMENTARY WHEN ABC TV’S 7:30 REPORT REVEALED MISTRANSLATIONS OF SCENES THAT APPARENTLY REVERSED THE MEANING OF THE CONVERSATIONS TAKING PLACE.

stolen

For Stolen’s second main outing, at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), the film was recut by the filmmakers with corrected subtitles. The filmmakers maintain these corrections have not changed the meaning of the scenes. The trouble is, how can anyone living in Australia really know who to believe here?

Other than Melbourne film writer David Tiley (Barista is his blog), the documentary community has been muted in its reaction. Privately though, there has been a bizarrely George Bush style ‘You’re either with us or against us’ view of film. To be with the film is to believe there is slavery in Polisario camps, to be against it is to side with Polisario wholeheartedly. Surely you can be for or against a film for a number of different reasons, some of which have nothing to do with its central argument? For instance, after watching the first version I think that there is complex cultural inequality in the camps, and that the filmmakers got carried away with the black and whiteness of slave and master (or this case mistress) as labels. They had ‘story creep’, and chased the story of slavery rather than focusing on how a society that has recently de-legalised slavery functions.

But what worries me is not whether or not you can call it ‘slavery’, but whether or not the filmmakers broke the bond between filmmaker and audience through mistranslation. In documentary, if you break that, what is left? Exotic pictures and a piece of fiction? No doubt the filmmakers suffered the constraints of a small budget, but the Stolen story is a lesson in how not to organise your translation pathway in post-production. The maker’s defence of their film can be read at www.unitednotionsfilm.com/Index.htm.

10 conditions of love

In Melbourne, 10 Conditions of Love stole the limelight at MIFF. Jeff Daniels’ film went from lacklustre ticket sales to the hottest film of the festival. Even the star festival guest, Quentin Tarantino, was being asked what he thought about the controversy.

10 Conditions of Love is a film about an exiled Uyghur businesswoman and her struggle for Uyghur rights in East Turkestan. The film’s rise from rags to riches was generated by the Chinese Consul’s attempt to shut down the screening and cancel the principal subject’s visit to Melbourne. According to the Chinese, Kadeer is a Muslim terrorist; according to the filmmakers she is a Uyghur rights activist. The battle over 10 Conditions of Love centred on this labelling of Kadeer. The Chinese pumped their own propaganda machine into action to discredit her and in doing so, brought the film and the issues explored in it a larger audience. Polisario’s attempts to discredit Stolen by challenging the veracity of the translations was a cleverer tactic. 10 Conditions of Love also dealt with content spoken in an uncommon language, but unlike Stolen, it did not lose access to its subjects or principal locations. This meant Jeff Daniels could run the translations by Rebiya Kadeer to check they were correct. Even if the Chinese wanted to follow Polisario’s lead, it would have been very difficult.

However, neither of the juggernaut films, 10 Conditions of Love or Stolen, challenged film language or ways of perceiving. For new and exciting ways of looking at ‘other’ cultures there were two lesser known works: the Danish film, Burma VJ and, from Australia, Intangible Asset No. 82. Neither was made by a filmmaker from within the culture observed, but both broke down 21st century perceptions of the ‘other.’

intangible asset no. 82

In Intangible Asset No. 82 Emma Franz follows jazz drummer Simon Barker to Korea in search of a musical shaman. Barker’s guide on the journey is Korean musician Kim Dong-won. The structure follows the classic hero’s journey. We hear Barker’s thought track as we watch him in the observational footage. So far, all normal narrative fare. However, fairly early in the documentary we leave the subject’s inner musings and enter the head of his guide, Kim Dong-won. Suddenly the ‘other’ character, the Korean, is also central to the storytelling. We hear what he thinks about Barker and the journey. This is done through non-sync audio from interviews with Kim Dong-won laid over the observational footage. Franz has skilfully combined the two perspectives of into a multi-narrative, multi-perspective on a journey. She is doing for documentary what Robert Altman did for fiction film. It is a ground-breaking and exciting shift in the usually mono perspective of the hero’s journey. Franz is a former jazz singer, and this may have influenced her decision to include parallel narrative lines in her story.

burma vj

The Danish film, Burma VJ, is promoted as an activist documentary, with the oh-so-familiar accompanying website on how you can save the world. So it was a great surprise when it turned out to be the most amazing documentary I’ve seen since Bastardy (2008; see review RT91), or maybe even since Darwin’s Nightmare (2004). Just when I thought I’d seen everything that film language had to offer, along comes Burma VJ.

The film is constructed from footage recorded by a group of underground video reporters who filmed the 2007 uprising by monks in Burma. Amateur filmmakers with handicams hidden in bags create a strategy of how to film in a society in which those they film could be watching them. The counter-gaze can have deadly consequences. They turn the camera on in a safe quiet place, leave it running inside the bag, unzip at key moments and quickly rezip after the moment has passed and escape to a getaway car. The camera darts about and captures an impression of the camera person’s own fears as well as the emotions of the people around them. They often inadvertently provide a running commentary on what they are filming because they are constantly on their mobile phones to HQ explaining what they are getting, where the action is heading, and receiving instructions about what to film next. Each camera person is one of many strategically placed around any given space to ensure that at least one will capture the moment and not get arrested.

The footage these amateurs capture is simultaneously epic and deeply personal. You can’t help but be moved to tears. It is the artistic culmination of the early 21st century proliferation of image capturing devices in the hands of the amateur. The ultimate ‘user-driven’ footage. We are literally watching events unfold through their eyes.

Director Anders Østergaard has allowed the unique POV of these Burmese guerrilla filmmakers to completely envelop the documentary. Even the voice over, provided by one of the former camera people, contains just the right mix of subjective and analytical—the kind of voice over you’d expect from an Agnes Varda film.

If Østergaard had taken his own camera into the 2007 uprising he could never have got this footage, precisely because he would have been an ‘other’ in relation to the culture and the events. These anonymous Burmese camera-people have created a unique film language. Burma VJ was gripping, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of this kind of filmmaking generated at future uprisings around the world.


Melbourne International Film Festival: Stolen, directors, writers, photography Violeta Ayala, Dan Fallshaw, producers Tom Zubrycki, Violeta Ayala, Dan Fallshaw, Deborah Dickson, music John McDowell, United Notions Films; 10 conditions, director Jeff Daniels, directors of photography John Lewis, Dennis Smith , sound Jeff Daniels, WS TVF International; Intangible Asset no 82, writer, director, producer, photography Emma Franz, editor Daniel Kerr, sound Matthew Ferris, sound mix Michael Gissing, Andrew McGrath; Burma VJ, director Anders Østergaard, writers Anders Østergaard, Jan Krogsgaard, directors of photography Simon Plum, The Burmese VJs, editors Janus Billeskov-Jansen, Thomas Papapetros, producer Lise-Lense Møller, producers WG Film, Mediamente, Kamoli Films; MIAF, July 24-Aug 9

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 24

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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