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Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
ALL TOO OFTEN IN AUSTRALIA DOCUMENTARY IS FORCED INTO THE STRAITJACKET OF BROADCASTER NEEDS, SLIMMED DOWN TO TV HALF-HOURS BEREFT OF CINEMATIC INNOVATION. YET THE SOLD-OUT SESSIONS FOR DOCUMENTARY FEATURES AT FILM FESTIVALS AROUND THE COUNTRY INDICATE A HUNGER FOR MORE IN OUR SCREEN CULTURE—A HUNGER DAVID ROKACH IS LOOKING TO SATISFY THIS OCTOBER WITH THE INAUGURAL ANTENNA INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL.

“When I came to Australia I realised there was no documentary festival,” comments Rokach, an Israeli film and philosophy graduate who relocated to Sydney in 2008. “So I decided to create one. I saw the impact that Doc-Aviv had not just on the development of new audiences for documentary but also on the quality of the films being produced,” he adds, referring to five years of experience he clocked up working for Israel’s Doc-Aviv International Documentary Festival.

While Rokach acknowledges the international presence of local films like Molly and Mobarak (2003), Forbidden Lies (2007) and the recent Shut Up Little Man (2011), he believes there is a need in Australia for “more financial support for documentary filmmakers interested in developing work that is more cinematic and challenging, and whose approach intends to work beyond the frames of broadcasting.” Alongside support for production is the need for a film culture that can screen and appreciate challenging documentary work—which is where Antenna comes in.

“Antenna’s main objectives are to promote and support documentary film culture in Australia, providing screenings of documentaries that most likely will not be released in local cinemas,” explains Rokach. “The program will reflect what’s happening in the contemporary documentary cinema in Australia and around the world.”

For the inaugural festival, Rokach and his co-director Alejandra Canales, along with Julia Scott Stevenson, have assembled an ambitious program comprising more than two-dozen titles from nations as diverse as Russia, Mexico, Sweden and Japan. Rokach says that the long list of themes covered includes “politics, the environment, gender issues, music and art,” with an emphasis on films with “a very strong directorial approach.”

The festival’s breadth is evident in the range of sample titles RealTime was able to preview. Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place (directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood) reconstructs Kesey’s legendary road trip across the US with his “merry pranksters” on a psychedelic bus in 1964, drawing on the many hours of colour footage shot by Kesey and others during the journey. Narration is provided by Kesey and the other pranksters via interviews from various periods, although some audio parts are reconstructed by actors from transcripts. Through these images from the time and the assemblage of audio testimony, Magic Trip pulls apart the legend from the inside, laying bare all the wonder, experimentation, naivety and foolishness of a crucial moment in modern American culture.

El Sicario, Room 164 El Sicario, Room 164
At the other end of the spectrum, El Sicario, Room 164 (director Gianfranco Rosi) heads south of the border to contemporary Mexico, where the brutal slaughter of the Mexican drug wars is recounted in unsettling detail by a former “sicario”—one of the elite killers and torturers of the “cartel” that presides over Mexico’s cross-border drug trade. Hooded to protect his identity, the former hit man recounts a litany of horrors in a hotel room where he claims to have once tortured a victim. The power and reach of the organisation he describes is truly terrifying, involving the highest levels of the Mexican government, military and police force, as well as the US police and FBI. Rosi’s film is a model of simplicity that holds viewers in the grip of a claustrophobic horror, made all too real by the regular headlines detailing mass killings in Mexico’s border towns.

Into Eternity (director Michael Madsen) is a very different kind of horror film, taking us into the murky world of Onkalo, a vast underground city dug five kilometres into the Earth’s crust and designed to hold Finland’s nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years. The sheer scale and hubris behind the world’s first “permanent solution” to the nuclear waste issue is dissected with a cool, clinical tone that throws the utter irrationality of our ‘civilisation’ into sharp relief. Director Michael Madsen will be a guest at this year’s festival.

Alongside a strong international program are several Australian features and short documentaries, including an intriguing new 15-minute work from Dennis Tupicoff entitled The First Interview. Featuring a narration by the legendary Agnès Varda, this short brings to life an interview from 1886 between the Parisian photographer Nadar and the French scientist Chevreul.

Antenna will also feature a screening targeted specifically at high school students, a student film competition and various panels. There will be cash prizes for the best international, Australian and student titles. Clearly this is an event underpinned by an ambitious vision looking to carve a permanent place for Antenna in Australia’s festival calendar. Rokach says his team is already working on next year’s program, although he believes “we need to strengthen and grow in Sydney before we initiate a presence in other capital cities.”

It remains to be seen if Rokach and his team can realise their aspirations over the longer-term, but the 2011 program suggests a promising start. Since the demise of Real: Life on Film, Australia has been without a dedicated documentary festival, and the increasing conservatism of our broadcasters and film distributors means an event like Antenna is sorely needed (SBS is to be commended for participating as a major sponsor of the festival). For local documentarians it will be a chance to engage with global currents, be inspired and measure their work against the best other countries have to offer. For Sydney audiences it’s an opportunity to become immersed in all the wonder, joy, horror and provocation the best documentaries can offer.


Antenna International Documentary Festival, directors David Rokach, Alejandra Canales, Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, Oct 5-9, www.antennafestival.org

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 32

© Daniel Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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