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bigpond adelaide film festival

the magical meeting of cinema & media arts

keith gallasch: 2011 adelaide film festival

Daniel P Johnson, Leeanne Letch, Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson Daniel P Johnson, Leeanne Letch, Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson
photo Germain McMicking

The Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) was also held during the festival contributing informative and provocative discussions about innovation, funding and distribution (see Kath Dooley’s report).

In just over a week we sampled the festival’s diversity of forms and practices in an extensive program that nonetheless retained the requisite sense of intimacy that makes an event like this work its magic. However, slotting ourselves into half the duration of the program meant missing the competition winner Incendies (Canada/France, 2009) directed by Dennis Villeneuve who received the $25,000 10 News International Award for Best Feature Film. Special Jury Mention was granted to Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Australia, 2011) a documentary directed by Adelaide filmmaker Matthew Bate. Meanwhile, word of mouth also rated highly the festival’s opening night film Bob Connolly’s Mrs Carey’s Concert (see Jeremy Eccles’ review) and hotly debated Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, admiring the film for its superb craft but disturbed by its scenes of sustained violence.

The Four Times, Michelangelo Frammartino The Four Times, Michelangelo Frammartino
michelangelo frammartino, the four times

In RealTime 101 Tom Redwood sampled the festival program, seeing the Kurdish director Shahrah Alidi’s Whisper with the Wind, winner of the Young Critics Award at Cannes, Year Without A Summer by Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui, Michelangelo Frammartino’s The Four Times (La Quattro Volte) and Romanian director Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (RT101). The Four Times proved particularly memorable, a sublime fiction that does away with language and conventional plotting, tracking the mysterious transmission of a soul from nature to man to domesticated animal to tree and—via ritual and artful rural manufacture—to fire, smoke and charcoal. All of this is achieved without any sense of religiosity (a seasonal church pageant is quite comical if juxtaposed with a moment of poignancy) and constantly surprises with its unpredictability and glorious cinematography. We’ll certainly now regard goats in a different light, observed here with the same acuity usually given human subjects. Surely The Four Times must have been a strong contender for the best feature award and, surely, it must find its way into other Australian festivals and cinemas. The incredibly elliptical narrative of Year Without A Summer, however, proved a considerable challenge, making even the Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s wonderful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives seem a relatively straightforward exercise.

Shai Pittman, Here I Am Shai Pittman, Here I Am
beck cole: here i am

Beck Cole prefaced the screening of her first feature, Here I Am, by declaring it “a tribute to the women in my life.” It’s a film about women who have lost their place in the world and most of its players are women. The plot has a familiar feel—a young Indigenous mother, Karen (Shai Pittman), is released from prison into a half-way house; unskilled, she struggles to get a job while at the same time attempting to retrieve her child from her embittered mother (Marcia Langton) who has given up on her addict daughter. However, the spontaneity of the performances (mostly from non-professionals), the often witty screenplay (ample evidence of the Indigenous sense of humour that counters misery where it can) and Warwick Thornton’s luminous cinematography take us into less familiar territory. The scenes between the women in the half-way house are some of the film’s best (especially a late night party), revealing the diversity of backgrounds, troubles and personalities and the ways in which this temporary community is enabling for Karen—offering her support, companionship and an understanding of how others cope, or not.

A fascinating aspect of Here I Am is that most of the institutional figures that Karen encounters are Indigenous—job consultants, prison guards, social workers. And a firm, forceful and droll bunch they are, as if Cole is saying, with hope, that the world is changing: no longer is it a matter of Indigenous people oppressed by white police and bureaucrats, but something more complex. The film’s measured optimism is tempered, however, by some emotionally demanding scenes that leave despair on the agenda—a girl taken back into custody, Karen’s monitored meeting with her child and the tense encounters between Karen and her mother. Pittman plays her role with a quiet directness and an affecting watchfulness, as if slowly waking up to the real world, while Langton’s mother appears cruelly stubborn, unyielding almost to the end when the camera closes in on a look that says forgiveness might just be possible. With its tight focus on an imperiled woman in a transient community bounded by a less welcoming if stable world, Here I Am is an assured, finely crafted film, with some its greatest rewards to be found in the realism of its unaffected ensemble acting.

Lloyd Doomadgee, brother of Cameron Doomadgee, The Tall Man, Tony Krawitz Lloyd Doomadgee, brother of Cameron Doomadgee, The Tall Man, Tony Krawitz
photo Hamish Cairns
tony krawitz: the tall man

Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man painfully captures the horrendous ambiguities surrounding the death of Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004 and the failure to convict police sergeant Chris Hurley for his part in the man’s death. Like Chloe Hooper’s award winning book of the same title, this is a film that attempts to deal with both (or more) sides of a story that is deeply complex given the character of Queensland colonialism, its police history and the cruel peculiarities of Palm Island, once run like a penal colony and still a place where people don’t belong to the land. The book is credited with inspiring the film, though the documentary doesn’t have Hooper’s first person presence nor her close, if shifting, relationship with the women of Palm Island—they’re certainly not as central to the film as in the book, nor is their strength as fully acknowledged.

Telling differences between book and film aside, The Tall Man stands on its own as an indictment of a system that has ruined the lives of Indigenous people and then held them guilty for the outcome. Krawitz combines recent interviews, historical stills and film footage, news reports, court case recordings and rough documentation of the rioting after Hurley was not charged. At times, as we take an account of an aspect of the unfolding drama, Krawitz cuts away to children diving into the sea, a boy riding a horse, as if some normal pleasures are being pursued amid all the pain. At other times his camera suggests anxiety and foreboding, wandering the nighttime streets of Palm Island. The rioting scenes (seen at greater length in Vernon Ah Kee’s Tall Man installation at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation), Hurley’s re-creation of the ‘tragic accident’ scene, the interview with Cameron Doomadgee’s son Eric before he suicides, the massive police force rally on behalf of Hurley, these and other images alongside the emotionally worn faces of victims and witnesses become indelibly painful.

vernon ah kee, tall man

Vernon Ah Kee’s large-scale video installation, Tall Man, fills the long wall of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation gallery with personal and archival news footage of the Palm Island riot, shot on the streets and from within the embattled police buildings. “They’ve just heard how Doomadgee died...Game’s on, we’re in trouble,” cries a policeman, issuing orders as projectiles crash into the building. All we see are his fumbling hands. “Put a few shots in the air to scare the shit out of the fuckers!” These trapped men know they might be killed. People make speeches in the street: in a telling moment, as a woman speaks passionately to the media (“We are an oppressed people”), someone cries out, “You, the media, you gonna put this one will stop this tidal wave.” Somebody else yells, “Don’t edit it!” (Elsewhere the people of Palm Island are described as illiterate with no understanding of the court system—the consequence: “their fear is our fear.”) But amid the images of anger and confusion, Ah Kee interpolates footage of two children watching the burning police station from a distant hill, and the aerial view from the plane bringing in police reinforcements.

If Krawitz’s film unfolds the whole tragic story of Palm Island for our reflection, Ah Kee in 12 minutes has created an artistic, political document from the crude documentation of eruption of anger, fear and panic, multiplying the same image simultaneously across the four screens in one contiguous frame or mixing and juxtaposing discrete images to unnerving effect. It is a work that is at once contemplative and deeply disturbing. We are well used to the news media’s obsessive repetition of a small number of images that suit their purposes. Here Ah Kee rhythmically fixes our attention on video in the public domain that we might otherwise not be aware of and shapes it for our contemplation. If you’ve read Chloe Hooper’s book or you’ve seen Krawitz’s film, or done both, you identify key figures, filling in names not provided here, placing incidents and speeches, ascribing meaning—an eerie experience, as if of recognition. The inclusion of Ah Kee’s Tall Man video installation in the Adelaide Film Festival is an indication of the expanded vision of film and media arts that has been the mark of this event since its inception.

Daniel P Johnson, Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson Daniel P Johnson, Hail, Amiel Courtin-Wilson
photo Germain McMicking
amiel courtin-wilson, hail

Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s documentary feature Bastardy, about actor, singer, potter and former criminal and addict Jack Charles, is blessed with brutal frankness, inherent sadness and remarkable immediacy in its embrace of a wounded man who nonetheless evinces energy, wit and creativity. Hail, Courtin-Wilson’s first drama feature, is also rooted in the life of someone who is very real, Daniel P Jones, another man associated with crime and drugs, a 50-year-old ex-convict who likewise found refuge in the theatre. In Hail, Jones plays Dan someone it seems very much like himself; the film’s plot, says Courtin-Wilson, is fuelled by the stories Jones told the director about himself and his milieu. Like Charles, Jones has a touch of the poet, but his character’s demeanor is cool to cold and, when on edge, restless, obsessive and downright dangerous.

Hail is a drama feature that deftly manages to fuse documentary immediacy (fluid hand-held camera work, raw dialogue) with carefully constructed scenography built around lyrical editing and richly textured and adroitly framed widescreen cinematography (Germain McMicking). It’s a big screen, immersive experience.

Just out of prison, Dan comes home to his girlfriend Leanne (Leeanne Letch). Initial awkwardness surrenders to a slow build to sexual embrace in extreme visual and aural close-up. The film then relaxes into a job search, funny if it wasn’t so sad. Jones has no resume and admits he’s a former criminal: “but I don’t steal from people I work with.” An employer who takes him on says, “You look like a criminal.” Dan humbly retorts, “I’ll put my teeth in for a start.” Later we see him insert his teeth before a mirror, shyly practising a smile.

After a near fight in a pub, Dan’s old friends, all reformed, gruffly advise him, “You wanna change, we’ll help you.” But all too soon his demons possess him (“I’m a danger to me...something out there wants me dead”), intimacy is too much for him (smashing a birthday cake, he flees the house) and he loses his job after falling from a ladder. Leeanne is murdered by an old drug-dealing flame (or, we wonder, perhaps by Dan himself in a fit of jealousy). Dan immolates her body in a car in snow country, madly stalks and assaults a woman but then with neat psychotic rigour calmly tracks the murderer for the balance of the film, torturing and killing as he goes. The stark beauty of the journey and the relentless suspense are engrossingly sustained but the sudden one-dimensionality of the revenge saga radically thins out the psychological complexities that had been so carefully and convincingly established earlier.

Despite this uneven development, Hail is a remarkable film: Jones and Letch’s performances are excellent in their portrayal of a profoundly uneasy love, cinematography is superb and the script tightly focused, conveying both spontaneity and a sense of craft and purpose. As Courtin-Wilson wrote of his earlier collaboration with Jones (Cicada, 2008): “I interviewed Danny, transcribed that material, edited it, then fed it back to him as honed dialogue in the context of dramatic scenes. In this way Danny is able to truly own the material while performing, thereby transcending the all too common problem of non-actors being given dialogue that never really sits comfortably with them. This technique also circumvents the issues with meandering improvisation as the raw material can be used extremely sparingly in the context of a scene” (

tracey moffatt: narratives

The Tracey Moffatt retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia is focused principally on the artist’s photographic and video works, offering cinematic pleasures of other kinds. Spaciously displayed, the exhibition was a vivid reminder of Moffatt’s gift for merging supreme craftsmanship, humour, pathos and tragedy to make beautiful art with political heft. There are the wickedly funny but revealing collections of movie clips (including Doomed, made with Gary Hilberg, 2007) built around particular themes in which, for example, scenes of women being physically abused become cumulatively more and more shocking while the female assaults on men appear happily vengeful.

The photographic series Up In the Sky (1998) and Laudanum (1999) suggest stills from films of earlier eras (hints of neo-realism and Nosferatu-ish shadow play respectively) that we’ll never see but can imaginatively piece together. Other works are more painterly but still invested with a strong sense of scenography as in Invocation (2000) with its 13 silk screen prints suggesting animation stills inspired, the gallery notes confirm, by Goya, Hitchcock and Disney. One of my favorite series, Scarred for Life (1994/2000), evokes documentary filmmaking with telling stills and suggestive captions (a weeping girl has “found out her real father’s name;” Homemade Handknit 1958—”He knew his teammates were chuckling over his knitted football clothes”). This finely staged retrospective warrants a national tour.

Lisa Reihana, Te Po O Matariki, 2010, video Lisa Reihana, Te Po O Matariki, 2010, video
© the artist, courtesy ARTPROJECTS, New Zealand
stop(the)gap: nova paul, lisa reihana

Stop(the)Gap curated by Brenda L Croft with overseas guests, presented a fascinating range of works from Australia, Canada, US and New Zealand each working the screen in a unique way, technologically and culturally (see Tom Redwood's review). Nova Paul’s deployment of “three colour separation, an early cinematic optical printing process” (catalogue) in This Is Not Dying (2010) makes for a magical experience as a slowly panning camera reveals a community coming together, setting tables, and riding motorbikes. But as each movement continues, a trace of it remains and a third image manifests, each a different colour, each at their own lyrical asynchronous pace, suggesting co-existing realities unfolding in the slippage between past and present. Lisa Reihana’s sleekly crafted video images in Te Po O Matariki (NZ, 2010) silently evoke the power of song and ritualised gesture as it is passed through generations of women, hovering in dark space like Maori goddesses.

port projections: rea, genevieve grieves

In Port Projections, organised by the film festival’s Associate Director Adele Hann, Australian artists r e a and Genevieve Grieves projected extant works onto the face of large, old building, part of Port Adelaide’s historic Harts Mill. Arriving at night by car was a bit like going to a drive-in in the old days: a row of cars facing the ‘screen,’ people wandering about, chatting amiably. The Port River lapped quietly by as we looked up at the images overlaying windows, doors and brickwork without greatly surrendering their specificity. Instead the historical dimensions of both works with their 19th century contexts were amplified.

In PolesApart (2009, RT91), r e a, in a long black dress is lost in the bush, pursued by the unseen forces of colonial oppression and finally disappears—as if she’d been the Indigenous subject who never appeared in the ‘nation building’ Heidelberg School paintings. In Grieves’ Picturing the Old People (2006-7) project, the artist reconstructs the making of studio portraits of Indigenous peoples either attired in European garb or carefully arranged as anthropological curiosities, remnants of a dying race. There are moments of both humour and poignancy. For the artists this was something of an experiment: r e a told me that the possibility of further re-platforming of this kind excited her but would require more technical investment in the creation of future works. I could see the potential although it helped that I’d seen the works before and already knew what I was looking at. It might have been a more mysterious experience for others, but true to the Adelaide Film Festival vision here was another opportunity taken to expand our sense of cinema into public space.

charlie hill-smith, strange birds in paradise: a west papuan story

This not-to-be-missed film from Adelaide documentary filmmaker Charlie Hill-Smith is to be screened later this year on SBS-TV, trimmed from 75 to 52 minutes, while the full-length version will be released on DVD. The film was rejected repeatedly by ABC TV, leaving producers Jamie Nicolai and John Cherry wondering if the ABC was afraid of upsetting the Australian and Indonesian Governments. Certainly the Australian population needs to know that West Papuans are being oppressed, their environmental heritage ruined and their mineral wealth appropriated. If that’s upsetting, so be it.

This vigorous documentary effectively weaves together a number of strands. There’s Hill-Smith’s innocent, home-movie visit to West Papua in the late 90s (the beginning he says, “of my own rite of passage;” “we’ve been blundering around an undeclared war”) followed by a later, much more alert trip travelling deep into the country, meeting locals of all kinds and persuasions and interviewing exiled rebels across the New Guinea border (where one of the wives sadly declares the exhaustion of the women as the men talk on and on). Also in the weave is revealing news media footage grimly spilling out the country’s bloody history, and there’s the unfolding story of composer David Bridie working in a studio in Australia with West Papuan musicians on an evolving song. Not least, there are animation passages that vividly evoke a sense of the culture’s identity and challenges featuring birds both metaphorically and in terms of West Papuan mythologies.

Hill-Smith figures quietly in the film, sometimes merely sitting in the frame, writing, sketching, chatting. He tells us that he has emotional ties with an Indonesian family in Java, making his task emotionally harder since his return to the country any time soon is unlikely. Strange Birds in Paradise is a brave film, inventive, informative and provocative. It could make a difference. Australia provides aid to and investment in Indonesia but why, as the film asks, does that have to include military aid when it’s the Indonesian military that plays a major role in the oppression of West Papuans?

Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt
kelly reichardt, meek’s cutoff

So soon after enjoying the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, it was a great pleasure to see an even more atypical western, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US). A small wagon train is lost on its way to California. The travellers are short of water, fear their guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), has deliberately mislead them and all are anxious about the hostility of the Indian tribe whose land they are crossing. The women in the train are at the film’s centre. When the men wander off to meet and make decisions away from the wagons, the camera and the sound stay with the women—like them we can sometimes only guess at what the men are saying. As conditions worsen, the group captures a lone Indian who appears to be singing the land, something the travellers can’t comprehend, their Christianity compounding fear of his apparent primitiveness. But, despite the cynical Meek’s desire to kill the Indian, they persuade him to lead them to water.

What is so striking about the film is Reichardt’s subtle portrayal of the cultural gaps between the men and the women (nuanced in varying, revealing degrees) and between the travellers and the Indian. The gap between the men and the women is negotiable to a degree—one of them (Michelle Williams) shockingly usurps the male prerogative at a critical moment, saving the Indian from Meek—but the chasm between invader and indigene is profound. There is no smoking the peace pipe or pidgin bartering or sign language, only the most basic communication. The sense of otherness is exacerbated by the long-held shots of the barren landscape and real-time takes of trudging to exhaustion. The dialogue is aptly spare and the performances, especially from Greenwood and Williams, idiosyncratic and finely honed. If not an action-packed Western, Meek’s Cutoff is suspenseful and insightful, a rewarding variation on the wagon train genre and deserving of cinema release here.

clio barnard, the arbor

The Arbor is a curious exercise in the reconstruction of the life of Andrea Dunbar, a poorly educated young woman from a Bradford housing estate in the UK who became a famous playwright for a brief period from the late 1970s although she'd never been near a theatre in her life until that time. While her acutely realist plays were being picked up by the Royal Court Theatre, Dunbar's life deteriorated rapidly. Often staying in bed for most of the day, writing and then heading off to the pub, all the while she was seriously neglecting her daughters. We see TV footage of Dunbar but everyone else in the film—the psychologically wounded daughters (traumatised by a fire after they'd been locked in by their mother), distraught neighbors who looked after and loved the children, and Max Stafford-Clark from the Royal Court—are played by actors who lip-synch the recorded voices of the originals. They're good performers, but the aesthetic motivation for director Clio Barnard's approach is difficult to gauge. As well, a group of actors perform excerpts from Dunbar's works in a park in the housing estate—we never learn what the gathered locals (mostly at a distance from the action) make of this exercise.

It was assumed that given Dunbar's subject matter and insights, she was socially enlightened. What the film reveals is a broken marriage to a Pakistani man, the father of her first daughter. She subsequently treats the girl with disdain and, later, open hostility. She declares publicly, "I'm not a racist, I just couldn't deal with Pakistanis." (It seems her husband locked her in when she was pregnant as well as applying other constraints.) The daughter becomes a heroin addict, her son dies in mysterious circumstances (possibly accidental methadone poisoning), she is treated like a murderer, cleared and, despite her damaging history, admits, "I had to grow up and stop blaming the world."

Although very oddly constructed (for example, the dramatic opening scene of a bed on fire and the adult sisters standing by it reflecting on their childhood has no later equivalent) and contrived (the lip-synching suggests documentary authority, but at a fictional remove), The Arbor is an intriguing and certainly disturbing experiment in the contemporary mode of melding documentary and outright artifice in ever more elaborate ways.

Enter the Void Enter the Void
gaspar noe, enter the void

In terms of cinematography, Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (Germany/Italy) has to be seen to be believed. It trawls through contemporary Tokyo, drug-induced deliria, back street clubs and a multi-coloured fluorescent model of Tokyo (weirdly, the city subsequently takes on its astonishing hue). The film’s protagonists, brother and sister—American 20-somethings, refugees from the car crash death of their parents—are incestuously inclined; he’s flirting with crime and has had sex with his best friend’s mother; while she’s a dancer at a club owned by a criminal lover. At first the story is told elliptically as fragments of the past and present are put together, then melodramatically as consequences are played out and finally as a long, beautiful-to-look at but tediously sluggish hallucination when the young male enters the void. But it’s a void blindingly rich in colour and illusion (there’s even a Douglas Trumbull 2001-stargate homage). As in Hail, the descent into disaster becomes one-dimensional, but the film remains worth seeing for its uncommon narrative adventurousness and bold cinematography—no drugs necessary. A good film festival must bravely remind us of film’s potential in whatever form, using whatever technology and wherever shown—in cinemas, on computers, in galleries or public places.

Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival, including Stop(the)Gap, International Indigenous Arts in Motion, Samstag Museum of Art, Feb 24-April 21; Port Projections, Port Adelaide, Feb 25-27; Vernon Ah Kee, Tall Man, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Feb 24-March 26; Tracey Moffatt: Narratives, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Feb 25-March 20

The RealTime Managing Editors were guests of the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival.

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 21,22,25

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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