Some of the latest from recent North American film festivals. New work representing filmmakers in the early stages of their careers, who are familiar with the cinematic traditions.
Screening in Canberra 9 – 20 May. For more information, follow link
© Jane Freebury
Text of a talk introducing Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby when it screened in the Banned + Beautiful season at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, in 2017
The first time I saw Bad Boy Bubby was in Indonesia in 1993. It was on laser disk, pirated copy of course. I’m afraid that was the only way there to keep up with new Australian film while overseas.
To say that it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Also, away from Australia I had missed out on a lot of the fun. Missed out on David Stratton’s astonishing 5 stars—something, as he said, to offend just about everyone—and the controversy it generated.
I had really liked de Heer’s Incident at Raven’s Gate, a science fiction genre film set in the outback that was released in 1988, though was subsequently a bit disappointed by a languid Dingo, featuring jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, a few years later.
Bad Boy Bubby was de Heer’s fourth film, and he threw everything at it.
His first film had been in 1984, a sweet children’s film, Tail of a Tiger, about a boy dazzled by an old Tiger Moth airplane.
Each of these films had achieved respectable critical notices, if they had not done so well at the box office, nor marked the filmmaker out with the critics.
Bad Boy Bubby was a huge calculated risk. Either de Heer was going to make his name with this one, or give the game away.
At same time, risk became integral to his praxis. For a film to work had to be ‘out there’. From Bad Boy Bubby on, he built risk into each film he made.
He has since said that as a filmmaker you are doomed to fail unless you go absolutely ‘all out’. It was his will to be ‘extreme’.
To quote the filmmaker: ‘If I was just going to do with ordinary thing then that’s the most risky thing you can do, because just by simple statistical analysis you can work out that only one film in seven even breaks even. And so the chances are that unless you take profound risk, you are going to fail.’
Rolf is very talented, but this is also the view of an artist who is a pragmatist.
When Rolf made Bad Boy Bubby, he had reached his early 40s, and was already ten years in the industry. There is, I think a hint of ‘do or die’ about this film.
The Bubby idea had been brewing for a long time – a ‘no budget’ film, with a two-year shoot.
Bad Boy Bubby took around 10 years to gestate, and de Heer returned to it from time to time to add some new outrageous idea—like that of the wheelchair bandit of Adelaide. De Heer, who grew up in Sydney and studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, moved to South Australia in 1989.
Rolf had in mind to persuade his friend Ritchie Singer to take the lead role, but Singer politely declined when he read the script, so the filmmaker turned to Nicholas Hope, an English-born theatre actor, resident of Adelaide, who had appeared in one other film. Confessor Caressor, a faux documentary about a psychopath who conducts tours of the lair where he disembowels his victims.
Half of the $800,000 plus budget was put up by Fandango, a production house based in Rome that would become of pivotal importance providing finance for de Heer’s films for years to come. The other half was put up by the Film Finance Corporation. It meant the budget was covered, and the shoot completed within a couple of months.
De Heer has noted that he declined a $3 million budget to make the film. He refused it on the grounds that it would not make the film three of four times better and that a low-budget aesthetic worked best with the subject.
It was also his determination to allow himself the freedom that low budget can afford, that he had not enjoyed during his work on French-Australian coproduction Dingo, despite its $5.6 million budget and big international crew.
After Dingo, de Heer was determined to go small, small as could be.
It is a point of honour for Rolf to work within budget.
The majority of his films have been made for under $2.5 million (well under the low budget ceiling), and most came in well under $2 million.
The Quiet Room, released in 1997, was made for under $600,000. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), shot in the jungles of South America, was a striking exception with its budget of $14 million.
In its original conception, Bad Boy Bubby would be made on weekends over a couple of years, shot by anyone free to do it. Hence, the credits for more than 30 cinematographers.
Bad Boy Bubby was to be made on a shoestring, with whoever was available to crew at the time. Cinematographers eventually did include famous names today—Geoff Simpson and Steve Arnold who both contributed scenes.
The logic for Bad Boy Bubby was that the protagonist character was a blank page. For de Heer, it meant a stylistic freedom because everything was new. Everything Bubby encountered was something he witnessed for the first time.
Ian Jones, de Heer’s usual cinematographer since Bad Boy Bubby, shot the opening and closing scenes, so you could argue there was a bit of continuity. Though de Heer recalls that all camera operators were encouraged to do whatever they saw fit.
And, the film does hang together. This has a lot to do with Hope’s performance. He is in almost every single frame. Bad Boy Bubby became a big hit in Norway, second only to Forrest Gump, and Hope an actor in demand there.
From the first scenes of mise-en-abyme of neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation, Hope’s performance and that of Claire Benito, as his mother, still stand as very brave, 24 years later.
And the cockroach scene … It’s real. According to Hope, de Heer showed him how to swallow a cockroach by coating it in chocolate sauce. The filmmaker never refuted this.
It was in Italy that Rolf first had impact internationally. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at the Venice Film Festival.
It is intriguing that more of de Heer’s films have screened in Italy than in any other country, including the Netherlands.
Britain liked it too.
The Economist described BBB as the real triumph of the Venice festival. The esteemed critic at The Guardian, Derek Malcolm, described it as ‘the biggest surprise…astonishingly audacious and original’, while France – Le Soir reported that many considered it a ’revelation’.
Around this point, as a result of the critical acclaim, de Heer allowed himself and his team to believe that they actually ‘had something’.
Although he took out best director and best original screenplay—and the late Suresh Ayyar won best editor and Nicholas Hope won best actor—Bad Boy Bubby missed out on best film to Muriel’s Wedding at the Australian Film Institute awards back home.
Nonetheless, the film was the game changer for de Heer. It began the career-long pattern of refusing to accept the limits imposed by a low budget. Going ‘all out’ every time.
Consider the bold and innovative concepts he has pursued to develop his films:
The challenges that de Heer has taken on as a filmmaker since Bad Boy Bubby would sink the less determined, less skilful, less creative director.
It was with this film that de Heer began the praxis that makes his work distinctive.
It is as though he has forced himself each time to weave a new and different challenge into every new film. De Heer, the filmmaker, has never been one to make life easy for himself: the pattern that began with Bad Boy Bubby is what has defined him throughout his career.
His editor, the late Suresh Ayyar, called it an additional challenge, something ‘extra-textual’, in addition to the creative challenge of the film in development.
The innovative, creative solutions that de Heer has eventually found in his work, the way they work seamlessly within the film text, have become defining features, integral to the films themselves.
And he is living proof for the view that constraint works in the interests of creativity. Tell that to Hollywood.
Despite the controversy it generated, it is my understanding that Bad Boy Bubby was never censored in Australia.
One of the surprises of my research, however, was that the film was cut in Britain. Not for scenes of incest or matricide and patricide, but for the scenes that appeared to show animal cruelty.
Most at issue was the scene of the tabby cat tied to a chair with string, and clearly distressed. Excision of the scene even removed crucial dialogue confirming that there was an ‘outside’ where life could exist.
Animal welfare activists in Italy were also outraged and even campaigned for a ban on Australian products at the time of the film’s release.
When the DVD version of Bad Boy Bubby was released in Britain around ten years ago it was advertised as ‘completely uncut’. In other words, the bit with the cat was back in. Nothing more: a clever bit of marketing.
Over the course of time, Bad Boy Bubby and Rolf de Heer’s other early films revealed traits that have become familiar throughout all his work:
These have marked his work from the beginning.
Curiously, there has been nothing about the migrant experience. Not as yet, anyway.
So Bad Boy Bubby is strong stuff, even today. It is de Heer’s riposte to the sweet Australian coming-of-age film.
I mean, there had been a lot of Australian films in the 1970s-1980s about coming of age that Rolf would have been very familiar with: think My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke, Puberty Blues…and we’re still making them.
And yet Bad Boy Bubby is not solely aimed at the Australian coming-of-age drama.
Those scenes in which Bubby learns how to become a successful Aussie male, are some of the funniest in the film.
As one of the most effective satires of Australian society ever made, Bad Boy Bubby makes a very rude finger at us all.
By Jane Freebury
The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.
His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.
Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.
He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.
In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.
At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.
Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.
For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.
Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.
Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.
We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.
Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.
Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.
Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.
One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.
Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.
He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.
It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.
Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle
What are we to make of Roman Polanski? The gifted auteur behind some of the great films of modern times like Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. A man who has known tragedy intimately and as a result has needed all the fantasy he could muster, he says, ‘simply to survive’. Yet he is also someone who exploited a minor. If it’s not okay to use the artist’s life to interpret their work but the converse is okay, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the events of Polanski’s life while looking at his artistic achievements.
An opportunity to take another look at this perplexing filmmaker is on its way. During the last week in November, Palace Electric Cinema will be showcasing a retrospective selection of Polanski’s work curated by film scholar and former critic for the Age newspaper, Adrian Martin, and his co-collaborator Cristina Alvarez Lopez.
The ten Polanski films due to screen are drawn from five decades, though the majority come from the 1960s-1970s, when his work was at its best. Also attached to the program is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), one of two documentaries made by Marina Zenovich on the statutory rape case that ultimately led to Polanski’s flight from the US to Europe in 1978.
Polanski has not returned since, not even to collect the best director Oscar for the holocaust drama The Pianist in 2003, an adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same name by a Polish Jewish musician and composer. It is well known that for this feature, Polanski drew on his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Jewish youth on the run from the authorities, and witness to Nazi atrocities.
The retrospective opens with Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great choice. His feature film debut from 1962, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. A tautly drawn suspense thriller, it involves three people caught in a web of deception and betrayal. Masterfully directed in handsome black and white, it is one of the best first films ever. Four years later, Polanski won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival with Cul-de-Sac, an original absurdist dark comedy with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve) about gangsters on the run, also screening.
The director had a penchant for appearing in his own films, often, but not always in minor roles for which he sometimes became notorious, like the thug who slits Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (also screening). He appears as the main character in The Tenant, in which he plays an alienated clerk who struggles to hold himself together after he moves into an apartment in which the previous tenant tried to commit suicide.
Polanski shares the lead in his genre spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), as assistant to a bumbling vampire expert. A damsel in distress that they set off to rescue is played by Sharon Tate, Polanski’s soon-to-be-wife. This penchant has resulted in a long list of acting credits, nearly as many as the films he has directed.
It was intriguing to see in Polanski’s most recent piece on sexual power games and role reversals, Venus in Fur (2013), his wife of nearly 30 years, Emmanuelle Seigneur. She plays opposite Mathieu Amalric, the slight, elfin-faced French actor who looks so much like Polanski when he was young. It has not been included in the retrospective.
Chinatown will need scant introduction, but it’s a rare opportunity to see it again on the big screen. This classic of 1970s new American cinema pushed the envelope in its day, from the chiaroscuro of its film noir origins and into the bright light of day. The youthful Faye Dunaway may have never been better and who can forget J. J. Gittes’ (Nicholson) response when asked if his slit nose hurt? ‘Only when I breathe’.
Catherine Deneuve made an unforgettable appearance early in her career in Polanski’s Repulsion, as a timid, unstable young woman in extremis when left alone in a London flat for a few days. It is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual horror. No less disturbing is the nightmare of demonic possession, Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow appears as a young woman carrying her first child. Just who is the father? Both films helped to consolidate Polanski’s reputation for stylistic assurance and mastery of atmosphere. An aspect of the Polanski vision that Martin describes as ‘a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination’. And, as he also observes, few filmmakers ‘cherish the grotesque’ quite like Polanski, with films that ‘court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it.’ Here is a filmmaker with something to say. And he says it so well.
The season concludes with The Ghost Writer from 2010, a political thriller in Hitchcockian vein about a wordsmith (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghost the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). He learns, at his isolated seaside writer’s retreat, that the previous incumbent drowned in mysterious circumstances.
The chill of fear is never far away, and again and again, Polanski’s films convincingly assert that there is no safe refuge from the demons of our unconscious. Few filmmakers have routinely incorporated, so intensely and credibly, the nightmare world of dreams into the everyday. A very challenging filmmaker, indeed.
ROMAN: 10 x Polanski screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, Canberra between 24 and 30 November.
Canberra International Film Festival 2016, bound to be different
© Jane Freebury
Movie goers who hanker for films difficult to find anywhere else and for experiences they would not otherwise have, can look forward to Canberra’s flagship film festival’s 11-day program beginning at the end of October.
From its current home at the National Film and Sound Archive, the Canberra International Film Festival will continue the tradition that has brought loyal patrons back to it year after year since 1996. Curated with the Canberra filmgoer in mind, the program will cover new ground and introduce new voices and will complement the panel discussions, workshops and special events set to take place.
From 27 October until 11 November, filmgoers can choose from a program curated just for them. No travelling fest package here. Festival director Alice Taylor emphasizes the festival’s connection with Canberra and its commitment to diversity, with films not necessarily mainstream nor commercial, nor from Europe or the United States: ‘Some of our key programming strands are films made by women, Indigenous Australians, films from the Asia Pacific, archival content and stories from Canberra.’
The NFSA is a natural home for any film festival. What’s more, it offers the ambient charm of art-deco heritage features, state-of-the art amenity and spaces that lend themselves to cinemaphile discussions within its inviting garden courtyard.
It could be just the space to spill into after experiencing the Hungarian black comedy Kills on Wheels, about a pair of young men from a Budapest rehab center who join forces with a wheelchair-bound hitman. It has been said that, despite its hard-hitting title, it is actually coming-of-age with nuance.
Also among the 29 films curated from 15 countries, is Zoology, a drama in the magic-realist style about a young woman working in zoo administration who grows a tail. It turns her life around. Written and director by young filmmaker Ivan Tverdovskiy, it has been described by Sight and Sound magazine as a ‘startling parable about the perils of being different in contemporary Russia’. The screening will be an Australian premiere.
Established and aspiring movie buffs who see The Frankenstein Complex, can expect an absorbing study of the development of this movie monster niche. Ma’Rosa from the Philippines is another highlight. It won Jaclyn Jose best actress at Cannes this year. Bad Girl, a new film screening with Simon’s daughter, Samara, sharing the lead, will create buzz, as will new local production, Blue World Order.
The distinguished Australian cinematographer Geoff Burton, whose list of credits in Australian TV and film, includes The Sum of Us, The Year My Voice Broke, and Bedevil, will be a guest of the festival. He will do a Q&A after the screening of Storm Boy, discussing his role behind the camera in that Australian classic from 1978, recently digitally restored.
Burton will also lead a discussion on the techniques involved in shooting analog film. For this he will be joined by cinematographer Robb Shaw-Velzen, who specializes in digital filmmaking. Shaw-Velzen worked on the post-apocalyptic feature Blue World Order that makes good use of Canberra locations including Black Mountain tower and Lake George, and incorporates certain local personalities, like Chief Minister Andrew Barr who appears as an extra with eyes aglow and brain in thrall to others. After the exclusive preview screening of Blue World Order there will be a Q&A with director Che Baker and cast and crew.
Another highlight will be the screening of Children of the Revolution, a twentieth birthday gala screening. Those who have seen the film be aware that the late Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, spent his last night in the arms of a committed young communist (Judy David). The result was their love child (Richard Roxburgh). A Q&A will follow with director Peter Duncan and actor Richard Roxburgh, both now work together on the TV series Rake. Children of the Revolution won the CIFF audience award at the inaugural festival in 1996.
Festival director Taylor points to a focus on women, in front of and behind the camera, at this year’s CIFF. Eight of the feature films are directed by women, including doco about Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Agnes Shea, Pat Fiske’s Footprints on Our Land. Heart of a Dog comes from New York avant-garde artist and composer/musician Laurie Anderson. Elisa Paloschi’s documentary, Driving with Selvi, is about a child bride who escapes her marriage to become a taxi driver. Play Your Gender, from Stephanie Clattenburg, explores why a meagre five percent of music producers are female while so many of the most bankable pop stars are female. It asks what it takes for a woman to make it in music.
The closing night film is Cinema Travellers, filmed over five years in India, about the showmen riding cinema lorries who take the wonder of cinema to far-flung villages around the subcontinent. It premiered in the official selection this year at Cannes.
As a national capital Canberra is home to audiences who are ‘uniquely worldly’, observes fest director Taylor, who ‘like to be challenged and engage with topical ideas’. Moreover, the city large expat community expect windows on the world at its doorstep, and the city now has a burgeoning profile as a screen production hub. CIFF is bound to be different.
Published in the Canberra Times online (in print 22 October)
Published in the Canberra Times on 23 September 2016
© Jane Freebury
It is now nearly two decades since a young civil engineer died in a flat in Canberra’s inner north after his live-in girlfriend injected him with heroin. The case has been dealt with in the courts but for the young man’s family and others, including award-winning Canberra filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos, it still seems that the death of 26-year-old Joe Cinque has yet to be put to rest.
Joe Cinque was injected with heroin while already heavily sedated with rohypnol. He lay helpless and unconscious for many hours, vomiting blood, but no call was made for an ambulance until it was too late to save him. His girlfriend’s inaction was compounded by others who could have also prevented the death. The court proceedings seemed to deal inadequately with the case. Unanswered questions abound.
It was a singularly shocking event for this relatively quiet town. The photo that circulated in the media at the time showed an attractive young couple, professional and university educated, their arms around each other, mocking the claims that emerged about mutual suicide pacts and bizarre ‘send off’ dinners. And as reports of witness inaction emerged, they were hard to square with our sense of duty of care towards others.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. In late September, I spoke to Dounoukos by skype while he transitted in Los Angeles on his way back from the Montreal International Film Festival where Joe Cinque’s Consolation, his first feature, had also screened. In 2014, he won the inaugural best international short film award there for his Un Seul Corps.
The Joe Cinque case brought highly regarded author Helen Garner to Canberra to observe the court proceedings. It resulted in her ‘true crime’ novel Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law , which, like her writing in The First Stone and This House of Grief, pitches its writer and reader together head first into morally complex terrain.
No sooner had Dounoukos finished reading Helen Garner’s book than he felt the need to return to the beginning, to answer his unanswered questions. ‘The anger, melancholy and sadness that you are left with makes you return to the book and go over it again, and over the details again in the hope that you don’t miss something…’ (a second time).
The facts are stark and the interpretations contentious, and there is conflict between how the lay person looks at the facts, and how the court interprets them.. ‘This gentle and committed young man was executed by his girlfriend,’ he recalls. ‘No matter how you cut it, you want people not to escape that fact.’
Dounoukos was given the rights to Garner’s book, the first and only film to have acquired them. How did the writer- director and co-writer Matt Rubenstein begin work on their adaptation? Well, they knew they didn’t want a courtroom drama with a central journalist figure. They wanted something more immediate, something that allowed the audience to stand in for Garner, as the investigative presence she is in her book.
‘We wanted something that allowed the audience to take her place, almost as if they were sitting in that courtroom, or sitting at that dinner table.’ At the same time, ‘the profound questions that she raises would be our ultimate goal’.
The film concentrates on the period leading up to Cinque’s death, while Garner’s book concentrates on the aftermath and the court trials. Still, ‘It was absolutely an adaptation. The world of the book, the tone of the book, except we tried to make Helen’s journey, our journey.’
I say that I’ve always been impressed by the way Garner inserts herself into her writing and makes no bones about her views, a brave thing to do. For Dounoukos, her transparency is liberating.
Could we anticipate that Dounoukos had also inserted himself within the text of his film? ‘Yeah, look it’s inescapable.’
‘Yes, I definitely embrace that, as a fact of storytelling, an inescapable element of the construction of any narrative. Matt Rubenstein and I saw this as particularly relevant to this set of facts. You’ve got this storytelling happening between the characters, and one of the reasons Joe died is because people were trying to figure out what was for real, what was true, and what wasn’t.’
‘One of the things we see in the film is the passage between stories we want to believe because they’re compelling and stories we want to believe because they’re convenient.’
And the interpretations in law and psychiatry? ‘It’s interesting. […] most people’s instincts are that there was a great injustice. It’s almost like people want to know what was wrong with her (Singh) while at the same time they look at the facts and say, no matter what it was, it was an organised execution, and the sentence wasn’t enough.’ Singh was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. She was released from prison after four years, and has recently completed a PhD.
Since Garner’s exceptional book, other attempts have been made to tell the story of Joe Cinque. Dounoukos is highly critical. ‘You know, the fact is that some people were turned on by the audacity and success of her plan.’
‘Like everyone when I read the book, I was left with a lot of questions about how the judgement came down. As much as Justice Crispin is a good judge and a fine jurist, I went straight back to page one and re-read that book for more insights. And it’s precisely that that motivated the making of the film.’
‘I wanted to articulate the question through the medium that I’m involved in and maybe to be part of a public discourse, or to provoke a public discourse, in the way that cinema can, and literature can’t,’ he added.
Something stirs in my cinema memory. The 1988 film by Errol Morris, one of the best docos ever, about a young man wrongfully imprisoned in Texas for the death of a policeman. ‘ You must be familiar with The Thin Blue Line?’ I ask.
‘Absolutely,’ Dounoukos replies.
Dounoukos is a graduate in law from the Australian National University, and was studying at the same time as Singh. She was a friend of friends. He went on to study film at the VCA, and has made award-winning short films.
So is it now correct to call him a former lawyer? ‘I’m a former lawyer. Matt is back at the law.[…] He’s raising a family… in Sydney.’
Dounoukos got to know the Cinque family well as he developed his project. In preparing them for the film that was to come into being, he explained to them that his actors would ‘justify and fight’ for their characters.
And now? ‘They’ve seen the film and, as difficult as it was, appreciated that I’ve made the film I set out to make which includes being very clear about what I think. What’s right and wrong, despite the ambiguity and shades of grey we all have to contend with. But they’re very smart people, very fair and the true victims of crime in this narrative.’
Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016
© by Jane Freebury
When Geoffrey Rush was up for a best actor award at the Academy Awards in 1997 for his performance as a troubled concert pianist in Shine, the fellow nominees were daunting company, as they usually are. There was Ralph Fiennes (a cartologist-adventurer in The English Patient), Billy Bob Thornton (a murderer with intellectual disability in Sling Blade), Tom Cruise (a slick sports agent in Jerry Maguire) and Woody Harrelson (pornography publisher in The People vs Larry Flynt). Movie acting establishment, every one of them.
Shine had received seven Oscar nominations in all and though The English Patient won best film that year, it was Shine that people everywhere took to their hearts. For Rush, the rest is history.
It was a triumph for Australian cinema. A triumph for Rush certainly, and for the rest of the team who had the other Oscar nominations—production, direction, screenplay, editing, support performance, and composition. Nine BAFTA nominations and five Golden Globe nominations also went Shine’s way, and there were many other awards. A tribute to Australia’s filmmaking smarts? Absolutely, and as contemporary drama it showed people what could be made here, besides ocker comedies and colonial dramas. ‘It worked in every market it played in and took around $100 million at the box office worldwide,’ recalls Scott Hicks, the director, in our recent interview. ‘It formed a new beachhead for Australian film in the US…’, taking around $36 million. ‘In Australia it ran for more than a year.’ ‘Unthinkable, unheard of these days’, and to start with ‘it was a film nobody wanted to make’.
It is 20 years since Shine was released, through Ronin Films, Canberra. To mark this anniversary, the filmmakers are gathering for events due to take place at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive. On 13 August, the team from Ronin will discuss the film’s innovative release into the Australian market, and there will be a screening followed by Q&A with Geoffrey Rush, producer Jane Scott, director Scott Hicks, and writer Jan Sardi. On the following day, David Helfgott will give a concert, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3, in an arrangement for two pianos with UK pianist Rhodri Clarke. In 2017, Helfgott will be taking ‘Rach 3’ to Vienna, Istanbul and Berlin.
In the early 1990s, Hicks cast Rush for the role of Helfgott based on what he had seen of his work on stage. Rush was an untested screen presence, but a respected theatre actor and had only just been on screen with a couple of very small parts prior. When Rush had asked Hicks to say in just a single word what Shine was about, the director nominated ‘redemption’, and the actor was onboard.
Rush was in his mid-40s when Susan Sarandon handed the golden statuette at the Academies, there was nothing ‘overdue’ about it. Moreover, stage to screen is not a necessarily easy or natural transition. Although he was new to the screen, Rush took almost every award possible that year, including the Boston Society of Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild awards.
Watching Shine again twenty years on is a rare pleasure. As Hicks says, ‘It’s a story about a boy who never grew up. As David would say, “I never grew up, I grew down”’! Rush just leaps off that trampoline and through the screen with his exuberant performance. At the same time compelling in those quiet moments, that you may need to listen closely so you catch the wit and worldplay. ‘Every single word of was based on the way that David spoke,’ recalls Jan Sardi, the screenwriter.
Sardi must have been delighted to hear that his script was a great read, compared to other scripts that Rush received to read, that seemed to him put together like the ingredients for a recipe. Hicks had handed his original script, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, to screenwriter Sardi (who went on to make Mao’s Last Dancer), who spent 5-6 years working it. ‘It was very important to understand David as a young boy and the key relationship was obviously his father and those other expectations that were placed on him, which informed the journey that he took in his life.’
‘It’s all about structure,’ says Sardi. In a way, a film is like a poem, as it is not possible to include everything. ‘It was a case of building the story, giving the audience a sense of the journey they are on, and why they were watching it.’
It is surprising to realise that Geoffrey Rush is actually on screen for around half the running time of the 1.46-minute film, and yet his character is unforgettable. So commanding is his performance as the adult Helfgott, institutionalized for years until the opportunity arose for him to play piano again.
The world would see much more of Rush in the years to come, as the comic actor himself in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, as a reptilian royal fixer Walsingham in Elizabeth, as a jolly royal speech therapist in The King’s Speech and, totally over the top as Captain Hector Barbarossa throughout The Pirates of the Caribbean cycle. Over the years, Rush has never failed to return to the local film industry that nurtured him, or the Australian stage.
Yet, Shine was a watershed moment for many involved. It launched the international career of the director Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars, No Reservations) and actor Noah Taylor, who has carved something of a niche for himself in eccentric characters ever since. The performances by Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz of Helfgott as his much younger selves ought not be forgotten. As the adolescent Helfgott, Taylor provides a remarkable foundation for Rush to work with, although the young actor had no access to Helfgott as he was at that point in his life. Indeed, Taylor carries the character for most of the first half, from the point when he is identified as a musical prodigy at 14 to his breakdown in his 20s while a student at the Royal College of Music in London. In interview, Rush has said that people tell him about scenes they recall in Shine that he himself actually wasn’t in. ‘It was actually the other actor’, ‘a bit of an unsung hero’ in the film.
The actor Armin Mueller-Stahl was also an Oscar nominee in 1997 for his support role as David’s father, Peter. The characterization of Helfgott senior, a Holocaust survivor and from the film’s perspective, an overbearing and destructive presence in his son’s life, prompted refutations by other members of the Helfgott family.
Be that as it may, Shine is the astonishing story of a man brought to his knees by mental breakdown, but subsequently able to find his music again, and joy, expression and fulfilment in his later years, during his marriage to Gillian, an astrologer (played by Lynne Redgrave).
In some way, the struggle within David Helfgott seems to be represented by the contrasting moods and levels of difficulty in Mozart and Rachmaninoff, his music teacher’s choice versus what his father wanted him to play. The light and the dark. Was it difficult, given the sad and difficult places Helfgott travelled through during his life, to make Shine a life-affirming story? ‘In some ways the responsibility of all art is to give hope,’ says Sardi. For Hicks, ‘the whole point of the story was the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the nature of drama really. To feel the power of the highs, you have to experience the lows.’
Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016
© by Jane Freebury
Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016
Halal or haram? Legal or illegal? That’s the question at the heart of Halal Love, a revealing comedy that features during the Arab Film Festival, now in its 13th year. Socially relevant and progressive, it looks at the tangled lives of contemporary urban Muslims as they try to navigate love, marriage and desire in contemporary Lebanon. It went to Sundance Film Festival in January with its alternative title, Halal Love (and Sex).
Halal Love was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival late last year, and has been seen widely on the festival circuit, including Sydney, Rotterdam, Locarno, and Edinburgh. Challenging stereotypes, no doubt, that are widely held. Starting off in a classroom during a sex education class, Halal Love is an eye-opener into the battle of the sexes, Muslim-style, as couples try to manage their love lives creatively, without breaking the rules.
There are three intertwined love stories. A mother, too tired for sex with her amorous husband at the end of a long day, who recruits a second wife to help out, and help her with cooking, cleaning and looking after the lively kids. A pathologically jealous young man who keeps divorcing his beautiful new wife every time she looks at another man the wrong way, until he can no longer marry and make up. Not before she marries another man and consummates the union, will he be able to marry her again—a fourth time. Just desserts, anyone? And there’s a young divorcee who can marry her true love, but only on a short-term contract, because he is already married with family.
The writer-director of this bitter-sweet comedy, Assad Fouladkar, is a guest of the Arab Film Festival this year. Over the phone from Sydney he told me how he had sourced his ideas. With input from the women he knew? No, it was not like that. ‘Although Halal Love is mainly stories about women and it’s mostly their point of view, the ideas are from what I remembered hearing in my childhood, from what women talk about in private, in their homes.’
‘I wanted people to get inside my world. […] To get inside my bedroom…!’, he explained, to understand that in the Arab-speaking world, life is the same as it is for everyone everywhere else, a struggle within family and relationships. The pursuit of happiness, inalienable right or not, is what most of us strive for.
Fouladkar is based in Egypt where the majority of Arab-language cinema and television is made, around 75 percent of the output. He has eight seasons of the successful sitcom, A Man and Six Ladies, to his name. So what is the most popular film genre in the Arab-speaking world? ‘Always comedy,’ Fouladkar responded without a second’s hesitation. Everyone needs diversion from the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East.
The Arab Film Festival offers a unique entrée into the lives of people of the Arab world. Three of the films screening in the touring festival, including Halal Love, a coproduction with Germany, hail from Lebanon. Two are from Egypt, two from Iraq, and one each from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar. Home, directed by Shahin Alanezi, is an Australian production. A selection of these films will be screening in Canberra.
This is the first time that a film from Syria appears. Waiting for the Fall explores how the inhabitants of a small town try to maintain normality in war-time, as far as it is possible. An air strike is expected anytime soon but they are keeping a steady focus on the women’s volleyball final. When a local photographer is taken prisoner by rebels everything can unravel at any moment. Alternating between suspense, slapstick, satire, and poignancy, Waiting for the Fall captures the surreal mix of life in a warzone. It was awarded the prize for best film in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition at the Cairo International Film Festival.
A Palestinian documentary is also screening here. Roshmia is a study of an elderly and childless refugee couple who are in a final standoff with local authorities over their home, a shack in the Roshmia valley. It is written and directed by a Syrian filmmaker, Salim Abu Jabal, who is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Roshmia will screen with another doco, Home, a short film made in Australia. It looks at how an Iraqi refugee struggles to accept her son’s embrace of Australian culture over the traditions of his family background. Director Shahin Alanezi arrived here in 2008.
The final film in the Canberra season, El Clasico, directed by Halkawt Mustafa, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. Set in another battleground, Iraq, it tells the story of dwarf Kurdish brothers who make a quixotic overland trip to see football’s game of games in Madrid, thereby gaining acceptance and winning hearts and minds. It is played by brothers in real life, and, like all of the films set to screen, affords a glimpse into people and cultures so rarely seen on our screen.
A selection of films from the touring Arab Film Festival screen at the National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton, ACT, 5-7 August.
First published in the Canberra Times on 23 July 2016
© by Jane Freebury
Two years ago, a bitter-sweet documentary about the backing singers behind stars like Jagger, Sting, Springsteen and Bowie won the Oscar for best documentary. Not only did the Morgan Neville doco, 20 Feet from Stardom, beat The Square, about upheavals in Egypt’s ‘Arab spring’, it also beat The Act of Killing, about the murderous political realities in Indonesia in the 1960s. It was the story of vocalists in the shadow of fame that won the day instead.
A new doco from Neville, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, will open this year’s Stronger Than Fiction film festival, Canberra’s own and now in its fourth year. On the program are 13 films, all sourced from overseas—and they screen just once.
Simon Weaving, co-director of the festival with Deborah Kingsland, told me how they made it happen. ‘Deb and I watched a lot of films from Sundance in January onwards. It’s a new batch of films. … We pick between 12 and 15 really smart, cinematic films with great stories that we know will work for Canberra audiences. The other really good thing about the festival is that we get some wonderful Q&As going.’ There are five over the four-day festival.
The Music of Strangers will open the festival on 28 July. It explores the musical collective that celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought together in 2000. The original idea was to incorporate the best musicians in their field from the cultures located along the historical Silk Road, from countries like China, India, Syria, Armenia, Iran and Spain. Now, the ensemble brings musicians, composers and artists together around the world in a quest for a universal language of music.
Is everybody ready for the first documentary feature on Janis Joplin? In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg brings the Joplin story to the screen, told in the singer’s own words through letters to family and friends. How surprising that it has taken so long for a doco that is just about her, the Texan with the raw and uninhibited style who was one of the top blues singers of the 1960s.
Music has a part to play in some other documentaries screening at Stronger Than Fiction, like The Queen of Silence and the Matthew Passion Stories. And also Sonita, about a feisty 16-year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran whose brother has arranged her marriage. She resists, gaining strength through her music.
A European coproduction, Free to Run explores a rather different source of endorphins, running. The running movement that was once a marginal activity reserved for men has now become, in the words of the festival program, ‘a worldwide passion’. This unusual study suggests there was, however, more to the right to run than we were ever aware of.
A film from New Zealand will demonstrate that endurance can mean different things to different people. Tickled, delivered with that particular Kiwi humour, is a study of the ‘sport’ of ‘competitive endurance tickling’. Funny or sinister? It is a bit hard to say.
The film that won the Golden Bear for best film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea, looks at the migrant crisis through their eyes of the people of Lampedusa, the southern-most island of Italy, a little more than 100 kilometres from Tunisia, and the first staging post for migrants entering Europe. ‘This is cinema, the most exquisite piece of cinema,’ says Weaving.
Jim: The James Foley Story bears witness to the life of freelance war photojournalist Foley captured and so publicly executed by ISIS, and considers the state of international conflict reporting in today’s media market.
‘This is about Jim but it goes beyond, and touches on the meaning of life,’ says Weaving. ‘It’s really powerful.’ No wonder it won the audience award at Sundance this year. At a time when values can be ‘a bit soft, and bendy and anything goes, here was a man who was very clear about what he stood for…it was clear that it gave him such incredible strength and he was able to share that strength (with fellow captives).’
It’s been said at some point by one of the greats of documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris (who made the classic doco The Thin Blue Line released in 1988), that you have to at least try to find the truth, even if you cannot guarantee it. He’s also said that the beauty of documentary filmmaking is that you just don’t know where your story is heading. From the outset, how your voyage is going to end is unknown.
Stronger Than Fiction features one of those classic investigation films that Morris would have had in mind. Zero Days is a search for truth in the clandestine world of cyber warfare by renowned documentarian, Alex Gibney, following the development and spread of a computer virus that closed down industrial control systems across the world in 2012. It will be fast a paced and unsettling experience, we can be sure. Gibney is responsible for some of the best documentaries in recent times, like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and the Oscar winner, Taxi to the Dark Side.
Another of the world’s best and also most prolific, documentarians, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man and many more) features at Stronger Than Fiction. He has made a meditation in his inimitable style on the internet, projecting the impact of the digital environment on our lives into the future in Lo and Behold. Reveries of the Connected World. A kind of companion piece to Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that projected into our pre-historic past?
Besides all this, Stronger Than Fiction offers a bit of live theatre too. Aspiring filmmakers with an idea for a new doco can pitch it to an industry panel at the Doco Pitch Slam, and get instant feedback. The slam, standing-room only, features at the festival every year.
First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2016
© by Jane Freebury
In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, young Danila Vassilieff, a trained engineer and former White Army soldier, left his homeland behind. After extensive travels in Asia, he made his way to Australia with his wife, also a Russian refugee. He became an Australian citizen, and began to paint but the wanderlust returned and he set off around the world. When he eventually returned, he became a key figure in the development of figurative expressionism in Australia. Prominent painters influenced by him during the 1940s include Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman.
For all this, the legacy of painter and sculptor Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff has been overlooked, says Richard Moore whose new documentary film explores his legacy. Moore, a former head of the Melbourne International Film Festival, has extensive experience as a director and producer in film and television.
The Wolf in Australian Art is based on research by Moore’s mother, Felicity St John Moore, with contributions from his brother and his sister. Felicity features as the gallery guide through the Vassilieff collection at the National Gallery of Australia, that holds the biggest collection of his work in the country. Around 300 works are shown in the film.
It was the sculptures by Vassilieff, wrought in marble found in Lilydale that was the artist’s eventual home, that first caught Felicity’s eye.
‘The film is based on Felicity’s book, Vassilieff and His Arts. I directed and produced the film, my brother Tim (Moore), who is head of exhibition design at National Portrait Gallery. He designed the major exhibition of Vassilieff’s work where sections of the film are shot, and my sister Lisa (Moore) plays the majority of the music.’ Lisa, a professional pianist, lives in the US.
‘A bit of a family affair’, Moore says, who I interviewed from Melbourne this week. ‘And we’re still talking!’
Art historian, author and curator, Felicity St John Moore, was formerly head of Education at the NGA, training guides and giving public lectures. Her book on Vassilieff, first published in 1982, is in its second edition.
While in London in the 1930s, Vassilieff encountered the Ballets Russes and the Russian moderns, and from this point his work was underpinned by the traditions of the figurative tradition from Russian folk art and the modernist avant-garde, as he sought to paint life as it is lived. When back in Australia, he established his reputation through a confident confrontation with fine art, insisting that it was the visceral response and the message in art that mattered, rather than the aesthetics.
‘Vassilieff was a colourful, eccentric, unusual character,’ says Moore. An outsider who didn’t really fit in? A restless intelligence? Yes, and yes. ‘He changed styles constantly. He was a shape shifter.’ He had a liberating effect on young Australian artists who felt emboldened to trust their own vision. However, unfortunately, he only sold five of his own paintings during his lifetime.
The ‘Wolf’, where does that come from? It’s a playful label, says Moore, derived in part from Vassilieff’s Peter and the Wolf watercolours, held in the NGA. ‘And he was also a voracious lover’, who had many affairs.
The Wolf in Australian Art is an opportunity to re-evaluate the contribution of Vassilieff, considered a father figure to the generation of Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker known as the Angry Penguins, helping them to find their voice.
The Wolf in Australian Art screened at the National Gallery of Australia in July, introduced by director, Richard Moore, and followed by a Q&A.