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Scandinavian Film Festival 2016

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 July 2016

 

 

© by Jane Freebury  land of mine poster

Arriving with the mid-winter chill, the Scandinavian Film Festival is back on cue this July. By turns bold and beautiful, Scandinavian cinema can be outrageous, funny and frank, and can deliver a jolt, like a shot of vodka, straight to the solar plexus.

As a catch-all for countries of the Nordic tradition, the festival captures the latest cinema from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as Finland and Iceland. It is now in its third year.

In recent times, Scandinavian film has been acquiring a bit of a name for itself. As It Is in Heaven was a uniquely stirring, endorphin releasing film from the region that was a soaring hit here in Australia around 12 years ago. With Michael Nyqvist as an ailing conductor who rediscovers joy with a choir in his remote hometown, this film ran continuously at the Hayden Orpheum cinema in Cremorne, Sydney, for more than two years.

A special event at the Scandinavian festival this year will be its sequel. As It Is in Heaven 2: Heaven on Earth, made by the same director, Kay Pollak, picks up where the original left off, after Nyqvist’s character passes away. The young Norwegian actor, Jakob Oftebro, who appears in it, is this year’s festival guest.

Oftebro was recently recognized as one of the top ten best young European actors in 2014. He also appears in the lead in the historical drama, Gold Coast, as a rebellious, anti-colonialist idealist who is sent to a Danish colony in Africa in the 19th century. The film was a recent nominee for the top film prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Idealism is also explored in another Danish film due to screen. It concerns the actions of a journalist who exposes an international cover-up following a nuclear accident in Greenland in 1968. The Idealist has won several awards, and indeed, nearly all of the films screening at the festival have been either film festival nominees or awards winners.

Land of Mine, the winner of the best film award this year at Gothenburg, the Nordic film awards, is also screening at Scandi.  For the Gothenburg jury it is ‘a film which shows the tragic cycles of war, when the winners adopt the brutal techniques of the losers’. It was in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival.

the fencer poster Another intimate human drama in the aftermath of WWII is The Fencer, Finland’s official Oscar contender. Based on real events, it is about a fencing master and former reluctant recruit to the German armed forces, who settles in a remote village in Estonia in an attempt to leave his past behind.

Welcome to Norway!, selected for opening night of the festival, promises to throw political correctness to the winds with comedy about a struggling entrepreneur who turns his rundown hotel into a state-funded refugee asylum to stay financially afloat. Welcome to Norway! won the audience award earlier this year at the Nordic awards at Gothenburg.

welcome to norway posterWhen one of the big news stories emanating from Europe now is immigration, the Swedish documentary, Nice People, seems particularly topical. It reveals how rural Swedes and Somali refugees find common language as they form a team to play ‘bandy’, a cross between ice hockey and soccer, apparently. Clearly a crowd pleaser, it won the audience award at the 2015 Hamburg Film Festival.

nice people poster  Around a quarter of the films screening at the Scandi festival are billed as comedies, or variants of. Some memorable comedies have emerged from Scandinavia in recent years. The Swedish absurdist comedy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, featured at the inaugural Scandinavian festival in 2014. Robert Gustafsson played the part of the centenarian whose life odyssey was revealed in the vein of Forrest Gump. The actor, a king of comedy in Sweden, turned out to be a sprightly 50-year-old. If you caught Headhunters from Norway, another Scandinavian festival film that went into release here in 2014, it was also a riot of hilarity, though of a more grisly and twisted kind.

Last year, Rams from Iceland appeared on the festival program. I suppose you might call it comedy, in spite of itself, but it is more memorable for the extraordinary landscapes and the dogged and perverse resilience of the Icelanders that it introduced us to.

Many of us have become addicts of the morally complex crime fiction that’s become known as ‘Nordic noir’, in TV series like The Bridge and Borgen. This is distinct from the ‘Nordic gloom’ that Scandinavian cinema has been known for, fairly or unfairly. That grand old man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman, long gone now, who left us with unforgettable movie experiences like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, can’t be held entirely responsible for this reputation.

Not when there are striking dark journeys into the soul in the terrific films of the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier like Open Hearts and Brothers.  The new enfant terrible of Danish cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn has brushed aside his aging predecessor, Lars Von Trier, for the time being at least with work that is visually arresting, propulsive and harrowing like Drive and Only God Forgives.

A sidebar of the festival is Winding Refn’s Pusher gangland trilogy. Don’t be fooled by this director’s bland image of the corporate clone. His work typically has style to burn but is not for the faint-hearted. The trilogy features early performances by the remarkable Mads Mikkelsen, who has shown his sensitive side to international audiences since in dramas like The Hunt and After the Wedding.

The Scandi cinema has built quite a profile in recent years, and its actors, like ours, are flying high. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Sweden was huge, so huge that it had to be remade it in English with Daniel Craig. The Millennium series’ original star, Noomi Rapace, has joined the international film industry, as has Mads Mikkelsen, playing opposite James Bond in Casino Royale, and Alicia Vikander, in Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl.

It’s quite a record for a group of countries spread across vast arctic spaces with a combined population that adds up to just 26 million people.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/like-a-shot-of-vodka-the-scandinavian-film-festival-2016-comes-to-canberra-20160705-gpz1fq.html

The Scandinavian Film Festival screens between 12 – 27 July at the Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, ACT.

 

Scorsese by Stratton

   raging bull

© Jane Freebury

When he notched up 18 years as director of the Sydney Film Festival, David Stratton became a founding father of movie culture in this country. He needs no introduction. While he was a TV film critic opposite Margaret Pomeranz for the next three decades, their opinions mattered to people across the generations and it is likely they are still missed.

Over the years, Stratton would have seen countless filmmakers, actors and movie trends come and go, and re-invent themselves. So a season of the work of Martin Scorsese, one of the best filmmakers of the last 50 or so years, curated by Stratton, is an especially happy coincidence of film buff critic and film buff director. It would be great to see them go head to head, but we have instead, during July, a season of 17 films from the oeuvre of Scorsese. ‘Scorsese by Stratton’ is on at Arc cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive during July.

Stratton’s views and opinions are probably better known in this country than the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese. It is something of a paradox.

The name Scorsese stands as a shorthand for the violent, masculine drama that lets rip in Casino and Goodfellas, yet the diminutive and softly spoken Italian-American is a far more versatile filmmaker than he is generally thought to be. We may think we are pretty familiar with movies. Who hasn’t heard of his infamous protagonists, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street? We certainly know the Scorsese name and that his films are about what it means to be a man in the modern world, but when it comes down to it, how well do we know his body of work?

It’s not so much that his films have pulled in massive crowds, either. It’s that he happens to make the landmark movie, a sort of summary statement, or first telling observation or last word. And everyone recognizes the quality of his work, the thought that has gone behind it, the knowledge of cinema that supports it, and the skill and sensitivity that has gone into his images, choice of music and use of sound, or silence, as in Raging Bull. Scorsese is the filmmakers’ filmmaker. He has received the most Academy Award nominations for best director of anyone else alive, and has won once, for The Departed in 2007.

Two films by Scorsese, Kundun a drama about the Dalai Lama and The Last Temptation of Christ, deal directly with religion. Not exclusively, as religion comes up in his films again and again. The former altar boy and trainee priest still seems to be working things through. You can’t miss the crucifixes and other religious iconography in films from Raging Bull (one of his best ever), to Cape Fear (not included in the program), but you can expect to find recurring allusions to religion scattered everywhere throughout in his work. And Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, due for release this year, concerns Jesuits in Japan.

Since being engrossed in the theatricality of church ritual, Scorsese seems to have been ruminating on the difference between good and evil for his entire career. ‘Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane,’ writes Stratton in his accompanying film notes.King of Comedy 1

A less familiar Scorsese character will be Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in King of Comedy, another film that belies Scorsese’s reputation for gangsters. In this film from 1983, Pupkin (not Pumpkin!), a mama’s boy who re-enacts interviews in his basement with life-size cut-outs, tries to kidnap his idol, a celebrity talk-show host played by Jerry Lewis. Billed as a comedy that is ‘no laughing matter’, this off-kilter caper is a weird and singular experience.

Scorsese is also held in high regard for his treatment of music, as audio to his vision or the subject of his work. A significant number of his films are about music makers. He is responsible for one of the best-ever rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, a doco on the last concert given by The Band, along with some of their famous friends. Other terrific muso documentaries include the more recent Shine A Light, a Rolling Stones concert plus interviews, George Harrison: Material World, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.

Cate Blanchett is said to have asked Scorsese when he was going to make another film with a woman in the centre. Undoubtedly others have asked the same question.

Liza Minelli made music with Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s New York New York and Ellen Burstyn invited Scorsese to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but the lavish and subtle Scorsese film about a 19th century socialite, played by Michelle Pfeiffer opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, was a revelation that we haven’t yet seen repeated.

The Age of Innocence of 1993 turns on obsessive, repressed desire.  It explores the dilemma of a lawyer, destined for a socially approved match, who becomes infatuated with another woman. Their affair shakes New York society to its foundations. It is great to see this film has a spot in Stratton’s ‘top ten’ personal Scorsese favourites.Age of Innocence

Scorsese shot to prominence in 1974 with Mean Streets. He had made it for $550,000, premiered it at Cannes, then showed it at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney. ‘The rest,’ notes Stratton, ‘is history.’

The NFSA, in association with the Sydney Film Festival and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is screening this season of Martin Scorsese films (including ten of David Stratton’s favourites) at Arc Cinema during July.

 

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/scorsese-by-stratton-at-the-national-film-and-sound-archive-celebrates-the-great-movie-director-20160627-gpsjtx.html

 

HotDocs in Oz in 2016

A version of this article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 June 2016

© Jane Freebury

Ingrid bergman in her own words

Ask anyone, who you don’t expect will know the answer, for the name of the highest earning documentary of all time. There’s a good chance they’d nominate Fahrenheit 9/11. And they’d be right.

Michael Moore’s controversial, polemical doco of 2004 screened in more than 40 countries, even in parts of the Middle East. Although ineligible for the Oscars it was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Palme d’Or, the first documentary to win the coveted award in over 50 years. Maybe it changed the world, like the leap in public awareness of global warming after the release of An Inconvenient Truth just two years later. It certainly showed documentary filmmakers everywhere what was possible.

In general, docos don’t usually do quite so well, though there have been some recent superb breakthroughs into general theatrical exhibition like Man on Wire, Inside Job, Grizzly Man, The Gleaners and I, Touching the Void, and Waltz With Bashir.

You can count the number of Australian docos that passed the $1 million threshold at the local box office on one hand, but they include two released over the last 16 months. Sherpa and That Sugar Film.

There’s plenty more where these films come from, here and around the world. With the demise of grand narratives, the rise of citizen activism and the proliferation of affordable high-definition technology it is possible to shoot a film that can look great in cinemas, let alone streamed to TV or tablet. Could it be that the more incredible the comic book superhero exploits become and despite more accomplished and astonishing CGI, the more we yearn for the touchstone of reality of real people and situations?

In its first year here, HotDocs takes place at Palace Cinemas this month in three cities only, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.The 24 films selected for the program are recent releases and sourced from 15 countries. They are drawn from the program of the annual Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, the largest doco fest in North America.

I asked Richard Moore, the artistic director for HotDocs in Australia and a former documentary filmmaker himself (as well as a very experienced festival programmer), what assistance documentaries need to screen in front of audiences in cinemas? ‘Screen space in the right cinema that will support them, that won’t drop them after …’

‘A week!’, I suggest.

‘No, four days! I’ve seen that happen.’

And what did he think the best docos had to offer in this ‘golden age’ where anyone can be a documentary filmmaker? ‘A story about a part of life that you would never in your wildest dreams have access to. That’s what docos do, they take you into another world. Something you would never have dreamt of.’

How do you decide on 24 documentary films from the hundreds of contenders from around the world available on the HotDocs program in Canada? ‘I try to be as diverse as possible… as fresh as possible.’

Diving into the Unknown

HotDocs offers great access into rarely accessed worlds. The program includes I Am the Blues, a musical travelogue through Mississippi, from front porches to church halls, that pays a visit to living legends of the blues. Diving into the Unknown follows an attempt to explore a 5-kilometre long and 130-metre deep cave in Norway, when things go horribly wrong halfway for the five Finnish divers.

152x215xhot16whattomorrowbrings.poster.jpg.pagespeed.ic.YSxjoFvCsb What Tomorrow Brings enters the first girls’ school in a  small Afghan village where fathers have not previously allowed their daughters to be educated, and even now are not sure about it. Raving Iran visits a group of young people active in the illegal underground techno scene.

Intimate journeys include Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, with material from the Swedish legend’s private screen tests and her own private movies—she carried a camera everywhere, like Mia Wasikowska does. Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth) narrates. There are also docos on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prodigious filmmaker who died at 37 with 42 films to his name, and the fiery surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo. Jim: the James Foley Story has been made by a close childhood friend of the American photojournalist, kidnapped in Syria, whose public execution introduced the world to ISIS.

A timely study of the use of medical marihuana, A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana is receiving its world premiere at the festival with the other Australian doco featured. Motorkite Dreaming, in which young microlight adventurers journey across the continent, led by two Aboriginal guides, provides the ultimate bird’s eye perspective on our island continent. Every doco is, as they say, a passion project.

 

HotDocs is screening at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from 14 June to 3 July 2016.

Spanish Film Festival 2016

Also published in the Canberra Times on 9 April 2016 at:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/whats-on-at-the-spanish-film-festival-2016-in-canberra-20160404-gnxrrr.html

 

embrace of the serpent

© Jane Freebury

It wasn’t that long ago, well maybe it was 20 years, when for  many of us moviegoers the Spanish cinema was synonymous with the work of Pedro Almodovar. And vice versa.

His films were irreverent, often dark, sexy and funny, and he was prolific. There were gender-bending, taboo-breaking melodramas like High Heels and Live Flesh that seemed to lead the way out of the last vestiges of the political repression and social conformity of Spain’s post-fascist era. Audiences loved him for it.

Since then, it has become clear that exuberance and stylistic panache is widespread among Spanish language films in Spain as well as South and Central America. Think Pan’s Labyrinth, Blancanieves, The Orphanage, Open Your Eyes,  Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Wild Tales, a favourite of mine last year.

The Spanish Film Festival this year offers plenty of this distinct film culture, with 41 films (32 features and 9 shorts). They hail from Spain, from Argentina and Chile, and there are a number of coproductions.

There is even a Spanish-Australian coproduction, A Ticket to Your Life, a documentary about recent immigrants here, fleeing the impact of the GFC in their homeland, and some Spanish immigrants who settled here in the 1960s.

Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina teamed up to make Embrace of the Serpent. It was one of five finalists nominated for a foreign language Oscar earlier this year and it won the Art Cinema award at Cannes. Filmed in black-and-white—not as one might expect—and in colour, it promises to be a thoughtful, stunning odyssey through the Amazon. It will be getting a release here, but the SFF represents the only opportunity to see most of the rest of the films, notes Genevieve Kelly, producer of the festival.

Fresh from January’s Sundance festival and the Berlinale comes the drama Much Ado About Nothing. It is based on a true story, a hit-and-run in which an attempt is made to frame one of the occupants of the car involved in the crime. Filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras has the Chilean upper class in his sights.

thin yellow line 3

The Thin Yellow Line by talented first-time feature director Celso Garcia was voted best Latin American film by the public at last year’s Montreal Film Festival. A comedy-drama, it is set among a group of men whose job it is in these uncertain economic times to paint the yellow stripe down the centre of Mexican state highway. It sounds promising.

This year’s festival guest is Daniel Guzman, director of Nothing in Return. His first feature has won him the best new director award at the Goyas, or Spanish Oscars. As I’ve previewed this one, I can report that Guzman’s coming-of-age drama is definitely worth a look. It is about a disaffected teenager who runs away and builds a surrogate family one summer. For Guzman, a filmmaker with an original eye, the story is close to home, and the tough talking old lady who scavenges discarded furniture and takes him under her wing is actually his grandmother.

Reflecting the diversity of what it means to be Spanish today, a Spanish Affair returns to the SFF this year in its second iteration. Spanish Affair 2 opens the festival with the young man from southern Spain who had won the heart of a Basque girl now out in the cold. To make sense of the first movie, you would need to have an appreciation of the Sevillian stereotype, that is, extrovert, quick-witted and inclined to use hair gel.

This time round all you need to know is that the stereotype of a Catalan hipster is even worse for the girl’s fiercely nationalistic family. Expect lots of hipster jokes. A high energy, oddball rom-com, by the sound of things, in which everyone gets a serve. ‘The jokes are thrown both ways,’ says Kelly.

spanish affair 2

Both Spanish Affair films have been among the biggest Spanish-made box office hits of all time. I have been intrigued to discover that The Impossible, also a Spanish film, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, about a couple and their family on holiday in Thailand when the tsunami hit, is also right up there with them. It was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who debuted with the mystery-thriller The Orphanage, the film that turned him into a director of repute beyond his native Spain.

Other directors of international repute who have emerged in recent decades from Spanish-speaking South and Central America, are Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Amenabar and Alejandro Inarritu. Indeed Cuaron and Inarritu, both born in Mexico City, won the last three best director Oscars between them.

Since the 1990s, a distinctive group of screen actors has emerged, like Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro. Some have seemed to fit right in to Hollywood, while others haven’t fared quite so well, unaccountably. It has been said that Hollywood simply hasn’t known what to do with Penelope Cruz, how best to use her talents, though the gorgeous star remains a favourite of Almodovar.

For those who follow the Spanish-speaking stars, there will be a world premiere for the uncut version of Ma Ma, with Penelope Cruz.  And fans of Gael Garcia Bernal won’t be surprised to find that he appears in another film with strong political themes. Eva Doesn’t Sleep, an Argentinian film about an embalmed Eva Peron, the other half in the country’s infamous dictatorship.

Maribel Verdu who played a woman of the world opposite Bernal way back when in Y Tu Mama Tambien makes another spirited appearance in No Kids, about a mismatched couple who can’t agree on parenting.

Another festival angle is the ‘Short Film from the Heart’ event. It has been curated thematically around key moments of romance and heartache, rather like the recent compendium films Paris, je t’aime and New York, I love You. It affords an excellent opportunity to spot new talent. Today there is an abundance of chutzpah and energy in Spanish-language cinema, and we still hear occasionally from Almodovar.

This year’s SFF is the 19th mounted. It is curated especially for Australian audiences, and this year will also travel to New Zealand.

 

The Spanish Film Festival 2016 screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton in Canberra from Tuesday 19 April to Sunday 8 May.

Film Critics Circle of Australia annual awards for 2015

Film Critics Circle of Australia news

The FCCA, the national professional body of film reviewers, critics and writers is pleased to announce the nominations for the Australian film of 2015.

The Annual Awards will be held on Tuesday 23 February from 6pm sharp at the Paddington Woollahra RSL, Oxford Street Paddington.

The Awards event will lead off with a special attraction, In Conversation with Academy Award Winner Adam Elliot, the FCCA patron.

The Dressmaker has garnered 10 nominations while Last Cab to Darwin and Mad Max: Fury Road each have 8 nominations. Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man has 7 nominations while Paper Planes and Cut Snake each have 5. Tanna has 4 nominations.

FCCA President Russell Edwards commented –
The spread of nominees from heralded blockbusters to small-scale independents highlights the diversity of Australian cinema. As the country’s most important critical body looking at movies, we at the Film Critics Circle of Australia are pleased to be able to not only salute the box office, but also celebrate the innovative spirit. I would also like to congratulate the nominees in the documentary category as the Film Critics Circle of Australia continues its support of this vitally important area of Australian film.
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Further details from the Awards Manager
email: FilmCriticsAust@bigpond.com
website:  fcca.com.au

FCCA is grateful for the sponsorship of:
FOXTEL, UNIVERSAL PICTURES, ACS, AGSC, FILMINK, KARMEE COFFEE, AUSTRALIAN VOICES IN PRINT (AVIP) and MB FILMS

The feature Documentary Award is presented in partnership with the NFSA

Introductory remarks: on Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker

My introduction to Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker that screened as part of a special program at the National Film and Sound Archive during Reconciliation Week in Canberra, 28 May 2015

It is a very great pleasure to introduce The Tracker during Reconciliation Week 2015. It is powerful and polemical film.

Whether you are watching The Tracker for the first time or have seen it before, I think it will appear as vibrant and urgent as it seemed on release in 2002.

For a start, the visuals are beautiful. The Tracker captures the desert mauves, the purples and ochres and pitiless bright blue sky of our interior landscapes. The ‘look’ of thrusting granite ranges, twisted scrub and majestic white-trunked ghost gums recalls (intentionally, I understand) the watercolours of the Central Australian desert painted by Albert Namatjira in the 1930s.

The ballad soundtrack is haunting. And the presence of David Gulpilil is, as always, immensely compelling.

Let’s not overlook the fact that there are some moments when The Tracker is also funny, in a dark, ascerbic kind of way. Gallows humour seems absolutely apposite.

It came about in response to reading about the violence perpetrated against Indigenous people on Australia’s frontier, the intersection between Aboriginals and white settlers. In the early 1990s it was not widely known. Rolf will fill you in on the details, however his reading on ‘the frontier’, I believe the writing of historian Henry Reynolds, was a revelation that angered him deeply. So much so that it drove him to craft a blistering treatment in less than a day: ‘Twelve pages. Double spaced.’ Though it was subsequently set aside.

Around a decade later the Adelaide Festival of Arts approached him with a request for a socially conscious film preferably with a strong Indigenous theme for its Shedding Light program. The rest is history.

The Tracker portrays events that took place less than a hundred years ago, within the lifetime of some Australians still living. It was the first film to deal directly with massacres of Aboriginal peoples by white settlers in Australia. I see it was in a sense a protest, that an aspect of our history had been hidden, and a conscious bit of activism. And I think the film retains its original campaigning zeal.

In the Australian industry, films that constitute such a strong challenge to mainstream thinking are rare. In my view, Rolf tells powerful stories with unconventional protagonists who interrogate the status quo. Filmgoers are generally not allowed to sit on the fence. In The Tracker, the mainstream is in my view represented by the taciturn, amiable presence of the Veteran (Grant Page). A fence-sitter if ever there was one, despatched nonetheless.

That said, Rolf’s powerful narrative cinema, frequently accompanied by a social critique, simultaneously argues that we recognise the marginalised in our society and offers an inclusive social vision as it does so.

Stepping back to the 1970s for a moment, when the local film industry was revived, there were in amongst everything else going on two defining Indigenous themed films.

Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), the film in which Gulpilil first appeared on screen, and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), in which a young Aboriginal man, no longer able to tolerate the abuse of his white employers and family, snaps violently and turns outlaw. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, though based on the writing of Thomas Keneally and also fact-based, was harshly criticised for its graphic violence at the time.

The Tracker on release did not find favour with everyone. Rolf has run the gauntlet for it, even been spat at, but he was also hugged! Although violence is out of frame, and it is located in time six years prior to the Coniston Massacre, The Tracker still appears as a challenge for us today.

Happily, it was made at a more propitious moment than the earlier films. Public consciousness had somewhat altered from when Rolf wrote his treatment and put it away in a drawer.

By the time the shoot for The Tracker finally began in early 2001, the Australian community had had more exposure to some of the more intractable issues of our colonial history with events such as the Mabo decision (1992), and the Bringing Them Home report (1994).
Also National Sorry Day in 1998, the Sydney Olympics, and the national Walk for Reconciliation in 2000.

A clustering of films about Indigenous-settler relations came out around then too: One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins), Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen), Black and White (Craig Lahiff). Like Phillip Noyce’s $6 million Rabbit-Proof Fence (made with a budget that was three times its size), The Tracker was also a bold and timely recognition of the stolen generations, and of our collective hidden history. Gulpilil was of course in both films, in the role of tracker.

It is astonishing to realise that Aboriginal trackers have had a place in Australian cinema since the beginning. Even more astonishing to realise how it was done. They were often played by white actors in ‘blackface’, and it my understanding that this practice continued to as late as the 1960s (e.g. James Trainor’s Journey Out of Darkness).

A striking and highly successful feature of The Tracker is the integration of still images into the narrative flow. Instead of shrinking from the violence, we stand in silent witness to the horror and reflect on what has passed. These are paintings by artist Peter Coad, 14 in all. They commence, advance and close the narrative with one last slow dissolve.

The artwork Rolf commissioned solved problems, including a resistance to portraying violence on screen. It was also an inventive solution to financial constraint. The paintings have since moved beyond solving practical issues to occupying an integral role in the film’s aesthetic system.

They are a great example of bricolage. Of bricolage that’s not about tinkering or ‘making do’ with what’s at hand, but about refusing to accept limitations and forging a new creative opportunity.

(Like all those originating ideas of Rolf’s – out of date filmstock (Dr Plonk); cheap video (Alexandra’s Project); 31 or so casual cinematographers (Bad Boy Bubby); non-actors (The Quiet Room); moving house (The King is Dead!) – that, while eventually modified, propel his films into existence.)

Over the years, the limitations of budget – and some self-imposed challenges – have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from Rolf’s practice and rejuvenated his authorial signature. It is a distinctive aspect of his work.

We can count on Rolf to deliver a strong narrative with an intriguing central character – think Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, The Quiet Room, Alexandra’s Project, Charlie’s Country. In my view, these narratives frequently overturn the traditional Hollywood narrative that have re-established consensus and order, with a questing outsider whose vision for a different, better kind of world prevails.

Gulpilil’s character is an enigma, an agent provocateur, a clown, a leader in waiting. He becomes a towering figure of authority, as white settler ignorance grows and as their legitimacy diminishes.

By films end, an intense interpersonal struggle is resolved in a reversal of roles in his favour – and justice is delivered.

In its demands for honesty in the historical account of what happened on the frontier, this boldly polemical film was made to persuade Australia to take responsibility for its past. It is dominated by one of the most intriguing and charismatic lead characters in Australian cinema, and played out against the magnificent Australian wilderness. It was a bold beginning to what has become an ‘accidental trilogy’ of great significance. That has evolved out of the personal and professional relationship between David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer.

In time this unique trilogy is likely to be recognised for its cultural significance.

Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Ten Canoes, The Tracker won multiple awards including a clean sweep at the AFI, IF and FCCA awards for best Australian feature film in 2002. It won the SIGNIS award at Venice film festival and was also nominated for the Golden Lion, the Press Award at the Paris film festival (a tie with La Fleuve) and the Special Jury Prize at the Vallodolid International film festival. Critic and academic Adrian Martin, a contributor to the BFI’s prestigious Sight and Sound magazine declared it the best Australian film of the decade 2000-2010.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best films by an unorthodox, bold and unpredictable filmmaker.

© 2018 Jane Freebury

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