Tag Archives: Film Features

Bushranger Movies: past and present

Published in print and online in the Canberra Times, 2 & 3 December:

The Legend of Ben Hall: new film about outlaw Ben Hall shows Australia’s taste for bushranger films has never diminished

ben-hall-3

Feature © Jane Freebury

Such is life, or is it? Bushranger films, one of the most popular films ever made in Australia, were banned in three states by the police in 1912, for fear of their impact on law and order. And yet the figure of the strapping, bearded outlaw who emerged from the bush and melted back into it just as quickly, may have been erased from the cinema screen but he was never killed off.

The bushranger never quite vanished from local popular culture. His (and on occasion, her) exploits outside the law continued to be celebrated in ballads and in theatre and on occasion there were relatively bland bushranger roles in films about squatter’s daughters or robberies under arms during the decades before the ban was lifted in the early 1940s.

Things were however never quite the same as they were at the start. Neither for bushrangers, nor for the local film industry. It is a widely-accepted fact that Australia’s first narrative feature, The Story of the Kelly Gang of 1906, wasn’t an isolated event. Australia was making a lot of feature-length films at that time, and in 1911 it made more than any other country in the world. Fifty-two movies were released, many of them bushranger stories, made before Hollywood began exporting its westerns in deadly earnest, and these bushranger films were a direct response to audience demand. An output of 50-plus films was not attained again until the 1970s when local film production began to re-emerge from decades of inactivity.

It was during that decade that bushrangers began to re-emerge in title roles. Ned Kelly made a bizarre re-appearance on the screen, in the form of a slight and effete rock star in 1970. It did not go down well. The swaggering Mick Jagger just didn’t cut it as the iconic outlaw, his attempt at an Irish accent didn’t work, and the production was beset with problems from the start.

Much better received were the series on the bushranger Ben Hall that appeared on Australian television a few years later, and the movie about bushranger Dan Morgan in 1976.  Philippe Mora, the director of Mad Dog Morgan director, apparently thought that his lead actor, Hollywood wild man Dennis Hopper, identified with the role. High on drugs and booze, Hopper threw himself into the part, and took his method acting to an extreme. He didn’t wash, and got so drunk after the shoot that he was arrested with a blood alcohol reading that belonged to the clinically dead.

There was a further hiatus in bushranger movies until the better behaved and milder-mannered Heath Ledger donned the metal mask in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly in 2003. Still today, the bushranger show just keeps rolling on, attracting new generations of filmmakers. A new independent Australian film, The Legend of Ben Hall, directed by Matthew Holmes, has opened with screenings across the bushranger’s patch in country NSW, and beyond.

ben-hall-4 TLOBH is the result of tremendous commitment by its dedicated team of young filmmakers. I interviewed key cast and crew as they made their way across Ben Hall country to open their film in cinemas from Griffith to Tamworth and Wollongong, and from Melbourne to Adelaide during November. The was financed with crowdfunding through Kickstarter. ‘It would not have been possible to make it without social media’, says Holmes.

A new take on Ned Kelly is also likely to make a reappearance at some point soon. There are reports that Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders; Macbeth) is working on an adaptation of the book by expatriate Australian novelist Peter Carey, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Booker Prize in 2001.

When audiences clamoured for more anti-authoritarian bushranger fun early last century, they got their wish, but within two years, bushranger film production was suppressed. The ban of 1912 effectively removed bushranger folklore from popular cultural expression. The police considered they made a mockery of the law and glorified the highwaymen to audiences largely composed of young adults and children.  The genre became a victim of its own popularity. Impossible to imagine the impact of such a draconian move. Was the mood early in federation really so febrile?

Besides being skilled horsemen, Australian bushrangers had little in common with the characters who took part in the American western. It wasn’t the frontier that they sought to extend or tame. Their patch was the bushland peripheral to settlement that gave them cover, beyond the arm of the law.

Ned Kelly, whose iconic status was certainly contributed to by the famous series of Kelly paintings by artist Sidney Nolan, has become a national icon, but there were other popular bushrangers besides him. Ben Hall for example. Alongside films about Kelly, Frank Gardiner, Captains Thunderbolt and Midnight, Hall was popularized in films as early as 1911, like Ben Hall and his Gang, and A Tale of the Australian Bush: Ben Hall the Notorious Bushranger. TLOBH director Holmes discovered during his research that none of the early films about Hall have survived.

Hall was born on the Liverpool Plains, NSW, in 1865, the son of transported convicts. He apparently took to bushranging when life turned sour for him but was a somewhat reluctant outlaw who is said to have taken up armed robbery after wrongful arrests, and his wife left him taking their child with her. During the three years that he was on the road he never took a life despite more than 600 crimes to his name and that of his gang. ‘He was definitely a criminal and his criminal career definitely exceeds Kelly’s by more than a country mile. He was definitely doing wrong, but there was also a decent man under it,’ says Holmes. It was the contradiction and the conflict that attracted him to the character.

Was there anything that Holmes and his team decided they would avoid, having seen what the other bushranger films did in the past? Without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Yeah, the Irish accent.’  As lead actor Jack Martin observes, ‘We talked about it ad nauseum and we are in total “agree-ance”.’

Early in the life of the colonies, it was convicts who escaped into the bush and became bushrangers. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the Australian-born who were holding up the coaches of Cobb & Co.

‘One of the things I have never liked about bushranger films—even The Proposition, which I love, was guilty of it—was that everyone’s talking like they were from Belfast. It grates because we have very strong evidence that the Australian accent was forming quite rapidly by the 1860s […] So what we decided with this film is that we were going to talk “Australian”.

‘It’s probably the biggest point of difference’, but then this latest version of the Ben Hall story may well be one of the first to pay much attention to the facts, as far as they can be known, anyway.

The Legend of Ben Hall premiered in Forbes on 12 November.

 

 

 

Stronger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival

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.

Music of Strangers 2  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? Janis 1-Sheet final.inddIn 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.

Fire at SeaThe 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. Jim Foley poster 2

‘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.

 

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/superior-batch-of-films-for-canberra-audiences-in-this-years-stronger-than-fiction-documentary-film-festival-20160719-gq944v.html

 

The Wolf in Australian Art

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2016

Wolf in Australian Art

© 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.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/the-wolf-in-australian-art-at-the-national-gallery–danila-vassilieff-20160717-gq7uft.html

 

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.

 

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.

inaugural American indie film festival

Also published in the Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald (online) on 11 May 2016

 

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now

by © Jane Freebury

            Jane Got A Gun

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natalie Portman in Jane Got A Gun

 

 

Who would claim that Hollywood deserves what it earns at the box office? It gets much more than its fair share, has had a hold on popular culture forever, and it speaks to 16-34 year-olds everywhere.

Even in France and China it gets a massive box office despite the language barrier. Last year Furious 7, and the Avengers and Jurassic World sequels were in the top six in both countries. And lo and behold, Stars Wars: the Force Awakens, Minions and Spectre were alongside them the top six  in France and the francophone countries.

So how do you pitch a festival of American independent cinema to the sceptical punter who doesn’t think they need to see more American movies? Or who doesn’t hold Hollywood in high regard?

A mention of relatively recent indie greats like Lost in Translation, Memento, Donnie Darko, or Reservoir Dogs, the film that announced Quentin Tarantino, or Waking Life won’t go astray. The best indies are often as adventurous in form as they are in content.

Established mainstream actors return to the indie sector and sometimes accomplish some of their best work there. Richard Gere, whose career has at times been indifferent, makes an appearance as a homeless man in the film Time Out of Mind. Set in a New York captured naturalistically in deep focus and described by the trade magazine Variety as a ‘haunting piece of urban poetry’, it is due to open a new festival of American independent film at Palace cinema during May.

Time Out of Mind directed by Oren Moverman is the first film off the block at the inaugural festival of American indie cinema, Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now, opening this month.

A couple of indie westerns on the program also disclose a star presence or two. Sam Worthington took time off from Avatar for The Keeping Room and Natalie Portman appears alongside her Star Wars co-star Ewan McGregor in Jane Got a Gun.

Despite these actors opting for a low profile here, the indie is of course not about stars of high concepts or expensive special effects and the commercial bottom line.  It’s about message, sensibility and the adventurousness in form and content that is to be seen in films like The Fits, Machine Gun or Typewriter? and Sixty Six, a labour of love that took 13 years to make.

The FitsArtistic director of the Essential Independents festival, Richard Sowada, has curated a fine combination of American indies both current and classic, fiction feature and documentary, that should go some distance towards establishing a point of difference between Hollywood and the independent tradition. His program also includes documentaries like the last film made by the great American documentarian Albert Maysles and a doco revisiting country music icon Johnny Cash.

So what is distinctive about the American indie film? It is vibrant, urgent and honest, says Sowada, and has a unique level of awareness of the creative tradition in which it is embedded. A respect for films that have gone before, is what he really likes about American independent cinema. ‘It’s what’s so good about films from a strong filmic culture. […] They do look back, and they do take the lessons that the masters and incorporate them into their works.’

Economy is another trait. In terms of running time, American indies are usually ‘brief and to the point’, he observes.  ‘Even the longest in the program is only two hours long. Everything else, even including from the 1970s and the 60s, clocks in at 90 minutes or less. […]And that comes from the commercial tradition… You just hit the audience with everything you’ve got, there’s half a dozen knock-out blows in there… And then you say goodbye.’

Like the short film, the indie can often be the brave and ambitious calling card for the aspiring creative.

It can kick-start acting careers. Since appearing in Donnie Darko in 2001, actor Jake Gyllenhaal can take his pick of roles. It was a film from the indie sector that also launched the careers of Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst. They had both been around a while before they became big names, thanks to the impact of Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, respectively. Both, as it happens, directed by Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides screens in the ‘essential originals’ section of the festival.

Other definitive indies curated represent a defining career moment from some of today’s  top filmmakers. The Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple was their first ever film, a first-time filmmaker statement if ever there was one. Stranger Than Paradise, also released in 1984, that was a huge boost to the reputation of Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog) and vampire horror Near Dark, the first solo feature from Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Slacker, an early feature from Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater also appears. Linklater brought us the recent coming of age  Boyhood and sublime relationship Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy.

Sowada groups the American indie sector into three strands: films of New York, Austin (Texas) and San Francisco. Films from New York feature on this occasion, under the rubric ‘ Essential New York’. Cruising, a harshly realistic thriller with Al Pacino as an officer of the NYPD on the trail of a serial killer. I recall this William Friedkin piece being confronting in its authenticity. A different kind of grittiness characterises The French Connection with Gene Hackman, also by Friedkin. Its chase sequence remains one of the best of all time.

An indispensable classic of the great American independent tradition, Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger), will also screen. A small-time hustler (Dustin Hoffman) and a male prostitute (Jon Voight) drift together and become friends who look after each other on the mean streets of New York. It is immensely moving, unforgettable really. It won the Oscar for best film in 1969 and, despite this mainstream endorsement, is still one of the most iconic indies ever.

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now screens between 19 May and 1 June at Palace Electric, New Acton, ACT.

LINKS:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/new-film-festival-on-this-month-at-palace-electric-in-canberra-celebrates-the-great-tradition-of-independent-american-cinema-20160510-goqkok.html

http://www.smh.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/new-film-festival-on-this-month-at-palace-electric-in-canberra-celebrates-the-great-tradition-of-independent-american-cinema-20160510-goqkok

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.

Tentmakers of Cairo

Published in the Canberra Times on 26 March 2016 at:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/canberra-filmmakers-the-tentmakers-of-cairo-shows-artisans-during-arab-spring-20160322-gnoebd.html

TheTentmakersOfCairo-CharehElKhiamiah03

© Jane Freebury

Something tells me that the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead would have enjoyed hearing that a documentary award in her name had gone to a film about men who sew. Mead became famous in the 1920s-30s for her books based on research in Oceania supporting the view that gender behaviour, including the work that men and women do, is culturally determined.

Needlework is a craft that we might tend to associate with women. However, a group of male artisans in Cairo known as the tentmakers have been stitching fabulously detailed cloth in traditional arabesque and geometrical patterns and lotus and papyrus designs for generations, handing down their skills from father to son. Evidence suggests that these traditional cloths have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times.

Historically, the decorative khayamiya textiles formed part of capacious pavilions or ‘travelling palaces’ seen across the Arab world. Today they are still conspicuous in daily life as celebratory backdrops at events like weddings, graduations, feasts, receptions and funerals.

In 2015, the American Museum of Natural History announced that Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish had won the Margaret Mead Film festival  for The Tentmakers of Cairo. He shared the prize with Iiris Harma, director of Leaving Africa: A story of friendship and empowerment. Last year The Tentmakers also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll prize at Visions du Réel, Switzerland, and the El Ray Award for Excellence in Documentary Narrative Filmmaking at the Barcelona Film Festival. And it screened at the Canberra International Film Festival as well.

Beamish and his young family arrived in Cairo in January 2011 when his wife took up a position there. He was introduced to the tentmakers and found himself so taken with them and their work that he began to film. He soon realised that politics and current affairs was just about all they talked about, with huge demonstrations erupting in Tahrir Square, and continued to film them over the next three years.

The tentmakers ply their craft in a covered market, Chareh El Kiamiah, in the Old Islamic area of the city, a destination that has found its way onto the itinerary of the intrepid international visitor. The men hand-stitch colourful appliqué onto backing cloths at lightning speed, wielding large needles and a hefty pair of tailor’s shears. Thimbles are worn and that’s about it for tools of trade. Sewing machines are only used in order to join large panels together.

TheTentmakersOfCairo poster 2

Beamish had found himself in Egypt at a liminal moment, when events that became known as the ‘Arab spring’ were taking place. The microcosm of Egyptian life that he observed within the covered souk near the old city gate of Bab Zuweila was inevitably swept up in it. ‘What is the world coming to?’ someone asks.

The filmmaker has used an observational or verité style, letting his subjects tell their story in their own words as he maintains a minimal presence. It is beautifully constructed and persuasive viewing even though there is no explanatory voiceover, no music except at the final credits. The images are accompanied by the rich ambient sound recorded on location.

The tentmakers are observed going about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks, the conversation as they work, most often about what is being reported on television, always on as they work, and the delicate art of making a sale. In no time at all, we develop a sense of the distinct personalities of the five artisans the film follows and how they stand on things.

The film narrative itself begins in 2012, after civil unrest had seen the demise or Hosni Mubarak and when it looks like Mohamed Morsi could be installed as president. It closes with the election of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in 2014, a point which happened to provide a kind of closure and coincided with the moment that Beamish and his family returned home.

On occasion, we step outside to negotiate our way through the winding alleys. Past the cyclist who works a fresh bread delivery service, loaves balanced on a wide rack on his head, past the men sharing a hookah at the street corner and other intriguing views in the barely contained chaos of an Egyptian street. When things are really hotting up, we spend a stint in Tahrir Square.

At one point, the film follows two of the men on a trip overseas. Hosam and Tarek were invited to demonstrate their skills at an American Quilter’s Society exhibition in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, reflecting the close association that has developed between the tentmakers of Cairo and international quilters societies, and the parallels between both practices. In recent years, there have been visits to Australia as well, Canberra included, as guests of quilters societies here.

The Tentmakers of Cairo is a subtle and thoroughly engaging doco account of the tentmakers from their own point-of-view. Without voiceover and with few intertitles only at top and tail, it allows the men to tell their story virtually unmediated, and it’s fascinating. Director and producer Beamish made his film in collaboration with an entity called Non’D’Script. It’s a light touch that says it all.