Tag Archives: Film Festures

Joe Cinque’s Consolation, film director interview

Published in the Canberra Times on 23 September 2016

Joe Cinque’s Consolation highlights ambiguities

 

joe-poster

© 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.’

Malcolm – ‘harmless, innocent, shy, gentle, a genius…and wanted’

 

This articles was published in the Canberra Times on 16 September 2016.

Remembering hit Aussie film Malcolm

 

  © Jane Freebury

malcolm-poster

A film about a shy, retiring type whose love of all things mechanical inadvertently draws him into holding up banks was one of the surprise hits of the 1980s.  Yes, Malcolm, who is played with impish intelligence by Colin Friels, is happier in his own world of gadgetry than he is in company.

The Australian film industry experienced some surprises in 1986, and Malcolm with Colin Friels was one of them. That same year there was also this other yarn about a brash, self-assured crocodile hunter, Crocodile Dundee, and it has broken all sorts of box office records, then and since, but  audiences here and overseas found a space for Malcolm. Another kind of folk hero, one that robs banks.

Malcolm is remembered with great affection by many, including director Nadia Tass and cinematographer and screenwriter David Parker, who were also producers. It was a surprise hit. It was said at the time that it came out of nowhere and was one of the best surprises of the year. During September, this heist caper and buoyant offbeat comedy screened at the National Film and Sound Archive, a celebration of its 30 years in release.

In late August, I interviewed the filmmakers, husband and wife Tass and Parker, from their base in Melbourne. How was it for you that year, entering your first feature film into the market when Crocodile Dundee was wolfing up the box office?

Yes, there were moments when they felt like it was a question of David to Goliath, but they point to the 21 international awards Malcolm won. It collected many, including the Australian Film Institute award for best film. The AFI best film award in 1986 was in fact one of a total of 8 AFI awards, including an award each for director Tass and screenwriter Parker.

It was also an official entrant in the London Film Festival, where it won the Golden Sprocket, before it was released here, and was an official entrant at the film festivals in Venice, Houston, Toronto, Moscow and Pia, in Japan. ‘We had our world premiere in New York, even before Australia had taken any notice of us,’ recalls Parker.

Where did the ideas come from? From ‘David’s warped mind’, Tass suggests playfully. Parker was responsible for the ingenious gadgets that Malcolm built to improve his quality of life: the letterbox that clatters on a miniature train tracks to deliver at the front window, the birdcage that flies its occupant to replenish its supply of seed, and the miniature milk truck that delivers bottles, saving Malcolm the chore of visiting his local shop a few doors away. Malcolm’s inner city home is his playground, inside and out, and one of the joys of the film is its celebration of invention.

Tass and Parker appear to have come at the project from different directions. It is in all likelihood one of the key contributing factors to the film’s texture, and its critical and commercial success.

The observant viewer will notice among the final credits a dedication to John Tassopoulos, who died three years before the film’s release. The character of Malcolm, socially awkward and introverted, but a mechanical genius, was loosely based on Tass’s brother who had Asperger’s syndrome and died in his 20s from an epileptic seizure after being hit by a car.

Was her brother also fixated on trams, like Malcolm? ‘Yes, very much. Trains, trams, vehicles and all things moving,’ recalls Tass, who can’t be alone in her own affection for Melbourne trams, ‘especially green and yellow ones’. ‘He was a combination of vulnerability and incredible innocence with a fierce intellect behind it all.’

Since Malcolm, we’ve seen other local films about characters on the autism spectrum, like The Black Balloon, Bad Boy Bubby and Mary and Max, and I suggest to Tass and Parker that they were in a way ahead of their time.

‘We didn’t go into this wanting emotion from the audience. We saw it as a piece of entertainment. Up to the time when Malcolm came out, Asperger’s syndrome or autism was presented from a very sentimentalised perspective. … We didn’t do that, so we broke that mould.’ Where someone can have special needs but at the same time very positive attributes. The filmmakers focussed on what Malcolm could do rather than on what he could not.

With skin in the game over three decades, Tass and Parker, are an indefatigable duo of passionate filmmakers—and thoughtful and energetic mentors for aspiring filmmakers. They are great models for production rigour, for example, stressing the importance of ensuring that scripts are mature and ready to shoot, and that production involves consistent rigorous attention to detail.

After Malcolm, Tass and Parker followed up with more attractive, buoyant, and idiosyncratic films like The Big Steal, Amy, Rikky and Pete, and Mr Reliable, that constitute a distinctive body of comedic work. Australian comedy can often seem to be synonymous with a kind of larrikinism and crude humour that can work just fine, but it is not the only way to get a laugh.

‘Quirky’ is a word that comes to mind for their work, and in a very good way. Their work may well have prompted the original association that was made between quirkiness and Australian film, though they can hardly be held responsible for the hackneyed use that resulted. It was freshly minted when Tass and Parker started out.

The film begins at dawn aboard Malcolm’s custom-built one-man tram, a joyride that results in our hero losing his job at Melbourne’s tram maintenance depot. The knock-on effect is that he has to take in a boarder to make ends meet. Enter Frank (marvellous John Hargreaves, who was to die of Aids at 50, sadly), hilarious in skinny jeans and bottom lip ready for rollies. He is fresh out of prison, and back in business.

His live-in girlfriend drops in and stays on, adding a bit of brainpower to Frank’s crooked plan, but it is Malcolm’s contribution that gives it the edge when he joins the team. His contribution, inter alia, is a car that splits in two, confounding the police who give chase with a getaway in two directions that can slip into alleyways too narrow for police vehicles.

The very yellow car is on display now at the NFSA in Canberra.

 

 

 

Arab Film Festival

Halal Love poster

© 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.

halal love 2 poster

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.

Roshmia poster 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.

El Clasico posterThe 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.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/arab-film-festival-at-national-film-and-sound-archive-in-canberra-a-unique-view-into-private-lives-in-the-arab-world-20160725-gqcxce.html