A question of form

Jake Wilson

Perhaps protesting too much, TS Eliot famously viewed Hamlet as a failure on the grounds that the play was “full of some stuff which the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.” While the Melbourne artist and filmmaker James Clayden might well agree with this verdict, he has little or no interest in dragging anything to light. Rather, in his video fantasia Hamlet X, screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), he strives to add to the ambiguity of his source material on the horror-movie principle that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. Traditional continuity editing is non-existent; individual shots tend to be shaky, shadowy or out-of-focus; Shakespeare’s lines are shuffled like a pack of cards with other cryptic texts. A larger narrative of mental breakdown is hinted at but never clarified, while glimpsed acts of violence threaten the distinction between a given fictional scenario and ‘real’ life.

Ultimately, the ghost haunting this infernal machine might be that of Shakespeare’s original play—or Shakespeare himself. Clayden may take his inspiration from Hamlet’s reflections on the chaos beneath consensus reality, yet his disjunctive techniques, however sophisticated, are in stark contrast to the amazing fluency of Elizabethan rhetoric. With many of the visual distortions arising directly out of the limitations of video as a medium, what’s both compelling and off-putting about Clayden’s enterprise is its wilfully ‘primitive’ aspect, transforming Hamlet from a noble hero into a mumbling autodidact with a psychotic streak.

Systematic to a fault, Hamlet X threatens to exhaust the most committed viewer’s patience with its monotonous editing rhythms and relentless visual and verbal repetitions over a 2 hour running time. The frisson of dread fades well before the halfway mark, leaving not much to ponder aside from the literal situation being documented—an obliging group of actors doing competent line readings in a warehouse space above the CBD. In putting this mundaneness on record, Clayden leaves it unclear whether he’s conducting a seance or aiming to expose an absence at the heart of the literary canon. Either way, Hamlet X is more impressive for its ambition than its achievement. As the Bard pointed out, it’s not difficult for anyone to call spirits from the deep: “But will they come when you do call for them?”

Clara Law’s Letters to Ali, premiered at this year’s MIFF, is a daylight work by comparison. In opposing the mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia, Law is acting more in her capacity as concerned citizen than as an art filmmaker, which is not to say she lacks a personal stake in the subject. Like the fiction features she’s made locally since immigrating from Hong Kong, this independently financed documentary visualises her adopted country as a land of accommodating open space, from “sweeping plains” to wide suburban streets where children can run and tease each other.

Yet for all its openness, the poignancy of Letters to Ali stems from the visual and human absence at its centre. In 2003, when the film was shot, the Afghan teenager known as “Ali” had been imprisoned in the Port Hedland detention centre for the best part of 2 years; for legal reasons, Law can reveal neither his face nor his real name. When he’s finally given temporary release, we see him happily mingling with his ‘adopted’ Australian family, the Kerbis—except that he’s kept permanently out-of-focus, like Robin Williams in Deconstructing Harry.

While it can’t be a total accident that Letters to Ali is getting its general release in the run-up to the federal election, Law’s outrage at the locking-up of children seems innocent of any larger political agenda. Indeed, the Kerbis themselves ought to warm the heart of the most diehard conservative: a very likeable Australian family (Mum, Dad and 4 kids) not visibly unusual except in their capacity for empathy. The more radically-minded might feel that the film relies too heavily on establishing the humanity of “Ali” through his association with these wholesome folk, as if his “normality” by Australian standards had any connection with his right to be treated decently. Certainly, from the pastel titlecards to the Paul Grabowsky score, there’s nothing here to undermine the prevailing belief that a social conscience is a middle-class luxury item. That said, Law deserves kudos for getting the film made, and it’s possible that her softly-softly approach might succeed in changing a few minds, at the ballot box and elsewhere.

Hamlet X, director James Clayden; Letters to Ali, director Clara Law; 53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July 21-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 19

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004