Art, exploration and outrage

Danni Zuvela

Betelnut Bisnis

Betelnut Bisnis

Venturesome selections in a sprawling program characterised the 2005 Brisbane International Film Festival. Of particular note was the formidable lineup of documentaries, an original take on flavour-of-the-month Korean cinema and an intriguing program of experimental and avant-garde films.

David Bradbury’s exposé of the horrors of depleted uranium weapons, Blowin’ in the Wind, is an imposing polemic. Intimate, investigative documentary-making is placed above production values in its address of a deeply verboten subject. Doing away with any pretense at objectivity, the film delivers outrage after outrage, from the handy convenience of depleted uranium weapons to the nuclear industry (why store it when you can offload it to arms companies?), to the unforgettable images of deformed Iraqi babies. Raw and angry films like this are a hugely necessary reminder of the weapons of mass destruction on ‘our’ side. Bradbury was awarded this year’s Chauvel Award (which has previously gone to Robin Anderson and Bob Connelly), underlining the significance of documentaries to the Brisbane festival. The continuing saga around the film’s distribution speaks volumes about its uncomfortable revelations.

Vanua-Tai

Australia’s near neighbours also featured with the welcome focus of the Voices from the Pacific program. Vanua-Tai explores Vanuatuans’ combined efforts to preserve threatened turtle populations and the problems of co-ordination on an archipelago of over 80 islands where turtle consumption is culturally enshrined. Focusing on the efforts to recruit and inform turtle monitors, the documentary’s primary function is as an informational tool, travelling between communities and promoting indigenous action. Refreshingly, this wasn’t ‘white folks speaking for black folks’; producer Jan Cattoni explained at the screening, the islanders themselves were heavily involved in the direction. The resulting film is sensitive (especially in the handling of the inevitable turtle butchery scene) and vivid, threaded through with exuberant vignettes from the community theatre group One Smolbag’s take on the turtles’ fight for survival.

Chris Owen

Like Cattoni, Chris Owen is a highly regarded, award-winning, long-time ethnographic filmmaker working with indigenous communities. His latest film, Betelnut Bisnis continues his ‘participant observation’ of his adopted home, Papua New Guinea, showing the efforts of a small time operator to buy and sell the better, coastal form of betelnut in the highlands, where it fetches a good price. Most memorable are the lovingly photographed scenes of the careful ritual of the preparation process involving the nuts, lime from crushed seashell, and a mustard tree twig, all chewed together for maximum buzz. Owen’s imbrication in the culture is evident in his physical presence, as he talks to the friends and acquaintances who are the film’s subjects; his unflinching eye (some will blanch at the shots of toddlers stumbling around stoned as they learn the ways of proper ingestion) and in the touching scenes where he assists the hapless Lukas in his business endeavours. Owen was also present at the screening of his film to further explain aspects of his gentle, humane look at the world’s fourth most commonly consumed drug (after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine) to a large and fascinated audience.

James Benning

James Benning’s films have been labelled experimental documentaries, though this inadequate description neglects the intense sensory and perceptual exploration they induce. The screening of his 13 Lakes at BIFF delivered a sense of circularity and closure: it was the film we saw being shot in the brilliant Circling the Image documentary that introduced Benning to audiences at last year’s festival. The 13 10-minute fixed-camera shots of lakes are composed of equal parts sky and water, with recombined collected sounds. The experience is both soothing and menacing, tranquil and thought-provoking; as viewers see more and become attuned to the sound mix, we are drawn into the vista and see into it, rather than looking at it. Senses attuned to the slightest movement or sound, in a near-hypnotic state by the final lake of the film, the sound of gunfire comes as a genuine shock.

Innovators

The Owen Land program heralded the return to Brisbane of the distinguished London avant-garde film curator Mark Webber and re-emphasises his commitment to ‘other’ cinema. Framed by Webber’s perceptive but restrained introductions, the 2 programs offered a comprehensive tour through the seminal 70s avant garde work of Land. Like Benning, Land resists categorisation; his commingling of structural-materialist inquiries into the film apparatus and spectatorship with parodic and surreal imagery, autiobiography, critique (of other avant-gardists, notably Hollis Frampton in Wide Angle Saxon) and found footage creates a unique avant-garde sub-genre.

Found footage film flourished with Peter Tcherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, Bill Morrison’s Light is Calling and The Mesmerist, and Gustav Deutsch’s World Mirror Cinema. All inquire into the phenomenology of film and cinema through montage experiments with old film. Where Morrison and Tcherkassky’s work tends to involve a violation of the image (through forced decay and saccadic editing), Deutsch is more meditative. World Mirror Cinema re-presents 3 lengthy pans (shot at various times between 1912 and 1930) taking in the streetscapes and their cinemas as a springboard to contemplation of life with cinema. Inviting us to reflect on our relation to cinema as a site in social space, the loving attention to the buildings is testament to Deutsch’s architectural background. Careful intercutting emphasises the choreography of everyday life, and the dominance of gestures of pause (slowed-down, the film’s pace is almost elegiac) invites contemplation of the chance participants and the operation of cinematic machinery as a window onto their interconnected lives.

South Korea

South Korea’s golden age of filmmaking includes a thriving experimental sector. The Tony Rayns curated program of independent Korean cinema comprised dynamic and inquiring films that defy cinematic codes and genre boundaries to memorable effect.

‘Edgy’ is often marketing speak for low-budget cinematic self-indulgence but only one of the films in this program fit this paradigm, the 55-minute featurette Anti-Dialectic. An unusually large audience, possibly lured by the promise of philosophical content in the title, endured interminable shots of a smug artist in his apartment, smoking and making languid attempts to sketch an apple. Curiously, the film was titled ‘Half-Dialectic’ in the opening credits, and the catalogue promise that it “skillfully demolishes all theories of dialectical materialism” went egregiously unfulfilled.

The collaborative The Camellia Project, which focused on the increasing visibility and embrace of identity politics by gay men in Korea, was much more interesting. Comprising 3 films by 3 directors, and linked by the setting, Bogil Island, the adventurous films of this omnibus poignantly reflect on notions of escape, disintegration and secrets. Narrative fracturing and a meticulous palette of red and blue mark out the exploration of memory, time and action in film-poem time consciousness.

Containment is the theme of the most stunning films of the New Korean Cinema Reloaded program, Shin Sung-il is Lost (also known as Shin Sung Il is Spirited Away). At a religious orphanage, eating is forbidden and chubby Shin-Sung-il is protected by a giant angel as he dreams of liberation. The ambiguous, experimental narrative, with supernatural elements, symbolism and psychological drama, delivers a sustained critique of organised religion’s hypocrisy and suffocating dogma. Formal innovations include unusual choices of shot, angle and lighting, and apparently random switches between black and white and colour. Any doubts about the degree to which the film’s representational subversion was a conscious authorial strategy were erased by director Shin Jane’s deft handling of questions at the screening, making more films from “shinjaneland, the smallest studio in Korea” a tantalising promise.

War and documentary

War is an ever present theme in contemporary art films and a number at the festival dealt directly with conflict, including Guerilla News Network’s Stephen Marshall’s eye-opening on the ground Iraq documentary Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, the brilliant documentary State of Fear (about government terrorism in Chile), and the sell-out hostage drama Paradise Now. Amidst these, Coca: The Dove from Chechnya, about the activities of human rights activists documenting the litany of murder, abduction and torture the Chechen population continues to suffer, has a special impact. The lengths to which the women go to protect the tapes (hiding, even burying them), the scale and bureaucratic nature of the systematic murder campaign, combined with the unwavering commitment of the dove of the title, lawyer-turned-activist Zainap Gashaeva, creates a truly moving document.

Highlighting the Western media’s indifference in the Chechen human rights tragedy, Coca, like many films in the program, helps us to contextualise and complicate our understanding of a faraway place, its oppressions, tragedies and brave activists. The project is momentous and the documentary a potent force for awareness, a reminder of the power of moving images and the film events that enable us to witness them.

Brisbane International Film Festival, July 27-Aug 8, www.biff.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 19

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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