Documentary: pro- and inter-active

Tim O’Farrell

Tom Murray and Allan Collins, Dhakiyarr vs the King, 2003

Tom Murray and Allan Collins, Dhakiyarr vs the King, 2003

The spotlight was on the marginalised and disenfranchised in contemporary society at this year’s Real: Life on Film. This year’s program included 30 films, about half of which were Australian with refugee and Aboriginal issues particularly prominent among them.

The dominant style was conventional, generally mixing observational and interview-based techniques. Films that promised to head into more poetic or essayistic terrain, such as Tokyo Noise (directors Kristian Petri, Jan Roed and Johan Soderberg, Sweden, 2002) and The Future is Not What it Used to Be (Mika Taanila, Finland, 2002), failed to live up to their potential. This is not to say that some of Future’s archival footage of Finnish scientist, electronic music pioneer, futurologist and all-round obsessive compulsive Erkki Kurenniemi was not fascinating, just that this portrait of a man described as “one of the true visionaries of the European avant-garde” ultimately did not match the sum of its parts.

A number of the other international documentaries, such as A Boy’s Life (Rory Kennedy, USA, 2003), Angels of Brooklyn (Camilla Hjelm and Martin Zandvliet, Denmark, 2002) and Riles: Life on the Tracks (Ditsi Carolino, Philippines/UK, 2003), presented underprivileged subjects struggling to survive the challenges of everyday life. These came close to what critic Brian Winston might call “victim” documentaries, made by generally well-meaning filmmakers, they presented a familiar cocktail of poverty, lack of education, social exclusion, illness and imprisonment. Of these, Kim Longinotto’s investigation of female circumcision in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget (UK, 2003), was the most lucid in its use of first person testimony. Longinotto interviewed a number of girls, including some attending a school for students who have run away from home to avoid circumcision. These girls represent the human face of changing attitudes in Kenya. Their courage helped Longinotto to fashion an optimistic ending from this grim account of deeply entrenched patriarchal structures.

Of the local films centred on Aboriginal subjects, Dhakiyarr vs the King (Tom Murray and Allan Collins, 2003) and Lonely Boy Richard (Trevor Graham, 2003, RT58, p17) dealt with encounters between Indigenous Australians and the European legal system. Dhakiyarr investigated a 1933 case of conflicting laws, which saw Yolngu elder Dhakiyarr tried for the spearing death of Constable Albert McColl. Narrated by Dhakiyarr’s grandsons, the film is structured as a mystery pivoting on Dhakiyarr’s disappearance after his acquittal on appeal by the High Court. In a moving example of grassroots reconciliation, the resolution of this case 70 years later allowed the ghosts of the past to be laid to rest at a poignant ceremony attended by the Dhakiyarr and McColl families and current High Court judges. Lonely Boy Richard was less upbeat, following the life of compulsive drinker Richard Wanambi as he prepares for a rape trial. A case study of a community blighted by alcohol abuse, Trevor Graham’s film shows the damage wrought over the 40 years since the arrival of a mining company ended traditional life in the Yirrkala community.

Channels of Rage (Anat Halachmi, Israel, 2003) and All the Ladies (Colleen Hughson and Mary Quinsacara, Australia, 2003) both examined hip hop culture. Channels of Rage began with smiles all round as Israeli Zionist rapper Subliminal took Arab MC Tamer under his wing, sharing friendship and the stage. Echoing the geo-political fault lines between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, there was a sad air of inevitability in the unravelling of their relationship over the 3 years following this initial brief moment of optimism.

More positively, All the Ladies stood out as a local gem, progressive without being preachy. The directors Mary Quinsacara (aka MC Que, who also performs in the film) and Colleen Hughson, focus on female performers in Australia’s hip hop scene. The buoyant tone was set by Melbourne MC Little G’s introduction: “My mother is Aboriginal, my father Greek, and that’s how I became a wogorigine.” While the participants acknowledge that the scene has previously been dominated by men, the charismatic female MCs prefer to talk about the moments of epiphany that led to their love affair with hip hop. Mark Latham and John Howard need look no further for the true face of Australian multiculturalism.

Those craving less linear alternatives at Real: Life were able to turn to the interactive and online component of the festival. Ross Gibson kicked off a panel session devoted to exploring interactive and online documentary forms by presenting his Life After Wartime (made with Kate Richards) an interactive database of post-World War 2 Sydney crime scene photographs. Tweaking John Grierson’s infamous definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”, Gibson characterised the database, which allows users to combine the photos with an array of text and sound options, as “the speculative investigation of actuality.”

Kate Wild, one of the creators of the Escape From Woomera video game, also contributed to this session. This game replicates the conditions in Australian detention centres. Based on television reports and the testimony of former inmates and employees, it allows players to assume the persona of a refugee trying to escape. It was fascinating to hear Wild recall how, during last year’s media furore surrounding the Australia Council’s funding of this project, almost all media inquiries began with the assumption that gaming was an inherently disreputable or trivialising form. This sort of boneheaded elitism indicates the challenges facing those attempting to explore the boundaries of new media and documentary.

Old school documentary lovers may demur, but this session raised an important question: how is the mediation of the world in a game like Escape From Woomera different from the (re)presentation of ‘reality’ in more orthodox documentary fare? The interactive and online exhibits within this year’s program demonstrate that the documentary form is a very broad church. Here’s hoping that next year’s festival works even harder to explore and probe its outer reaches.

Real: Life on Film, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, April 29-May 5

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 22

© Tim O Farrell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004