Independent pleasures

Felena Alach

Otesánek (Little Otik)

Otesánek (Little Otik)

Over the last 4 years, the REVelation International Film Festival has gradually built a distinct and cohesive identity by offering a vibrant diversity of independent films. This has always been a festival that celebrates the sub-cultural fringes, the bizarre and the eccentric as much as it caters for serious film buffs. This year’s mix of short and feature fiction is complemented by a generous selection of documentaries, a sample of which fell into my hands to preview.

Fans of Jan Svankmájer’s idiosyncratic style will be excited by the prospect of his recent feature Otesánek (Little Otik) in which a dark Czech folktale is the template for a fabulously perverse tale of desire and the unreality it inserts into the everyday. A barren couple’s craving for a child becomes displaced onto a tree root (dug up and fashioned into a proxy child by the husband). When the latter becomes animate, it develops an insatiable appetite to feed its monstrous growth. Engaging and distinctive, this meditation on the subterranean aspects of desire filters Svankmájer’s black humored take on the complexities of adult life through the child’s view.

Of an extensive and diverse selection of documentary film, a definite highlight is Monteith McCollum’s superb Hybrid. This surprising film reveals the passionate lifework of Mid-Western corn farmer Milton Beeghly in his quest to interbreed different strains of corn to create the kind we are familiar with today. Slowly evolving, and shot in grainy black-and white, Hybrid features subtle time-lapse images and delightful stop-frame animation to augment exploration of its subject and of the ramshackle spaces of the aged farm. The lyric treatment of the taciturn Beeghly reveals a devotional relationship to the land. His work is a quiet hymn which opens up a sense of self conditional on the cycle of organic time and natural wonder. Intimate, witty and insightful, this gem of a documentary portrait eclipsed its category to receive the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature at the US Slamdance festival and the Fipresci Critics Award at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam.

Three of the other documentaries that featured in my sneak preview were polished productions from the US. Arisman: Facing The Audience (dir. Tony Smith) presents an engaging profile of graphic artist Marshall Arisman in his exploration of the mysterious and darker aspects of humanity. The speed and flow with which the artist demonstrates his working method in the studio, is augmented by his amicable dialogue and tales of extrasensory perception (he claims to see auras) which descend from his grandmother who was a medium. The camera examines Arisman’s complex imagery carefully, sensitively mapping out his painting and sculpture in a way that encourages a sense of getting inside the works.

The Hotel Upstairs (Daniel Baer) opens a window onto the lives of a handful of the 20,000 long-term boarders who live in residential hotels in San Francisco. Frank and sensitive depictions of the former reveal not only the range of lifestyle values, but also the dignity with which these have-nots have redefined the American Dream through ad-hoc community and coexistence.

Money For Nothing: Behind the Business of Pop Music (produced by the Media Education Foundation) offers a revealing glimpse into the current state of music distribution. It focuses on the future implications of the vertical alignment of production, distribution and retail into the Big Five Corporations of the mainstream music industry. Narrated by Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and featuring interviews with independent artists (Ani DiFranco, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Michael Franti, Public Enemy’s Chuck D), Money For Nothing teases out the dilemma for creative artists in this corporate ‘massification’ of music production. Cogent and highly satisfying.

Australian documentaries also make a firm showing in this year’s festival. My sample included the early days of internet trespass with Kevin Anderson’s In the Realm Of the Hackers. This locates the thriving hacker community of Melbourne as world centre of the scene in the mid 80s. Here it unearths the story of teen hackers whose dedicated prank penetration of high-level computer security systems eventually forced the Australian government to create legislation to define computer crime. Despite an over dependence on ‘dramatic recreation’ as visual material (ostensibly in order to protect real identities), this is an intriguing look at those mythic, formative days of the information economy.

Rainbow Bird and Monster Man (Dennis K Smith) presents the harrowing tale of one man’s trial for murder. It is also a revelation of his struggle to survive a childhood decade of hideous physical and sexual abuse in the ‘bad old days’ of the 50s, where social taboo rendered his dilemma inconceivable and hence invisible. The frankness and sensitivity of testimonial is compelling, and the camera captures the complexity of its subject with due respect and maturity. Also heavily ‘recreated’, the imagery none the less provides some rewarding moments amidst the hard-going narrative.

Shannon Sleeth’s short The Meat Game offers a snapshot of workers in a rural farming town with only one main processing industry: the meat-works and abattoir. It’s a gentle, amicable portrait of one key family and features discussion with the workers about what the work means to them in their own particular context.

This year’s REV festival is shaping up to be a very satisfying mix. Given the diminished state of independent showings in Perth, film fans would be crazy not to check it out.

The REVelation Perth International Film Festival, June 20-July 3. www.revelationfilmfest.org

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 15

© Felena Alach; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002