Not really REAL

Simon Enticknap

The REAL: life on film festival has grown bigger and broader over the past year and now bills itself as “Australia’s Premier International Documentary Festival.” The previous focus on human rights and social justice is still there but it’s been joined by a few other topics—art and design, music, culture, history, environment and identity—which makes for a fairly broad agenda (although I guess it still leaves room for some wildlife docos). This year’s program toured Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide and drew impressive attendances, with some sessions sold out. There’s clearly an audience out there for new documentaries, a consequence perhaps of the boom in DIY filmmaking and so-called reality television. We’ve all become REAL junkies.

Overall, the selection of films demonstrated that while the human rights component of the festival is still as strong as ever, there’s some way to go before it can justifiably claim to be a showcase for contemporary documentary making.

A key feature of REAL: life on film is the emphasis on locally made films. About half of the documentaries are from Australian filmmakers and it is here that the social justice agenda is most explicit. These films tend to follow a fairly narrow range of themes such as land rights and Indigenous stories (Fight for Country, Stranger in My Skin, Jetja Nai Medical Mob, Nganampa Trespass); or working class culture and the debilitating effects of poverty, drugs and crime (The Meat Game, The Woodcutter’s Son, Staying Out, Kim and Harley and the Kids). Mix in some autobiography and family history (My Mother India, Mick’s Gift, Welcome to the Waks Family) and that pretty well covers the bulk of the Australian component.

That doesn’t mean the films themselves are uniform or uninteresting—though it feels unfair to single out any particular film for comment because they all work in their own context. They are all passionate, painstakingly crafted works produced by dedicated filmmakers. There is a steady, insistent awareness of the issues involved, and it is obvious that the subjects and topics in front of the lens have seeped under the skin of the filmmakers, bringing forth committed, strategic interventions. They are documentaries that matter.

What it does mean, though, is that if you want to explore the effects of race and culture, class and politics, then the Australian documentaries in the festival fit the bill. If you want to find out about female Japanese wrestlers, or a lesbian, folk-singing Tupperware salesperson, or Romanian subway children, or just listen to some Bluegrass music (bearing in mind that these films are also about race, culture, class and politics), then you have to look overseas.

The other aspect of the locally made material is that it tends to be somewhat homogenous in form, a consequence of its intended audience. Most of the films are about half an hour or an hour long, designed to fill a slot in a particular documentary series or schedule. At times, the festival felt like a preview screening for the SBS/ABC documentary departments. This is inevitable given the current realities governing the commissioning and production of local material but again, it meant that the longer format, which brings with it certain advantages, was left to the overseas films.

A film such as Runaway (dir. Kim Longinotto/Zib Mir-Hossein), for instance, benefits simply from being 87 minutes long rather than 27 or 55 minutes. Runaway needs that extra space to work in because of the manner in which it allows the subjects—Iranian teenage girls staying at a refuge—to tell their own stories, and then stays with them through various encounters with their families until the point at which most of them disappear from view through the main gate. Voice-overs, precis or scene-setting context are not provided, so the only information we have to go on is whatever the young women reveal, as well as our own understanding of Iran and Islam, however patchy or ill-informed that may be. This challenges our impartiality in judging what the girls should do—stay at the refuge or return to their families? Thus, while we can acknowledge the bravery of the girls in challenging the social order and seeking to escape, we also have to accept that we can’t tell what is best for them. A highly poignant film that works because of its openness and semi-detachment; we can’t help wondering about the girls’ fates precisely because that is how we are left—there’s no neat closure, no emotional safety net, no way of knowing.

The other notable aspect of REAL: life on film is that, in a festival which places culture at its heart, the most significant omission is documentary culture itself: its history, genres, practitioners and ideologies. Questions of form and style, rather than just content, are elided, and no space is provided for experimental work, docu-drama or mockumentary. The idea of what constitutes documentary film therefore appears self-evident, which might come as a surprise to some people. In particular, it would be interesting to see the REAL element of the festival given a really good shake-up. At the very least some acknowledgement needs to be made that problems of representation, objectivity, engagement and so on are day-to-day issues for documentary film makers, not something that can be taken for granted. This is particularly important at a time when there is clearly a desire, a hunger among audiences for factually driven representations, not to mention an awareness of media manipulation and the manner in which reality is produced.

For the record, there were 4 winners of REAL: life on film awards announced at the festival. My Mother India (dir. Safina Uberoi) won the Odyssey Channel Award for Best Documentary; East Timor—Birth of a Nation: Rosa’s Story (dir. Luigi Aquisto) won the SBS Award for the Promotion of Cultural Diversity through Film; and Welcome to the Waks Family (dir. Barbara Chobocky) won the Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking. And Kim and Harley and the Kids (dir. Katrina Sawyer) won the Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking.

REAL: life on film, Melbourne, May 3-8; Sydney May 9-15; Perth, May 16-18, and Adelaide, May 23, 25 & 27.

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 15

© Simon Ellis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002