We’re in a car, travelling down a quiet road that takes us far from urban sprawl and into the bush. For horror aficionados, this is a familiar beginning. Inside the car, typically a couple (or a family or friends) banter. Classic rock plays on the radio, underlining the upbeat mood, the normality. During the drive, characters and relationship dynamics are sketched out before arrival at cabin or campsite signals events will sooner or later take a nasty turn. In the opening scene of Funny Games (2007), Michael Haneke both disrupts and highlights the false naturalism of this trope by blasting a jarring thrash metal track by Naked City over the journey of his central family to their lakeside holiday house.

In his debut feature, the horror-thriller Killing Ground, Damien Power opts for the more conventional approach. The young couple in this car are Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), on their way to a secluded campsite to celebrate New Year’s Eve. During their playful exchange we learn they’re in love and that he’s a doctor. They have a bright future; in other words, ripe for destruction. They arrive at a campsite that’s starkly beautiful but unsettlingly still, from the creek’s mirror surface to a solitary tent pitched a little way along the sandy bank.

The film introduces another duo: “German” Shepherd (Aaron Pedersen) and “Chook” Fowler (Aaron Glenane), ex-cons living together in the small town close to the reserve where Sam and Ian are camping. German has already appeared, giving Ian directions to Stony Creek campsite, his dog and ute recalling those of Bradley Murdoch, the man convicted of the 2001 murder of British tourist Peter Falconio. Like Mick Taylor, the outback bogeyman modelled on Murdoch and serial killer Ivan Milat at the centre of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005), German and Chook are pig hunters from a lower socioeconomic background who represent a sinister aspect of Australian larrikinism.

Killing Ground

These are the agents of chaos set to shatter the terrible innocence of middle-class campers; again, familiar horror territory. In this context of stereotypically white Australian masculinity, Pedersen’s identity as an Indigenous Australian raises a question as to its significance to the narrative. But since Power did not write the character as explicitly Indigenous and nor does Pedersen’s performance make reference to it, any meaning attached would appear to be brought to it by the individual viewer. Steve Dow, writing for The Saturday Paper, found it significant; the US writer of a rogerebert.com review who initially referred to German as “poor white trash” clearly did not.

Indigeneity and colonialism are present more generally as themes, however. One camper at Stony Creek tells his family that they are sitting close to the site of an historic massacre of the local Koori tribe by settlers, to which his daughter responds, “I don’t like it here.” In the film’s opening scenes, Simon Chapman’s pellucid cinematography, combined with Leah Curtis’ ethereal score, evokes a landscape of unease, exquisite yet oppressive. In the film’s more striking passages, Power makes use of the lost child motif, an emblem since colonial times of white Australia’s fear of the bush. All these elements suggest a place that’s tainted, inimical.

It remains ambiguous as to whether this unquiet place attracts terrible things, or is the cause of them. What is clear, is that in this instance the terrible things take the form of sexual violence against women. Power seems to have concluded that the most effective way he could communicate ‘atrocity’ onscreen was through the depiction of rape — or at least its graphic prelude and aftermath. Male characters suffer too, but they’re not violated in the way that the film’s women are; the ways in which men’s and women’s bodies are presented is markedly different. Instead of addressing sadistic misogyny in an insightful way, as Karen Lam does in her supernatural horror film Evangeline (2013) or Maki Suzui in Kept (2014), Killing Ground uses sexual violence as a kind of shorthand for the evil that arises from a land blighted by colonialism, reducing rape to a narrative symbol.

Killing Ground

Pedersen and Glenane inhabit their roles with skill and menace, but these characters aren’t detailed enough for us to glean more than the bare fact of their predatory natures. Warped Australian masculinity and the twisted mentor-follower relationship are explored in far more depth in the arguably more horrific films The Boys (1998), Animal Kingdom (2010) and Snowtown (2011). Wolf Creek, an obvious antecedent to Killing Ground, provides a much tauter image of Ocker misogyny, as well as evoking a sickened place in the Australian psyche; though brutal, it holds back on explicit sexual violence.

Killing Ground’s depiction of an unquiet landscape, non-linear layering of timelines and fine acting promise a profundity that is never fully realised, instead only hinted at through various tropes — hunter-serial killers, white middle-class holidaymakers, lost children, cursed land — and ultimately overshadowed by gratuitous depictions of rape.

Killing Ground, writer, director Damien Power, performers Aaron Pederson, Harriet Dyer, Aaron Glenane, Ian Meadows, cinematographer Simon Chapman, composer Leah Curtis, editor Katie Flaxman, production design Claire Granville, distributor Mushroom Pictures, 2016

Top image credit: Killing Ground

Cold time, in these southern trees the sap is running now, so I cut bark for coolamons with my son. I’m working on a shield as I begin to prepare for the season of Law, ceremony and initiation, fast approaching in the next few months. It is a propitious time for me to view Aaron Petersen’s documentary Zach’s Ceremony, which follows the journey of a young Aboriginal boy and his father from 2005 to 2016, when the boy becomes a man and goes through ceremony, comes into Law.

I approach the film with trepidation, glimpsing on the internet excited claims of “never-before-seen footage of secret initiation ceremonies!” I worry that Men’s Business images will be shown to women and children, that our gendered controls of sacred knowledge, designed to protect the agency of both sexes, will be compromised. My fears are allayed as I find that only the pre-ceremony business involving the whole community is exposed. But the film opens another can of worms for me, in its exploration of the destructive intersections between Western masculinity and Aboriginal manhood.

Alec Doomadgee, Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

Alec Doomadgee, a Waanyi, Garawa and Gangalidda man from the Gulf country up north, culture man and role model, is attempting to act as a one-man-village raising his son, Zach. Struggling alone in the city to provide the nurturing support traditionally undertaken by multiple aunties, uncles, parents, grandparents and older siblings, Alec is confounded by a conflicting imperative to forge his son into a fine example of the contemporary ‘Indigenous success’ mythology — an enterprising, neoliberal individual who is equally at home in lap-lap or blazer. But this story is not about him — it is about a boy who longs to come into his own knowledge and identity from the unenviable position of being the son of a great man.

His father’s presence looms large both in Zach’s life and onscreen, in a struggle that is sometimes awkward, sometimes poignant. The film is not narrated, although often it feels like Alec is attempting narration in front of the camera, or to curate his family’s story in the public domain. It is difficult for any Aboriginal person, though, to avoid tour-guide registers when coming under the white gaze. That is how we survive in this colonial economy. An animated montage of the history of Indigenous dispossession in Australia would work as a standalone introduction to Indigenous issues for novices, but is an unobtrusive and unifying element of the film.

I wondered in the opening sequences how gender would be framed. I had a moment of worry when the first mention of a woman, Zach’s absent mother, is quite damning and followed instantly by a cut to images of simpering, bikini-clad models signalling the rounds at Alec’s boxing title match. Following his victory, Alec preaches a ‘you can do anything if you work hard enough message’ to young Zach. After this, the difference between this competitive Western masculinity and Aboriginal manhood is made shockingly clear when we see father and son on their traditional lands back up north.

Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

This monumental shift recurs whenever they return to that remote community. Alec’s code-switching to Aboriginal English always signals a reversal from masculine bravado to a humble gentleness grounded in connection to place and people. Zach’s own shrill adolescence flips over into a rumbling, steady repartee with his cousins. Powerful local matriarchs, unrestrained by the straitjacket of Western throw-like-a-girl femininity, fill the screen and the viewer’s heart with their enormous strength and wisdom. The ceremony the filmmakers are privy to involves these glorious old ladies leading a complex process of handing over the boys for their transition into Aboriginal manhood. Talking head shots of clan elders in a variety of locations maintain interest, while some occasional gritty hand-held realism is sensitively included without overuse.

We see the chasm between traditional roles and Western masculinity when Zach emerges transformed from ceremony and returns to his father’s house in Sydney. Having been through ceremony together, there is a loving and playful intimacy that he shares with his little brother, a softness and deep capacity for care that is what true manhood is all about. But Zach reverts during his 16th birthday party to that lawless, unaccountable maleness that Anglo modernity bestows on all young men, and the viewer is at once devastated as well as relieved not to be left with a simplistic, romanticised message of ‘walking in both worlds.’

Zach’s Ceremony is ultimately not as uplifting as the adults speaking for and through Zach try to make it. But there is a truth in Zach’s eyes and words (and even his sneaky Dave Chappelle references) that triumphantly subverts the powerful genres and agendas whirling around his image, making us connect with him intimately and care deeply about his fate.

The DVD of Zach’s Ceremony will be released by Umbrella Entertainment in July.

Zach’s Ceremony, director, editor Aaron Peterson, writer, producer Sarah Linton, cinematographer Robert C Morton, music Angela Little, art direction Brendan Cook, associate producer Alec Doomadgee, executive producer Mitzi Goldman, distributor Umbrella, 2016.

Dr Tyson Yunkaporta is a Bama fulla currently working as a senior lecturer at Monash University, with research interests in Aboriginal cognition, methodologies, memory and pedagogy.

Top image credit: Zachariah Doomadgee, Zach’s Ceremony, still courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

How do film editors think? Dr Karen Pearlman’s new short film, Woman with an Editing Bench, is a 15-minute biopic about Russian film editor Elizaveta Svilova, unsung creative collaborator on the classic essay documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929). That film’s pioneering approach to the storytelling strategy of montage has become a pillar of film theory, but Svilova’s contribution has been eclipsed by those focusing on director Dziga Vertov. Though it’s alarming to think that a woman’s role has been historically so under-credited, Woman with an Editing Bench does more than reclaim a piece of cinema’s founding story: it aims to understand editors’ broader role in the process of co-writing and producing films.

A key scene in the film shows Svilova (Leanna Walsman) and Vertov (Richard James Allen) working furiously and collaboratively: cutting and recutting celluloid strips of film, scrawling diagrams that block movement and key plot points, and redrafting scenes together, on-the-fly. From two minds a new kind of film emerges, Man with A Movie Camera.

Film as research

Where Woman with an Editing Bench differs from most other new short films is that it also qualifies as an original contribution to scholarly thought, having been produced through Macquarie University’s Creative Ecologies Lab, a haven within the academy for around 20 artist-scholars working in dance, performance, music, creative non-fiction and film. “Woman with an Editing Bench is a creative research output at Macquarie University, which put substantial funding into it as well as providing the studio, camera, the lights, the technical facilities,” says Pearlman. “Where I teach Screen Production is the old AFTRS building. So we have these fantastic, world-class facilities for creative research and practice. Parts of the facilities are reserved for the student and staff researchers.”

Pearlman’s own path through academia is that of an artist-scholar. She came to Australia from the US as a dancer, but “pretty quickly realised that my entire cultural context and history in New York was not going to work here. I retrained and did two Masters degrees in editing and production and a Doctor of Creative Arts in about seven years.” The book resulting from her doctorate, Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit, is in its second edition through Focus Press, and Pearlman is now a lecturer teaching filmmaking in Macquarie’s Screen Practices and Production course, after having spent six years at AFTRS as head of Screen Studies. Continuous throughout all her work is the idea that a well-edited film is a film that moves well.

Leeanna Walsman, Woman with an Editing Bench, photo Kieran Fowler © The Physical TV Company

Editing as distributed cognition

“It can’t be just a good film,” says Pearlman of her approach to making cinematic projects within the university structure. “It has to make a new contribution to knowledge. So there’s been a whole lot of research questions that have led to Woman with an Editing Bench, and one is around distributed cognition. It says that you don’t just think in your brain, you think in your brain and your body and in the world, and that cognition is distributed and felt and intuitive, and it’s not just reasoning: it’s thought and action together. So I’ve been looking at film editing as an instance of distributed cognition.”

For Pearlman’s research, that meant asking: how does the editor think through the process of editing? “And how does the film think with the editor and how does it change? The editor doesn’t make any decisions apart from the filmed material. The thinking is integrated with sourcing, selecting, trimming, composing — it’s thinking with the material, it’s thinking in practice.

“I started looking at the historical record of Dziga Vertov and his editor Elizaveta Svilova through the lens of distributed cognition. Using the film Man with a Movie Camera, my claim is that I can use Svilova’s techniques to reveal her thoughts. Dziga Vertov is well documented. He gave interviews, he wrote a lot, you can have a career as a Vertov scholar. But Svilova’s thoughts are virtually undocumented. But fortunately what we do have is Man with a Movie Camera. We can see what her processes are — literally what actions she was taking as an editor, and can say, that’s her thinking. I brought her clips into my editing software and analysed them frame by frame, looking for her sense of rhythm and juxtaposition, the structures she designs, the way she shaped the flow of the story, the strobing technique that was so hard to achieve back then [with analogue technologies].”

Richard James Allen, Leeanna Walsman, Woman with an Editing Bench, photo Kieran Fowler, © The Physical TV Company

In other words, Pearlman found Svilova’s blueprint. “In the creative process, I’m embodying Svilova’s process, I’m thinking with her thinking. So my claim is that Woman with an Editing Bench recuperates her thoughts and puts them onscreen and that’s the new knowledge it contributes. The filmmaking has absolutely confirmed my hypothesis that editing is an instance of distributed cognition.” The lessons learned in the process of crafting her film have now created new pedagogical tools that Pearlman builds into her teaching in the university’s screen studies course. She’s since written a book chapter and several peer-reviewed papers on the subject of editing as distributed cognition, and the research is ongoing, with further films to come.

In this sense, Pearlman’s output reveals an important function for creative practice in universities: to test the theories that are developed in scholarship about how meaning is created in film, images and sound. The film resulting from this process is very different in feel and form from the short films coming out of Screen Australia’s short film funding programs, and has screened at international film festivals, been collected for research and preservation by 10 international film archives and acquired for educational distribution by Ronin Films.

Richard James Allen, Woman with an Editing Bench, photo Kieran Fowler © The Physical TV Company

Creative works are questions

But how to make short films that function as both a piece of creative research and a complete artwork to viewers who aren’t approaching them academically? “At a basic level, all creative works are questions. If you already knew the answer, you wouldn’t make one. You’re not going to remake the thing you made last year. So in creative practice research, you have a chance to articulate those questions in a really rigorous and sound way. I worked as a dancer for a long time, and for choreographers, there’s no requirement that they articulate what they’re trying to do. Not everybody needs to do it this way, but for me, it’s incredibly enriching and enlivening for my practice to do research and to theorise it — thinking about editing, thinking about history, thinking about film, thinking about women, thinking about cognition. It’s wrong to think that theorising your work will interrupt your intuition. Intuition is richly valued, and so is scholarly enquiry.”

Read about screen and other courses available in Macquarie University’s Media, Creative Arts & Communication department.

Woman with an Editing Bench, writer, director Karen Pearlman, director of photography Kieran Fowler, production designer Bethany Ryan, costume designer Anna Cahill, editor Karen Pearlman, music Caitlin Yeo; 15 mins, Physical TV Company, 2016

Woman with an Editing Bench is available for DVD purchase and Vimeo streaming through both Ronin films and Kanopy. It’s screening this Wednesday and Thursday at Brisbane International Film Festival and 2nd September at Cinewest’s 4th Women Media Arts and Film Festival. Watch a trailer here.

Top image credit: Karen Pearlman, photo by Samuel Lucas Allen

“This is a history people really want to learn and know about, and there is a desperation, I think, to look beyond Australian film history’s dominant white-straight-male narrative,” says Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, co-curator of Pioneering Women retrospective at Melbourne International Film Festival. Programmed with MIFF Artistic Director, Michelle Carey, the retrospective presents 10 ‘should-be classics’ made by women in the 1980s and 1990s that got little initial traction in the annals of Australian cinema.

Retrospective programming at film festivals in Australia can be an unrelenting echo chamber with lauded filmmakers chosen for their star power. Over the past two years, the Sydney Film Festival has featured retrospectives on Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa, sure to be a hit with Sydney audiences living in a city with a retrospective scene facing extinction. But the value of this type of programming is becoming reductive. Presented with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), Pioneering Women seeks to reframe the meaning of a retrospective by acquainting audiences with the unfamiliar, as it becomes clearer that festivals have an important role to play in bridging the gap in female representation.

“There’s so much discussion at the moment about the gender disparities facing Australian women filmmakers,” says Heller-Nicholas. “Ideally, I would like our program to play a part in providing a historical foundation for that discourse: we know women can make rich, diverse, unique cinema not as some vague ‘maybe,’ but because we have concrete evidence.”

Festivals step up

Much of the discussion about gender in cinema has focused on getting more women behind the camera in key creative roles. But beyond the realm of production, festival exposure is also a vital acknowledgment of female filmmakers’ presence in the Australian film landscape. “There are so many strong women filmmakers out there that if you’re not including a serious number of films by women, it’s now weird and obvious,” says Heller-Nicholas. As Kate Robertson wrote in last week’s RealTime, “… there continues to be critical — and importantly, public — interest in women filmmakers, with film festivals now providing the backbone of structural support.” This momentum is especially gathering in Melbourne, for instance with last year’s Gaining Ground stream at MIFF, the new Melbourne Women in Film Festival and the Girls on Film Festival, which recently drew on popular interest to crowdfund a program to offer “movies chosen by feminists, made by feminists, with a bunch of other feminists…so that people can feel the excitement that comes from seeing the stories of women and girls taken seriously.” In 2015, Screen Australia invested $5 million in the Gender Matters initiative to address imbalance in the local film industry but, beyond incentives for distributors, no funding was allocated to support female filmmakers in festivals. A gap remains in the plan between getting more films made by women and ensuring they see the light of day. Or is Screen Australia letting history repeat to ensure there’s a Pioneering Women program of forgotten films in 2040? Film festivals are increasingly making moves to stop this cycle.

A legacy almost lost

Heller-Nicholas says there’s no simple answer as to why the films in the Pioneering Women program didn’t make waves upon initial release: “It’s a different answer from film to film – they are all so distinctive. Celia [directed by Ann Turner, 1988] at the time really confused critics with what we see now is its remarkable playfulness and spirit of experimentation with genre – it employs horror codes and conventions, but is not really a horror film per se so it really stumped a lot of critics and distributors regarding how to actually push it,” said Heller-Nicholas.

This upending of expectations meant that many of the films, despite their greatness, “came out at precisely the wrong moment: people wanted Australian cinema to be upbeat, even perky, romantic, or, in the case of Romper Stomper [1992], certainly high energy. Broken Highway [Laurie McInnes, 1993] is consciously and deliberately none of those things: we can see it for the dark, brooding Australian Gothic noir it is today, but at the time it was simply out of vogue.”

The legacy of these films began to manifest in the stories that others told in their wake. “The late 1990s saw an absolute explosion of women’s filmmaking in Australia: when I was working on my website, Generation Star Struck, which is a mini-database of Australian women’s filmmaking from this period, I was genuinely astonished by how many women released feature films during this period,” Heller-Nicholas said. “They’re quite diverse both in terms of what they are about and the kinds of women making them, and I think in the broader sense the legacy is that they created a strong precedent for ‘other’ voices to speak through making movies – not just women filmmakers, but non-white filmmakers, queer filmmakers and so on.”

 

Bedevil (Tracey Moffat, 1993)

At MIFF

“Moffatt’s reputation is broadly linked more to her photography than her film work, and in the case of the latter her shorter works (Night Cries [1989], Nice Coloured Girls [1987], Heaven [1997]) are generally better known than this, her sole feature film. But what a film it is: combining the white and Indigenous ghost stories she heard as a child into a three-part anthology, Bedevil is not only a crash-course in why Moffatt is still one of the nation’s most distinctive and talented visual artists but – at a time when the ‘women in horror’ movement is making massive steps forward – it is to my knowledge the first horror anthology made by a single woman director.”

 

Broken Highway (Laurie McInnes, 1993)

At MIFF

“Discovering Broken Highway for me was like being punched: I had no idea that this film existed, and it radically changed the way I thought about women filmmakers in Australia and the work they had done historically. A dark, introspective film, it is a noir-imbued Australian Gothic tale by way of the Western, and – shot in sharp, consciously gloomy black and white – it speaks of a destructive masculine mythology built into our culture like few other films I’ve ever seen.”

 

Celia (Ann Turner, 1989)

At MIFF

“This film feels like an old friend, seen many times on television and clapped-out video tapes. The very idea of a NFSA restoration is genuinely thrilling! So many people I know remember this movie in some vague way, even if not by name then certainly ‘the one about the Hobyahs!’ A career-defining turn by then-child star, Rebecca Smart, and evidence that Turner is a filmmaker of extraordinary talent, why both of them aren’t household names today and on our film and television screens with deserved regularity I’ll never know.”

 

On Guard (Susan Lambert, 1983)

At MIFF

“Along with Broken Highway, this was one of the real hidden treasures we uncovered. A 50-minute feature, On Guard was promoted as a lesbian feminist terrorist heist movie about the ethics of IVF made by an almost completely all-woman cast and crew: what’s not to love? It’s clearly made with a lower budget than some of the other features in the program, but from this grows a raw energy that is absolutely contagious. It came out a year after Lizzy Borden’s Born in Flames [1983] that played MIFF last year, and the two films are perfect companions.”

The other films in Pioneering Women are Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982), Tender Hooks (Mary Callaghan, 1989), High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987), The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990), Only The Brave (Ana Kokkinos, 1994) and Floating Life (Clara Law, 1996).

Pioneering Women, Melbourne International Film Festival, co-curators Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Michelle Carey, presented in association with National Film and Sound Archive, ACMI, Forum Theatre and Kino Cinema, Melbourne, 4-12 Aug

Top image credit: On Guard (1983)

Upon The Babadook’s release in 2014, Katerina Sakkas wrote in RealTime that “the most powerful horror films are underscored by reality, presenting recognisable fears and anxieties in magnified and fantastic form.” Indeed, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut is a haunted-house horror film of folkloric dimensions and feminist temperament, in which a family home harbours the unspoken terrors and taboos of parenthood. A small boy’s beloved storybook monster morphs into a far more sinister organism, a long-fingered, top-hatted creature called The Babadook that torments his mother, who is in the throes of grieving her partner’s death.

Three copies courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment.

Email us at giveaways [at] realtimearts.net by 5pm 2 August with your name, postal address and phone number to be in the running.

Include ‘Giveaway’ and the name of the item in the subject line.

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Much has been made of the suburban setting of Rolf de Heer’s classic arthouse film Bad Boy Bubby. But it wasn’t so much the Adelaide’s spaces but its sounds that interested our writer Annemarie Jonson. A lifetime of imprisonment in his family home means that anti-hero Bubby (Nicholas Hope) isn’t the most verbal character ever. While dialogue is sparse, Rolf de Heer and his nine-person-strong sound team aurally plunge us into the mind of a man who has never heard a violin or a choir or a shitty pub band, “who lives trapped in an underworld crawling with crunchy roaches and humming with fluoro light.” Jonson shows us that this vivid, energised soundscape is key to embedding us deeply in Bubby’s strange, subjective view of his tiny world. In the film’s sideways statement about the claustrophobic nature of the Australian suburbs, its twitching aural landscape completely blows apart the myth of the benevolent, tranquil quarter-acre block. Since Jonson’s article, Adelaide has built on its cinematic reputation as a suburban site for depravity and despair (Snowtown and The Babadook), creepy incest-inflected family drama (Beautiful Kate) and at the less horrific end of the spectrum, late-in-life ennui (A Month of Sundays). Bad Boy Bubby remains the template.

This is the fourth instalment in our series The Deep Archive, which selects highlights from RealTime’s rich, 20-plus-years of publishing. LCH

 

Sound Boy Bubby

RealTime 3, October-November 1994

Annemarie Jonson listens to Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby appeared like some perverse teratology in a cinematic landscape strewn with sequins, high camp reprises of Abba and the ‘irrepressible larrikinism’ that passes for the 90s version of 80s Crocodile Dundeeism. The movie emerged from the chthonic underworld of suburban Adelaide more than a year ago, scoring the Grand Jury Special Prize at the 1993 Venice Film Festival before being picked up by Roadshow for local distribution — hence the bizarre juxtaposition at mainscreen cinemas of Bubby’s coming out, Priscilla’s odyssey and Muriel’s wedding.

Bubby is a feral Kaspar Hauser, teleported into the fin de siècle antipodes. He lives, or rather subsists like a virus dependent on his psychotic mother in a putrid, windowless cesspit set in an apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Bubby passes the time by committing unspeakable acts on the family pet and resident vermin. (Has the RSPCA seen this film?) He fears God and mother in equal amounts and regularly ‘services’ the latter. Bubby has never seen the world nor another human being in his 35 years; since mother dons a gas mask each time she leaves, he’s convinced he’d asphyxiate in the noxious outdoors. Like an ancient married couple in a hermetically sealed universe, the two are set in their quaint little quotidian rituals: she washes him, feeds him sugared bread and milk, and thrashes him; he fucks her, fondles her pendulous breasts and applies her lipstick — Princess Pink. (This movie, incidentally, is a psychoanalytic minefield. It scores an A+ for misogyny and rampant breast fetish. Dr Freud, the chaise longue for Mr de Heer please!)

The deeply pathetic ‘comfort’ of Bubby’s subsistence is shattered when his ‘Pop,’ a drunken low-life with a sideline as a cleric who ‘stepped out’ 35 years ago, returns to compete for mother’s affections. This cataclysmic event completes the Oedipal interdiction. Bubby is catapulted into the social order, but not before he improvises a Gladwrap Christo to sever family ties.

Bubby’s pilgrimage through contemporary Australian suburbia is a mix of violent abuse, the kindness of strangers and humanistic empathy. It takes in environmental degradation, disability, institutionalisation, religious fanaticism, pub rock and quantum physics. Norman Kaye appears in bizarre cameo as an atheistic, church-organ playing physicist who initiates Bubby into the chaotic mysteries of existence: “All we are are random arrangements of atoms. We don’t live, but our atoms move about in such a way as to give us identity and consciousness.” But one of the most interesting things in this quite remarkable film is the central role of sound. Bubby is an acoustic tabula rasa: he reflects like an aural mirror all that he hears, memorising and mimicking voices and sounds in a kind of innocent echolalia.

Bubby’s aural disposition is reflected in the film’s sound design by James Currie. The sound was recorded primarily via binaural radio mics attached to Bubby’s wig (a system devised by Fred and Margaret Stahl) through which we get to earwitness Bubby’s life. In the first part of the film the claustrophobia of Bubby’s dungeon is heightened by the incessant hum of the fluorescent lights, whining like the nervous system in an anechoic chamber. Currie ‘magnifies’ the small, inconsequential, normally unheard sounds of the everyday in Bubby’s underworld: the scraping of the shaver on his cheeks, the dripping of the tap as he waits motionless for his mother’s return, mixed into the sound of Bubby’s piss dripping through his chair, the rubbing and swishing of the flannel as mother washes Bubby down. And Bubby’s voice, close mic-ed against the spare, aural backdrop cuts through like a knife as he hisses at the cat, crunches cockroaches and punctuates the near silence with occasional bursts of monosyllabic babytalk.

When Bubby finally sets himself free the aural epiphanies begin in earnest. One of his first encounters is with a celestial Salvo choir mysteriously plonked in the Adelaide docks and reverb-ed to the heavens. Walking past a warehouse after robbing a service station, Bubby is mesmerised by the sound of a violin. When Bubby is thrown in jail, a phalanx of kilted bagpipe players appear out of nowhere and Bubby goes ballistic trying to locate the source of the sound. Once released Bubby is drawn into a cathedral by a brilliant Messiaen-like organ improvisation by Kaye. A member of the band which Bubby joins — yes, he stumbles into a vocation as a spoken word performance artist — performs an Islamic chant as he relates to Bubby a potted history of religious jihads through the millennia.

The aural preoccupation of the film reminds us of the epigraph to Hauser: “Do you not hear the pitiful screams all around us, which are commonly called silence?” But this is a little tragic and portentous for de Heer’s often very funny film. As it happens, Bubby ends up in a perverse kind of marital bliss, gamboling with his progeny in a semi-suburban quarter acre — adumbrated by an industrial plant spewing carcinogens over the pansies.

Annemarie Jonson wrote for RealTime and worked on its editorial committee in the 1990s. With Alessio Cavallaro, she co-edited its OnScreen supplement. She has a PhD in art theory from the University of Sydney and is CEO of the Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas, launching 2018.

“I think it’s pretty rare for a woman to make a good film, they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.” Though these words are fictional — spoken by the titular antagonist of the television adaptation of Chris Kraus’ canonical I Love Dick (director Jill Soloway, 2017) — they ping-ponged around my mind during the three sessions of the Feminism and Film retrospective at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival. Susan Charlton’s finely curated program — Feminism and Film: Sydney Women Filmmakers, 1970s & 1980s — suggests that creating from behind your oppression can make for films that are entertaining, experimental and original, laterally conceptualised, carefully structured and beautifully shot. Comprising short films and documentaries, the Feminism and Film sessions were among the most compelling of the 20-plus screenings I attended at SFF over the course of 12 days.

 

We Aim to Please (1976)

Though indeed disparate in content and form, the films were united by their spiky, feminist tellings of history and experience, bristling with energy and verve. They all suggested a creative, political phase of feminism in Australia, and while I expected overtly feminist content — daily life, the mess of it, housework, stories of women’s lives — many works contested the very language of film, reaching for new ways to represent women onscreen. We Aim to Please (Robin Laurie and Margot Nash, 1976) was, like the new I Love Dick, all about women’s perspectives on desire that bucks the male gaze and the beauty myth. Satirical and irreverent, We Aim to Please ended up settling on very close-up shots, abstracting one of the filmmaker’s bodies, lying in the earth of a garden patch, pale goosebumps alongside green leaves. This was not an idealised vision: there was body hair and full nakedness without the politeness of a reclining nude or the airbrushed unreality of porn. This concern with finding visual ways for women to be subjects, not objects, even without clothes, recurred in almost all the films that followed.

 

For Love or Money: a history of women and work in Australia (1983)

For Love or Money (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley, 1983) was a highlight of incredibly dense, intelligent non-fiction storytelling. An essay film, it resurrected a staggering array of archival clips and synthesised the writings of feminist historians to construct a chronology of women at work in Australia. By opening with the equal and vital role of women in Indigenous societies, it slayed the idea that Australian history commences with colonisation, creating the ideal basis for advancing the film’s main thesis that under capitalism, women’s work (raising children, doing the bulk of domestic labour, performing emotional labour that keeps families and their partners afloat) is devalued in a way that lowers the stature of women themselves. In other words, sexism isn’t just a floating prejudice in the uneducated mind, but is anchored and legitimised in an economic reality. The film arcs through the ban on married mothers in the workforce, the campaign for equal pay, the rush of women into paid roles during World War II and the exploitation of migrant women. Though this description of a radical economic analysis probably suggests a super cerebral film, For Love or Money resonated at a deeply felt level. Noni Hazelhurst’s narration refused to engage in documentary cinema’s historical pretensions of objectivity, with constant reference to “our bodies,” “our pain” and “our survival.” For Love or Money stands today as a major work of historical research, a masterclass of montage editing and a classic essay film. It can be streamed from Ronin Films.

My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979)

The retrospective’s vital Indigenous component went further. The first Australian film by an Indigenous woman, My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979) is framed through the experience of Murruwurri matriarch and director Essie Coffey, whose strength and hope and struggle burn through every moment. Superbly structured, the documentary, filmed and co-produced by cinematographer Martha Ansara, tells of Indigenous depression initiated by the trauma of colonialism. A sequence in which Coffey shows Indigenous kids how to find food and medicine in the bush is followed by a blue-tinged, scripted segment in which a fridge door opens repeatedly onto a white-fluoro nightmare of processed foods, a jug of orange juice glowing nuclear. Coffey turns away from the fridge and stares down the camera with an ironic glint in her eyes, and we understand that happiness is an impossibility under Western imposition. We then see shots of drunken Aboriginal alienation — met with police repression — before going back to the bush with Coffey and her family: survival through community is the lasting message.

Carolyn Strachan and community member, Two Laws

Two Laws (1981)

Next was Two Laws, a documentary made collaboratively by the Borroloola Tribal Council and filmmakers Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini (see excerpts). It tells of an awful moment of police and judicial brutality in the 1930s in the Northern Territory, with each storytelling decision made collectively by the surviving people of that community. The film has scripted moments and re-enactments but is entirely transparent in its presentation; much of it is shot, wide-angle, from a seated position among a circle of people, in visual sync with Indigenous storytelling traditions. I haven’t seen anything like it in honesty of feel or form, though it’s an obvious precursor to the sleeker fictional drama Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006).

 

The women’s film collectives

A common context emerged over the course of the retrospective: the filmmakers’ collectives that shaped much independent filmmaking in Australia in the 1970s, often involving people who began their creative training as artists. The Sydney Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Women’s Film Group birthed combinations of art minds who encouraged and worked with each other with an ethos antithetical to today’s neoliberal, self-branding mentality. Many of the films benefited from the Experimental Film Fund, an Australian Film Institute program 1970-1978 for projects orphaned by commercial distributors and production houses. And in 1975, a Women’s Film Fund was created, resulting in films like the fantastical This Woman is Not a Car (Margaret Dodd, 1982), which presents suburban married life as a form of horror.

Consider this context for filmmaking against that of today. Federal support for experimental filmmaking is now zero. And an express vision for correcting rampant workplace discrimination against women in the screen industries has only just begun to form among policymakers, who remain hesitant to suggest concrete targets or quotas for parity in gender participation.

 

The lost/found paradox

The series performed another function: the revelation of an archive lost to the public imagination. The films are all preserved by the National Film and Sound Archive, but, without more concrete screening opportunities, are a lost legacy. It’s paradoxical to think that cultural objects can be both archived and lost. Though the NFSA’s mission is to collect and share items of audiovisual production, evidently much more collection than sharing takes place, with few options for big-screen or home viewing. The archive seems to be a one-way chute: archived but not circulating or discoverable, films go in and rarely go out, with digitisation, distribution and exhibition the missing links to their life in contemporary film-going.

 

Projections

The Feminism and Film series is over now but the retrospective highlighted the absence of state and industry structures crucial for the creation and delivery of innovative creative works: an experimental film fund, a better plan for digitising and providing access to archives, exhibition spaces for non-commercial films and the facilitation of discussions around them. Though I’ve heard much lamentation of inequity since the launch of Screen Australia’s rather spineless Gender Matters policy in 2015, I knew almost nothing until now of these women’s films that thrived in a living vein of supported film culture in the 1970s and 80s. To think that the beginnings of a tradition of politically acute, formally daring filmmaking by women in Australia was cut short, and then almost forgotten, says so much about the larger problems of cultural value and memory in Australian culture and screen industries. Despite their retrospective nature, the Feminism and Film screenings played like scenes from a possible future for Australian cinema: a reminder that culture can change, if we’re willing to look back before we look forward.

Other films in the program included Behind Closed Doors
 (Sarah Gibson, Susan Lambert, 1980), 
 Serious Undertakings
 (Helen Grace, Erika Addis, 1982), A Song of Ceylon

 (Laleen Jayamanne, 1985) and Film for Discussion (Sydney Women’s Film Group, including Martha Ansara and Jeni Thornley, 1974).

Sydney Film Festival, Feminism and Film: Sydney Women Filmmakers, 1970s & 1980s, curator Susan Charlton, Sydney Film Festival, Event Cinemas and Art Gallery of New South Wales, 10 & 18 June

Top image credit: Archival still, For Love or Money

“Think you’ve got what it takes?” the call-out on the Triple J website asks. They’re on the hunt for a new film critic after ‘That Movie Guy,’ Marc Fennell, stepped down after 11 years in the role. Fennell created a fine legacy at Triple J and a standard for how the radio station approaches film coverage. On the surface, his vacancy leaves a sweet, coveted gig. The role is changing to include films, TV and streaming. And it pays: $250 per review, once a week. That equates to, roughly, $12,000 a year before tax.

Full-time critics are rare in Australia, so it’s questionable if anyone has ever thrived on their critical output alone without supplementing their income elsewhere. Sure, the Triple J job pays — it’s better than nothing — but not significant enough to empower an emerging critic to have the freedom to hone their craft. Triple J claims to have over two million listeners per week in the five capital cities who will hear one review replayed for a week across various times of the day. Considering the number of new film releases, TV and streaming options available, it’s a job with limitations. If the critic were able to file more often, and be paid accordingly, it would change the nature of the role dramatically.

To make matters worse, Australian films will have to compete with blockbusters and streaming giants for the critic’s attention to be the subject of the review of the week (a universal problem in the arts). Unless there’s a mandate to prioritise local films or TV shows in any given week, as Triple J does with the Australian music on their playlist, the national youth broadcaster is missing the point of a fundamental part of its programming and very existence. Given this is a key arts criticism position with a large audience, serious consideration needs to be made about how the new critic is integrated into the station’s programming.

A lot of writers and broadcasters have the necessary skillset — and that’s just it, criticism is a profession that requires a skillset of film knowledge, analytical skills and the ability to communicate. The real question is: how did we get to a point where the national youth broadcaster isn’t investing properly in professional screen criticism? The answer is partly tied up in budget woes at the ABC, intensified by the new Managing Director, Michelle Guthrie, who seems to be stalking the budget sheets at the national broadcaster like a masked assailant in a slasher movie. But alongside the massive cuts to arts coverage at Fairfax, it also reflects a more profound crisis in critical writing and broadcasting: a falling away of understanding in how elemental arts criticism is in both the media and the arts in Australia.

The call-out was angled as a competition for non-professional critics, with the lure of exposure. One thousand applied and the field narrowed to five before the victor, Amelia Navascues, was announced yesterday. Navascues has experience in community radio, perfect for a role where the presenter must act as a scriptwriter, editor and sound mixer (technical roles which, in other parts of the network, are performed by specialists). Triple J has found a way to crowdsource an emerging broadcaster at a budget price.

 

Critical evolution

Evidently, Triple J had no interest in looking for more experienced arts critics. Though this approach jives with how Fennell got into the role as a Triple J fan who worked hard and turned a break into one of the longest running film criticism tenures in Australia, it devalues the critic as a trusted, experienced voice. There are many professionals who didn’t train or aspire to be critics who fell into the role because an editor or producer was looking for someone to cover a beat. One of them is famed critic Roger Ebert, who studied to be a journalist, mostly covering sports early in his career, until he was assigned to write film reviews and the rest is history. Margaret Pomeranz was working as a producer at SBS and got paired with David Stratton on The Movie Show after an opportunity to audition came up after all the female critics who tested fizzled. There’s no sign that the incoming Triple J reviewer will be trained or mentored in criticism. How are they meant to navigate their way to becoming an impartial voice?

 

Devaluing the professional critic

This is just the latest development in a growing trend where editors and producers aren’t looking for experienced critics to provide arts coverage. The effect is a worrying distortion of cultural discourse. Schwartz Publishing, a key company in the cultural landscape, does not utilise professional film critics in either of its major titles, The Monthly or The Saturday Paper. The latter was recently left exposed by a misguided review of Get Out by author Christos Tsiolkas, who couldn’t comprehend the way writer and director Jordan Peele took horror themes and used them to satirise the myth of a post-racial America. Tsiolkas got stuck on a comparative loop with The Stepford Wives, a film Peele acknowledged as an influence on his film in countless interviews ahead of its release. Get Out is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year so far and still fair game for critical assessment, but Tsiolkas’ comments were widely seen as tone-deaf, culturally unaware and over-opinionated, with the purpose of taking down a well-reviewed film.

 

The casualised critic

The handling of the Triple J gig is also indicative of the freelancing and casualisation of writing and broadcasting jobs for the professionally trained. A full-time critic I spoke with who did not want to be named noted that Triple J is offering a great opportunity… if you can cobble together five other jobs that pay the same rate and you’re willing to live on choc-tops. This leads to a small group of critics hogging outlets that pay, which narrows the field of voices. Even if you start as an amateur, it takes a few solid years to develop a voice and level of trust with an audience, but it’s doubtful any outlet is going to have the attention span to sustain a new critical voice long enough to develop a level of respect that adds to the conversation about the arts in Australia. In an article published in The Citizen, “Is the Full-Time Critic a Dying Breed?”, it was claimed that there are only two full-time salaried critics left in Australia. Shortly after the article was published, a few full-timers contacted the author, Anders Furze, to add their names to the list. He told RealTime that only one hand was needed to tally the total. The major issue is of job security and stable working conditions for writers and broadcasters — of critics being spread thin and balancing multiple jobs in the pursuit of something that resembles a salary.

Australia has been flooded with local start-ups of huge mastheads like The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But to date, only The Guardian Australia has invested extensively in local arts criticism with a group of critics filing on a regular basis. The other outlets are happy with arts coverage from abroad; there is no value for them in financing local criticism. They might as well strike “Australia” from their titles.

 

Sound bites & click bait

More worrying is the idea that the national broadcaster doesn’t care. The impact of the loss of local, experienced critics curating the public conversation about the arts means that the dialogue is reduced to sound bites and click-bait headlines. Expertise and depth is no longer valued, and audiences for artists are no longer consistently developed. If Australian artists are creating new works and nobody is knowledgeable enough to write or broadcast intelligently about them, they drift into the void. To quote the food critic, Anton Ego from Ratatouille: “The bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”

While criticism is diminished, made into a sport and reduced to hot takes, there remain plenty of voices and small publications trying hard to make it work, to make it matter. Criticism still matters, to artists and readers. The question is how to ensure it survives and flourishes for a wide audience in a threatened, under-resourced media and arts environment. Now is the time for publishers and broadcasters to create significant opportunities to reverse a trend in which critics become disenfranchised and reclassified as hobbyists.

See also in The Lifted Brow, a discussion between reviewers: Arts coverage in Australia: how fucked we really are.

Cameron Williams is the founder of The Popcorn Junkie https://thepopcornjunkie.com/, is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne and contributes to SBS Movies, Little White Lies and Radio National’s The Final Cut among others.

In early May I flew to Hobart in anticipation of some of the most interesting dark genre programming around, at an atmospheric film festival that’s hugely supportive of women filmmakers. This was my third experience of Stranger With My Face International Film Festival, now in its fifth year (not counting a hiatus in 2015). Founded in 2012 by Tasmanian filmmakers Rebecca Thomson and Briony Kidd, Stranger With My Face focuses on horror and other genre films directed by women. The one festival of its kind in Australia, it not only provides a rare opportunity to see genre cinema from a range of thought-provoking female perspectives, but also acts as an incubator for women’s feature film projects through its intensive Attic Lab workshop for selected participants.

This year was notable for the presence of renowned New Zealand director Gaylene Preston as both featured filmmaker and mentor for the festival’s developmental Attic Lab. One of the most striking features of the two subversive Preston thrillers included in SWMF’s retrospective program—Mr Wrong (1984) and Perfect Strangers (2003)—was how resonant their commentary on sexism and gender roles remained, despite the passage of time. In a post-screening Q&A, Preston remarked on the films’ implicit feminism, “All the things you see in Mr Wrong came from a point of rage.” While there were strong films at the festival that explored themes other than misogyny, those reviewed here—bar one—contain elements of this rage. All are explorations of the perilousness of feminine archetypes: the ingénue, the ‘slut,’ the dead girl, the siren and the saint.

 

Mr Wrong

As Preston put it, “There’s a whole interrogation of ‘nice’” in Mr Wrong, a film about a good-natured, unworldly young woman, Meg (Heather Bolton), who buys a powder-blue Jaguar from a used-car salesman so she can drive from the city to visit her parents on weekends. Meg has a pleasant, open countenance and an Annie-like shock of red curls that suggests she hasn’t quite reached the level of urban sophistication of her city housemates. She’s softly spoken, a bit of a worrier. Despite initial reluctance to purchase the large car, she takes the wheel with a sense of optimism, underlined by the film’s jaunty opening theme. This cheerful start is disrupted on her first long drive home out of Wellington, when, drawing up for a rest break at dusk, the car silhouetted against the sea, she has a terrifying, inexplicable experience—something that’s depicted simply yet so creepily it sets us, like Meg, on edge for the rest of the journey.

Mr Wrong is gloriously multifaceted. Looked at one way, it’s a suspenseful, not particularly serious thriller, enjoyably goofy at times (as in a scene where Meg gallivants through a field in her loud jumper after romantically reconnecting with a childhood friend). From another angle, it’s artistic Gothic horror, with its vivid nocturnal cinematography and nightmarish conjuring of rain-swept roads and pale apparitions, the heroine’s face appearing half in shadow behind the wheel. What makes the film singularly compelling, however, is the constant dull murmur of sexual aggression Meg endures; something that threatens to escalate if she fails to be sufficiently ‘nice.’

The ideals of freedom and independence represented by Meg’s car and city job are undercut by the recognition that there’s no escaping harassment, be it from corporeal sexists or an increasingly malevolent vehicle. In this way, and particularly for women, Preston quite viscerally aligns Mr Wrong’s supernatural horror with everyday oppression. It’s telling that some contemporaneous reviewers failed to pick up on her subtext. In her introduction to the screening, academic Deb Verhoeven quoted from the Evening Post, which praised Mr Wrong as, “a fine film endowed with feminine intuition but free of feminist cant.” This, despite the cathartic Gothic finale, a repudiation of violence against women and demonstration of female solidarity powerful enough to reach beyond the grave.

You can watch the trailer here.

Slapper

Everything that can go wrong in Slapper [Australia, 2017], will go wrong in Luci Schroder’s unflinching portrayal of a day in the life of Taylah (Sapphire Blossom), a teenage single mother who’s desperately in need of the morning-after pill—and is broke. The ensuing race against the clock exposes the harsh, inequitable side of hetero sex, compounded by class inequality and petty indifference; no need for supernatural horror in this short drama. Moving through grey, semi-rural suburbia and various chaotic domestic situations, Taylah attempts to hustle the money in increasingly degrading, dangerous ways, trailing her young daughter in her wake.

Schroder has garnered recognition for her music video work, including for the Alpine track “Hands,” which simultaneously deploys and subverts tropes of frank female sexuality. Slapper does away with the music-video gloss but retains the frankness with Blossom’s raw, aggressive physical performance. The fact that Taylah is capable of nastiness doesn’t lessen the empathy with her situation; it just underlines her fundamental lack of agency. Schroder and co-writer Sam West maintain a constant edge of aggression in their economic, skilfully paced narrative, with the excruciating denouement denoting the hopelessness and self-perpetuating misery of systemic oppression.

The Man Who Caught A Mermaid

The Man Who Caught a Mermaid

With this impressively assured graduate short, Kaitlin Tinker [Australia, 2017] presents another sort of suburban nightmare in her ambiguous account of a retired Australian bloke who dreams of catching a mermaid, and succeeds—perhaps. In a seamless transition from gentle whimsy to stark horror, Tinker upends the traditional myth of the siren luring men to their deaths. In so doing, she exposes the darkly constrictive effect of romantic fantasies on women. The film complements Gaylene Preston’s Perfect Strangers, which also critiques the romantic ideal.

What happened to her?

What Happened to Her?

Perhaps the bizarrely common filmic trope of the submerged female corpse is a successor to the mermaid. Part-video essay, part-creative documentary, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s short film What Happened to Her? [USA, 2016] is a startling assemblage of film and TV clips demonstrating the sheer proliferation of nubile female dead bodies on our screens. There’s no identification of individual titles, but the clips derive from serious, artistic drama (Twin Peaks, True Detective) as well as forgettable forensic crime shows. On her back or face down, in the sand, in the water (of course) or exposed to the gaze of some sad-eyed (usually male) detective in the morgue, “the body” is allowed to speak here through a quiet voiceover, as an actor relays her experience playing the naked corpse (or perhaps it’s several actors, talking about several corpses; it’s hard to tell) while a seemingly inexhaustible collection of examples is displayed. To uncanny effect, she details what it’s like to be told to strip naked and float face-down in water playing dead; to have bruises painted on you by a sleazy make-up artist; to feel vulnerable in front of all-male crews; to embody a real victim on a true crime show. The voice prompts thought about all the women—fictional and real—whose murders have become an entertainment fetish.

The Book of Birdie

Not polemical so much as a transportive mood piece, Elizabeth E Schuch’s first feature, The Book of Birdie [UK, 2017], nonetheless explores an historically powerful female entity—the Christian mystic. It begins with a teenage girl placed in a snowbound nunnery by her grandmother. Played expressively by Ilirida Memedovski, Birdie has the idealised appearance of a fairytale orphan with her heavy dark hair, pale skin and enormous eyes, on which the camera dwells in close-up. Quietly watchful, she’s both childlike and otherworldly.

The hushed atmosphere of the cloister in which Birdie finds herself is enhanced by the snow falling outside. A cocoon, it magnifies the usual intensity of adolescent emotions, giving rise to extravagant visions and fancies. Two other films about adolescent girls in female-dominated institutions are brought to mind: Vardis Marinakis’ numinous Black Field (2009), set in a medieval Greek nunnery, and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), with its dreamlike bizarreness and vivid use of colour.

A strikingly visual director, Schuch cleaves to various hallmarks of Gothic Romance: the cavernous stone nunnery with its elaborate spiral staircase, Catholic paraphernalia, wraiths, blood, snow, the heroine’s appearance, her innocence and mysticism. But she pushes into unexpected territory by making Birdie a source of great energy rather than a wan victim. Joy imbues her brilliantly coloured visions/hallucinations; she jokes with ghosts, falls in love with the groundsman’s daughter and moves through the convent beatifically. Seizing all the imagery at hand in this austere environment, she devises idiosyncratic rituals incorporating Catholic iconography, superhero comics, menstrual blood and—most disturbingly—a miscarried foetus. Through her rituals, Birdie can gain power over female bodily pain and possible past trauma by creatively transforming them into something transcendent.

Sadly, though, Catholicism places inevitable limitations on its mystics; Birdie must eventually confront the impossibility of merging spiritual and corporeal worlds—though not before offering a glimpse of an alternative approach.

It was invigorating, as always, to see distinctive filmmakers at Stranger With My Face shining such personal light on female experience, challenging the dominant narrative through captivating, angry, inspired, artistic works from past and present.

Stranger With My Face International Film Festival 2017, Director Briony Kidd, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 4-7 May

Top image credit: What happened to her?

I love films, and I especially love seeing them on a big screen in a dark cinema. I love seeing all sorts of different films: silent films, old films, new films, films from different national cinemas. And while I can find plenty to see, both at the Sydney Film Festival, and the seemingly never-ending stream of national and themed film festivals that crowd the calendar, what I’ve always yearned for is a cinémathèque to provide for Sydney something like the wonderful Melbourne Cinémathèque at ACMI has been doing: a year-round program, a challenging and diverse selection of classic and contemporary films, both retrospectives and thematic series, using archival and new prints sourced from all around the world. I’ve been aware, and jealous of, their program for years; I used to go to Melbourne quite often, and tried to catch a session or two whenever there.

Lost causes

Somehow, however, despite several significant attempts and much talk over the years, Sydney could never achieve anything similar. While it’s often been argued in debates on film culture that not only would audiences profit from such regular screenings of films from other national cinemas, curated seasons of the work of particular directors, screenings of specific genres and of rarely seen gems, but that our own filmmakers and film students could benefit from being exposed to such a rich diversity of filmmaking practice, such ideas have not been enough to make it happen. Suddenly, however, there’s a little ray of hope!

MCA briefly fills gap

Last year I discovered that the Museum of Contemporary Art was having free, curated screenings on Saturday afternoons. I’d already missed some, but I found out in time to see four films by one of my favourite filmmakers, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo, two of which I’d seen but was very happy to see again, and two that I hadn’t—and was delighted with. The next month promised four new Portuguese films curated by film writer and scholar Adrian Martin; the first to screen was Others Will Love the Things I Loved (2014), Manuel Mozos’ loving cinematic essay and tribute to the late João Bénard da Costa, who was apparently a cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinémathèque (there’s that word again!). I loved this film, even though I knew nothing about either the subject or the filmmaker.

Next in the program were four films by the wonderful Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But the MCA did make things difficult—screenings were sometimes changed from the Saturday to the Sunday, or to the next week, sometimes cancelled altogether or perhaps played later (without telling you when). And at the end of the year, they finished; the MCA is now using the screening space for video and electronic artworks, connected to its exhibitions.

A previous try

Ironically, it was the MCA that had spent 10 years from the early 90s trying to achieve a vision of an additional building which would house a cinémathèque, encompassing a national gallery, screening venue and study centre for film, video and computer-based media. But despite many high-powered supporters from the film and performing arts sectora, and many meetings, workshops and architectural competitions, the seemingly interminable negotiations between the many interested parties eventually crashed to a halt. When the additional building finally eventuated, it had only one screening room.

Cinematheque Francaise, building designed by Frank Gehry

A new approach

I had met James Vaughan, the film enthusiast who had been organising the MCA screenings and who was determined to find an alternate venue and some assistance to continue, and when he asked me to join the Sydney Cinémathèque, the volunteer-run film initiative that has now developed a proposal to put to the Sydney City Council for support, I enthusiastically agreed. James had also been inspired by the Melbourne Cinémathèque. As he says, “I lived in Melbourne from 2012 to 2014 and was a regular [there]. There is no debate regarding Melbourne Cinémathèque’s pre-eminence in Australia for the regular screening of rare, experimental and culturally significant cinema.”

Back in Sydney, talking to film friends and colleagues about the lack of any comparable institution here, Vaughan found many lamenting how long Sydney has been bereft of something comparable, and so, working at the MCA, he worked out a way to utilise its theatre space. That experience has led to the current proposal, a weekly guest-curated contemporary cinema program that would build on the success of the MCA initiative.

As Vaughan explains, the regular screenings would provide the Sydney community with access to rare and culturally significant cinema from around the globe. It would also aim to open a dialogue between acclaimed film practitioners, scholars, curators, and the audience. Guest-curated each month by different Australian and international institutions, filmmakers, critics and festival programmers, it should bring some of the most exciting contemporary cinema from around the world to Sydney audiences.

As Vaughan says, “We see this as a rare opportunity to consolidate and expand on what worked so well at the MCA—the creation of a space for the best curators, critics, theorists and practitioners of cinema to be part of an environment where both complementary and contradicting voices are accommodated to affirm, in all its dynamism, the awesome power of cinematic art. If funded we’ll be seeking curatorial partnerships, and we’re also committed to and passionate about everything which would support the screenings—Q&As, panel discussions and live director Skype-ins. We strongly believe that our proposed program which, at its core, is fascinated by the nebulous zone between conventional narrative cinema and long-form video art, has the potential to revitalise screen culture in Sydney.”

Why a cinémathèque?

The name and the model come from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which has had a chequered history since it was founded in 1936 through the passion of the legendary Henri Langlois, who started collecting and preserving films in the 1930s. Dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and conserving all sorts of cinema, to make it available for public screenings, it is the first and most famous institution of its kind and is now a cultural icon in France.

After Sydney became the second international City of Film in 2010, joining UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, a global network of key cities committed to promoting economic development through their creative industries, filmmaker Gillian Armstrong was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that you have to feel slightly embarrassed about the fact that “we’ve been given this incredible honour: City of Film, and we don’t have a cinémathèque, we don’t have a film centre.” Surely it’s time we did.

Our previous coverage of the campaign for a cinémathèque in Sydney appeared in RealTime 96 in which Tina Kaufman traces the history of Australian screen culture and in RealTime RT105 in which she details the campaign in 2011 for a cinémathèque based at the MCA.

Top image credit: Harold Lloyd, Why Worry? (1923), now screening at ACMI Cinematheque

Michael Riley

Michael Riley

MICHAEL RILEY IS PRIMARILY KNOWN AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, SO IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT HIS BEST KNOWN FILM, EMPIRE (1997), IS ALSO THE ONE MOST OBVIOUSLY ALIGNED WITH THE STYLE OF HIS LATE STILL PHOTOGRAPHY. YET IT IS THE LESSER KNOWN HALF-HOUR DOCUMENTARIES RILEY MADE FOR SBS AND THE ABC THAT HAVE HAD THE MOST SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS FILM.

The Australian National Gallery retrospective, Michael Riley: sights unseen, provides a rare opportunity to consider Riley’s screen work alongside his stills and brings to light some surprising correlations. Both his films and photographs employ a broad spectrum of styles, but the exhibition reveals no clear cut division between his work in the two mediums. Rather, it creates the impression of two distinct strains that cut right across Riley’s entire artistic output. On the one hand his portraiture and documentaries rely primarily on the camera’s relationship to the physical reality before the lens—the look in a subject’s eyes, the way they hold themselves, and the stories they relate to the camera. On the other hand, Riley’s more overtly abstract work relies heavily on the relationship between deliberately ambiguous images, the symbolic resonances of collected objects and the formations of the natural world.

Empire (1997) epitomises the latter strand of Riley’s oeuvre. Originally commissioned for the Festival of the Dreaming program in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the film went on to appear in exhibitions and arts festivals around the world. Opening with a giant eye superimposed on a cloud-specked sky, Empire unfolds as a series of images depicting the Australian landscape as a parched country devoid of human presence. Animal skeletons lie stripped and scattered on the ground; an echidna’s corpse is beset by swarming ants; a windmill spins forlornly beside two water tanks, incongruous in a land without moisture. Towards the end of the film remnants of a decaying colonial dream appear: a weather-beaten Union Jack flutters across a blue sky, a mirrored crucifix reflects passing cloud, and a burning cross evokes the dark side of the colonial project. Finally, the camera rests on a tacky ‘noble savage’ figurine of an Aboriginal man. A disembodied voice from a newsreel or ancient radio broadcast crackles in a polite British accent that belies the culturally genocidal implications of the words: “Keeping untouched natives away from white settlements where they would perish like moths in a light, replacing…their ancient beliefs…with a higher faith—the Christian faith. Training them in a benevolent segregation…gradually to make them fit into an Australian community.”

Like the concomitant photographic series, Flyblown, Empire explores the impact of European invasion on the Australian continent and its people, but unlike the photographic series, the film also illustrates the way in which Riley’s more symbolist tendencies could become heavy-handed when rendered on screen. A series of photographs can be viewed, digested and returned to in any order, creating between them a site of floating exchange crucially informed by the viewer. In Empire the images are inevitably fixed; their interpretive potential can feel foreclosed. However, it is the film’s overbearing and self-consciously ethereal music that does most to make Empire’s air of mystery feel laboured, reinforcing the sense that for all the images’ indeterminate nature, our reading is being firmly guided.

For me, Riley was more effective as a filmmaker when exploring his documentary bent in films like Blacktracker (1996), Tent Boxers (1998) and Quest for Country (1993). These typify the rehabilitative historical impulse underlying much of Riley’s documentary work. In different ways, they all seek to unearth the buried threads of Indigenous experience woven into Australia’s social, cultural and political history.

Blacktracker was made for ABC TV and examines the life of Riley’s grandfather, who served in the NSW police force from 1911 to 1950. Rising to the rank of sergeant, Alec Riley became one of the best known trackers in the country. He was instrumental in solving at least seven murders and located many people lost in the bush during his time on the force. Despite relying a little too heavily on re-enactments to make up for an absence of relevant historical footage, Blacktracker succeeds admirably in bringing Alec Riley’s story to life and portraying a warm and sensitive man who “achieved in a time of extreme adversity.” It is a positive story, but one tempered by the times in which Alec Riley lived. According to his descendants, for example, he was never awarded a police pension, despite making contributions to the pension fund throughout his working life.

The prejudices Tracker Riley encountered also adversely affected others, a point tragically illustrated by the case of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Desmond Clarke who went missing in the Pilliga scrub in the early 1930s. Riley was summoned to assist in tracking the boy down but his grandfather “didn’t want any blacks on his property.” Consequently the search party was unable to find the missing child. A year later the boy’s grandfather passed away and Riley returned to the area; within 12 hours he had located Desmond’s remains in a chalk pit 500 metres from the family homestead. This story later provided the inspiration for Rachel Perkins’ film One Night the Moon (2000).

Two years after Blacktracker, Michael Riley made Tent Boxers for the ABC, another film looking at Indigenous men working in a time of institutionalised racism. The boxers of the film’s title were amateur fighters who until the early 1970s toured with country fairs, slugging it out with any locals willing to take them on. Inevitably many of the boxers were Indigenous youths looking to make some money and escape highly segregated country towns. They were expected to participate in up to fifteen fights a day in large circus tents strewn with sawdust and jam-packed with onlookers. In return they received some money and the rare opportunity to travel Australia. As one pair of fighters fondly recall, there was also the attraction of ardent female fans. Riley interviews a range of former boxers, intercutting their recollections with archival footage of the fairs and the fights, creating a vivid portrait of a distinct social and historical milieu shot through with humorous tales and memorable characters. The film exemplifies documentary’s ability to bring to light prosaic, small scale stories bypassed in ‘big picture’ social histories, revealing much about the everyday minutiae of a particular period.

Both Tent Boxers and Blacktracker remain within well established television documentary forms, but the earlier Quest for Country (1993) provides a rare example of Riley pursuing a degree of formal experimentation in one of his documentaries. Quest for Country is structured around Riley’s journey to the areas his father and mother are from around Dubbo and Moree. Like Empire, the film explicitly explores an Indigenous way of viewing the land and the stories the land holds. It begins with Riley driving through and observing the streets of Sydney before he passes out of the city, over the Blue Mountains and across the western plains. His gaze is intercut with a jarring visual and aural montage of sirens, screams and photographs of smug colonial settlers staring resolutely from fading 19th century photographs. Paintings of massacres cut across apparently empty tracts of western NSW, short-circuiting whitewashed accounts of our colonial past. Interspersed with his historical ruminations, Riley presciently describes a country facing ecological disaster, explicitly linking environmental ruination with European denial of Indigenous knowledge. Throughout we constantly return to Riley’s gaze reflected in his car’s rear-vision mirror. It’s a gaze that looks both forward and back in time, anchoring the film’s perspective while also turning Riley’s stare back on the viewer. Through this subtly reflexive device, the filmmaker quietly but forcefully asserts his presence, and the presence of the stories he tells, in the country through which he passes.

The late Charles Perkins famously commented, “We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives with us”, and it is Michael Riley’s pioneering exploration of this theme in documentaries like Quest for Country that is his most lasting influence on the current generation of Australian Indigenous filmmakers. Ivan Sen’s work in particular displays a strong thematic kinship with Riley’s films. It is through the work of artists like Riley and the filmmakers he has inspired that non-Indigenous Australians might begin to understand something of our country’s deeply repressed Indigenous history and what this history means for our contemporary situation. Until these stories are heard and acknowledged, and their implications understood, we’ll forever be like two-year-old Desmond Clarke stumbling around, lost in the Pilliga scrub, unable to make sense of the land in which we live.

Michael Riley: sights unseen, curated by Brenda L Croft, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, July 14-Oct 16; Monash Gallery of Art, Vic, Nov 16 2006-Feb 25 2007; Dubbo Regional Gallery May 12-July 8 2007; Moree Plains Gallery, May 19-July15 2007; Museum of Brisbane, July 27-Nov 19 2007; Art Gallery of NSW, 22 Feb 22-April 27 2008

Part 1 appears in RT76

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 15

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Jindabyne

Jindabyne

Jindabyne

I look at the creek. I’m right in it, eyes open, face down, staring at the moss on the bottom, dead.

Raymond Carver, “So Much Water So Close To Home”

WHEN CLAIRE, THE NARRATOR OF RAYMOND CARVER’S QUIETLY POWERFUL SHORT STORY, IMAGINES HERSELF TO BE THE DEAD WOMAN THAT HER HUSBAND HAS FOUND IN A RIVER, IT’S A MOMENT OF CONDEMNATION AND EMPATHY.

In Carver’s “So Much Water So Close To Home”, and in the recent film adaptation, Jindabyne (by Australian director Ray Lawrence) Claire’s husband chooses to continue fishing with his mates, despite having discovered the murdered woman floating downstream.

It’s this choice—to keep fishing—that provides the central ethical conundrum and terrific moral ambiguity in both story and film. But in Jindabyne the murdered girl is not just some young woman from out of town, she’s also Aboriginal. Lawrence, and screenwriter Beatrix Christian’s decision to include issues of race in this considerably extrapolated version of Carver’s story shifts the focus considerably. Several reviews have admired Jindabyne’s engagement with the theme of reconciliation, but few have examined precisely how this actually functions in the film.

Christian explores the fallout from the choice by the four men to “fish over a dead girl’s body” as the Jindabyne newspapers put it. For most of the film we closely follow the emotional and ethical struggles of our protagonists. Claire (Laura Linney) cannot come to terms with what her husband Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) has done. Much of this material—Claire’s secret, unwanted pregnancy; her past postnatal depression; Stuart’s midlife crisis (he dyes his greying hair, leers at young women, sympathises with some nearby blokes who call his wife “bitch”)—seems hackneyed (male sexual power and mateship versus female sensitivity). Yet, as many reviews have noted, Jindabyne skilfully avoids histrionics by sharply cauterising painful conversations at crucial points. But when the film broaches the huge and complicated matter of reconciliation, it falters, drawing a precarious bow from the collusion of the men (who lie to cover their negligence) to comment on Australia’s failure to confront and make amends for the suffering of its Indigenous people.

In Jindabyne we learn little about the murdered woman, Susan, or her family: the scenes dealing with their “sorry business” and their pain remain sketches. As the tensions build, the film seems at first to resist trite conclusions. Jude (Deborah Lee Furness) seethes with angry grief over her daughter’s death, withdrawing her love for the surviving grandchild (whose misbehaviour presumably stems from her own sorrow). Yet paradoxically, Jude is the least troubled by the fishing incident, despite (or because of) her husband’s involvement. “Move on”, she exhorts Claire; “let it heal over”, though her own brittle anger reveals she hasn’t managed this herself. This complexity is welcome, and true, for grief isn’t something we “get over.” Claire, the moral centre of this film, copes with her disquiet by frantically trying to make amends for her husband’s negligence. But the authenticity of her attempts at reparation are muddied by her own deception.

However this promise of complexity, confronting moral ambiguity and lack of closure is undermined by a hollow resolution. Once all the signposts about the conclusion begin to appear, the film loses its power. Having so far resisted neat homilies on personal conflict, the film invites the audience to contemplate the various human responses to an act that resists easy moral judgement. But this central conundrum is never fully realised, and when Claire and her friends gatecrash Susan’s memorial, all this good work goes to waste.

Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has contemplated the appropriate aesthetic response to events that overturn and tax our moral universe. She identifies, in some artistic responses to the Second World War and the Holocaust, “an aesthetics of awkwardness” and a “noncathartic representation” (Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia). Without comparing Aboriginal deaths and displacement with these events, it does seem that certain traumatic histories resist redemptive closure, and do not conform to Western (and Christian) notions of catharsis as resolution. Jindabyne suffers from trying to iron out all its awkwardness, from introducing a catharsis that doesn’t emerge organically from the central concerns of the film. What Jindabyne suggests in its penultimate scene—an Aboriginal funeral ritual—is that white people’s engagement with Indigenous culture might be a form of reconciliation. But let’s examine what really happens in this episode.

Undoubtedly, Aboriginal “sorry business”, like any community’s grieving, is an intensely private affair. But American Claire is undaunted, or ignorant of this. Impelled to make amends for her husband’s act, she arrives at the bushland memorial of the murdered girl and stands on its periphery. If Claire can just bear witness, it seems she might somehow right some of the wrong. The four men who went fishing have become town pariahs, accused of “white hate crimes”—graffiti that calls up a complex history of race relations barely touched on in the film. Three of these men have sudden, inexplicable changes of heart and also appear at the ceremony. (Given their previous reluctance to admit their wrongdoing we expect to be shown how they reached this decision, but we’re not.) Now all our central characters have invited themselves into what is presumably sacred space. Stuart is slapped and spat on by an insulted elder, but eventually stands by his wife and whispers, “I want you to come home Claire.” Her longing look suggests much is forgiven, but why? What has happened, apart from this Aboriginal ritual at which Claire and her friends are merely spectators? While the smoking ceremony proceeds, Jude arrives with her granddaughter. (Again we’re not shown why or how this came about.) They have their first moment of harmony, banishing their own “bad spirits”, saying, “be gone”.

There is something badly wrong with this scene: both as a resolution to Jindabyne’s many strands of considerable conflict and, as several reviewers see it, as a metaphor for reconciliation. As the white onlookers observe the ceremony, we sense their longing for a meaningful communal ritual of their own. Unable to gain solace from their previous attempts (a barbecue that descends into a fight, an Irish Catholic rite), these suffering characters hijack the Aboriginal ritual, which conveniently functions as the required ‘profound’ event to propel their catharses. At no point are we invited to understand the particular significance and meaning of this ritual for its black participants because we’re given little insight into the texture of their lives, or the particularity of their suffering. A syrupy English song, sung by the murdered girl’s relative is intentionally moving, but seems included for a (white) audience to better interpret the emotion of this scene. As viewers we are always positioned with the film’s central characters—as outsiders looking at a generalised scene of Aboriginality.

Because she was Aboriginal, Susan’s death has far greater symbolic meaning than the unknown victim does in Carver’s story. Her memorial offers us no genuine insight into how the film’s central characters have mysteriously resolved their considerable conflict. Consequently it seems a superficial display of Indigenous mysticism for the purpose of driving a formulaic white catharsis. If reconciliation is about adopting “colourful”, “mystical” or “deep” Aboriginal practices to provide meaning, profundity and healing for a spiritually bankrupt white culture then we have a long way to go. Unlike Carver’s narrator, who imagines herself in the murdered woman’s place, dead in the water, the characters in Jindabyne remain tourists on the edge of Aboriginal culture, too focused on their own concerns to get “right in it. Eyes open”, to wade in deep. In the most telling two lines, the film sums up its lost opportunities. Claire offers the grieving family money for the funeral, assuring them, “It’s not charity.” And they respond, “You buying something then?”

 

Jindabyne, director Ray Lawrence, screenplay Beatrix Christian, April Films; DVD launch date to be annnounced

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 16

© Mireille Juchau; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net