Category: Australian Cinema

Mabo (Australia 2012)

Deborah Mailman and Jimi Bani as Bonita and Koiki Mabo

‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.

Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.

Koiki working on the railroad

Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.

The campaign begins

The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.

Getting to court

Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.

A great victory image with Bonita and her eldest son

I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.

Judy & Punch (Australia 2019)

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Judy punched

It’s an interesting tradition, the Punch and Judy puppet show, based as it is on violence, particularly domestic violence against women. Interesting because it became popular and, during my childhood at least, was regarded as fun for children. I loved it and ensured my kids had the opportunity to see it, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to encourage violence but I wonder why such an anarchic figure as Punch came to be regarded as fare for children. He is a Trickster character, a necessary antidote to anodyne bourgeois values I suppose. However, we cannot ignore the violence against women which, for some, is a trope of masculinity.

Actor Mirrah Foulkes’s directorial debut, she also scripted, is a feminist take on the tale and, as such, is somewhat predictable but nonetheless welcome. If Mia Wasikowska, an actor I find a bit bland, lacks mischievousness, Damon Herriman’s Punch portrays the misrule inherent in the character well with added male self-pity and self-justification. Foulkes has wisely set the film in an unreal space, a village called Seaside, nowhere near the seaside but that’s where Punch & Judy puppet shows are most likely to be seen these days. The cast sport a mix of accents, Herriman’s is Irish and there are Australian twangs; no doubt late 18th century Australia was full of such eclecticism, but as Foulke’s is quoted as saying in the press kit:

[she] never imagined the film to be period strict, but rather “Totally other-worldly; I wasn’t interested in being bound by period. So I thought let’s see what we can find in Australia and just lean into the weirdness of that.”

So although the film was shot in Australia it isn’t set there. The postmodern elements of the setting are reinforced by what sounds like ‘Moog plays Bach’ on the soundtrack, which I think had some popularity in the 1970s. The first time the music appears it seems to be accompanying the puppet show though it soon becomes clear it is non-diegetic (not part of the narrative world).

I mentioned the narrative was predictable and I don’t think Foulkes was interested in adding complexity though it is a tribute to the filmmakers that the ending’s plea for the acceptance of difference works even if the righteous sentiments are a bit obvious. The anarchic humour is retained and there cannot be many films were the slapstick is combined with the death of a baby. As much as anything, Judy & Punch is a Grand Guignol narrative; I found it a difficult film to categorise.

Tom Budge does plenty with his role as Mr. Frankly, the insidious opinion-maker in village. Budge manages to convey the character’s insecure obsequiousness overlaying a vicious tendency (it reminded of Rik Mayall’s brilliant manifestation of a Tory MP, Alan B’stard).

The Nightingale (Australia 2018)

Aisling Franciosi as Clare

The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.

Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) and the soldiers whose task is to establish the ‘order’ which will enable the colony to grow. (Photo by Matt Nettheim)

In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.

Clare works in a form of indentured servitude

Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and Jago (Harry Greenwood)

Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.

If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.

Clare with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr)

Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.

Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.

Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia 2018)

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Poh Lin Lee and daughter

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

Goldstone (Australia 2016)

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Aaron Pedersen plays Jay, the Aboriginal detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver, keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age;  not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version of Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.

Another Country (Australia 2015)

This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.

I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.

Dancing is one of the activities in the town

Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).

At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.

The man who found God

At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.

David Gulpilil as he appears in the documentary

When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.

I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.