Jirga: a sparingly told story of remorse, compassion and forgiveness

Benjamin Gilmour, “Jirga” (2018)

The wonder is that this film got made at all as it was filmed in Afghanistan, and in areas possibly still dominated by the Taliban at that. Understandably the narrative, seemingly simple and straight-forward, can appear quite disjointed and some things – such as the pink flamingo paddle-boat – come and go without any explanation. An Australian soldier, Michael Wheeler (Sam Smith), appears in Kabul on a personal mission to find a family in a very remote part of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the people he relies on to help him advise him not to go and to forget about his mission: the area is under Taliban control. As you’d expect, Wheeler ignores the helpful advice and hires a driver (Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad) to take him south towards Kandahar. On their long and rough journey through very striking and beautiful mountain landscapes, the two men form a strong friendship despite being unable to speak each other’s language. They lose each other abruptly when they stop at a Taliban checkpoint and Wheeler is forced to flee on foot for his life.

After wandering in the desert, Wheeler loses consciousness and when he wakes up again, he finds himself a Taliban captive in a cave. After beating him, the Taliban men discuss what to do with him and one of them, being able to speak English, interviews him and acts as interpreter between him and the other Taliban men. Wheeler explains that he wants to find the family whose patriarch he shot dead during an army raid some years ago. Impressed with Wheeler’s earnestness and remorse, the Taliban leader orders his men to take the ex-soldier as far as they can go towards the village where the family lives. They advise him offering the American dollars he carries with him to the victim’s family will be considered an insult and a curse. From then on, and dumping the money along the way, Wheeler makes his path into the village where he explains his mission to the elders there. The elders form a council (“jirga” in the Pashto language) to debate what to do with Wheeler and whether he deserves to die for killing an unarmed civilian and leaving his widow and two sons destitute.

The sparing, minimal nature of the film, in which much is unsaid and is left to the viewer to fill out with his/her imagination, throws the spotlight onto Smith and his character’s motivations for pursuing his quixotic mission. Wheeler says very little and maintains a stoic face, but he is clearly a very troubled man. He is only able to come to terms with what he did by returning to the scene of his crime, re-enacting it in part for the village elders, visiting the widow and her sons and submitting to her anger and grief. Smith does his best with such a taciturn character, and the emotion he is able to express is very profound, but the role is very limited (and limited even more so by the conditions under which the film was made) with respect to the character’s background and motivations.

The resolution seems quite problematic as well: the village jirga’s decision seems just as eccentric as Wheeler’s quest, and the viewer has the impression that the elders are nonplussed as to what to do with their unexpected visitor. In the end, the decision becomes Allah’s will and the elders abide by it without question, even though some of them obviously don’t agree with it. At the very least some closure has been achieved and people are able to move ahead with their lives.

The message viewers are likely to take away from the film is that Wheeler survives mainly due to the magnanimity, compassion and forgiveness shown him by people who would not be blamed if they had decided on vengeance against him. For all the devastation, poverty, violence and instability that continue in Afghanistan, its people still hold onto their rich culture and traditions, and retain their humanity and spirit. One would like to think that Wheeler appreciates what has been done for him, and will be moved to return to the country in the not too distant future, to learn more about its history and peoples, and to do something constructive for them. Perhaps he might even learn something of how Australia blindly and stupidly followed the Americans into waging a one-year war over and over 17 times and counting. His abandonment of the American money, and what that symbolises – spurning the capitalist system and the beliefs and values associated with it – may represent a first step in this direction.

Innocent Prey: lightweight slasher film with an improbable soap opera plot and hammy acting

Colin Eggleston, “Innocent Prey” (1983)

Maybe the problem is her southern Texan drawl or the overly bouffant permed hair but Cathy (P J Soles) does seem to attract weird men who want to kill her rather than get down on bended knee, put a ring on her finger and pledge to protect her. Well, one fellow, Joe (Kit Taylor) actually did go through that routine but only to get his hands on the insurance money paid to Cathy after her parents died in an accident. Accosted by two businessmen who warn him that they know of his fraudulent activity and are on his trail, Joe goes out after work, picks up a prostitute (Deborah Voorhees) and takes her to a motel where they have sex. Joe then proceeds to kill her in the bathroom. Unbeknownst to Joe though, wife Cathy has seen his car (after dropping her Australian friend Gwen off at the airport) at the motel and spies on him through – as it turns out – the bathroom window while he was killing the prostitute. Cathy calls the police and they come to the couple’s house to set a trap for Joe – but not before he threatens to kill Cathy herself.

The police bundle Joe off into prison but in the great tradition of Australian horror exploitation flicks, Joe promptly escapes and goes back home to finish off Cathy. Again, the police arrest Joe (but not before three of their finest meet their maker) and put him into an asylum. On the advice of a fatherly senior police officer (Martin Balsam), Cathy escapes to Australia to stay with friend Gwen in rented digs near Sydney Harbour. She comes under the attention of young millionaire landlord Phillip (John Warnock) who is a social misfit and spends all his time in his apartment voyeuristically watching his tenants on TV through security cameras hidden throughout his family mansion. Phillip observes Cathy befriending a divorced man, Rick (Grigor Taylor), and his estimation of Cathy as initially a pure and wronged woman quickly falls to that of a slut who must be punished for her sins – just as he punished his mother for being a loose woman by sending her to the grave.

On top of this malarkey, which owes more than just a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in characters, plotting, the prominence of the bathroom and the shower, and a theme of escape to a new life (only to have one’s old life intrude and force one to face consequences), Joe escapes the asylum, covers his tracks and flies to Australia to … well, finish an uncompleted job.

While the action is based in Dallas, “Innocent Prey” is creepy and seriously gory enough, with real tension in a modern 1970s house made sinister by good use of lighting and shadows; but once the action flies out to Phillip’s mansion in Sydney, the plot becomes more hokey and improbable with most murders occurring off-screen. Viewers are left to guess as to how Phillip takes care of Gwen (Susan Stenmark) and Joe. Several scenes (notably the climactic one where Phillip threatens Cathy) could have been lifted right out of “Psycho” – after all, Balsam himself was lifted out of that film (he played the detective Arbuckle) and into this Psycho-wannabe number. The action seems to slow down as well. At least Phillip’s mansion is a very spacious and attractive house, full of light and featuring doors with stained glass patterns.

At least Eggleston furnishes his male characters with motives for wanting or wanting to kill Cathy – even Rick may be a closet psycho-killer in the making – but viewers never find out why Cathy attracts such men: Soles can’t seem to make Cathy a character for viewers to sympathise with though she does try hard. Part of the problem is the film’s dialogue which makes Cathy appear stupid, even callous; surely she should know that the police protecting her from Joe would never play jokes on her? – and her conversations with Rick, which Phillip listens in on, can easily be construed as nasty towards people who are different from others because of some disability. Unfortunately for Soles, Kit Taylor and John Warnock easily steal the film as the respective unhinged psycho-killers: once killing women gets into his head, Joe just can’t seem to stop; and Phillip (in a performance of virtuoso hammy acting by Warnock) smoothly transforms from gauche social misfit into a velvet-tongued psychopath capable of electrifying murder.

With a lead female character who is very much helpless throughout and completely reliant on men who turn out to be dangerous, often in outrageously silly ways, in an improbable story-line straight out of soap opera universe with too many unbelievable twists and turns, “Innocent Prey” remains firmly in lightweight slasher genre territory. The film refers rather too much to character stereotypes and plot tropes from “Psycho” to stand on its own. After the tight scenes set in Dallas, the film becomes more distracted and loses momentum in parts. After the last scene, which suggests that poor old Cathy is locked into a vicious cosmic cycle, viewers really don’t care what happens next to Cathy or who she latches onto next.

Kadaicha: a forgettable teen horror flick from the late 1980s

James Bogle, “Kadaicha” (1988)

From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, thanks to increased Federal government investment in the Australian film industry, there was truly a Golden Age of Australian Film at both the high-brow art-house level and the low-brow, low-budget level of genre exploitation films. While many of the latter category of films have now been forgotten, a few have acquired cult glory and some have even been elevated to national icon status. One Ozploitation film not likely ever to attain such an elevation is the silly teen horror flick “Kadaicha”. The film does have an interesting theme which saves it from complete wastepaper basket oblivion.

Set in Sydney, the film revolves around a group of high school students (all of whom look at least 10 years older than they should be as secondary school students) who discover that they have similar nightmarish dreams in which each and every one of them goes into a cave behind a stormwater drain on the local beach and sees a skeleton of a long-dead Aboriginal shaman come alive and dance around the fire. The shaman turns to face the youngster and hands him or her a stone and the kid wakes up screaming in fright. A mysterious stone, looking exactly like the stone in the dream, is usually found on the pillow beside the teen. Later in the day, the teenager dies a violent and bloody death.

Two teenage girls and a library worker at the school die after having the same dream. The girls’ friend Gayle (Zoe Carides) and her boyfriend do what research they can on this phenomenon and discover that all victims live in the same street as she does. Further digging for information reveals that theĀ  street and the residential development around it lie on top of a sacred Aboriginal burial ground. It was here that, during the colonial period, a group of teenage Aboriginal youngsters was massacred by white people. Now a mystery force that can only be understood by local Aboriginal people who remember their religion is taking its revenge on white teenagers living in the street. Gayle confronts her father (a property developer) for going ahead with building the residential development when it had been opposed by Aboriginal and other protesters and for walling up the cave with the skeleton of a kadaicha man (the shamat who appears in the kids’ dreams). Needless to say, one night Gayle has the same dream that her friends had and wakes up in terror to find a kadaicha stone on her pillow. She realises she has very little time left as she and her boyfriend try to find the Aboriginal elder living in the neighbourhood who knows the old stories and beliefs, and who may be able to help save her life.

At the least the film has a message about the consequences of greed and self-interest, and how innocent lives can be lost as a result. Lack of respect for Aboriginal lore and sacred territory, the history of past conflicts between white colonialists and Aboriginal people, and the generation gap between parents and their teenage children buoy up a forgettable film that lacks suspense and substitutes cheap laughs in the place of growing horror. The scene in which the library worker is killed by a funnel web spider leaping into his eye is more hilarious than frightening. If the acting overall is unconvincing, the direction by Bogle and the cinematography look very amateurish. The result is a rather flat film that does very little to explore and investigate Aboriginal culture and beliefs about the dead or the place of the kadaicha man and his stones in their Dreaming, and what value indigenous stories might still have for Western society and culture in Australia.

The music is creepy in parts, with didgeridoo-playing a significant element within the music, though it could have been better used during moments of high tension when the monsters preying on the teenagers would have struck. Some plot strands (such as a young teenage boy aspiring to become a rock musician) remain undeveloped. The plot overall barely sustains a full-length film of some 75 minutes plus.

Ten Canoes: morality tale, comedy and demonstration of traditional Yolngu values, beliefs and worldview rolled into one

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, “Ten Canoes” (2006)

An engrossing story of another story, “Ten Canoes” acts as both a morality tale and an ingenious exposition of the values and beliefs of an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. Like good stories, “Ten Canoes” aims to entertain as well as educate on different levels: as a story about a story, it teaches the value of patience, it contains an interesting twist and warning, and it demonstrates something of how the Yolngu people interpret past, present and future time, and how the passage or flow of time is not necessarily linear in the way Westerners experience time. The role of story-telling in an oral culture like the Yolngu culture goes far beyond simply repeating a story one might have heard as a child and passing it on to the next generation: it may be shaped, changed and improvised on to fit the story-teller’s aims; its narration takes time – maybe a lot of time, as in several days, even weeks – and certain things may have to happen first before the next chapter of the story can be told; and while the story appears to be simple to follow, its message/s may be profound and complex.

The story-about-a-story is narrated by David Gulpilil whose son Jamie appears also as two characters, Dayindi and Yeeralparil. Dayindi is one of ten men on a hunting expedition to find geese and their eggs for their community. The leader of the expedition, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), is Dayindi’s much older brother who has three wives, the third of whom is a beautiful young girl who has caught Dayindi’s eye. Minygululu is aware of Dayindi’s interest in his wife so during the expedition he tells the younger man a story of another young man much like Dayindi and known as Yeeralparil, who lived in Yolngu country thousands of years ago.

Like Dayindi, Yeeralparil has an older brother, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who also has three wives, of whom the youngest wife has caught Yeeralparil’s eye. Ridjimiraril is a much respected hunter in the community. One day, a stranger comes from the stone country beyond the rainforest where the Yolngu live and his arrival is interpreted by the resident Yolngu sorcerer (for want of a better term) as portending trouble. While the Yolngu people allow visiting rights to the stranger, Ridjimiraril’s second wife mysteriously disappears. Ridjimiraril believes the stranger has abducted her for his own and the angry hunter kills a man from the stranger’s tribe, mistaking him for the stranger. The stranger’s tribe demands payback to avoid war and Ridjimiraril submits. After the necessary ritual is performed, Yeeralparil not only gets what he wished for but extra responsibilities result as well, and he realises that from then on his life is going to be one endless hassle after another.

Enough of the Yolngu’s traditional customs and law are explained where necessary and relevant, and viewers see how law and tradition are used to avoid unnecessary and unwanted conflict, violence leading to more violence, and bitterness and resentment. David Gulpilil plays a significant role as narrator, spicing up his telling with humour and playfulness, and insinuating that, like Minygululu, this story-of-a-story needs to take its own time in unfolding and is dependent on listeners’ own willingness and receptiveness to its lessons. In amongst the story-telling, Minygululu, Dayinde and their eight companions prepare bark canoes to travel out onto the rivers and swamps to find and hunt the geese and look for their eggs.

Various characters engage in idle chit-chat and tell one another earthy jokes about turds and flatulence. One character, the jolly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), is obsessed with finding his next honey hit. Wives scold their husbands, gossip about people who might be having affairs and occasionally squabble over petty matters. Men make plans about where they’ll hunt or when the right moment comes to go on the warpath. All this action takes place within a worldview which regards time as circular, in which humans begin their existence as tadpoles in waterholes and return to the exact same waterholes as tadpoles when they die. Within this paradigm, people must learn to let nature take its course, to be patient and to accept what nature gives to them.

The cinematography is well done, emphasising the nature of the country where the Yolngu people live and how it is a significant character in the film in its own right. Colours fade from colour to black-and-white but not in the way audiences might expect: the fading is done to show how concepts of the past, the present and the future mean little to a people for whom the past is very much alive and from which important lessons can and should be learned and heeded.

 

Exposing and satirising British news media propaganda idiocy in “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army”

Pavel Serezhkin, “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army” (2018)

Here’s a very funny mockumentary that pokes fun at Western (and in particular British) news media propaganda hysteria about the Russian government supposedly preparing an army of “hooligans” to attack foreign football fans arriving in Russia to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup tournament and follow their national teams. Australian sports fanatic Alex (Alex Apollonov), having failed at just about every sport and, influenced by BBC news reports about Russian soccer hooligan violence, racism and homophobia in Russia, and the Russian “new man”, whose role model is supposed strong-man Russian President Vladimir Putin, travels to Russia to find real Russian hooligans with whom he can bond. One fellow Alex especially wants to meet is Vasily the Killer, who apparently masterminded the riots at Marseilles during the UEFA European football championships in 2016. Accompanied by his friend and mockumentary narrator Aleksa (Aleksa Vulovic), plus a film crew, Alex flies to Russia to find his hero and the group known as the Orel Butchers, made notorious by the BBC as instigators of the violence in Marseilles.

The reality the two friends experience is nothing like what they expected: the Orel Butchers are just a bunch of football-crazy friends and Vasily the Killer turns out to be a family man with a large brood of children who was not even in Marseilles at the time the riots occurred. Denis, alleged by Western news reports to have led the Orel Butchers in the Marseille riots, is revealed as … non-existent. The Orel Butchers add that they were asked by Western news reporters to put on balaclavas “for fun”. Alex and Aleksa meet Alexei Smertin, a retired football player and the anti-discrimination / racism inspector for the 2018 World Cup, and stadium security to ask what they know of Russian hooligans and what barriers are in place against hooliganism. Stadium security turns out to be very good. In their search for the “new Russian man” at a gym, Alex and Aleksa discover that the gym owner firmly discourages violence and hooliganism. The duo attend a football game and sit among a group of raucous but well-behaved fans.

Vulovic and Apollonov are well known for having travelled to North Korea in 2017 in search of a haircut supposedly not approved by the North Korean government (and which Vulovic got, along with a snazzy moustache). They bravely brazen their way into most situations with a mix of apprehension and awkwardness, and their deliberate misunderstanding of their hosts’ explanations is often more embarrassing than funny. In the gym scene where the two are looking for the “new Russian man”, they misinterpret and mistranslate what the gym owner is saying, and in that reveal a common disinformation method (allowing someone to rattle on in his or her own language and deliberately twisting that person’s words in the English language translation or subtitles) used by mainstream news media outlets to paint a completely different story.

Alex eventually returns to Australia much sadder (though not necessarily wiser) at not having found any Russian football hooligans in spite of what he was led to believe from following BBC news reports. Viewers hope that he will find a sport that accommodates his limited physical abilities and which is popular with Australians. At least, having visited Russia, he and Aleksa have found a country with warm welcoming and very polite people living comfortable if not lavish lifestyles, far from the old Soviet-era stereotypes that Western news media outlets still insist on applying with the aim of demonising Russia and Russian people for having a leader and a government that will not kowtow to elite American hegemony.

 

Blue: the impact of human activities and pollution on marine environments and ecosystems told through individual stories

Karina Holden, “Blue” (2017)

Instead of bashing its audiences over the head with facts ‘n’ figures about the impact of human activities on oceans and marine ecosystems, this documentary chooses a show-don’t-tell approach in which several stories focusing on particular issues are told from the viewpoints of their activist / researcher protagonists. While the initial presentation is relaxed, frequently languid, and the documentary can become quite poetic with beautiful scenes, the film can be also uncompromising and direct in presenting uncomfortable and even gut-wrenching scenes and facts. Children watching this documentary may need adult reassurance in viewing some scenes.

A marine biologist who enjoys free diving notices over time that fish populations in the areas where he swims are dwindling rapidly. A young activist visits a fishing village in Indonesia where she observes fishermen bringing in sharks and cutting off their fins for the shark-fin trade, the remaining carcasses either being thrown back into the sea or mashed up into feed for pigs. A journalist at a Filipino fish market notes how bluefin tuna populations are rapidly becoming depleted because of over-fishing for the sushi trade in Japan and the US. In the meantime huge commercial fishing trawlers fling huge nets into the oceans to catch huge schools of fish. Many of these nets either become lost or are dumped into the ocean and some wash up onto beaches in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria region to be picked up by local indigenous rangers. They find the remains of long-drowned turtles caught up in the nets. If that’s not confronting enough for viewers, a later story in which researchers checking the health of young albatross chicks by pumping their stomachs and finding plastic bits and pieces (some large enough to cause obstruction and possibly even agonising death) will have some viewers racing for the barf-bags.

Through these stories – I must admit to becoming very cynical about the current trend in film documentaries and other non-fiction media in general to tell “stories” above other methods of relaying important information – particular environmental issues relating to sea life and marine ecosystems are explored to varying degrees of depth. The broader contexts of several issues are not made clear, though: the over-fishing of sharks for their fins is not linked to the rising prosperity of the middle classes in China and other parts of Asia, and likewise the depletion of bluefin tuna stocks does not mean much when the huge global market for bluefin tuna sushi (which becomes ever more prestigious among sushi fanatics as the fish itself becomes more endangered) is unmentioned. Where all the plastic bits and bobs floating in the oceans to be swallowed up by seabirds (which then feed them to their chicks) come from in the first place remains unsaid. (Are they blown out to sea by wins or are they flushed out untreated into rivers and coastal marine environments through storm-water drains?) The emphasis on telling multiple personal stories means statistics that would drive home the scale of each issue, and the urgency that each such issue requires to be remedied, are ignored.

The film ends on a hopeful note, urging viewers to take action, however insignificant viewers themselves may feel about whatever it is they can do, to help save marine species, combat over-fishing and control plastic pollution in the oceans. The underlying problem of the capitalist structures and values that we have, urging more growth and exploitation of natural resources while ignoring the consequences and effects of more economic exploitation at sea and on land on marine ecosystems, remains untouched.

Servant or Slave: how Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour in conditions of virtual slavery

Steven McGregor, “Servant or Slave” (2017)

Few Australians have very little appreciation of the apartheid-style society that exploited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and even Melanesians imported from abroad for their labour to clear land for pasture and plantation crops like sugar cane, establishing in the process the foundation for Australia’s agricultural wealth. But to understand how generations of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for most of the 20th century, put into institutions that trained them to perform menial work or heavy labouring jobs for very little money (or even none), and how not just their employers but also Australian federal and state governments and their agencies benefited from such an institutional phenomenon, we need to know the social, political and economic context, and the ideology underpinning this context. The fact is that the Australian nation was founded on the exploitation of its resources – land, water, plants and animals, and ultimately even its native peoples – along with the exploitation of the convicts, migrants and others who came to the country after European settlement began in 1788, for geopolitical reasons that favoured a small English (and later British) elite. This exploitation was part of a vast imperial structure that encompassed lands in several continents (notably in Africa and southern Asia) and impoverished millions, destroyed their cultures and traditions, forced them to work and even to fight for their colonial masters in wars in distant countries, and allowed them to starve during periods of famine.

The value of “Servant or Slave” is not just to document how thousands of Aboriginal girls and young women were kidnapped or taken from their families and forced into institutions by the Australian government that trained them for domestic service, but to show how this arrangement was deeply embedded in Australian society and how the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s labour, through domestic service and other forms of employment, benefited the government and the people and companies who employed Aboriginal people in menial jobs or heavy physical work. The five indigenous women sharing their stories of how they were kidnapped by government agents from their families, put into institutions where they were beaten, sexually abused, brainwashed into believing they were inferior and taught not to trust their own people, and then later employed as full-time housekeepers, maids and unpaid baby-sitters, are very brave in reliving their experiences and traumas in interviews. They speak of the long-term psychological traumas and other harms they and their families (both their birth families and the families they later had themselves) suffered. These women’s experiences were typical of the experiences other Aboriginal girls (and even boys) had to undergo. Through interviews with historians and academics, we learn that Aboriginal people were never adequately paid for the work they did as domestic servants or rural agricultural workers and that as a result they could not amass and pass on any material wealth to their children and grandchildren, which helps to explain why so many Aboriginal families in many parts of Australia still live in poverty. Even more horrifying is news that the money that should have been paid to Aboriginal workers was instead used to fund even more predation of Aboriginal children and to support the institutions that trained them for lives of servitude.

The documentary uses re-enactments of the interviewees’ experiences to emphasise the fear they felt, their desperation and their isolation from help. While the re-enactments are tastefully done and are even poetic in style, they do tend to distance the audience from what is being shown on screen and don’t fully convey the horror of the abuse being portrayed or the victims’ immense suffering.

While the women interviewed reveal strength, determination and even pride that they endured such dreadful lives, and managed to find love through their children and grandchildren, the documentary ends on a fairly pessimistic note in observing that the monies owed to generations of Aboriginal people for their labour have either not been paid at all or are being dished out to them in ways and under conditions that are highly insulting and patronising towards them. It seems that the exploitative mind-set and ideology that dominated whitefella thinking and behaviour towards Aboriginal people from the mid-nineteenth century on still infects Australian politicians and bureaucrats, and still influences federal and state government policies that affect indigenous people’s lives. As Australia continues to follow the United States, Britain and other Western capitalist nations on a downward trajectory into more economic austerity, greater social inequality, lower standards of living and more financial and economic instability, the situation for Aboriginal people as a highly vulnerable group is likely to get worse.

Additional material that was not included in the original documentary focuses on the colonial exploitation of Melanesian people from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations from the late nineteenth century as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland and other rural work that required much physical exertion in hot tropical or semi-tropical conditions.

Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place: a documentary as graceful as the man and the career that it describes

Catherine Hunter, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” (2017)

A beautiful and graceful documentary as elegant as the architecture of the man whose work it documents, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” is a good introduction not just to Murcutt’s career and the buildings he has produced but also to the way in which a particular architect goes about designing a building and collaborates with others (particularly builders) to complete a project. We see how and why Murcutt insists on overseeing every aspect and stage of a building’s design and construction, why his practice has remained a one-man practice and consequently why his body of work includes very few large-scale buildings, at least until he accepted a commission to design and build a mosque for the Newport Muslim community in Melbourne.

Through interviews with Murcutt, his past clients, other architects and members of the Newport Muslim community, film-maker Catherine Hunter demonstrates how Murcutt’s work responds to its environment and interacts with it in ways that produce a sense of serenity and being at one with that environment. The film traces Murcutt’s career from its early days and influences – including the influence of his parents’ house in Clontarf where he and his brother grew up – and showcases three houses (the Marie Short house in Kempsey, the Magney house on the NSW South Coast and the Simpson-Lee house in the Blue Mountains) that not only are the highlights of his long career but also show a distinctive style that adapts to the qualities of the building materials used and uses them to produce a feeling of lightness and quiet strength. This history is intertwined with Murcutt’s collaboration with the Newport Muslim community to design and build a mosque that embodies the community’s desire to proclaim its Australian and Muslim identity and to share its values of tolerance, compassion and grace with others, Muslim and non-Muslim.

The narrative traced by the film isn’t all punctuated by one success after another: the mosque construction is stalled by a shortage of funds and planning issues, and Murcutt suffers a personal tragedy through the untimely death of his son Nick from cancer, cutting short a promising career in following his father’s foot-steps. Some members of the Muslim community are unhappy with Murcutt’s radical design for the mosque. (Strangely, the film says nothing about local council reactions to the mosque or the reactions of other residents in Newport to the building.) These setbacks are overcome when the Newport Muslim community rally to support Murcutt in his time of grieving after his son dies.

Murcutt’s buildings are photographed in such ways as to emphasise their unassuming grace and beauty. The mosque, when completed, turns out to be something else altogether different: it’s still a marvel of design but it uses glass panes of different colours to lighten and allow light into a concrete building, and the geometrical forms of the extensions holding the glass panes in their own way follow past Islamic architectural design tradition in inviting onlookers to contemplate them and reflect on the structures of the universe and its cosmic maker.

The documentary is easy to follow and viewers quickly come to appreciate the unconventional path Murcutt has followed in his career, that enables him to maintain his style and uphold the values and beliefs about what architecture should do for people that style expresses. Not for him the major commercial commissions that might compromise his vision and values while enriching him and making him better known than he already is; his attitude is to hold fast in what he believes and desires for his clients and for Australian architecture generally.

The Haircut: a quirky quest reveals the nature and extent of the Western media propaganda machine against North Korea

Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vulovic, “The Haircut” (2017)

Two Sydney undergraduate students’ desire to travel to North Korea to see if they can get hipster-style haircuts in defiance of supposed North Korean laws that all men there must have their hair styled in the manner of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a cover for an examination of Western media representations of that country as a rogue police state led by a deranged dictator and how those portrayals actually stand up in reality. What the two students find in the DPRK is very different from what Western audiences around the world are exposed to and told. For one thing, Aleksa actually gets the hipster haircut – and a twirly moustache into the bargain – he asks for; moreover the job the stylist does is far better than what he’s had in Australia. More importantly, the students discover that much of the media reports about North Korea are deliberately exaggerated in a negative way, and that what the DPRK has done, or might have done, to its citizens is no worse than, and often far less worse, than what Western countries (and the United States in particular) have done to their own citizens and to other countries as well.

To their credit, Apollonov and Vulovic set the context for North Korea’s paranoia and suspicion of Western intentions towards it: after 50 years of being under the brutal domination of Japan, the Korean peninsula enjoyed a few brief months of independence before the territory was carved up into two by triumphant World War II victors the Soviet Union and the US and their allies. While North Korea hung onto its socialist government, the US moved Japanese administrators back into South Korea and not long after began strafing North Korea with waves of warplanes dropping bombs. The result was that all of North Korea’s cities were destroyed and 1.5 million civilians (apparently about 20% of the country’s population) were killed. Even after the Korean War ceased (with no peace treaty signed), the US and South Korea continue to menace the DPRK with massive military exercises (Operation Foal Eagle) held twice a year, apparently during the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons in North Korea, when army conscripts are most needed in the fields. In March – April 2016, the exercises involved nearly 300,000 South Korean soldiers and over 15,000 US soldiers carrying out beach invasions and other large scale assaults that could have turned into the real thing if the DPRK were not vigilant.

While the two presenters present their material in a familiar news-comedy format and sometimes mug for the camera, much of what they deliver is intriguing and ought to encourage people to question how much so-called “serious” or “quality” news can be taken … well, seriously. The funniest moments come when the two take to the streets in the bohemian Sydney suburb of Newtown to interview young people on what they think of North Korea and its society: invariably the respondents say the country lacks freedom, is repressive and its people are brainwashed by propaganda while they themselves are proud of the freedom and democracy offered in Australia. One such interviewee is then asked about how he got his long and luxuriant hair and his girlfriend promptly tells the presenters that she advised him on his hairstyle. The boyfriend unhesitatingly replies that he follows her advice!

The film does drag a bit in its second half when the presenters compare North Korean and US aggression, and discover the DPRK has nothing on the Americans when it comes to military adventures and invasions abroad. North Korea itself, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala (1954), Iran (1953), Panama (1989), Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines … you name it, at some stage in the past a foreign country has been invaded by the United States. The pace of the film though is fairly brisk and for a 20-minute documentary says a great deal about the nature of Western propaganda against North Korea, with much of that propaganda being a projection of Western built upon that country, and the reality behind it. The film concludes with secret film footage of the two students visiting an amusement park, a circus and various other entertainments in North Korea, meeting the local people and seeing how happy they actually are.

Mad Dog Morgan: an enjoyable if rambling film protesting against colonialism and its values

Philippe Mora, “Mad Dog Morgan” (1976)

Based on the life of an actual bushranger who plagued Victoria and New South Wales during the second half of the 19th century, this film turns out to be less a straight-out Aussie-style Western and more an impassioned protest against the colonialist settler society, its values, institutions and structures that oppressed ordinary people, created divisions that kept people apart and unable to revolt against its evils, and devastated virgin lands (and their human inhabitants) wherever it was spread. The character called Daniel Morgan aka Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper) represents one individual’s protest against British colonialism for the suffering and degradation it causes him. Initially Dan Morgan is an eager and naif Irish migrant out to try his luck in the Victoria goldfields in the 1850s – but his luck quickly runs out as he witnesses a racist attack on a Chinese-run opium den by police authorities and himself ends up in jail for six years for stealing. Prison conditions and inmates brutalise him and by the time he is released, he’s already gone a bit loco. Not long after, he goes on the run, aided and abetted by faithful Aboriginal companion Billy (David Gulpilil) and the two become infamous in two colonies for preying on wealthy landowners. Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring) vows to bring Morgan and Billy to justice – but his brand of justice is gradually revealed to be disturbingly sadistic. For his part, Morgan’s obsession with avenging himself on those people who sent him to jail in the first place threatens to bring the crazed bushranger and his companion down as well.

The plot rambles on somewhat and the film’s climax – which actually comes after Morgan is so far subdued as to be in an incommunicado state – turns out to be worryingly anti-climactic though it is in keeping with Cobham’s cold-blooded and perverse nature and the evil that surrounds him. The message behind the film – that there’s a reason behind Mad Dog Morgan’s madness and that the authorities who pursue him are far more corrupt and mad than he could ever be (though in real life Morgan was not so heroic) – might be a bit too simplistic: Cobham and a few others like him may embody the evil that wants to cut down Morgan, Billy and all that they represent (freedom, living in harmony with nature) but to be sure, when these villains have done their time in their jobs, there will be more to take up where they leave off and the colonialist project that will despoil Australia’s landscapes and resources, and ruin the lives of Aboriginal peoples and destroy their cultures, will continue in its implacable machine-like way. What saves the film is Hopper’s bravura acting as the titular character – though it did spook some of his co-stars at the time – and the rest of the cast rise to the occasion as well to flesh out a sketchy and unfocused story-line. Few actors can be more malevolent than Thring (though he might have been hamming his role up a bit), Jack Thompson is as florid in his minor detective role as his complexion and Gulpilil is his usual fluid and stoic self: a perfect counterpoint to Hopper’s eccentric nature.

Special mention should be made of the cinematography which embraces beautiful shots of wild Australian natural scenery and the music soundtrack which features Irish-influenced Australian folk and booming Aboriginal didgeridoo music. Together with the acting, these more than compensate for the disjointed plot and the cheap production values. Despite the brutal violence and the perverted social Darwinism that informs Cobham’s thinking and behaviour towards Morgan, the film is actually very enjoyable and one finds oneself rooting for Hopper’s Morgan, even though his demise is a foregone conclusion and the actual bushranger on whom the character is based was a far more brutal and amoral figure.