The Lost Thing: a multi-layered children’s story that critiques industrial society

Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan, “The Lost Thing”

Adapted from co-director Shaun Tan’s picture book written for children, the beguiling “The Lost Thing” seems a very simple story yet it is one that invites many interpretations. The film’s visual style adds yet another layer of meaning to a story that would otherwise have a much narrower focus. A boy (unnamed) obsessed with collecting bottle tops at the beach comes across a giant creature, an octopus / lobster / iron furnace hybrid, looking lost and lonely. The boy befriends the stranger and decides to help it look for a home. The boy goes to a friend of his who sets about trying to classify the strange creature by measuring it and noting down its unique characteristics but in the end both boys are defeated and are no closer to determining the creature’s nature and habitat than they were initially. The boy takes the creature home but his parents are disapproving and the creature is shut away in the back shed overnight. In the morning, the boy seeks help from government authorities and is given a business card with an arrowhead sign. The boy must try to locate a place within his home city – a vast and dreary urban landscape – that carries this sign.

Apart from the obvious theme of friendship, connection with isolated others and being helpful, the film also makes references to Australia’s uneasy relationship with immigration and immigrants, the Western need to categorise and stereotype people and objects, and the alienation of individuals within a bureaucratised industrial society. While the story is very simple and does not stand up to treatment longer than 15 minutes, viewers should remember it is told from a child’s point of view and so the film’s emphasis is on creating a visually rich universe where the bizarre and the unexpected co-exist with the familiar and the bleak.

In itself the film’s CGI animation is not anything special: it is the juxtaposition of a bleak post-industrial Melbourne (as suggested by the network of trams), nostalgic beachside scenes and the quirkiness of a giant monster-like creature (which turns out to be friendly and gentle, and needs spoon-feeding) that makes the film stand out visually. The very eccentricity of such a combination along with the fear of immigrants and the government bureaucracy makes the film very … well, very Melburnian.

The film’s conclusion is melancholy and one considers that the boy is more lost than the creature itself, in trying to regain what the oddity represented: an opening to a wider world of rich experiences and new friends. There is a suggestion that (spoiler alert) having done what he set out to do, the boy realises that returning to normality has cost him something precious and the opportunity to step into a new world is forever … lost.

SBS versus President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a respectful interview revealing Western prejudices and assumptions about the Syrian war

SBS News Interview with President Bashar al Assad (1 July 2016)

Two years in the making, SBS journalist Luke Waters’ interview of Syrian President Bashar al Assad claims to be rare and exclusive though the BBC has interviewed Assad in the past. The Australian journalist interviewed Assad in the presidential palace in Damascus and the interview itself was subject to various conditions, among them one that it not be edited and that it be shown in its entirety on Australian television.

As always in his interviews, Assad comes across as thoughtful, articulate and rational, and no question however difficult or provocative seems to fluster him, even if inwardly he may be annoyed at the hidden agendas and prejudices behind the questions that Western journalists ask. The questions range over the conduct of the Syrian war and how it began, the refugee crisis that the war has created, Syria’s relations with the West, and Mr Assad’s views on the US 2016 Presidential elections and Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Union or not. The main things stressed in Assad’s replies are that the solutions to the war and refugee crisis are clear and unambiguous, and that the real problem is the duplicity of Western governments in aiding the decapitation-crazy jihadis and at the same time apparently co-operating and negotiating with the Syrian government.

Waters’ questions hew closely to the mainstream Western view of the initial protests and demonstrations in Dar’a in 2011 as genuine calls for reform and more democracy, and the war having broken out as a result of Syrian government heavy-handedness. Assad deftly and bluntly deflects the criticism of him implicit in the questions by pointing out that many demonstrators and government defectors were being paid by Qatar and other neighbouring Middle Eastern countries to manipulate the narrative being put forward to the public outside Syria and to destabilise the Syrian government. As the interview progresses, viewers sense there is not much rapport between Waters and Assad: the physical distance between the two is partly to blame but there is also no attempt on Waters’ part to follow Assad’s train of thought and what he is saying.

When asked as to who he would prefer to see as US President Barrack Obama’s successor, Assad expresses none and states that whatever presidential candidates say during their campaigns is never carried out during their administrations. He points out that the United States excels in creating problems where none exist and in spreading chaos but ultimately failing to achieve anything long-lasting and beneficial. On the issue of British voters preferring to leave the EU by a slight majority, Assad expresses the view that the referendum result reflects voter anger at the actions and policies of second-rate politicians in both London and Brussels.

Overall, Waters was respectful towards Assad and allowed him to say what he had to say with no interruptions, and perhaps that is all that can be said about the SBS interview that is positive.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link and a transcript in English can be read at this Syrian Arab News Agency link.

Buckskin: a fascinating story about a young teacher determined to give his people a renewed identity and hope for change

Dylan McDonald, “Buckskin” (2013)

A young teacher and sometime Australian Rules football player called Jack Buckskin is one of a very tiny number of people who can understand and fluently speak the lost indigenous Australian language Kaurna, and he is determined not only to pass this language on to his toddler daughter Malia but also to his family and other Aboriginal people in north Adelaide, and to teach and train other people to teach Kaurna also. In this way, Buckskin hopes to give his people a renewed identity and an alternate outlook on their living conditions through a revitalised language, and through this renewal inspire them to reclaim their destiny and future. This unusual subject is the basis for up-coming film-maker Dylan McDonald’s debut film and documentary “Buckskin”.

The film follows Buckskin as he goes about his daily life teaching high-school students, consulting with linguist Rob Amery on creating Kaurna vocabulary and rules of grammar appropriate for speakers in modern settings, instructing teenage boys in dance and trying to encourage his baby daughter to be bilingual. Buckskin’s mission can be daunting at times: several of his school students are not really motivated to learn the language and the only reason they are in his class is that their school compels them to learn a second language; he and Amery haven’t yet developed a vocabulary for AFL football terms and expressions; and until Malia was born, most people in his family were not interested in learning or speaking Kaurna. The documentary does not note whether Buckskin is able to follow up with former students to see if they still retain knowledge of Kaurna or are motivated to keep learning and using it; neither does it note whether Buckskin’s employers at school and in government take his efforts seriously, pay him enough and provide him with the resources he needs to keep teaching and to improve as a linguist and teacher.

Viewers also learn something of Buckskin’s family background and how he was spurred on to learn Kaurna and to teach it to others. We watch him patiently teach his daughter words for food items and instruct his two pet huskies in the language. Amery and Buckskin’s relatives express admiration for his determination in reviving the use of Kaurna as a living, changing entity. The man himself has an engaging personality and is full of energy and fierce intelligence.

While the film and its central character are fascinating to watch, I did feel that “Buckskin” was at a loss as to how to end gracefully and inspire viewers to want to know more about the Buckskins and their life quest. Buckskin could have been asked about his hopes for the language and Kaurna culture, and for their revival. How will his daughter (and any other children he and his partner Khe Sanh might have) use the language after he has gone? To survive beyond Malia’s life-time, the Kaurna language needs to be used in all areas of life including the life of work, sport and the intellect beyond the immediate needs of the Kaurna people in the Adelaide region. This will be a formidable task for which Buckskin will need all the help he can get.

Prison Songs: a snapshot in song and dance of indigenous Australians’ prison experiences, and the issues that blight their lives

Kelrick Martin, “Prison Songs” (2015)

Billed as Australia’s first musical documentary, and probably the first of its kind to be set in a prison, “Prison Songs” is a snapshot in song and dance of Australian indigenous people’s experiences in prison through the stories of individual prisoners held in Darwin’s Berrimah Prison. The film tackles issues of alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, the alienation of indigenous Australians in white society and the stress and struggle they undergo in trying to find their own paths in a country that was originally their own but which has been taken away from them and moulded into something completely different and hostile to them. The stories the prisoners tell are not only very personal but highly intimate and moving.

For this film, director Martin sat with and interviewed selected prisoners with singer-songwriter Shellie Morris sitting in. Morris later took her impressions and complete interview transcripts to Casey Bennetto in Melbourne and together they wrote the songs in a mix of various styles ranging from blues to reggae, hiphop and gospel. All songs are sung and performed by the chosen prisoners: the lyrics are frank and straightforward, and thus easy to follow and even to sing along to in their choruses. The approach taken by some songs to their subject matter is often creative: one song about alcohol and its effects on people’s thinking and behaviour addresses the demon drink as a seductive and demanding lover; another song riffing on the experience of prison life presents Berrimah Prison as a hotel where inmates can enjoy 24/7 security, free food and state-of-the-art (if not visually aesthetic) exercise facilities. One very emotional song is sung by a female prisoner who finds her refuge in Christianity to counter feelings of guilt and shame, and to find a purpose in life.

Title cards that inform viewers of statistics about the incarceration of indigenous Australians and of some of the history of Berrimah prison provide the background context to the prisoners’ experiences. The cinematography uses plenty of negative space and bird’s-eye viewpoint shots to emphasise the isolation of the prisoners from the rest of the world. The film’s style is minimal and stark, in which prisoners have both starring roles and roles as background and chorus line extras.

Because the stories are often so personal, there is the danger that they may not be seen as part of a larger phenomenon in which dispossession and the colonial experience have damaged indigenous cultures and replaced them with a caricature of Western society in which poverty, unemployment leading to boredom, addictive substances and violence dominate people’s lives and become the fabric that links successive generations of people who otherwise have no hope or purpose.

Since the documentary was made, Berrimah Prison has been converted into a facility for juvenile offenders and the adult prisoners moved into a newer, larger facility elsewhere. Unfortunately there is very little information given in the documentary about the prison itself and who runs it or was running it until its conversion.

Chasing Asylum: an urgent film detailing the inhumanity and idiocy of Australian incarceration of refugees in overseas detention centres

Eva Orner, “Chasing Asylum” (2016)

Finding information about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers kept in its detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru, in most mainstream news media and other outlets is hard as journalists, writers and others interested in hearing what inmates have to say are prevented from visiting those places. Eva Orner’s documentary “Chasing Asylum” shows why the Australian government goes to great lengths to wrap these centres in layers of secrecy, lies and other obfuscations: these are places that are all but concentration camps in name. First-hand evidence from and interviews with inmates, people who worked there and other refugees left isolated in Indonesia after boats carrying refugees were prevented from entering Australian waters, along with statistics and interviews with others including journalist David Marr show some of the brutality, violence and absolute despair experienced by people who have had the misfortune to be dumped in the overseas detention centres and left to rot there.

The film pulls no punches in its investigation, revealing not just the indifference of Australian politicians to the refugees who come by boat from impoverished countries in South Asia and the Middle East, but also the stupidity, callousness and incompetence of the Australian government from the top down to the people who run the detention centres in their treatment of the refugees once they enter these Pacific island hellholes. Manus Island is a remote and underdeveloped place and Nauru is impoverished: ideal places to dump unwanted refugees onto local governments that desperately need money and economic development. A former security guard who fled Manus Island after death threats were made against him for complaining about the facility describes the World War II tin-shed building used to cram refugees in such a way that heat stroke and dehydration must have been serious ever-present threats in the hot, humid climate. Some interviewees who worked as volunteers (!) at these centres tell how they were recruited to work there: their descriptions of their recruitment make clear how they were duped into thinking they were going to holiday camp places, only for them to discover that the people they were expected to help needed professional medical help and psychological counselling.

Parts of the film were filmed surreptitiously with cellphones concealed within interviewees’ clothing, giving the film an intimate and personal look that is unnerving and which packs a punch in scenes where inmates are clearly suffering or blood is shown on walls, floors and bedclothes. The saddest parts of the documentary revolve around two Iranian men, Hamid Khazaei and Reza Barati, who died in the Manus Island centre: Khazaei suffered from an untreated infection in a wound to his foot which led to blood poisoning and a fatal coma, with his problem compounded by bureaucratic apathy in Canberra that denied him an emergency flight to a hospital in Port Moresby that could treat his sepsis; and Barati was killed during a riot. The deaths of both men were completely unnecessary and Hamid’s death in particular highlights the dangerously unsanitary conditions of the centres and the lack of a proper medical facility staffed with personnel who could treat common wounds and injuries. Orner travels to Iran to meet the two men’s families to find out why they left their homes and risked their lives to travel to Australia only to end up in Hell and to die such wretched deaths. She also goes to Indonesia to meet refugees left stranded and cut off from family in Australia after July 2015, when the Australian government announced that any new asylum seekers arriving by boat would be transferred to Manus Island and Nauru.

The film is rather scattershot in its approach, mostly out of necessity and from difficulties experienced as a result of Canberra’s efforts to restrict access to the centres. Several politicians refused to be interviewed for the documentary. Orner doesn’t delve very deeply into the global political context in which countries in the Middle East and southern Asia are destabilised by the US government and its lackeys which include Australia. The Australian government has yet to link its participation in invading Syria and aiding the jihadis there to the growing Syrian refugee problem and international pressure on Australia to take more Syrian asylum seekers than it currently does. Another way that demonstrates Australia’s inability to learn from costly mistakes is its recent agreement with Cambodia for that impoverished country to accept and house unwanted asylum seekers, for which Australia promised Phnom Penh hundreds of millions of dollars to build detention centres.

Also what goes ignored by Orner’s film is the reaction of local people on Manus Island and Nauru to Canberra’s hypocrisy in suddenly supplying their governments with loads of money to house unwanted people when for years the islanders themselves were neglected by Australia and forced to live in dire poverty while the wealth of their lands went into overseas corporate coffers. These locals’ resentment at Canberra’s idiocy is unfortunately directed against the refugees imprisoned in the camps instead. A proper solution to dealing with the refugees in Manus Island and Nauru not only requires the camps to be closed down but also requires Canberra to compensate the local communities forced to host the camps with enough funding and appropriate help to clean up or demolish the camps and to develop more self-sustaining economies with adequate infrastructure and welfare systems.

For the time being, “Chasing Asylum” best serves as an eye-opener to one of Australia’s darkest secrets and crimes. It will have to do as an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers until a more detailed exposé of how and why all major political parties in Australia are agreed on dumping asylum seekers in poor countries, why the Australian public itself seems satisfied with that policy and how Australia has changed so much in the last 40 years from being a much more welcoming and compassionate country to one more mean-spirited, self-satisfied and so … American.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping: retreating into blandness and relying on stereotypes and a banal plot-line

Richard Flanagan, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” (1998)

If there’s any value to this film at all, it is as an object lesson in how not to make a film based on stereotypes and a narrative that’s been told many times over in other Australian movies. “The Sound …” is ostensibly an exploration of how an immigrant family in 1950s Australia is crushed by poverty, isolation and a generally indifferent society, and how the consequences of family break-up affect the individuals involved. Slovenian immigrant Melita abandons her husband and young daughter Sonja (the delightfully sweet Arabella Wain, three years old at the time of filming), and effectively disappears from their lives. The father tries to bring up Sonja himself but the pressures of living in Hobart, Tasmania, far from family and support, lead him into despair, alcoholism and violence towards Sonja. The girl runs away at the first opportunity she gets. Nearly 20 years later, alone and pregnant, Sonja (Kerry Fox) returns from her dead-end job and no-hoper life in Sydney to find her father to tell him she is going to have an abortion, and perhaps be reconciled with him as well.

The little family’s dreary history unfurls through flashbacks and we eventually discover what becomes of Sonja’s mother but this leaves a great deal unresolved and viewers are left with more questions than answers. What does Sonja really do in the time between leaving her father and becoming pregnant, and who is the father of her child? Does she try to look for her mother and if not, why not? At one point in the film the father (Kristof Kaczmarek) acquires a girlfriend but why does he dump her simply on the advice of his daughter? Does the father truly resolve to give up drinking and attend Alcoholics Anonymous? Why all of a sudden does he offer Sonja furniture for the baby? Why does Sonja decide to keep the baby and stay in Hobart? Does the baby realise there’s a huge responsibility on its tiny shoulders to preserve the family unit and stop Sonja and her dad from drifting apart again?

For a film about love and the need to belong, to know where one has come from and to be able to connect with others in order to survive among strangers in a remote and harsh environment, the narrative is a mess of various stereotypes about the social and cultural barriers immigrants must navigate around and the culture shock they experience in a society whose depth and variety are as non-existent as unicorns and dragons. The characters of Sonja and her father are flatter than pancakes and the usually capable Fox seems completely at a loss as to how to portray the adult Sonja. As an 8-year-old schoolgirl Sonja (Rose Flanagan) is a passive and apathetic observer lacking in energy and spirit. It’s a wonder her later adolescent self manages to summon up the determination to run away without first going through a stage of surreptitiously sharing and smoking cigarettes with other naughty girls in the school toilet cubicles, getting expelled from school for failing grades and then running around with the local teenage motorcycle gang – and falling pregnant to the gang leader. (At that point we might have had a really interesting story.) Scenes tend to be simplistic and unoriginal, and I’m sure we all have seen similar scenes of dad hitting daughter / daughter screaming at dad / dad crashing out in drink / dad later sobbing for the bad things he did to his wife that made her run away in the first place, in other films done with more originality and emotional depth. The film’s resolution after a no-climax climax is hackneyed and unconvincing beyond belief.

The only thing the film has going for it is the moody and slightly sinister Tasmanian landscapes but even then the film does not interact much with its settings and for all I know the movie could have been set in parts of mainland Australia, New Zealand or other areas with mountains and small towns with no change in dialogue. Apart from the settings, the film really has no redeeming features. It seems that at every moment when something interesting might happen, the film turns away from it and retreats into blandness.

Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban: a must-see demolition job of prejudiced interviewing

ABC News / Lateline Interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban (17 Spetember 2015)

One amazing demolition job that I’ve seen recently is this ABC News / Lateline interview with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Here Dr Shaaban consistently rebuts the prejudiced viewpoint implied in the questions asked of her and then goes on a sustained offensive against interviewer Tony Jones who ends up looking helpless against her subversion of his statements and the bias in his questioning. The interview can be seen and heard at this link, and the transcript of the interview can be read at the same link.

The first third of the interview focuses on Australia’s involvement in Syria’s war against ISIS and the nature of Western participation generally in that war. Dr Shaaban states that the West should help Syria not only in combating ISIS and terrorism in its territory but also in fighting terrorism overall, wherever in the world it occurs, and to co-operate with countries like Syria, Russia and Iran. She says that the US and its allies have been half-hearted in fighting ISIS and eradicating its baleful influence in the Middle East.

The middle third of the interview concerns Russia’s support for Syria in the form of supplying jets and other military hardware. The narrative implied in Jones’ questioning of Dr Shaaban is that Russia is taking the side of President Assad and soon will actively intervene in the civil war by sending in soldiers and airforce jets. Dr Shaaban points out that Russia and Syria have always had good relations and that the Russians are honouring contracts to supply military equipment and hardware which Syria paid for years ago. Syria only expects Russia to provide the support both countries have already agreed on. Dr Shaaban then starts pounding her view that Syria is being targeted for regime change by the West, and that its institutions, history and culture are being systematically destroyed and erased by the West, in the much the same that Iraq and Libya’s institutions and culture were destroyed by a coalition of countries led by the US and by NATO respectively.

Later in the interview, Jones turns his attention to President Assad and suggests that he and his government are war criminals for allowing the torture, starvation and murder of thousands of people detained by Syrian security agencies, on the basis of a report written by lawyers of the British law firm Carter Ruck for its client the government of Qatar (which has an interest in seeing President Assad deposed). Although Jones says the evidence in the report is “credible”, the fact is that many if not most of the photographs cannot be verified as authentic: all 55,000 ph0tographs, most of them with unclear date stamps and locations, were apparently taken by the one person who is only known by a codename, and the entire report is based on that mystery person’s evidence.  That just one person’s evidence can be accepted as gospel defies the principles of proper forensic investigation. Dr Shaaban turns the tables on Jones by calling out the report as fabricated and saying that the Qatari government paid for it. She then recommences her attack and reiterates that Syria is capable of choosing its own leaders and determining its own direction, and refuses to submit to Western-initiated regime change.

Jones quickly retreats from the ear-bashing with the excuse that the time allocated to the interview has run out. This is not before Dr Shaaban has the satisfaction of realising that Jones may be out of his depth in his questioning, as demonstrated by the amused expression she wears as soon as he mentions the Carter Ruck report which as she later says she is familiar with.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website states that Dr Shaaban denies that the Assad government has committed crimes against humanity, when she has done no such thing: she has only said that the evidence of war crimes Jones referred to was fabricated. The transcript of the interview also twists (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) Dr Shaaban’s words by stating that the Carter Ruck report was paid for by a “cattery company”, not a Qatari company.

Unfortunately viewers will come away knowing no more about the situation in Syria than they would known before seeing and hearing the interview: Dr Shaaban does not go into the details of the Carter Ruck report but instead retreats to her tirade of insisting that Syria is and should be in charge of its own direction in the world. This is understandable, given that Jones has an insufferable smirk on his face the whole time while he poses questions that appear bland and impartial but whose implied meaning is biased against Syria. Dr Shaaban’s strategy is then to go on the attack and to maintain that stand, but this may result in her looking like a propagandist for the Syrian government. So while she smashes Jones, and he is forced to retreat, when the dust later settles viewers may end up with a blinkered view of Dr Shaaban.

Under Skin, In Blood / You Turn / Karroyul / Man Real / Nulla Nulla / On Stage / Maap Mordak: seven shorts showcasing Aboriginal Australian film-making talent

Larissa Behrendt, “Under Skin, In Blood” (2015)

Ryan Griffen, “You Turn” (2015)

Kelrick Martin, “Karroyul” (2015)

Tracey Rigney, “Man Real” (2015)

Dylan River, “Nulla Nulla” (2015)

Ben Southwell, “On Stage” (2015)

Dot West, “Maap Mordak” (2015)

I had the good fortune of a free ticket to see these seven short films written, directed and/or produced by Aboriginal Australian film-makers and writers. All these shorts cover a range of issues faced by indigenous Australian characters in various urban, suburban and rural contexts in short dramatic narratives. In the order that the films are listed from Behrendt’s film to Dot West’s, the dramas are as follows: a woman living alone holds desperately to memories of happier times with her husband and son at home before asbestos dust in their mining community robbed both men of their health and lives; a man on the run from police over a bungled robbery discovers two unexpected passengers in his getaway car who force him into a life-or-death situation when his car crashes; a young woman mourning the loss of her mother reconnects with her people’s past through the unlikely medium of an abandoned farmhouse; an ex-con tattooing his friend’s leg taunts the naïve pal about his supposed lack of cojones; a rookie white police officer must negotiate the delicate unspoken mores of a rural Aboriginal community in order to break up a fight between two women; a transsexual cabaret singer, lucky in love, fame and fortune, still yearns for her father’s acceptance and love; and a young school-girl teased about her fair skin by Aboriginal kids at school draws hope and strength from her grandmother’s stories and fount of wisdom.

Technically the films are very well made and the acting is very good. “Karroyul” could probably stretch for another 10 – 15 minutes for a deeper and more satisfying treatment of the young woman’s dilemma and alienation, how she comes to terms with her mother’s passing and perhaps how she is entrusted with carrying a legacy to future generations, so that the film becomes open-ended rather than closed off in a tight loop. The cinematography is very beautiful and is epic in ambition, and it seems a shame that the film is so short and its plot and characters sketchily developed almost to the point of being stereotypes. The two police officers in “Nulla Nulla” need another one or two little episodes that bring out aspects of their unique mismatched pairing as older wise Aboriginal man and younger rookie whitefella naïf that riffs on the good-cop / bad-cop routine. Behrendt’s film is the saddest piece with its suggestion that the asbestos mine that blighted the woman’s family was kept open mainly to keep the local Aboriginal community firmly under the thumb of both government and the mine operator and not be allowed to determine its own economic destiny.

“You Turn” is unexpectedly powerful for the choice the robber is forced to make when his car crashes and one of his passengers is thrown out onto the road. “Man Real” is dark and serious for its questioning of macho sexuality and the role that violence plays in shoring up men’s fragile identities as men, all under an apparently light-hearted and jokey veneer. Indeed, quite a few films in this collection have a common theme of a crisis of masculinity and what being a man means for Aboriginal men living mostly Westernised lives in unfulfilling urban, suburban and even rural environments. “You Turn” and “Man Real” address this particular problem head-on but even other films like “Karroyul”, “On Stage” and “Under Skin, In Blood” allude to the issue obliquely: the young woman’s uncle in “Karroyul” is a bit ineffectual in encouraging his niece to reconnect with country; the father of the cabaret singer finds his offspring’s changed sexuality an affront to his identity; and the men in the mining community are denied self-determination and are forced to find identity and fulfilment through mining work at the cost of their health.

Other common themes include continuity through the generations, and the threat that losing a parent or a child can make to breaking this continuity, as expressed in the sorrow and despair of the lonely widow staring at the blurry TV screen in “Under Skin, In Blood”. On the other hand, the characters in “Maap Mordak” seem rather stereotyped: Granny is always available to offer wisdom and comfort to her unhappy granddaughter but doesn’t actually offer the girl any tips to resist the local kids who might turn into nasty bullies the next time she meets them.

Altogether these seven films are fine examples of Aboriginal Australian film-making and writing talent, and I hope the people who made them have even greater ambitions to write major film and TV series screenplays about modern indigenous Australian dramas and issues, and turn them into reality.

What We Do in the Shadows: gentle satire and commentary on horror films and social problems

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

Just when you think that everything that can be done in the horror film genre about vampires, zombies and werewolves has been done, along comes a cheerful little comedy flick from the Shaky Isles. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a an eccentric mock documentary following the lives of four to five flatmates who happen to be vampires resident in Wellington. It starts off with Viago (Taika Waititi) waking up at the crack of sunset to call a meeting with fellow fangsters Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) about the household chores – apparently Deacon hasn’t been pulling his weight in washing the dishes and as a result they’ve been stinking up the kitchen and each individual piece of crockery and cutlery is stuck hard to its fellows and the kitchen sink thanks to the adhesive properties of dried blood. The film crew, kitted out in protective crucifixes, follow the trio about as they explain how they came to be undead, how they ended up in New Zealand – Viago says he followed a human girl in his coffin but his human servant bungled the postage so the coffin was 18 months late in arriving in Wellington so by the time the vampire arrived, the love of his life was already married and out of his reach – and how they survive on the outer edges of human society in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Although Deacon has a female human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) who, in the style of shabbos goyim who help ultra-Orthodox Jews get through the Sabbath with chores that Jews are forbidden to perform, cleans up after the threesome’s messes and procures victims for them, viewers quickly see that the centuries-old vampires have problems in adjusting to modern society: they need to be invited into night-clubs by humans (that film “Let the Right One In” has a lot to answer for) and they are a little too fastidious in requiring the blood of virgins even though the blood of non-virgins tastes the same and has no ill effects on them. Jackie brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to them but he tries to escape and ends up becoming undead when he barges into Petyr’s room. From then on, he has to hang out with the trio who try in their own way to teach him how to be a proper vampire. However there are no manuals or etiquette guides to rely on and Nick, giddy with the knowledge that he can fly and is immortal, goes around telling the humans he meets at night that he’s a vampire. This becomes the undoing of Petyr who meets a gruesome end. On the other hand, Nick brings his human fried Stu (Stuart Rutherford) to the trio and he teaches the vampires how to use mobile phones and laptops and look up things on Google and Ancestry.com. Viago is finally reunited with his old familiar Philip through Skype and is able to find out what happened to the love of his life, Katherine, now resident in a nursing home with dementia.

There is no conventional plot as such: the first half of the film is mainly a character study of the three vampires and serves to familiarise them with the audience. Waititi, Brugh and Clement do a sterling job treading the tightrope between credibility and stereotype and filling their characters with life: Viago as the fussy 18th-century aristocrat dandy, Deacon the 19th-century Serbian peasant vampyr and Clement as a Vlad-Dracul-meets-Gene-Simmons bloodsucker. The mock doco traces the vampires from their lonely outsider niche through their encounters with Nick and Stu to a point where they have become comfortable with using 21st-century technology to get what they need and can now understand modern human relationships; along the way, the film pokes gentle fun at flatmate relationships and addresses (even if in a flimsy way) the plight of newcomers trying to fit into an alien society without attracting the wrong sort of attention, relations among men, existential angst, gang warfare and the generation gap. Gags and jokes a-plenty fill the screen as viewers discover that the vampires are nursing secret hopes, fears and enmities which culminate in the annual Unholy Masquerade where Vlad confronts his age-old nemesis The Beast who turns out to be … his ex-girlfriend Pauline. The trio also has run-ins with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby) which itself as a group and as individuals are also dealing with the difficulties of That Time of the Month when the full moon shines at night.

The comedy inherent in a bunch of eccentric undead weirdoes living as unobtrusively as they can in banal suburban Wellington does wear thin and some potential strands of hilarity present in some scenes and scenarios especially in the encounters with the werewolves and their particular existential and masculinity issues are under-developed due to the constraints imposed by the demands of the mockumentary concept. The vampire dilemma of being immortal and seeing particular beloved human friends die from old age or human society jettisoning valuable cultural memorabilia and memes while enthralled with temporary superficial fads is dealt with brilliantly in low-key and matter-of-fact ways. Several famous vampire movies and TV shows and a stack of Hollywood vampire stereotypes are skewered. The film pokes gentle fun at the police as thick-heads. Much of the understated fun of the film lies in the vampires’ house which is kitted out as a seedy gothic mansion that has seen far better days.

As the film was deliberately made as a cheap B-grade doco, technical glitches are to be expected and the shaky handheld camera is used to good effect to ratchet up tension especially in scenes where the human Nick tries to flee the vampires’ house.

The film has potential to become a cult comedy horror classic courtesy of the energy of its cast, many of whom are amateur actors, of its satirical treatment of the horror and documentary film genres, and of its treatment of social issues and pop culture fads in modern Western and New Zealand society.