Bastardy: sympathetic portrait of homeless actor highlighting resilience, generosity and being an outsider

Amiel Courtin-Wilson, “Bastardy” (2010)

Several years in the making due to its subject’s predilection for stealing money to feed a heroin addiction and doing long stints of jail-time as a result, this film is a labour of love by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles, a stage actor of Aboriginal descent. The documentary follows Jack Charles’ life from 2001 to 2008 when he was both homeless cat burglar and actor and features him as both on-screen and off-screen narrator about his life and past career. Courtin-Wilson not only followed Charles closely but formed a very close friendship with the man to the extent that he was Charles’ go-between and point of contact with the Victorian police force whenever Charles was in trouble – which he was quite often due to a heroin addiction.

The film disingenuously claims to present Charles’ life as it was during those hard years but audiences get a sense of Charles himself lapping up the attention and turning on the charisma for the film crew. Without going overboard and going all hammy, he exaggerates a little where the opportunity allows and there is a slightly unreal quality to his routine as he tramps about the streets looking for somewhere to doss down for the night.  He allows the film crew to film him injecting himself with heroin on at least three occasions and though the filming looks straightforward and matter-of-fact, one can’t help thinking that he’s looking forward to hearing of audiences’ reactions to his shooting-up episodes. What a cheeky bugger!

While he busies himself entertaining fellow homeless men with his guitar-playing and singing, meeting and greeting other folks, and stealing money from households in the wealthy Melbourne suburbs of Kew and Toorak, we are treated to insertions of snippets from old films and film-stills of Charles performing on stage and in movies from the 1960s – 1970s. Charles talks briefly about how he became a stage performer at the age of 18 years and graduated from the stage to performing before a camera. He speaks of the thrill of performing as a different character before a live audience and the creativity and skill involved in inhabiting another role and bringing it to life. At another extreme, he drops hints about his dreadful early childhood – he was separated from his family at the age of 10 weeks and brought up in a foster home for boys where he was bullied by others and given little affection – and mentions a brief romance with another man during the early 1970s which ended due to his uncertainty about his capacity for loving another human being.

The film is put together skilfully and has an easy and gentle stream-of-consciousness flow that shows off Charles’ resilience, generosity and good humour. He is not perfect of course and there is something often very child-like and naive about his approach to life. People warm to his open nature but he also attracts the odd crook or two. He regrets taking up heroin in the early 1970s but for much of the film until its last 20 minutes he is undecided about weaning himself off heroin by going on a methadone program. By following Charles about and allowing him freedom to go where he wants and to talk about aspects of his life as he sees fit, the film reveals a great deal about what it might be like at an individual level to be homeless and to live on the margins of society without moralising and condemning Charles for the choices he has made or not made. The issue of the Stolen Generations – referring to the period spanning much of the 20th century during which Aboriginal children were separated from their birth families and brought up in foster homes or institutions where many of them were abused physically and sexually – rears its ugly head as context for Charles’ early upbringing and his disinclination to form long-term love relationships.

The music soundtrack is a wonder to behold with starkly idiosyncratic singing and acoustic guitar and percussion performances from CocoRosie. The choice of CocoRosie to score much of the music was inspired as sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady themselves have indigenous American heritage and spent their childhood travelling from one part of the US to another every year with their mother.

Since the film was made, Charles made an effort to give up heroin by going on a methadone program and for a few years now has been clean. He has now revived his acting career with a one-man touring show and as of this time of writing is preparing to perform on stage in London. The film may have provided Charles the impetus to change his life. Regardless of whether it did or didn’t, “Bastardy” is still an interesting documentary about a very eccentric larrikin character who despite his age and the opportunities lost to him over the years still has much to give and whose life may really have just begun.

 

The Cars that Ate Paris: oddball comedy horror satire on society and technological fetishism

Peter Weir, “The Cars that Ate Paris” (1974)

Acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir’s directorial full-length debut is an oddball comedy horror flick that riffs on a number of themes including isolation, the uncertainty of one’s identity, social conformity, small-town provincialism and struggling to survive in a foreign and hostile land: themes that have informed European settlement of Australia since 1788. Social criticism is a muted, matter-of-fact presentation of ideas and issues that viewers have to judge and decide for themselves. The film was made on a low budget with a small cast in Sofala, a rural town in New South Wales, which supplied the film’s extras.

The plot initially seems straightforward and minimal. Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George are travelling into a country town, grandly named Paris, when they have a serious car accident. Arthur later wakes up in the town’s hospital, shaken and nursing a new phobia of driving cars. The mayor of Paris (John Meillon) befriends Arthur and takes him into his home. Recuperating from his injuries and the shock from both the accident and from learning that George died in the accident, Arthur acquaints himself with the town-folk and gradually discovers Paris’s secret: the town survives on creating horrific road accidents with death traps set up on the roads, salvaging spare parts from damaged cars and the possessions of victims; the victims themselves are brought to the town hospital to be used as guinea pigs for bizarre medical experiments. The mayor puts Arthur to work in the hospital and then as parking-ticket inspector, the latter in which capacity the young outsider inadvertently causes a major stoush between the mayor and the town-folk on one hand and the local hoons who spend their days driving old car wrecks through the town. The quarrel between Paris and its gangs of car-cruising youth escalates into a major riot that threatens to rip the town apart.

The version of the film I saw has been cleaned up a great deal and it is much brighter and more attractive than the original version in which the lighting was very poor. The rural setting is very picturesque and the town used for the film looks idyllic and peaceful with a distinctive 19th-century pioneering look. The film’s entire style is low-key and unassuming in keeping with the character of Arthur who spends most of his time acting like a frightened little mouse, passive, hesitant and allowing himself to be used and manipulated by the genial mayor. Through Arthur’s passivity, viewers see the full horror of Paris, populated entirely by psychopaths beneath veneers of upright God-fearing and church-going conservative Anglican country-folk. The scheme of killing people by staging traffic accidents and robbing them of their cars and possessions to provide work for the locals and to keep Paris going is revealed to be the work of the mayor and the hospital doctor (Kevin Miles).

Acting is very minimal and the dialogue, especially John Meillon’s lines, drives the film’s plot. Meillon is the most outstanding actor in the movie, by turns kindly and sympathetic, tyrannical, sinister and ultimately crazed. His gradual control of the vulnerable Arthur is hilarious yet creepy to watch though ironically through his manipulation of the young man is to be found the cure for Arthur’s phobia which allows the outsider to escape. Second most outstanding actor or actors I should say are the eponymous cars that take over Paris after one of their number is set alight in an earlier scene; in particular, the hedgehog Volkswagen that (spoiler alert) impales one of the perpetrators in the town’s evil scheme is a visual stunner.

In spite of its apparently threadbare style, the film’s plot is quite complicated if not complete: the sub-plots of the teenagers in revolt against their elders and the medical experimentation upon the hospital invalids are not very well developed. The light-hearted mood of the film belies the darkness that exists in the town in which car worship is taken to its most extreme development.

The town of Paris can be seen as a metaphor for Western society generally, in which the fetishising of technology has led to people losing their moral compass, politicians assume power through collusion and flourish by turning their people into a war machine yet spurning those (the car hoons) who do the actual work of killing. This observation of a world in miniature, in which people and society become ever more deranged with more killing and who ultimately destroy themselves, is what gives this quirky little film continued cult status.

 

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

Zero: not quite reaching the levels of infinity in ambition and scope

Christopher Kezelos, “Zero” (2011)

A heart-warming little short that could have been a lot more than it was with a bigger budget and more ambition, “Zero” tells us that something, even infinity, can come out of … well, nothing. Into an imaginary class-conscious and hierarchical society where one’s status in life is determined at birth literally (because one’s lotto number is imprinted one’s body)  is born Zero from coarse wool wrapped up in a ball and stuck on a body of pipe-cleaners wrapped in cloth then covered with more wool. From childhood to maturity, Zero suffers discrimination and bullying and ends up among outsiders like himself on the streets. Shunned by polite society, all of which look suspiciously Aryan in their pink wool and yellow or white top-knots, Zero seems condemned to skulk forever among rubbish-bins, cardboard boxes and garbage dumps … until he meets his soul-mate Zero-ette (for want of a better name). In spite of the continuing oppression which includes jail-time for Zero, the two discover love and a beautiful world in nature, and eventually their love produces a miracle that elevates them above all the other numbered beings in their world.

The animation piece is lovely to watch and viewers will feel for the main character and his friend, poised on their own against a hostile society, but its narrow scope and ambition and the form of the narrative restrict it to merely being a good little piece. Tolerance is not urged for the more unfortunate people in our society who have failed to live up to social expectations. Zero’s society has not really changed after the miracle arrives: Zero and his mate might have won new respect but only for themselves and their child, not for their class. Viewers get no sense that Zero and Zero-ette together have done something that demonstrates their intelligence, ability or self-sacrifice to their society; the other numbers may well treat them as glorified freaks for producing infinity.

The need for an off-screen narrator (Nicholas McKay) robs the story of some impact: had the action been all silent, there might have been more imaginative and experimental animation, the musical soundtrack would have been pushed to be more expressive and illustrative of plot developments, and the characters would have been forced to show more emotion and be more active, rather than passive. Real change in the numbered people’s attitudes towards the zero class in their society might have been possible.

There is not much explication of the kind of society that Zero lives in and the presence of an oppressive police force seems an after-thought. We are left to infer that the society is a strictly class-based one eerily resembling the civilised classes of Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” in which humans are moulded from conception on to fit their designated roles in society as alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons. At the end of the short, no major change is implicit in Zero’s society.

I would love to see Kezelos revisit Zero and his world and make much more of it. The result need not be complicated but just have enough to suggest that Zero’s society is changing to be more tolerant and to recognise that everyone has intrinsic value.

Change My Race: documentary on deracialisation reveals an Australia unsure of its place in a world changing for the worse

Julia Redmond and Rhian Skirving, “Change My Race” (2013)

This SBS production is a disturbing enquiry into a new trend known as “deracialisation” in which young Australians of Asian, African and Middle Eastern background are undergoing often drastic forms of plastic surgery to look more Western or Caucasian and fit a narrow Western ideal of beauty. Actor Anna Choy presents and narrates this documentary that’s part investigative journalism and part personal journey into what it means to be Australian and to be accepted as Australian or not, based on one’s looks. Through interviews with surgeons, young women yearning to look less Asian and more Caucasian, a counsellor and a feminist commentator, Choy confronts the extremes to which people are willing to risk their money and health, and perhaps future happiness, to go under the knife and conform to an ideal that for the most part is unrealistic and dictated by a small group of powerful men in distant lands.

After a quick introduction in which she dissects the Australian standard of feminine beauty, Choy whisks off to South Korea and visits the trendy Gangnam district (the place that singer Psy pokes fun at) of Seoul where some 500 plastic surgeons specialise in facial reconstruction that makes Korean women look more Western. The baby-faced look with large double-lidded eyes and a V-shaped jawline culminating in a neat pointy chin, typical of K-pop girl singers (many of whom may have had similar surgery or whose features are altered in magazines and music videos), is popular throughout South Korea. A commentator Choy visits says that facial reconstruction in South Korea took off after the country began opening to the West in the early 1990s after the downfall of the military government and women’s magazines that focused on diet, beauty and looks proliferated.

The rest of the documentary revolves around three young Australian girls who come under pressure to change their looks. Kathy, a Vietnamese-Australian girl, is pushed by her parents into a nose / chin / eyelid job; a girl of Thai ethnicity adopted by an Australian family jets off to Bangkok for breast augmentation surgery followed by a holiday; and a girl of mixed Sri Lankan-British ancestry talks about being bullied at school in the remote Queensland town of Mackay for her dark looks and using skin-lightening cream during her teenage years to be more acceptable to her peers. Along the way Choy visits a counsellor who has seen many young Australians wrestling with identity issues because of their non-Caucasian appearance and talks to a feminist commentator about the role that Western ideals of beauty play in society and how these heavily saturate people’s subconscious feelings and minds. Also interviewed briefly is an African pharmacist in Australia who admits she sells skin-lightening creams to black Afro-Australian customers though she’d rather not: the creams often contain dangerous substances like steroids which have the potential to ruin people’s health and even kill.

The program moves fairly briskly and has time for Anna Choy’s personal reminiscences about what it was like for her growing up Asian in a country of non-Asian faces and how this has deeply affected her sense of identity and confidence. The film bogs down during scenes of Choy’s own self-interrogation and her emotional reactions but quickly picks up its main themes again. The documentary does a good job of emphasising that a global power elite dictates acceptable beauty standards to women around the world through the global fashion industry and the media and subsidiary industries like cosmetics and skin care that prop it up. On the other hand, the film is not exactly about advocacy journalism so there is no call to arms against a network of industries, organisations and figures who work together to brainwash men and women alike into accepting an unrealistic and narrow notion of beauty and achieving that beauty.

The really sobering aspect of the documentary is the suggestion that Australia as a multicultural and tolerant society is less so than it believes itself to be and that this tolerance is very fragile. Australia as a society is not confident in itself and of its place in the world. Due to global economic, political and social forces beyond its control, Australia is likely to feel less confident and more confused about its identity and its role in the world, and those people who because of their appearance don’t fit an ever more narrowly defined notion of what it means to be Australian are likely to feel the brunt of mainstream Australian frustration and anger resulting in prejudice, discrimination and violence.

 

The Big Blue: a wondrous mystery world of blue whales in the Southern Ocean

Jeni Clevers (producer), “The Big Blue” (2006)

There’s an area in the Southern Ocean just south of South Australia and south-eastern Australia near Tasmania where every summer there is a huge bounty of krill and fish feeding on a tremendous abundance of phytoplankton. Currents travelling along the sea floor carrying minerals and other nutrients meet the continental shelf and rush upwards, drawn by winds blowing parallel to the Australian coast; the nutrients meeting the waters’ surface allow algae to flourish and the zooplankton feeds on it. In turn, the zooplankton attract fish and the animals that feed on them, including blue whales. The upwelling currents form a huge upwelling system known as the Great South Australian Coastal Upwelling System and the major part of this system is the Bonney Upwelling near Tasmania.

The documentary follows whale researcher Peter Gill in his quest to record the behaviours and social lives of blue whales in one year. In particular he and another researcher are keen to record the feeding behaviour of the whales. Although the whales are the major stars here, the documentary focuses on other animals that are also attracted to the Bonney Upwelling area: gannets, Australian fur seals, Little Penguins and southern bluefin tuna and their life-styles. The life-cycles of the gannets and seals are followed to some extent: the fur seals have their babies during the summer, feed them for several days and then return to the water for days or even weeks to feed on fish while the pups stay in rookeries. Little Penguins hunt for fish while their chicks huddle in burrows with one parent baby-sitting them.

Actor Colin Friels does a fine job narrating the documentary which is as factual as can be for a film aimed at the general public. The scientists collect whale faeces and sloughed skin for further study and to identify any animals that might return to the Bonney Upwelling over successive years. Perhaps the only issue viewers might have with the documentary is that it was filmed over a mild summer when krill stocks were low and so not as many animals came to the Bonney Upwelling as expected. At the very least, the documentary should have been made over two or three years so as to stress the regularity and the cyclical nature of the blue whales’ visits.

The biggest surprise that some viewers may have is that the blue whales do not simply go about vacuuming up passive krill in the manner of cattle grazing grass: the huge beasts locate a krill population and lunge straight into it, their mouths gaping open. The krill, made up of tiny crustaceans, try to escape the huge maws coming for them and the blue whales eagerly follow every twist and turn the krill make. The whales are more predatory than they and their other baleen relatives have been given credit for. Another surprise is that they are more social than was once thought: they appear to travel alone or in pairs but keep in contact with others of their kind over very long distances (as in hundred of kilometres) with low booming noises that can reach 155 decibels, about the volume of jet aircraft.

The documentary was made with high definition film to enable viewing of the whales just beneath the surface of the ocean from an aerial point of view. There is some underwater filming as well. Although the film-makers do not come very close to the whales due to distance restrictions they must observe so as not to cause the animals distress, they are able to emphasise the huge size of the creatures and their mysterious quality as they emerge out of the blue oceanic expanses and disappear back into them smoothly and gracefully. Their immense size, their linear bullet shapes, their speed and the silence with which they move through the water, and their seemingly placid natures do not fail to impress viewers.

The message delivered is that to preserve this highly endangered species, we need to understand the blue whales’ way of life and to do so, we must learn about and understand the environment in which they live and the creatures they feed upon or live with. That is why knowing how the Bonney Upwelling operates and how it has formed is vital, as it is one of the few areas of the planet where blue whales congregate in huge numbers to feed on the krill. These days the greatest threats to the survival of blue whales in the Southern Ocean region do not just include whaling; they also include energy exploration and drilling which may affect the quality of the waters and the health of the krill populations and of the animals that feed on them. Should the marine ecosystem collapse due to human activities, the loss of blue whales would be but one tragedy that is part of an even greater catastrophe.

Killers in Eden: an informative documentary on a unique relationship between humans and wild animals

Klaus Toft, “Killers in Eden” (2004)

Made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this television documentary explores an intriguing partnership forged between humans and wild animals that may have existed for hundreds of years and which died out in the middle of the 20th century. Before the British established colonies in Australia, indigenous people living around Twofold Bay in the extreme southeastern part of Australia relied on orcas (killer whales) to drive larger baleen whales into the bay to be killed by the people for meat. Over time, the Yuin tribal people came to regard the orcas as their totem animal and spiritual brothers and sisters. When Europeans arrived in the area in the early 1800s and established a whaling station, they employed local Yuin men as harpoonists. At first the whites regarded the local orcas as pests but the Yuin persuaded the British to work with them. The animals would drive baleen whales into Twofold Bay where they could be killed by the humans, and alert the men to the victims’ presence. Both humans in their flimsy boats and the orcas co-operated in harassing and killing the whales. For their help, the orcas received the tongues of the dead whales as per Yuin tradition and also fed on the birds and fish that came to pick at the whale carcasses.

With a mix of interviews with a zoologist and local people old enough to have seen first-hand the partnership between whalers and orcas, archived documents, some computer-generated animation, voice-over narration and re-enactments of actual whaling trips, the documentary delivers a highly informative and engaging story of how two intelligent species worked together and came to respect one another. The major thrust of the film’s narrative enquires into whether the orcas acted on pure instinct and self-interest (if that’s the correct term) or if their co-operation was voluntary and based on trust and a desire for sociability with individuals that happened to be an alien species. It becomes obvious (though this could be also due to the film-makers’ desire to portray orcas in as positive a light as possible) that the orcas are cunning opportunists capable of exploiting new hunting situations to their advantage and since their reasons for hanging around Twofold Bay meshed with those of the humans, the two species readily formed a mutual hunting partnership. In particular, a close relationship formed between one whaler, George Davidson, and an animal called Tom which was a leader of one pod; indeed, several orcas were known by and received names from the whalers.

The descriptions of how the humans and orcas worked together are thrilling and interviewees mention orcas saving the lives of humans on a number of occasions while hunting and killing baleen whales. The re-enactments and the quick editing of shots also draw viewers’ attention to the danger of hunting and harpooning whales.

No partnership, however ideal, is without its tragedies that threaten to break it up and the mutual arrangement between the whalers and the orcas of Eden is no different – there is mention of an incident in which an outsider from beyond Eden thoughtlessly butchers a stranded orca. He is chased away but from then on, the local Yuin people refuse to work any more with the whites and the orcas behave erratically as well. In the end, a few orcas led by Tom continue working with the whites. Not long after, with the death of Tom in September 1930, the orcas and whalers end their partnership: by then, the global whaling industry has decimated most baleen whale populations on the high seas and the number of baleen whales migrating twice a year past Eden has tumbled dramatically to almost nil.

The documentary is as much about preserving a record of a unique episode of human-animal co-operation and co-existence in history and making it known to the outside world as much as possible before the last people who have had first-hand experience of witnessing whalers and orcas working together die. Tom’s skeleton was cleaned after his death and is on display in a local museum in Eden. The town still survives and one of its main industries is now whale-watching, as whales have resumed their annual migrations up and down the New South Wales coast: a fitting and happy irony to conclude the documentary on.

 

The Hunter: a mix of good acting, stunning cinematography and a forced, unrealistic plot loaded with stereotyping

Daniel Nettheim, “The Hunter” (2011)

Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, “The Hunter” is both a mystery thriller and a journey of self-discovery and redemption set against the mountain and forest landscapes of Tasmania. A mercenary, Martin David (Willem Dafoe), is hired by a biotech company to pose as a biologist and hunt down a Tasmanian tiger and obtain some of its material for genetic sampling, perhaps with a view to cloning a complete specimen that may be a springboard to reviving the species (and making a fortune for the company in intellectual copyright). He flies to Tasmania where he meets local man Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) who is supposed to guide him. He takes up lodgings with a local woman, Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), who is grieving the death of husband Jarrah and is struggling to cope with two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Initially a loner with very few emotional and relationship ties, David is drawn into the Armstrongs’ lives and is caught up in a simmering conflict in the local community over whether to log the native trees or preserve them. As he tries to search for the elusive Tasmanian tiger, David stumbles across evidence of Jarrah Armstrong’s murder, discovers that Armstrong himself had been hired by his employer (!) also to hunt down the Tasmanian tiger, and realises that his life is in danger.

The film makes much of the brooding and sinister countryside setting which holds many secrets, of which some will only be released to those who acknowledge and respond in appropriate ways to Nature’s primacy. For David, this means acknowledging those aspects of his nature which he had to suppress in order to be a hired contract killer, and plunging himself into the Armstrongs’ lives to heal them. He also becomes involved in the local community’s brewing tensions and spats. This does not sit well with his sinister employers who send an operative after him. David has to choose sides and risk losing his life. His choices though lead to tragedy and personal pain for himself and others.

The film revolves around Dafoe who inhabits his character and who beautifully if laconically brings out the hunter’s humanity in many visually gorgeous nature scenes that are silent. The child actors steal nearly all the scenes in which they feature. Their contributions to the plot and the film’s themes are significant . Of the minor cast, Sam Neill does not have much to do as Mindy but his character is a shadow of Dafoe’s hunter as he too struggles with an unrequited affection and care for Lucy, his loyalty to the pro-logging locals who have threatened Lucy and other local tree-huggers, his jealousy towards David, and his guilt in destroying the Armstrong family. The pathetic Mindy is a man to be despised for his actions but his grief is profound and we have to wonder whether we too would not act in the way he has done were we in his situation.

As might be expected, the legendary Tasmanian tiger is McGuffin-peripheral to the often overwrought action. David’s encounter with the animal is very hokey – CGI animation scores an own goal once again! – and the scene plays as a comic mysterious ritual in which David has to undergo a final painful ordeal that exposes his new-found humanity and link to nature.

The pace is slow and the style of the film is low-key, and much of the plot and characterisation are forced and unrealistic in many respects. The community conflict is stereotyped with the tree-huggers presented as good if naive and the tree-chopping advocates appearing as surly and sinister types who’ll stop at nothing – not even murder and arson – to get their way. The biotech company is a malevolent shadow presence for much of the film. For all that David endures and wins in the end, much suffering and damage have occurred, and there a sense by the end of the film that his work as a new human being is only just starting.

While the acting and the cinematography are good, and some characters are very well-drawn, the film still suffers from a plot burdened with stereotypes aiming to pull in audiences. The theme of renewal and redemption through nature is rather simplistic and only works with complex characters delivered by competent actors.

Murdoch (Part 2): slap-dash documentary with racy tone is a damp squib

Janice Sutherland, “Murdoch (Part 2)” (2013)

As I suspected, the second half of this series turns out to be a damp squib: it’s basically a rundown of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation’s activities from the late 1980s to the present day. Interviews with notable politicians, acting celebrities and media personalities from across Australia, Britain and the United States are spliced together with news reels and welded into a chronological narrative by a voice-over narrator. The film’s visual style is rough-hewn and slap-dash with bright colours, bright lights and a big-band music soundtrack at particular points of the film all lending a racy touch suggestive of mid-20th century film noir crime suspense movies and TV shows replete with corrupt police officers, shady small-time politicians, thuggish gangsters and femme fatale girlfriends and call-girls with hearts of gold: the kind of world in which our man RM might have grown up in and where he first caught the scent of his future empire.

Hmm, there isn’t much analysis of what drove and continues to drive RM to absurd and surreal heights of achievement apart from people saying banalities like his work is his hobby and that he likes to back winners (in politics, not horse-racing) and that News Corporation’s culture is a reflection of his personality and what he values. Perhaps the most illuminating part of the documentary is its blow-by-blow portrayal of how over the years politicians in Australia and Britain have cozied up to RM, how he appears to pick and choose winners in general elections and how his print and TV news media outlets unashamedly barrack for those Australian and British politicians he chooses to bless. The corruptive radiation of media and politics in bed together sends out rays of harmful radioactive particles from the TV screen, DU-style, never more so than in the brief section where up-and-coming British PM hopeful David Cameron and his wife hang around RM, his son James and RM’s protégée at News International Rebekah Brookes like bad smells just before the British general elections in 2009. This might well say something about the fragility of political culture in both Australia and the United Kingdom, that it has become so dependent on the whims of one man who imagines himself as a king-maker cleaning out the filth in the political establishments of both countries.

The film notes that RM does not have a dynastic succession plan in place. RM’s children have so far not shown that they have their father’s ability, steel and personality for the kind of rapacious business he revels in. In any case, RM is surely one of a kind who came to be where he is because of particular circumstances and particular chances he took that will never be replicated. It may just be that News Corporation is now far beyond the capabilities of ordinary humans to control because it is too much the child of one man: it is his work of art, his unique creation. Also the world in which RM began his empire has changed too much because of him, and now is changing in ways that can’t sustain News Corporation, post-RM, forever because the creative forces that propelled him and his baby to the top have now become destructive.

Murdoch (Part 1): the rise and rise of outsider newspaper owner turned media empire king-maker

Janice Sutherland, “Murdoch (Part 1)” (2013)

Here be the story of the rise and rise of the global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his empire News Corporation as told by this 2-part bare-bones documentary in conventional voice-over chronological narrative enlivened with interviews with notable reporters, media personalities, politicians and others who knew or worked with him. It’s a fascinating story of an outsider, starting off as a metaphorical kid in the playground with nearly all the disadvantages of a bullied victim who turns the tables on his oppressors and beats them all. The sting though is that the victim internalises the tactics of the bullies and in the quest to defeat them at their own game, becomes a bully himself to the detriment of all.

The tale begins with RM’s childhood, part of which he spent at boarding school where he was shunned by fellow students because of his relatively lowly background as a child of a newspaper proprietor compared to their grazier aristocracy origins. His self-concept of himself as an outsider, reinforced by attending Oxford University which was his boarding school writ larger, together with a desire to avenge himself and his father, Sir Keith Murdoch., on fuddy-duddy establishment bullies must have been forged during this time. RM inherits “The Adelaide News”, a small newspaper, on his father’s death in 1952 and begins his domination of the print news media almost immediately, starting with Sydney in the late 1950s, locking horns with the influential Fairfax and Packer media families; going national with “The Australian” in 1964; and infiltrating the UK media scene through a backdoor ruse concocted with the Carr family, owners of “News of the World”, to stop UK media-man Robert Maxwell from buying that paper in 1968. Outfoxing the Carr family by buying the paper’s shares and owning “News of the World” outright, our man becomes unstoppable, gobbling newspapers across Australia, the UK and the US, and later creating an all-embracing media entertainment empire by buying TV stations, movie studios, music recording and publishing labels, and book publishers.

With his voracious appetite for news, news and more news – though not in the way I understand such an appetite – RM introduces his formula of success based on sex, sensational crime stories and political scandal together with an egotistical and authoritarian style of leadership that brings with it an organisational culture of self-censorship, people competing to please the boss, and outright and unabashed support and promotion of political regressive and undemocratic ideologies, values and policies with an expectation of reciprocation of favours from the politicians so promoted. Beginning in 1972 with his support for – and later vilification of – Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister of Australia (1972 – 1975), RM begins to intrude into politics in the countries where his newspapers are operating, seeing himself as a king-maker to the extent of sending PR men over to Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s with the aim of making her over as a future British PM. In the process the print news media is moulded into a propaganda arm of undemocratic corporate political forces.

The low point of the documentary surely comes with RM’s building of a new newspaper office in Wapping, London, equipped with new printing technology which the wily proprietor uses to break the power of print labour unions over the British news media. Especially insidious here is the British government’s role in assisting RM in busting the voices of newspaper workers, akin to Thatcher’s earlier crushing of coal mining unions, by providing huge numbers of police to break up union protests and picketing.

The documentary’s style is fairly basic and looks a bit slap-dash in the manner of a TV current affairs article. It does feature interesting archival news reels that give some idea of what the Australian newspaper business was like in the mid-twentieth century: robust, competitive, racy and reflective of Australian society’s interests and insecurities at the time. Public interest in crime, gangsters and scandals may have influenced RM to run with the mix of salacious and sensational news reporting in his early acquisitions and stick with it long after its expiry date. In the 1950s, such a template was a cheeky schoolboy’s one-fingered salute to the musty elites of the time; by the 1970s this formula is looking very tarnished; and by the 2010s  the formula has wrought enormous damage to Western cultural discourse and society by emphasising hysterical emotion, shock, fear and insecurity and using those reactions to influence public opinion and direct it to support regressive, violent and tyrannous politics. Of course, this all gives RM even more power over politicians and the public alike.

I’m hoping that Part 2 of this series will devote some time to evaluating RM’s legacy to news reporting, his harmful influence on media, culture and politics in the Anglosphere, and above all his personality and ethics (whatever those are) but I’m not holding my breath. Although I have only seen half the documentary, already I have a sense of the underlying tragedy of the Murdoch story: that a man who must surely understand what it is like to be spurned, mistreated and made to feel inferior does not use his power and talent to crusade on behalf of others similarly oppressed but instead uses what he has to avenge himself for purely egotistical reasons, concentrate power in and around himself, and impose a new and more sinister form of oppression on society and culture.