The Coming War on China: a hard-hitting documentary drawing on the history of US relations with the western Pacific

John Pilger, “The Coming War on China” (2016)

Two years in the making with literally a cast of thousands involved in crowd-funding it, Pilger’s “The Coming War on China” might have lost some of its edge due to the passage of time and the ascent of US businessman celebrity Donald Trump to the United States Presidency but it’s still a timely warning of the possibility of war between the US and China and what it means for the countries of the western Pacific Ocean region from Japan and the Koreas in the north down to Australia in the south. The entire documentary is planned like a 2-hour news bulletin / current affairs program complete with four different yet related sections that make up the context to a possible war: the relationship of the US over the decades to the peoples of eastern Asia/ Micronesia, as exercised through American military power, the rise of China from a dirt-poor country to near-superpower status over the last 100 years, and the efforts of peoples in the western Pacific to resist American arrogance, bullying and destruction and to reclaim their lands, dignity and futures.

Pilger’s presentation pulls no punches and is hard-hitting and gritty. The first section of the documentary deals with the American takeover of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific and the US military use of the islands for nuclear testing. Although the islanders were evacuated before the testing, they were encouraged to return to their homes some years later in spite of the US government’s knowledge that the islands were still radioactive. Through interviews with surviving islanders, Pilger details the horrific health effects such as leukaemia and thyroid cancers that they have had to suffer. Children were born with deformities and mental disabilities, creating an even greater burden on island parents. On those islands with US military bases, the islanders are kept in virtual concentration camps where they dwell in poverty and squalor, and each day are shipped out to the bases in the mornings to perform menial work and in the evenings shipped back home by the authorities.

The second section of the film deals with China’s relations with the West since the 1800s and focuses on the opium wars between China and the British Empire. China’s loss meant that the country was forced to continue buying opium from Britain to feed a growing number of addicts who would constitute a veritable lost generation. A startling revelation is that later US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather was a prime mover and shaker in the opium trade. Pilger glosses quickly over the fall of the Manchu empire, the later warlord period and the rivalry between Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi and Communist leader Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, Communist party leadership passed to Deng Xiaoping who initiated the economic policies that led China to prosperity but which also brought greater social inequalities, urban poverty, mass migrations and cemented China’s role in the global economic network as Workshop of the World to the detriment of working peoples in other lands as Western corporations outsourced manufacturing work from their countries of origin to China to take advantage of cheap labour and a relaxing of industrial regulations.

The last sections see Pilger travelling to Okinawa, Jeju island in South Korea and other places to interview people engaged in various forms of resistance to US military bases and continued abuse of the local people through crimes committed by soldiers and contractors (who end up being whisked back home and are never brought to justice) and through scientific experiments misrepresented to locals as beneficial and harmless.

Each section is worthy of a documentary in its own right – indeed, a documentary “Nuclear Savage” was made of the Marshall Islanders’ plight by Adam Horowitz in 2012 – and the links among them and how they form the background to US aggression against China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea will look tenuous to most viewers. The detail can be mind-boggling and viewers are sure to feel knackered when the end credits begin.

The one thing lacking that could have really pulled this entire documentary together more tightly is an examination of the political, economic and financial systems that bind the Wall Street financial industry, arms corporations, the US Department of Defense, the White House, Congress and the various lobby groups on Capitol Hill that fund Federal politicians’ election war chests. Pilger does not go into much detail as to where all the billions of greenbacks spent on the military actually go: he notes that some military equipment is increasingly faulty, causing danger for local people living near military bases on Okinawa and other parts of Japan, but does not link this to the corruption in US defense spending in which hundreds of millions spent seem to go down a black hole drainpipe and the Pentagon is unable to account for the lost money. Pilger needs no farther to look than the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program with its notorious cost blow-outs, various defects and the possibility that the whole concept of a generalist stealth fighter jet reliant on electronics is impractical and outdated.

In spite of the emphasis on US government arrogance, racism and stupidity, Pilger’s underlying message is that people armed with knowledge of past US crimes can resist and push back against US power. If audiences knew the truth of what has and continues to be done in their name, they would reject the lies and propaganda that the corporate media establishment surrounds them with. How people can fight back, Pilger does not say: he cannot offer a general program of how people can and should resist US global tyranny, as resistance needs to be localised and diverse in its tactics.

The Tracker: a desert Western study of European colonialism and exploitation and its effects

Rolf de Heer, “The Tracker” (2002)

On the surface, a simple story of four men hunting a fugitive who has committed a crime, “The Tracker” is a study of European colonialism and exploitation of Australia’s original people, and the pain and violence these people have had to suffer as a result. The story is set in an unnamed remote part of the country in 1922: an aboriginal man (Noel Wilton) has apparently killed a white woman and is on the run. The police send out four men: the expedition is led by a man known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) with young rookie policeman the Follower (Damon Gameau) and an older policeman the Veteran (Grant Page) in tow. They rely on an aboriginal man known as the Tracker (David Gulpilil) to interpret the trail left behind by the Fugitive to follow and apprehend him.

As might be expected, the plot is simple enough for plenty of psychological inquiry into the Australian character and how it has been (and continues to be) affected by colonialism and the attitudes and beliefs that upheld it: beliefs such as white supremacy over non-white peoples, the so-called white man’s burden in bringing cultural, moral and spiritual enlightenment to others, and the notion that hunter-gatherer peoples are doomed for extinction. The white characters are basically crude stereotypes that express these beliefs but in different ways according to their generation: the Veteran represents an older passive generation that may know better but prefers not to challenge colonial authority, and suffers for that; the Fanatic represents a bureaucratic, hierarchical layer of colonial society obsessed with control to the extent that he is willing to kill others if they obstruct his mission; and the Follower symbolises a young generation that, while having grown up with racist beliefs, is more open-minded, able to change and prepared to acknowledge Aboriginal laws and spirituality.

Thanks to David Gulpilil’s subtle acting, expressive face and mischievous nature and sense of humour, the Tracker is the most developed and complex character. In his ability to use and exploit both Aboriginal and European religion and law to his advantage, assist the Follower, gain justice for the Veteran, and later protect the Fugitive and the Fugitive’s community from the full force of European vengeance, the Tracker combines compassion and cunning in a way that looks completely plausible and natural. It is a pity that the other actors were not allowed the same range of expression in their characters: the Veteran in particular has only one or two lines of dialogue and is essentially a robot. Gameau makes the most of a naive character who comes to respect the Tracker, if not necessarily the cultural tradition he represents. While Sweet does a decent job as the Fanatic, the character is essentially a crude cartoon that would strain the ability of even the finest actors to make human and realistic.

The countryside is a significant character in its own right, to the extent of influencing characters’ decisions and part of the action. The Tracker is at home with the land while the white characters express various levels of discomfort with it: the Fanatic obviously is the most uncomfortable as demonstrated by a remark he makes about dead animals which is cut down by the Veteran, who has made his own pragmatic accommodation with the land. The Follower suffers various reactions ranging from culture shock to wide-eyed wonder and an acceptance that he may never fully understand the spiritual relationship that the Tracker has with the land.

Viewers may have qualms about aspects of de Heer’s direction and his use of composer / musician Archie Roach’s songs about Aboriginal suffering in scenes where the four men travel long stretches of country. De Heer’s use of paintings mainly to express the violence done to individual characters may puzzle viewers also, as this device distances audiences from the brutal nature of colonialism to Aboriginal and white people alike.

While the plot is thin for the film’s length, and the movie is preachy and doesn’t really work well as a psychological study, “The Tracker” is very moving and astonishing to watch, thanks to the landscapes and the actors, in particular David Gulpilil, who surely rates among Australia’s greatest actors.

Women He’s Undressed: a whimsical and shallow treatment of an Australian country boy who hits the big time in Hollywood

Gillian Armstrong, “Women He’s Undressed” (2015)

Hollywood could not have dreamt up a more classic story of the country boy who finds his home town and country too small for his dreams and who takes off for the bright lights of New York and later the silver screen seductions of Hollywood itself, and ends up beating Hollywood at its own game as a costume designer of its Golden Age films. But fact here is much stranger than fiction: in 1897 in the tiny beachside country town of Kiama in the then British colony of New South Wales is born George Orry Kelly, who spends his early years dressing dolls in clothes until his parents frown on such apparent girly behaviour and try to shepherd him into playing football and other pursuits deemed more suitable for growing red-blooded Australian boys. In his late teens / early 20s, Kelly chooffs out of his Sydney banking job and off the US and to the music halls of Tin Pan Alley where he ekes a living designing posters and then costumes for Broadway music shows and silent film screenings, and strikes up a friendship that soon develops into something more serious with English acrobat and aspiring actor Archibald Leach. During the Depression years, the two take off for Los Angeles and Hollywood where Kelly discovers his niche (as Orry-Kelly) designing costumes for the Warner Brothers film studio (where the wife of Jack Warner befriends him) and Archie Leach is transformed into the suave actor Cary Grant. Among the famous actresses Orry-Kelly dresses are Bette Davis for several films, Ingrid Bergman for “Casablanca”, Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe (“Some Like It Hot”, for which Orry-Kelly wins an Academy Award for costume design) and Jane Fonda. Orry-Kelly picks up no fewer than three Oscars for costume design and he gains a reputation for designing clothes that hide figure faults and at the same time express a character’s nature as it changes throughout a film.

Beneath the apparent glamour and marvellous celebrity and fortune, Orry-Kelly faces enormous pressure from studio executives, the press and public expectations generally to deny his homosexuality and his relationship with Cary Grant disintegrates as the actor conforms to conservative cultural expectations to be heterosexual and to marry (which he does so about five times in his life – meaning of course that four of his marriages must have deteriorated and dissolved in divorce). Orry-Kelly serves with the US Air Corps during World War II until he is discharged for alcohol abuse. During much of the 1940s he battles a chronic drinking problem and has to go into rehab which affects his costume design career and costs him his job at Warner Bros. Orry-Kelly’s comeback as a costume designer in the 1950s nets him three Oscars and a fourth Oscar nomination.

Orry-Kelly’s seeming rags-2-riches rise is whimsically retold by Armstrong in a breathless, sweeping narrative  that mixes Darren Gilshenan playing Orry-Kelly in monologue scenes in which he addresses viewers and brings to life the man’s wit, humour and energy, with interviews of the actresses Orry-Kelly dressed and historical live action footage. The constant symbolic motif of Gilshenan rowing a boat away from the beach gives the documentary both a light touch and an intimation that there is something deeper beneath the surface glamour sheen of Orry-Kelly’s life which Armstrong unfortunately doesn’t explore. Deborah Kennedy, playing Orry-Kelly’s mother, muses upon her son’s fortunes in a way that, quite frankly, adds nothing to what or how the Australian public might have thought of one of their own making it big in Tinsel-town. It seems that Kiama and Australia generally did not really care that one of their sons was achieving great things in Hollywood; in return, Orry-Kelly seems not to have bothered too much with finding out how Australians might have thought of him. In an age though where Australian culture held that Australian men who designed lavish and beautiful costumes for female actors were less than human, Orry-Kelly’s attitude could well have been similarly scornful. He was friendly with the wife of Warner Bros studio exec Jack Warner which meant plenty of work kept coming his way and Tinsel-town held enormous respect for him, at least until his drinking problem got the better of him.

Armstrong’s documentary does not go into much depth as to why certain genres of film favouring Orry-Kelly’s grand and glamorous costumes were popular among the public, nor does it deal very much with Hollywood’s ambivalence about homosexual people, many of whom were stalwart supporters of and major contributors to the Hollywood ethos. It does spend a lot of time on Orry-Kelly’s relationship with Cary Grant to the extent that viewers get the impression that Grant was the great love of his life and Grant goes to great lengths to avoid him – though the alternate view that Orry-Kelly wasn’t the love of Grant’s life and that the Australian should have tried to find another lover and dismissed Grant as Grant dismissed him (and as Orry-Kelly dismissed his fellow Australians) might have been considered.

Based upon Orry-Kelly’s unpublished manuscript, the documentary makes a case for Orry-Kelly and Grant having had an actual love relationship which the actual manuscript does not mention. This is one major criticism I have as the relationship takes up far too much of the film’s time and focus, when the film could have focused much more on Orry-Kelly’s determination to live openly as a gay man in an environment where his sexuality was an open secret among work colleagues, friends and acquaintances but had to kept secret from the media and public, and the immense pressures that were brought to bear on him.

A more considered and sober documentary treatment of Orry-Kelly’s life, the times he lived in and the complexity of gay men’s relationships in that period that does not pander to current gay politics remains begging.

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.