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.

Predestination: musing on identity, purpose and whether our fates are predetermined

Michael and Peter Spierig, “Predestination” (2014)

Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein (“All You Zomvies” which features no zombies, disappointingly enough), “Predestination” is an intriguing if not always satisfying film about time travel, the nature of one’s identity and the possibility that linear time and space may depend very heavily on spatio-temporal Mobius loops. Ethan Hawke plays an agent employed by a secret agency within the US government: his role is to hunt down a serial terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber through time and space. If the viewer can suspend disbelief long enough and far enough, the agent’s time machine is a violin case with time and space co-ordinates that can be manually set; all a person needs to do is to stand within a radius of one metre of the machine and … ZIP! … ta-daah, you’ve arrived at your destination.

After an encounter with the Fizzle Bomber in New York in 1975 that results in horrific facial injuries, the agent undergoes surgical facial reconstruction and acquires a new face. His boss Robertson (Noah Taylor) sends him back to New York in 1970 where, disguised as a bartender, he meets a young man, John (Sarah Snook), who proceeds to tell him his life-story. The biography is fairly generic: an orphaned baby is taken in by an orphanage and grows up there, never being accepted by any family or receiving any love due to its peculiarities. The child becomes an adult and undergoes various trials which make John the man he is. The agent offers to take John back to a point in his past to confront the mysterious stranger who has ruined his life and made him the outcast and outsider that he is. After John is set upon his path, the agent resumes his search for the Fizzle Bomber and from that moment, his own search for the elusive terrorist becomes increasingly bizarre and the viewer is left to guess at the agent’s connection with John and the Fizzle Bomber and to solve the existential puzzle that his actions create.

The puzzle is not too difficult to solve and it does throw up an interesting conundrum about identity and how choices we make in life may or may not be inevitable. Identity is less stable than it appears: the film reveals that John was originally born female and was christened Jane. Jane grows up as a girl, albeit a highly intelligent and unusually strong one, and is trained to be a comfort worker dedicated to providing rest and recreation for astronauts on space stations. After being seduced by a mystery stranger, she becomes pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl and undergoes gender reassignment surgery when the doctors who deliver her child discover her intersex condition. Meanwhile the baby is kidnapped from hospital. Jane renames her / himself John and tries to adjust to his new identity and need to find a new niche in society. He becomes a writer churning out pulpy true-confession stories to women’s magazines until he meets the agent.

The bizarre plot unfolds gradually and plausibly – but only just – thanks to the performances given by Hawke and Snook and the care with which the Spierig twins recreate the ambience and ephemera of  the historical periods in which the action takes place. Through Snook’s performance as Jane / John, the film explores an individual’s need for connection to others and love and acceptance by society for what s/he is and brings to humankind as an individual and not as a representative of his / her gender. True identity and purpose come only when an individual is accepted as s/he is and the natural abilities s/he brings are also accepted, cultivated and directed towards mutually beneficial ends instead of destructive ones.  Hawke’s role as the agent forces consideration of one’s role in influencing people to take the paths they do and the consequences that arise: as the film progresses, the agent becomes a more sinister and less beneficent protagonist and by the end of the film, the agent is well on the way to becoming a dark figure while John is groomed and recruited by Robertson as a new agent and receives his mission: to track down the Fizzle Bomber; the time and place are New York in 1975.

From a philosophical viewpoint the film addresses the issue of determinism, whether we are or are not the playthings of fate. The conclusion arrived at turns out to be rather more complicated: we may not be puppets but the decisions we make, however consciously, end up imprisoning ourselves and put us on courses that shut off certain opportunities and open up others which in turn push us further into some directions but not others. Whether these directions we go into are morally right or wrong is another thing. For a film with this message though, the subtext suggests the opposite: the agent continually pops up at various points of Jane / John’s life to nudge the character onto certain paths and away from others, as if to justify a certain purpose or fulfill a goal  … which turns out to be his own life’s purpose and goal. Were Jane / John to do anything out of the ordinary, the agent and his employer may well cease to exist.

The film’s conclusion ends up rather … deterministic as Hawke’s agent descends into a life in the shadows, knowing that there is someone coming after him who will eventually kill him. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, profiting from the misery they have helped to create by shaping and reshaping history into a giant Mobius strip. Perhaps life is more deterministic than we think it is … because our thinking and actions have made it so, and we are so immersed in it that, like the agent, John and Robertson, we fail to step outside our mental paradigms and realise we are trapped in a loop of our making which ends up having a life and force of its own that continues to lock us into the same old actions. The odd thing though is that the Fizzle Bomber, conscious of the circularity of his life, never tries to go after Robertson and the secret US government agency. It is only when he dies that he is finally free of the cosmic hamster wheel he has ridden all his life. Meanwhile Robertson and the agency he heads continue on their way, et cetera.

 

The Plumber: quirky character study commenting on the gulf between social classes and the sexes

Peter Weir, “The Plumber” (1979)

Originally made for television, this low-budget film combines the psychological thriller with cheerful larrikin Aussie black comedy and light commentary on the gulf between social classes in a supposedly egalitarian society. Dr Cowper (Robert Coleby) and wife Jill (Judy Morris) are renting a flat in the university administration building where Cowper lectures and does research on health issues affecting a tribe in Papua New Guinea. Jill is in the process of finishing off her thesis for her Master of Anthropology studies on PNG tribal culture. One day a cheerful plumber, Max (Ivar Kants), turns up and claims he’s required to carry out maintenance work on the plumbing in the Cowpers’ unit. A job that initially was to take no longer than half an hour to a couple of hours becomes unending toil stretching over five days, to say nothing of the torment Jill endures from Max who plays his radio too loudly, sings and strums guitar on the job, spends too long on too many breaks for morning and afternoon teas and lunch, and turns the bathroom into a cross between a wreck and a war zone. Scaffolding left in the bathroom turns it into a veritable labyrinth and nearly ruins a dinner party given by the Cowpers when one of their guests is floored by a fallen bathroom sink. But the physical damage is nothing compared to the psychological harassment from Max towards Jill: he bullies her, manipulates his way into the apartment, lies about his past (is he or isn’t he a former convict?) and convinces everyone else, Dr Cowper and Jill’s best friend included, that he is a sweet and harmless eccentric.

The entire film is driven by the contrasts between Jill and Max: Jill is a passive middle-class good girl who, despite her experiences as an anthropology student, is socially awkward and doesn’t really understand people very much. An inkling of what we can expect from Jill comes almost immediately at the start of the film when she admits that a New Guinean shaman mesmerised her almost into a trance and she threw a rock at him: in short, she’s really at a loss at understanding people from a different social background and culture from hers. Max the larrikin plumber brings with him a lot of baggage that includes working-class resentment at the education and money of upper-class people and the opportunities these head starts give them. For all his insecurities, he reads the Cowpers’ naivety very well and knows how to annoy and harass Jill to breaking point. Hubby is obsessed with work and career ambitions and fails to realise that his wife is in danger from a man who could be a serial rapist. The actors playing the Cowpers and Max give these characters just enough to make them credible and substantial in spite of plot holes and the suspension of belief the plot requires: one would think that Jill ought to check Max’s credentials with the university administration before allowing him into the flat. Kants has to juggle a role requiring equal parts creepy and malevolent pest, would-be social critic / troubadour and lovable quirky eccentric; that he pulls off such a complex portrayal with energy and fun makes the film more nuanced than what it originally called for.

After over thirty years, the film does look outdated and some of the plot scenes look very hokey and laughable indeed. The climax in which Jill finds some backbone and descends to some very amoral and despicable behaviour is very awkwardly done. We do not see how such nastiness affects the Cowpers’ relationship or Jill herself as the film ends quite abruptly and this lack of denouement weakens the plot. At the very least the resolution suggests that there’s no point at which the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class can find common ground and the two classes will continue to clash: the upper class will use their advantages to keep ahead of the lower class and the lower class endeavours with street cunning to insinuate themselves into the upper class and weaken or dilute its power.

What gives the film longevity is its theme of the clash between what we consider normal and what we consider the Other as represented by Max and his bizarre ways. Max disrupts a couple’s comfortable complacency and his destructive actions change the two people’s lives forever. Jill may think she’s got rid of him but like the New Guinean shaman, Max  or someone else like him may be a permanent fixture in her future, resurfacing time and again until eventually she must get to grips with what’s lacking in her character.

Human sexuality and the differences between men and women and how these influence the sexes’ conduct towards one another are a significant theme in the film that helps to inform the social gulf between two classes in a society that claims everyone is equal and has equal opportunities to succeed in life.

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.