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Australian Indigenous film

Such a big and interesting topic! You can see an outline history here.

I am of course prompted by ABC screening Samson and Delilah (2009) last night.

Almost unprecedented was the unanimous five stars from Margaret and David on The Movie Show earlier this year! I can see what they meant, but in many ways it isn’t an easy movie to watch. I suspect it also needs to be watched more than once, but I think I do get where the Biblical allusion fits in. Pretty savage about the commercialisation of Indigenous art too.

The “behind the movie” documentary screens on Thursday night.

By coincidence I had borrowed a 1954 documentary from Surry Hills Library: The Back of Beyond. It is impressive in its way, but there is a bit much fakery for my taste, though it was part of the documentary style of the time, and it is relentless in the “hearts of gold” department to the point of propaganda rather than revelation. Still, it is well worth watching. Poets Douglas Stewart and Roland Robinson had a hand in the script, which rhymes from time to time.

…Shell’s [the oil company] interest in the story of the Birdsville Track is linked to the importance of the postal and telecommunications industry and the development of infrastructure. In this way it shares similarities with the British documentary Night Mail (1936) directed twenty years earlier for the British GPO Film Unit by the ‘father of the documentary movement’ in Britain, John Grierson. Night Mail, like The Back of Beyond, used symbolic imagery, a poetic ‘voice-of-God’ narration, and a mail route to project its message of nation building. But also, like Night Mail, The Back of Beyond has outgrown its beginnings as a product of corporate or private enterprise and continues to resonate today.

The Back of Beyond won the prestigious Grand Prix Assoluto at the Venice Film Festival, the overall prize for the best film across all catagories. It won awards at five international film festivals. Locally it was a hit as well. Some 750,000 people saw the film within the first two years of its release…

The “dying race” view of the Aboriginal was alive and well in 1954.

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Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.

 

First July reviews – mainly comic

star30a Dante’s Cove 2 (2007 DVD)

I watched just 15 minutes of this heap of crap. If one was drunk or drugged and with friends it may work. Fortunately my copy was free, thanks to Surry Hills Library.

star30 star30star30star30a Julian Halls, The Museum, Hobart, Knocklofty Press 2008.museum-cover240

This gets two rather dismissive lines on SameSame.com.

Halls’s strength as a comic author lies in his sharp, crisp and snappy lines. Unfortunately, the novel sounds like a guidebook in places, and a boring one at that. This probably explains why the Tasmanian government gave the project its support.

I agree about the “sharp, crisp and snappy lines” but was certainly not bored. In fact I found the novel hilarious.

It is indeed “old-fashioned”, as the publisher says.

This is a most unfashionable book: it’s funny, it’s well written and constructed — and it has a happy ending.

It’s that rarest of things in an increasingly sad and troubled world: a comic novel, a genre which has almost disappeared under the weight of political correctness, post-modernist claptrap and the self-regarding seriousness of far too many authors.

Julian Halls has created an unlikely assortment of oddball characters — and they’re all people we’ve met or close to it — and placed them in and around a mouldering, half-forgotten regional museum in Tasmania.

The complex main plot concerns the relationships between two same-sex couples, one male, one female, and the whole thing is set in motion by a blowfly; it gets even more bizarre after that, although it’s never incredible—just like real life. Several curious sub-plots emerge and they are skillfully woven into a surprising conclusion…

The museum itself reminded me of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1950s, even down to the enormous whale skeleton in the entrance hall. Its sudden descent begins the series of crazy events. You can tell Halls cut his teeth in theatre – the novel is nothing if not a farce, but a pungent one.

The artist Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851) is an important element in the plot.

17nat_conciliation_painting

Duterrau, “The Conciliation” 1840. Click on pic for more.

I liked this book.

star30star30star30star30star30a J G Ballard, Millennium People, London, Flamingo 2003

Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is one of my favourite books, and the 1987-8 Spielberg movie of it one of my favourite movies. Millennium People is a dark comedy whose targets include the romanticism of revolution, the mindless violence of events such as 9/11, and the sacred cows of the middle class on England – though there may well be a degree of endorsement of the latter.

One could also add, with this very perceptive profile in a source I don’t often agree with, that another target is the reader who, given Ballard’s profile, is probably in that same middle class. Joane McNeill writes:

In Ballard’s slapstick satire Millennium People (2003), the bourgeois residents of a gated community commit terrorist acts. They riot, clash with police, and bomb upper-middle-class establishments such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum. What are they protesting? “Double yellow lines, school fees, maintenance charges…cheap holidays, over-priced housing, educations that no longer buy security.” They are rebelling against, in one character’s words, “the barriers set out by the system. Try getting drunk at a school speech day, or making a mildly racist joke at a charity dinner. Try letting your garden grow and not painting your house for a few weeks.”

Like most of Ballard’s fiction from the last 20 years, Millennium People uses the framework of a middlebrow English novel as a way to parody the reader. For Ballard, as he explained to Salon in 1997, the novel is “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader and at every point offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”

I have his last book, Miracles of Life (2008), in line for reading. Millennium People joins my 2009 top reads.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2009 in Australia and Australian, Best read of 2009, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, movies, reading, satire, Top read

 

Parzania (2007) – definitely worth seeing

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I borrowed this DVD on spec from Surry Hills Library, not having heard of the movie before.

Cynical, intelligent and lost, an American by the name of Allan Webbings arrives in Ahmedabad city. For the longest time, Allan has been searching for answers, praying to find internal peace and understand the world and his troubled life. Allan has chosen India as his school, and Gandhi as his subject. It’s here that he meets Cyrus, the local projectionist, and his loving family.

Cyrus and his family are Parsi, followers of a rarely practiced religion that is both small in number and neutral to religious politics. They are a middle-class family and live happily in a housing development, which is mostly Muslim. Cyrus has a beautiful wife named Shernaz. Strong and practical at times, it is only her inner strength that keeps the family going. Parzan is their imaginative 10-year old boy and Dilshad is his younger sister.

Parzania is the imaginary perfect world created by Parzan, where the buildings are made of chocolate, the mountains of ice cream and all you do is play cricket throughout the day. It is a world that only he and his eight year old little sister Dilshad can truly understand.

Through Cyrus’s family, and the teachings of an old Indian scholar, Allan starts to find peace of mind, right before the rest of the country loses its sanity. One morning, the beauty and peace in India is stirred beyond measure, as a fire erupts in a train killing 58 Hindus.

Within 24 hours, 100,000 citizens storm into Ahmedabad and slaughter thousands of Muslims, making that day one of the largest acts of communal violence the country has ever seen. And in the midst of the terror and violence, Parzan disappears.

While Cyrus fights for his own sanity and searches for his child, Alan battles to uncover the truth behind the riots and any possible meaning to the insanity he has witnessed. People start to question the explanations they are given and a Human Rights Commission is formed. But will the truth finally be out? Does any of it matter to a distraught family that just wants to find their little boy?

That’s the DVD box summary, also found on Bollywood Hungama, where there is much more information about the movie. See also Wikipedia.

Made on a low budget (US$700,000) Parzania has one or two rough patches, but the second half is absolutely gripping, a terrible reminder of those years earlier in this decade when Indofascists were to the fore. Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika in the lead roles are quite brilliant.

A blog taking a critical view: My Take On Parzania. Even so, the blogger, Amrit Hallan, admits the movie has power:

If you have been at the receiving end of a state sponsored riot you can relate to the views expressed in Parzania. In the movie the policemen laugh while the Hindu mobs butcher defenseless civilians and set on fire pregnant women. If it sounds inconceivable, it isn’t…

Despite a one-sided portrayal of the situation, it’s a good movie to see. A world ahead of those overrated and silly Ram Gopal Verma and Karan Johar flicks and in fact they should learn something from the makers of Parzania.

Sarika has acted exceptionally well in the movie and she deserved the award she got for this movie. The script is very tight and the story moves fast. Sometimes it makes you cry. It makes you cry because beautiful, blissful lives are ruined due to some distant follies of others. It makes you ashamed of your country…

star30 star30star30star30 A film of great humanity.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2009 in best viewing 2009, dvd, human rights, movies, South Asian

 

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Overdue DVD reviews

The reviews, that is, not the DVDs, though I do plan to return them to Surry Hills Library today. It’s been a while since I watched them, so the reviews will be briefer than I first planned.

1. For Whom the Bell Tolls 1943 star30 star30star30star30

2. December Boys 2007 star30star30star30star30a

3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown 1988 star30star30star30star30star30 Best viewing 2009

4. The Piano 1993 star30star30star30star30star30a Best viewing 2009

Quite a good batch this time, all of them well worth the time spent. I did find the classic For Whom the Bell Tolls showing its age, and despite many excellences it is just a touch confusing at times. December Boys is rather cloying, but very well acted. Young “Harry Potter” is good as an Australian! Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is just as funny and inventive as it seemed when I saw it in Paddington in 1988. The Piano is a beautiful movie still. Hard to believe it is now 16 years since it was made!

I did say brief!

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2009 in best viewing 2009, dvd, movies

 

Old books, old movies, old mentalities

Jim Belshaw has had a couple of interesting posts lately: Train Reading – J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth and Sunday Essay – Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle. The book was published in 1937.

In the first post Jim writes:

In some ways I got more than I bargained for.

The book is laced with comments about nationality, race and ethnicity expressed with a freedom that would not be tolerated today. I almost put the book aside after the first chapter with the thought do I have to read this stuff? I kept going because I had, after all, deliberately chosen the book as a window into a past world.

As I read I found that I could put aside my reactions.

In the second post he elaborates:

At the time Mr Curle was born, the British Empire was at its peak. It seemed natural to assume that the white race was by process of natural selection destined to maintain a dominant position. However, Mr Curle’s Social Darwinist views did not allow him to believe that any nation, people or race had an automatic God-given superiority. All three could rise or fall.

I also think it worth noting that Mr Curle had no belief in the “purity” of any race or people. He was not opposed to racial mixing so long as the mix raised the “quality” of the race or people.

In this context, Mr Curle supported the Nazi eugenics policy as it related to things such as sterilisation. However, he did not believe that there was such a thing as a German or Nordic race. He thought the Nazi expulsion of German Jews was unwise because to his mind the admixture of Jewish and German blood had done much to strengthen the creativity and strength of the German people. He still hoped that Germany would learn this and re-admit the Jews.

The reason for the desperation in Mr Curle’s writing is simple. By 1937 he had come to believe that in the absence of fundamental change, both the Empire and the current pre-dominance of the white race were doomed.

Mr Curle’s views strike us as in many respects most unfortunate, but had we been around at the time no doubt we would have found a range of views to the left and right (not taking those terms with their unfortunate linear and dichotomising effect too literally) of his. As Jim says, the fact he wrote in a certain matrix of his time and place does not prevent his being interesting. Eugenics is nowadays totally tainted, and discredited as gross oversimplification – and more, but it lives on in other guises and in other terms under the rubric of genetic engineering. I suspect we also have to thank our current so-called “political correctness” for inoculating us, if we are wise, against the racist mindset within which he was working even if at certain levels he was, as Jim mentions, reacting against it too. But even there much that he wrote seems to have been predicated on the idea of “race”.

Some of Mr Curle’s most scathing writing is addressed to what he sees as the unjustified racism of some of the working and middle class English throughout the Empire. He compares them very unfavourably with other peoples and races.

And who, in all this, are the races or peoples of the future?

It seems from The Face of the Earth that in terms of people at a purely personal level, Mr Curle is especially enamored of Chinese/Malay (this includes what is now Indonesia) or Chinese/European mixtures.

However, in the hierarchy of races or peoples driven by Mr Curle’s Social Darwinism, the future lies with the Chinese.

That idea of “quality” is itself racist thinking because it assumes that “race” is a relevant category. Culture may be; race is not.

One can go back even further. I am rather fond of a Victorian lady – she would have used the term – named Isabella Bird.

Bird was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire. As her father Edward was a Church of England priest, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas’ when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.

Bird was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, Bird’s father gave her £100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland, but time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and following her mother’s death in 1868 she embarked on a series of excursions to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the Isle of Mull. Bird could not endure her sister’s domestic lifestyle, preferring instead to support further travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.

Travels

Bird finally left Britain in 1872, going first to Australia, which she disliked, and then to Hawaii (known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands), her love for which prompted her second book (published three years later). While there she climbed Mauna Loa and visited Queen Emma.

There was a copy of an 1877 Leisure Hour in our house when I was a child which contained a serialised version of her Australia Felix – but unfortunately this is long gone. I do have a cheap reprint, however, of her The Golden Chersonese (1883) and even if she finds a Chinese dragon dance may be “devil worship” she can also be very observant. She writes well. Read an extract on Singapore.

…Here is none of the indolence and apathy which one associates with Oriental life, and which I have seen in Polynesia. These yellow, brown, tawny, swarthy, olive-tinted men are all intent on gain; busy, industrious, frugal, striving, and, no matter what their creed is, all paying homage to Daikoku. In spite of the activity, rapidity, and earnestness, the movements of all but the Chinese are graceful, gliding, stealthy, the swarthy faces have no expression that I can read, and the dark, liquid eyes are no more intelligible to me than the eyes of oxen. It is the "Asian mystery" all over.

It is only the European part of Singapore which is dull and sleepy looking. No life and movement congregate round the shops. The merchants, hidden away behind jalousies in their offices, or dashing down the streets in covered buggies, make but a poor show. Their houses are mostly pale, roomy, detached bungalows, almost altogether hidden by the bountiful vegetation of the climate. In these their wives, growing paler every week, lead half-expiring lives, kept alive by the efforts of ubiquitous "punkah-wallahs;" writing for the mail, the one active occupation. At a given hour they emerge, and drive in given directions, specially round the esplanade, where for two hours at a time a double row of handsome and showy equipages moves continuously in opposite directions. The number of carriages and the style of dress of their occupants are surprising, and yet people say that large fortunes are not made now-a-days in Singapore! Besides the daily drive, the ladies, the officers, and any men who may be described as of "no occupation," divert themselves with kettle-drums, dances, lawn tennis, and various other devices for killing time, and this with the mercury at 80 degrees! Just now the Maharajah of Johore, sovereign of a small state on the nearest part of the mainland, a man much petted and decorated by the British Government for unswerving fidelity to British interests, has a house here, and his receptions and dinner parties vary the monotonous round of gayeties.

The native streets monopolize the picturesqueness of Singapore with their bizarre crowds, but more interesting still are the bazaars or continuous rows of open shops which create for themselves a perpetual twilight by hanging tatties or other screens outside the sidewalks, forming long shady alleys, in which crowds of buyers and sellers chaffer over their goods, the Chinese shopkeepers asking a little more than they mean to take, and the Klings always asking double. The bustle and noise of this quarter are considerable, and the vociferation mingles with the ringing of bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms–an intensely heathenish sound. And heathenish this great city is. Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples, and Mohammedan mosques almost jostle each other, and the indescribable clamor of the temples and the din of the joss-houses are faintly pierced by the shrill cry from the minarets calling the faithful to prayer, and proclaiming the divine unity and the mission of Mahomet in one breath.

How I wish I could convey an idea, however faint, of this huge, mingled, colored, busy, Oriental population; of the old Kling and Chinese bazaars; of the itinerant sellers of seaweed jelly, water, vegetables, soup, fruit, and cooked fish, whose unintelligible street cries are heard above the din of the crowds of coolies, boatmen, and gharriemen waiting for hire; of the far-stretching suburbs of Malay and Chinese cottages; of the sheet of water, by no means clean, round which hundreds of Bengalis are to be seen at all hours of daylight unmercifully beating on great stones the delicate laces, gauzy silks, and elaborate flouncings of the European ladies; of the ceaseless rush and hum of industry, and of the resistless, overpowering, astonishing Chinese element, which is gradually turning Singapore into a Chinese city! I must conclude abruptly, or lose the mail.

Given her always uncertain health she was one very feisty woman, and it is good we have her work. But we also see time and again that the past is indeed another country. We enter it at a certain peril. We can’t possibly say “heathenish” today in quite the same assured way, can we?

Last night courtesy of Surry Hills Library I was transported back to my earliest years through a double bill DVD of I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and Since You Went Away (1944). The second is the better movie, but both have fine performances and some lovely black-and-white visuals. The music on the remastered sound-tracks is also really good. Both movies offer much to think about in terms of the world-views they partake in, not all of them worse than our own, I should add. For their time both movies are in some respects rather enlightened. I enjoyed them, but was reminded of my own age and that, again, the past is another country.

I have added relevant video to the side-bar VodPod.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2009 in Asian, best viewing 2009, book reviews, film and dvd, History, Jim Belshaw, memory, movies, Postcolonial, racism, reading

 

Top viewing last night: Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007) *****

This is a wonderful documentary from Australian film maker Scott Hicks.

Not everyone agrees with me, to judge by some comments on the International Movie Database, but more do agree. I was struck by this one:

I am not a fan of documentaries and having no idea who Philip Glass was nor where to find the cinema I arrived unprejudiced and just on time at the theatre.

Scott Hicks’ ability to capture very emotional moments (“what is your computer password?…it’s FRANKIE”) and to bond film with music (“bababababababa”) combined with superb editing left a full house stunned with impressions at the end of the movie. The movie, like a mosaic, became more and more compelling with every act and piece of information added. Personally, the message that was most moving was the thought of a musical genius, flamboyant and eccentric at times, loving and caring at heart, unable to communicate deeper emotions to his loved ones, somewhat isolated through his talent in a 21st century environment…

Thank you Mr. Hicks for creating an outstanding movie that inspires people to think!

I did have some idea who he is, but after watching the documentary I will in future pay much more attention than I have.

Our own ABC cinema critics Margaret and David gave it **** and *** respectively. Once more I find myself with Margaret, but even more so, as you’ll have seen. I was enthralled.

On ABC commercial free, thank God. Long may Auntie reign!

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2009 in America, Australia and Australian, best viewing 2009, film and dvd, movies, music, Pomo, TV