Monthly Archives: July 2010

24 City (China/Japan/France 2008)

Joan Chen plays a worker who is nicknamed ‘Little Flower’, a character from a hit 1979 film starring . . . Joan Chen

Jia Zhangke has emerged as arguably the leading figure of what used to be called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers – trained in Beijing Film School, but then financed on independent projects by TV money and foreign investment. 24 City was a hit at Cannes in 2008 but wasn’t released until May 2010 in the UK. It marks something of a shift away from his ‘hometown films’ set in the Shanxi region of Northern China discussed in a posting last year by Nick, but sounds similar to Still Life (2006) which unfortunately I missed (but which Nick also reviewed). I’m so glad that I managed to catch 24 City on a cinema screen.

I thought that this was a wonderful film and worth seeing for several different reasons. For film studies it offers a fascinating case study for documentary practice. It is in fact a hybrid form melding documentary witness statements with performances of scripted ‘memories’ and a conventional documentary record. The title refers to a major redevelopment in the city of Chengdu in South-West China, in which a former large aeronautics factory is being dismantled in order to build a new commercial development (shops/apartments?) – to be called ’24 City’ in a reference to a local traditional poem. What gives the metaphor (i.e. capitalist enterprise replaces socialist defence planning) resonance is that the factory originally moved to Chengdu in the 1950s from the North East, bringing 4,000 workers with it and was then set up as a ‘secret’ entity, part of, but separated from, Chengdu itself.

As well as detailing the transformation of the factory site (the production facilities are dismantled and transported to an industrial park outside the city for a new venture) we are offered the personal stories of workers who came to Chengdu at various times over 50 years and learn what life was like in this unusual set-up. But Jia adds to these ‘true stories’ with a quartet of further personal stories ‘performed’ by leading actors (I think that these stories are actually composites put together from over a hundred interviews the production team conducted). The most moving of these is delivered by Lü Liping, a well-known Chinese actor who starred in two well-known Fifth Generation films, Old Well (1986) and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1993). The other familiar faces are the Chinese-American Joan Chen and Jia’s iconic actor Zhao Tao. Personally, I have no problem with this mixing of ‘real’ and ‘constructed’ witnesses. All witness statements are constructions – they are simply coded as such in different ways. However, many commentators do have problems with this strategy. The other ‘problem’ for some audiences is that the pace is slow and although there are beautifully shot scenes of the factory and work in the last few months of operation, most of the content is of talking heads. The witnesses are shown in long shot/MS as well as MCU and I thought that overall the visual quality of the film was very well thought out and for me added to a riveting watch.

The big question is, of course, what does Jia tell us about the workers (and the managers/contemporary capitalists), the history of the factory and the changes in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) over 50 years? The answer isn’t straightforward. Because of the techniques outlined above, I do think that sometimes the historical detail gets confusing. There are intertitles giving details about each interviewee, but there is still a sense of confusion about when events actually took place. Even the Press Pack is not totally clear on this. My knowledge of Chinese geography and history since 1949 is sufficient to have followed most of the narrative of the film, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly when and why things happened. For instance Jia in the Press Pack tells us that the factory was founded 60 years ago – i.e. before the foundation of the PRC – and that it moved to Chengdu in 1958. It was certainly operating in the early 1950s, making parts for the MiG-15s used by the Chinese and North Koreans in the 1950-53 War with the US and South Korea. Part of the confusion might arise because of a Chinese reluctance to give detailed historical commentary in case it attracts attention from the authorities. In his essay on the film, Tony Rayns suggests that the factory moved because of the rift between China and the Soviet Union in 1956 – i.e. defence manufacture moved further away from the Russian border.

But Jia claims that he doesn’t want to present a straight narrative history, instead he concentrates on personal lives (like Zhang and Zhuangzhuang in their historical family melodramas set in the period 1950-90). This throws up interesting popular culture observations such as the popularity of the Japanese TV series Blood Suspect in the 1980s which made its young stars into role models for Chinese youth. Similarly with Taiwanese pop. I do tend to get uneasy with these kinds of popular memories which often seem to be utilised in an attack on socialist planning and praise of capitalist enterprise. On the other hand, I find the community and ‘official’ mass singing to be nostalgic and quite romantic in its expression of solidarity. There was a tear in my eye to see a group of older female workers sing the Internationale. Overall, I think it best to see this as a poetic documentary about the working process and the flow of industrial history as well as a humanist drama about change in a society that seems at once familiar and alien at the same time. As someone who grew up in the 1950s with a wartime aircraft factory down the road and avoiding gangs of local kids on the streets as I made my way to school, much of this story rang true.

One of the films of the year released in UK cinemas.

The Killer Inside Me (UK/US 2010)

Lou (Casey Affleck) and Amy (Kate Hudson) in a scene that might have been The Last Picture Show

The release of this film made me think of that phrase often used about weddings and funerals in Michael Winterbottom’s native Lancashire – “there was a lot said”. Unfortunately, most of what was said by general commentators in the media focused on the charge of misogyny and gratuitous violence which first arose at Sundance and has dogged the film ever since. The result is that some of the audience who might appreciate the film have chosen not to see it.

But is there anything worthwhile to say about the film as a film and an example of cinematic art? I wouldn’t argue that it is a particularly outstanding film, but it is a good example of the work of a significant team of filmmakers. I’m not going to focus specifically on the violence in the film – I was one of those viewers aware of what would happen, so I just covered my eyes and didn’t watch the two offending scenes when the most brutal moments came. I’m still not sure what I think about these scenes that I heard rather than saw, but I don’t think I missed anything since the brutality was signified very effectively through the sound effects. On the other hand, I’m not going to argue against the director’s decision to include them as part of his presentation of the narrative. Rona is going to offer her thoughts on this.

Plot

For anyone who hasn’t read about the plot of the film, The Killer Inside Me is a close adaptation of a crime novel by one of the most ‘hardboiled’ of American pulp writers, Jim Thompson. The title refers to a young sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who commits a series of murders – perhaps rationally to protect himself, perhaps not. As the title suggests, there is a mis-match between the young man’s outward demeanour and what is going on inside his head. This is a classic film noir narrative, set in the early 1950s (which in Hollywood marked the most vicious period of the noir crime film).

Commentary

What makes the film interesting initially is that it is the work of one of the two most prolific and celebrated production teams in British Cinema – here tackling a completely American property for the first time (even if it is actually their third independent US production). Revolution Films, the company set up by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom, has produced films at an astonishing rate since the mid 1990s with sixteen features (including one documentary) in sixteen years. Many of these films have featured at Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian etc. winning a number of prizes. Only Ken Loach with Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty comes anywhere near this record. Yet Loach wins out because his films win bigger prizes and usually much bigger audiences. It’s a tribute to Andrew Eaton’s producer skills that Revolution’s lack of commercial success doesn’t seem to prevent them from financing the next production. Presumably there is enough income from ‘ancillary’ sales to balance the books.

I think that there are two reasons why Revolution Films don’t make it with audiences and with mainstream reviewers. The first is that Winterbottom’s choice of subject matter combined with rigorous aesthetic choices and narrative experiments results in films either dogged by controversy or lacking in immediate mainstream appeal. I offer you the film under discussion here alongside A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs on the one hand and films like Genova or Code 46 on the other. So, the films don’t hit big in the multiplex – but if they win festival prizes why don’t they work in the arthouses? Arthouse audiences are often quite conservative in the sense that they like to know what they are getting and Winterbottom confounds easy ideas about auteurs who make the same film over and over. Instead he makes melodramas, postmodern comedies, science fiction, romantic comedy, realist thrillers, westerns, literary adaptations – no film is like the last one and each is also likely to be stylistically different.

I ought to put my cards on the table. For me, Wonderland (UK 1999) was the best British film of the 1990s and The Claim (UK/Canada/France 2000) the most ambitious and best realised production of the past twenty years (well, you try adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gold-rush western and shooting it in an Albertan winter). I’ve seen everything since 1994 apart from 9 Songs (UK 2004) and every one of the films has been interesting in different ways. Overall, however, I’d say that the more controversial and more ‘popular’ subjects have been less interesting than the left-field ones. And that is possibly my problem with The Killer Inside Me.

Winterbottom has said that his main aim was to create a ‘literal’ adaptation of the novel. I think he felt that Thompson had created a unique perspective on crime – from within the mind of the killer. Certainly the narrative is constructed with Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) at its centre and we only see other characters when they meet Lou. The two obvious points to make here are that Lou is the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ and we have no way of knowing how much of what we see is actually fantasy and secondly that this strategy allows Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to argue that any charges of misogyny should be directed towards the fictional character (and, presumably, Jim Thompson). The creation of an unreliable narrator seems to me to be a valid artistic decision. The second point is more problematic. Thompson is a complex figure as a writer and according to his wife Alberta was . . . “a gentle sensitive man who loved animals and was of course a devoted husband and father” (quoted by Nick Kimberley in the introduction to a compendium of Thompson’s novels, Zomba Books, London 1983). He was writing at a specific moment in American popular culture and from a specific perspective as a struggling pulp writer. The question Winterbottom doesn’t seem to have answered is why adapt the novel now and why feign surprise that many will find the film offensive?

There is undoubtedly a case to be made against Revolution for simply seeking out controversial projects or perhaps creating a self-image such that for productions like A Mighty Heart Winterbottom seems like the most straightforward choice of director. It’s also worth noting that the previous Revolution Films production was the Red Riding Trilogy for Channel 4. Winterbottom wasn’t directly involved with that production as far as I know, but Andrew Eaton certainly was. But I don’t really want to explore Revolution’s history here. Instead I’ll focus on two issues: the aesthetics of the film and its status as film noir.

Winterbottom and aesthetic choices

What you get in a Michael Winterbottom film is something that looks and feels different. That’s obvious in the credit sequence of most of Revolution’s films and here there is some lovely use of typography with a strong country soundtrack. From then on, Winterbottom and his regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind create very cold and clean images of the Texas oilfields (with some shooting in Oklahoma). If the intention was to look for a ‘Thompson aesthetic’ – the look of Hud, The Last Picture Show, Written on the Wind etc. The print I saw was digital which enhanced the feel of bleakness. Other than this textural quality, I didn’t notice the camerawork and colour that much – because the narrative is so gripping and the plot moves forward so quickly (as in the novel). (I can’t believe the IMDB posters who find the film ‘boring’ or who don’t see any ‘characterisation’.)

The textural feel is supported by the excellent costume design and casting choices. I thought at first that Joyce and Amy were just too beautiful for a small town prostitute and a schoolteacher, but the casting is consistent with Winterbottom’s aim to be ‘true’ to the novel.

Film noir

Now that I’ve read the novel, I’m tempted to think more about the genre repertoires and themes which the film explores. The Killer Inside Me qualifies as noir in a number of ways. Thompson is clearly a pulp writer – though none of his novels were made into films at the time. He did work on film and TV scripts later in the 1950s and 1960s – but mostly in other genres. Perhaps his crime novels were considered too violent? Or perhaps they were too far ahead of popular taste?

The violence towards women features in several noirs of the period. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame is disfigured by scalding coffee deliberately thrown by Lee Marvin’s violent thug. In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a young woman is tortured to death. In both films, however, the extreme violence is offscreen (see the clips below – the end of the Kiss Me Deadly intro):

The ‘narration’ of The Killer Inside Me is in some ways similar to that of the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, but the theme of the film looks forward to later films such as Psycho. Thompson’s writing style shares with Winterbottom’s directorial style in impatience with spelling everything out. Audiences have to work hard to put together the plot information, but there are plenty of clues. Lou Ford is insane (though US audiences seem to have missed this in many cases). His behaviour is influenced by childhood trauma and he entertains himself with his father’s medical books (the soundtrack also offers us Mahler, Richard Strauss and Donizetti alongside Western Swing to represent Lou’s two worlds). The only elements in the book that don’t appear in the movie (unless I’ve already forgotten them!) are a visit to Lou’s house from a quack psychiatrist and Lou’s use of prescription drugs to pep up his sexual performance. Both of these could be part of 40s/50s noir but the childhood trauma seems like a relatively new reason for the injection of violence into the doomed life of the male protagonist. In earlier noirs, the trauma is often associated with wartime experience. The novel reveals that part of the reason for Lou’s aggression towards the DA Howard Hendricks is that Lou is fed up with hearing about Hendricks’ war experience and the shrapnel lodged in his body. Lou himself is 29, so at the time of the main US recruitment of young men to fight in 1944 he would have been 21. Why didn’t he enlist? Why too is there no sense of the Korean War or the mounting anti-Communist hysteria? Is this again because we are inside the head of an insane man – someone with a sickness that blots out the rest of the world?

Conclusion

I suspect that a closer examination of The Killer Inside Me will prompt some more thoughts when the DVD becomes available. Meanwhile Winterbottom and Eaton have a new project – Promised Land, exploring the Stern Gang, the notorious Jewish guerilla group that murdered several British soldiers and police officers (as well as ordinary Palestinians and two major diplomats) in Palestine in the 1940s before the 1948 war. That won’t be controversial in the US will it?

Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur, France 2010)

Alex stoops to seducing Juliette by dancing the Patrick Swayze role in her favourite film, Dirty Dancing.

The hit of the year in France, Heartbreaker is slowly dying in UK cinemas on a limited release (around 60 prints). The same audiences who have shunned it in multiplexes, presumably because they would have to read subtitles, will no doubt flock to the inevitable Hollywood remake. C’est la vie as the English character in the film says – the loss is theirs. I would be very surprised if Hollywood can serve up anything as funny and sexy as this. There is no American actor I can think of who could compete with Romain Duris.

It’s a compliment of sorts that Hollywood couldn’t make anything more glamorous or more slick. This is a very conventional romcom. Duris is Alex, who works as a professional to break up engagements that somebody (usually a parent) doesn’t want to see reaching the altar. Supported by his sister and her husband, Alex sets up extravagant cons that seduce the women targeted. But he has principles – he only works on women who are unhappy in their relationships (although, of course, they don’t always know that they are unhappy). Then one day he meets Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and you can guess the rest.

I’ve written about Romain Duris in the romcoms of Cédric Klapisch and in dramas such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I wasn’t totally convinced by the Klapisch roles, but I rate him highly. The real surprise in the film was Vanessa Paradis who I thought was excellent – very beautiful, sexy and smart. Life with Johnny Depp can’t be too stressful. The other two principal cast members are also very good (Julie Ferrier as the sister Mélanie and François Damiens as her husband Marc). Monaco (and Morocco) look great. I laughed a lot and even cried at the end – perfect entertainment.

The UK trailer:

Les herbes folles (Wild Grass, France 2009)

The stylised cinema sequence in which Marguerite stalks Georges.

I’ve seen relatively few films by Alain Resnais and certainly nothing since the 1970s. However, I was primed for Les herbes folles because several people had asked me to explain it. They seemed angry because it had been so frustrating.

Approaching the film from this perspective, I rather enjoyed the whole thing, but it did feel like an extended joke about cinema, narrative and the emotional responses of audiences. No bad thing perhaps? My enjoyment was heightened because three of the leads were familiar from many of the French films from the last few years. I hadn’t noticed before that André Dussollier has worked consistently with Resnais for many years, as has Sabine Azéma. I don’t remember seeing her before, but she seemed familiar somehow. (She is also Resnais’ partner.)

Plot outline (no major spoilers – they probably wouldn’t help anyway!)

Marguerite (Azéma) is a dentist with a passion for shoes and flying (i.e. being a pilot of a small aircraft). One day she buys some new shoes but has her bag snatched in Paris. Georges (Dussollier) is a (retired?) house husband in a solidly bourgeois outer Parisian suburb. He finds Marguerite’s wallet abandoned by the bag snatcher and eventually takes it to the police. A set of awkward relationships then develop between Marguerite and Georges, the police (Mathieu Amalric), Marguerite’s colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny). There are clearly ‘back stories’ for the characters that don’t fully emerge, so as an audience we must try to make sense of where these relationships might lead and what the characters’ motivations might be – or whether this is indeed important or not.

Resnais and narrative

There are several clues to the Resnais style/approach that make it much more accessible. First, Resnais is a fan of theatrical comedy and in particular the British writer-director Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais has adapted two of Ayckbourn’s plays. He also draws some of his cast from the Comédie-Française. I got a strong whiff of Ayckbourn in many of the encounters in Les herbes folles – which often seemed to comprise a series of sketches. Resnais has generally adapted either plays or novels as the basis for his films and in his early career he was associated with the avant garde nouveau roman movement, adapting works by the leading figures Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Les herbes folles is an adaptation of a novel by Christian Gailly called L’incident (1996). As far as I can make out, Gailly is also interested in narrative and self-reflexivity. I think I read somewhere that Resnais makes two jokes about adaptation in Les herbes folles. First he has an extended sequence in which Georges goes to a screening of a re-released Hollywood film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a Korean War drama with William Holden and Grace Kelly. Resnais is often associated with the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. I’m not sure he actually ‘fits’ that description, but showing visits to the cinema is a central feature of the films of Truffaut and Godard. You know that they will have chosen a specific film for a reason. Here, however, Resnais stages the sequence in a highly artificial way and he claims never to have seen the film – he is only using it because it is in the novel. At the very end of Les herbes folles, there is a short scene that appears to have no connection to anything else. Resnais says that it does occur in the novel – but elsewhere in the narrative.

Yet, to return to film references, the approach to narrative in Les herbes folles seems to invite audiences to think about other films that they might have seen. The opening of the film is quite striking, focusing mostly on the feet and legs of Marguerite with her yellow handbag. One of my first attempts to study film in terms of its textual detail focused on the opening to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) – which begins with a close-up of a yellow handbag and pulls back to follow the handbag’s owner, shown only from the rear and mostly from the neck down. Another famous Hitchcock opening, Strangers on a Train (1951) begins by following two pairs of feet/lower legs arriving at a railway station. I don’t know the extent to which Resnais was a Hitchcock fan but there are Hitchcockian elements in the humour/farce here. In fact the film moves easily between romance, film noir, comedy and horror. Rona watched the film with me and commented at the end that Resnais should leave ‘Lynch country’ to David Lynch. I’m not much of a Lynch fan, but I could certainly see something of Blue Velvet, especially in Resnais’ use of a bold of palette striking colours. The other strong thread running through the film is flying with Georges as what in the UK would be called an ‘anorak’ (having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific topic, usually requiring technical terminology/detail) and Marguerite referred to in terms of the female aviation pioneers of the 1930s. One film that also came to mind in the aerodrome sequences was Patrice Leconte’s Tango (1993). The Bridges at Toko-Ri also features a flying narrative.

So, Les herbes folles is an elaborate puzzle narrative – but don’t go expecting a satisfying resolution, there isn’t one. Enjoy its playfulness, lovely performances, glorious colours etc. Personally, I found it very funny. I’ve seen it described as ‘youthful’ and ‘skittish’ but it seems more like the (confident and assured) work of an 88 year-old who knows everything about cinema and feels able to indulge himself.

Here is the (terrific) American trailer in HD which illustrates most of the above. Enjoy!

. . . and here is the opening to Marnie (watch at least the first 7 minutes):

Agora (Spain 2009)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) demonstrates the questions surrounding gravity and the movement of the Earth to her students in Alexandria, watched by her slave Davus.

After the mildly diverting but ultimately turgid Robin Hood, it was a relief to turn to a filmmaker with more imaginative ideas about presenting historical worlds. Alejandro Amenábar began his career with a string of distinctive films spanning horror, science fiction and melodrama, each of which were big hits at home in Spain. They topped the Spanish box office and broke records but apart from the English language The Others (2001) they haven’t had the same impact abroad. This is unfortunate and serves to highlight the dismissive way in which Anglo-American Cinema relegates any film from another culture to the arthouse sector. Such an approach mars an otherwise interesting review of Agora in Sight and Sound by Sophie Mayer and has formed a confused discourse around the film’s eventual distribution in the UK.

This is the second English language film from Amenábar, featuring an international star in Rachel Weisz and a strong supporting cast. It was produced on a large budget, by European standards, in Malta – standing in for 4th/5th Century Alexandria. The narrative offers us a crucial moment in Mediterranean history – when ‘Christianised’ Roman subjects in the Egyptian city of Alexandria wrested power from the ‘pagan’ Greek aristocracy who had created the renowned library in the city. It presents a political, religious and military struggle around dogma, doctrine and ‘natural philosophy’ that focuses on the pivotal figure of Hypatia, the brilliant astronomer, philosopher and teacher.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher and teacher, clever and beautiful, who is responsible for the education of the next generation of (male) leaders of Alexandria. The young men adore her, in particular Orestes (Oscar Isaac), but also her own young slave Davus (Max Minghella). But Alexandria is moving towards widespread civil revolt, led by Christian ‘activists’. This leads to a confrontation between the Greeks who still rule the city, the increasing numbers of Christian converts and the Jewish community caught between them. Meanwhile the Roman authorities stand back and play imperial policy games as the occupying power in the region.

Throughout this turmoil, Hypatia tries to continue her scientific work which combines mathematics and astronomy and seeks to theorise about the movement of the Earth and the planets. But she finds herself caught up, as a rationalist, in the religious and political struggles within the city – now led by her ex-pupils.

Wikipedia has a useful entry on Hypatia if, like me, you aren’t familiar with this clearly important historical figure. An agora, by the way, is a public square where proclamations might be made.

Commentary

I found this to be a film which first engaged me through its impressive staging, performances and direction then lost me for a short section when the narrative faltered – but which then grabbed me ferociously for the stunning final third. The flaw in the narrative was the way in which Amenábar attempted to move the story forward, explaining what happened in the interim period via on-screen text accompanied by science fiction-style zooms in and out of Alexandria as a dot on the map. I struggled to pick up the story again for a few minutes. On reflection, I think that presenting this story on film is a very difficult task and that generally Amenábar’s ideas work very well and perhaps when I watch the film again it will flow seamlessly. The other slight weakness was the performance of Oscar Isaac – but perhaps this was because he’d been the rather effete and silly King John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood that I saw the day before. Did his character in Agora really come up with a line of contemporary American speech or did I imagine it? The whole question of casting and dialogue coaching for narratives set in classical Greece/Rome has always been intriguing.

Amenábar chose a casting strategy which seemed based primarily on notions of ‘realism’. The Greeks and Romans are played by West Europeans whereas the Egyptians (i.e. the slaves and the leaders of the Christians) are played by actors from the Mediterranean region or in the case of Hypatia’s older slave and technical assistant Aspasius, the Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi. This strategy produces the first of several controversies likely to be associated with the film. The ‘villains’ of the story are the Christian bishop, and later Saint, Cyril, played here by Sami Samir and the main Christian agitator Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom). I can’t find anything about Samir’s background but I’m familiar with Barhom who is a well-known Palestinian actor from Galilee. So, in one sense, we have ‘authentic’ casting in terms of ethnicity and regional origin. On the other hand, this presents us with Christians whose appearance suggests the modern day Taliban – Ammonius leads a mob dressed in dark robes and headdress, many of whom are heavily bearded.

Sami Samir as Cyril in one of the Spanish posters for the film.

The metaphor/allegory possibilities of the film have been picked up by many commentators and there are several avenues to explore. The film could be taken to be an attack on the traditional institutional hierarchies of the Catholic churches (Orthodox and Roman), on contemporary ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity or perhaps as a general anti-clerical account of the interference of the Church in civil society. There is nothing in Amenábar’s overall approach that recalls Luis Buñuel directly, but when I think about it, several of his films have a stance that is anti-authoritarian and sometimes specifically anti-clerical. (I’m thinking specifically of Mar adentro.)

The film can also be seen as a critique of imperial power in that the Romans are really unable to control the local holders of power and in a sense thus contribute to the carnage. But the central narrative about Hypatia refers to cinematic form of the biopic which in this case combines the story of a rationalist figure attacked by religious fanatics (the Galileo story) and the brilliant woman condemned by the actions of lesser men. Madame Curie comes to mind as a traditional Hollywood biopic with some of these elements. I won’t spoil Agora by revealing which aspects of the biopic are included and which left out.

All of this suggests that there is an enormous range of ideas in Agora and I think it will repay a second and third viewing – and an exploration of historical sources. This was clearly a major undertaking for Amenábar and for a producer/writer/director/composer who produced his early films at a remarkable rate this was a long production process – completion coming five years after the release of Mar adentro. For me, Amenábar is a major director and I’m saddened by the comparative box-office failure of his films outside Spain. You’ll probably need to wait for this film on DVD, but I think that the wait will be worthwhile.

London River (France/Algeria 2009)

Strangers meet in London River

I’ve been waiting for this film ever since I read about the proposed production a couple of years ago and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally opened in the UK. Ironically, I saw it on a Friday night and it’s as far away as you can get from the ‘feelgood’ film that many people feel that they need at the weekend. Philip French in today’s Observer refers to “stoical realism” which is rather good. It’s deeply moving and a fine example of humanist cinema.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Brenda Blethyn is Elisabeth, a widow with a smallholding on Guernsey and Sotigui Kouyaté is Ousmane, a West African working as a forester in France. After the bombings of July 7, 2005 they both travel to London in search of their grown-up children. Elisabeth has not heard from her daughter Jane for a couple of weeks and now she is not answering phone messages. Ousmane has not seen his son since he was a small child. He makes the trip at the behest of his estranged wife in Africa. At some point it is inevitable that Elisabeth and Ousmane will meet as they make enquiries in the same small area of North-East London.

Commentary

Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb gained an international profile with Indigènes (France/Algeria 2006), the hit film that successfully rewrote the history of the African contribution to the liberation of Vichy France in 1944. By contrast, London River is a film which focuses completely on its two central characters and eschews the politics of the bombings. Even so, the film offers several interesting social observations about diversity in contemporary society.The two central performances are excellent – and very different. Bouchareb decided that he wanted to work with Brenda Blethyn based on her Oscar-winning performance in Secrets and Lies and he delayed the shoot by a year until she became available. Kouyaté, a well-known Malian and Parisian actor, had appeared in Bouchareb’s earlier Little Senegal (France 2001). (He sadly died in April this year.) The ‘non-style’ of the film is explained by two factors. First, Bouchareb himself tried hard not be influenced by any other filmmakers and second, he faced severe production restraints. (I would still categorise the film as melodrama despite the lack of ‘excess’ in presentation, but I need to see it again – there is an intriguing metaphor about forestry and elms that I need to think about.)

The exteriors were all shot by a French crew on location in London for just 15 days when the weather was poor and the locals seemingly suspicious. Blethyn had to learn enough French to converse naturally with Kouyaté and for the two of them to improvise on set. The film was shot on 16mm (the Press Pack confusingly suggests that the original aspect ratio was 1: 1.66 but released as 1: 1.85). Interiors were all shot in France. There were also exterior shoots in France and Guernsey.

Apart from the characterisations what struck me most about the film was the representation of London. Most of the action is set in the area around Finsbury Park. Presumably Bouchareb chose this area because it has a large Turkish population and also attracts Arab Muslims. It prompted me to think about Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) in which French star Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish young woman (and in which Sotigui Kouyaté was a Somali man, I think). Frear’s attempted to show the ‘other London’ of the refugee/migrant worker, but even so he didn’t quite get that feel of the ‘outside eye’. For that, you need to go to directors from outside the UK. The shots of Guernsey and Brittany reminded me of Truffaut’s Anne and Muriel (Les deux Anglaises et le continent, 1971) when he tried to use the Celtic connection between Brittany and Wales. But Truffaut also made Fahrenheit 451 in the UK with Roehampton as a futuristic town. Around the same time, Antonioni presented his views of London in Blow-up (1966) and I was reminded of the park in Charlton used as the backdrop for the photograph of the film’s title when the couple in London River sit in the park (see the image above). Again in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Patrice Chérau’s Intimacy (2001) we get a different London as visualised by an outside eye. The difference in Bouchareb’s film is that his choice of location and decision to bring in his own crew and actors (the shopkeeper who is Elisabeth’s landlord during her London visit is played by Roschdy Zem, one of the leads in Indigènes) creates a London community of great diversity. Even an interrogating police officer, who also speaks French, proclaims that he is “a Muslim too”.

This representation of London diversity is both ‘realist’ (London now reasonably claims to be the world’s most cosmopolitan city) and at the same time expressionist in dramatic terms. Elisabeth is presented as coming from Guernsey where her social life is triangulated by her brother, her conversations with her dead husband (killed in the Falklands War and her local church group). The Guernsey setting conveniently suggests why she might have a working knowledge of French (non-UK residents please check out Wikipedia) and it also suggests why she might be overwhelmed by being suddenly plunged into the midst of North London’s streetlife. (This is compounded by the use of French and Arabic as the medium for much of the dialogue.) How her reactions are read by audiences is a function both of Brenda Blethyn’s terrific performance and the experiences of the viewer. As Blethyn herself says, it would be wrong to leap to conclusions about Elisabeth. She is confused, frightened and bewildered. She says things that are easily seen as hateful and offensive, but we should be able to understand what is happening to her. Unfortunately, there are already some stupid comments on IMDB. On the other hand, I note that the highest ratings for the film come from women over 45.

This is one of my films of the year so far. July is the month in the UK when there seems to be a new French film every week. The French films that get to the UK are often very rewarding and London River sets a very high standard for those to follow. Please go and see it.

Here’s the trailer:

The film was released in the UK by a small independent distributor. There is an excellent official website with a downloadable press pack:

http://www.tadrart.com/tessalit/londonriver/gb.html

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002)

Figures in a landscape – or how to represent the scale of the children's task in Rabbit-Proof Fence

These notes were produced for use with students aged 14-19 in 2004. This is a long entry (over 6,000 words) and offers ideas about the film covering Key Concepts in Film and Media Studies. All of the links have been checked to ensure that this is a useful resource for working on an important Australian film.

The notes assume that you have seen the film, so there are spoilers throughout. If you don’t know the film but are thinking about using it here is a brief outline:

In the 1930s in Western Australia the state government has a policy of removing mixed race girls from aboriginal communities and educating them separately, hoping to control the extent of racial mixing in future generations. Three young girls are taken from their mothers and placed in a camp a thousand miles away. They escape and attempt to make the journey home – on foot.

. . . and here is a trailer:

Introduction

Rabbit-Proof Fence is a useful film text to study for the following reasons.

  • As a narrative, the film appears to be very simple in terms of structure. Three girls are taken to a settlement over 1,000 miles away. They escape and attempt to walk home across very difficult terrain. There are relatively few of the dramatic incidents that might be expected in a mainstream narrative – how does the film retain audience attention?
  • In terms of representation as a key concept, the film details the attempts to eradicate a sense of cultural identity in Australian aboriginal communities – and offers a representation of Anglo-Australian identity in the 1930s.
  • A distinct aesthetic is used in terms of image and sound in order to convey the importance of environment in the narrative.
  • In industrial terms, the film represents the ‘return’ of an Australian ‘auteur’ filmmaker after several years away making mainstream Hollywood films.
  • In terms of audiences, the film has been particularly successful as a ‘specialised film’ or ‘art film’ with audiences in the UK.
  • The film is part of a wider cultural transformation in Australia in which ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ histories of the treatment of Aboriginals have recently emerged.

The screenplay was developed by a documentary filmmaker, Christine Olsen, who based the work on a book published in 1996 by Doris Pilkington, the daughter of the real Molly Craig. The process of casting the young actors and preparing them for the shoot is presented on the DVD copy of the film. Ironically, in working closely with young Aboriginal actors outside their home environment, director Philip Noyce was perhaps echoing some of the actions of the authorities in the film.

The narrative structure

The film has a clear structure with events organised in chronological order, but sometimes moving between locations. The DVD copy of the film is helpful in dividing the story into 16 ‘chapters’:

1. Prologue

2. The Chief Prosecutor – Neville’s office in Perth.

3. Stolen – the girls are captured in Jigalong.

4. Slide show – Neville gives a lecture in Perth.

5. Moore River – the girls’ reception and the meeting with Neville.

6. The Escape – Molly leads the other girls.

7. Tracker – Moodoo is sent after the girls.

8. River chase – Molly uses the river to ‘cover her tracks’.

9. Farmhouse – the girls get food.

10. Ambush – Neville plans to catch the girls by the fence.

11. Mavis – a maid in a farmhouse helps the girls.

12. Lost tracks – again the girls evade the tracker.

13. Gracie’s recapture – Gracie goes to the railway station.

14. Lost – the two girls go through the desert

15. Coming Home – Constable Riggs is frightened away by Mother and Grandmother and the girls rejoin their family.

16. Epilogue

Each of these chapters is about 5-6 minutes long – about the right length to study in detail. All the chapters give us information about the characters and the story, but some are important for specific reasons. The Prologue and the Epilogue are at either end of the story and they tell us what has happened before the main story begins and then what happens after the main story ends. The use of this literary or theatrical device perhaps indicates the historical importance of the story – it creates for the audience a sense that it is important to locate the story in Australian social history and to consider its implications in a contemporary Australian context.

But how do we judge when the story begins? Many film stories start with a dramatic event that causes an immediate conflict – a threat, a loss perhaps. Does our story really begin with the capture of the girls or does it start when Neville first hears about the girls? The beginning of a film helps to set up our expectations of what will happen later on. How a film starts is very important. Later on, there are moments in the story when a character might make a decision which will change the pattern of events – it will be a ‘turning point’ in the story. Some of these moments in Rabbit-Proof Fence are easy to spot:

  • when Molly decides to escape from Moore River;
  • when the farmer’s wife gives them food rather than reporting them;
  • when Gracie decides to go to the station and Molly decides to keep going.

Sometimes there are moments in the story when it is easy to miss the importance of a small action. For instance, the tracker Moodoo is very experienced and very skilled, but he seems to be fooled by a teenage girl. Is he really unable to track the girls or is he consciously trying to help them escape? We see him several times during the chase – what kinds of clues do we get about his behaviour? Remember, he has a daughter in Moore River and he is being employed against his will.

A narrative analysis of the film is likely to consider the beginning or the end of the story (when several questions from the beginning are usually answered) or any one of the turning points. Such an analysis will need to consider camerawork, mise en scène, music etc. as well as the sequence of events and the dialogue between characters.

An example of a close reading of a scene

Here is the beginnings of an analysis of the scene (Chapter 4 on the DVD) where Mr Neville explains his ideas to a group of women in Perth. This scene is important not because it ‘moves the story forward’, but because it gives the audience important information that will help us to understand Neville and his actions.

The sequence begins in Chapter 4, immediately after the children have been taken and we have the distressing shot of the Grandmother beating a rock against her head. By ‘cutting’ to Neville’s lecture at this point, the director is linking together the Grandmother’s despair and emotional behaviour with Neville’s seemingly ‘educated and rational’ explanation of his policy.

In much of the scene, the camera looks up at Neville giving him authority. He literally walks into the light and speaks very clearly in a measured tone. His ideas, which in 2004 we now find repellent, are ‘out in the open’ and official policy – they do not lurk behind closed doors. The impact of the speech is all the greater because the actor, Kenneth Branagh, is a famous Shakespearian actor of great reputation and status.

The lecture is presented as ‘scientific’, using technology and official photographs. The audience is a group of middle class women. They sit in their hats and best clothes, sipping tea. It is a decorous and respectful audience for Neville’s ideas. The setting also suggests the ‘normality’ of Neville’s approach.

Why is the audience all women? Two possible reasons are (i) the assumption that women will most clearly understand the issues related to children and family and the threat to society of a large mixed race community, and (ii) that middle-class women in the 1930s are most likely to be associated with the charities for education and welfare that Neville needs to support settlements like Moore River.

The language that Neville uses is important, with its discussion of ‘quadroons’ and ‘octoroons’ etc. During the lecture he puts himself ‘in the picture’ when he uses the pointer to trace the family development through the generations on screen. Neville is completely implicated in this venture of ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginal blood in the children, but he presents this as noble work which is designed to help the Aboriginal peoples.

With a scene like this, it is worth considering how else the filmmakers could have given us the same information – perhaps in a straight discussion between Neville and one other person, perhaps a series of short scenes in which we see the work of his department. The choice of the lecture format is important. Several commentators have pointed out that in 1931, similar ideas about ‘racial purity’ were being shouted out by the Nazi Party in Germany and across the world the idea of ‘breeding’ ‘better babies’ was being discussed. This was the now discredited science of eugenics – which some people fear is coming back with genetic engineering. The filmmakers in Rabbit-Proof Fence are careful not to make links with the Nazis and their actions towards Jewish people in Germany.

This short scene lasts only two minutes but it has an impact. Notice how when the scene ends with Neville saying “. . . in spite of himself, the native must be helped”, the next shot is a close-up of Molly in the train taking the girls to Moore River.

Representation

The arrival of the girls at Moore River starts a sequence in the film that helps to construct the conflict over cultural identity that gives the film its narrative drive. At this point, the filmmakers must show the ways in which Neville and his staff attempt to suppress the sense of Aboriginal identity and replace it with that of ‘white Australia’. What is most interesting here is the way in which ‘filmic codes’ (e.g. of camera, editing and music) are utilised.

The three girls are bewildered by the formality of the Moore River Settlement

The timing of the girls’ arrival means that it is night in Moore River. In a ‘functional’ or ‘realist’ sense this means that the children will feel more bewildered because they are sleepy and confused and also because the darkness means that they cannot see much detail of the place to which they have been brought. This narrative information helps us to understand how the children feel. But it is the ‘expressionism’ of the camerawork that gives us a sense of foreboding about what is to happen. The scene opens in very long shot but then cuts to a closer shot/reverse shot of the girls being studied by the matron/sister through the gaps in the sides of the truck. As the girls get off the truck we are offered various ‘subjective shots’ – i.e. shots in which the camera mimics the viewpoint of the children. The camera tracks with the children as they move towards the dormitory hut, following the matron shown in a low angle shot (i.e. as the small child looking up). When the door opens the camera ‘swings’/’pans’ as the children look round in the darkened room, lit only by the bobbing lamp carried by the matron. The rows of girls sleeping in cots must be highly disturbing for the three newcomers.

The style of this opening is reminiscent of horror films, especially those involving children, and also of expressionist dramas of the 1940s such as David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations, which begins with a small boy in a cemetery frightened by the looming figure of the convict. We might expect in a horror film to have unsettling music as an accompaniment to such camerawork. Such music is present in Rabbit-Proof Fence, but it is very carefully mixed and combined with other sounds so that although it does work to disturb, it is not as noticeable or ‘obvious’ as in a genre horror film (i.e. a film which is primarily concerned with shocks/frights). The music in this scene is mainly a sequence of synthesised sounds, stretched out chords, mostly ascending but not reaching a climax. There is no tune or melody but there is a resemblance to choral sounds – like a choir of ‘ancestral voices’. There are also some ‘thuds’ and electronic vibrations or ‘washes’ of sound – again possibly representative of Aboriginal instruments such as a didgeridoo.

These electronic sounds are mixed in such a way that they do not dominate the ‘realist’ sound effects of the truck, the children’s footsteps, the key in the lock etc. We also quite clearly hear the ‘comforting’ words of the matron. In the sequence, the matron is an ironic figure – dressed in white and with a lamp to light the way, she is in one sense a symbol of ‘purity’ and ‘goodness’. But the other signs point to her duplicity. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these scenes. The matron is just one of the characters who are ‘doing their jobs’, believing that what they are doing is ‘right and proper’.

It is worth considering just how shocking the dormitory must be to girls who have lived in small family groups in the bush. Everything about the settlement is alien and in the scenes that follow the girls will be systematically stripped of their sense of identity. In films that deal with a sense of identity, especially that fragile sense of identity that we all feel as teenagers, the focus is often on:

  • the way we speak;
  • the way we dress;
  • what we eat;
  • music, dance etc. – the way we express our emotions.

Notice how each of these is addressed in the other scenes that follow in this sequence. In the morning, the three girls are reluctant to leave the hut. The settlement is first shown in long shot, low angle with a slight distortion. We then cut sharply to the girls in bed together, clutching each other tightly. When they are finally cajoled into breakfast, everything is wrong. They don’t know the rules about standing for grace and the filmmakers exploit this visually. They are the only ones who sit when all the other girls are standing.

The food is unfamiliar and they don’t want to eat. They might take comfort in talking to each other, but are told to speak only English. The control over language is a classic strategy for ‘colonisers’ (i.e. white Australians) who seek to erase the identity of colonised peoples. Notice that the first person in authority to tell them to speak English is the Aboriginal overseer – by persuading this man to act in this way, the colonisers achieve a double success. He is humiliated by betraying his own people (although he may belong to a different Aboriginal cultural group) and the girls are cowed by someone they feel they should respect. This is followed up by the matron who tells them not to use ‘jabber’. This is another way to denigrate local culture – the word ‘jabber’ is an English word that means ‘garbled speech’. It comes from the sound of very fast speech. To say that someone who speaks another language is ‘jabbering’ is insulting because it doesn’t recognise the way in which the other language works and effectively sees the other language as meaningless and worthless.

Along with the new food and new speech comes washing and new clothes – symbolically ‘cleansing’ the girls of their outward display of ‘difference’. Now they will look like all the other girls – stripped of their original identity. It is worth noting at this point that by putting the girls into the settlement, the Western Australian authorities are acting like many similar colonising powers before them. In Hollywood films, audiences became used to both the treatment of Native Americans, ‘herded’ into reservations and African-Americans shown in slave quarters in historical narratives.

'Mr Neville' (Kenneth Branagh) inspects Molly (Everlyn Sampi) to see if she is 'fair' enough for adoption.

There are two further incidents in this sequence which refer to the process of ‘transforming identity’. The first is the ‘inspection’ by Mr Neville. His objective is to find the girls who are ‘fair’ enough to be assimilated into white society – who will marry whites and have children for white Australia. Nina, the dormitory ‘monitor’ tells Molly that the ‘fair ones’ are “cleverer than us”. She has already been brainwashed but Molly is still resistant. When her name is read out, she doesn’t move. In a very clever juxtaposition, this scene opens with the children singing ‘Swanee River’, which Nina says is “Mr Devil’s favourite song”. What is important here is that the song is a very well-known example of a ‘minstrel song’. ‘Minstrelsy’ developed in the American South in the early 19th century. White men dressed as African-Americans, ‘blacking up’ their faces and performing in caricature of slaves on a plantation – as if entertaining the slave owners. These performers created stereotypes such as the lazy, childlike slave of low intelligence but great comic potential and the large ‘Mammy’ character. Minstrel shows were immensely popular and after the Civil War, black Americans started to play the roles themselves. Eventually the minstrel stereotypes appeared in Hollywood films and on radio and later television. They were popular too in Britain and the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ (white singers ‘blacking up’) was the centre of BBC’s early evening Saturday ‘family schedule’ until the 1970s when the impact of the Civil Rights movement in the United States finally stopped these racist representations. (The issue of ‘minstrelsy’ is at the centre of African-American director Spike Lee’s biting satire Bamboozled (US 2000).) Again we should emphasise that Neville is represented as a man who believes he is ‘doing good’. In 1931, a song which happily celebrates a yearning to return to ‘the old plantation’ was accepted without a second thought, but watching these scenes in 2004, the inference is clear.

The final scenes in the Moore River sequence feature Olive, the girl who has run away to be with her boyfriend. She is found and returned by the tracker, Moodoo, who will later become crucial to the narrative. Her punishment is to be locked in the shed, beaten and then to have her long hair cut off. Again this is a cruel and degrading punishment for a young woman. ‘Solitary confinement’ in a small enclosed space is a classic method of punishing prisoners. We have seen it many times in crime films and it currently appears in a Stella Artois beer advert played for laughs in cinemas. The heat and the loneliness are designed to ‘break the will’ of the prisoner. It is combined with the hair cutting to produce further humiliation. The man in charge suggests that with short hair, Olive will be less attractive to boys. For a young woman with few possessions, her long hair is a valuable asset. In many societies, for a woman to lose her hair is to be shamed. For example, in France after the Second World War, women who had ‘collaborated’ or ‘fraternised’ with German soldiers had their heads shaved so that their shame would visible to everyone in their neighbourhood. In the settlement, Olive will suffer a similar kind of shame.

All of these events (and the experience of the ‘motherless babies’ in Moore River) together convince Molly that she must escape.

Narrative and mise en scène

The Moore River sequence is distinctive in the way in which camera, sound and editing combine to portray the bewilderment of the girls and the process of transforming their identity. Once they escape, the narrative moves forward to emphasise the long journey with the threat of discovery. Inevitably, we are now expecting shots of the desert and the big skies – especially as the escape is pre-figured by Molly’s memory of being with her mother when the bird of prey (a ‘wedge-tailed eagle’) is identified as a watching spirit which will take care of the girls.

The long shots of landscapes are well captured in the widescreen format. The film is shot in a ratio (width to height) of 2.35:1. This is known in the film industry as ‘Scope, a reference to CinemaScope, the first universally recognised widescreen format which appeared in 1953 as part of Hollywood’s response to television. Scope is very distinctive because it is so ‘long and thin’ – one film director in the 1950s thought it suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. If you watch films on television, they rarely show the correct format, instead ‘panning and scanning’ across the image or simply chopping off the sides to fit it into the television screen shape. If you are able to go to the cinema or watch the DVD you can see the full frame.

Because they know most people will watch a film on television, many directors don’t choose ‘Scope. But those who do try to make use of the width. A good example is the composition in which we see Molly signalling to two Aboriginal men who are carrying a carcass. The framing allows us to see both Molly and the men and also to register how much distance there is between them. (Molly is wary of any contact.) You might argue that the landscape on either side of the frame could be lost (i.e. the image fitted in to a narrower conventionally shaped screen format) without losing any of this meaning. This is certainly the case with this example and yet the landscape is important. At this point we are less than half way through the narrative. Much of what follows will be the girls against the natural environment. Apart from moments of potential crisis when they come across settlements or their pursuers, the girls are shown against the landscape. The filmmakers must find ways to keep us interested. The use of ‘Scope is in itself a sign that this is a film about an ‘epic’ struggle against the environment and therefore we should see the landscape in all its vastness, and in particular the rabbit-proof fence ‘snaking’ through it. (But we should also note that many directors of quite ‘intimate stories’ about people in rooms have also chosen ‘Scope because it enables them to emphasise relationships between people and objects in confined spaces.)

The other factors in these landscape shots are colour, camera movement, ‘effects’ and music. The cinematographer Chris Doyle is particularly well-known for his use of colour and visual effects, but mostly for his presentation of urban environments. Here he is quite restrained until the final part of the journey, including the sequence in which the girls collapse in the desert (Chapter 14 on the DVD). Doyle uses effects to ‘bleach out’ parts of the background to represent the blinding glare of the sun. Low and high angles and the superimposition of different shots of the two girls creates a sense of confusion.

The music during these scenes is just as important in creating an atmosphere as it is in the Moore River scenes. Again, Peter Gabriel uses ‘samples’ of natural sounds and Aboriginal musical instruments to create a synthesised score. Gabriel’s reputation as a promoter of ‘World Music’ has meant that the score has been both widely praised and also condemned as ‘inauthentic’. What do you think?

Contextual Background

Australia and its indigenous peoples

Just as in the Americas, European explorers who ‘discovered’ Australia and the other islands of the South Pacific in the 17th Century encountered people who had already lived there for thousands of years. In Australia, the British were the first to build significant settlements in Eastern Australia following the voyage of James Cook in 1770. British settlement drew upon the earlier experiences of the Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America and the Spanish, British and French in North America.

These experiences were different, especially in the degree of ‘interaction’ and conflict between the invading Europeans and what were then called the ‘native peoples’ (these peoples were also given more emotionally charged names such as ‘savages’ etc.). In every case, the native populations were reduced by slaughter at the hands of settlers with better weaponry, diseases brought from Europe and malnutrition as Europeans destroyed the local food culture, often based on hunting.

In North America, the British and French tended to keep a distance from native peoples, but in ‘Latin America’, the Spanish did mix more freely and intermarried more frequently. The result in many countries is a much more ‘mixed’ population today. Compare Canada and Mexico. In Canada, a country of 31 million people, nearly 1 million are classed as ‘Aboriginal’ and of these, 290,000 are classed as métis or of mixed race. In Mexico, a country of 100 million, the largest group of people (60%) are mestizos or mixed race. A further 30% are ‘Amerindian’ or ‘indigenous peoples’. Only 9% are ‘European’ or ‘White’.

Australia is much more like Canada in terms of population. In 2001 Australia had 410,000 people who were classified as ‘indigenous peoples’, out of a total population of 19 million. As in Canada, Aboriginal peoples make up a much bigger proportion of the (sparse) populations of the more remote ‘outback’ areas. These are in Northern and Western Australia. Most of the Australian population that developed from immigration lives on the coasts of Southern and Eastern Australia. The Australian government department dealing with indigenous peoples was the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission’ (ATSIC) up to 2005. It was replaced by The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/repbody/index.html) in May 2010. The Torres Strait is the area between Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

What does ‘Aboriginal’ mean?

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines ‘aboriginal’ as:

The original or native inhabitants of a country.

(From the Latin abo – from and origo – beginning)

The term itself is thus strictly descriptive. It has, however, been shortened to make a term of abuse, as in ‘abo’ and it is misleading in suggesting that there is a single group of Aboriginals. In Australia (as in Canada and the United States) there are many different aboriginal groups with different languages and cultures, each of which might describe itself as a ‘nation’. This is why these notes have referred to aboriginal peoples in the plural.

Q. What difference do you think it would make if Australians adopted the American way of referring to indigenous peoples and called them ‘Native Australians’?

Miscegenation – racial mixing

Sexual relationships between European explorers/settlers and indigenous peoples were an inevitable part of contact between the two groups from the first landings of the Europeans. It was especially likely in Australia, where many European men in the outback were unlikely to be able to find a European woman as a partner.

European settlement forced indigenous peoples into a colonial relationship. This meant that they were treated not as citizens, but more as the property or responsibility of the colonial government (i.e. in Britain or its representatives in Australia). Throughout the ‘British Empire’ which developed from the 17th century onwards, the colonial governments treated indigenous peoples as if they were ‘inferior’ to Europeans. They were referred to as ‘heathens’ or ‘savages’ and were treated as if they were children. Their education was often left to Christian missionaries. The colonialists were terrified that ‘interbreeding’ with indigenous peoples would lead to a ‘degeneration’ of white society. A whole literature and language relating to racial mixing developed which has had consequences for the status of mixed race people ever since. Mr Neville’s lecture to the women in Rabbit-Proof Fence is typical of the widespread beliefs in Britain and Australia in the 1930s.

Britain and Australian government

Australia became an independent country – the Commonwealth of Australia – in 1901. (See the timeline on http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/timeline.asp) Up until then, the country was a collection of separate colonies, such as New South Wales or Western Australia. Modern Australia is a federal state in which the individual states have control over many aspects of their affairs. Although ATSIC was a federal body, the treatment of aboriginal peoples has historically been different in each state. Rabbit-Proof Fence takes place in the state of Western Australia. You can find out about WA policy towards indigenous peoples on http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/federation/sec/117_race.htm

The rabbit-proof fence – history and metaphor

The rabbit-proof fence was a historical fact – extraordinary as it may seem. A British settler, Thomas Austin, brought 24 wild rabbits over from the UK in 1859, hoping to develop a breeding stock for food (the domestic UK rabbit was not hardy enough to survive). Some of them escaped and with few natural predators, a rabbit population explosion started. By the end of the century their numbers were in the hundreds of millions. The mad idea of fencing off part of a continent to protect the grazing land was suggested in a Royal Commission of 1901 and by 1907 the fence was in place. Whether it had any effect in keeping out the rabbits from Western Australia is debatable.

The fence itself is an interesting metaphor for events in Australian history. A concrete reminder of how the British invaded Australia, bringing with them an alien culture, the fence also ironically acts as a means of keeping the girls connected to their family home in Jigalong. What was created by the white settlers becomes an integral part of the Aboriginal culture. (What isn’t so clear is what the Aboriginal peoples thought about the influx of rabbits – were they a useful food source or did they drive out native species?)

Rabbit-Proof Fence and the Australian media

Given the context outlined above, it isn’t surprising perhaps that Rabbit-Proof Fence proved a controversial film release in Australia. The film presents itself as a true story, based on the book by Dorothy Pilkington, which in turn is based upon detailed research and interviews with two of the girls who are seen as they are today in the Epilogue section. The history of what happened to mixed race Aboriginal children was finally ‘brought out into the open’ in 1997 with the publication of an Australian Government report entitled ‘Bringing Them Home’ (detailed education materials on the report and the Rabbit-Proof Fence book are available from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission – see Refs).

The report introduced the concept of the ‘Stolen Generations’ and uncovered the maltreatment of thousands of mixed race children. It wasn’t accepted by everyone, however and some academics and journalists argued that the historical evidence was flawed and that the claims were exaggerated. These same columnists attacked the Rabbit-Proof Fence film when it was released. (See Windschuttle, 2003 and Howson and Moore, 2002 in Refs.)

One of the problems for any filmmaker approaching a subject like that of the historical journey made by the three girls in 1931 is that the screen representation can never be an exact reconstruction of the event. Film and media studies have developed precisely to allow us to develop the critical skills with which to ‘deconstruct’ any text and expose the ways in which it has been constructed. However, this is just the first problem. When the filmmaker has decided on an appropriate means of constructing representations of the girls in the environment of Jigalong and Moore River, the next stage is to consider the shaping of the story. In order to create an entertaining feature film, some events will be left out and others perhaps manipulated to make a more dramatic story. Most audiences are aware of the need to do this, but they will trust a filmmaker that the ‘based on a true story’ tag will mean that the basis for the story and the main themes and ideas are represented as faithfully as possible.

History, especially when it has been recently ‘uncovered’ or ‘re-written’ will always be controversial. Opponents of the new history (and therefore defenders of the old history) will seize upon on any minor changes to the facts of the story and turn this into a refutation of the whole set of events. Tony Hughes-Daeth (2002) in a detailed discussion of the various elements of the Rabbit-Proof Fence story, suggests that what Australia has been experiencing is something similar to the debate about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and to the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa – Australia has been debating how to create a formal process which will allow the history of the ‘Stolen Generations’ to be recorded. Hughes-Daeth argues that the film of Rabbit-Proof Fence attempts to ‘universalise’ the story, to make it available to an international audience. This he argues is achieved by concentrating on just the story of the three girls (i.e. little is said about what happens to the other inmates of Moore River) and presenting their story less through dialogue and more through the strong visuals and music. In this respect, he argues that the film ‘model’ for the approach in Rabbit-Proof Fence is Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (US 1993), another ‘based on real events’ story. The novel Schindler’s Ark was written by another Australian, Thomas Keneally and told the story of the businessman who saved Jews from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Rabbit-Proof Fence was successful outside Australia, suggesting that the ‘universalising’ of the story worked. It is interesting to note that the controversy within Australia also emerged internationally. Soon after the film’s release bulletin boards around the world carried comments on the film from doubters and from Australians (including Aboriginal Australians) defending its arguments. The nature of internet postings means that many of these have since been deleted, but the flavour of some of the posts can be seen in these ‘User Comments’ from the Internet Movie Database (uk.imdb.com):

‘Bernie-56’, Melbourne

Date: 5 July 2003

Summary: A work of fiction – nothing more

Enjoy the film for its cinematic qualities, but always remember that this is pure fiction. The events depicted never happened. The clever little historical note at the end is nice touch to make audiences think the events depicted actually happened. The heroine of the film was *not* stolen, but – as official files reveal – removed only after fears were raised for her safety and after a nod of approval from her stepfather. The so-called ‘Stolen Generations’ is an enduring myth of the Australian scene. The facts are that despite enormous efforts not one single stolen Aborigine has been found, let alone a dozen – or generations. However, it’s a heart-rending tale that makes for good press and a good screenplay.

CalebCT, Canada

Date: 25 May 2003

Summary: 8/10

Good film about governmental “adopting” of half-caste children in the hopes of civilizing them is worth checking out to remind oneself that you don’t have to look far to see painful truths about any country, even one as seemingly sublime as Australia.

Box Office

IMDB lists Rabbit-Proof Fence as having a production budget of US$6 million. Produced wholly in Australia with a significant investment of public funds, the box office gross in Australia was over US$3.75 million after a long run of some 18 weeks. This compares favourably with grosses for Hollywood films in Australia and it was the second best performance by an Australian film in its domestic market in 2002.

Abroad, the film was treated much more like an art film, but in some of the largest markets the film did well; US$6.1 million in North America, £1.4 million in the UK and Euro1.3 million in Germany. www.boxofficemojo.com suggests a total worldwide box office of US$16 million.

Filmmakers

Although Rabbit-Proof Fence is ‘wholly Australian’ in terms of production finance, the creative input into the film reveals the extent to which Australian talent is an integral part of the international film industry.

The producer-director of the film has an interesting background, especially in terms of the ‘political commitment’ which several commentators have detected in his approach to the events of 1931. Philip Noyce (born 1950) began as a documentary filmmaker, producing his first feature Backroads in 1977 – an ‘existential road movie’ with references to racism in the Australian outback. (It was this film that alerted writer Christine Olsen to the possibility that Noyce might be the director to approach with the Rabbit-Proof Fence script.) In 1978 he made one of the most celebrated films of the ‘Australian New Wave’ of the 1970s. Newsfront told the story of two newsreel photographers in the Australia of the 1950s, a crucial period in the postwar development of the ‘young country’, experiencing immigration and welcoming the world to the Melbourne Olympics of 1956.

After two less well-received features in the 1980s, Noyce moved to Hollywood by means of an Australian/US co-production, directing another Australian emigrée, Nicole Kidman, in the thriller Dead Calm (1989). This was followed by a series of big budget thrillers, including the Tom Clancy films with Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), which seemed to imply that Noyce had lost any political/social edge in favour of Hollywood technical proficiency.

But in 2002 Noyce re-emerged with two controversial films, Rabbit-Proof Fence and an adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American with Michael Caine. This latter film was very critical of American ‘interference’ in South East Asia and Miramax found it difficult to release in the ‘post 9/11’ climate.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (born 1952) has a very interesting background. Although Australian by birth, he went to university in the United States and travelled extensively in Asia. His film career began in Hong Kong and Taiwan and he is probably best known for his work with the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, for whom he produced very striking images of urban locations. He has also worked with the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, someone else with an international reputation for strong visual styles and on productions and with Hollywood ‘independent’, Gus Van Sant on his (visually unusual) remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The music for the film was composed by Peter Gabriel, the British rock musician who over the last twenty years has been associated with showcasing ‘world music’ on the international stage, through both recording artists on his own label and organising tours and festivals featuring musicians and performers from Africa and Asia in particular.

The actors in the film are mostly unknown outside Australia and much focus has been on Noyce’s work with the girls selected to play the central characters. (The UK DVD release includes a documentary showing how the girls were selected through auditions across Australia.) The exceptions in the cast are Kenneth Branagh, the British ‘actor-manager/director’ who has recently turned to smaller, ‘character’, roles after a period in the early 1990s of high profile actor-director roles and David Gulpilil, who in the 1970s and 1980s played aboriginal characters in several important films, including Walkabout (UK 1971) and The Last Wave (Australia 1977), as well as the international comedy hit Crocodile Dundee (Australia 1986).

These details about the creative input into the film are useful in demonstrating that although Rabbit-Proof Fence is essentially a ‘small, Australian film’, it is also the product of experienced filmmakers, well aware of how to interest international audiences.

References and web resources

Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara) (2002) Rabbit-Proof Fence, New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books

Study Guides:

http://www.theeducationshop.com.au/shop/product.asp?pID=838 (electronic download costs Aus$4.95)

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/education/bringing_them_home/index.html

http://www.eniar.org/rabbit.html – fascinating European site studying ‘Indigenous Australians’

Articles

Peter Howson and Des Moore (2002) ‘A rabbit-proof fence full of holes? at http://www.ipe.net.au/RPFence.html

Tony Hughes Daeth (2002) ‘Which Rabbit-Proof Fence? Empathy, Assimilation, Hollywood’ at http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-September-2002/hughesdaeth.html

Keith Windschuttle (2003) Rabbit-proof fence: “a true story”? at http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/21/mar03/keithw.htm

http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/11

http://www.thingsmagazine.net/text/t14/rabbits.htm

http://www.iofilm.co.uk/feats/interviews/r/rabbit_proof_fence_2002.shtml

Reviews

http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19/rabbit.html – (this site is being re-constructed, so this may move)