Samson & Delilah (Australia 2009)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

I’m not sure how I missed this film but I clearly made a big mistake. This is one of the most important Australian films of recent years and the section in The Global Film Book on Ten Canoes suffers because it doesn’t include discussion of this film. I hope I can now put this right.

Samson & Delilah is an Indigenous Australian film, written, directed and photographed by Warwick Thornton (DoP on The Sapphires, Australia 2012). Thornton wrote a script with very little dialogue and cast two 14 year-olds without any experience of filmmaking to play the young couple in a small isolated community in Central Australia. As might be expected, a cinematographer’s film features some beautiful compositions, a genuine feel for landscape and some excellent nighttime footage. But more importantly, Warwick Thornton was aware that working on 35mm with only a small crew and living with the community, he could complete the shoot quickly and get the best performances from his non-professional actors. The interviews with Thornton and his producer Kath Shelper on the DVD reveal just how much of a bonus a very low budget can be – especially when the decision is made to put the bulk of the money onto the screen using the the best quality format.

Samson & Delilah is a romance and a drama, but it’s also a film about a ‘social issue’ and a metaphorical statement about aspects of Indigenous culture and its place in Australian society. Samson is a young man with little going for him. He lives in a small settlement with his older brother who spends most of his time playing in a small music group. Samson spends his time generally mooching about and trying to woo Delilah, whose main task appears to be look after her elderly grandmother who she she helps with the production of craft objects featuring traditional designs. There isn’t much in the way of story but in a formal sense it is the death of the old woman which ‘disrupts the equilibrium’ and brings Samson and Delilah closer together (although in an antagonistic relationship). The story will take them away from the community and place them in the nearest ‘big town’ where they face a generally hostile reception. This in turn will raise the profile of Samson’s addiction to petrol fumes which he inhales regularly and to the point of oblivion. I confess that I didn’t know anything about this form of drug dependency before I saw this film and at first I couldn’t work out what was happening. I understand now that it is a real and dangerous social issue for Indigenous communities in Australia alongside alcohol and other harder drugs.

The presentation of the story of these two young people is interesting in several ways. It isn’t a ‘social problem melodrama’ and nobody comes to ‘save’ Samson and Delilah. It’s a humanist film and in no way sentimental. In fact it’s a tough film and difficult to watch at times – but also compelling so you don’t want to turn away. There are moments of humour and it definitely is a love story. This of course makes it even more devastating as an artistic statement about Indigenous culture in contemporary Australia. At times the narrative development is so slow that the viewer is forced into contemplation and reflection on what is being shown and how it is being shown. The Global Film Book uses Indigenous Australian cinema as a case study to raise questions about how audiences can learn to ‘read’ films from different cultures. In the book the main case study film is Ten Canoes plus a brief analysis of Toomelah (Australia 2011). On this site we have also discussed Mystery Road (Australia 2013). Samson and Delilah is different from these other three films because it doesn’t have the same sense of ‘narrative drive’ and engagement with ideas about genre that can be found in Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Mystery Road – even though it shares a similar sense of the low budget approach of Toomelah (but an almost opposite approach to the quality of the image). Compared to the historical and sociological dimensions of Ten Canoes, Samson & Delilah offers no ‘explanations’ of the actions of characters on-screen in terms of Indigenous culture. The DVD and the film’s website do offer background information and a ‘FAQ’ section to cover traditions but in the film itself such actions are simply observed. For instance, after her grandmother’s death, Delilah cuts her hair and she is badly beaten by the other women of the community. Samson cuts his hair too and then rescues Delilah (taking the community’s collectively-owned vehicle). Warwick Thornton says everything in the film comes from his own knowledge and experience – he stresses that he doesn’t agree with every aspect of tradition. He also points out that Indigenous communities vary greatly in size and display distinct local cultural differences. As he says, some of them are well organised and successful, others aren’t. The film was shot mainly around Alice Springs in Central Australia.

From the perspective of the ‘specialised film’ audience in the UK, Samson & Delilah comes across partly as a kind of art film in which, though little ‘happens’ for quite long periods, the image (and the soundtrack which has some excellent music tracks) is always interesting. The action that does occur in the context of the love story and the struggles of youth is engaging and accessible because of the performances and the direct approach taken by Thornton and his crew. I was told by a colleague that this was the film I needed to see and I fully concur. The film won prizes around the world including the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The DVD has several worthwhile extras including an earlier ‘long short film’ that Warwick Thornton made based on his experiences as a radio DJ in Alice Springs – this too has interesting comments to make.

Trinity (UK distributor) website for DVD.

Official (Australian) website here.

Download the films Press Book here.

UK trailer:

The Tree (L’arbre, Australia-France 2010)

The two youngest children, Charlie and Simone (Morgana Davies)

The two youngest children, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and Simone (Morgana Davies)

I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.

The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.

Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.

The tree stands in its 'magical reality'

The tree stands in its ‘magical reality’

But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.

My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.

The Code (Australia 2014)

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

The Code is an Australian serial narrative in 6 x 60 mins episodes. It combines a mystery with a conspiracy/political thriller/investigative journalism story. The setting is in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) of Canberra and a small town in the bush where a young Aboriginal couple are involved in a car crash. Who caused the crash and how did the couple’s car end up dumped in a quarry with the girl dead and the boy subsequently hospitalised?

The different aspects of what is a familiar genre narrative involve a pair of computer hackers, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum and the other who is the daughter of Iranian refugees. Hacking and decrypting are central to the narrative and several of the data exchanges are represented on screen as text and numerical data ‘floating’ over the image. Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) and Hani (Adele Perovic) have both been previously warned about their activities  by government agencies and Jesse struggles to keep a job and keep away from hacking. He is effectively ‘looked after’ by his elder brother Ned (Dan Spielman), a journalist now working for an internet news site. The main interest for me was the interrelationships between Jesse, Ned and Hani when Ned stumbles across a connection between the car crash in the bush and various machinations in the Australian Prime Minister’s Office – focused on the Deputy Prime Minister who is also Foreign Affairs Minister (and played by David Wenham, the major Hollywood actor in the cast). Ned’s ‘inside source’ is his ex, Sophie, the Head of Communications in the PM’s office.

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Out in the bush the crash attracts the attention of the local schoolteacher Alex (Lucy Lawless aka Xena: Warrior Princess) and her ex, Tim the local police sergeant (Aaron Pedersen – see Mystery Road). This narrative strand proved a disappointment for me since I thought it wasn’t properly exploited by the writer, the experienced Shelley Birse. Two of the best-known actors in the production were under-used, as was the location.

Overall, however, I thought the serial was well-directed and nicely shot. The Australian Parliament building in ACT was used imaginatively and its design was worked into the credit sequence which also drew on the idea of data exchanges which are being monitored and intercepted. There have been plenty of Australian TV shows on UK TV in the past, but this one made by Playmaker and first shown on the Australian public service channel ABC1 in September seems to mark a change. Playmaker is run by former executives from Fox Australia and my reading of some of the coverage of The Code is that whereas previously Australian productions have been pale imitations of Hollywood imports, this one appears to draw directly on the recent surge of Nordic Noir productions that have had such a major impact in global television trading. As well as the UK, the serial has been sold to the US and to DR in Denmark. The Killing is certainly one of the touchstones for The Code and House of Cards might be another one.

Like many other viewers I was confused by the closing scenes of The Code. If I read the final scene correctly, there was an open ending and something very worrying might be about to happen. Probably I misunderstood, but I’d certainly watch a follow-up. The relationship between Jesse and Ned and then between Jesse and Hani worked very well for me. Putting aside the fantastical conventions of the genre (MacBooks that operate three or four times faster than mine!) I thought the portrayal of Jesse and his struggles with conforming to ‘ordinary’ social interactions was believable and moving rather than just another plot point.

This is the ABC Trailer:

In the UK, the serial should still be on iPlayer and a DVD is out soon from Arrow. The show’s Wikipedia page has details of distribution in other territories.

Mystery Road (Australia 2013)

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father's Winchester rifle

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father’s Winchester rifle

This is one of the most interesting films released so far in the UK this year. Writer/director/cinematographer Ivan Sen sets out his intentions like this:

From the writing stage, I wanted Mystery Road to have a timeless, classical feel. A feel that was reminiscent of Hollywood films of the 60s and 70s which were more dialogue based and relied little on music and trickery. I wanted this film to have a quiet, almost trance like atmosphere, where the music became the words spoken from the characters. (Press Pack)

Sen refers to his film as a ‘murder mystery’ but I’m not sure that is the most useful descriptor of its possible categories/genres. It’s certainly ‘crime fiction’ and a ‘police procedural’ which explores the classic trope of the loner police officer seemingly up against not just the bad guys, but also the local community and his own police colleagues. The setting is an outback town in Western Queensland, a town with a significant indigenous Australian community. Jay Swan is himself an indigenous Australian (I’ll use ‘Aboriginal’ from here in since that’s the term Sen himself uses in the Press Pack) who has gone to the city to become a detective. He has returned to his home town and a spacious house on the ‘right’ side of town. His ex-wife and teenage daughter are still living on the ‘estate’ on the ‘wrong’ side. The crime fiction is flavoured like the recent Nordic variety with an exploration of the social issues of the outback communities.

Jay’s first big case is the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl (and a friend of his daughter). He soon becomes aware of the lack of co-operation he can expect from everyone. In many ways he’s like the new sheriff in the classic Western. According to the producer David Jowsey:

Mystery Road is a Cowboy Western film, and that evolved through determining the look and the attitude of the lead character. Aaron [Pedersen] was always going to be the lead in the film . . .  and Ivan wanted Aaron looking like a cowboy. He wears a cowboy hat, he slings a pistol and he’s wearing cowboy boots. Once that was established the film itself became a Western.

Having these clear signals means that there is none of the confusion (for me at least) found in Ivan Sen’s previous film Toomelah (2011). On that film, Sen worked with non-professionals and because he didn’t want a full crew to intimidate them he performed all the production roles himself. By necessity, this gave the film with its hand-held camerawork a rough look. Mystery Road by contrast gives Sen the cinematographer a full supporting crew (and the budget to include several aerial sequences) as well as a cast stuffed with Australian stars of film and television – including a cameo appearance by the veteran star of 1970s Australian cinema, Jack Thompson. They all do an excellent job.

The Western and procedural tropes are well-used. Jay’s role as the detective refers to the figure of the Aboriginal ‘tracker’ in earlier Australian generic narratives – often used ‘against’ his own people. This kind of ‘turncoat’ character also turns up in American Westerns with the Native American tracker or, more recently, the Native American detective (e.g. in Thunderheart (1992)). Further parallels can be found in African-American police procedurals such as Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994). The clearest Western references are in the iconography of hat and boots, the glorious landscape shots and in the almost intimate scenes between characters, shot in close-up, in bars, interrogation rooms and over fences. True to his intentions, Sen allows dialogue and camerawork to make the narrative ‘sing’ – though there are also sound effects like the howling of the wild dogs (real or imagined).

I’ve looked around for writing on the film and I came across this piece on ‘Ferdy on Film’ an American blog (but I think that the writer might be Australian). Roderick Heath offers a very detailed review of the film (perhaps too much detail if you want to avoid narrative spoilers) in the context of genre filmmaking in Australia. While praising many aspects of the film he finds the dialogue weak and argues that Sen can’t effectively marry a genre piece with something ‘artier’ – citing the obvious naming of locations amongst other flaws. (The body is found near ‘Massacre Creek’ off ‘Mystery Road’ and the film ends on ‘Slaughter Hill’.) I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s probably something to do with film reviews. I just accept the dialogue for what it is and similarly the use of names, visual clues etc. Heath gives an example of of weak dialogue:

Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when a rancher comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh.

The narrative point here is that we need to know various things about Jay’s background. Some of them we can pick up easily from what we see – Jay doesn’t drink alcohol for instance. This is re-inforced by a comment his ex-wife makes suggesting he used to drink heavily. The knowledge about Jay’s father could have been given via a photograph perhaps, but the dialogue exchange is quite subtle I think. The rancher is a racist who is quietly goading Jay, here pointing out that he knows exactly who Jay is – and implicitly pointing to a local hierarchy. Later in the exchange Jay will ask the rancher how much land he has – in order to point out that he has much to leave to his children whereas the locals like Jay’s father have little to leave to their children (except the Winchester rifle, a heavily significant bequest by Jay’s father to his son). I loved these quiet but menacing exchanges, but perhaps that’s just a personal taste.

Audiences across the world have learned how to read Westerns and American film noirs but these Australian outback narratives require cultural knowledge that is difficult to pick up except from similar films. Sometimes it’s the white Australians who seem the most mysterious. There is a sequence in Mystery Road in which Jay goes out to meet an old man who had filed a report about wild dogs near Mystery Road. These eight minutes with Jack Thompson don’t seem to have any direct bearing on the crime narrative (and the wild dogs are similarly not fully ‘explained’). Perhaps the Thompson cameo is just a character study that fills in the background? I was reminded of the eccentric figures who inhabit the wonderful Wake in Fright (Australia 1971) re-released in the UK in the last year. There is a tendency amongst critics to want to separate genre from ‘arthouse’ so that the lacunae of the latter should not ‘spoil’ the purity of the former. Personally, I like my genre films to have layers and to present puzzles that can’t be resolved in just a single viewing. Mystery Road is going to be worth seeing a second time and possibly a third. Thoroughly recommended, the film (from the small distributor Axiom) is only likely to stay briefly in cinemas where the big screen brings out the best from the cinematography – so see it now if you can.

Here’s a trailer but note that the music isn’t there in the film itself and the trailer over-emphasises the action. But it does give a good idea of the landscape!

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.

Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012)

Lore

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her siblings with Thomas (Kai Molina) in the background. (Image courtesy Artificial Eye)

It’s only March but here is one of the films of the year in the UK. Lore is a profoundly German story based on a British novel and brought to the screen by Australian director Cate Shortland with a German cast and a mixed Australian/German crew. The film was shot across various locations in Germany by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw using Super 16mm. Dialogue is in German with English subtitles.

Rachel Seifert’s novel The Dark Room (2001) comprises three separate stories each of which refers to the impact of the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany on the personal lives of young characters. ‘Lore’ (short for Hannelore) is one of the three stories/characters. Ms Seifert wrote the stories when she was still relatively young, attracting immediate attention and a Booker nomination. Her parents are German and Australian and this resonated with Cate Shortland who is married to a German. Shortland wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, a film and TV writer with experience of stories about children.

Lore is older in the film than in the book as far as I can see. I think she is 16 in the film, though she appears both older and younger in this powerful story. It begins in May 1945 at the end of the war in Germany. Lore is the eldest of five children and her father, a German officer, has returned from the East. The family must flee as the Russians are coming from the East and the Americans from the West. The family reach a country house in Southern Germany, but first the father and then the mother effectively disappear, taken by, or surrendering to, American forces. Lore is left with the responsibility of taking her siblings, including a baby, across defeated Germany, through difficult terrain and across the zones controlled by American, Russian and British troops to her grandmother’s house on an isolated part of the North Sea coast. I’m not sure that geographical accuracy is a crucial element of the journey, but we know that it is a long way and that it is a difficult journey. Not surprisingly Lore learns a lot about herself on the journey. Her younger sister and the twin 8 year-old boys are not really able to help her much.

Lore begins her journey as the daughter of a leading Nazi soldier and the one ‘friend’ she makes on the journey is ‘Thomas’, a young man who might be Jewish. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t refer to specific events, but Lore is forced to confront many difficult questions and she is a changed young woman who arrives at grandmother Omi’s house. Powerful filmmaking like this depends on both great direction and performances. Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Molina are excellent, the casting throughout works very well and especially for the group of children who are the main focus for much of the film. The Press Book (available from the Artificial Eye website) gives some useful background on how the film was made. Much of it was shot in Eastern Germany with ruined houses and landscapes of forests and meadows beautifully presented. The cinematography adds to this with its soft textures in Super 16 and the light and mists of morning and the gloom of forests. The press images don’t really do justice to the landscape and mise en scène of the interiors but the official trailer gives glimpses.

I found this imagery and also elements of the story made me think of other films, for example Katalin Varga  another film in which a mother and son take a journey across the landscapes of Transylvania. After the screening, discussing the film with a friend, we both thought of the German concept of ‘Heimat’ that almost indefinable sense of a German attachment to ‘home’/’homeland’. Edgar Reitz made a famous series of films under the title of Heimat from 1984 onwards and indeed there is a genre of German cinema called Heimatfilm which was important in the early 1950s in particular – often set around rural communities with a focus on landscape and folkloric traditions. Heimat was a concept that encapsulated ideas about identity that were corrupted by Nazi ideology in relation to ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Aryan purity’. In that sense, Lore is an anti-Heimatfilm that explores the breakdown of such links and the experiences of young characters brought up within a Nazi family and now facing postwar reality. There is also a German film genre known as Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, a kind of German film noir focusing on the dramas of lives in the rubble of German cities in the immediate post-war years. Most of them were made between 1946 and 1949. The most famous of these in international cinema is ironically a film made by Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero (Italy 1948). As the entry in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema (ed. Ginette Vincendeau, 1995) points out, these films often featured narratives in which the legacy of Nazi ideology played a significant role. Those made in the DDR (East Germany) had specific anti-fascist messages, e.g.  The Murderers Are Amongst Us (DDR, 1946). In this context, Lore is a kind of modern version of a rural Trümmerfilme. The film narrative is not ‘resolved’ as such but we are clear that there must have been many teenagers like Lore who grew up in a domestic sphere, confident about their own future only to find themselves confronted with a very different world.

Lore‘s success in only limited distribution has prompted the British Film Institute to award the first funding offer under the new ‘Sleeper’ strand of its Distribution funding screen. £40,000 is available to help Artificial Eye to release the film in ten further cinemas. This funding is only available to distributors who are ‘invited’ to receive it because the film has had good reviews and good box office response on opening. This ‘responsive funding’ is now easier to make work with digital distribution since copies of new ‘prints’ are much easier and cheaper to get to cinemas. However, it is still the case that there aren’t enough screens on which to show films like this. So, please watch out for Lore coming your way – it’s a film not be missed!

The Sapphires (Australia 2012)

(from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)

I thought I would enjoy this movie and I did. What I hadn’t expected was just how emotional it would be and how rooted in the experience of the filmmakers. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year. This makes it even more distressing to see some of the inane comments on IMDB and some of the bland (even if generally favourable) reviews in the UK. So let’s be clear, this is an Australian movie from Goalpost Pictures, adapted from a stage play based on a real story about an Aboriginal girl group from the 1960s which toured Vietnam entertaining American soldiers – in itself interesting since Australian forces also fought in Vietnam. The attraction was that the women were playing to African-American troops and this is a film as much about racism in Australia as it is about ‘sweet soul music’. The Weinstein Brothers got their hands on the film after its Cannes screening earlier this year and they have been promoting it in such a way that most reviewers can’t get beyond comparing it to Dreamgirls, The Commitments or even Good Morning Vietnam. There are some elements in common with each of those films and the writers cite The Commitments as an influence on their approach, but for me The Sapphires is much more interesting.

It’s written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt were in the original group, directed by Wayne Blair who himself starred in the original play and photographed by Warwick Thornton who directed Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009). This trio of Aboriginal filmmakers, with co-writer Keith Thompson, were at the centre of what the producers have described as the strongest creative team on a recent Australian production. The press kit gives a great deal of background on the film and is recommended reading.

The premise of the film is simple. It’s 1968. Three young women are still living with their extended family in an Aboriginal community of Yorta Yorta people in the Murray river area which forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One day they are spotted by a down-at-heel Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who is working as an MC for a local pub’s talent contest. This leads in turn to a decision to audition for the US Army which is recruiting entertainers for its troops in Vietnam. So far, so conventional, but the trip to Melbourne also involves finding ‘cousin Kay’ who they haven’t seen for several years and who makes up the fourth member of the group. Kay is ‘passing for white’ in Melbourne having been ‘stolen’ by the authorities ten years earlier. This reference to the trauma of the stolen generation, both for the light-skinned children and their families, will drive several strands of the narrative during the film and provide some of the most powerful emotional sequences. The history of Australian policies towards indigenous Australians is brilliantly presented in Rabbit-Proof Fence – in which Deborah Mailman (Gail in The Sapphires) also appears. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in Vietnam with mainly predictable developments involving the girls with GIs and Chris O’Dowd as a loveable but rather hopeless manager. The war scenes were mainly reconstructed around Sydney – but some material was also shot in Vietnam.

The film isn’t perfect by any means – two of the girls have stories that don’t seem to move forward very much. But this isn’t a film about narrative complexity. To work, it needs to do two things well. The first is to give us a real insight into the relationship between the Aboriginal communities in Australia and the Civil Rights movement in America as experienced by the families – and to do this with a sense of authenticity. The second is to present great-sounding music. These two aims are linked since it was Memphis soul (alongside James Brown and Curtis Mayfield) from the late 1960s which provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. (See our posting on Talk to Me.) I can’t be a distanced observer here since I grew up with this music, but I thought the singing (and the US backing band) were excellent. The lead voice comes from Jessica Mauboy, runner-up on one of the Australian Idol shows and, I think, now a major pop music star. Perhaps more surprisingly, as a relatively unknown performer, Shari Stebbins as Kay also sings very well. These two, along with Miranda Tapsell, come from the Darwin area on the Northern tip of Australia. The producers tell us in the Press Kit of the difficulties of finding four Aboriginal women, at least one of whom had a strong lead voice and the other three having voices that produced the right harmonies. At the end of the film, we get to see the original group and the women who went to Vietnam. It’s clear that the production team chose the performers well. I should also add that Chris O’Dowd does very well to hold his own against the four women. My only regret about the film was that I’d have liked more of the group singing Merle Haggard – but perhaps I’m the only one.

The film has done well in Australia taking over $14 million. In the UK it is distributed by eONE Entertainment, the newly expanded Canadian major. According to Screendaily the film was released on 233 screens for No. 7 in the UK chart and a weekend total of just over $500,000. Strangely, in West Yorkshire it was on only one screen at the Showcase in Birstall. Where are all the other screens?

If you like soul music, you’ll like this – but do read the Press Kit afterwards. This is what works as a Friday night feelgood movie for me.

Interesting report on the film from The Australian.

Here’s the Australian trailer: