Festival serves up engaging, political films

July 19, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2008

June 4-22


I was able to see a number of film's at the annual Sydney film festival held in June.

A highlight was Salute, which is a tribute to Peter Norman — the Australian athelete and 200 metre silver medalist from the 1968 Mexico City olympics — by his nephew Matt Norman. Matt wrote, directed and produced the film.

The Mexico City games were framed by global and local protest movements. Globally, the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements were in full swing. In Mexico City, 10 days before the Olympics, police and military gunned down up to 1000 student protesters, which became known as the Tlateloco massacre.

Some Black athletes in the US olympic team had urged a boycott to draw attention to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans, while Australia — as the film notes — was known internationally for its racist "White Australia" policy. These events are introduced via news film from the time.

African American athletes decided to participate in the games, but use it as a platform for protest. African Americans Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze in the 200 metre event respectively, raised their black-gloved fists while sharing the podium with Norman in a "black power" salute to show their support for the civil rights struggle. Norman, who actively collaborated with the other two, wore a human rights badge in solidarity.

For this powerfully symbolic act, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US team and expelled from the olympic village. Norman was ostracised by the Australian media and sporting establishment.

However, the image became an icon. It is even a wall mural visable from Macdonaldtown Station in Sydney. When noise barriers were put up recently, there were protests about it being hidden from public view.

The documentary revolves around the lifelong friendship of the three athletes (Smith and Carlos carried Norman's coffin when the latter passed away in 2006), who have always remained proud of their collective action. It captures the historical context through numerous interviews with participants. At the end of the screening I attended, the full house at the State Theatre gave the film a standing ovation.

The film is soon to be shown at the Dendy.

I also saw The Visitor, which examines the plight of refugees in the US post the 9/11 terror attacks. A US academic discovers a couple, a Senegalese woman and a Palestinian man, using his New York apartment. They become firm friends and help each other out with their problems.

The plot is handled so deftly that you immediately become absorbed in the characters and their plight. You are seduced into their sense of life through their love of music, played around New York streets. This is used by director Thomas McCarthy in the film as a form of communication.

It is perfectly contrasted with the bleak architecture of the refugee detention centre and its captives' despair.

Another film was Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, about the US folk music legend, directed by Jim Brown. A collaborator and contemporary of Woody Guthrie, Seeger has managed to not only become a national treasure in the US, but as former US president Bill Clinton says in this film, "Some artists made musical history, Pete Seeger made history with his music".

In the 1950s, Seeger's band The Weavers earned the distinction of being the only musical group blacklisted by Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. For 17 years he was banned from US television, but ironically was considered suitable to teach generations of US children about music.

At the height of McCarthyist hysteria, an outdoor concert that featured Seeger as support act for left-wing African American singer Paul Robeson was attacked by a rioting mob whipped into anti-communist hysteria. A second concert attracted thousands of people in solidarity.

An environmentalist, Seeger helped build a sloop in the '60s and sailed it up and down New York's Hudson River, playing floating concerts that helped prompt the clean-up of the river so that, as he had promised his young daughter, she could swim in it.

Another documentary was Playing in the Shadows, directed by Marco Ianniello and Sascha Ettinger Epstein, which presents the lives of the kids growing up in the housing estate in Sydney's Woolloomooloo. Inspired by a community basketball team project, it takes you into the lives of genuine "battlers".

Extensive interviews with these kids and their parents shows how support from even simple community based projects such as this can be unifying factors in a sense of community despite years of funding neglect by successive governments.

Written and directed by Pene Patrick, Australian film Playing for Charlie examines the question of neglected talent because of poverty. Tony, the main character, looks after his infant Charlie while his recently widowed mother battles a disability and work commitments to support the family. Vibrant Cinematography makes its setting in an industrial suburb of Melbourne look good. Almost as paradoxical is that it is about rugby union, despite being set in the capital of aussie rules.

The 2008 Academy Award winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, meanwhile, examines the torture practices that have occurred in US-run prisons in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. It deals with Afghan citizens riding in a taxi who were stopped at a checkpoint by US-backed tribal militias and sold to US forces for a bounty of a few hundred US dollars. US Vice-President Dick Cheney stated in an interview that US policy had to go towards "the dark side" to deal with the threat of terrorism.

The taxi driver, Dilawar, was tortured to death in a US military prison in Afghanistan, while his passengers were all sent to the concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay.

A New York Times reporter investigating this case uncovered an English-language death certificate signed by a military coroner sent with Dilawar's body to his bewildered family — who were unable to read it. It confirmed that his death was caused by homicide. Findings included that his legs had been pulped, causing the blood clots that killed him. It was also revealed he was not part of the insurgency against the US occupation of his country.

The filmmakers also examine the use of sensory deprivation as a psychological torture technique. The professor who originally studied the technique points out this was not meant to be used as a form of torture until it was picked up by the US military. He points out that using it for more than 24 hours will drive a victim insane.

CSNY: Deja vu deals with rock super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — which features David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young.

Directed by Young, it is about the 2006 "Freedom of Speech" US tour by CSNY. The music is the usual fine standard of the group and the message is against the Iraq war. "I hate this stinkin' war", as Young says.

One of the highlights of the film is Young's visceral anti-Bush song, "Let's Impeach the President". Interviews with fans range from the extreme — one threatening to punch Young — to a sympathetic mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who is shown tearfully listening to the concert.

Derek, directed by Isaac Julien, focuses on British filmmaker, artist and gay rights activist Derek Jarman's life and work. It features excerpts from Jarman's films, as well as music videos — an art form he helped pioneer — by bands like the Pet Shop Boys and The Smiths (among others, he directed the renowned clip for The Smiths' song, "The Queen is Dead").

A leading campaigner for gay rights and against the stigmatisation of HIV sufferers, the film is a comprehensive portrait of the artist as activist.

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