A long way from Brideshead

Issue 

London Calling
Three short films
Released in Australia by Ronin Films
At the Valhalla, Sydney, from July 3
Watch for showings in other cities
Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

The Body Beautiful, one of three short films on offer in the London Calling program, is difficult and shocking, lingering long on flesh we are trained to find abhorrent. Like the Canadian film The Famine Within, Ngozi Onwurah's piece is a cathartic feminist challenge to what Naomi Wolfe calls our "beauty porn" culture.

Its subject is two utterly different women's bodies: one light brown, the other white. One is young, lithe and fashion-plate perfect. The other is old, flabby and arthritic, with an ugly scar where there used to be a breast. One is the other's daughter.

When the two naked bodies fill the screen, we have to think about why our eyes remain glued, as though addicted, to the familiar "perfection" of the statistically unusual body, only to take furtive, fascinated glances at an unwrapped version of the ones we actually live in and with.

Relentlessly, Onwurah ups the stakes. We hear a voice-over from the older woman, saying she wants to relive the experience of being desired because of her body rather than in spite of it.

Then the fantasy is acted out: the old white woman is ravished by a beautiful young black man. This is powerful, almost unbearable stuff, underlining the point that in our inhumane popular culture, sex is an exclusive club for the young and beautiful. The entry of other players (particularly the old and ill) is shameful, ridiculous, wrong. Certainly not fun.

The Body Beautiful is based on Ngozi Onwurah's relationship with her own mother, Madge, a white woman who married a Nigerian. Madge plays herself in the film.

"When my mother was pregnant with her third child she discovered a lump in her breast", says Onwurah. "Almost immediately after the birth she underwent a radical mastectomy which left her unable to breast feed her son. Twelve years later, I, her eldest daughter, embarked on a career in modelling."

The Body Beautiful won best film at the 1991 Montreal Film Festival, and was co-winner at the 1991 Melbourne Film Festival. Onwurah's other films include Coffee Coloured Children (1988), an exploration of racial identity confusion.

Chris Newby's film Relax is about fear: pure, simple, heart-stopping, hair-raising fear. The hero of this arty black and white piece has just had an AIDS test, and has to wait 10 days for the result. Everyone tells him to relax, but that's easier said than done. Sensuous, and technically brilliant, Relax won Best Experimental Film at the 1991 Melbourne Film Festival, and Best Gay Short at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival.

I didn't see the preview of the third film in the London Calling set, Gurinder Chadha's I'm British But ... It comes from the same source (the British Film Institute's New Directors program) so it's probably as good. It's an exploration of the lives of second-generation British Asians, filmed in Belfast, Glasgow, south Wales and London.

All of which is a long way from the Britain of The Avengers or Brideshead Revisited. If you want a portrait of the "other side" of that country, as it is experienced by millions, then these outstanding radical films are definitely worth a look.