Stranded in Bunker Hill: The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)

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“Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there’s a God in heaven.” ― John Fante, Ask the Dust

Arturo Bandini’s words about the city of angels kept echoing in my head while watching Kent Mackenzie eerie yet beautiful portrait of Los Angeles in The Exiles. While I never set foot there, there is something that keeps drawing me to that city. It’s a passion that started with the books of Fante and Bukoskwi and developed over the years with films such as Chinatown, Jackie Brown, Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski and more recently Nightcrawler.

Mackenzie’s hidden gem caught me off guard, bringing me back to the streets of Bunker Hill that I first discovered in Ask the Dust and forcing me to ask myself how much I really knew about Los Angeles, its people and its history. Shot over the course of three years in the late 1950s, The Exiles was screened in a few film festivals in 1961, but was never distributed and quickly disappeared for more than fifty years. The enthralling story of a group of young Native American’s night out in downtown L.A. eventually resurfaced in 2003, when Thom Andersen included excerpts from the surviving 16mm copy in his compilation film Los Angeles Plays Itself. The film was then restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and released on DVD by Milestone.

Mackenzie first established his long lasting connection with Bunker Hill and its residents in 1956, when he directed a short film on the neighbourhood as part of his studies at the University of Southern California. At the time many young Native Americans and entire families had moved to Los Angeles from the reservations following the 1952 government sponsored Urban Indian Relocation Program. The government’s promises of housing and jobs were in many cases not maintained and the new Bunker Hill residents soon found themselves without jobs and forced to share run-down apartments.

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The restoration of the film from obscurity to its original 35mm speaks to a film that manages to combine narrative documentary and neorealist approach with Hollywood noir aesthetics in a unique way. The actors of The Exiles are all non-professionals, acquaintances or friends of the director, who accepted to re-enact their own life-stories in front of the camera and over the course of a night (that in reality lasted over three years of shooting). As we watch the characters hop from one bar to another, gamble, dance, fight and get wasted their recorded voiceovers tell stories of loss, disenfranchisement and love. By choosing to focus on a small group of characters and to structure the film around a series of short events rather than an overaching narrative, Mackenzie gives us an enthralling portrait of the lives and experiences of Yvonne, Homer and Tommy and of their relations with Los Angeles.

Where the film perhaps fails is in accounting for the experience of all Native Americans that relocated to the city in those years, but I don’t think that this was ever Mackenzie’s intention in shooting the film. The Exiles is a personal and realistic portrait of the hopes and downfalls of three young exiles stranded in Los Angeles. Is a film that encapsulates the time in which it was shot and provides us with a glimpse into a city that is no more and into the lives of the people that lived in the city that Fante called a “sad flower in the sand”.

Nothing Left to Do But Cry

Nothing Left to Do But Cry (Non ci resta che piangere) is a film that has written the history of comedy. Some of its dialogues will be with us forever and will always make us laugh.

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Starring Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi, who are also directors and writers of the movie, this 1984 Italian comedy film, has been restored and after 30 years will be screened in cinemas on March. I decided to write about this film because someone asked me “What is you favorite film?”. Impossible to answer, but I had to take a decision and I chose my favorite comedy: Nothing Left to Do But Cry. The fact that it has now been restored and will soon be screening in cinemas again (only in Italy, unfortunately) was another reason for me to share my thoughts about this film.

The film is shaped around the lives of school janitor Mario (Massimo Troisi) and teacher Saverio (Roberto Benigni). Travelling in a car across the Tuscan countryside, they get lost and despite their attempts to change route they suddenly find themselves in 1492. At the beginning they are disbelieving and frightened but they quickly end up adapting to the times. They will live this “time travel” as a way to change the future of humanity, anticipating science discoveries with Leonardo Da Vinci, dissuading the radical catholic bishop Girolamo Savonarola, trying to stop the departure of Cristoforo Colombo from Spain, avoiding the discovery of America and the turmoil of human’s history.
Obviously they won’t be able to realise their plans but their attempts will have a sort of consequence in our contemporary world: the creation of a locomotive by Leonardo Da Vinci.

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The spectator will be taken on this incredible trip where every single scene, metaphor, mention is able to make you laugh thanks to the spontaneity and talent of two actors, who are able to create a comedy veiled of melancholy.

Both eclectics and brilliant, Troisi and Benigni are the ideal couple, a perfect fusion of spirits and sublime minds, able to be great individually and outstanding together.

Nothing Left to Do But Cry is certainly not the first movie where a couple of comedians become, for the collective imaginary, the “immortal comedy”, but contrary to other films it has a unique style where the laugh is mixed up with blues and this is, in my opinion, the key that make this film superb. If you are in Italy don’t miss it on the big screen. If you are anywhere else try to find it. Here’s one of my favorite scenes:

Portrait of the artist as a political dissident – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

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Ai Weiwei is perhaps China most famous contemporary artist. His works have been exhibited in galleries across the world and he has quickly garnered a huge following that elevated him to what could be described almost as a rock-star status in the West. His outspoken views on Chinese politics are embodied in all of his works and in the public “persona” that he has carefully constructed through a strategic use of social media. But while we might be acquainted with him as an artist and public figure, what do we really know about the man who in 2011 paid for his dissent with the demolition of his studio by the Chinese government and three months of detention?

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Charlie’s Country (2014)

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The camera lingers overs the Liquor Control Act sign at the entrance of the Ramangining Aboriginal Community in Australia’s Northern Territory. The worn out reminder of the Intervention policies that still rule over the lives of many Indigenous Australians is almost covered by the lush vegetation of Yolngu Country that continues to grow around it, foreshadowing the events that are about to unfold in Charlie’s Country (2014).

The third collaboration between Indigenous actor David Gulpilil and director Rolf de Heer, takes us back to the land that shaped his previous award winning film Ten Canoes (2011). But while in that case Yolngu country served as one of the central characters for a story set in the days before colonization, Charlie’s Country is grounded instead in the present and tells a tale of belonging and identity that draws on the life experience of Gulpilil to make a personal and powerful statement about the experience of Indigenous Australians in contemporary Australia.

We first meet old man Charlie (Gulpilil) as he sits in his small shelter looking at a faded picture of (as we’ll learn later in the film) himself dancing with his fellow countryman for the inauguration of Sydney Opera House. As we soon learn, his life in the remote community is dominated by his constant struggles with the white law that dominates it and constantly thwarts his efforts to lead his own life.

Charlie works as a “tracker” for the local police force, but receives no pay for it. The doctor orders him to eat healthily, but when he goes hunting for tucker the police confiscates his gun and he is forced to eat junk food at the only government run supermarket. While Charlie use cultural misunderstandings and humour to react to these situations, he eventually reaches a breaking point when the police confiscates the hunting spear he has lovingly crafted for being a weapon of offense. Charlies-Country-2

Disillusioned with life in the community, Charlie decides to “go bush” and live in the way his ancestors lived, but his deteriorating health soon forces him to be hospitalised in Darwin. After discharching himself from the hospital Charlie starts drifting with a group of local Indigenous men and women. A visit and a reprimand from his fellow Yolngu elders does nothing to change his mind and to convince him to go back to Ramangining and Charlie is eventually trialled and imprisoned for illegaly buying alcohol and assaulting a police car with a spade.

Charlie’s Country is easily Gulpilil’s best performance as an actor and it deservedly won him the award for best actor at last year’s Cannes festival. The film he co-wrote with de Heer doesn’t so much screen the inner conflict at the heart of the character, but rather lets it seep through Gulpilil performance. The stage presence and contagious laughter of the actor fill the beautiful wide shots of Yolngu country when Charlie leaves his community to live in the land of his ancestors. The anger and pain he feels as the story gradually takes its toll on him permeate his eyes and wrinkles in prolonged close shots which we establish an almost intimate experience with the man.

Charlie is a character that defies the role of the “exotic aborigine” to which Gulpilil was for many years confined (I’m looking at you Australia…) and allows him to portray instead a relatable individual that doesn’t escape his responsibilities and mistakes even while having to constantly live under the pressure of an authority that he doesn’t recognise. It’s a performance filled both with humourous references to his previous films, including a spoof on his “tracker” character in Rolf de Heer The Tracker (2002), and with painful references to the actor personal life.

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De Heer’s direction doesn’t get in the way of the story and lets it unfold slowly through Charlie’s voice and body to allow the audience to generate an emotional connection with the titular character. Perhaps the only element that feels a bit out of place is the beautiful yet detrimental piano track that underscores some of the film’s most emotional moments and feels at time too patronizing and out of place in a film that is  otherwise built around the richness of Yolngu language and of the immersive soundscape of Arnhem Land.

Charlie’s Country doesn’t end with the imprisonment of Charlie and after one of the film most striking scenes, where his months in prison are represented by De Heer through a beautifully structured repetition of the same actions, we see him returning to Ramangining. Nothing has changed in the small community, but Charlie accepts to do what he had previously refused to do and abandons his “casual job” as a tracker to starts teaching traditional dances and songs to the local kids. White law still governs every aspect of his life, but he finds strength and a renewed sense of identity in keeping his own culture and traditions alive for the next generations as his own elders had done before him.

De Heer’s film is an intimate statement about the colonialist relationship between white law and Indigenous people in contemporary Australia. It’s a slow burner that asks the audience to sit along Charlie/Gulpilil and listen patiently as he tells his delicate and powerful story in his own language.  And it’s a story that everyone should listen.