Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

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It’s 1970 and in Los Angeles the hippie dream is slowly collapsing under the weight of the Manson murders and of government fuelled social paranoia. In the fictional town of Gordita Beach, stoner private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is hired by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a case that will force him to face the ‘inherent vice’ that taints L.A. souls during the last days of a fading dream. What starts as an ordinary investigation on Shasta’s new lover and real estate magnate Micky Wolfman quickly spirals out of control as Arian Brotherhood bikers, Black Panther militants, a mysterious crime/dentist syndicate known only as the Golden Fang, FBI agents, an infamous LAPD detective and an undercover saxophonist working for the US government enter the picture, thickening the fog of pot and paranoia in which the case was drenched in from the very beginning.

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Lose Control: “Relatos Salvajes” (Wild Tales), 2014

“Filmáme esto Néstor”

What happens when you are pushed to the limit of an emotional breakdown and decide to hit the gas instead of pulling the hand-brake? Relatos Salvajes (2014) tells six stories of ordinary people who got pushed to the limit of their patience and took that leap instead of backing down. Writer/director Damián Szifrón structures his brilliant black comedy around the common theme of payback to expose everything that’s wrong in 21st century Argentine society: corruption; mindless bureaucracy and gender and class inequalities.

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These “tales of ordinary madness” are all pushed to their apocalyptical consequences in a “Pythonesque” fashion and with a taste for the grotesque that is reminiscent of the early Almodóvar’s films (not surprisingly Almodóvar actually produced the film). But while Relatos Salvajes is certainly indebted to these giants of dark comedy, it’s also infused with a unique love for its characters and for their humanity that elevates the film at their same level and make it the best comedy that I have seen in recent years.

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The Human Face of Big Data

vidPosterOver the last few months I came across the term “Big Data” very often. It’s certainly a new technology trend, now becoming more and more popular. Big Data is defined as the real time collection, analyses, and visualization of vast amounts of information.

It seems that we are facing a revolution bigger than the Internet, that will have an incredible impact on humanity as it will measure and understand aspects of our existence in ways never before possible.

Last night I saw The Human Face of Big Data at Transition Film Festival in Melbourne, a documentary that explores the potential of “Big Data”. Every day we generate an enourmous quantity of electronic information and in the near future every object will be generating data, including our homes, cars, bodies. In this ocean of data there’s a picture of us: what we buy, what we say, where we live, where we go. Our lives today are being recorded and stored forever.

According to Big Data proponents we’re part of a big revolution where we’re acting to change the world we live. Data scientists actually believe the information we generate contain keys to solving our big and small problems such as health disease, social injustice, saving the planet.

The way Big Data will change the world seems to represent a new era, but will our lives also be manipulated by this further exposure to technological devices ?

Sandy Smolan, film writer and director, actually gives us not just one point of view: “what can be used for good can also be used for evil,” and the documentary explores how Big Data can also invade individual privacy, control people, and attack freedom.

We could now get lost in philosophical discussions on the way we live today and the way we are controlled by technology, but the biggest challenges with Big Data are not technological but human.

If we are conscious of what we are and what we want, Big Data can help us to make it a reality. We can actually control technology to improve our life and not just be controlled by it.

What is not clear in my opinion is how exactly those data are analysed. Maybe a documentary can not give these answers but The Human Face of Big data certainly captures the potential and dangers of this revolution.

The Human Face of Big Data documentary won the best cinematography award for a documentary at the Boston International Film Festival.

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”.

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.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

It’s possibile to destroy a country but it’s impossible to destroy its soul.
Music can tell about the soul of a country and this is what happens in Don’t think I’ve forgotten.

rock500I discovered amazing Cambodian’s rock and roll thanks to The Cambodian Space Project, a remarkable music band which “covers and preserves songs from the ‘golden age’ of 60s Cambodian pop but also write their own dazzlingly original Khmer psychedelic rock”. I’ve seen them in Melbourne several times. They are fantastic on stage, able to give the public all the energy Cambodia’s rock and roll has. “They’ve now toured all over the world, from Texas to the End of the Road, but the shows they talk of with most pride are the ones they play in remote villages across Cambodia”.

My new passion for this group brought me to see Don’t think I’ve forgotten at MIFF last year. It has been a touching, remarkable and sad discovery.

Directed by John Pirozzi, the documentary unearths the history of the Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll scene born during the 60s and 70s, a unique genre of music brutally destroyed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime.

“What was happening here was totally unique,” Mr. Pirozzi said. “They figured out a way of bringing in the modern world without losing traditional elements…to create something so unique.” (cambodiadaily).

Cambodian musicians took rock influences from America, England and France and added the unique melodies and hypnotic rhythms of their traditional music. The result was incredible and an entire country was captured by the music. Great musicians apparead and a sense of innovation came over Cambodia… until the country was moving to war.

Suddenly Prince Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge and rallied the rural population to take up arms against the government that deposed him. The Cambodian military, with American military support, waged a war that involved a massive aerial bombing campaign on the countryside. In the end, after winning the civil war, the Khmer Rouge turned their deadly focus to the culture of Cambodia.

Under the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, musicians were subjected to the most extreme form of censorship—death. Records were gathered up and destroyed, and the musicians that produced them killed.

“All traces of modernity and Western influence were attacked and wiped out. Intellectuals, artists and musicians were specifically and systematically targeted and eliminated”. (dtifcambodia)

It’s incredible how art and music can frigthen the most brutal tyrants. A country that was swarming about music, intellectual fervour, incredible female vocalists, crawling enthusiasm was victim of one of the most brutal genocides in history, killing an estimated two million people, a quarter of the Cambodian population.

Don’t think I’ve forgotten brings us back to the ’60s and ’70s, when music really reflected the times and Cambodians. Those times are indelible and always will be part of Cambodia’s soul.

Here’s a list of the upcoming screenings around the world.

Of puppets and bulldozers: Tomorrow We Disappear (2014)

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Today I would like to talk about one of the documentaries that immediately captured me when I first saw it at MIFF 2014: Tomorrow we disappear.

I have to thank the directors Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber for this incredible and valuable documentary that brings us in a culture otherwise unknown to many people. The importance of this story is written on years of traditions, families and street artists that today risk to be razed.

The documentary follows a colony of artists in New Delhi called the Kathputil, where the tradition of street art is taught to children and passed down from generation to generation. The social context of the Kathputil is marked by poverty but watching their eyes what makes sense to their life is their art… their memories living in their houses, the colours of their objects, the streets walked by their ancestors, the puppets created by their parents and grandfathers. Every single details is full of importance.

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20,000 Days on Earth: a portrait of fiction and intimacy

nick caveReality and fiction come together in 20,000 Days on Earth to create a fascinating hybrid film documentary.

Shaped around a day in the life of the 56-year-old Australian rock poet Nick Cave, this film it’s not just a screen biography but it’s a reflection on an artist’s creative spirit, examining “what makes us who we are”.

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Life at the Berrimah Hilton: Prison Songs (Kelrick Martin, 2015)

A ground-breaking and uncompromising documentary that sings into life the stories of a group of Indigenous Australians inmates and shatters preconceptions with grace, empathy and humour.

“Is this your first time at the Berrimah Hilton? Prepare to be amazed. Checking in is all too easy.” – Phil

The “Berrimah Hilton” was Northern Territory largest correctional facility. Built in 1979, the prison was supposed to house up to 110 inmates, but before being decommissioned at the end of 2014 that number had risen to about 800. Of those, 80% were Indigenous people.

The incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians is a tough and confronting topic and one that the general public often shies away from. But what we forget whenever we avoid confrontation with such overwhelming evidence are the stories and the lives behind the data. Kelrick Martin’s new TV documentary Prison Songs shows the faces behind the statistics, giving them centre stage and letting nine inmates sing their story in their own voice.

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