Kontroll

June 30–July 10, 2005

“Exhibition in Crisis: Who’s Stolen the Crown Jewels”, was one of the conference sessions at the Revelation Screen Festival. Joel Bachar from Microcinema (1) made the call that to survive, smaller Australian exhibitors need to provide a niche. He revealed that Microcinema’s formula for success is a venue and atmosphere that provokes discussion of the movies screened. If these are the clues of a triumphant festival, then it’s Revelation 8 that stole the crown jewels.

The Fiction

The first shot in the opening night film, Kontroll (Control) (Nimrod Antal, 2004), (2) carried the audience to the hidden treasure. We descend the escalator into the Hungarian underground rail system. It’s late, and at first it seems that we could be alone, but we’re not. A prostitute also makes her descent. She’s drunk and we watch as her ankles twist in her awkward heels. On the platform we wait with her. The agony of the late night silence breaks against the rail tracks by the oncoming train – this is her last ride. A hooded shadow screams out from behind her and – push! He snuffs her out.

Big brown bear-eyed Bulcso (Sandor Csanyi) wakes from another night of sleep on the platform. He is the team leader for one of the ticket patrols. It is their job to keep the rail system in Kontroll. Bulcso’s gang constantly gets hammered from unpaying passengers, rival ticket patrol teams, their boss, and now they have the mysterious pusher who is plunging unsuspecting passengers to their death. Mysteriously, Bulcso has not been above ground for some time. At night he nestles himself to sleep in this netherworld, the underground has become his coffin of life. It is love that in the end removes him from this hell, and takes him to the heavens. He finally ascends above ground with the help of the angel-dressed Sophie (Eszter Balla), the daughter of Bella (Lajos Kovacs), a train driver whose carriage is a Catholic shrine that smells of onions.

Two festival days later, while waiting to see the Hank Williams documentary, sitting in between Shannon Belle, Professor for Political Science at York University in Toronto, and Guy Ben-Ary, Bio-Artist at Symbiotica, we discussed who the pusher was. “It was the big bad boss”, says Shannon. “It was Bulcso”, says Guy. I think it was Bulcso, but I want it to be the big bad boss – as I’d fallen for Bulcso. After watching Kontroll you get a psychic bruise. I pressed my finger deep into my cinematic injury, allowing me to descend back onto the platform of the Hungarian Underground. The pusher commits suicide, I realise. A woman I had never seen before leans over to me and says, “so I’ve got to know, who was it.” “Bulcso” I reply – “I thought it was the cripple”, she says. This is why I love Revelation Film Festival.

Assisted Living

Not far from death is Assisted Living (Elliot Greenebaum, 2003). (3) Todd (Michael Bonsignore) works at an old age home, which he is constantly turning up late to and getting stoned at. He calls residents on the phone and pretends to be God, easing any unsettling thoughts with them of moving to the next world. The film shifts in and out of documentary and fiction, using the real life in-patients of the nursing home as the mise en scène. Tender cinematography of old people’s soft shoes, blank gazes and pasteurised hands give a delicate and affectionate portrait of aging.

Todd develops a relationship with a particular elderly patient, Mrs Pearlman (Maggie Riley). She speaks often of waiting to hear from her son in Australia. He has moved there for a job, and will be back soon to visit her. Australia is represented as the Other, where people get cancer from the sun. The documentary about Australia that Mrs Pearlman views on cable television frames Oz as a type of Bermuda Triangle. Even if her son really is in Australia, you get the feeling that he could possibly never return. He might get washed away by “the last wave”, disappear at “Hanging Rock” or even get eaten by the “cars of Paris”.

Todd takes her on an alarmingly dull and purely innocent outing. By treating Mrs Pearlman as an individual, Todd has not carried his duties out in accordance to the procedure put in place. This is the kind of subversion that Bulcso and the rest of his crew are employed to rub out in the system that they operate within. By going against the grain, Todd loses his job. I was rather tender by the end of this movie, for even without his job, Todd still comes to visit Mrs Pearlman at the nursing home.

Violent Days (Lucile Chaufour, 2004) (4) is another fiction film that feeds a documentary style structure throughout its narrative line. Two accounts of this film exist, a longer version with more documentary footage and a the tighter version which was programmed as part of the Revelation festival.

In Violent Days four French “rockers” work ordinary and repetitive jobs so they can get away for the weekend. It is a languid cinematic tour that touches on the end of Marxism and the enchantment of ’50s nostalgia. A bully of boys plan their getaway to catch a rockabilly band in Le Havre, yet the presence of one of their girlfriends creates a thorn. This road trip is a symbolic realisation of their slow death. They labour during the week to fulfil their life on the weekend. They just want to get there, the gorgeous girlfriend (Seren Lunn) just wants to stop off at the seaside. They never go to the seaside. Tension builds as they reach their destination.

At the concert you can map a passage from production to reproduction to simulation as the rockers sculpt their hair and fashion their collars. Violence mounts as other racial quarters intersect at the venue. The beautiful bleached-blonde girlfriend is tossed aside in the macho chaos. It was she that gave me my most memorable ending from the festival. Tragically, she returns to the ocean and gives herself up to the water, floating in a sea of symbolic exchange.

Mars

From Russia, Mars (Anna Melikian, 2004) (5) on the other hand is less wistful, and far more surreal. Boris (Gosha Kutsenko) wakes in the morning on the train to find himself in Mars. Marks is the real name of the town (named after Karl Marx), however the “K” has fallen off the train station sign, hence the town now being known as Mars. And the place is just as strange as the real Mars might be. The town is inhabited by large stuffed animals that the locals receive as currency from their job at the soft toy factory. It isn’t long before a precocious young girl sells Boris an elephant backpack. Its eyes and trunk peer over his shoulder, reminding us of his dislocation.

Much like the characters of Violent Days, everyone in Mars is trying escape. Boris is a boxer who has run away from Moscow to escape the mob, while everyone else is looking for a way out of Mars. Miss Russian Plait (Iana Esipovich) hangs floating on a painted backdrop of a sky. Dressed in traditional folklore attire (except for her converse sneakers), her giant plait hovers as she dreams of escaping the labours of her father and being the only tourist attraction in town.

While Violent Days‘ black and white cinematography paints a romantic yet painful realism, Mars employs an aesthetic that is embedded in its narrative. Two of the main characters are colour blind. Boris sees in blue, and Grigorii (Artur Smolianinov), who is in love with Greta (Nana Kiknadze) the local librarian, sees in pink. Greta finds her daily escape by attending the local cinema to watch Casablanca. It is Greta who commits suicide when Boris returns to Moscow. Unlike Bogart’s character, she cannot bare to be left behind. Like our rockabilly angel, another woman falls tragic. From Russia, With Love.

The Facts

Revelation Festival Director Sir Richard Sowada is a Prince of Screen Culture. He curates a program that holds purpose and honesty. All the four films that I’ve tangled with so far ring of politics, social or otherwise. Social systems are questioned, whether through the Hungarian Underground, the age care system in the USA, French rockabillies or a town called Mars. The fact is, Richard Sowada wants politics, and if you want it up front, then turn to the documentaries.

Negroes With Guns (Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, 2004) tells, in rather conventional documentary fashion, the story of civil rights leader Rob Williams. Willams came to the attention of the public when he worked effortlessly to campaign for the freedom of two young African American boys. One of the boys was caught kissing a young white girl, and although she had been a willing participant, both of the boys were sentenced and jailed. It was liberating to learn of this true story. It was liberating because it both inspired me and lessened my ignorance of this marginalised history. A real film festival should throw you into consciousness.

At the conference session “Subversive Cinema 101” Lech Kowalski, director of D.O.A. and Hitler’s Highway, stated that the public was not conscious of a lot of things, that there is not a true source of information out there. “TV is a babysitter” and “TV is a lie”, he stated. He went on to explain that to be truly subversive in documentary, the film must be firstly independent of studio financing and secondly must not rely on information, but rather aesthetic to achieve its rebellious aims.

Punainen raketti

Punainen raketti (The Red Rocket) (Marja Pensala, 2004) delivered just this kind of subversive documentary form. It overturns traditional documentary techniques by juxtaposing found footage from the Communist era with observational sequences from the present day. Traditional documentary techniques advocate a structure of authority. The style of post-structuralist documentaries, such as The Red Rocket, erodes forms of cultural hegemony, such as patriarchy and scientific rationalism, to reveal a far more complex reality. Through such a technique The Red Rocket attempts to occupy the shifting and changing territory of Russia’s identity. Where Mars does this through surrealism, The Red Rocket launches its attack with the spirit of documentary Dadaism.

If Sowada packs his documentaries with politics, then he packs them even further with music. From 1961 to 1965 Rob Williams took exile in Cuba. During this time he produced a radio program called “Radio Free Dixie” where he pushed his rhetoric and played freedom songs by Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. The filmmakers of Negroes With Guns accessed broadcast tapes of the program and employed the historical archive as a musical storytelling device.

In the same vein, Lech Kowalski’s D.O.A. (1980) utilises musical performances as structuring interludes. Some of the tracks contained include The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In the UK”, “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant”. Predominantly using the US tour of the Pistols to carve up a history of Punk, other early bands also make an appearance, such as Generation X and Siouxsie and the Banshees. 25 years later the film still kicks ass with its total punk aesthetic. The coverage and editing of the tunes, the sly mockery made upon those speaking on behalf of the established authority and having Sid and Nancy on camera in the Chelsea Hotel saying they’ll make a porn movie for money, makes for the real thing. This is as authentic as it gets. (6)

Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music (Vivek Bald, 2003) isn’t as pleasing in its form and style as D.O.A., but as a cultural history it’s a revealing new migrant music document. It maps the migration of South Asians into Britain, and the particular cultural divide that the next generation found themselves in. Neither quite British, nor quite Asian, the second generation find music a liberating domain to cross-pollinate and express their hybrid identities. Musicians from Indian and Pakistani descent mix-up traditional cultural flavours with punk, hip-hop and reggae to create a new found sound. It features live concert material and interviews with Talvin Singh and the Asian Dub Foundation.

The film also details the way that these musicians negotiate their way through the hype of the Asian explosion. Once isolated and on the fringe, the mainstream music industry didn’t take long to jump on board to exploit the fruits of their success. As Kowalski points out, to remain subversive you must remain independent. A spirit that musician Jandek remains true to.

Jandek on Cornwood (Chad Freidrichs, 2004) was my surprise treat of the festival. Mysteries are an essential ingredient for cinema, and as Jandek put it, “You may not get all the answers you want. It’s better that way.” Jandek on Cornwood is a detective-like trip that attempts to piece together a portrait of a musical recluse. The titular subject never officially appears in the film, but rather the director pieces together a mesmerising portrait by interviewing radio DJs, fans and music journalists. These testimonials are filled with curious theories of the man, rather than any real knowledge of him. The languid lack of detail parallels Jandek’s music. He has released at least one album a year (34 in 25 years), never plays live and never gives interviews. His melancholy rock plucks atonally through a sea of suicide blues. His haunting reverberations only inspire further theories of alienation, drug rehab and mental illness. It is the persistent mystery of Jandek’s identity that allows for a continual authenticity in his music.

The Subversion

A Fine State This Is

While the music documentaries in the Revelation Film Festival advocate the overthrow of the mainstream industry, no act of subversion moved me more than that of Fargo.

A Fine State This Is (Jessica Chandler, 2004) is a documentary about Fargo Deborah Whitman, a New York artist diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder. Rather than this state of being occupying a negative presence in her life, Fargo embraces her family of identities. In fact Fargo plays mother to her collective selves, including Anton, Genie, Meticulous, Wiley and Gibbon. Throughout the film she shifts through the different personalities, letting them speak to one another.

Fargo, through the documentary, reveals to us that it is the abuse that she experienced as a child, and the lack of a family support structure that provoked the birth of these identities. Each personality has a role in protecting the other members of this domestic unit. Through art and identity politics, Fargo finds the strength and ability to shift from oppression into an authentic existence. She finds a way of being true to herself unlike most of us ever can.

What is crucial about all the films programmed as part of the Revelation Film Festival is the experience of the subject, especially his or her experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic alternative. Cinematic revolution requires the erosion of cultural hegemony. Revelation 8 starts by stealing the crown jewels. It presents subversive alternatives to the establishment. It throws you into consciousness and arouses subversive activity. Revelation 8: A Fine State This Is.

Endnotes

  1. Microcinema International promotes, exhibits and distributes independent film and video via the International Microcinema Network.
  2. Kontroll was Hungary’s most successful film at the box office in 2003 and the country’s official foreign language entry into the 2005 Academy Awards.
  3. Won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival.
  4. Officially selected for the Berlin Film Festival.
  5. Officially selected for the Berlin Film Festival.
  6. D.O.A. inspired Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986).