In The Same Boat

13-23 November 2008

Melbourne, travelling to Sydney, Perth, Canberra and Brisbane

As I was queuing for the screening of Undressing Vanessa, Matthew Pond’s fabulous film about Vanessa, a drag queen activist in a “patio [pronounced pashio] dress” who describes herself as “a sweetie for a treaty”, followed by a documentary depicting the struggle to organise a gay pride march, Jerusalem is Proud to Present (d. Nitzan Gilady), another punter leaned towards me to check that he was in the correct queue for the new James Bond film. He was in the minority here, with most people lining up to attend the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. What began in 2007 as a modest initiative to exhibit films and curate art exploring human rights issues has grown exponentially in its organisation, in the scope of exhibition, in its range of supporters, and in patronage. In its second year, the HRAFF has developed into a high profile, multi-city, multi-media event, with the passion of the organisation and audience engagement eclipsing anything that a James Bond film could offer.

With the 2008 festival, directors Naziath Mantoo and Evelyn Tadros aimed to create a space and community that encourages a critical engagement with human rights issues, whilst nurturing future initiatives. This is supported by a strong infrastructure, which boasts high profile patrons including the director Phillip Noyce (after whom the Noyce Choice Award is named), film critic Margaret Pomeranz and the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby. Community partners include Amnesty International, World Vision and Arts Victoria. The participation of industry partners such as Open Channel and the Australian Directors Guild generated lively debate about the potential to create change, and the responsibilities of artists dedicated to human rights causes. But even with such a richly informed and entwined infrastructure, the focus falls upon the films and artworks.

HRAFF opened with the Australian premiere of Brett Morgen’s compelling documentary Chicago Ten. Weaving together a narrative based on social histories, court transcripts, poetic responses by Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, and expressed using an aesthetic that juxtaposes dynamic motion capture animation with archival images, Morgen creates a powerful interrogation of the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention. Establishing a tone of engagement and activism for the festival, Chicago Ten uses an experimental documentary form to contest deception and ultimately to create an alternative history. Joshua Dugdale’s documentary The Unwinking Gaze offers the audience unprecedented access to the Dalai Lama, erasing the presence of the filmmaker and inviting viewers to draw their own conclusions about the situation in Tibet. Jeremy Gilley’s film The Day After Peace deploys a more conventional style to document and promote his dream of instituting a day of peace. Gilley’s organisation facilitated a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan so that ten thousand medical teams could be protected as they vaccinated children. Other highlights of the documentary films programmed include a screening of Trade, a film depicting the kidnapping of a young Mexican girl, Adriana, her enforced slavery and devaluation as an object of exchange. Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, this film was inspired by Peter Landesman’s exposé of the US/Mexican sex trade, an article originally published in the New York Times Magazine and written for the screen by Jose Rivera.

The Nothing Men

A compelling local fictional film screened was The Nothing Men (d. Mark Fitzpatrick). This is a visually striking, but desperate story of “six bored redundant workers slowly going crazy”, as the foreman Jack (Colin Friels) describes his workers who become increasingly disconnected from one another and their company as it sinks into decline. A restless camera frames the men spending their day insulting each other, playing cards, smoking dope through a juice container bong and, at one stage, comparing the size of their genitals as they kill time in a workshop. The workers tread a thin line, trying to avoid being sacked so that they can claim redundancy payouts. As a new member, David (David Field), enters the group, accusations of spying escalate the tension and a shocking connection between two men is revealed. The Nothing Men depicts a range of masculine characters, each struggling to confront the threat of economic and workplace insecurity, distressing family situations and traumatic memories.

An inspired decision in film programming was to include shorts before the features and to program short film sessions. Human rights issues are not always perfectly suited to the longer format, some shorter films explore the characters and crises dynamically economically. This is the case with A Silent Monsoon (d. Pravesh Gurung), a short fictional film, with a disturbing base in reality. Set in a remote village in Nepal, three generations of a matriarchal family struggle to meet their rent payments. Rifts within the family are exposed when the grandmother (Subhadra Adhikah) proclaims the adolescent Laxmi (Anisha Thapilya) ready to be initiated into the family’s prostitution business. Laxmi’s mother Durga (Nisha Sharma Pokharel) pleads with a local teacher to facilitate her daughter’s escape, but eventually the difficulty of transcending generations of subservience, poverty and marginalisation becomes clear. A Silent Monsoon depicts the position of the “Badi”, Nepalese women born into the sex trade, inheriting entrenchment within a culture of exploitation, unable to escape a cyclic and ultimately destructive history.

Screen Dreaming, a program of Indigenous short films feature stories investigating the implicit (and sometimes explicit) racism and entrenched divisions in Australian culture. Films within this program explore issues of social and economic disparity and the residual dislocation of the stolen generations, and many films work to redress the silence of indigenous voices. Prioritising the perspective of a young Aboriginal girl, Back Seat (d. Pauline Whyman) renders this silence explicit as Janine (Lille Madden) is driven to visit her biological mother Elsie (Lily Shearer) and eight siblings. Janine’s silence is literally enforced by her foster mother Beverly (Zoe Carrides) who speaks for her. Her dislocation is aesthetically symbolised in her hallucinatory vision which stretches time and blurs people and space into a swirl. Janine begins her journey back clutching a Polaroid as a reminder of her family. Intervention (d. Vincent Lamberti) creates a dialogue by presenting the voices of indigenous people directly affected by the Howard Government’s “emergency legislation” in response to the Little Children Are Sacred report. Interviews with community members around Uluru reveal disempowerment resulting from the intervention and highlight the suppression of the indigenous voice in mainstream media. Nana (d. Warwick Thornton) situates the point of view and voiceover narration exclusively with an unnamed little girl who is listed as Kiara in the credits. She describes her grandmother’s (Mitjili) myriad roles within the family. Her nana is a dancer, she is someone who “makes feeds” for her and the older community members. Kiara describes her nana as “the best hunter ever” who catches and kills a range of lizards, laying them out across the bonnet of the car. She is a nurturer who combs nits out of Kiara’s hair, tying it back with a scarf just like her own. Nana protects the dry community, breaking bottles and attacking intruders with a bat. Nana is also an artist who paints the same story repeatedly because, as the little girl says, “she reckons white people wouldn’t know the difference anyway”. The little girl aspires to be just like her nana.

In Our Backyard is a collection of Australian short films exploring a range of human rights concerns including the exploitation of migrants within the workplace, the wasteful effects of consumer culture and the plight of asylum seekers. The highlight was Emily Bissland’s animated documentary In The Same Boat, which illustrates a burgeoning connection between a Vietnam veteran and a young Iraqi refugee. Both overcome resentment and racism, by sharing slices of watermelon whilst recovering from physical and psychological trauma. Initially printed in a weekend newspaper, the story is familiar, but illuminated by Bissland’s striking imagery, it takes on further poetic dimensions. Other short film programs include: Par Avion: International Shorts and Reel Change, a selection of short films investigating the impact of global warming on humanity and the potential to create change.

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

An initiative specific to the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in 2008 were forums designed to connect filmmakers, audiences, human rights organisations and industry bodies. HRAFF’s Industry Forum Coordinator, Tessa Waters, assembled a range of experts including Lisa F. Jackson, director of the most powerful film within the festival, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, to discuss how filmmaking can be used as a tool for human rights. In a discussion of strategies that could be used to expose hidden truths, encourage connection and inspire audiences, Jackson revealed that in making her documentary, she had only one viewer in mind, the American ambassador to the Congo. In the final forum, one convened to discuss future directions in human rights and filmmaking, Elise West, a documentary filmmaker and coordinator at Open Channel, articulated some of the restrictions of creating a filmic narrative based on a formulaic three-act structure. The issue of the narrativisation of human rights stories also raises ethical issues including the question of what happens to the real life crisis when the cameras stop rolling, whether there is a danger of the film contributing to the oppression, and how new cinematic forms can be developed to contest the structures of oppression. West argued for the primary function of human rights films as offering a way to peel back a corner of the universe to see what lies underneath.

The arts component of the HRAFF was held in The Carlton Hotel, up two flights of stairs inside a labyrinthine space with numbered rooms that recently hosted a brothel. The Collective Conscience art exhibition, curated by Romy Sedman and Andrea Bell, presented a range of local and international artworks with a focus on interpersonal participation and social exchange. Collaboration is integral to this exhibition and the power and danger of such an exchange is exemplified in the work of The Freedom Burmese Artists. Clandestinely created inside prison camps, these artworks were smuggled out and transferred at the border, with the artists risking 65-year prison sentences in the hope of raising awareness about human rights violations and political tensions inside Burma.

Alex Martinis Roe’s performance based video installation Up And Down invites the viewer to climb a ladder, peer over the top of a barricade and look down, adopting a bird’s eye view of an image of a woman clad in black leather who looks up, engaging the viewer visually. Repetition of the words “up and down” on the soundtrack signifies the practice of ritual in learning, highlighting the cultural construction of submissive femininity. However, whilst physical dominance is established, this dynamic becomes complicated by the proximity of the viewer, by the visual connection and the recognition that the audience, balancing precariously on the step of the ladder, is also the performer in this installation.

The iconic image of individual resistance against the state is Jiang Zhi’s Things Would Turn Nails Once They Happened. Lit by a spotlight, and exhibited as a lightbox which illuminates the photograph from within, this image is one of resistance as a single home stands amid desolation as land is cleared in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Zhi is part of the Long March Project, a mobile and changing collective that challenges fixed definitions of artistic practice. Like the space itself, the artworks create debate and controversy. Collective Conscience emphasises the value of the practice of art, as well as its exhibition.

The HRAFF ended by screening The Days and the Hours (d. John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson), a short film set inside a church providing refuge for some of San Francisco’s homeless people. Images of people sleeping on the hard pews are accompanied by voiceover narration telling of the circumstances that led them to the church and recalling better times. The closing night feature was Susan Koch and Jeff Werner’s documentary, Kicking It. This film follows participants from Dublin, Kabul, Kenya, Madrid, North Carolina and Russia as each competes to represent their nation in the 2006 Homeless World Cup. The film offers insight into the personal dilemmas of players battling health issues, homelessness and estrangement from family. The Russian soccer player battles particular difficulty, as he attempts to survive on the streets of a nation in which homelessness is a taboo subject. Kicking It also establishes a bridge to the 2008 Homeless World Cup, held in Melbourne in the following week. If social awareness, audience attendance and passionate engagement are a measure success, then the 2008 HRAFF is a triumph. The James Bond fan should have joined the queue.

Human Rights Arts and Film Festival website: http://www.hraff.org.au

About The Author

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include: Japanese film culture, film noir, film theory and the intersections of film history and new media. Over the past two years she has been the book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema.