Island of Lost Souls

3-13 July 2008

In an attempt to emulate the spirit and ethos of the Revelation Film Festival, this review is a mash-up of Gonzo journalism and the technique of William Burroughs’ cut-up method.

Opening Night: Thursday 3 July / 7.00pm

The lobby to the Astor Cinema is infested with scene queens and wheelers and dealers of the local screen industry. I lunge backwards into my existential beatnik, who grips my arm as he takes the Revelation Film Festival opening night tickets from me. “I’ll handle this”, he says to the popcorn machine. “This audience member here has a yearning for independent vision, and this festival has plenty of medicine. My name is Doctor TV. Prepare the cinema at once. We’ll be at the bar.” (1) Doc V disappeared into the sea of Semillon Sauvignon Blanc swigging schmoozers. I headed to the sanctuary of the movie theatre. In the words of this year’s Rev program director Jack Sargeant, I was waiting for that “moment where the lights go off, when the projector starts, and the beam hits the screen, when everything becomes suspended, when the excitement and the possibility of cinema is realised”. (2)

The possibility of cinema. Sargeant’s statement confirms that Rev chairman Richard Sowada vigilantly hand picks his program directors, not only for their choice of films that transcend mainstream mediocrity, but also for the reason that their selections arouse the imagination and inspire individualism. Those in the audience familiar with the reputable underground film freak and subculture specialist that Sargeant is, were keen to get a celluloid sample of what was to be a taste of this year’s program. But like the high-speed slam of a Roller Derby Grrl in the Rev 08 programmed documentary Hell On Wheels (d. Bob Ray), Sargeant pushed aside the expectation of counter-cultural fare opening the festival. Instead he opted for Island of Lost Souls (d. Nikoloj Arcel), a fantasy adventure film from Denmark, detailed in the program notes as being “mercifully free of magic cupboards and private school educated boy wizards”. (3) This choice, which won Best Children/Family Film at the Copenhagen Robert Feston, didn’t touch the soul of my existential beatnik, who afterward declared that he had just wasted two hours of his life. Not surprising since existentialists don’t believe in the soul, but his reaction does remind one to question what a film festival says through the choice of its opening night film. Sargeant, whose father worked at the National Film Theatre, reveals in the festival program notes that as a child his experience of going to the cinema was akin to adventure. (4) I suggest that this was Sargeant’s intent on opening night. To return the audience back to the time before the realities of adulthood. To remind the cynical spectator of when they could once be possessed by the possibility of cinema. Sargeant’s programming of Island of Lost Souls was a call to adventure, and over the proceeding ten days of the festival, the public responded.

A Night of Horror: Friday 4 July / 9.00pm

There was evidence in this cinema, of excessive consumption of almost every type of horror film know to civilised man (sic) since 1896. It could only be described as montage(5) Among this full capacity crowd were punters dressed as Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface, or was this just some gimmick inspired from the Rev 08 programmed documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (d. Jeffrey Schwarz)? Anyone who believes in the moral panic that horror fans have an unhealthy obsession that can potentially lead to deranged behaviour would have been nervous if they were in the room. This audience was a-buzz with chainsaw glee, hungry to see “the latest best and bloodiest flicks from Sydney’s A Night of Horror Short Film Festival”. (6) Horror fans are a breed of cinema audience that have a particularly strong knowledge of and dedication to the genre. Such fan communities rarely have the opportunity to gather on a mass level at the cinema. Since the ‘80s the communal viewing practice of horror fans has generally been relegated to that of the private home (one reason being that many titles of interest to this fan base weren’t receiving cinema distribution, this was compounded by the fact that horror fans have a taste for the censored, the uncertified and the uncut). The communal sharing of this fan base has therefore taken place via fanzines and the Internet. The night delivered an extraordinary occasion of communal sharing that was rare and unique enough to fit right on into the Jeff Krulik – Heavy Metal Parking Lot and Beyond! retrospective that was playing as part of Rev 08.

An example of this was during the United States film Peekers (d. Mark Steensland). It opens with Larry Morgan (Mike Leechner) preparing his Sunday breakfast, exactly as he loves to have it. It actually irked me that he was doing it so patiently and perfectly. Yipee I thought, this short is already playing with my psyche. Just as Larry is about to sit down and enjoy this breakfast that he has meticulously planned his neighbour Zach Hoffman (Albert Braun), an old grandpa dude, turns up asking for help. He wants Larry to come over to his house because something strange is going on with his wife. Larry asks if it can wait until after breakfast, but the old guy won’t give up. Obviously annoyed, Larry goes to do the neighbourly thing anyway. What he finds is that Agnes Hoffman (June Braun) isn’t the grandma she used to be. Agnes has turned into some kind of female pensioner version of Chucky. “Come play with meee…” she calls out to Larry, peering coyly from behind a corner, her finger asking him to come hither. “Come play with meee…” she called again. “Fuck yeah!” yelled back one guy in the cinema. The response erupted the rest of the crowd into laughter.

Dara

The program delivered a collection of contemporary international dreads of delights. Favourites included the New Zealand film Eel Girl (d. Paul Campion), the Indonesian film Dara (d. Kimo Stamboel) and the only Australian inclusion, The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis (d. Dalibor Backovic) which was slightly reminiscent of Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978). The night reflected the dedication that Rev has to their audience. Film festivals raise specific questions about audiences, they engage with their audiences in a manner that is far more intimate and intricate than those of mainstream cinema operations. They deliver a viewing practice associated with a particular audience’s identity, negotiating with the way that the mainstream industry attempts to homogenise us all into a category that doesn’t allow for individuality. This commitment was further solidified the following day at A Day of Horror panel. Guests Richard Wolstoncroft, the festival director of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, Dean Bertram, the director of the Night of Horror Film Festival, and Dalibor Bakovic director of The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis, discussed the state of the Australian horror genre. For over two hours they shared insights and gave valuable advice to a room of emerging filmmakers. “When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it heavy. Don’t waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanors. Go straight for the jugular. Get right into the soul”. (7) And so they did.

Eat For This is My Body: Sunday 6 July / 7.00pm

Eat For This Is My Body was one of the more complex and challenging films of the festival, both in its form and content. Set in Haiti, this first feature by Michelange Quay is a profound example of postcolonial cinema. (8) Born of Haitian parents in the United States, Quay studied film at New York University before moving to Paris. “I visit my family regularly in Haiti and I guess these days it would be difficult for me to say which country is ‘my’ country”. (9) This sense of belonging across three different nations embodies the political soul of polycentric multiculturalism. Polycentric multiculturalism is an ideal whereby no “part of the world, whatever its economic or political power, should be epistemologically privileged”. (10) In Eat For This Is My Body, the concept of polycentric multiculturalism is played out through Quay’s narrative technique. Plot and story, as belonging to that of a dominant cinema, are abandoned, and instead a dream logic sleepwalks through the film.

Eat For This Is My Body invests itself with the power to explore the politics of sex and colonialism. It does so through documentary footage and highly stylised, symbolically potent visuals that are combined as a means of revelation and liberation. This cinematic incantation is a voodoo ritual. At times the hallucinatory atmosphere that imbues the film, gives way to its being mistaken as an expression of colonial nostalgia. This romanticism is present, however this longing belongs to and seeps from the alienated subject of the text, that of French-Anglo woman. Sound also conspires with the film, whereby music often gives means to resistance. In one scene, a number of older Haitian women play on electronic instruments, such as drum machines and DJ mixers. The scene is inspiring in that it achieves victory through the act of creative occupation rather than aggressive and violent revolt. After the film I overheard one lost soul say to their friend, “couldn’t they find people who knew how to play the instruments!?” Such a statement does not bare in mind the struggles of decolonisation. It is film festivals such as Rev, that often provide the exhibition space for the countercultural politics of not only postcolonial cinema, but for all such motivated films.

Harry Smith Early Abstractions: Saturday 12 July / 9.45pm

Gonzo, the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson

Six days later I’m suffering from the delirium of festival fever. I’m over stimulated and I like it. My consciousness has been disturbed; it’s increased my clarity of awareness. The films responsible for such symptoms include the documentaries Gonzo, the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson (d. Alex Gibney), Words of Advice: William Burroughs on the Road (d. Lars Movin) and the almost surreal conspiracy road movie Lost Holiday (d. Lucie Kralova) where a documentary crew go on the search for the identity of six Chinese tourists whose photographs were found in a suitcase left in a dumpster. Features that participated in this change of cognition includes the anti-war polemic by Brian De Palma, Redacted, and long time regular of Rev, Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up On Mu. I’m sitting in the theatre about to experience the Early Abstractions (1941-57) of Harry Smith (for more detail on this collection see Dirk de Bruyn’s article in Senses of Cinema) and I’m wheeling at the thought of where this next episode of cinematic intoxication will take me for “Smith’s films have been interpreted as investigations of conscious and unconscious mental processes”. (11)

Smith “spoke of his films in terms of synaesthesia, the search for correspondences between color and sound and sound and movement” (12) and this screening was accompanied by a live performance from Lawrence English. I can’t tell you of where I went in my head. I don’t want to. As much as going to the cinema is a public experience, it is also a personal one. Sometimes the act of going to the cinema is like belonging to a secret society, and the only way to retain the soul of the experience is to keep it hidden. This event underlined the importance of the spaces and formats of consumption in the screen industry. How can programming reveal or stimulate audiences? To what extent can they bring about changes in screen funding policies? There is a cinema that is not meant for mere entertainment. Mainstream film distribution and theatres shape its audience and therefore culture. Minority screenings of subversive and experimental documentaries, features and shorts, have impact. We must support such occasions that manage to bring us unseen cinema.

Hair, let the Sunshine In: Sunday 13 July / 9.30pm

The existential beatnik turns to me and asks, “why choose a documentary on the musical Hair as the closing night film?” Since existentialists don’t believe in the soul I replied, “remember how you got irritated with the documentary My Name is Albert Ayler (Kasper Collin, 2005) because it didn’t reveal the circumstances of his death?” He nodded. “Well maybe some things are just supposed to remain a mystery.” Existential beatnik, I dedicate this review to you. Let the sunshine in.

Revelation Perth International Film Festival website: http://www.revelationfilmfest.org

Endnotes

  1. Mash-up using text from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream), Hunter S. Thompson, 1971.
  2. Quoting Jack Sargeant from The 11th Revelation Perth Film Festival Program, 2008, p. 2.
  3. Quoting Island of Lost Souls synopsis in The 11th Revelation Perth Film Festival Program, 2008, p. 7.
  4. Quoting Jack Sargeant from The 11th Revelation Perth Film Festival Program, 2008, p. 2.
  5. Mash-up using text from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream), Hunter S. Thompson, 1971.
  6. Quoting A Night of Horror synopsis in The 11th Revelation Perth Film Festival Program, 2008, p. 12.
  7. Mash-up using text from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream), Hunter S. Thompson, 1971.
  8. The film is a co-production between France and Haiti.
  9. Interview by Shari Frilot with Michelange Quay, IndieWIRE, 19 January 2008.
  10. Unthinking Eurocentricism: Multiculturalism and the Media by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, New York, Routledge, 1994. p. 48.
  11. Arthur (author), Arthur blog, 26 November 2007.
  12. Ibid.