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At the Sydney Film Festival, Diversity in Documentary

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Warwick Thornton's "We Don't Need a Map"

Sydneysiders, as they're called, are acutely aware of both being the center of a world (their own) and at the edge of others (the world offshore). The Sydney Film Festival, now in its 64th year and still enjoying the prestige that critic David Stratton built up over his decades of stewardship, meets Sydneysiders where they are: It offers a cosmopolitan survey of exciting films worldwide and also a focus on the latest Australian work.

"We're proud that an Australian documentary opened the film festival this year," says documentary curator Jenny Neighbour. We Don't Need a Map, by noted aboriginal maker Warwick Thornton, unflinchingly and often with sly humor explores the multiple meanings of the Southern cross—a feature of both the Australian sky and its flag—to the cultures of Australia, where the wounds of longstanding and sometimes genocidal racism are still open. (The Southern cross has become, for some white racists, like the Confederate flag is in some American communities.)

The festival operates like a festival-of-festivals for exciting recent work internationally. "Sydney audiences particularly love documentaries," Neighbour notes, a comment borne out by enthusiastic crowds even for films shown in the middle of a work week. Among the most popular international favorites this year were Laura Poitras' Risk, Raoul Peck’s Academy Award nominated I Am Not Your Negro and Kartemquin’s Abacus, by Steve James.

One international hot ticket, though, was a world premiere: My Year with Helen. New Zealander Gaylene Preston followed UN Development Programme head Helen Clark (ex-prime minister of New Zealand) during a year of campaigning to become the UN Secretary-General. While she lost, Clark's campaign exposed entrenched sexism, backroom politics and other reasons why this top post routinely is headed by politically innocuous and sometimes ineffectual men.

The festival also features a rich spread of Australian work, from tough subjects like disability (Defiant Lives) to the hypnotic attractions of mountains (Mountain) to a history of one of Australia’s beloved bands (The Go-Betweens: Right Here).

The showcase for Australian docs was a roster competing for the Documentary Australia Foundation's Best Australian Documentary Award of $10,000. The DAF is a pioneering feature of the business landscape in Australia, as historically government agencies were the major source of funding. DAF has not only created funding lines, but also co-sponsored Good Pitch and other international activities to raise private-sector funding for social-issue films.

Among other things, this funding style marks a generational shift toward a more entrepreneurial, double-bottom-line- and engagement-oriented approach to documentary filmmaking in Australia. The shift comes somewhat perforce, since government funding of the arts has been cut back repeatedly in recent years, particularly for documentary. It also comes with the familiar concern that the partnership-and crowdsourcing-based approach doesn't lend itself well to what used to be called "creative documentaries"—ones without a clear link to causes or issues. And this at a time when reality and sports/celebrity/music docs also crowd the commercial market.

Oceans, Brothels and Camps

One example of DAF backing at work, as well as Good Pitch success, was Blue, by Karina Holden, who refined her natural-history skills at National Geographic, Discovery and Australia's public broadcaster, ABC. A world premiere at SFF, Blue is a solemn and highly produced essay on what is at stake in poisoning the ocean with plastic, heating it beyond the capacity of coral to survive, and overfishing it. The film features attractive young people, charismatic megafauna and astounding underwater photography. Blue received Good Pitch-related funding and has many partner organizations and a planned worldwide campaign.

Other films in the DAF lineup featured less glossy, close-up looks at Australia. Sascha Ettinger Epstein's The Pink House poignantly tells the story of the last brothel in the tough mining town of Kalgoorlie, from the perspectives of its remarkably prim madam, a sometimes-sober sex worker, a competitor, tourists and customers. It's a film that extends dignity to all its characters, all caught in changing business models while negotiating complex and sometimes contradictory social norms. The Pink House earned the DAF's Best Australian Documentary Award.

Documentary veteran Tom Zubrycki brought his 17th documentary, and the 10th to be showcased at SFF, to the festival. Hope Road tells the story of a Sudanese refugee whose struggles while in Australia to fund a school in his home town face enormous obstacles, in both places. Like several other films in the festival, the documentary touched on a political hot button issue in Australia: refugees. Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, which was not in competition, composes a profoundly moving portrait of men living in Chauka detention camp on Manus Island, one of two tiny spots where international refugees are diverted to keep them from reaching Australia. Insecticide fog periodically beclouds everything, and serves, with the cry of the Chauka bird (a Manus native), as punctuation to endless waiting. Iranian-Kurdish detainee Behrouz Boochani shot cellphone footage, which Iranian-Dutch filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani shaped into film. Chauka is a direct challenge to government claims of good treatment, and also a meditation on endurance. In a recently reported update, the Australian government just settled a class action lawsuit on behalf of the detainees for $70M AUD—a pretty good deal for the government (boding possible improvements) and one that will minimize public awareness of human rights violations on the island.

The Permanent Opposition

From Hollie Fifer's "The Opposition"

Another notable Australian film was The Opposition, by Hollie Fifer. Slated for the SFF competition and other fests last year, it was knocked out by a frivolous lawsuit brought by one of the characters. The censorship attempt ultimately did not work, but it delayed the film for a year, and that year mattered to the subjects. Led by community organizer Joe Moses, residents of a fishing community in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea resisted Australian developers' attempts to remove them for years. Finally bulldozed out, they continue to fight for their rights. Moses, whose life was threatened, has been living in exile for three years, raising funds for his return and compensation for his people. Fifer's film offers a close-up observational look at community-building and its challenges, as the locals face not only aggressive developers but a complicit government.

"We're going to make sure the issue stays relevant until the community gets compensated," said Fifer. She and Moses are working with the UN Development Programme, which is working with the relocation process, to collect evidence of human rights violations, which will be relevant to Australian government agencies as well. When asked about the challenges of filmmakers and advocacy, Fifer said, "Everyone should be what you are, plus an activist. That just means I stand for something."

Fifer's problems pointed up the challenges for any Australian filmmaker wanting to make investigative or otherwise risky films. She obtained Australian errors and omissions insurance from the only company offering it there; when her company was sued, she said, the insurance company endlessly postponed assuming any responsibility until it was clear she had won. She also worried that the lawsuit would frighten other filmmakers away from challenging topics.

Aboriginal Storytelling

The festival showcased a fascinating collection of recent Australian aboriginal works, each of which in their own way demonstrated both the painful need to negotiate with white fragility and ingenious methods for doing so. The festival opener, We Don't Need a Map, employed faux naiveté in the narrator character Thornton creates for himself, humor, sympathy for the clueless, and generosity in sharing ancient stories of the sky, the cross and the stars.

Erica Glynn’s In My Own Words, a DAF award contender, provides a positive alternative for a dark reality of yesterday's and today's educational policies. Adult illiteracy is one legacy of policies that until the 1970s strongly discouraged aboriginal education; only in 1989 was a policy promoting it developed, and much of it still hasn't been implemented. Kids are still dropping out of school in droves as functional illiterates. In the film, a Cuban advisor to the Literacy for Life Foundation leads an aboriginal team, drawing on Cuba's longstanding adult literacy programs, which are all grounded in community-based organizing principles. Not only is the film an inspiring look at what basic literacy can mean to grown-ups, it is also an implicit condemnation of Australian (and other) school systems that fail to engage students because they cannot meet them where they are, in their own skins.

At the film's premiere, Glynn was heralded for returning to filmmaking. For years, she served as a program officer for indigenous work at the government film agency Screen Australia. Both Glynn and Thornton, who are siblings, have long training in negotiating the distance between cultures. Their mother, Freda Glynn, started the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, which trained a generation of aboriginal makers, and ran the aboriginal Imparja TV for ten years.

Tyson Mowarin is of a younger generation of aboriginal makers, and is committed to using every technology to strengthen indigenous culture and to bring its realities to outsiders. A relentless experimenter, he has also made an app and a card game, written children's books and created virtual reality projects. His Connection to Country, also a DAF award contender, tackles a longstanding outrage. Australia has the longest continuous human habitation in the history of the earth, perhaps 60,000 years. In those many generations, indigenous Australian people created an abundance of art, some of which remains in often-sacred settings carved or stenciled into rock. Too often, these sites have been disregarded by miners, developers and governments. The film employs a combination of exasperation and chronicling of community activism to challenge white Australia’s erasure of aboriginal heritage.

Finally, the festival, like SXSW and others that understand episodic television as a new filmic genre, featured the world premiere of the second season of Cleverman, directed by Wayne Blair from a concept by Ryan Griffen. Blair, also an indigenous maker, is a veteran of television series, including the popular Redfern Now, and the hit film The Sapphires. Cleverman won kudos last year as a sharp critique of anti-indigenous, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-human rights attitudes and policies, wickedly cloaked in a science-fiction format. The premise: an ancient people with supernatural powers, the "hairy people," have finally emerged to claim a place in a society strangely like Australia. The white majority attempts to zone them in and weaken their powers, creating a variety of responses among aboriginal people. A resistance movement, political intrigue and even some lab science keep the plot boiling.

The first season of Cleverman is available now on the public broadcaster ABC's iview service (a virtual DVR); set your VPNs to Melbourne. The second season, even tighter and more bingeworthy if the first two eye-popping episodes are any guide, is set to roll out momentarily.

Virtual Realities

A first-time virtual reality strand showcased the power of art. The transcontinental collective Badfaith, based in Australia but with extensions in the US and Europe, and grounded in the notion that art has to fuel the best VR, curated the four-session program.

The exhibition focused, explained Faber, on "curating unique experiences that showcase the technology." The group's focus on aesthetics comes in part with hard learning; cofounder Leo Faber, a lifer in film and TV, spent some grueling time making VR ads. Their collective's name is drawn from a concept that Sartre and Beauvoir often invoked about corrupt use of expression, used ironically here about VR as an artifice and less so about the need to pursue authenticity. The collective is dedicated, in short, not only to creating, but to experimenting and to ruthless critique and analysis.

Their viewing format took the sting out of VR festival viewing. They preloaded a set of programs, allowing viewers to sign up in advance for sessions where they watched anywhere from one to six programs without having to switch gears or places.

The exhibition featured VR formats only. Some were familiar from this year's season elsewhere but the majority were Australian premieres. As well, Only at the air, only at each other, a six-minute work by Australian Greg Ferris, was a world premiere. The work sets free the spirit of the murdered Marion Crane (from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho), to float above and about the scene and to meditate (as Norman Bates does in the film) on the persistence of belief over reality.

Fictional narratives were more likely to be bravely experimental than engaging, as they played with the implications of virtual reality. In these works, where the central character (the viewer's position) is immobile, unlike recent work shown at Tribeca, viewers were onlookers more than participants. In the Canadian Miyubi, a dysfunctional 1980s family gets a new toy, a robot that gradually obsolesces like the family's going-senile grandfather. The Dutch Ashes to Ashes tells the story of a dysfunctional family from the viewpoint of the urn of a father's ashes overlooking the cacophony created by clashing narcissisms of his children and grandchildren. In the Australian Server Room Symphony, a dysfunctional server mirrors dysfunctional and sexist office dynamics. The French I, Philip puts a robot—a digital reincarnation of the far-too-prescient Philip Dick—at the center watching human cluelessness.

For that can-we-do-that-again feeling, two experiences stood out. Chris Milk's Life of Us, an interactive trip through evolution in company with another person/avatar, was just plain loads of fun, as each of us turned from protean creatures into dinosaurs, birds, briefcase-toting commuters and futurist wizards. Badfaith's own Orbital Vanitas gave viewers the experience of orbiting around the moon, with the Australasian area of the world coming up on sunrise, engaging with a gigantic skull caught in the same orbit. (Sundance VR viewers will definitely remember it; it debuted there and raised a ruckus.)

"What we are doing here is giving you an experience," says Faber. "We are story-enabling. You tell yourself the story that this experience enables." Like other works that use VR to take you into a 360-degree experience in space, it permits awe and wonder at an elemental level, and allows you to lose your need for geolocation without fear of falling.

Patricia Aufderheide is a 2017 Fulbright Senior Scholar at Queensland University of Technology and professor at American University in Washington, DC.