Reviews: ‘Beast’ and other films at Adelaide’s international film festival

Ed’s Notes: We thank the organisers and media team (Mark McGowan and Cat Campbell) of the recently concluded Adelaide Film Festival (15-25 October 2015) for the media accreditation of The Filipino Australian. The film festival was packed with 72 projects and more than 180 films from 51 participating countries which made movie watching, let alone film review, not an easy task. TFA contributing writer and Adelaide-based Norma Hennessy represented TFA and the following are her reviews of eight films at the festival she selected for review including ‘Beast’, the story of a Filipino-American boxer filmed on location in the Philippines.

By Norma Hennessy

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

My second movie screening to review at the Adelaide International Film Festival last Sunday, 18th October – “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence”, a Swedish film.

A scene at 'A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence [Photo supplied]
A scene at 'A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence [Photo supplied]

I’ve not been as confused in my perception of someone else’s perception and summation of life as I was with this film. I was intrigued, and then bored and then angered and then shocked, and then I had to drift along. In resignation. No, in submission to life and all its quirks. So, life and death are twins. A series of episodes, unrelated and disconnected, absurd and funny, were put together like a tapestry instead of one story unfolding. The first episodes stamped that out quite emphatically. And then a substitute hairdresser dentist mini-soliloquy followed by a quiet European pub.Each episode was meant to present a perspective of life in a dry and slow dragging reel motion to etch the implied notion deep into the viewer’s mind. The projections stirred up thoughts and played with them. And then, this beautiful gigantic brass cylindrical chamber came into view. A shiny gigantic brass cylindrical chamber with trumpet bells attached to it. Officers in their resplendent uniforms looking enigmatic from afar were on a task temporarily blocked off from the camera by officers in their uniform. The officers moved slightly on the side, revealing the ongoing that was hidden from view. They were getting a queue of African slaves inside this beautiful gigantic chamber. A commotion and an infant’s cry exploded. The baby was on the back of the mother that tripped at the chamber’s door. An officer whipped the ground in his impatience. And then the queue moved until the last man on queue, on whose neck held the wooden anchor of a previously indiscernible length of rope connecting all the slaves together. The chamber was prison? An officer flicked a light, lighting a torch put forward by another. The torch was thrown at the bottom of the chamber and flames jumped. I shivered. A new frame came into view. Glass french doors reflecting the turning death chamber. They opened slowly and a group of elegantly dressed men and women, older than the hills from the look of them rose their wine filled glasses – toasting to death chamber. Suddenly I tasted bile rising from my throat. The flame grew wilder and the chamber slowly turned, eerie sounds that seem to emanate from space echoed through the bells of the chamber. Sounds of life succumbing to death, of unimaginable suffering rising and ebbing into nothingness. Warm droplets fell on my arms. Tears. And I realized they were mine.

Film Star rating: 2 out of 5

ANOTHER COUNTRY

This film captures the beauty of Australian outback, the dreamlike terrain and puts it in an enigmatic focus. It stars David Gulpilil as the narrator and co-writer who introduces himself as one who has been in a few movies, has met the Queen “…even hung out with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley”. “Not bad, ay, for a black fella,” he says and you could imagine him almost laugh. “I been to prison too. More than once.” He is “a living legend”, he chuckles in the voice over.

David Gulpillil gives a fascinating narrative delivery. It is the story of Ramin-gining, his birth place where, he remembers being told by his mother that he was born under a tree. “I was born in the outback, somewhere in the bush. There was no hospital,” he says. “My mother, she birthed me in the grass and the paperbark. She made sure there were beautiful, soft leaves from the paperbark. I lay there, next to the riverside. There was no doctor, just my mother and her family.” Ramin-gining , an out-of-place town in the far-north, often inaccessible by road during wet season is the home where he often returns when he is not appearing in films, rubbing elbows with celebrities or walking the red carpet at Cannes.

The narrative speaks of the destruction of a culture when a dominating one superimposes itself over it. The problems that emerge are all in contradictions. The confusion that erupts is shown in the way of life that the people take in response to the changes. Marrying two different cultures and understanding them from one perspective clearly leaves gaps. And the gaps that emerge are not pleasant. They are seen as social problems by one culture while the other culture sees them as natural consequences which will meet their own return to nature at their own time. Earlier on during the last century, there was a concerted effort by the government and other entities to gain control over the lands of the Yolngu people across Arnhem Land, in the central section of Northern Australia. The intrusion into the lives of the people, introduced changes in their lives which corrupted the complex culture that had sustained the Yolngu people for centuries.

Film Star Rating: 3 out of 5

BEAST

Jimmy Grey (played by Chad McKinney – a Filipino-American, professional boxer and former US marine that directors Tom and Sam McKeith met in a gym) is a Filipino-American boxer. He is also a son ‘fathering’ his American expat father Rick McKinney (played by Garret Dillahunt- Lt. Campton of another Fil-Am movie ‘Amigo’). His ne’er-do-well father is, however, also is his boxing manager. Obviously raised in his maternal culture where son simply takes on the role of filial responsibility to the extent of parenting his parent when the parent lapses in his obligations, Jimmy is a mother’s son who calls his mother regularly not out of obligation but out of actual caring. He gets into a fraud in a boxing match at the instructions of his father and accidentally kills his opponent. The wife of the opponent – Divina, was made aware by her husband before he died in the hospital of his suspicion that the gloves used by Jimmy during the match were tampered. This suspicion was made more plausible by the doctor’s report. Jimmy felt guilty and tried to atone for his guilt by offering money to help the widow and her son. His offer was rebuffed. Divina reported to the police and the police got involved. Jimmy tells his father about the police getting interested and Rick reports this to the shady crime boss/fight fixer Danny (Will Jaymes). Danny orders his men to silence Divina. Getting wind of this, Jimmy helps Divina and his son escape and here again, takes that chance to make amends. His efforts are again rejected. He insists on helping anyway and gives her money so she could go back to the province (Davao) where she could rebuild her life. The crime boss suspects Jimmy of complicity at the disappearance of Divina when he disappeared for a while. Jimmy on his return home, finds his father beaten black and blue. He immediately knew that it was Danny’s doing and that Danny will not stop at any length to find him. Jimmy becomes certain that the crime boss will do whatever is necessary to get the sniffing police away. Jimmy decides to present himself to the police. The jail scene in the succeeding sequences that followed shows Jimmy receiving a package of gifts from Divina. It is construed as acceptance of his offer for truce.

The movie was fully shot in the Philippines on locations for the objective of authenticity and realism. The story line, however, seemed to have been snatches of ‘eureka’ scenarios strung together to come up with a story. Some things did not fall in synch with authenticity. Jimmy, speaking bilingually indicates at least a middle-class upbringing. And while his father’s built was more believable to be one who has fallen in hard times, Jimmy is built like a well-fed bull. One gets the notion that he’s not one who is on hand-to mouth and thus it is rather oddly plausible that they would deal with crime bosses for just a few thousand pesos. Perhaps if the money were in bigger bundles, it would have been more believable. Even dollar bundles would have been more believable. Jimmy’s persona is so obviously not one who grew up in the Philippines. The squeamishness with balut against his American father’s gung-ho take of it reflects that. Jimmy tries to speak native Tagalog but cannot quite cut it (his American accent comes through) – which is quite common among those who lived most of their lives in America rather than in the Philippines. It is therefore rather melodramatic that he is projected as a Filipino young man used to doing chores in the old traditional manner in a cramped rooming space which he is supposed to share with his father. The film focused a bit on his doing the chore, which – for authenticity’s sake, done in a manner that indicated transit residency. (By the way, soap is a must with Filipinos in doing laundry!) His phone calls to his mother in Cebu and her refusal to accept him (for whatever reason) leaves a yawing gap in the storyline. Why bring in his well-spoken mother into the story line and not put a logic to why she is in Cebu while Jimmy and his father are in Manila doing no-good?

The script lines in short dialogues failed to hide the story line glitches. The camera angling was good, however, although the unnecessary lengthy focusing can border on melodrama. The lack of sound track did not detract from the film. Chad McKinney, despite the incoherence in the story line gives his character a reassuring moral essence. Garret Dillahunt does a very credible no-good-expatriate-act.

Film Star rating: 2 out of 5

LANDFILL HARMONIC (A DOCUMENTARY)

“The world sends us garbage, we send back music!” – Favio Chavez, a music teacher and visionary states.

This is in reference to the recycled orchestra that he founded and that has by been winning hearts the world over. The recycled orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay is the theme of the documentary film Landfill Harmonic that has been in circulation in film festival circuits around the world. Following the orchestra’s initial exposure through the social media, the documentary film Landfill Harmonic continues to boost the group’s drawing power.

Cateura is a town built on a landfill along the banks of the Paraguay River in the capital district of Asuncion. The town has seven different neighborhoods with approximately 2500 families living below poverty line in slums called banados and are surrounded with critical pollution and dangerous waste. Most families are employed as recyclers or gancheros by the landfill which receives over 1,500 tons of garbage daily.

Hardly the reason to get splashed out into the open and get the world’s interest but for the fact that in this God forsaken nowhere, something innovative emerged. And it is music from instruments fashioned from rubbish provided by its Recycled Orchestra that’s composed of children from the landfill. Before them, it was a far-fetched notion to not relate the thought of fine music with refinements and delicate crafts until a visionary innovative musician with the heart for service came round to making it possible.

Chavez’s entry into town was in 2006 as an ecological landfill technician, helping the recylers to classify refuse. He was also a passionate musician who used to conduct a youth orchestra in his native hometown Carapegua which is 50 miles away from the city of Asuncion. When he brought the youth group to perform in Cateura, gancheros asked Chavez to teach music to their children. The environmental condition in Cateura was conducive to drugs, gangs and crime to which children get exposed to early and music was a diversion for the children.

Chavez started teaching music using his personal instruments. It got to a point, however, that there were too many students and not enough instruments. Musical instruments are expensive and were unaffordable for the families. Going by the example of an Argentinian band Les Luthiers which uses homemade instruments, he experimented with the help of Nicolas Gomez, a carpenter and ganchero in the landfill to construct instruments using recycled materials from the dump. They started with a violin and moved on to other instruments using oil barrels for cellos, saxophones and trumpets are made from old drain pipes, metal oven trays, wooden pallets, paint cans, oil thin cans, forks, coins, x-ray films, door keys, bottle caps, shirt buttons, stiletto heels, hair brushes, etc.

Chavez has a strict regime which did not deter children from signing up or their parents for signing them up. To date the Cateura recycled orchestra school has 20 classrooms to accommodate the 200 children attending school and an amphitheatre for 300 people. According to a recent report, the amphitheatre also functions as a community centre with free craft classes. The school also provides scholarships so all the students have the opportunity to further their studies. Following their example a recycled orchestra has already been created in Spain in 2014 and now has 50 children who were at risk of social exclusion.

Chavez sees the orchestra as a social project that uses music as a catalyst, proposing a life change to its students and the community that’s projected into the future. He believes that the mentality required to learn an instrument can be applied more widely to lift his pupils out of poverty. “The solution is not to run away from a place,” Chávez said in an article interview published in the CBN news. “The solution is to change the place. You have to have projects first, and then resources will come. It’s ideas that change the world.”

The documentary film began production in 2009. Years of following the orchestra’s growth and movements and with the crew working closely with the community, the documentary film team has also raised funds that enabled the orchestra to go on tour. The documentary was completed early this year after suffering the setback of a flood in 2014.

Film Star rating: 4 out of 5

DESERT MIGRATION (A DOCUMENTARY)

A vista opens on a wide angle camera lens of a kind of nowhere-land. And then there were windmills, blades yawing, spinning round and round with the wind, that poked out oddly into view. They were behind that dreary, barren mound sticking out in the middle of a dull looking plain – a dessert. This was in Palm Springs, Coachella Valley in Southern California where HIV and AIDS survivors are rebuilding their lives. This desert ‘oasis’ for the ‘Desert AIDS Project’ averages 20 to 30 new client arrivals every month. This documentary film which is directed and co-produced (with Marc Smolowitz) by Australian born Daniel Cordone told of the stories of Eric, Steve, Doc, Bill, Ted, Michael and seven others from their own words, in series of snippets of interviews. All of these men are HIV-long term survivors living their lives on a day to day basis. A moving documentary of character strength amongst a group of individuals, each with his own driftwood to live by or help him cope with each waking day. As Cardone stated in one of the articles written while he was filming the documentary, “There have been a lot of films about what happens – We were here, ‘How to survive a plague’ – but nada on those who’d lived through it all and lost focus… How do you take those steps to build something? It’s a movie about resilience, courage, finding meaning, starting over.” The producers are optimistic that the film will help change people’s perceptions about the needs and experiences of ageing and HIV positive gay men in Palm Springs, which Smolowitz considers ‘a microcosm’ of AIDS health care related issues.

Film Star rating: 4 out of 5

BABAI – FATHER

Kosovo’s declared independence in February 2008 was to cap a lengthy and violent conflict with Serbia which started more than a decade earlier. The film is at dateline Kosovo 1990s. Serbian minority and the Albanians have started getting into conflict when the Serbian forces started oppressing Albanians and suppressing their institutions. Feeling the rising tension, many Kosovars began escaping to nearby countries as undocumented immigrants. The film opens with Gesim (Astrit Kabashi) in a hired transport on his way to Montenegro, along the border of Kosovo. It was the first of his several attempts to escape his dead-end life as a cigarette vendor after he was deserted by his wife. Left with his ten year old son, they bunked with his older relative’s family in his cramped house which was soon to be more cramped with the forthcoming marriage of the eldest son. His attempt to get to Montenegro was foiled when guards at the checkpoint found his ten year old son at the boot of the car. Unbeknownst to him, his son hid at the boot of the car to be with him.

Unsentimental but emotionally draining, it is tempting to suspect that from the title, the original script was intended to depict a patriarch, which in the case of Gesim, it is hardly deserved. Or perhaps, the title infers a look into a filial bonding that’s anchored on the father’s character. The weight of the film implies its centric focus on relationships which was presented raw and indelicate. The relationship between father and son was rooted on the young’s dependency on his parent and not on the expected ideal of parental devotion. Played by Kosovar actors, Astrit Kabashi as the father and Val Maloku as the ten year old son- Nori, the character depth in the film was adeptly superimposed in nuances by the director’s close up shots to capture the underlying unspoken doubts, confusion and detachment in the young boy’s mind or that of Gesim. Perhaps the callousness of Gesim Berisha as a parent in escaping responsibility and as such, thoughtlessly imposing his responsibility to his older relative, was his way of dealing with the bitterness at his wife’s leaving. In the case of the child, perhaps his non-acceptance of the sense of being a burden, as by now he was being abandoned too by his remaining parent, that caused his single-minded clutch on his father. Yet, it seems to be more than survival instinct that was causing him to do everything he could to not be separated from him. The single mindedness sent him to a point of throwing himself in front of the bus to deter his father from leaving him. The events take on a sequence of transitions that imposes emotional character transformation in the young. Fear quickly corrupts innocence and draws out hostility as a necessary reaction for survival.

The director – Morina kept focus on the ten year old’s perspective. At such age, the boy was at a crucial point of his hard-knock education. The boy (Maloku) had an almost permanently set expression that can be taken as either innocently questioning or all knowing. He was a quiet observer as he eyed with burgeoning curiosity the harshness and cramping that surrounded him. He watched an uncle beat up his eldest- a clearly physically superior man, who, out of traditional respect for his parent, bore up submissively and in full acceptance of the ordeal as his penance.
And when his father finally got away, he was left with relatives. The desperation to follow and reunite with his father forced him out of innocence. He stole his uncle’s savings that was meant for the wedding of his son and embarked on a quest to follow his father who, he soon found out with reason to believe that he went to Germany. He learned quickly how to use people craftily to achieve his purpose. He forged a makeshift deal with a woman who wanted to go to Germany to join her husband.

The story presents a harsh reality about smuggled migration. The extent of what people to do then out of desperation is the same extent as people would do now. If the script was meant to show a ten year old’s ‘rite of passage’ from innocence to survival craftiness, it could be construed as incidental. The film skimmed at the sea ordeal, presenting it as just a leg of a stretch which has far more dangerous bends.

Realities that await in the ‘greener pasture’ debunk the common notion that leaving one’s homeland is the best hope and that overseas is where one achieves or fulfils dreams. The detention centre where Gesim is bunking is not a warm welcoming refuge for the undocumented and this presented another hostile point for the ten year old, who by now, has proven to have the grit of nerve to survive. At one point, the son takes the initiative to get the two of them, father and son, to move out of a situation and move on. The ‘to-your-face’ brutal honesty with which the story was dealt with is both impressive and unnerving. Kosovar director Visar Morina was superb; meticulous, focused and his angling was greatly thought out. The pacing takes on a studied rhythm and it sets up the flow to a gradual acceleration as the film gets full control of the mood and emotional impact with its sound track.

The film which covers an expanse across Europe, is a co-production between film makers from Kosovo, Germany, Macedonia and France.

Film Star rating: 5 out of 5

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY

A story about Raghda 40 and Ahmer 45. Raghda was a Syrian political prisoner, imprisoned for having written a book that the Syrian government did not approve. Ahmer was a Palestinain fighter. They met in prison 15 years ago. He first saw her, with her bloodied face, swollen black eyes after a beating when she was placed in a neighbouring cell. They communicated through a secret hole that they made in the wall. They fell in love, became comrades and lovers. When they got released, they got married and started their family together. Under the Assad dictatorship, Syrian came into turmoil. For her stand against the dictatorship, Raghda was imprisoned and Ahmer looked after their family with two children, Bob and Kaka. When Raghda got released from prison on clemency, she went back to her family exhibiting the trauma of her incarceration. Ahmer was the ever patient and understanding partner. The documentary was filmed over 5 years with director Sean McAllister going back and forth to visit the family and record the events in their lives. It is one of his visits, that Mc Allister got arrested for filming.

Raghda’s stint in prison was screened off, cast in shadows beneath the screen that dealt only with that one link to her presence, her un-revealing voice on the mobile phone as she called home. Prison in Syria was brutal. It would have been beyond the endurance of an ordinary mortal. Syrian prison for women is a section of hell, Raghda’s personal hell. If her imprisonment ravaged her, something in her core remained unbowed. Despite her sanity being in shreds, her core benumbed, there was softness about her that remained. The mother in her. How she protected that humanity in her soul and kept it pristine, only a person that had lived detached from her body and lived only within her soul could have such capacity. Her emotions ‘have become fossils’ under the beating of constant terror that she lived through in prison. She could not un-numb her emotions that were crusted by what she has gone through and she found herself unable to fully appreciative again ordinary simple things in a peaceful existence.

With his parents having grown too far apart, the son has resigned himself to accepting them living in ‘the cage of their minds’.

This powerful film is an intense, moving true story of people whose lives have been cast in extra ordinary billowing winds of fate, hanging in fine yet extra ordinarily strong threads of hope. It is compelling as it is heart wrenching. It is the winner of the top prize at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.

Film Star Rating: 5 out of 5

THE GOLD COAST

Dateline 1837: A Danish intellectual idealist and naively enthusiastic botanist Frederick Wulff (played by Norwegian actor Jacob Oftebro, Kon Tiki) arrives in Gold Coast (now Ghana) full of ideals and good intentions.

He has been granted permission by the King of Denmark to start a coffee plantation. He was meant to transform a tropical outpost ‘grave yard’ into a garden. He was treated by the native population on arrival like a god, and was given his ‘own little slave’ Lumpa. About this time, Denmark which was the first European country to ban slave trade, still allowed ownership of slaves. Wulff’s innocent good intentions, were beautifully painted by the camera’s almost adoring treatment of his tall stature, fair complexion, golden locks, blue eyes and proud Nordic cheekbones which seemed to imply that such physical attributes vindicated the rationale in the worshipful regard of him by the natives. Wulff finds himself caught in the vortex of a network of contradictions with which the place seems to be teeming. There was the beautiful fertile land, the convenient availability of the natives at his beck and call, the virtue presented by Caroline (played by Danica Curcic) a missionary whose goal is to convert the locals to Christianity. And then there was the hedonism that confronted him and which he would insulate himself from. Perhaps he laboured in his mind to reconcile the brutality, violence and debauchery that he witnessed with the passive and mute acceptance of the natives of the colonists’ ways. He finds comfort at the thought of his fiancée Flitsblu (played by Luise Skov) back in Denmark to whom he would write his thoughts.

Wulff’s character was based on a real life Wulff, who, contrary to the film’s Nordic Wulff persona was a Jewish civil servant who owned slaves and cohabited with a mixed race servant woman whom he met in the Gold Coast. The imageries in the film, treated with hazy dreamlike surrealism were accentuated by the tempered other-worldly musical score. Wulff, with his high morals and ideals, is compelled to metamorphose from the gentle and seemingly weak persona that he arrived by to a passionate leader and crusader. He finds that slaves were being traded and he would take a stand against this barbarism perpetuated by his compatriots who would soon enough brutally treat and incarcerate him. Perhaps he was in a moral quandary, considering that he would tried to infuse the idea of freedom amongst the slaves he owned. Wulff’s state of health deteriorates along with his mental state. Upon the death of the governor (Morten Holst), Wulff was soon at the mercy of Lucas (Anders Heinrichsen) and Herbst (Adam Ild Rohweder).

Director Dencik infers Wulff’s changing mental state (or is it hallucination?) and evolving morals with Wulff’s reflections of swirling images and spiral motifs which he observes in nature around him. This was accentuated by the camera’s focus and sound track.

The Gold Coast is an intense romantic tale that’s beautifully crafted and powerfully presented. Jacob Oftebro’s enigmatic performance in the film is remarkable. It carries the film through.

Film Star Rating: 5 out of 5

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