Guest post: hope for a new kind of film in Sydney’s Underground Cinema
Lloyd Bradford Syke is a Sydney-based theatre critic whose prolific and voluminous reviews can be found on Crikey’s theatre blog Curtain Call. As a long-time fan of Syke’s work, it is a pleasure to have him contribute this piece to Cinetology, an on-the-scene account of Undergound Cinema‘s first Sydney screening. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Underground Cinema is “a secret immersive film screening event held in undisclosed locations throughout Melbourne and Sydney” that combines film exhibition with live performance. The theme was “hope” and Syke was there, waiting in line, holding his papers, suddenly contemplating what it would feel like to be a refugee.
Lloyd Bradford Syke writes: It’s a novel concept. I don’t know that it has any equivalent anywhere else in the world. It’s secret cinema. Which is to say, if you sign up, you get clues. What to wear, for example. Finally, a couple of days before the screening, you get a location. Even that won’t be too explicit. It relies on mystery, intrigue, a sense of fun and adventure. You have to be open to it, spontaneous and do your homework. You have to go to a little bit of trouble. It’s participatory, which is something new for cinema, unless you’re in on it as a maker. Yes, it’s a good idea, this Underground Cinema. It’s been kicking around Melbourne for a while. Now Sydney gets an in as well.
Each event has a theme. For the inaugural Sydney screening, it was “hope”. I received my transit papers. All of a sudden, I had an inkling of what it feels like to be a refugee. Since numerous in my family were refugees, it was a way to make that experience slightly more palpable. And it could hardly be more topical, politically. It was a provocation to think, again, more deeply, about the plight and experience of refugees. It’s a pity, perhaps, that some of our poetical masters and mistresses didn’t receive invitations.
I arrived at the designated address having sussed it as The Factory Theatre, Marrickville, home of the Sydney Comedy Festival and a multifarious venue that plays host to many an international touring act. The Factory Theatre, as the name implies, is an ex-factory, or warehouse. What better place to herd and harangue a bunch of would-be reffos? And herded we were. Like sheep, or cattle. From the moment we arrived, ordered by black-clad, helmeted officers to ‘get in line!’ Even amidst our amusement, there was the spectre of ‘what if this was real?’ It was disturbingly difficult to pretend that, even as theatre, the uniforms, shouting, and arms weren’t intimidating. There were echoes, for mine, of my family’s past, in Hungary, and being Jewish under the jackboot of Nazism. There was, on the one hand, the temptation to submit; to surrender to this new, suddenly imposed authority, out of fear and apprehension. On the other, a more visceral bidding to rail, resist and revolt.
Several of these oppressors had British accents. They had all the tried-and tested methods of manipulation, intimidation and torture down pat. There was even a rampant German Shepherd patrolling the gate. They made us stand, queued like animals, for a long time. I was not only uncomfortable about my voluntary compliance. Something much worse was going on. I was bored, irritated and restless.
Eventually, after being approached by a gypsy bearing oranges, we were assigned numbers and, from that moment, we were to stay coupled to our designated partner. Then, in small groups we were processed; allowed through the gate and subjected to a series of deliberately confusing, if simple, instructions. Step forward. Step back. Line up against the cage. ‘You’re just one step away from being in the cage.’ One poor blighter, who couldn’t follow instructions, was assailed; brought to his knees; humiliated. He was, of course, one of the crew, but a good one. For each new group pushed past the checkpoint, he repeated the routine quite convincingly.
Some time later, we were filed through another checkpoint, to have our papers validated. Suddenly we found ourselves released from the senseless discipline, free to wander. And even drink beer. But all was not well. A man with a balaclava, screaming threats, pointed a gun at my face. It was a near thing.
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