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Audio-Visual Documentary

Jul 16, 2013


The Australian pub rock scene in the 1980′s still had a purity about it as it wasn’t tarnished by the feeling that it was just a stepping stone to something bigger, like an artistic version of reserve grade. It was the something bigger. Bands like Cold Chisel, the Angels, the Hunners, Oz Crawl owned the pub scene and that was enough. And, in that world, the Sunnyboys were definitely up there.

Their music surged along on a classic four-piece garage sound, evoking 60′s surf music and soaked in the sweaty, sticky-floored pub scene into which it fit snugly. All jangly and frenetic, pogo-dance friendly and littered with Jeremy Oxley’s teen angst shadowed lyrics, the Sunnyboys wrote the sound track for many a uni toga party and for countless late nights lost in the thrum of a Marshall stack pounding the walls of any one of a million boozy, Winfield-smoky, toilet-sized pubs in the ‘burbs.

Days they were. But they are no more and the Sunnyboys, like many a legend from those days, never made it out of the maze of Euro-pop synth that sprung up around them. So be it. But, as we’ve seen too with The Angels’ Doc Neeson, rock star burn-out is real, and there’s a compelling personal story, a struggle with oneself and the wider world to be told.

The band’s singer and lead songwriter Jeremy Oxley is the subject of The Sunnyboy and in that, it is a study into what is branded as mental illness, Oxley’s that is. It is well documented that Oxley has wrestled with the demons of insanity for some decades and perhaps with the fading of his rock star livery. It emerges he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that this manifests into delusions and hearing voices. He also has diabetes and an irregular heart-beat. The film’s title becomes ironic.

Clearly an authorised version of his story, Oxley’s voice is present throughout. At times, that voice is narky, annoying, sweet, confused and poetically lucid. Most of all, it’s defiant. This is a guy who shot bullet holes his gold record, then framed it. There’s a lot of wheels turning in that bull head.

But Oxley’s unwillingness to be boxed by diagnosis becomes a kind of question mark dangling like a hook in the film; is it denial or is he not really mad at all?

If Jeremy Oxley didn’t want his art to be industrialised, became disillusioned and bored and moved on into middle age, drinking and falling apart, is that mental illness? Can a diagnosis inform behaviour, can it become self-fulfilling? Is his a good fight, or is it just making the job of those around him to get him to find the core of himself again much harder? Is he a dickhead or a genius? Is he sick or just confused?

Such a tension, planned or not, adds to The Sunnyboy’s power. This is a study of a man who found success in his field perhaps too young and who was, it seems, ill-equipped to face its consequences. Like Icarus, he got burned for his efforts. Or he burned himself, drenched in alcohol and rough living.

As an artist it seems he was shocked at how the industry worked and he cadged against his creations being sullied by the business monster they spawned. But, as a person, something deeper seems to exist. A brilliant grommet surfer, winner of a national schoolboy title, success seemed to come easy to Jeremy Oxley. Maybe too easy. He seemed to question its providence, its intentions, not to trust it. It’s a common enough view for those of us from modest backgrounds: why me?

Shimmering just behind the light of The Sunnyboy are the deeper implications of Jeremy’s relationship with his brother Peter – the band’s bass player. These are hugely complex and multi-layered. There’s some kind of love/hate thing going there between them, and for Jeremy, Peter comes across as both his nemesis and his best friend. They are, in effect, like two parts of the one mind, struggling to find a path through the labyrinths of their shared genes.

Director Kaye Harrison seems willing to allow the bigger questions of Jeremy’s and Peter’s relationship to remain implied, and it’s a little disappointing it isn’t further explored. It is as if the darker, more jagged truths that lie on the path between Jeremy and Peter are folded into an explain-all term like “mental illness”, to be solved with needles in the butt every two weeks and a label around Jeremy Oxley’s neck. It seems like there must have been something, somewhere that may give a clue to just what is going on between Jeremy and Peter beyond Jeremy’s own journey. Perhaps it was found, but it was too painful or personal to include. Either way, a mystery remains at the heart of The Sunnyboy.

There’s a lot to like in The Sunnyboy. The producers have clearly approached this project with sensitivity and delicacy. Oxley is given room to create himself in the eyes of the viewers and he seems to relish the opportunity to both antagonise and charm us. Those around him speak openly, honestly and emotionally about being in his turbulent orbit. This is a troubling story of a man suffering, a story made more poignant against the measurement of just how far he has fallen. It’s also the story of mental illness, the cruelty of its punishing arc, and its many shades of black.


Title – The Sunnyboy

Makers – Treehouse Productions and Jotz Productions

How to Catch it – MIFF 2013, August 9 and 11. Further distribution TBA 

Couch Time – 90 Mins.

High Point – A complex character study of a compelling subject

Low Point – Perhaps misses an opportunity to dig deeper








Audio-Visual Documentary

Jul 3, 2013


When Wikileaks became the cause celebre around the world – somewhere in between the “Collateral Murder” video in 2007 and the Iraq War Logs of 2010 – the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifted. At the same time, the GFC was pulling the world apart in a similar way. Lots got exposed then. Sure, the plates shifted. But then they went back to where they were. To achieve this monumental recovery of the status quo, a campaign undertaken by vested interests was a lesson in managing perception.

The founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, noted that “The propagandist must treat personality as he would treat any other objective fact within his province.” In the Age of Celebrity, the art of playing the man, not the ball as a means of discrediting an uncomfortable truth is even more pronounced. And easier. Thus the attack on Julian Assange as a means of attacking the Wikileaks portal to power – the focus of the story on him, not the issues he raised – is part of that shift of the tectonic plates back into position. And thus We Steal Secrets-The Story of Wikileaks.

While purporting to be about the organisation, this film is really about its founder and public face. It is also about the tortured soul, Bradley Manning. The focus on personality and character seems to sum up the current shape of Wikileaks in the broad scope of public perception, in that it appears to be more about faces that facts. It’s hard to say whether this approach in the film is meant to be ironic or is just evidence that the film-makers inability to separate Wikileaks from Assange’s crazy-brilliant personality. Either way, what is clear is that the plight of Assange and the fate of Wikileaks is part of a vast chess game in public perception the likes of which, in scale and impact, we have probably never seen.

Julian Assange is certainly a fascinating study. At times funny, calculating, naive and highly intelligent, he is presented here as a complex soul carrying the burden of a sharp mind and a troubled conscience. From his pimply, long-haired hacker persona, Mendax (and the possible involvement in one of the earliest big hacks – the NASA/WANK hack in 1989) to the impoverished global rock-star of no-fixed-abode, Assange seems to have manufactured a means of capturing the public mood for a hero, a messiah, and to have found the means of digitising his path to folk glorification and notoriety.

But, this binary path to super-stardom laid by Assange has spiralled increasingly inward, away from his apparent audience and possibly away from Wikileaks itself. We Steal Secrets argues that there is no evidence of any CIA conspiracy to frame Assange for the sexual abuse accusations that hang over him in Sweden. The film further contends that Assange could have nipped the Sweden case in the bud and worse, that by tying Wikileaks’ work to his own plight – despite advice to create a distance between the two – he has rung the death knell of a brilliant idea and of an important force for good. The CIA and its cohorts have clearly taken every opportunity to use this case to smear Assange and, given the unbreakable connection that Assange himself has seemingly guaranteed, Wikileaks itself. He is losing the The Perception Play.

Post-Sweden allegations, it’s surely Vested Interests: 1 – Assange/Wikileaks: 0

The character studies in We Steal Secrets means that a lot of the Wikileaks story is missed. The role of the newspapers, which published much Wikileaks material, is only lightly touched upon. The movie asks the question as to why these organisations have not been vilified like Assange and Wikileaks, but doesn’t offer any answers. One telling point missed, for instance, is that New York Times have sought to distance themselves from Assange himself, suggesting he is not a journalist, in a possible attempt to expose him to implication under the Espionage Act (under which journos have some protection).

There’s the fact that the Swedish prosecutors are able to come to the UK at any time to interview Assange and that there is no legal need for him to go to Sweden. Indeed, Assange has invited this arrangement. Why do they need him to go to Sweden?

Finally, there’s the fact that the US doesn’t appear to have a legal case against Assange, despite the bombast from Fox and the Tea Party loons. Does the threat of extradition really exist? Could he really be renditioned to Gitmo?

A true “story of Wikileaks” might have usefully included such material, clearing up the many confusions around them, rather than building pop psychological constructs of Assange or Manning (the latter has never had any actual connection to Wikileaks beyond allegedly dumping a record amount of secret data into their dropbox). In leaving these gaps, director Alex Gibney, leaves himself open to criticism. It’s an opening unhesitatingly rushed into by Wikileaks itself, which has launched a list of apparent errors.

But, while the focus on character appears to make the title a misnomer, and the movie misses opportunities to provide a more complete picture of the eponymous organisation and its impact, perhaps there are deeper points to be drawn.

There seems some conjecture, for instance, over the title We Steal Secrets. It’s a line actually uttered in the film by Michael Hayden, former director of the US National Security Agency and former head of the CIA. He says it about states in general, which do, he admits “steal secrets.” It’s hard to suggest Wikileaks stole any secrets. The organisation is, as it is quick to point out, a publisher of material passed on by whistle-blowers.

So who does “We” mean?

Perhaps the “We” is us. All of us. Secrets are a valuable commodity in human society. We all want others people’s and we all want to protect our own. Once Assange became a global figure, we all wanted his secrets. We encouraged their theft and the rape case in Sweden was perhaps the juiciest one. This documentary is part of the very chase it seems to highlight. Even in its extreme close ups of the interviewees, the film seems to suggest that secrets, any secrets, are wanted; pimples, yellow teeth, cracked lips; the use of transcripts of highly personal emails and legal records. It’s detail, detail, detail. In the Age of Celebrity – a phenomenon Assange has seemingly tapped into quite consciously – we lust for such insights, such titbits of personality. Secrets extract vulnerability and inconsistency. Secrets are the greatest levellers.

In this light, is Assange part of a much bigger, and potentially much darker scenario? Is he just a disposable conduit for our obsession to know things we are not supposed to know. Who steals secrets? We all do. If states do that’s because they purport to represent us. And, if that’s so, what does that say about us, we who let them?

A second underbelly theme is the investigation into the nature of truth. Wikileaks have become the masters of equating information with truth, pushing the line that more is better and all is best. Their persnickety rants against the film underline this approach, coming across as shrill and paranoid, seeking to quash every point that Wikileaks isn’t comfortable with. But, all the world is not hanging on every factoid. Truth, we might safely say, tends not to be some objective – conveniently digital – object floating somewhere in space, or on top of a pile of facts, to be identified by Wikileaks and its hard-working volunteers. It is something more chaotic, more complex and more malleable. Moreover, most human beings are not equipped to consume mounds of data and to extract rational and defensible conclusions from them. Truth is a reflection in a mirror. It is not, as in the Wikileaks World, the mirror, the one that it holds. Truth is the sum of perceptions in a given space, in a given time. If there are any truths at all, perhaps that is one.

Finally, we can see the omnipotence of statism and the power of the corporate-industrial myth. Its force is in its denial of all that it doesn’t favour and its construction of banal tropes called undeniable truths – the nation-state, the market and so on. How can Wikileaks ever, truly, be understood while the very nature of what it is saying is against the logic of the system it must speak to? In many ways, the organisation may as well be talking in Martian. And how can one individual like Assange – as flawed as any of us – withstand the barrage unleashed by such a force? As such, Assange’s and Wikileaks’ only real hope was to change public perception, alter the frame of truth, so radically that a new logical paradigm emerged. That doesn’t appear to have happened – the tectonic plates got shoved back into place – and it might take another documentary (at least) to explain why.

We Steal Secrets is not definitive, nor is it ephemeral. It is part of the great dialogue of perception that Wikileaks has generated and has become. It may well be that Julian Assange and/or Wikileaks (if they can ever be separated) wins the long game and changes those perceptions enough for the victory of transparency to be known and for the defeat for ignorance and greed to be manifested. In this continuum, in retrospect, We Steal Secrets may be seen as a vital point, one where the deeper meanings of the Wikileaks phenomenon were laid out. As a documentary it is intriguing and thought-provoking. But it falls short of the goal denoted in its title. As an artefact, it is a part of the debate, part of the hopefully changing landscape, part of the never-ending Game of Perception.


Title – We Steal Secrets – The Story of Wikileaks

Makers – Focus World, Global Produce and Jigsaw

How to Catch it – In cinemas from July 4

Couch Time – 130 Mins.

High Point – Raises lots of think-points

Low Point – Too character oriented

NOTE: A good discussion between host Paul Barclay and investigative journo Andrew Fowler that was held after the screening I attended in Brisbane will be broadcast on Big Ideas on ABC Radio National tonight (July 3) and on Big Ideas on ABC TV (channel and date tba).


Audio-Visual Documentary

Jun 27, 2013


Two guys in an enclosed space beating the b’Jesus out of each other doesn’t sound like philosophy. Blood smeared across the canvas floor, a busted nose spread like putty across a guy’s purpled face, a baying crowd and a ring announcer elongating words to within an inch of meaning shouldn’t really be something to think much about. But it is. “Every fight is a story” says one of the fighters featured in Fightville and damn if that ain’t true.

Fightville tracks the fortunes of two fighters and their coach, as well as the promoter who lives and dies on their white-knuckle fists and sweaty bodies. Each is indeed a story. And a fight. One fighter, Dustin The Diamond (pictured above), is on the way up and just can’t stop winning. The other, Albert, is having a tougher time, trying to frame his potential and his messy family background. There’s the trainer Crazy Tim, with his cauliflower ears, and love of fear, and finally Gil the Thrill, the promoter with the nice smile and sweet family who risks everything to put on profitable fight nights all across America.

Mixed Martial Arts looks like a messy way to make a living. The concept is to throw all fighting styles into a melange of squirming, punching, kicking and throwing. It doesn’t appear to have a pattern or a point, other than to beat the crap out of someone else. Or doesn’t it? As one fighter puts it “Life is about balance and violence is part of that balance.” Hmmm, this world may not be what it first appears.

That little pearl above is not the only bit of wisdom that drops from the lips of these thuggish-looking heads and the skill of directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein is to draw out the narrative of this odd and dangerous world to the extent that life parallels are easy to make.

Dustin, the champ on the up, looks like sweet kid who has a skill in an area that isn’t sanctioned by polite society. That isn’t his fault and if he lived in another time, another place, he’d be exalted. His good fortune is that he’s found an outlet and so, rather than being a menace to society and himself, he’s making a living from controlled brutality. His energies and obsessions are turned inward and are given purpose. It’s a success story worth celebrating. And studying.

For all the street philosophy though, these guys see life as a zero sum game. Its all about winning and losing and while philosophers of a type – a Sun Tzu, or a Machiavelli – might agree, it’s not necessarily the most enlightened way to view existence; we’re all going to lose one day and our fight for life always ends in defeat. Life is less about controlling the world around you, more about managing how you deal with it.

The characters in Fightville have an overly simplistic world view, tempered by a skewed take on life. Men are made to physically fight, we are told. Sure, but that doesn’t mean we have to, or to even be turned on by it when others do. Men, it might also be argued, are psychologically built to kill our babies, but it doesn’t mean we all do, or want to.

So, while the philosophical lines are cute, they don’t get to why this doco makes you think. For that, take Gil the Thrill, the promoter, as an example. In arranging the bouts, he is fighting a different fight. He’s struggling for his livelihood, his family, his security. The undertone of his story is that we all do indeed fight, just not always with our fists, and that life is indeed a battle. It’s just a more subtle thing, with a more amorphous opponent and there are no rules, not even a cage to slug it out in. Our fears, our habits, our obsessions take us on everyday and their savagery is just as brutal as any thug in a cage.

While all the men in Fightville have/or do fight with their bodies, all fight also with their minds too. And they know it. And love it. This fact rings like an end-of-round bell with those of us – that is all of us – who struggle daily with ourselves. Each man has his inner wars, his own internal scars and his own stories. Those are the real fights, the real tales and the skill of Fightville is that amid the flecks of sweat, the heaving bodies, the gore and the violence, that delicate truth can be seen.


Title – Fightville

Makers – Heros Films

How to Catch it – DVD

Couch Time – 85 Mins

High Point – The philosophy

Low Point – The banality of violence

Extras – Yes, but limited

Audio-Visual Documentary

Jun 23, 2013


America still has the power to shock. In a nice way. While manufactured, ersatz versions of the good ol’ rags to riches story abound in shows like American Idol, and even in various “reality TV” vehicles, genuine bolts from the blue still happen. Charles Bradley is one and thankfully someone with a camera followed him while it happened.

At 62, Charles Bradley must have thought whatever blue was left in his life had lost its bolt long ago. Gigging in hole-in-the-wall night clubs in his native New York, wailing in front of small crowds of talking, boozing punters as a James Brown impersonator (stage name “Black Velvet”), Bradley’s career was not so much heading into a cul-de-sac as paying off a mortgage there.

A chance meeting with an executive from the always excellent Dap Tones records, an invitation to lay some tracks with that label which has become adept at spotting authentic talent perhaps at the back-end of its arc (think Shirley Jones) and a breakthrough album – “No Time for Dreaming” and Charles Bradley makes the moves from Projects to Prospect.

The “Soul” of the title refers, of course, to the bottom-ended, entendre-ridden, brass-driven genre of music popularised in the 1970’s. This is indeed Bradley’s universe, even if his performance sytle sometimes tips too far towards James Brown parody and the 1960’s version of it (Memo to Charles: ditch the jumpsuit, man. It ain’t cool). But the title also refers to Bradley himself. Here’s a man who’s love of life and of humanity is clear and despite the knocks and the set-backs – family rejection, poverty and the loss of loved ones – there is a spirit that rises above. He is indeed the kind of soul that America sadly needs.

This film follows Bradley as he is about to launch his first album. We are introduced to his ailing mother, for whom he cares devotedly, and are shown his room at her house, which is in the basement. It’s a mattress on the floor, surrounded by water pipes and concrete. His own apartment is in one of those towering public housing monstrosities in the Bed-Stuy area of New York, reached by a graffiti-stained and piss-smelly stairwell. He stays at his mom’s when it just gets too hairy at the Projects. The “rags” part of his story are about as threadbare as you can get in the land of the free.

The “riches” part is building. The launch of his album is of course a massive success, with sales pushing for record-breaking status at Dap Tones and his subsequent tour – replete with cheering fans and full houses – is a triumph.

For all the gold of his story, “Soul of America” sags a little in parts. The dramatic ellipse, so easily established, falters and the opportunity to build to a crescendo is rather lost, especially given the story and the thumping Dap Tones-soaked soundtrack at director Poull Brien’s disposal. The final scenes, which ought to be full of power and passion, fade off into the distance a little too much like the songs on the edges of the vinyl records Dap Tones still proudly press out.

Other technical issues grate a little, such as the thick, occasionally impenetrable Brooklyn and Harlem accents which are aided by text sub-titles in part, but not, inexplicably, in others.

But, for the story and the soundtrack alone, “Soul of America” soars like a Charles Bradley high note. His story embodies the belief in life’s joy, no matter how late it arrives, captured in one of James Brown’s own iconic lines; “I feel good. I knew that I would.”


Title – Soul of America
Makers – Sam Connelly and Ovasen Post
How to Catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 74 Mins
High Point – The music
Low Point – Dramatic line never takes off


Audio-Visual Documentary

Jun 20, 2013


In November last year, China’s new Mao, Xi Jingping, stood in the historically weighted National Museum in Beijing, just a dissenter’s stone throw from Tiananmen Square, and proclaimed his Thing. Every Chinese leader needs A Thing. And Xi’s is “The Chinese Dream.” This nebulous term has Sinophiles chattering madly and pondering its meaning. They might start by acknowledging what it doesn’t mean which, as the arrest of a cutting edge documentary maker suggests, is that you can dream but you can’t hide.

Earlier this month, Chinese documentary maker, author, photographer and investigative journalist Du Bin was detained. Du has worked with many leading mastheads such as the New York Times and the Guardian, and has become recognised as a brave dissenting voice inside China, a willing force of light shining into China’s vast dark side.

As well as a film-maker, he has also written numerous books (mostly in Chinese only) highlighting the short shrift given to human rights in China.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 41 year-old Du has been held incommunicado since May 31. A statement from them says “The use of such harsh methods and the failure to provide solid grounds for his arrest suggest that this is a reprisal for his success in documenting the torture, humiliation and inhuman and degrading treatment of women at Masanjia Labour Camp.”

This refers to a striking documentary released by Du Bin in May, “Above the Ghost Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labour Camp.” This one hour film essentially bears witness to the dramatic efforts of 51 year-old farmer Liu Hua who, with her husband, discovered and exposed a local embezzlement ring in Liaoning, in North East China. It is a series of intracately framed scenes of Liu, deep contrasting shadows and off-centre focal points, telling of what she has seen in the eponymous “Reform Through Labour” camp in Liaoning.

The stories are harrowing and deeply troubling, making Xi Jingping’s trademark Mandarin smile and exhortations to dream seem sinister. Liu’s delivery is rapid-fire and often out-paces the text translation. The reason for this is given in the director’s own notes accompanying the YouTube video; “Liu worked daily to commit he writings to memory, eating each page once she had memorized it, for pencils, paper and writing were all strictly forbidden inside the camp.”

She’s like a machine gun, scattering verbal bullets around the grand spaces of the Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing.

It is estimated some 50 million Chinese have been arrested in labour camps – known as laogai or laojiao depending on their inmates status – in the last five decades. Currently, there are around 350 such camps in china, with about 160,000 Chinese incarcerated within.

Generally, labour camp prisoners are not given a trial and are not “processed” through official legal channels. Most are there on a whim. The most common inmates are falun Gong practitioners, prostitutes, drug users and, “petitioners” (Chinese political culture encourages ordinary citizens to petition government officials on issues of social justice or rights violations). The camps are meant to stand not as legally mandated punishment but as re-education facilities sponsored by the government for the individual’s own (and society’s own) protection. The fact they are not prisons as such means that inmates are often obliged to supply their own essentials such as bedding or food.

Recent reports have suggested the camps are to be shut down.

Products such as tea, chemicals, transformed steel, and food are produced, processed and/or packaged in these camps. While quality is considered very poor, most are exported worldwide as cheap versions of more expensive consumer goods.

At the time the film was released, Du Bin also launched a book on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Both the book at the film are banned in China.



Audio-Visual Documentary

Jun 7, 2013


It’s hard to know sometimes what constitutes an historical movement. You would think there should be some sense of cohesion or at least commonality. But there probably should be an actual movement or an attempt to progress via a defined set of principles or ideals. The so-called No Wave film-makers who emerged in New York’s lower East Side in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s may or may not make the cut in these terms. A documentary about them suffers by assuming they do.

Well-known figures like Nick Zedd, Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie all started off in the fairly anarchic world of No Wave cinema (aka The Cinema of Transgression). The basics of No Wave were a super-8 (often hand-held) grainy imagery, bad acting, worse props and scenery, marginal themes, street-wise sensibilities, taking the piss and lots of drugs. Narrative was often eschewed and many standard models for conventional movie-making were discarded. These were kids, we are told, responding to crisis at the cutting edge of culture.

Sure. Maybe they were. But they were also kids who, as with any generation, were looking to challenge their older peers and progenitors, just because they were kids. Because that’s what kids do. Not every generation gets away with with taking on the status quo of course, but these kids had technology on their side. The relative cheapness and portability of super-8 cameras and, later, video camcorders, gave them an edge and provided a fillip to their microcosm of marginal society in the worm holes in the formerly shiny Big Apple.

But, the equation is surely bigger than kids + technology = movement, at least one worth making a feature film about. It’s hard to find a narrative thread that holds in this collection of now aged and somewhat wasted figures from this era. It’s too easy to see them as boring old farts talking about their wild days, and most are of course more than that. But the flimsy line that ties them all together, apart from their friendships and their tiny whorl of artistic activity that spread outwards, seems to falls short as a subject for a feature doco, without better grounding.

What did this movement aim to achieve? If it was just about making B grade splatter, zombie flicks and snuff movies, then does this raise them to the level of a movement like say, Expressionism, Cinema Verite or Film Noir? Sure, it was fun. Sure there emerged some truly fine talent and even a few good movies like “Downtown 81”, but if they weren’t all pretentious smart-arses from the centre of the universe, would anybody give a flying Roger about some kids throwing together rubbish movies just to piss off their parents and city authorities?

To answer this, we need to look more at the context of No Cinema. At the time, New York, hitherto the world’s most prosperous city, was deep in debt. Mayor Abraham Beame had to rely on a union super fund to pay the city’s obligations as the then President Gerald Ford told the city he wouldn’t bale it out. Crime was rampant. The 1977 blackout was a low point as darkness unleashed the city’s fury against corrupt and bumbling officials and a city out of control. It was also the era that marked the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan through California state politics to the national stage and of a new era of social conservatism characterised by the attempts by authorities to turn a blind eye to the spreading horror of HIV/AIDS, largely because it was only killing “marginals” like gays and artists.

In No Wave’s reactions to all this, their applied antagonism and their railing against power gone horribly wrong and bordering on the comical, perhaps we can say a movement was born; one of reaction and the search for new boundaries, or perhaps old ones.

But, Blank City, while touching on these issues, rather skirts the more compelling details and links between them in favour of the more salubrious details of the lives and times of the drug-addled, angry young souls of No Wave, or those that survived at least.

For Film buffs and fans of B Grade, this film may be a perfect genuflection to an era and a style of movie-making. Fair enough. But for someone coming at this cold, without much knowledge of film culture (in my case not extending beyond a communications elective at uni that was largely spent in the campus bar), Blank City lacks the depth and context to offer much of real interest.

Title – Blank City

Makers – Insurgent Media

How to catch it – DVD 

Couch Time – 91 Mins.

High Point – Jim Jarmusch’s wall of hair

Low Point – Fragmented narrative

Extras – Yes 

Blank City Trailer









Multimedia Documentary

May 31, 2013


The challenges faced by newspapers in integrating with the online world have been grinding on for some time. Among the myriad of issues they face is the one about how solid newsy features are packaged and presented in a slick and savvy way. The old days of wordy expositions with an occasional pic are disappearing as online readers search for jazzy visuals, less text-heavy, scroll-obliging stories and degrees of interaction. This week, the Guardian, as part of its Australia launch, offered a new template which may have a significant influence on how newspapers face up to this new news landscape, using the techniques of documentary film-making and interactive media tools.

Their effort Firestorm, a multimedia documentary presentation of the devastating bush-fires in Tasmania earlier this year, seeks to take the newspaper feature to a place where the print-on-the-page presentation is not the primary version of the piece.

The piece uses video with a scroll-down side text, short audio grabs and some compelling stills to tell the story of one family in particular as they faced the state’s bushfire emergency in January. Running time is flexible but took me around 25 minutes.

Truth to Tell spoke to one of the producers, Francesca Panetta via Skype from London, who told us The Guardian has been one of the first movers in merging the worlds of newsprint and multimedia. One recent example she cites is The Guardian’s View from the Shard, which Francesca also worked on. This initiative, which went live in March, is a virtual view from the top of the iconic building’s 68th floor, across the London cityscape. Live markers point out spots of interest which can be opened and linked to. It’s less a news piece though, nor is it strictly narrative, and so Firestorm certainly appears to mark new ground for the newspaper and others are no doubt checking it out.

Firestorm took 3 months from concept to end product. But, could a similar template as was used in Firestorm be used for developing news stories, news features and think-pieces? With sophisticated editing software available, and online satellite feeds, quick, on-the-run multimedia feature pieces are certainly feasible in technical terms. Francesca agrees the Firestorm template “may be useful for news,” adding that the Guardian news desks certainly are taking the internet seriously. But, she says, “there’s not just one solution.”

The bottom line for newspapers and other traditional media is work out how to tell stories in the multimedia age. While the technology may exist, the trouble with developing news is that the story is often still unwinding, making a narrative line difficult to generate. However, a Firestorm-like template may be established which can be added to as news evolves.

In cases such as Syria, for instance, a live feature piece can be given a platform, covering say the lead up of decades of Alawite domination, Shia and Sunni rifts, and the regional tensions and global politics orbiting these core concerns. An evolving multimedia feature narrative platform, supplanting a daunting scroll of words or chapter links, could be easily built and added to, incorporating the internal war, global geo-strategic movements and the move now towards increased sectarianism. Edits on the go can ensure the piece doesn’t become unwieldy in length. Additional material may be submitted by video journalists, and are verified and subbed by experienced editors. The piece may be seen in full-length or in updates or chapters.

Traditional media like newspapers certainly have the means to run such feature documentaries and have a need to develop new techniques. Francesca agrees that, at The Guardian, “We are able to tell stories in many ways and are able to be pretty flexible. To get this (Firestorm) done in 3 months is pretty incredible and its shows that compared to say books or film, we are able to move quickly” (Firestorm is also available as an e-book).

Firestorm may turn out to be a new model for documentary-style news dissemination to the extent that 3 months may well seem clunky. The value-add carried by newspapers – and other quality trad media formats – can have in comparison to say blogs or to news gathering websites is that they are able to shape and contextualise complex events. As such, instead of, or perhaps in tandem with, books or numerous longform text articles, such internet-based feature formats may be a useful and popular means of doing so. Many, clearly, are experimenting with the form.


May 30, 2013


ABC2’s hugely successful documentary series Sunday Best is back from June 2nd. The series highlights classic documentary features every Sunday night at 8.30pm in what is a return to the end- of-weekend big film night of the old days.

ABC documentaries publicist Bridget Stenhouse told Truth to Tell that the new season follows the remit of past years in offering quality, thought-provoking docos which are designed to tap into current issues and create the water-cooler moments on Monday morning.

Sunday night, says Bridget, is a bit of a shifting ground for TV these days, with little consistency or regularity in the post news timeslot. “Often the networks don’t quite know what to do and have got confused about Sunday nights.”

Sunday Best regularly wins the ratings for its slot, she adds, suggesting not only a desire for a Sunday night regular, but a hunger for great narrative non-fiction.

The latest season is slated to run for 21 weeks and kicks off with the epic tale of the Ali v Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in the Congo in 1974, “When We Were Kings,” (from which the pic above is taken).

The season also marks the return of perhaps Australia’s most expressive presenter Kristy Best. A film-maker and doco tragic herself, Kristy will head tilt, wide-eye and perfectly enunciate her way to introducing each doco with passion and verve. While not down-playing her talents, it’s a choice of host that has this reviewer a little perplexed in relation to this program; sometimes more Play School than Film School. But apparently, she’s very ABC2. According to Bridget Stenhouse, Kristy is reflective of the offshoot channel’s goal to be its own sun in the ABC universe.

As in previous incarnations, Sunday Best will add-in updates and interviews for some features, so as to tie off loose endings in films that may be a few years old.

Other documentaries confirmed across the winter months are from June 9:

  • The Queen of Versailles (See Truth to Tell’s review here) ;
  • Born Rich
  • How to Survive a Plague;
  • Catfish;
  • Knuckle;
  • Bill Cunningham: New York and;
  • Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry.

Keep an eye on Truth to Tell for further reviews from selected films throughout the series.