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Audio-Visual Documentary

Aug 1, 2013


A few years ago, my wife and I took my daughter to Sea World on the Gold Coast. We had a fine time and the undoubted highlight was the dolphin show. Quite apart from the usual tricks, impressive as they were, there seemed to be a real bond between the trainers and the dolphins. We all felt, a little strange and frankly a little teary. There was something beautiful about it. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, but since seeing Blackfish, I have revisited that feeling and perhaps now I get it. And it’s a bit darker than I thought then.

Blackfish focusses on the death of an Orca trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, USA, named Dawn Brancheau. In 2010, this experienced and popular trainer was mauled to death by an Orca – often also called a Killer Whale – named Tilikum, who dragged her into the water from the resting pool’s edge and simply ripped her apart. News coverage at the time seemed to reflect not just the horror felt, but also the shock that something like this should happen. We have been led to believe the relationship between trainers and “talent” in these theme parks was warm and trusting, built on compassion and expert understanding. We have been led to believe that the animals themselves are happy and secure.

Blackfish, in tracing the story of Dawn Brancheau, suggests a contrary reality.

We go back to the early 1970’s, when the antecedents to many of the Orcas now in captivity were captured in the wild. Kicked out of US waters, SeaWorld operatives fled to Iceland and here their brutal and ignorant techniques spilt close-knit Orca communities and often left many dead. One grizzled veteran of these raids – who admits to a shady past as a mercenary – teared up 40 years later as he tells the story. Despite being in numerous war-zones, this was the worst thing he had done, he says.

This foundation – Tilikum was captured as a two year-old in 1983 on one such raid – has, the film argues, set a low standard for the future welfare of Orcas in captivity. Tiny, isolated and darkened enclosures, a failure to understand Orca social structures, deprivation and punishment-based training and under-trained and poorly educated trainers added to corporate heartlessness and skulduggery to create, according to Blackfish, an utterly rotten culture at the Orlando SeaWorld which reached out to, and drew on, other marine parks elsewhere.

The links between these apparent black-spots and Dawn Branchaeu’s death – and others who have been injured or killed by Orcas in captivity- are easy to make in such a landscape.

Orcas are highly social animals. Research has shown that their limbic system – the site of the brain’s emotional and memory functions – is especially well developed in Orca brains, perhaps more so than in humans. As such, the techniques used by Orlando SeaWorld, which appear to be widespread elsewhere, are seen to generate serious dysfunctions and even psychosis among captive Orcas. The concluding sense is that captivity of any kind and Orcas do not and should not mix.

In this light it is surprising there are not more attacks.

Orlando SeaWorld did not take the opportunities to be interviewed for Blackfish, preferring instead to throw out media rebuttals since its release. The producers of Blackfish have sought to respond to these counter-claims.

Our emotions on leaving Gold Coast SeaWorld (which is fully owned locally by Village Roadshow and has no apparent direct relationship with Orlando SeaWorld) become less about the show we saw and more about the animals. Was there somewhere in us that told us “This should not be”? The story of Tilikum and his colleagues stains those of any animal held and obliged to perform in marine parks. Was the emotion an acknowledgement deep within us that for all the cheesy smiles, the kitschy performance and the joyous flips and spins of the animals, that what we were seeing was very, very wrong?

More than an investigation into a tragic single case, Blackfish raises questions about animals in captivity generally. Surrounding wild animals with four walls can never be anything other than artificial and problematic. On the occasions that humans get it right, it creates at the very least a skewed vision of those animals and of our place in nature and it surely alters the behaviour of the animals themselves. Where we humans get it wrong, we will have tragedies of the nature of Tilikum and Dawn Branchaeu.

If I do go to such a venue again, I’ll be thinking differently as a result of seeing Blackfish.


Title – Blackfish
Makers – Our Turn Productions
Couch Time – 83 Mins.
How to Catch it – Screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 7. Further distribution TBA, but it probably won’t be via Village Roadshow.
High Point – Insights into Orca intelligence and emotional sophistication
Low Point – Necessary imbalance due to SeaWorld’s refusal to be interviewed 









Audio-Visual Documentary

Jul 28, 2013


Bobby Liebling is a goggle-eyed, manic-smiling metal singer with finger-in-the-socket hair and the devil’s own smile. He’s also got a crack habit, a smack habit and is so badly deluded about things crawling under his skin that he picks himself until he bleeds. He lives with his parents (his dad was a high profile US national security bureaucrat) in a “sub-basement” and eats nothing more than pizzas. Only in his late 50’s when the film was made, he looks 80, with the shuffling gate of lunatic and the gaunt, pale pallor of a dead man. But, to many, he is a God; founder and leader of the 70’s cult metal band Pentagram. Bobby Liebling is about to go one one of two journeys: he will die or he will become a star again – a perfect plot for the era of The Voice, X-Factor and Australia’s Got Talent where the dramatic curve of the Zero who becomes a Hero is de rigueur.  Last Days Here follows him to see where he ends up.

The central tension of this ultimately warming film is between Liebling’s stoic fans – and one in particular, Sean Pelletier aka“Pellet” – and his own maddening self-destruction. In the beginning, it seems the latter is winning and in this way, Last Days Here toddles along as a fairly traditional tale of a rock star’s mania and self-centredness and his descent into emptiness and death. He thwarts the best efforts of Pellet to get him back on track via a re-connection with his band again and again. Liebling frustrates, but his charm and heart shine through still. His physical state is horrible to see, but oddly, hard to turn away from.

A glimmer of hope delivered by an incongruously young and attractive girlfriend for the ravaged Liebling descends into farce as he goes back to his old ways and she walks. This sets off a spiral into neediness and pathos and he ends up in jail. When he emerges after the efforts of the never-say-die Pellet, he actually looks better for better behind bars. At least he got some food.

From here things take an upward trajectory and Last Days Here ends on a high note. Of sorts. It’s hard to see past the fact that Liebling is a selfish wreck who has manufactured a seemingly dysfunctional relationship – with a few curls and twists – and someone who needs a stage to feel human and who has to be loved to death by his unfathomably loyal fans to be bothered to live.

Yet, who has the right to cast the first stone? Few of us would stand the scrutiny of a 6 year doco shoot – that’s the effort directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton apparently put into this project – and come out clean and shiny? Add to that the fact that Liebling doesn’t appear to give a shit about how anyone sees him, and courageously – or foolishly – allows the cameras to capture his most vulnerable moments, and you have a very real doco to say the least.

It’s hard to see any directorial glorification of Liebling’s life-threatening lifestyle choices, but Liebling still, for all his peccadilloes, emerges as a loveable softy. There is a study yet to made to explain the common contradiction of hairy, black-clad, heavy metal men, with their satanic lyrics, dark chords and guttural singing who are just big softies who want to love and be loved; There are too many kindly bikies and gentle Goths out there for bleeding hearts like Bobby Liebling to be seen as anomalies.

Perhaps the real hero of the whole story is Pellet. As Pentagram’s Number 1 fan, his efforts to rehab Liebling and get the band going again are extraordinary. His patience is Biblical and his willingness to cop all manner of let-downs from Liebling and to maintain the faith is as interesting a story as Liebling’s and is rightly given plenty of room in this film.

But Pellet too displays worrying signs. Is his fandom simple dedicated admiration, or does it draw more directly from the root for the word ‘fan’, ‘fanatic? One human being shouldn’t take so many blows in the service of another and his story rather underlines the sense that the hero/hero worship dynamic has its victims on both sides of the equation.

Last Days Here tells a relatively simple story well, largely in the mould of Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) with perhaps a nod to a kind of real-life Spinal Tap (1984), and should be appreciated for the lack of any trickery or directorial showing off. But, the sub-text appears to be that aiming for celebrity, even a small dose of it, is a dangerous game, played only by the ignorant or the foolhardy.


Title – Last Days Here
Makers -9.14 Pictures
Couch Time – 91 Mins.
How to Catch it – DVD and VoD
High Point – Narrative arcs aplenty
Low Point – A little static and conventional in style

Audio-Visual Documentary

Jul 19, 2013


David Bowie suggests in this new documentary on ABC2, that he was the first to “use rock and roll”. That seems a little hubristic as its clear the world was onto pop’s utility before Bowie spiked his orange hair and put on a pair of knitted tights (I submit: The Monkees. Hang on, Bowie’s real name is David Jones…Hmmmm). But maybe that’s just another trick, another creative fib in a freezer full of Bowie red herrings. Using rock and roll has certainly been perfected by subsequent generations of pop stars, from The Sex Pistols, to Madonna to Lady Gaga, so he was certainly on to something.

This documentary from the BBC – which seems designed to capitalise on his return to the big-time after a 6-year hiatus and a wave of new interest in his work – doesn’t really seek to answer such idle questions surrounding the culture of popular music. But it does offer a pretty useful soundtrack to a career spent making itself up.

The set-up of Five Years is to break the Bowie journey into five signpost yearly periods, marked by classic album titles, strewn amid his 24 studio albums. From the personas of Ziggy, Major Tom or the Thin White Duke to various incarnations of what he says is himself (Bowie or Jones?), from the high concept, avant-garde 70’s to the harder Berlin years, then the suited years and the dance period and then the move off the scene in 2007, this one hour run is a fair introduction to the Bowie phenomenon, re-ignited with the release of his 2013 albumThe Next Day.

An introduction, yes, but not a lot more. The alignment with albums ensures the man himself gets hidden a little behind the fashion, the image and the output. Which, given his career to date, is probably something Bowie was quite happy with. While Bowie himself contributes snippets of vocal comments, and his quotes are texted throughout as chapter headers, the man remains shimmering behind the veil he has worked hard to maintain.

Part of Bowie’s brilliance as a cultural icon, a fashion plate, a list of pop culture statements as long as the list of those he has influenced, is his ability to tap into great minds around him, those he knew to be riding the wave of zeitgeist. From producers like Brian Eno, Tony Visconti or Nile Rogers, all of whom have starring roles in this film, to a host of great musos – think Robert Fripp’s wailing guitar on “Heroes” – Bowie is a genius at flitting between the millions of orbiting worlds of pop and into other universes, fluttering like a moth around that place beyond the music, that place we all sometimes go.

As one interviewee puts it, Bowie essentially crafted his own destiny by creating the pop icon Ziggy who became the model for Bowie and indeed his inspiration, essentially an act of self-actualisation. It’s a neat trick and one which seems somehow authentic, for all its trickery, in comparison to today’s industrial grade fakery and cynicism. At least Bowie had an artistic integrity to his manipulation (Bowie never fixed his tombstone teeth to fit the paparrazzi’s need for extreme whiteness and order. Even Keith Richard has fixed his teeth…)

This film seems designed to establish Bowie for those for whom The Next Day has no back-story, no context, for those who haven’t been on the journey outlined in this film. For that, it’s a worthwhile experience.

Whether Bowie was the first to “use rock and roll” is perhaps not important. It’s not a race. But the Great Chameleon certainly got really good at it. In doing so, he was able to extend the range of popular music beyond its former world, taking the focus off the music and onto the image, the look, and even further, into the cultural and even political subtext. For Bowie music was just the vehicle, not the trip and it was a trip that, as this film proves, has many scenic lookouts. The BBC has collected a few and made a pretty good doco.


Title – David Bowie – Five Years in the Making of an Icon
Makers – BBC Worldwide
How to Catch it – ABC2 on July 24
Couch Time – 60 Mins.
High Point – Good Bowie primer
Low Point – Limited input from Bowie himself 


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 11, 2013


Questions surrounding the sustainability of modern existence are perhaps the most common theme in contemporary documentary making. The Food Factory series which is scheduled to kick-off on SBS One tonight (July 11) takes a squizz at just what it takes to produce various forms of packaged foods. While it doesn’t perhaps take a political line of sustainability issues, the series implies, subtly and perhaps unwittingly, that modern food processing is really just a clever act of removing food from food and calling it food.

Overtly, however, it’s about being clever more than about nutrition, and more about quantity than quality. It sounds like it might be a yawn, but the production values take their cue from Myth Busters, with a kind of gee-whizz excitement at the thrill of life and a child-like awe at making things that go bang and make a mess and make the camera shudder and the host giggle. The science, bleached of any political colouration as it is, is interesting nevertheless.

In the first program of the series, dried tomato soup, orange cordial and sea salt are put held up to the bright lights of investigation. The odd conceit of getting B-grade British celebs to try and manufacture these products on various jerry-built contraptions gets a little tedious, but the insights into just how close these foods come to being obliterated in the process of becoming packaged are a little troubling.

The emphasis on the gung-ho aspect detracts from the more interesting aspects – such as the providence of some of the ingredients used and their footprint – which are ignored in favour of a “gee isn’t science great and aren’t we clever” kind of frippery. I watched this while doing something else, as an occasional heads-up background, which seems about right.

In Truth to Tell‘s quest to find useful knowledge from documentary formats, it ranks ok. Just.

No Impact Man is ABC2’s Sunday Best offering for this Sunday (July 14). Here we follow a year in the life of Colin Beavan, the man of the title, who vows to leave zero footprint on the earth for one year. The fact he lives in New York, works, has a wife and young child, makes this quest extremely difficult, if not superfluous and counter-intuitive, but adds the effort a degree of relevance for most of us.

Less scientific and information-laden than you might expect, this film ends up becoming more about the personal struggle rather than saving the world. Colin’s less than enthusiastic wife and his own questioning move his and his family’s efforts away from the global and focus on the personal. While the intent to bring sustainability home clearly drives the movie, this intimate study surprises in its emphasis on heart more than mind, even if it wanders into Reality TV territory occasionally.

The early stages of the No Impact period are rule-laden and uncomfortable, driven by Colin’s seemingly gentle but firm obsession with his project. His wife Michelle struggles but comes to open to the No Impact concept. The family is criticised even by greenies for giving sustainability a weirdo factor it doesn’t exactly need. There’s certainly something to the criticisms in that the whole thing becomes something of an oddity or an individual challenge – like swimming from Florida to Cuba – and less a statement on sustainability. The moniker of No Impact Man ends up becoming a cartoonish caricature and the line of ‘No’s’ the year of no impact entails look like a kind of torture than a liberation.

Holes in the project, such as the fact that the family still uses a computer (by which he produced a blog and a book and an on-going project. The former of which had its last entry in November last year), an oven, mass produced products like bikes, recycled things which require someone, somewhere to buy new stuff and the irony of Michelle working as a journalist with the magazine Business Week are not lost, nor are they ignored.

However, the personal angle leads to a deeper conclusion. As Colin says himself, the future of sustainability is built on the strength of personal networks and relationships. As such, the tensions and wobbles between Colin and Michelle act as pointers to a larger concept: that sustainability is not so much about setting rules as about building and maintaining equal and mutually respectful relationships. Without this all the sustainability rules or sacrifices in the world won’t work. Moreover, any approach to sustainable living is an issue that is not just about politics and sacrifice but about testing the limits of one’s personal values in relation to those around.

Finally, series 5 of The True Story, starting on ABC2 on July 27, takes us behind the scenes of popular culture to find what is purported to be the reality. In the episode I saw, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is put on the slab and its veracity and its connection to reality are under the scalpel. Stone’s first movie was based on his real-life experiences as young grunt in Vietnam and Platoon and is considered one of the most realistic Vietnam war movies. This appears to justify such as examination.

What emerges is that Platoon was perhaps more of a model for the 2008 Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder than I thought with actors wandering about in the jungle in a kind of two-week long game of Skirmish, a Vet advisor acting like Patton and an OCD approach to gritty realism. In parts, this ends up being a documentary on the war itself, with Platoon acting like a loose narrative thread dangling somewhere off to the side. The device of Platoon is clever as it adds a new twist on the usual ‘Nam story, but it tends to hollow out and falter nevertheless.

Once again, the ubiquitous Boy’s Own stylistic influence of Myth Busters is evident, even if the tone is more sombre.

The faint connection to the subject underlines a possible weakness in the concept. The selection of subject matter is crucial as the popular culture shine can’t last throughout the entire program. Also, it’s important for the viewer to have not only some interest in the topic, but a pretty close understanding and interest in the popular culture vehicle being looked at. For instance, my preview DVD also had a episode on Star Trek and, not having any interest, why would I watch it?

As such, this series looks likely to be a little hit and miss.


Title: Food Factory
How to Catch it – SBS One, weekly  from July 11
Couch Time – 30 Mins.
High Point – Home science made accessible
Low Point – Grating talent and cheesy host

Title: No Impact Man
How to Catch it – ABC2, July 14
Couch Time – 120 Mins.
High Point – Layered narrative on values and sustainability
Low Point – Can be too personal and lose focus

Title: The True Story
How to Catch it – ABC2 from July 27
Couch Time – 50 Mins.
High Point – Interesting if the topic is right
Low Point – Flimsy concept




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 14, 2013


In the Black Plague years, people initially thought the disease was connected somehow to behaviour, like it was God’s vengeance. It was only when members of the clergy started dropping that it was seen as something more arbitrary and random. In some ways, that realisation pulled back the suffocating veil of The Church and probably helped the emergence of the Reformation and the breakdown of The Church’s moral if not political authority. When young, mainly gay, men started falling ill and dying from AIDS in the US in the early to mid 1980’s, things went backwards. Once again, a disease was seen as evidence of God’s own natural selection, and the fact that homos and faggots were the victims only proved how reprehensible their lifestyle was, or so believed empty souls like Jesse Helms. We went back to the Middle Ages.

You could take AIDS victims and re-dress them, see their Karposi Sarcoma discolourations as Plagueish bubos, their gaunt faces as signs of medieval poverty, and you could be right there; anywhere in Europe, 1410. But, this was New York, 1987, the technological and wealth centre of the world. The richest place in the richest time in human history. Those dying weren’t peasants but some of the most creative, educated, successful, warm-spirited hearts and minds of a generation. But they were gay. And they had it coming to them, or so it was thought. Turning back that view would need a Reformation of its own. We had one. And “How to Survive a Plague” is its story.

The start of this award-winning film focusses on a cluster of mainly gay activists who are trying to save the lives of their community. In a bunker like room somewhere, heated debate is captured in blurred images and muffled voices. Tension is fizzing like lightning in a bottle. War is raging.

In those early days, HIV sufferers were often not diagnosed so as hospitals wouldn’t have to treat them and the numbers wouldn’t be noticed. The gay community, the most ravaged by the disease (along with drug users, a group even more marginal and easily blamed for their plight) took action. The group Act Up was born and soon evolved to become one of the most successful activist groups of its generation. Fronts were established: political activism, civil activism, calls for funding and treatments, fund raising.

Act Up’s tactics were aggressive, emotive, provocative, media-savvy and targetted. As such, the movement did a lot to bring modern civil activism into the mass media age. It was probably one of the first to truly harness the power of modern communications and PR tecniques and also through its influential Treatment and Data Committee (later to develop into an elite within the group and split to form the even more politically connected TAG) it set a new standard of professionalism and rigour to claims they made and issues they were raising.

Act Up was probably one of the best informed activist groups ever to that point – and by doing their political homework and working the corridors, Act Up made activism a force to be reckoned with. Other successful activist groups, like Greenpeace and more lately Sea Shepherd, have built on their legacy.

But what strikes most about “plague” is the power of fear as a political force. It was from this time that police on picket lines started wearing rubber gloves, for fear of being bitten and infected. Politically there was a fear that saving faggots and homos (terms of insult that were adopted as badges of honour by the gay community, an act similarly utilised by African Americans with the use of the word “nigger.”) would be seen as a waste of public resources by the white-bread right led by Helms and pandered to by the two presidents in the spotlight in this era (Reagan and GHW Bush).

In 1993, an eleven year old Australian girl named Eve Van Grafhorst died of AIDS in New Zealand. Her death hardly rated a mention but when she was a few years younger, she was rarely out of the headlines. For the simple act of wanting to take their daughter to the local school, the Van Grafhorst family was hounded out of the NSW town of Kincumber. Because she had HIV. Every attempt to take her to school was a gauntlet run through media and angry parents. She was forced to wear a plastic mask at school. Finally, she was effectively exiled across the ditch. We shouldn’t ignore society’s ability to victimise. While Act Up may not have known of her story, it was people like her who now benefit from their work. Such discrimination is now rare (perhaps its just been redirected to asylum seekers. But that’s another story).

In the recent Rugby League State of Origin game, NSW player James Maloney sported a bloodied lip through most of the game. In the early 1990’s, he would have been forced to leave the field on the Blood Bin rule. This rule was brought in to protect fellow players against HIV infection. While the rule still exists, its far more lax in being enforced. In that simple fact, we can see the value of Act Up and the work it has done not only in relation to HIV/AIDS and education, but in the culture of activism. The fact that gay marriage still falters in this country confirms the war has still not been won.

And, let’s not forget, there are around 34 million AIDS sufferers worldwide. Most of them cannot afford treatment and don’t have access to alternatives. Many are not gay. Many are women. Some haven’t even been diagnosed. The plague still exists. Like many ills of Western society, it’s just been off-shored.



Title – How to Survive a Plague

Makers – Public Square Films and Ninety Thousand Words

How to catch it – ABC2 on June 23, at 8.30pm

Couch Time – 120 Mins.

High Point – Brilliant story-telling with dramatic archival footage

Low Point – No real balance from anti-Act Up angle

Extras – Not on my DVD, which is a review copy, but presumably on a commercial copy