A year ago at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), the always strong documentary stream was dominated by major names with works that had already turned heads earlier in 2011 in the northern hemisphere. There was Alex Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) James Marsh (Project Nim), Morgan Spurlock (POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
For MIFF in 2012, the festival’s 61st edition, only one of those heavyweights is back: Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss is the revered German filmmaker’s investigation of the death penalty, seen through the case of two Texan men who were convicted of a triple murder, with one sentence to death and one to life imprisonment. A deep appreciation for life has been a bedrock belief in Herzog’s documentaries, and this subject matter should only sharpen that.
Herzog is joined in the MIFF program by the likes of veteran Frederick Wiseman (Crazy Horse, an examination of the dancer’s stage lives at the legendary French cabaret) and Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In, a critique of America’s war of drugs that has already won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival), but the films assembled this year by the festival’s Artistic Director, Michelle Carey, and programmer Al Cossar offer significant possibilities for discovery and the potential of important new voices.
Notable selections at MIFF (which runs until August 19) include Bart Layton’s The Imposter, which turns on the subject of identity when a French impersonator is discovered posing as the missing son of an American family, and Alison Klayman’s personal and political portrait of the now dissident Chinese artist that is Al Weiwei: Never Sorry.
The latter provides a thematic segue into a fascinating section. Street Level Visions: Chinese Independent Docos is a reminder of how important digital technologies have been to documentary filmmakers, particularly those in countries that attempt to maintain strict state-sanctioned controls. These seven titles, curated by Dan Edwards, provide a close-up on the intimate power structures, tiny and large, that dominate the world’s newest superpower. Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment looks at the young, often unprepared, men who serve as police officers in a small town, while Zhou Hao’s The Transition Period follows the Party Secretary of Henan province through his final months of trading favours, applying patronage and furthering his own reach.
Scandinavian cinema, particularly from Sweden, plays a key role throughout this year’s MIFF, and in the documentary field there is Mads Brugger’s fascinating The Ambassador, where the Danish journalist and filmmaker sets out to explore the often labyrinthine corruption that can flourish in parts of Africa. As criminals have been routinely doing, Brugger purchases a diplomatic post from Liberia for the Central African Republic, and then uses hidden cameras and an assumed identity to explore underground industries such as the blood diamonds.
Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas!* may well be essential viewing for both devotees of the documentary form and those who make them. The director’s 2009 film, Bananas*, looked at a lengthy court case in America between Dole, a multinational food giant, and workers employed at a Nicaraguan banana plantation, who may have been exposed to dangerous pesticides. But when Gertten readied to screen the film, he found himself under sustained attack, both legally and online, from groups official and otherwise. Although no-one had seen the film, Dole’s attacks – often through respected proxies – claimed that Bananas* was full of malicious untruths. A segment at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where Gertten was virtually hung out to dry, is particularly worrying. The movie, ultimately, is about how freedom of speech can be denied.
Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, furthers that contemporary clash, providing a vivid recent history of the online hacking collective Anonymous, who evolved from the infamous website 4chan to digitally take on the Church of Scientology, the corporate security establishment, multinationals and various governments, notably in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. “The goal was to offend everyone,” observes one participant in the group’s early online pranks, but as they’ve become politicised – leading to factional divides and in some cases arrests – Anonymous has changed radically, and its story is told by current members (interviewed incognito, via Skype) and past participants, although it’s unclear what takes someone from the former to the latter.
A final feature of MIFF to note is the annual Backbeat section, which tries to push the music documentary past the mundane and officially sanctioned. Highlights this year include Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, where co-director Ice-T uses his own reputation to get major hip-hop artists, including Eminem and Kanye West, to discuss the specifics of how they write lyrics in a surprisingly detailed work, and Jay Bulger’s Beware of Mr Baker, where the legendary Cream drummer, Ginger Baker, reflects on a tumultuous life from his South African compound. Finally there’s Ian Darling’s Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, a documentary about Australia’s greatest ever songwriter, a man whose talent is only matched by his desire for privacy. Kelly, like MIFF, is a Melbourne institution, and this year both are showing new sides of themselves.
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Patrick Lindsay's book shows that to understand the Anzac spirit we must first understand the spirit of Gallipoli.
The untold story of Australian soldiers caught up in war and revolution during the invasion of Russia in 1918-1919.
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