The Triangle Wars
Credits: Directed by Rosie Jones
Details: 90 mins , In Cinemas 6 October 2011, Australia, English
Synopsis: In May 2007, a $300 million development was proposed for the triangle of crown land on the foreshore of St Kilda, Melbourne. Stunned by the size and nature of the development, the local community united to oppose it. What followed was an exposition of democracy in action as seen by three men driven by ego, passion and their desire to make a difference.
A fascinating account of Australian democracy in action.
ANTENNA INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Recalling Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s masterful 1996 examination of Australian inner-city local politics, Rats in the Ranks, The Triangle Wars using a planning dispute in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda to examine how the political process, so often distant and treated with casual disdain, can come alive when a community feels threatened. Rosie Jones’ documentary, which spans three years of often pungent machinations and startling surprises – see the change consultant who was a self-described white witch – is something of a primer on how a protest movement begins and takes shape.
“This is our first flyer,” declares Serge Thomann, the freelance photographer who is one of 20 or so concerned residents who form Unchain St Kilda in 2007, following the announcement that a valuable piece of land on the foreshore of partially gentrified St Kilda Beach was to be commercially developed into 180 shops, a multiplex, supermarket and five nightclubs, some with 24 hour licenses. To locals, already worried about parking and alcohol-related violence, the proposal is worrying, especially since it appears that the council is in league with the developer, Stephen McMillan, as opposed to vetting him.
To the great fortune of the filmmaker, Jones has extensive access to not only Thomann and his fellow protestors, but McMillan and several councilors, including the extroverted Dick Gross, who favours primary colours for his footwear and is equally loud with his opinions. All are flawed competitors: Thomann is highly emotive, with a tendency to quote Charles De Gaulle and then pardon his more florid gestures with a shrug and the supposed excuse, “I’m French”. McMillan is smart and personable, but can’t quite understand why his time is being wasted, while Gross has forgotten that politics has public ramifications, with the ambitious former mayor treating his position as a form of therapy.
“Cities are changing,” McMillan rightly argues, and The Triangle Wars is a telling study of how a necessary process can be undermined. McMillan’s development, costing almost $400 million, is nothing like what community consultation arrived at, and as the public becomes increasingly angry – crowding into council meetings, gathering signatures – they appear to be bystanders to the process. What’s unacknowledged is whether this is happening across the country, with the comparatively privileged and resourceful campaign that takes place an exception.
One of the few silent subjects is council CEO David Spokes, who in footage from public functions coolly regards his opponents while toying with his glasses, but he along with McMillan, Gross and mayor Janet Cribbes are increasingly rattled by the public protests, who display an aptitude for media opportunities and committed public speakers. (The daughter of Unchain St Kilda co-founder Anna Griffiths, for example, is actress Rachel Griffiths.) The calm, personable camera work captures moments of impassioned speech and high farce. When McMillan presents a supposedly modified development to council the new slide in his presentation is the old one minus some florid roofing; “it’s long, onerous and boring,” says Gross of a crucial contract he’s never read.
What changes everything, when the council votes in favour of the development and the courts don’t work out, is democracy itself. Local government elections turn Unchain St Kilda into a political campaign, and it’s fascinating to see a quintessentially Australian take – high on self-deprecation, but without genuine extremism – on what is more often the preserve of international releases. An about face by voters alters the balance, although this otherwise strong film only briefly touches on the lingering problem of what happens to successful single-issue candidates when their motivating force is resolved. Dissent eventually has to become guidance.
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