Update: Dead Hands Dig Deep is screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival in September
After deluges of Australian films hit the Sundance Festival in previous years I was stunned to discover there were no Australian entries in the program this year. And this comes after 2015, which was supposedly a landmark year for Australian films.
However there have been three films in the edgier Slamdance, the festival that continues the early Sundance tradition of unearthing very independent works, while Sundance itself has become a kind of marketplace for selling more commercial films to US and international distributors.
I am yet to see Slamdance’s two Australian narrative features, the comedy, The Tail Job (directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel Millar) and Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites directed by Platon Theodoris. Though when a PR colleague emailed telling me that Jai Love’s Australian documentary Dead Hands Dig Deep was something I should cover, he was not wrong.
Twenty-year-old Love, who is still officially a student at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), was 19 when he made the US-set film which covers a lot more ground than his subject, self-mutilating shock-rock musician Edwin Borsheim from the 90s band Kettle Cadaver, might imply.
I am convinced Love is a huge talent, possessing a bookish knowledge of movies, a huge empathy for his subjects and an edgy youthful perspective that could inject a new kind of energy into Australian cinema.
His first film, which he says, “fell into his lap”, is not for the faint hearted. Set in working class Temecula, California, Dead Hands Dig Deep follows 38 year-old Borsheim reliving his youth with the filmmakers who draw on archival footage showing his indulging in genital mutilation, and performances where he placed and pinned various parts of his body, resulting in an eruption of blood on stage.
How did the film come about?
I heard about Edwin from Spencer Heath, the film’s producer and composer, who is my childhood friend. My American dad and his dad went to school together in California so we kind of grew up together because when I’d come over every year to see my grandparents, we’d hang out. I saw how special Edwin’s life was to Spencer. Spencer plays in a band called The Coltranes who are from the same town as Edwin. He had met Edwin years ago when Spencer’s brother Kevin passed away from a heroin overdose. Then Edwin and Spencer started hanging out all the time.
I’d just finished my foundation year at AFTRS and I’d come over to LA to do some work. Given how we both like old docs and exploitation cinema, we realised nobody had told the Kettle Cadaver story. Spencer said I should come meet Edwin and maybe we could make a doc about him. It wasn't going to be a big project. When Spencer gave me a DVD of Edwin’s The Taste of Blood I’d never seen performance art like that. I thought this is something I have to do and we have to make this a feature film.
It wasn't easy getting to Edwin though.
It took us four months just to find him. Once we worked out how to make the film we went to his property to pitch it to him but he’s got these dogs so you can’t just walk up. He doesn’t answer the phone so you've got to yell out to him. Even during filming so many times he wouldn't come out of the black house where he lives and we’d have the crew (two Australians) there, so that was a pain. It was a trial and error thing to shoot.
How did you decide the amount of mutilation footage to include?
At first I thought, “Is it going to pass the ratings?” But I just made the decision that this is part of his story and not to hide it. People are going to be able to find it [on the internet] in any case. I think it was an important choice. It’s shocking and Edwin’s shocking and that was Edwin’s life.
Is his penis still working?
[Chuckles] That's a good question; we actually have no idea. Every time we’d ask him he wouldn't answer—except one time he said that if they ever play again he’ll show us.
Are they ever going to play again?
I don't know. A record label is reissuing ‘Halloween’, the first album they did –which I love – and Edwin would like to do a one-off show. But you never know what is going to happen. Edwin is very unpredictable.
What conclusions did you come to about Edwin. Is he mentally ill?
Absolutely from both his mother and father. Though it’s hard to know where the drug psychosis starts and the actual psychosis starts, because when you’re up for days it can really mess with your head.
He would constantly film himself.
I can’t tell you how many hours of archival footage we had of him. It’s almost like he wanted to be a filmmaker but he got into the music thing and realised he was good at that. He built cranes to film the band and his performance. He was obsessed with George Miller and Mad Max. Funnily enough he knew lot of Australian cinema and loved Romper Stomper.
The film shows the human side of Edwin.
It’s about anyone who feels alone or disconnected to their world.
Was that you growing up?
I guess that was me in Wollongong. I grew up not feeling at home in that place. Growing up in Temecula it was a suburban sort of nightmare and it created that mentality Ed has and in a weird way I can understand that. I think a lot of people can.
Where did your interest in filmmaking come from, from your father, a manufacturer of photographic equipment?
My dad was a really big influence because I always grew up around cameras. I watched a lot of movies and read about the directors I love. I’m sort of self-taught.
How did you raise the finance?
My dad got a lot of the money and we got it from friends and family. It wasn't a big budget.
What next, an Australian film?
I love Australian cinema and I’d love to make a movie there, but it’s pretty hard. My next film will not be anything like this. No, no. I’d like to do a narrative feature.
Watch a movie at SBS On Demand