Held primarily at Palace Nova in the CBD’s Eastend, the Adelaide Film Festival was one of only a few festivals in Australia that were able to hold in-cinema events in 2020. The festival took extra precautions to hold a COVID-safe festival, something Variety dubbed a “pre-pandemic experience.”1 While there were post-film Q&As, red carpets and parties, there were also social distancing in theatres, hand sanitisers throughout the venues and strictly no dancing.
The festival presented a small selection of American-directed queer titles that were programmed in conjunction with Feast Festival, South Australia’s queer arts and cultural festival. The films programmed concerned the negotiation of identity and the ethics of living. Sometimes these were joyous explorations; in others, they were terribly uneasy. Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is an easy exploration of identity. Ric Burns’ film looks at the life and work of neurologist Oliver Sacks, who spent much of his life being uncomfortable around his sexuality while paradoxically affirming the consciousness of his patients. He wrote extensive patient notes which were adapted into his most popular book, Awakenings. The film opens with him talking to various family and friends, as if it were a meeting between a professor and his pupils, working to the publication of his 2015 autobiography, On the Move: A Life. Burns explores Sacks’ troubled life with archival footage, photographs and talking head interviews. This history is helped by the fact that Sacks obsessively recorded the lives and treatment of his patients using photography, his Super-8 camera and voice recorder.
This results in a commendable and accessible documentary. Burns is smart in that he just lets Sacks tell his own story. The footage shot in Sacks’ apartment features many anecdotes strung into fascinating history lessons. Here, he presents as the genius imparting knowledge to those around him. This greatly contrasts his earlier life and hardship, from his strained relationship with his mother, to his drug addiction and struggled with his sexuality, while presenting as an open-minded science professional. This extensive material of letters, photographs, recordings and publications chronicle the growth of Sacks through his childhood to his early bodybuilding, leather-clad years and onwards. This material allows us to see the transformation of this fascinating man. Burns’ biography of Sacks is a moving tribute to a man that treated those marginalised by society with love and careful introspection.
I found The Surrogate challenging. Jeremy Hersh’s feature debut is a microbudget film that follows the fallout between a gay couple and their friend. Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) has agreed to be the surrogate for her friends Josh (Chris Perfetti) and Aaron (Sullivan Jones), much to the concern of her mother (Tonya Pinkins) and sister Samantha (Eboni Booth). After learning that the child she is carrying has Down syndrome, Josh and Aaron wish to terminate the pregnancy, which troubles Jess considerably. The arguments that ensue are often didactic in tone (a character actually quotes Richard Dawkins in one scene). This baby that was meant for others begins to take on a special meaning for Jess due to a sense of unfulfillment in other parts of her life, the film goes to great lengths to suggest. In her quest to find out more about the condition, she befriends Bridget (Brooke Bloom), an exhausted mother whose son has Down syndrome. It’s these moments where the film finds its strength. Free from the arguments between Jess and those around her, Bridget is the one who challenges Jess the most. Here, the pathos is centred on the two women rather than confrontations primarily about social issues. Batchelor and Bloom are both excellent in their roles, stopping the film from feeling too stagey.
The film is very dialogue laden. Many pivotal scenes feature characters yelling at each other about matters such as gender, race, sexual orientation, class, eugenics… it’s all there! – which pivots the film to a more melodramatic tone. This leads me to reflect on Robert Sinnerbrink’s consideration of cinematic ethics as a form of self-reflection, where ”film provokes a visceral form of moral self-examination that is not only a critique of … [one’s] past but a self-critique of our own complicity, as viewers, with this past and present state of denial.”2 With the exception of the mother Bridget, the film’s main characters represent positions on the topics being debated. In watching this film, I also thought about what I would do if I were in Josh and Aaron’s position. It’s a difficult question indeed. It’s made all the grimmer by the fact that we’re considering the ethics of living without the involvement of the social group in question, i.e. those living with Down syndrome. It’s a thoroughly uncomfortable position to realise that you have momentarily entered into Dawkins’ eugenicist territory.
The strongest queer film in the program was, without a doubt, David France’s Welcome to Chechnya. It’s is a tense documentary that follows the genocide against LGBTQ Chechens committed by the Chechen government lead by Ramzan Kadyrov. France is a prominent queer documentarian, having also directed How to Survive a Plague (2012) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017). For this film he went undercover in Chechnya and followed activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova as they extracted queer Chechens out of the region. Rather than using traditional methods to obscure the identities of those fleeing for their lives, such as pixilation, France superimposes the faces of New York queer activists onto those wishing to remain anonymous.
It’s fantastic irony that deep fake technology is used here to expose the truth to the world. In one particular moment, one subject publicly identifies himself as a survivor of Chechnya’s purge. Here, the superimposition fades away to reveal his real face. It’s indeed an affective moment. The use of recording devises on more “everyday” technology such as phones and handy-cams allow for intense moments to be captured, such as when “Anya”, daughter of an influential figure in the Chechen government, is being questioned by immigration officers.
I had previously watched this as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s online program, where I had the power to pause the film and have a breather after particularly violent moments, such as the on-screen sexual assault, a murder on CCTV or the moments following a suicide attempt. Watching this with an audience is a vastly different experience, as you feel the discomfort of those around you. The film does use interviews and conversations between subjects to break up these moments, which are instances of welcome relief.
Finally, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby is a comedy of discomfort, complete with cringe- and anxiety-inducing moments. Danielle (Rachel Sonnett) is a sugar baby, sleeping with older men for money. In particular, she is currently sleeping with the older Max (Danny Deferrari). One afternoon, she attends a Shiva with her overbearing parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed), where she is confronted with ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) and Max – who is attending with his wife (Diana Agron) and child. Danielle’s claims to empowerment are revealed to be a ruse – her parents pay her bills and she is directionless in more ways than one. What follows is an intensifying cycle of questions about her weight loss, her love life and what she plans to do with her career (she is completing a gender studies major, much to the consternation of her mother). The circular nature of these moments is exactly the point as they become increasingly panic-inducing for Danielle, with faster editing, increasingly claustrophobic framing and, in one moment, a red filter. This is a well-crafted film and while this Shiva is full of clichés, they thankfully never felt too gratuitous.
The majority of Australian feature films this year concerned the strong bonds of family. Katie Found’s My First Summer, coincidentally a film that spans both categories covered in this review, is a sweet film that explores first love. Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) has been raised by her mum on her rural property isolated from the rest of the world. After her mother’s death, Grace (Maiah Stewardson) enters into her life. The two form a connection that is built upon love and comfort. The film’s aesthetic is imbued with a girlishness that makes their world utopic. They dye their sheets pink, make charm bracelets and try on scented lip balm. Danielle Sullivan’s vocals from several Wild Ones tracks add to this dreamlike tone. Claudia’s garden is sumptuous, filled with bird calls and shot in a manner that emphasises its natural beauty. The seriousness of Claudia’s mother’s death, and her subsequent trauma, could be engaged with more meaningfully, however. This is perhaps most notable in the film’s conclusion. This dual narrative structure, of queer romance and trauma following a death all set in the lush Australian bush, reminds me of Grant Scicluna’s Downriver (2015). The use of the water as the site of the trauma is a key aspect to both films. While Scicluna’s film draws on the Australian gothic to explore the protagonist’s psyche, My First Summer uses the warmth generated from this first love to perhaps suggest these girls are isolating themselves from the world and, more importantly, from the pain of growing up. This is, without a doubt, a very strong feature directorial debut from Found and it’s wonderful to see another queer Australian feature on the festival circuit.
Included in the festival were two microbudget Australian features that consisted of very simple narratives. In Michael Bentham’s Disclosure, a four year-old girl accuses the son of a politician of abuse while playing doctors. Over one afternoon, discussions between the parents of both children descend into toxic confrontations. The film is shot with just four principle actors in one location. As the tension rises, friendships give way as familial relationships are tested. Contrastingly, Madeleine Blackwell’s Damage sees two characters isolated from their families. The narrative takes place over the course of one day. Ali (Ali Al Jenabi – subject of Robin de Crespigny’s book, The People Smuggler) is driving a friend’s taxi when he picks up Esther (Imelda Bourke – mother of Blackwell), an agitated and confused elderly woman who doesn’t know exactly where she wants to go. Both performers are non-actors who draw upon their own experiences to semi-improvise their own performances. While the two navigate their cultural divide, they assist in the other’s isolation. In considering these two microbudget films, Damage dose exceedingly well in character development while Disclosure lacks the nuance needed for this subject matter. Disclosure’s screenplay needs further work as the characters themselves are considerably underdeveloped, leaving the clearly talented performers very little to work with. The conversations in Damage, however, felt very natural.
Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra tracks the journey of two families: Both the Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Page family. Bangarra is the Wiradjuri word for making fire and it’s a fitting metaphor for the impact this company has had on Indigenous performing arts in Australia. The film is co-directed by Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair, who has directed important Australian films such as The Sapphires (2012) and Top End Wedding (2019), as well as episodes of Redfern Now, Clever Man and Mystery Road. Archival footage of performances and home videos along with interviews with alumni, such as Carole Johnson and Cheryl Stone, tell the history of this important company. Bangarra became famous for uniting traditional and contemporary movement and the talents of brothers Stephen, Russell and David Page were integral to the continued adaptability of this company.
The story of Bangarra is emblematic of contemporary Australia’s growing re-examination of our colonial history. The company was formed in 1989 from the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association and the Aboriginal Islander Dancer Theatre. Bangarra and those involved draw upon the strength of indigenous arts and culture, such as the 1988 Sydney march coinciding with the country’s bicentennial celebrations, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. These two threads – the personal Page family story and the broader political context – are wonderfully woven together with great care. The inclusion of Bangarra’s important performances are an obvious and important component to this story. Unsurprisingly, the film won this year’s Feature Documentary Award.
Adelaide Fringe Festival CEO Heather Croall directed a deeply personal tribute to her father in Yer Old Faither. John Croall, a Glaswegian immigrant, was an obstetrician in Whyalla for 40 years. An excessive recycler, he was passionate about making Whyalla a liveable town for all. The “old father” was also a prolific letter writer and it’s these letters that are used to structure his story, interspersed with Heather’s voiceover – another nice, personal touch. Diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, Croall decided to tell her father’s story as she, along with her mother Ruth, cared for him. The town of Whyalla is a fitting metaphor here. As the town’s industry is failing, so too is John’s health. Hope, however, lies in John’s ecological legacy. The town is now investing in solar energy – in which John wrote many letters demanding the South Australian government invest – and his trees. These are a fitting tribute to the impact he had on Whyalla. It’s a deceptively simple film. As I watched this here in Adelaide, I couldn’t help but think of my own parents that I was unable to be with in Victoria. While this film is indeed a way for Heather Croall to express her love and grief, it was also a poignant moment for many others to reflect on just how difficult 2020 has been while apart from family.
Somewhat peculiar was Australian possession film Awoken, where the family becomes the source of the horror. Young medical student Karla (Sara West) is trying to cure her brother from a terminal illness, Fatal Familial Insomnia, where the sufferer remains awake until they die. Her lecturer Robert (Erik Thompson) promises to help Karla and her brother by taking them to the medical basement where he has been conducting research into the disease. The narrative setup is all a bit silly but it’s easy to forgive as it’s a horror film programmed late on a Saturday evening. While assisting Robert in the basement, Karla and two friends discover old VHS tapes that document the attempt of her father (also a medical researcher of course!) to save her mother. Through watching these tapes, she discovers the demonic component to her brother’s illness. While the VHS tapes are creepy, most of the film’s horror relies on jump scares and loud noises. The script relies on exposition rather than letting the disturbing elements develop. It’s also unclear why they all had American accents as Australian horror films featuring Australian accents – hello The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) and The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009)! – have proven to be hugely popular overseas.
The highlight of my festival was Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s frontier western, High Ground, in which a young indigenous boy, Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), is raised by white colonisers after surviving the massacre of his family in Arnhem Land in 1919. His uncle Baywarra (Sean Muninggurr) draws on his anger by attacking white settlements. This puts him in the sights of Police Chief Moran (Jack Thompson), while Travis (Simon Baker) acts as a mentor figure for young Gutjuk. As these two worlds begin to collide, Gutjuk is forced to decide which family he belongs to. The film features a fascinating approach to production and land rights, with all elders of the land on which it’s filmed being listed as producers. Witiyana Marika (co-founder of popular indigenous rock group, Yothu Yindi) was a creative lead on the production and worked very closely with Johnson. Marika performed at the premiere celebration, which was an impactful post-screening addendum. Also in attendance was acting legend David Gulpilil, adding to the sense that this was a significant moment in Australian film history. With much of the industry currently in standstill, here were three creative heavy weights – Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika and David Gulpilil – all calling attention to the vital need to address how we tell our histories.
Like many others, the film reminded me of Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton, 2017), where the beautiful landscape of Arnhem Land is juxtaposed with the violent racism of the Australian frontier wars. The lands and waters are shot exquisitely, with stunning drone shots capturing the titular high grounds. The empathy elicited for Baker’s character – a white bounty hunter and former WW1 soldier – is a difficult aspect of this film, as his guilt can in no way excuse him for his actions. The film is very careful, however, to refrain from white saviour tropes littered throughout Australian cinema. This isn’t his film as most of my attention, however, was focused squarely on Nayinggul’s Gutjuk, both due to his arresting performance and the centrality of his moral dilemma to the narrative.
In a year where many festivals were forced to embrace online streaming, the privilege of being able to experience an in-theatre experience was not lost on many I spoke to. Only weeks after concluding, the threat of a second COVID-19 wave reverberated throughout South Australia, forcing several Feast events to be cancelled. The timing of AFF to avoid this interruption was largely luck. Regardless, it was fascinating to experience what will largely become the norm – a post-COVID-19 festival, complete with social distancing, hand sanitiser and strictly no dancing!
Adelaide Film Festival
14-25 October, 2020
Festival website: https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/
- Katherine Tulich, “With No Masks or Distancing, Adelaide Film Festival Provides Pre-Pandemic Experiences for Audiences”, Variety, 22 October 2020. ↩
- Robert Sinnerbrink, Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience Through Film, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 173. ↩