Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s film Hail (2011) opens with an epic celestial battle in the sky: an immortal army of hunters descending from the heavens on horseback armed with spears, swords and archer’s bows. Their muscular bodies are poised for battle, their long hair extends back behind them in tendrils and their faces are marked with determined rage. There is a palpable sense of chaos to this horde; yet, while it gestures towards movement, it remains completely still: a fixed, painted image being captured on film. The work, Åsgardsreien, or The Hunt, was created in 1872 by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo, and is a depiction of a tale of mythic folklore in which supernatural beings raged across the skies and heralded great devastation. In the opening scene of Hail, the camera tracks across the painting, lending it a strange vitality that emphasises the movement of these bodies while simultaneously underscoring their stillness. By tracing over these bodies, the camera displaces the fury of their plight with a slow, meditative gaze that suspends the chaos of the scene.
Much like these celestial warriors, the main protagonist in Hail is also suspended between two worlds. Dan (Daniel P. Jones) has recently been released from prison, and is struggling to adjust to life on the outside. Jones previously featured in Courtin-Wilson’s earlier film Cicada (2008), in which he recounted a traumatic event from his childhood and Hail borrows heavily from his own experiences. The film is loosely anchored to Jones’ own incarceration, with his real-life partner, Leanne Letch, playing his on-screen girlfriend, Leanne. When Leanne dies from an overdose, Dan is propelled into a violent rampage of vengeance. Haunted by her memory and unable to accept her death, Dan is cast adrift between the living and the dead. He carries out his revenge in a disconnected and desperate manner, lashing out in bursts of extreme violence and using horrific methods of torture to punish his victims. Dan’s body is thrown into a violent frenzy, but also stilled and suspended in extended sequences (seemingly disconnected from the narrative trajectory) in which he is reunited with Leanne, perhaps a dream or a memory.
In one scene, a dead horse falls from the sky in a slow and almost silent aerial sequence. It begins with a long shot, the considerable distance making the strange shape difficult to identify. The camera moves to a closer angle before slowly zooming towards the falling corpse as it spirals down. Both camera and corpse are visibly moved by the strength of the air pressure. The camera wavers slightly as it approaches the body and mimics the interchanging chaos and calmness of a strong wind: an unpredictable arrangement of dips and swells, followed by gentle, spiralling zooms. Shifting suddenly from mid-range to a long-shot, the camera allows the corpse to drop down and then rise up once more, the lifeless form given a sense of movement. Wind collects underneath the horse’s body and, like a dutiful puppet, the corpse rears its neck back and appears to buck in the sky: the dead momentarily resurrected.
This notion of resurrection is at the core of Dan’s grief. He unleashes violent and bloody retribution in a desperate attempt to resurrect Leanne, but there is a painful futility to his flailing and failing body. In dream sequences, Leanne is momentarily brought back to life: she reappears in the car, in the street, on the beach. Her displaced “resurrections” merely underline what it is that Dan has lost; hence why, overcome with grief, he lashes out at the world around him.
As opposed to dialogue or plot, the film routinely uses the extended slow-moving dream sequences – the two lovers staring at each other with their bodies seemingly suspended in time and space; the otherworldy aesthetic further accentuating the impossibility of their reunion – to engage with narratives of trauma of loss, longing and despair. This is perhaps owing to Courtin-Wilson’s own work as a visual artist. Indeed, his filmography is strongly marked by experimental and multi-platform approaches. He often uses non-actors, and many of his films blur the distinction between documentary and fiction. It is this ambiguity between forms that lends itself so masterfully to Hail and allows for the depth and texture of Dan’s grief to be felt in the camera movements, gestures, stillness and frenzy.
The film’s cinematographer is Germain McMicking, who (besides shooting works such as Berlin Syndrome [Cate Shortland, 2017], Top of the Lake and Holding the Man [Neil Armfield, 2015]) is a long-time collaborator of Courtin-Wilson’s, having also worked on the latter’s documentaries Bastardy (2008) and The Silent Eye (2016), as well as the upcoming docudrama-horror The Empyrean (due to be released later this year). McMicking’s camera operates as something of a guide to Dan’s inner turmoil: oscillating between frenetic handheld fist fights, soaring aerial shots and sweeping close-ups of the two lovers.
By decentralising the authority of plot, Hail calls upon the audience to move through these sometimes violent, sometimes tender processes with Dan. In Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, Susan Lee Foster explains that empathy was originally a term used to “describe and analyze in depth the act of viewing painting and sculpture” by German aestheticians wishing to articulate a “physical connection between viewer and art in which the viewer’s own body would move into and inhabit the various features of the artwork.”1 Moving with Dan in both frenzy and stillness, the spectator is invited to extend themselves into his world: to have empathy with his grief and to feel the depth of his longing. It is precisely these felt experiences between spectator and screen that gesture towards the meditative potential of cinematic spaces: suspended between fiction and reality, we allow ourselves to fold into these spaces and be moved by them.
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Hail (2011 Australia 104 mins)
Prod. Co: Flood Projects Prod: Michael Cody, Amiel Courtin-Wilson Dir: Amiel Courtin-Wilson Scr: Amiel Courtin-Wilson Phot: Germain McMicking Ed: Peter Sciberras Mus: Steve Benwell Prod. Des: Zohie Castellano
Cast: Daniel P. Jones, Leanne Letch, Tony Markulin, Jerome Velinsky
- Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 10. ↩