We review five thought-provoking films from the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival that provide insight and commentary on human rights issues.
There’s the triumphant story of Maria Toorpakai, a female squash player from Pakistan who defied gender expectations to play and compete professionally in Girl Unbound; the unforgiving history of race relations in America through the voice of James Baldwin in I am Not Your Negro; heartbreaking footage from the frontlines of Ragga, Syria in City of Ghosts; the remarkable story of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her commitment to fighting against apartheid in Winnie; and, the puzzling and complex story of David Crowley in A Gray State.
Girl Unbound | Erin Heidenreich
Review by Pia White
Girl Unbound tells the powerful story of Maria Toorpakai as she returns to her home in Pakistan to compete for her country in an international squash tournament.
Encouraged to pursue sport by her father after rejecting what she saw as the constraints of living as a girl; Maria rose to prominence as a champion of the second biggest sport in Pakistan. For much of this time, Maria presented and competed as a boy. However, once her gender became known, the ever-present threats from the Taliban eventually drove Maria abroad to Canada.
While Maria now competes in female tournaments, her gender identity is less resolved. Throughout the film, she reflects on gender and masculinity, but confesses that she is still working through her understanding of herself and feeling neither male nor female.
While Maria and her triumphs are at the heart of the film, the story of her family is equally compelling. Standing beside Maria is a family of integrity and resolve, living their values in defiance of the Taliban. Maria’s father is particularly affecting as he discusses his strongly held belief in educating his daughters and raising his children in an environment where gender is not a limitation.
With the benefit of her family’s support, Maria proves that not only is she a formidable athlete, but also a formidable example of living fearlessly and being true to yourself.
Girl Unbound screens on Wednesday 9 August at 9:00pm at ACMI and on Saturday 12 August at 1:45pm at Kino Cinema.
I am Not Your Negro | Raoul Peck
Review by Vanessa McQuarrie
“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” This is one of many quotable quotes in I am Not Your Negro, a documentary about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, told through the eyes – and words – of writer James Baldwin.
Every word in Raoul Peck’s remarkable film was taken practically verbatim from Baldwin’s essays, lectures, books and interviews. It opens with Baldwin (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) composing a letter he sent to his agent, explaining he’s coming home from Paris to write about the three civil rights activist, who had all been assassinated within five years of each other in the 60s. Unfortunately, Baldwin was just 30 pages into that book, Remember This House, when he died in 1987.
I Am Not Your Negro is the film about the book that would have been written, had Baldwin lived. Tracing the history of race relations in America (not a pretty story), it juxtaposes black reality with white fear and fantasy so thoroughly and convincingly that you’ll despair at the story, how it unfolded and why discrimination, disadvantage and prejudice – and pure hatred – has been able to continue.
Archival footage is entwined with popular culture references and Baldwin’s eloquent, powerful voice. There’s so much to take in during this unforgettable and unforgiving film, it’s worth seeing twice.
I am Not Your Negro screens at the Comedy Theatre on Sunday 13 August at 1:15pm and Saturday 19 August at 4:00pm.
City of Ghosts | Matthew Heineman
Review by Samaya Borom
Matthew Heineman’s new documentary, City of Ghosts, focuses on RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), a group of citizen activists who documented the path of destruction and death inflicted on the city of Raqqa in 2014. The group set out to witness the crimes of both the Bashar Al-Assad regime and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) through active reporting, including the secret filming of events leading to the fall and capture of Raqqa.
Extensive footage shows how ISIS rose to power in Syria, seemingly on the back of Assad regime protests around democracy, and how RBSS silently filmed them to ensure that there was a historical record of the atrocities that would be committed, which unbeknownst to RBSS would eventually amount to genocide and Crimes against Humanity. From the inception of ISIS arriving in the city, to the realisation that they were worse than Assad’s pro-government forces, the documentary frighteningly captures the nightmare that besieges Syrians daily. ISIS trucks parade through the city centre with crucified hostages, beheaded bodies line the footpath outside a popular park, while mainstream and western media remain silent. The film’s focus is on RBSS communicating to the international community the atrocities taking place, and pleads with it to spread the news of what is occurring in Syria.
Extremely confronting, City of Ghosts is essential viewing for those interested in the rise of ISIS and how citizens are able to bear witness for generations to come.
City of Ghosts screens at Hoyts Melbourne Central on Saturday 5 August at 9:15pm and on Sunday 20 August at 4:15pm.
Winnie | Pascale Lamche
Review by Anika Baset
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, emerged as a leading voice against apartheid in South Africa after her husband’s arrest in 1962. Amid a backdrop of violence and protest, she became a key player in the African National Congress political party, which was considered a terrorist group at the time. As a result, she also became the ultimate enemy of the South African national security agencies. “They had to destroy Winnie if they wanted to destroy the struggle.”
This film chronicles Madikizela-Mandela’s commitment to fighting an unjust system using whatever means possible, a commitment which remained steadfast in the face of the constant threats to her family, criminal charges and being exiled to rural South Africa. The extensive use of firsthand accounts from the 80 year-old protagonist herself gives the documentary an authentic voice, yet perhaps at the expense of achieving a balanced narrative. Ultimately, Winnie is a tribute to the relentless tenacity of an activist and freedom fighter, whose controversial impact in South Africa goes far beyond her role as a wife of a famous man.
Winnie screens on Thursday 17 August at 4:00pm at the Comedy Theatre and on Saturday 19 August at 1:30pm at Hoyts Melbourne Central.
A Gray State | Erik Nelson
Review by Rachael Imam
In January 2015, the bodies of filmmaker David Crowley, his wife Komel and their young daughter Raniya were discovered in their suburban home in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Their deaths made the national headlines and sparked a series of online theories that, among other things, cited possible government involvement in the killing of the young family.
Erik Nelson’s documentary A Gray State presents us with the pieces of a disturbing but wholly engrossing puzzle. Through a collection of home videos and interviews with those who knew them, we begin to learn a little more about David and Komel, their lives together, and the dystopian film project that catapulted David to stardom among the online communities of the American alt-right.
With only anecdotes and snippets of archival footage to guide us, Nelson’s film makes it difficult to determine what is real, and what is hearsay. This isn’t your typical true crime documentary. Rather than focusing on forensic evidence or police reports, our understanding of what really happened is built out of the opinions of others. When information is clouded by emotion and biased by the privilege of hindsight, how much can we really know about what occurs in people’s private worlds? A Gray State is a captivating look at a tragic, real-world puzzle of which we may never have all of the pieces.