Right Now’s top 7 MIFF picks

With a raft of thought-provoking films and documentaries on offer at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), we present our reviewers’ top social justice-focused picks.

Servant or Slave | Steven McGregor

Review by Alyssia Tennant

A historical account of an often unacknowledged facet of Australian history, Steven McGregor’s documentary Servant or Slave recounts the experiences of five Aboriginal women: Rita Wright, Violet West, and the three Wenberg sisters – Valerie, Adelaide and Rita.

As children, they were taken from their families and forced into domestic servitude by the Australian Government, along with thousands upon thousands of other Aboriginal children. Despite being stuck in an inescapable cycle of abuse, rape and enslavement, to this day they still fight for acknowledgement of their past ill treatment.

Filmed using a combination of piece-to-camera testimonials and historical photographs, the film offers frank insight into the lives of these women and the trauma that lingers for them. One of Servant or Slave‘s great accomplishments is in the way it reminds viewers of the unaddressed injustices to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as the stolen wages still owed to thousands of Indigenous families.

It is a confronting film that brings to light the tragedy of Australia’s unacknowledged Indigenous history and the fortitude of those who lived through it. It is a vital watch on Aboriginal human rights and the aftermath of the Stolen Generations.

Bugs | Andreas Johnsen

Review by Alyssia Tennant

In Andreas Johnsen’s Bugs, viewers are at once invited to experience both a culinary travel diary and conversation starter about the sustainability of food. Johnsen documents chef Ben Reade and top food researcher Josh Evans’ globe-trotting mission to unearth the role bugs will play in the future of our diets, travelling through countries including Australia, Uganda and Japan, among others.

The film employs an inquisitive, humorous approach to explore the world of edible insects and the looming food crisis caused by population growth. Johnsen has created an eye-opening film that changes viewers’ understanding and attitudes towards entomophagy and Indigenous cultural consumption practices worldwide.

Although Bugs ultimately offers no concrete solutions regarding sustainability, following Reade and Evans as they push the boundaries of Western eating preferences offers unique insight into the contradictions and controversies around eating insects.

Under Johnsen’s direction, the film presents audience members with an alternative perspective. It is entertaining, fascinating and – for those of us less enamoured by bugs – a bit of a rollercoaster ride.

National Bird | Sonia Kennebeck

Review by Samaya Borom

National Bird by Sonia Kennebeck follows the lives of three former Air Force intelligence officers who have decided to go public and talk intimately about the drone programs that they were employed within. At times limited by the Espionage Act 1917 and the strict prohibition about speaking about classified material, the three are still able to provide an insider’s account of the program, including stories of collateral damage, secret surveillance and data collection.

Rather than endorsing the official message from the US government that only combatants are targeted, the three suggest that there is little oversight around targets and the death of many people weigh heavily on their conscience. National Bird goes as far as to Kabul, Afghanistan to interview people whose children and other family members have been killed by US drone strikes and where they call on the international community for help to stop the extrajudicial killings. It features horrendous footage of the aftermath of a strike, with the corpses of men, women and children piled into the back of a truck to be taken back to their village to be buried.

Confronting as it is, National Bird is an important film as it highlights a terrifying prospect that we need to consider as the US drone program expands. When borders no longer matter and States have the capability to wage war from the air unimpeded and without oversight, where in the world is safe?

Starless Dreams | Mehrad Oskouei

Review by Anika Baset

Starless Dreams is a documentary which follows the female inmates of a juvenile detention centre located in Tehran, Iran. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Mehrad Oskouei, it is beautifully crafted with simplicity and unwavering compassion. The scenes jump between rolling footage of the group and one-on-one interviews with each inmate. The girls’ fun loving and affectionate interactions reveal their youth, reminiscent of teenagers anywhere in the world. This stands in jarring contrast to the deep pain and feelings of worthlessness revealed to the narrator privately.

The striking cinematography in Starless Dreams captures the humanity of its subjects, affording them dignity in their undignified circumstances. In doing so, the film challenges the notion of lawfulness as based upon a lack of morality. Instead, criminality is presented as a complex interaction of the personal and the political.

With overarching themes of drug addiction, mental illness and child abuse, Starless Dreams is by no means a light-hearted film. However, it offers a glimpse into a world that is rarely documented and gives a voice to those who are rarely heard.

On Richard’s Side | Andrew Wiseman

Review by Sam Ryan

On Richard’s Side is the third in a trilogy of documentaries – coming after Driving with Richard (1992) and Wonder Boy (2001) – about Richard, who was born with a severe intellectual disability, and his parents Deidre and Charlie.

Utilising a significant amount of footage from the previous films, On Richard’s Side is essentially a standalone film documenting the first 35 years of Richard’s life.

However, even the title gives away that the documentary is at least as much about those around Richard. Equal parts heart-warming and heart-wrenching, we watch the evolution of the lives and needs of all three members of the family as well as wider parts of the support network.

Australian director Andrew Wiseman provides a counter-point to – even a critique of – stories about disability that are structured around what ‘others’ want to see.

Diedre is a deep thinker, and the main voice of the documentary. The use of footage from the earlier films provides a particularly fascinating insight into her evolving reflections.

She later muses: “Perhaps the real tragedy then is not that there are people born who are less capable, and therefore more dependent on others to care for them and to meet their needs, but that there are too many other so called ‘intellectually normal people’ who are severely handicapped in their capacity to give and care for others.”

On Richard’s Side doesn’t shy away from showing the real challenges of caring for a loved one with a disability and the ways it changes lives. It simply aims to be real.

Sonita | Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami

Review by Pia White

Independent and audacious, Sonita Alizadeh dreams about becoming a famous rapper and communicating her lived experience of misogyny to the world. She writes songs about her frustrations and experiences of being a teenage girl and documents her vision of her future in a scrapbook, pasting her face onto pictures of Rihanna.

It may seem that filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami is presenting a familiar narrative in Sonita; that of a young person trying to follow their dreams in the face of adversity. In reality, however, this is not a story that has been told before.

Sonita is an Afghan refugee living with her sister and niece in Iran where it is illegal for women to sing in public. Her life there is precarious, not only because she has no identification papers, but more threateningly because her family is agitating to marry her off for a price so that her brother can afford a wife himself.

Watching Sonita plead for her family to recognise her personhood in the video for her song Brides for Sale, it’s not hard to understand how Ghaem Maghami eventually surrenders her impartiality and helps Sonita in her struggle to resist a forced marriage.

Working together, Sonita and Ghaem Maghami pursue a happy ending that in a different setting and time, both protagonist and audience would take for granted.

Unlocking The Cage | Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

Review by Heath Chamerski

An absorbing documentary charting the efforts of crusading lawyer Steven Wise to obtain certain human rights for those he refers to as ‘non-human animals’ , Unlocking the Cage is a quietly confronting look at the animal rights debate in the 21st century. It focuses largely on Wise and his team’s efforts to secure the transfer of two chimps – Tommy and Kiko – to a wildlife sanctuary far removed from their current prison-like enclosures.

Wise made the decision decades ago to focus his career on fighting for animal rights, and founded the Nonhuman Rights Project. Yet, he encounters stiff opposition and scepticism from a litany of judges and lawyers at every turn. But, as Wise cannily points out: if a corporation or a ship can be given personification in the eyes of the law, then why not a chimpanzee?

Wise’s foundation for his case lies in trying to obtain a legal writ of habeas corpus, proving the chimps are unjustly incarcerated. His efforts to have this extended to non-human animals is the crux of the Hedgedus and Pennebaker’s stirring narrative. Intercut with the courtroom drama are various TV appearances Wise makes to sell his case to the media, where he faces almost as much resistance as in the court.

Wise is a fascinating and admirable figure, and this film gives him a voice, much as he has given a voice to the suffering animals that otherwise would have been consigned to silence.