Film – HRAFF Australian Shorts

By Tess Jaeger

The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF) Australian Shorts program was presented by RMIT University at the Capitol Theatre on Sunday 22 May. Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Dean of RMIT’s School of Media and Communication, made an address congratulating the filmmakers before the screening.

There were a total of eight films shown throughout the course of the afternoon. The first, Wall Boy, is a drama canvassing the life of a young runaway, Tom, who finds himself living on the infamous Sydney ‘Wall’.

Director Sascha Ettinger Epstein depicts the Wall as a treacherous haunt for young sex workers who are subject to the whims of those who frequent the area. A support worker befriends Tom, but the film sets viewers on edge from the outset. Forced into a life of virtual enslavement – in which he is groomed and primed for heroin addiction – Tom’s plight is shown to be a common one. His potential emancipation anticipates the arrival of another Wall boy to replace him.

Paola Bilbrough and Stuart Mannion’s Game offers a short interlude. This documentary takes the forum of a basketball game to encourage discussion between the filmmakers and the film’s subjects.

In Game, a group of young African migrants living in Melbourne’s West talk about their relationships with the police. The film is cut together in a similar fashion to a hip hop music video, with a backing track to match. Its short, sharp approach lends itself to a pithy interpretation of the young men’s dealings with police, in an area where there has been a great deal of tension between the community and the local force.

[Games] short, sharp approach lends itself to a pithy interpretation of the young men’s dealings with police …

The, at times, hilarious Vigilant! Healthy! Wholesome! shines a comedic light on the debate surrounding gay marriage that has simmered in Australia and overseas for the past few years. This black and white romcom parodies 1950s television culture in its reflection of a world in which homosexuality is diagnosed as a contagious illness akin to modern-day influenza.

The police in the film carry atomisers filled with disinfectant, which they regularly dispense on would-be homosexuals to prevent the spread of disease. Two main characters, both young women, toil in their separate worlds. One is an employee holed up in a women’s clothing store, the other a runaway bride with a carnivorous wedding dress.

Documentary The Keeper details the life of Jacinta, a young Aboriginal woman living in a South Australian town being surveyed for uranium. This documentary examines the effects of Native Title on families and communities, demonstrating that the affirmation of traditional land ownership is not a simple one.

Director Ali Russell reveals the divisive toll the prospect of uranium mining has taken on the community, and on the sacred cultural sites Aboriginal custodians of the land seek to preserve for future generations. The Keeper tackles complex subject matter in a sensitive and even-handed fashion. This is a film worthy of a large audience and generous praise.

Director Ali Russell reveals the divisive toll the prospect of uranium mining has taken on the community …

Thomas Banks – an 18-year-old freelance writer who has cerebral palsy – is the subject of More than Words, a documentary about his life and aspirations. More than Words follows Thomas in his everyday life and uses subtitles to tell his story. This is a film made by RMIT students Emma Judd and Stacey Kwijas.

The strength of More than Words lies in its willingness to let Thomas tell his own story. It is this poignant demonstration of Thomas’ sensitivity and agency that proves the point he himself has clearly struggled much of his life to make: “I am here and I have something to say worth hearing, if you’ll listen”.

Vessal Safaei’s Streets of My Childhood is another moving example of one young person’s struggle for self-individuation. Vessal’s family came to Australia from Iran when she was a child. Her documentary tells the story of the 2009 Iranian elections – which spawned protests and violence throughout the country – from her own perspective and that of Nina, her childhood friend.

The film borrows television footage taken at the time of the protests and intersperses this with various images, including those of Vessal at present and as a child, and of protesters on the streets of Melbourne. In Streets of My Childhood, nostalgia is reinterpreted as a painful adjunct to appraisals of the Iranian conflict as seen from afar. Vessal’s story is an extreme example of the loss we each feel as young adults, when the vestiges of our childhood become elements of personal history – to be remembered but never relived.

In Streets of My Childhood, nostalgia is reinterpreted as a painful adjunct to appraisals of the Iranian conflict as seen from afar.

Jacob (pictured) is a visually stunning drama set in 1940s outback Australia. It tells the story of a young mother, Gina, who is depressed following the birth of her son, Jacob. Gina’s husband returns home from his work on the stock route some months after the baby’s birth to learn the truth about the boy.

The child’s arrival signifies change and upheaval for his family, who are left questioning how they should approach the task of raising him. So too does the film underline the fragmented nature of Australian society during the 1940s – a land in which the colour of a person’s skin determined their social standing, and their perceived right to certain privileges. Jacob demonstrates the injustice this triggered.

Director Leonie Savvides’ The Kings details the lives of the King family. The Kings are a family of three who are each legally blind. As the family explains, legal blindness does not necessarily connote total blindness. This can often be difficult to understand for people who do not have – or know anyone with – vision impairment.

Isaac King is five years old. His parents recently learnt of his vision impairment. The Kings explores Isaac and his family’s experiences and hopes for the future. This film is an optimistic account that incorporates face-to-face interviews with the family and footage of happenings in their everyday lives. This was a warm and ultimately hopeful screening to conclude the session.

Professor Stephanie Hemelryk Donald facilitated a Q&A session with filmmakers Paola Bilbrough and Stuart Mannion (Game), Lauren Anderson (Vigilant! Healthy! Wholesome!) and Vessal Safaei (Streets of My Childhood) following the screenings. The makers of Wall Boy were later awarded the prize for best short film, as judged by a panel of RMIT students studying within the fields of Media and Communication and Human Rights. This was no doubt a difficult choice given the quality of films presented over the course of the afternoon.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.