The following is a series of reviews covering films that screened as part of the Melbourne Festival’s Give Peace a Chance program at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) on Friday 14, Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 October 2011.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? (2008)
Directed by Morgan Spurlock – whose recent works include Supersize Me (2004) and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011) – Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? (2008) is a pop documentary with political undertones.
Spurlock has built a reputation on producing documentaries in which his personal journey as filmmaker is set in the foreground, overtly linked to the aims and messages of the films themselves. In this way, he has established himself as a “star” documentarian, whose subjective experiences are legitimised as integral to his films’ lines of enquiry. He distances himself from traditional notions of the documentary filmmaker as absent and objective narrator.
… the film takes a light-hearted and playful approach to the task of finding nefarious al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? takes its title from the popular geography edutainment computer game series, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Opening with a series of gaming sequences featuring Spurlock as the heroic arcade-style “everyman” on a quest to conquer evil, the film takes a light-hearted and playful approach to the task of finding nefarious al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The audience quickly learns that Morgan Spurlock’s wife, Alexandra, is expecting their first child. This staged revelation dramatises Spurlock’s journey through the Middle East and Asia, which takes up the bulk of the feature. Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is deliberately set to begin at the pregnancy’s outset and conclude with the birth of Alexandra and Morgan’s baby. This convenient subplot runs parallel to the search for Osama, bridging the cultural divide between Spurlock’s mostly American audience and the people he meets in his travels.
The film’s premise is to explore the “War on Terror” from the perspectives of the American people, as well as the people of countries occupied by coalition forces. Osama bin Laden was captured and killed by a US special forces team in Islamabad, Pakistan earlier this year. Retrospect brings a new dimension to the film. Many of Spurlock’s interview subjects – including children, everyday people he meets in the streets and American soldiers – insist that bin Laden is in Pakistan, begging the question of why it took so long to find him. The film also conjures reflections on the manner in which the man died and the justifications offered in response. His demise was heralded as a boon, but, as Spurlock concludes, it is fatally arrogant to assume that killing one man can reverse the entrenched circumstances that lent to his cause.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? appears, at times, to be exceedingly subjective and naïve.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? appears, at times, to be exceedingly subjective and naïve. Spurlock’s insistence on travelling to some of the most dangerous countries in the world during his wife’s pregnancy comes across as rather ridiculous and self-interested, even irrespective of its deployment as a blatantly manipulative plot device. That one man and a film crew could truthfully believe they would even come close to finding bin Laden seems utterly absurd. But without much further reflection it is clear that every element of the film has been carefully considered as a device to attract the largest possible audience.
Spurlock is not preaching to the converted, nor does he presume to condescend. Despite the film’s tongue-in-cheek Southern-inspired soundtrack and contrived graphic interludes, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is deeply political. It is self-conscious without appearing to be so. Spurlock’s real aim is a simple one: he’s out to show his audience what unites the people of the Middle East and the US, rather than what sets them at odds. The film is worth watching.
Murundak: Songs of Freedom (2011)
Since the height of the Aboriginal rights protest movement in the 1970s, Indigenous Australian music has developed a strong voice of resistance and identity; and it’s only getting stronger.
Feature documentary Murundak: Songs of Freedom (2011) explores the cultural and political significance of this music via the Black Arm Band (featuring Aboriginal artists Archie Roach, Bart Willoughby, Dan Sultan, the late Ruby Hunter and several others) who travel from big cities to remote communities performing Murundak, a celebration of songs that have captured an essential and often elusive element of Australia’s Indigenous history.
Directors Rhys Graham and Natasha Gadd use archival footage of 1960s and 70s protests – such as energised street demonstrations and Vincent Lingiari’s more passive protest at Wave Hill – interspersed with Murundak performances to good effect, emphasising the crucial role music can play in human rights struggles.
The unrepentant protest anthems “We have survived” and “Solid rock” were empowering songs of their time and are now performed with a sense of celebration and achievement. The gentler “From little things big things grow” – which is sung by Emma Donovan as the film opens, who later admits to initially not picking up the story – on the other hand may take a few listens to fully appreciate, but its place in popular Australian music ensures Vincent Lingiari’s story lives on.
… the purpose of Murundak as a show of protest was [to] ask the audience to listen to the demonstrators’ stories.
According to the late Ruby Hunter, the purpose of Murundak as a show of protest was not to point the finger or assert blame, but ask the audience to listen to the demonstrators’ stories. Successful performances to largely non-Indigenous crowds in London and at the WOMADelaide Festival prove that the music is as engaging as it is important.
Along the way, the film recognises a subtle shift among the artists and how they see their music. The Rudd Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in particular generates a sense of progress and feeling of acceptance. Later, Dan Sultan explains that it is thanks to the previous generation fighting so hard that he can now sing about love.
While Murundak: Songs of Freedom starts out as a documentary about protest music, it adopts a sense of hope and progress, rather than the feelings of anger often associated with demonstrations. This may be a clue as to why it was entitled “songs of freedom” rather than “songs of protest”.
The music and performances … ultimately remind Australians of who we are as a nation …
The music and performances explore many places, stories and emotions; but they ultimately remind Australians of who we are as a nation, our different but shared cultures, where we have come from and how we can move forward together.
Stonewall Uprising (2010)
Stonewall Uprising (2010) – directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner and based on the exhaustively researched book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter – is an example of well-edited, archival documentary filmmaking.
Culminating in a minute-by-minute recap of the infamous 1969 riots during a police raid in New York’s Stonewall Inn – a mob-run watering hole frequented by the gay and lesbian community (or “deviants”, as they were referred to at the time) – Stonewall Uprising starts at a slow pace, establishing the social and cultural conditions within American society. This was a society where homosexuality was illegal in every state but Illinois, and the DSM II, published in 1968, listed homosexuality as a deviation (the DSM I had branded it a sociopathic personality disturbance).
Issuing from an understanding of homosexuality as legally, medically and morally wrong, raids and arrests were carried out; dramatic treatments such as lobotomies, sterilisation, castration and electroshock therapy were used; and public service announcements such as this were not unusual. According to the makers of Stonewall Uprising, it was the unexpected refusal of Stonewall’s patrons to cooperate with the police that resulted in three consecutive nights of violent protest. This catalysed the gay rights movement in America and resulted in political collectivising, action and change, the benefits of which are still enjoyed today.
This film is meticulous in its research and interviews regarding the night in question, but other elements are glossed over. The filmmakers’ main contention seems to imply that, until that moment, there had been no political element to homosexuality or any efforts to change what was an obviously intolerable situation for many. An early gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, is mentioned in passing; while the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis are altogether dismissed. According to the film, it seems that Stonewall happened, then gay pride happened, then suddenly there was a political movement and activism. Minimal research would indicate this was not the case.
… any critique on the male-centric nature of the gay rights movement is avoided.
Further, any critique on the male-centric nature of the gay rights movement is avoided. There are a couple of token female commentators, with only one who appears to have actually taken part in the riots. Her observation at the town hall meeting immediately after the incident that “there were 400 guys who showed up, and I think a couple of women” is not part of the overall narrative – nor, it seems, is any mention of the separate lesbian movement.
This was borne out of a negative reaction to the disregard the self-appointed male leaders of the gay movement paid to the women’s concerns and issues, and often a distaste for the violence that accompanied men’s forms of protest, a violence several of the male subjects in the documentary reflect upon with satisfaction. Women also often found themselves on the sidelines of movements and parties such as the Black Panthers and the anti-war effort, and although these groups are mentioned as coming together in solidarity with the Stonewall rioters, again, this fact is ignored.
Otherwise, this is an impressively put-together documentary, with insightful and relevant interview subjects …
Otherwise, this is an impressively put-together documentary, with insightful and relevant interview subjects, including Seymour Pine, Deputy Inspector of the Morals Division of the NYPD, and leader of the raid on the Stonewall Inn. His honest reflections on the judgements and laws of the day (“And they were, they were kids. You knew you could ruin them for life. And you felt bad that you were part of this, when you knew they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?”), and opinions on their victims (“They were sexual deviates. I guess they’re deviates. They were to us.”) provide an extra dimension to the conventional narrative of oppression and triumph.
Stonewall Uprising is an engrossing, well executed film that serves as a poignant reminder not only of how far we’ve come and the ongoing struggles for equality, recognition and freedom; but also of those that have struggled, fought and sacrificed (sometimes their lives) in the battle for rights. These liberties are often now so assumptive that a time before their existence is more than foreign: it is regularly forgotten.
Food, Inc. (2008)
Hanne Melgård Watkins
I’m glad I had something to eat before attending the screening of Food, Inc. (2008). Had I decided to wait until afterwards to dine, I might have gone hungry for a while! Academy Award nominated Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner, is a powerful documentary about the US food industry. It “lifts the veil” on the many dangerous traits inherent in an agricultural system run by a limited number of international corporations. These apparently all-powerful corporations control the entire production chain, “from seed to supermarket”, and Food, Inc. raises a number of serious issues around this topic: from healthy eating and the spread of disease to the patenting of a Roundup Ready soybean.
A food-related and particularly apt cliché springs to mind: has Food, Inc. bitten off more than it can chew?
Food, Inc. does a great job of presenting these issues clearly and concisely. However, attempting to cover such a wide range of concerns is perhaps also Food, Inc.’s biggest weakness. A food-related and particularly apt cliché springs to mind: has Food, Inc. bitten off more than it can chew?
Every one of the film’s sections – from the global food crisis to the local Kevin’s law – is worthy and weighty enough to warrant a whole movie of its own. By about the third “chapter” I was starting to feel satiated. By the end I was stuffed – this was going to take a while to digest! On the other hand, one of the audience members afterwards described the film as a punch to the stomach – and, similarly, it is the kind of thing that robs one of one’s appetite.
Capitalising on the “hunger for change” (their pun, not mine) evoked in the audience, Food, Inc. finishes with several inspirational messages: you can change the system, one bite at a time; you can vote for change, three times a day. The idea being that, while the capitalist system is what we’ve got to work with, the best way for consumers to make their voices heard is to use their shopping decisions wisely.
This is the message that ties all the sections of Food, Inc. together: regardless of whether the concern is illness-infested factory farms or the exploitation of illegal migrants, you have the right to know. Consumers have a right to know where their food is coming from, and what they are feeding their family.
With “the right to know” … comes the obligation to make the correct choices.
Here, again, is where I am left hungry – but not metaphorically, this time. With “the right to know”, and the possession of the relevant knowledge, comes the obligation to make the correct choices. Food, Inc. implicitly and explicitly recommends that I reduce my meat intake and buy vegetables that are in season, that I read labels and do some research, and thus avoid certain companies and products that operate in unsustainable and unhealthy ways. I suspect my next grocery-shopping trip is going to be a particularly time-consuming and frustrating one.
The best part about Food, Inc., however, is the way that it achieves the balance between succinctly highlighting how very serious this issue is, while also empowering the viewer. I might not yet be able to eat ethically 100 per cent of the time, but I can make a start. And so can you.
Chávez: Inside the Coup (2003)
Chávez: Inside the Coup (2003), also fittingly known as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, tells the story of the April 2002 coup d’état attempt that saw Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez removed from office for two days.
Two young Irish filmmakers set out to develop a biography about the president and ended up in the middle of a coup. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain gained an impressive level of access to Chávez and his government with their fly-on-the-wall or “reality” documentary style approach. This allowed the events to overtake the story seemingly without the interruption of outsiders. This really benefits the audience, as you feel you are as close to the action as possible.
… instead of being one-sided, the film also explains the concerns of those who opposed Chávez and his anti-neoliberal views.
Footage of interviews with ordinary citizens, singing crowds, kids showing off their BMX tricks alongside the presidential motorcade, and the two-hundred notes a day Chávez received all tell a tale of passionate support for a leader who made politics relevant to people that previously felt forgotten. Though instead of being one-sided, the film also explains the concerns of those who opposed Chávez and his anti-neoliberal views.
The filmmakers followed street protests and erupting violence that culminated in the coup on 11 April 2002. The local media treatment of these events became the documentary’s core theme. There was a clear ideological split between the privately owned broadcasters and state-run Corporación Venezolana de Televisión (Channel 8), the only public network. The majority of commercial Venezuelan media outlets backed the coup, whereas the public broadcaster did not. This seemingly benign and to be expected state of affairs turned nasty when evidence of manipulation emerged. In an attempt to suppress media coverage sympathetic to President Chávez, the opposition-controlled police shut down Channel 8.
From inside the palace they had regained, Chávez’s Government watched private media broadcasting that assured the public that coup leader Pedro Carmona’s Government still had control. Communication with the public was essential to clarify the situation and to call for calm on the streets. This only happened once Channel 8 was back on air.
… this documentary provides cause for reflection on what governments strive for and what role the media plays.
As well as a reminder that you never become truly desensitised to wasteful bloodshed, this documentary provides cause for reflection on what governments strive for and what role the media plays. These questions left the audience at the screening discussing the amount of power the media can have and how it can obscure our right to information. We asked if even in an age of instant notifications there is such a thing as truly open information sharing? We left the room uncertain.
Molly and Mobarak (2003)
Something often said about documentaries is that they “put a human face” to stories usually reduced to statistics. Molly and Mobarak (2003) – the heart-crushing story of Hazara asylum seeker Mobarak Tahiri – not only puts a human face to people often simply referred to as “boat people” or “refugees”, it also adds the element of human emotions. This doesn’t just mean Mobarak’s sadness at racist attitudes and fear for his family still in Afghanistan, but also his unrequited love for local schoolteacher, Molly Rule.
… early scenes of the film explore the racism [refugees] face living in a rural area.
22-year-old Mobarak is working in the rural community of Young, NSW, where 90 Hazara refugees work in the local abattoir. While many of the town’s residents have enthusiastically welcomed the refugees (notably the determined TAFE worker Anne Bell, their employer Tony Hewson and those teaching them English), the early scenes of the film explore the racism they face living in a rural area.
We follow Mobarak as Molly teaches him to drive and explains what a “local” (pub) is. We also watch him fall in love: it is this narrative that holds the film together. Although facing the imminent end to his Temporary Protection Visa, it is Molly’s trip to Europe and his unreturned affections that have Mobarak constantly telling confidant Lyn, Molly’s mum, how sad he is feeling. As one member of the audience pointed out, often the unreciprocated eager dedication Mobarak shows towards Molly echoes the ambivalence Australia shows towards refugees.
… Mobarak’s story has rarely been more relevant than it is today.
Although it’s been almost a decade since director Tom Zubrycki filmed and lived among its lively characters, Mobarak’s story has rarely been more relevant than it is today. Zubrycki was present at the screening, and spoke both before and after about the use of personal stories to tell important, political narratives. He explained that, even today, the story he explored in Molly and Mobarak is too often reduced to “short news grabs”; the result is that a lot of the public have “no existent human face for refugees”.
While the film is set against the background of Australian politics – and the effect events like the MV Tampa affair, the Bali bombings and protests in Canberra are having on the community – this forms a background only. Mobarak’s story is at the forefront, something that Zubryicki says was characteristic of those who were part of the story at the time. Conversations, he says, were rarely about what the government was doing, but about Mobarak’s life: “Have you had your English lesson yet? And if you haven’t, could you come next Thursday?” If you were to take something away from the film it would be that the no nonsense, practical actions of ordinary people can go a long way in ensuring human rights issues are dealt with.
As for putting a human face to the issue – if the collective sigh of relief from the audience, when we learnt Mobarak was still in Australia, is anything to go by – Molly and Mobarak did so.
You can learn more about Molly and Mobarak by visiting the Ronin Films website.
Each of the reviewed films screened as part of the Melbourne Festival’s Give Peace a Chance program at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) between Friday 14, Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 October 2011. A seventh film, Or Forever Hold Your Peace, also screened during the three-day program. Give Peace a Chance is an educational film program in its first year as part of the Festival. It focuses on documentaries about community and political movements that embrace the fight for peace.