MDFF: Right Now’s Top 5!

By Samaya Borom, David Branigan, Anthony Pasla and Kira Hartley
Image courtesy of director Judith Ehrlich

Back for its 5th year running, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is a smorgasbord of surprising, fascinating and world class documentary films. Below, Right Now writers cover 5 documentaries of special interest to us.

Strangers to the World

Directed by Grant Fraser

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

Franz Kaegerstaetter and Etty Hillseum kept diaries and letters during World War Two, a time where the Third Reich ruled, and Hitler called for people to take a sacred oath to follow him and join in what would become one of the greatest horrors of the 20th century – the holocaust.

The insights, worries, affirmations and the ultimate sacrifice of Franz and Etty, played by Oscar Redding and Rachel Griffiths respectively, form Strangers to the World, the dramatised documentary by writer and poet Grant Fraser. The film revolves around the concept of consciousness and the effects of speaking out in an environment where doing so is illegal and a threat to life. Indeed Franz was imprisoned and sent to trial in Berlin for refusing to take Adolf Hitler’s oath while Etty, a Jewish women, faced certain death in Nazi Europe.  

Strangers to the World is a very personal and intimate film, viewers are privy to the thoughts and concerns of Franz and Etty, bringing touching authenticity and quiet heroism into a very dark corner of history. At a time when speaking out against governments and their conduct is increasingly being questioned this dramatisation speaks to the power of words, and the importance of bearing witness to events and atrocities so that we are not destined to repeat them.

The Boys Who Said NO!

Directed by Judith Ehrlich

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

The Vietnam War cost the US billions of dollars, thousands of lives and forever changed the landscape and people of South-East Asia, and the brunt of the fighting and suffering was in Vietnam. In order to continue to fight the War, the US decided that a draft was required to add to military personnel numbers. Opposition to this draft is considered to be one of the largest war resistance movements in US history.

Judith Ehrlich’s newest documentary The Boys Who Said NO! follows the stories of men involved in what was collectively referred to as ‘The Resistance’ or the more derogatory ‘Draft Dodgers’: groups of young men who refused to be drafted into a war where they questioned US involvement and where resistance to the draft would see you be prosecuted and face up to five years in jail. With uncensored images of war beaming into living rooms, young men started to question the concept of patriotism and the impact of war on innocent civilians and drove a massive anti-war-resister movement, which linked up with the civil rights movement more broadly. The US however had different ideas and increased the draft call from 17,000 per month to 35,000 per month – all legal under the draft law. 

Featuring interviews with resistors and civil rights campaigners and interspersed with archival footage, The Boys Who Said NO! is a fascinating documentary about the lengths that a government would go to in order to keep a war machine working, and also the ways in which passive as well as active protest can be a tool of change.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Directed by Lisa Burd

Reviewed by David Branigan

Let’s Talk About Sex, directed by Lisa Bird, is an endearingly lo-res journey cum vanity piece into self-awareness. The film centres a reality TV star using their cultural currency for something more and, tonally, it lands somewhere between the seminal Salt-N-Pepa track and the sense of dread those four words evoke from any parent’s mouth.

In an it-gets-meta moment, the documentary kicks off with that awkward parental conversation in reverse, capturing Real Housewives of Auckland star Julia Sloane discussing sex with her aged parents and reacting in deadpan cutaway when her father notes “I’m not as sympathetic to diversity as you might imagine”.

Sloane and director Lisa Burd shirk this quietly provincial point of view and embark on an exploration of diversity through a series of vox pops that drill down into varied sexual expression and identities, and generational shifts in acceptance.

There’s a charm to the films overarching curiosity, and Sloane’s cool mum from Mean Girls vibe, but it does at times risk tipping into prurient voyeurism. Sloane and Burd do, however, effectively prosecute a case that sex education is universally lacking, and there is a certain frisson in knowing some of the ground covered and in imagining the likely audience grappling with terms like misgendered.

Sloane’s droll and perhaps unintentionally camp persona affords the somewhat prosaic (and largely hetero-normative) talking heads she encounters unflinching respect and curiosity, and Let’s Talk About Sex is ultimately an effective entry-level primer on self-acceptance and sex positivity.

Leaving Allen Street

Directed by Katrina Channels

Reviewed by Anthony Pasla

“Contemporary practice for supporting people living with a disability focuses on empowerment and choice.” This is the philosophy which OC Connections, featured in the documentary Leaving Allen Street, is dedicated to. The film illuminates the hardships of transition for the residents of OC Connections. These residents, who are vacating congregate care and shifting into community housing, collaborate with OC Connections to individualise their own new surroundings.

In 1978, OC Connections (formerly known as the Oakleigh Centre) accommodation was established to house children with disabilities. A not-for-profit, and one of the last institutions of its kind in Melbourne, it has cared for residents for over 35 years. In the film, we see the difficulties that change brings, as the residents undergo the transition from incomparable familiarity to a new home, which is extraordinarily daunting in any circumstance.

But witnessing this relocation on a large scale resonated deeply; the documentary recalls memories of my recent, and comparatively easy, move. I cannot imagine how terrifying it is to leave the home you’ve known all your life, yet Vlada, Collin, and their peers plainly showed their palpable anticipation every day to the OC staff. And they pulled the move off with aplomb.

This relocation into purpose-built houses has allowed these people who live with disability to be afforded some agency. They themselves have decorated these houses and it is highlighted in the difference between the outdated, barren and depressing corridors of the institution, and the personalised, styled and warm homes.

Leaving Allen Street gives us an insight into what it means to empower people who have previously been institutionalised. From Allen St to Lover’s Lane, this film is a potent reminder that we are all human and should be afforded the same opportunities.

Can Art Stop A Bullet?

Directed by Mark Street

Reviewed by Kira Hartley

Art and activism have a long history, some of which is imparted in Mark Street’s documentary, Can Art Stop a Bullet? The documentary is shaped by tragedy and how artists have responded to tragedy. It offers us the voices of artists, authors, activists, human rights workers and photojournalists, or some combination of these, who have created work in response to war, genocide, or in the face of cultural erasure. 

The documentary is framed by internationally renowned artist William Kelly and his 2016 artwork War or Peace: the big picture. As part of a creative fellowship at the State Library of Victoria, Kelly created the large-scale artwork which embraced the perspectives of artists whose work has involved notions of peace above war. The work takes the form of a collage and, through the documentary form, Kelly explains how each segment has been influenced by imagery that has arisen in the face of conflict or tragedy.

One of the key messages which the film seeks to impart is the how art can show truth. Well-known, as an example, is the Nick Ut photograph of Napalm Girl which was instrumental in spreading the true ugliness of war around the globe. But we are also shown how art highlights the humanity found beneath war and conflict, and how art brings commonality. Throughout the documentary, and much of Kelly’s oeuvre, a recurring theme is how art tears down the us-versus-them mentality of so much conflict, and helps to bridge the gap.

The film ends with extraordinary and powerful words from Dr. Rama Mani (the documentary is worth watching for these words alone), but it is also perhaps best summed up with a quote from the very beginning of the film: “An artist is basically on the front line fighting negative forces and trying to create a better world.”

Perhaps art cannot stop the bullet itself, but it can stop it from being fired.


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.