Right Now’s top MIFF 2015 picks

By Multiple authors

Right Now’s reviewers have outlined their favourite films showing at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

How to Dance in Ohio | Alexandra Shiva

Film review by Christopher Ringrose

In Alexandra Shiva’s insightful documentary, a group of teenagers and young adults on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum are filmed during a 12-week preparation for their “Spring Formal” – a rite-of-passage dance for young Americans.

The event is organised by the Counselling Centre in Columbus, Ohio, that the teenagers and young adults attend to work on their social skills. Shiva gives the young people centre stage, and her direction is unobtrusive, as she focuses on three young women – 16-year-old Meredith, 19-year-old Caroline and 22-year-old Jessica.

A mixture of piece-to-camera testimonials and slice-of-life footage establishes viewers’ connection with the three, and quietly documents the obstacles they face. Shiva registers their parents’ concerns and care, as well as the Centre’s methods, but her main approach is to track her young subjects through triumphs and disasters that are heightened versions of ones we all encounter.

The film offers “neurotypical” audience members frank insights into these young people’s negotiations with the world, and the way they are tempted to fall back upon familiar and comforting routines. Under Shiva’s deft direction, no one viewing the film is likely to feel like an outsider looking in. In the end, the dance is a success. It looks like fun – a heart-warming conclusion and, as Shiva is at pains to underline, an achievement for all concerned.

Spartacus & Cassandra | Ioannis Nuguet

Film review by Samantha Jones

“Look at what we’ve been through together” – Cassandra to Spartacus.

French documentary-maker Ioannis Nuguet provides a brutally emotional and open glimpse into the dysfunctional relationship between 13-year-old Spartacus and 10-year-old Cassandra, and their impoverished and unstable parents.

The family is Roma, originally from Romania but currently living in France. Living in makeshift housing around a circus big top, Spartacus and Cassandra reach out to 21-year-old trapeze artist Camille, who becomes their caretaker and provides an alternative pathway for their life.

Filmed in an observational manner, Nuguet captures the hardship the siblings endure as they battle through their familial obligation, love for and anger towards their parents. It is distressing to watch and raises many uncomfortable questions about parenting, the role of the state and cultural differences. It also offers a peek into the racial tensions that exist between Roma and French people, which has led to difficulty in Roma people obtaining adequate schooling, work, housing and health services.

Spartacus & Cassandra is an intimate look at the emotional turmoil that poverty, addiction and mental illness can have on children, as well as the discrimination Roma people continue to experience in France.

Another Country | Molly Reynolds

Film review by Heath Chamerski

A companion piece to Rolf de Heer’s extraordinary 2014 drama Charlie’s Country, Molly Reynolds’ sobering, quietly powerful documentary Another Country is, like Charlie’s Country, anchored by the presence of the incomparable David Gulpilil.

Gulpilil’s evocative narration takes viewers along on an, at times uplifting, at times upsetting, tour of the Northern Territory Yolngu community of Ramingining, which was established in the 1970s but faces many difficulties four decades later.

Taking its cues from Charlie’s Country, Another Country examines the clash of the old ways with the policies and “intervention” of the Australian government and the numerous issues that affect the residents – no work, a single store to supply the entire community’s food, and a lack of access to proper medical care or education.

Ramingining is a remote Australian town with people simply forgotten by the government. Reynolds’ direction also contrasts the beauty of outback Australia with the clutter and rubbish that is part of the modern world.

“We can’t go back, so we need proper help to go forward,” Gulpilil states towards the end, an impassioned plea for close-knit communities like Ramingining to not be forgotten. But thanks to Reynolds’ seamless storytelling and Gulpilil’s conversational narration, the message never feels heavy-handed. An experience that will stir up a wealth of emotions, Another Country is a poignant, at times devastating, look at the beautiful Ramingining that deserves as much love as the people of the community have for each other.

Another Country will play at Cinema Nova from 17 September.

Gayby Baby | Maya Newell

Film review by Pia White

Gayby Baby is the debut feature of director Maya Newell. A “gayby” of two mums herself, Newell brings an admirable mix of warmth and objectivity to her examination of four families headed by queer parents.

Each family is unobtrusively followed as they navigate their daily lives, yet the central focus of each story is never the sexuality of the parents. It is of course relevant and discussed often, but mainly when a conversation has been brought about by external parties; whether by the children’s schools, churches or governments. Unsurprisingly, it is unnecessary for the families to spend much time reflecting on the makeup of their family unit.

As the title suggests, the film concentrates much more on the children than on the parents. Gus, Ebony, Matt, and Graham, aged around 11 and 12, are unusual, engaging and clearly loved.

As the film shows, there is something inherently uncomfortable about how politicised the lives of “gaybies” can sometimes be. Graham is forced to consider when it is and isn’t appropriate to disclose his dads’ relationship, while Matt wrestles with his feelings towards a church that his mother embraces despite its rejection of her.

But of course, such politicisation is not a natural consequence of being raised by queer parents. It is entirely symptomatic of the campaigns of those who argue a child should be raised by both a mum and a dad. In a more accepting society, it need not feature as such a big part of growing up a “gayby”.

Gayby Baby will be playing at Cinema Nova in Melbourne and Dendy Newtown in Sydney, with Special Event Screenings at the Luna Palace in Perth, the Star Court in Lismore, The Regent in Murwillumbah and others to be announced. Click here to find out when screenings will take place.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw | Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert

Film review by Sam Ryan

While not by definition a ‘human rights film’, Tyke Elephant Outlaw is an emotion-driven exploration of the human entitlement over the basic rights of other living creatures. And you sure as heck feel a deep sadness for the documentary’s central figure – a circus elephant that fatally broke free on to the streets of Honolulu in 1994 – as you might a human character.

Tyke closely follows the template laid out by 2013’s harrowing Blackfish – the film about Tilikum the orca, which not only enthralled audiences but badly tarnished SeaWorld’s reputation. Tyke is comprised largely of interviews with people who worked with Tyke and those present at her final show, interspersed with remarkable footage – given it was the pre-iPhone era) – of the day’s tragic events.

The comparison to Blackfish is possibly unfair, but inescapable. Like Tilikum, Tyke is the central character around whose humanised, unfortunate life a narrative is built to make a broader statement about animal cruelty, particularly the subjection of wild animals in the name of entertainment.

Whether because of the more recent and remembered events of Blackfish, or the fact that SeaWorld is a bigger baddie than the fading travelling circus, Tyke Elephant Outlaw doesn’t hit quite as hard. It raises important questions that shouldn’t have to be posed again about humans’ treatment of animals. It will pull at your heart, but how much it does for the plight of performing wild animals 20 years on remains to be seen.

Welcome to Leith | Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker

Film review by Samaya Borom

In 2010, the small rural town of Leith in North Dakota was an unassuming one, with a population of only 16 people. Things changed dramatically only two years later when Craig Cobb, one of America’s most infamous white supremacists, began buying up parcels of land in a bid to establish a white nationalist community and gain control of the town’s local council.

Welcome to Leith is the story of how a small community banded together to protect themselves against the white supremacist movement that wanted to put Leith on the map as a centre of white nationalism.

Shot over an eight-month period, Nichols and Walker interview town members, Cobb and his sidekick Kynan Dutton about the radical transformation taking over the town. Cobbs’ vision of having the headquartering the National Socialist Movement in Leith is terrifying, yet frighteningly possible. Given the nationalist movement is considered to be one of the United States’ greatest internal terrorist threat, the ease with which Cobb and his crew were able to move into town and openly publicise their values is disturbing.

Welcome to Leith is a shocking yet unmissable viewing.

Click here to view the full MIFF program.


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.