MIFF 2020: Right Now’s top picks

By Rosa Ritchie, Samaya Borom, David Branigan and Caitlin Cassidy
Image courtesy of MIFF

The Melbourne International Film Festival is back! MIFF 68 1/2, 2020’s online version of the festival, is streaming across Australia from 6-23 of August. MIFF is bringing to the country another round of captivating and inspiring films and, below, our writers discuss four of Right Now’s top picks.

Coded Bias

Directed by Shalini Kantayya

Reviewed by Rosa Ritchie

The more we use big data and machine learning, the more we become reliant on something many of us don’t quite understand. We depend on the people who design, construct and govern these technologies to ensure they work properly. In an ideal world, artificial intelligence would protect us from the fallibility of human decision making, prone to error and bias. But what if the algorithms that come to govern our lives perpetuate the same bias as the people who coded them?

Coded Bias follows the story of Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist, poet and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League. Buolamwini is already known for her vocal criticism of the failures of facial recognition technology and machine learning. It was a “failed” experiment as an undergraduate student that started her journey. She was experimenting with facial recognition software for an assignment, but she struggled to complete her project because the software couldn’t recognise her face. Buolamwini discovered it was only when she put on a white mask that the technology could “see” her. Artificial intelligence can only learn what it’s taught, and Buolamwini realised the people who coded the algorithm hadn’t fed it a diverse dataset of skin tones and facial structures. Since then Buolamwini developed a theory she calls “the coded gaze” – a term for algorithmic bias.

“People who have been marginalised will be further marginalised if we’re not looking at ways of making sure the technology we’re creating doesn’t propagate bias… Algorithmic justice – making sure there’s oversight in the age of automation – is one of the largest civil rights concerns we have.”

Joy Buolamwini, Coded Bias

If you find tech terminology daunting, don’t worry. So do I. Coded Bias makes these concepts accessible and welcomes viewers into the debate. What’s so refreshing about this documentary is the way director Shalini Kantayya amplifies the voices of remarkable, diverse women working in science, technology and governance, and the way they speak unpretentiously about their ground-breaking work.

Kantayya is an American filmmaker and activist who studied human rights as an undergraduate. Her first feature documentary, Catching the Sun, investigates the global race to lead the clean energy future and was backed by Leonardo di Caprio as executive producer, and Coded Bias premiered at Sundance in January 2020.

One of Buolamwini’s inspirations is mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction. O’Neil says there’s an inherent imbalance in the way those who “own the code” deploy it against others. Both the public and private sector use algorithms to make big decisions that affect our prosperity. For instance, it’s already commonplace for recruitment agencies to use artificial intelligence to scan cover letters for keywords, and for banks to let an algorithm decide the outcome of a credit card application. But none of this is explained to the public, and there’s no appeal system.

Although it grapples with some daunting subject matter, Coded Bias isn’t bleak. Buolamwini’s work gains real traction, resulting in a gratifying Q&A with Congresswoman Alexandria Orcasio-Cortez at the first hearing of the US congress on the use of facial recognition technology. This is a global issue and there’s plenty work to be done. Coded Bias makes it clear: we cannot blindly trust big data or we risk encoding inequality. 

The Letter

Directed by Maia Lekow, Christopher King

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

Fear of witches and the supposed magical ability of women to cause harm to individuals and society still exists in some parts of the world, making it a very dangerous place for those who have been accused of witchcraft.

Directed by Christopher King and Maia Lekow, The Letter, with its Australian Premier at MIFF, follows Margaret Kamango who suddenly, at nearly 100 years of age, is accused of witchcraft by a family member – an allegation that is taken seriously by the rural Kenyan community that she lives in.

The film follows Karisa, Margaret’s grandson who comes from the city to assist in understanding and tackling the allegations before her. In a place where dreams, spirits, cultural traditions and superstition collides with the aftermath of colonisation it’s increasingly clear to Karisa that his grandmother is in a position of mortal danger.

Yet it’s not just Margaret who is fearful of such allegations and the intention behind them. Speaking to others, mainly the elderly, who have also been accused of witchcraft, it becomes increasingly clear that such allegations might have ulterior motives. The Letter is a fascinating film that illustrates the complexity of the meeting of modernity and tradition, where cultural practices and religious belief often overpower what might be viewed as climate change, mental health issues or poverty – the contextualisation of issues is a constant and challenging issue that the film tackles well.

No Hard Feelings

Directed by Faraz Shariat

Reviewed by David Branigan

No Hard Feelings starts out as a Day-Glo immersive, subversive deep dive into foreign queer spaces and realpolitik, and evolves into a quietly moving reflection on the closets of state and self and the primacy of hope. Writer/director Faraz Shariat artfully executes a cinematic Venn diagram of cultural dislocation, exile and assimilation, and immigrant and queer identities through a kaleidoscopic and apparently autobiographic tumble of emotions and tonal shifts.

His cinematic proxy is Iranian descended Parvis, who (quite literally) finds himself working as a translator in a refugee shelter in his sort of native Germany and drives the narrative with a disarmingly genuine openness of spirit. Benny Radjaipour’s central performance is remarkable in its expressiveness, mooring the film’s themes and fleshing out its concerns. The flicker of myriad emotions across his face is continually captured in tight, kinetic focus, seemingly experiencing the chinks in his youthful everything-non-conforming armour in real-time.

Parvis’ burgeoning friendship with an Iranian detainee in tandem with his sexual relationship with her brother challenges his sense of intimacy, trust and self and forms the film’s real crux.

The skewering of a middle-aged Grindr hook-up who post-coitally explains why Parvis is not his usual type is a killer indication of the script’s precision; the quick reply “I’m not really into pretentious whiteys either” is delivered with a cockiness and melancholy that manages to hammer home a simple defensive point and speak volumes about hedonism, pride and sexual racism.

No Hard Feelings does ring something true – if not entirely fresh – from the well-worn tropes of cheesy coming of age stories. But its sense of wounded hope, dissection of place and displacement, and families, logical and otherwise, is consistently rewarding and a scathing version of queer realism.

The Giverny Document

Directed by Ja’Tovia Gary

Reviewed by Caitlin Cassidy

Do you feel safe on the streets? In your skin? Your neighbourhood?

On a street corner of the Malcom X Boulevard and 116th Street in Harlem, New York, artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary ushers passing women to her side. “Do you feel safe?” she asks them. “In general? In your body? In this world?” The women she speaks to, and their responses, are diverse.

Teenage girls with iPod earphones and streetwear gush, wide eyed, about raucous parties shut down by police. A Jamaican woman professes her closeness to god, and, therefore, her safety walking the neighbourhood. Many speak openly about being followed by men and the acute awareness about how the manner in which you dress determines how you will be gawked at and approached by others. Their requirement to make themselves small.

Footage of Gary’s revealing off-the-cuff interviews, filmed in a vintage grain, is interwoven with staccato-like cuts of shots spliced with interspersed psychedelic animation. Claude Monet’s garden turns to a Nina Simone ballad, pleas against police violence and black panther monologues pepper against closeups of blooming flowers. The effect grants a fragmented, dream-like and often unsettling impression. Amidst Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of police brutality the US and at home, Gary’s portrait of the resilience, power and strength of the female black community has never been more pressing, nor potent, as now. 


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