In the Middle Ages, bestiaries were books made up of illustrations of animals accompanied by descriptions containing moral lessons for the reader. With Bestiaire, Côté has reclaimed this tradition, merging elements of the documentary, the essay film and the art film to craft a superb cinematic equivalent.
The film consists almost exclusively of static shots portraying several dozen species of exotic animals held at a Quebec safari park. Although without extra-diegetic soundtrack and virtually free of dialogue, Bestiaire derives much of its impact from the perfect synergy between image and sound. The first half, for example, shows the animals held in a warehouse during the park’s winter closure. In depicting these beautiful animals in a world of concrete and corrugated metal, the meticulous composition of the frame heightens the scene’s artificiality while the menacing ambient sounds of the warehouse – the echoing laments from other enclosures, the hollow reverberations of clanking hooves and banging cages, the snowstorm raging outside – compound the already violent absurdity of the image, rendering it immediate and inescapable.
While indisputably haunting, to consider the film an animal rights treatise would be reductive. Côté’s bestiary is not didactic; it invites introspection. Never tedious or repetitive, the film’s masterly executed minimalism generates a deep level of empathy in the viewer, which then inevitably reflects back, engendering a confrontation with one’s own morality that reaches far beyond the gates of the safari park
At this year’s Berlinale I wrote two daily blogs, one for the New York film magazine Film Comment and the other for Berlin’s English-language magazine Exberliner. Here are the links to all of the blog posts, with the titles of the films reviewed in each.
This year’s Berlinale kicks off on Thursday and tickets go on sale tomorrow morning at 10:00am. Considering the ridiculously large number of films on the programme, buying tickets is always a bit of a gamble. Having seen a fair number of this year’s films already, I thought I’d put together a selection of recommendations to help with the daunting task of sifting through the programme.
Reporters are not allowed to review any of the films that will hold their world premieres during the festival until the day of the premiere, so all of the titles below have already screened elsewhere. For the world premieres make sure to check out my blogs for both Film Comment and Exberliner where I will publish reviews every day of the festival.
Of the 40 or so I’ve seen thus far, this is hands down the best entry in this year’s programme (and I don’t think it’s premature to say that it’ll be amongst the best films I see all year). This documentary, which impressed Werner Herzog and Errol Morris so much that they jumped on as executive producers after watching it, portrays a group of men responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of ‘Communists’ and other undesirables in Indonesia during the sixties. Oppenheimer’s stroke of genius is offering them the chance of filming re-enactments of their killings. Having to thus recall and process their actions in such minute detail forces a deep level of introspection on these men and over the course of the documentary we witness a gradual and entirely organic evolution from exuberant bravado to violent recognition of guilt, offering one of the most compelling considerations of the nature and universality of evil ever captured on screen.
Porterfield’s previous film Putty Hill, which also premiered at the Berlinale in 2010, was a small arthouse sensation, receiving rave reviews across the board. Now he returns with I Used to Be Darker, which in my opinion is even better. While I felt that the former suffered from its lack of a script, with his third feature Porterfield shows that he is just as accomplished a scriptwriter as a director. This wholly unsensational story of divorce and its emotional consequences for all involved manages to make do with all sentimentality and nonetheless crafts an incredibly poignant portrait, thanks in equal measure to the perfectly pitched realism and to the excellent performances by the cast of non-professionals.
Le météore(The Meteor), directed by François Delisle
Of the three recommendations here, this is the most experimental and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, for the more indulgent, this is one of the most interesting and successful formal experiments I’ve seen in a while. The story centers on a man’s imprisonment for manslaughter and the psychological effect this has on him and those around him, particularly his wife and mother. The whole film is told in voice-over, with each of the different characters reflecting on their predicament while the screen shows either the characters themselves or images that illustrate and complement their monologues, for example a long single shot of a slowly setting sun to accompany the mother’s death. The images are arresting and often strikingly beautiful and the way they enrich the voice-overs imbues the narration with poetic resonance, resulting in an innovative and deeply absorbing mode of storytelling.
Catering to virtually every niche, Berlin offers some 70 film festivals each year. Since 2009, the first on the calendar has been the Unknown Pleasures Festival. Held during the first two weeks of January at the historic Babylon Cinema in former East Berlin, it is a work of love run entirely by three enthusiasts of US independent cinema, providing a sorely needed platform for recent American arthouse films.
This year’s edition opened on a disappointing note with the German premiere of Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Typically saccharine and contrived, Gondry’s latest portrays a group of Bronx teens on the bus ride home after their last day of school. During the improbably long journey each makes major discoveries about themselves, their friendships, the virtues of loyalty and the woes of bullying. With nothing new to say, it compares miserably to films with an actual feel for adolescent realities, such as Laurent Cantet’s The Class.
Gondry was one of a handful of big names on the program, which also included Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Werner Herzog. While sometimes stretching the indie label, these titles attract the largest audiences each year and guarantee the festival’s survival. The true highlight, however, is the always excellently curated selection of microbudget films, as the majority would be all but impossible to see otherwise, having little hope of being picked up by a German distributor.
The greatest discovery this year was Amy Seimetz’s feature debut Sun Don’t Shine. A worthy addition to the rich cinematic tradition of young lovers taking flight on the American road, it’s everything an indie film should be. Fully transcending its budgetary constraints, the film employs a bare premise – a runaway couple’s desperate attempt at getting rid of a body, kept within a 24-hour timeframe and involving only three other characters – and focuses on capturing the lovers’ manic intensity as they fall victim to increasingly acute paranoia. The excellent lead performances (Kate Lyn Sheil is particularly superb) create compelling characters whose actions, though often hysterical, never beggar belief, while the feverish 16mm cinematography anticipates their undoing from the very first frame, imbuing their predicament with tragic resonance.
Interestingly, both Mark Jackson’s Without and Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena center on a girl in her late teens / early twenties who takes up a job as caretaker for a senior as an attempt at emotional escape. While Without benefits from higher production values, Exit Elena is the more accomplished film. In Without, the protagonist is left alone with her charge in an isolated house and Jackson plays with horror film conventions, using red herrings to build up intrigue and suspense around the trauma that haunts his heroine, sacrificing psychological depth at the service of a strained and unsatisfying denouement. Silver approaches his material more subtly, relying on the titular Elena’s awkward though increasingly intimate interactions with her invasive host family to hint at her backstory without ever fully revealing it, thus painting a far more nuanced and involving portrait.
In Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, approaching adulthood forces 17-year-old Jackie to overcome her longstanding sexual attraction to her older brother. In a manner distinctive of a lot of American independent cinema – Juno being the most successful example – the dialogue-heavy script presents young characters that are uniformly blasé and wise beyond their years, which may up the hip factor, but radically undermines the realism aspired to, robbing the film of any real import. Considering how the same themes have been used to brilliantly probe and deconstruct the institution of the family in recent Greek cinema, as in the work of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the appropriation of the arch-taboo topic of incest here merely serves to spruce up an otherwise conventional coming of age story.
This year’s program featured a number of documentaries, the most outstanding being Thom Andersen’s Reconversão, which continues the director’s preoccupation with the filmic representation of architecture. Made up primarily of stationary shots running at a few frames per second and accompanied by a steady and soothingly monotone voice-over, the film works like a particularly fascinating and philosophical lecture on the oeuvre of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. No small credit goes to Andersen’s DP Peter Bo Rappmund, whose own Tectonics was also shown at the festival.
In an extraordinary and purely visual essay film, Rappmund photographs the entirety of the US-Mexico border in 200 shots, also played at a few frames per seconds. Without voice-overs or titles, Tectonics finds a happy medium between photography and film, inviting the distanced appreciation and scrutiny characteristic of the former all the while maintaining the latter’s contextualizing linearity. Impeccably composed and often arrestingly poetic, Rappmund’s images elicit a deeply introspective consideration of the geopolitical circumstances they portray and of the infinite associations they conjure.
Article originally published by Filmmaker on 17 Jan 2013.
Unknown Pleasures #5— 01-16 Jan 2013, Babylon Mitte, Berlin. Full programme on their website.
Miguel Gomes’ first two features—The Face You Deserve in 2004 and Our Beloved Month of August in 2008—piqued the interest of critics through their whimsical filmic tributes and meta-cinematic experiments, with some flagging the Portuguese director as an auteur worth keeping an eye on. This initial enthusiasm was validated by the premiere of his next film in the main competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Standing out as the most stylistically intrepid entry in an otherwise rather timid selection, Tabu was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation and went on to take the international festival circuit by storm, generating a torrent of acclaim that has consistently seen it ranked among best films of the year.
Split in two chapters—“A Lost Paradise” and “Paradise” (borrowed, along with the title, from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu)—the film is initially set in present-day Lisbon, where Pilar, a lonely spinster leading an emotionally vicarious existence, spends her days advocating human rights and worrying about her increasingly senile neighbor Aurora. The death of the latter initiates the second part, which is set in an unnamed African colony and is narrated by Aurora’s former lover Gian Luca, recounting their youthful love affair whose tragic end coincided with the fall of the Portuguese empire.
While the narrative, particularly in the Lisbon chapter, does at times tend to meander, Tabu’s constant supply of stylistic flourishes is truly beguiling. Shot in gorgeous black and white—a velvety and highly contrasted 35mm in the first part and a grainier, almost tactile 16mm in the second—and projected in Academy ratio, the entire film pays loving tribute to a bygone era of filmmaking, adopting and playing with the trademarks of classic cinema to innovative effect. Most striking among these experiments is its revamp of the silent film in the second chapter: Gomes retains the diegetic sounds but keeps all dialogue muted except for Gian Luca’s melancholic voice-over. This device provides a novel manner of representing memory through film, for since Gian Luca is narrating to Pilar and Aurora’s maid Santa, we are never sure whose version of the events we are witnessing.
More than a simple exercise in style, the film touches on deeper issues, for example drawing parallels between one’s inevitable loss of innocence and youth to the contemporary psyche of Portuguese society and its relation to the legacy of colonialism. Still, whether Tabu does more than scratch the surface of these issues is open to debate, which is why I wanted to get the director’s take while he was in town for the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival.
Tabu is a very nostalgic film, not least towards cinema. As it stands out from most contemporary cinema, I was wondering how you would position your own work in relation to that of your contemporaries.
For me it’s very difficult to make a generalization. I know that I’m a Portuguese director making films in 2012. Even if there is a connection—as in the case of Tabu— with a cinema that does not exist anymore, like silent films and like classical American cinema too—even if I know that these films existed, that there is a strong connection with this kind of cinema, I’m aware that I’m doing a film nowadays, a contemporary film. So despite the connection with this cinema of the past, I hope it invents its own way to get there. I’m not just trying to copy formal aesthetics, to reproduce the way that cinema was made in the past. I want to invent a way to get to the sensations that I had watching these old films.
Of course, in contemporary cinema there are things that I enjoy and things that I don’t enjoy, but there is something—because cinema is more than 100 years old—there is something I miss. I think that cinema has lost its youth. The characters in Tabu, in the first part of the film, I guess they are missing their youth; I think that’s what they are missing, really. And I also think that cinema misses the youth of cinema. For instance, in Murnau, in the ’20s and the beginning of the ’30s, I think that viewers were more available to believe in the things that cinema was showing them, and I miss this innocence that was lost. So when I make films, I try to regain this kind of innocence and give it back to the viewer.
In contemporary cinema there is another director whose work I really like: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s also very attached to this idea of trying to regain something that in the history of cinema was lost, which is innocence. Cinema is like people: when you get older, you no longer believe in Santa Claus. But cinema, which I think is very linked to childhood, is a way to regain: even if you know that the things that you’re seeing are not true, you can regain—in the space and time of a film—something of this innocence. This is why you get touched by the unbelievable things that cinema shows you.
Is this why you generally avoid realism in your work?
Well, it’s just the fact that we are in a cinema theater: I think that real life is outside the cinema. For instance, I am really attached to musical comedies because I believe that cinema is better at inventing and not at trying to capture or reproduce reality. In most of the films that attempt to recreate reality, I think reality is better, because it’s more real. Cinema will always lose in this attempt, so I think it’s more interesting to have something that is not reality. There are different rules—the rules of a film should be invented for each film. But, of course, there should be a connection with the real world. If it’s only fantasy, it lacks interest for me, but I think that the world, the things that people do, the way they talk, everything that appears in a film should not be the attempt at reproducing reality, because cinema will always be less real than reality.
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.
As much as the filmmakers whose films it designates may have grown to hate it, the label mumblecore is pretty much indelible at this point. And while their resentment towards the term is understandable (it doesn’t have quite as romantic a ring as nouvelle vague, does it?), it nevertheless refers to the most creative and influential wave of films to come out of the US independent scene since the early ’90s. In this regard, it should be considered a badge of honor.
The film that started it all was Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha. Produced in 2002, it spent three years accruing word of mouth on the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release. When it finally did, it quickly turned into a small sensation. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of non-professionals, the film’s lo-fi aesthetic and highly naturalistic, unsensational portrayal of early adulthood was met with overwhelming critical enthusiasm and helped turn attention to the work of a number of other young, similarly inclined filmmakers.
Bujalski’s following two features—Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, released in 2006 and 2009 respectively—confirmed his early promise, establishing the 35-year-old as an auteur. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his debut and a newly restored 35mm print is traveling across the US to celebrate the occasion.
It’s been ten years since you made Funny Ha Ha. When did you last see the film?
In January. There was a new print, which I’d never seen before. I wanted to take notes on the colors in case there’s any reason to make another print down the line, so I watched it with an audience in Berlin. It was a strange experience, because it had been a few years. At the time that I made it, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that anyone would have any trouble finding their way into it. I thought it was a very straightforward story told in a very straightforward fashion. But watching it again this year, I thought, Wow, this is completely personal and completely particular and completely peculiar. It kind of amazes me how lucky I was that people did find it.
I feel that your films are the type that viewers will relate to differently depending on what stage of their life they’re in when they watch them.
So watching Funny Ha Ha in 2002 and 2012 could be a completely different experience. Have you noticed such a development with audiences?
Yeah. I mean, I would assume so; I haven’t done a thorough scientific survey of everybody who’s watched the movie. Although, just last week I was in Boston, and I was having a drink with a couple of old professors of mine and they were saying that they saw it differently now, because now they have kids who are in their early 20s. (laughs) It was a different experience for them to watch the movie thinking it was about their kids.
Obviously, it’s such a particular moment in a person’s life and we made that movie very much from within that moment. When I made Funny Ha Ha there was nothing ethnographic about it: I wasn’t trying to make a grand statement about what I thought it was to be 24, I just was 24. All that stuff was very real to me. So I think, if anything, if the movie resonates, that’s why: because it’s not told with critical distance, you’re really just looking at the Petri dish. So, who knows? I always intended it to be a personal experience for everybody who watches it. I think when you make a certain kind of movie—if you make a thriller, then you want everyone to jump out of their seats at the same time and if you make a slapstick comedy, you want everyone to laugh at the same time, but with this, I wasn’t leading an audience through a preordained set of responses. The movie only works if you bring your own thoughts and feelings to it and everybody’s gonna have a different feeling.
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.
Considering the way in which Iran dominated the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, Ben Affleck’s Argo, released in the States a month before the election, arrives just in time to stoke the fires of paranoia and xenophobia.
Recently declassified information revealed that during the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six members of staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s residence until the CIA camouflaged them as the Canadian film crew of a nonexistent film and ushered them out of the country on a commercial flight right under the Iranian officials’ noses. A true story this unbelievable would be any filmmaker’s dream; too bad it landed in the hands of a filmmaker with about as much tact as a Tea Party zealot.
Even ignoring the politics for a second, it’s not a particularly good film. Consider this painfully formulaic structure: a maverick (Affleck himself – who else?) presents an outlandish scheme to save the day; his superiors first dismiss him and then give in, mainly because of his charisma and wisecracks; he assembles a team of equally wisecracking experts; a number of obstacles arise, all of which threaten to destroy the mission but are heroically overcome at the last second; the day is saved, the maverick is a hero and his former sceptics are forced to admit that he was right all along.
Not only is nothing new, but everything is overdone. The relentless wisecracking is truly unbearable – you’d think everyone in the CIA spoke solely in witty one-liners, regardless of how drastic a diplomatic crisis lay at hand – and the number of mission-threatening obstacles piled up in the last 10 minutes becomes so ludicrous, it completely kills the suspense it so desperately tries to build (yet again, we know they made it, so how suspenseful could it really get?).
Now for the politics, which upgrade the film from trite to despicable. Reminding us that Cold War-style dichotomy is alive and well in Hollywood, Argo presents the Americans as upstanding champions of freedom, democracy and all other values that are good and righteous, while the Iranians, what little characterization they get, are shown to be but a bunch of violent and deranged animals, barking their incomprehensible language while waving Kalashnikovs in the air. Yes, there is one exception, included no doubt to absolve the film of the criticism levied here: the Canadian ambassador’s servant who refrains from betraying the hostages. However, not only is she in her teens, still too young to have been corrupted by her nefarious environment, but her character isn’t given so much as a minute of screen time – to consider her inclusion as providing a balanced portrait is like arguing that the single shot depicting a pile of bodies in Roberto Benigni’s farcical Life is Beautiful does justice to the horror of the Holocaust.
Vilifying an entire population evidently wasn’t enough and the film’s climax makes sure to extend the discrimination just that comfortable bit further. Even though the plane has taken off, the group is still terrified and it’s only once the captain announces that alcoholic beverages may again be served that they start celebrating their escape. Ah, alcohol, that good old signifier for freedom. Affleck probably cut out the next bit, where one of the hostages happily munches on a bacon sandwich while his wife quips that now he has to start respecting her again – that wouldn’t have been subtle.
Argo | Directed by Ben Affleck (USA 2012) with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Opens November 8
For me cinema, making a film, is like Surrealist painting: the use of the most real processes of reproduction, the most photographic, but at the service of the unreal, bringing into being elements of the irrational… the postcard at the service of the imaginary. - Jean Rouch
Anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917 – 2004) is one of those paradoxical figures in film history. His work has received exuberant praise, he is consistently hailed as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of his time, and yet, few have actually seen his films, which to this day remain very difficult—in many cases impossible—to get a hold of. This is especially true outside of his native France and only a fraction of his oeuvre has received distribution in the English-speaking world.
In a career that spanned more than five decades, Rouch authored a colossal body of work comprising over 100 films and almost as many anthropological writings. It was a position at the French National Center for Scientific Research—obtained as a doctoral student in 1947 and held for the rest of his life—that enabled his prodigious productivity as well as his fervent experimentalism. Free of commercial considerations, he was not constrained by deadlines or producers’ directives, allowing him to work on several films at once, often re-shooting entire segments and working on the edit for years, only releasing the final cut when it corresponded to his vision.
The bulk of Rouch’s films were shot in West Africa and document the region’s wealth of cultural customs and traditions. Although he is generally considered an ethnographic filmmaker, his work always eschewed scientific rigor in favor of a subjective, experiential perspective. Even his more strictly documentarian films, such as La chasse au lion à l’arc (The Lion Hunters) and Mammy Water, offer very little explanatory content. In portraying the arcane (and now largely disappeared) rituals of Nigerien lion hunters and Ghanaian fishermen, these films include scarce background information and, while they acknowledge the presence of a foreign observer, they are strictly committed to their subjects’ perspective, taking their superstitions at face value and submitting them to the viewer as fact. Rouch believed that by being too removed from the humans it studies, ethnography was stuck at an impasse and that film’s immediacy represented the only way out of its “ivory tower.”
In this regard, his encounter with Surrealism as an adolescent played a strong formative role. While in aesthetic terms, Rouch’s films remained predominantly realist, their ethos was markedly Surrealist and he was forever seeking new ways to exploit the medium’s potential for evoking the inner reality of his subjects. This is most apparent in the film that first brought him international attention, 1955’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters). This short film depicts a Hauka possession ceremony, in which laborers from the city of Accra retreat to the jungle and become possessed by spirits in a ritual intended to purge them of their everyday ills, particularly the oppression of their colonized existence. In its depiction of the ceremony, it employs an increasingly feverish cinematography, with the frenetic editing, chaotic handheld camerawork and breakneck narration mirroring the intensity of the trances on display. Thus bombarded with images of men convulsing and foaming at the mouth, butchering and devouring a dog, and imperviously exposing their flesh to open flames and boiling water, the viewer is subjugated to a visceral and extremely upsetting experience, intended to not only convey the ecstasy of the possessions but also to reflect the violence suffered by the colonized Africans. Highly controversial, the film was universally censured upon its release: Western anthropologist deemed it a travesty, African intellectuals accused it of perpetuating racist exoticism, and the British Empire took it as a personal affront, banning it in its territories. Over time, its status has changed and it is now widely considered to be one of the most trenchant filmic reflections on imperialism.
The full version of this essay was published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the essay here.
Released in her native France in 2010, La vie au ranch is the first feature-length film by 33-year-old Sophie Letourneur. Following a number of short and medium-length films that have garnered her awards from festivals across Europe, her debut feature continues her preoccupation with the theme of friendship among young women, frequently drawn from her own experiences.
In La vie au ranch, Letourneur turns her camera to a group of college girls living in a cramped apartment in Paris. A seemingly carefree and tight-knit life of parties and next-morning hangovers quickly reveals a deep-seated dissatisfaction in the protagonist Pam who, over the course of the film, grows increasingly detached from the friends she has had since high school, eventually escaping from Paris’ suffocating familiarity for the bohemian utopia of Berlin.
While the subject matter is hardly original, it is its treatment that makes La vie au ranch stand out. Demonstrating subtle tact and a keen sense of observation, Letourneur gradually constructs a compelling portrait of her characters through highly naturalistic dialogues and situations, which perfectly convey the characters’ emotional conflicts without resorting to sensationalism or ponderous sentimentality. Beyond successfully capturing a very defining transitional stage in a young person’s life, this deceptively simple film also addresses broader issues pertaining to the representation of femininity in cinema.
La vie au ranch is screening through Thursday, October 25 as part of BAMcinématek’s current series on the young French cinema group ACID. Although Letourneur was meant to be present for her film’s US premiere, the advanced stage of her pregnancy forced her to cancel her visit to New York. Fortunately, I was able to speak with her on the phone, learning about the extremely protracted and painstaking pre-production process that lent the script its striking authenticity and about the role gender politics play in her filmmaking.
Interview translated from French by author.
At the end of the credits you included the message “with nostalgic recollection of the group that we were.” To what extent is La vie au ranch based on your personal experiences?
The initial drive to tell this story is linked to events that really happened, that is, to my departure from a group of friends. As for the characters, they’re completely based on people from my life. I was living in a flatshare with my best friend, with whom I had a falling out; we all went on holiday, as they do in the film; and there’s even aspects of the film that I took directly from videos and recordings I had made at the time. The entire script was pretty much constructed around my memories, whether recalled or from these documents that I had made. I recorded a lot of things back then. There’s even whole sequences in the film that are reconstructions of dialogues that I had recorded.
So far you have always worked with highly personal material. Is this crucial for you or could you imagine working on stories that completely depart from your personal experience in the future?
Actually, I’ve just finished co-writing a script, which took me three years to complete, and though I feel very close to the material, it isn’t at all inspired by my own experiences. Ultimately, it is always related to me in some way, I can always somehow identify with my characters, but I think that’s the case for a lot of directors. I couldn’t write something that is too detached from my own personality, about a subject completely external to myself.
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.
“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” These friendly words offered upon arrival in the outback backwater of Bundanyabba serve as an introduction to hell in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film that despite receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reception when it premiered at the 1971 Cannes film festival has been all but impossible to see for the last forty years. Now, a new restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia offers an opportunity to see this long-lost gem of Australian cinema.
In true Conradian fashion, the supposedly sophisticated John Grant arrives in town full of contempt for its yokel inhabitants—whose life seems to consist exclusively of binge drinking, gambling and fighting—only to be seduced by their savagery and readily turn into as depraved a beast as the worst of them. With stunning cinematography and truly remarkable performances, the film offers an unsparing portrayal of the Yabba, as the residents affectionately call the town, as well as the darkest recesses of the human soul. Though superficially comparable to the ‘hicksploitation’ wave of the 1970s —from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes — it offers a far more nuanced and terrifying study of its protagonists than these films with which it is regularly grouped. In fact, if there is one blessing from its disappearance, it’s that — by being re-released now — it transcends and subverts this established genre that the film actually preceded.
Ted Kotcheff went on to direct other, more immediately successful films, such as the first installment of the Rambo series, First Blood. I met with him on the evening that the restored version of Wake in Fright celebrated its American premiere at New York’s Film Forum. In a genial mood and not without manifest pride, he recounted the film’s incredible four-decade journey from distributors’ pariah to reinstated classic before discussing the themes and style that make his film as trenchant and haunting today as it was at the time of its original release.
I wanted to ask about the history of the film. There are various accounts of why it disappeared for so long. What is your take?
Well, you know, when a film fails at the box office—which it did—the people who distribute who are only interested in profit lose interest. The film didn’t do well in Australia, which is where it was made. I think the Australians perhaps took affront to the way Aussie males were depicted in the film. It did well, because of the Cannes festival, in France, but that’s the only country in the world where it did any business. And then they opened it here, but the distributor, United Artists, didn’t believe in the film at all. They said to me, “Americans aren’t going to come see this film. They’re gonna be repulsed by the kangaroo hunt.” And they opened it in New York, at a small cinema in the East Side, without any publicity whatsoever, on a Sunday night, in a heavy blizzard. Nobody came. They were right. They told me, “See, we told you nobody would come.” (laughter) So everybody just lost interest.
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.