10 October 2014
London

It’s London Film Festival time. I review Rolf de Heer’s stirring film Charlie’s Country, and the fun of Bjork: Biophilia Live.

The London Film Festival rolls around in mid-October, that time of the year when the nights draw in, the weather gets suddenly colder and the trees start to shed their leaves. Woollen jerseys and winter coats are exhumed from the back of the wardrobe, and I resume my apparently impossible quest to buy a pair of waterproof boots for the long winter months.

For some years now, the LFF has been trying to establish itself as a world-class festival, along the lines of Venice and Berlin. The appointment of Australian Clare Stewart as Festival director has been a step in the right direction. Clare, who I once met at a dinner party in North London, has the sharp outsider’s perspective of a non-Brit, which has been handy for shaking up marketing and programming. This year’s impressive line-up is a testament to her commitment to promoting world cinema, especially work by non-European and non-American directors.

The problem with the LFF – apart from the English weather and the lack of glamorous venues – is its exclusivity. Like nearly every other ticketed cultural event on in London, the Festival is really only open to the select few who (like me) can afford the ticket prices and who (also like me) are BFI members and allowed to book a week before the general public. Most of this year’s big releases – Mr Turner, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game – were sold out before the box office opened to non-BFI members. The Festival attracts heavy marketing in print media –Time Out, one of the Festival’s sponsors, published a lavish 24 page special in last week’s edition – but this becomes almost redundant in the age of digital booking. What’s the point in reading about this year’s hot films when all the screenings are already sold out?

This is, to some degree, the way of the world. Film festivals are expensive and difficult to organise, and the organisers worry that they won’t be able to get enough bums on seats to recoup their investment. And so the Festival marketing goes into overdrive, hype is built, demand exceeds supply, and all but a lucky few get tickets. A sold-out LFF screening, while frustrating for unsuccessful punters, is good news for distributors, who can build on a film’s popularity to support a general release of a film. And this being London, it is likely that many of the films will come back, though often not for some time. (Last year’s LFF jury prize winner, Pavel Pawlikowski’s Ida, only just got a cinema release this month).

With this in mind, it’s at this time of year that I also get nostalgic for my life in Wellington and the unassuming wonderfulness of the New Zealand Film Festival. Little did I know at that time, as I checked my watch and counted the days until I could leave town, that I was living in a city with one of the best film festivals in the world – easy to access, mouth-wateringly well curated, and housed in one of the most beautiful picture palaces I’ve ever been to. How easy it all was, and how foolishly I took it for granted. While I’m still fortunate enough to go to the LFF and see some great films ahead of their general release, it is – like so much of life here – a competitive struggle, where money talks.

My Festival got off to a sobering start with Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, and beautifully made and heart-rendingly sad study of a middle aged Aboriginal man. De Heer co-scripted the film with lead actor David Gulipul, an Aboriginal actor who has shared many of his character’s hardships.

Charlie lives on an Aboriginal reservation in the Northern Territory, a place that looks idyllic but which works more like an open prison. There’s no work and the inhabitants are entirely dependent on government payouts. Alcohol and drugs are banned, but there’s a lively black market supplied by shady out-of-towners. There’s only one supermarket, which is packed with sugary drinks and junk food – “white man’s junk”, Charlie calls it, aware that it’s bad for him but with few other options. Though he wants to go hunting and gather food “in the old way”, the local police confiscate his gun. Undeterred, he makes himself a spear, but that too is taken away, as it’s a dangerous weapon.

Charlie’s sense of self swings between two irreconcilable emotions – anger that his home was taken away from him by white people, and pride at his memory of dancing for the Queen of England at the opening of the Sydney Opera House. A more conventional film would have tried to find a resolution to that conflict, but De Heer and Gulipul know there are no easy answers. Instead, De Heer suspends judgment and takes his time to track Charlie as he slips into the abyss. Charlie tries living alone in the bush, an experience that nearly kills him after he’s caught in heavy rain. After a spell in hospital in Darwin, he falls in with a group of city-dwelling Aborigines, who live in a park drinking beer that Charlie buys for them. After an act of drunken violence, he ends up in prison, where his identity is literally stripped away. The scene of Charlie’s hair and beard being shaved off by a prison warden is one of the most depressing scenes you’ll see in a movie this year.

The film’s ending offers some redemption, as Charlie finds a way to reconnect with his culture community. Yet even this, De Heer suggests, is dangerously unrealistic. Charlie is finding solace in a memory of a past that no longer exists, and his future is still uncertain. It’s an extraordinarily compassionate film, and in its own quiet unassuming way, a damning indictment on race relations in Australia.

Slightly more fun was to be had at Björk: Biophilia Live, a film of Icelandic singer Björk’s Biophilia tour, recorded at London’s Alexandra Palace in 2013.

Biophilia was the kind of high-concept album that musicologists will be studying for years to come: a musical representation of the natural world, from the movement of the planets and the collision of tectonic plates, to the dance of death of viruses attacking healthy cells inside our bodies. The album came with its own app, narrated by David Attenborough, featuring video game-like musical notations of each song, interactive games, and essays by scientists explaining how Björk fashioned rhythms and sounds to echo the patterns of the natural world. In theory, it sounded pretentious and high-minded. As an album, it was gorgeous, infused with Björk’s childlike sense of fun and curiosity about discovering the natural world.

In a rare and never-repeated moment of austerity, I chose not to book for the London show last year. I’ve regretted it ever since, and was excited to see the film. As a record of the pop concert, Biophilia Live works well enough. The camera work and sound mixing is excellent, and finds a balance between the poised and the impressionistic. It’s as if you’re in the audience, just with a better view than anyone else and your own set of surround sound headphones. Filmmakers Nick Fenton and Peter Strickland intersperse the concert footage with images from the natural world – DNA sequences, exploding pools of lava, night-growing mushrooms – presumably to find a visual correlative to Björk’s music. Alas, it didn’t work that well. Some images were beautiful, but mostly it looked like outtakes from a cheap sci-fi film, in which Björk was about to be eaten by a giant green blob.

Still from Bjork: Biophilia Live

What the filmmakers didn’t grasp is that there are few, if any, special effects that can match the strangeness and allure of Björk herself. She’s never less than a compelling performer. Dressed in a multi-coloured Afro wig with blue face paint and a strange sculptural dress that looks like it’s made from scallop flesh, she skipped and weaved around the stage, completely at one with the music and yet moving to some imperceptible sound wave known only to her. “Thank you”, she says in her strangely accented English at the end of each song, as if surprised to be hearing applause. Around her, a choir of blonde toga-wearing Icelandic women harmonised beautifully, and then got down and dirty in the head-banging drum n’ bass sections. “They’ll have whiplash in the morning,” I said to Marla Jane, but we knew it didn’t matter. Restraint isn’t something you expect from a Björk concert. Even when framed and edited, Björk still dazzles with her pixie-on-acid energy and the power of her uncompromised eccentric self. She’s a born movie star.

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