8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

Sweet Country

Glasgow Film Festival, 21 February – 4 March 2018

Director Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah was described on release as “the first Australian film” and for this ex-pat living in Scotland, that’s exactly what it felt like. This was a side of Australia that many of my fellow audience members had never seen before, an intensely subtle, silently emotive film of lives blighted by racism, poverty and dispossession. It is also a compelling love story, the kind that offers the possibility of hope, regardless of whether the world within and out-with the film permits it. Unusually on screen, the depiction of life for two indigenous teenagers in “the lucky country” was one I recognised. Far from the projection of a carefree sun-drenched paradise of plenty, Thornton’s depiction of a harsh, unforgiving and increasingly unequal society, separated from the land and clinging to the very edges of it, was a welcome dose of reality. The film had an enormous impact on me when I first saw it previewed at the Inverness Film Festival in 2009. Afterwards I felt a combination of deep sadness, hope and relief, that finally an essential process of re-evaluation had begun in a country founded on the lie of “Terra Nullius”.

Like many white Australians of my generation, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, surrounded by blatant racism. It was a divisive domestic environment of hostility and paranoia, boarded with reticulated lawns. Fortunately, being drawn to Art from a very young age taught me other ways to see. The beauty and freedom of Art/ Cinema is connection-imagining and creating a different state of being and sharing that vision. No matter how oppressive the environment, we can think and project ourselves beyond circumstances, even if in the here and now, it is only in our dreams.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, Australia was starting to wake up. In 1992, a result of the landmark High Court Mabo vs Queensland decision, native title was recognised for the first time by the Australian government. A year later, when Prime Minister Paul Keating made an official statement denouncing the “convenient fiction” our country was founded on, it was a conceptual turning point. The idea that when our white, pioneering forefathers first arrived, Australia was uninhabited, a “land of no one” was no longer sanctioned as truth. Our untaught history of systematic exploitation and genocide has always been there, you just have to dig- and not very far beneath the skin. However, as Warwick Thornton commented after the GFF screening of his latest film Sweet Country, “most people just don’t dig.” The myth of an empty land, “Terra Nullius”, newly discovered, turns conquest into heroic entitlement with no conscience, regret or apology required.

You must lance and drain an infected wound before it will heal – that is how I have always felt about the country I was born and raised in. That excavation is essentially painful, finding out who you are and where you come from, so that self-determination becomes a possibility. Sweet Country digs right into the flesh and consciousness of the country in ways that no other director/ cinematographer could. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the film is an incredibly powerful statement, part of a vital process of re-evaluation and creative renewal. Thornton is a director who embraces the complexity of being human head on, illuminating this on screen to kick start the national conversation and initiate perceptive change. Sweet Country is a remarkable film, as a damning indictment of racism and injustice- and one that wholly succeeds in not alienating audiences. To his credit, Thornton’s vision is big enough not to.  Although this is a deeply personal story of his people, based on true events and filmed on location in the Northern Territory, with the emotional investment of local/non-professional and professional actors, it also transcends its location.

Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

Though many people in the UK will find this hidden history shocking and confrontational in terms of outback Romanticism imploded, Thornton’s baseline is always expansively compassionate. It’s an indigenous vision of the world that denies nothing. Although packaged as a Western, this isn’t a story of reductive “black and white” morality, with good and bad cowboys, an epic chase and a conventional shootout delivering frontier justice. Instead the Western genre is meshed beautifully with a rhythm of storytelling that will be less consciously familiar to audiences, moving in and out of time. In an Aboriginal context, The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is omnipresent, encompassing all time-past, present and future, so this is a very natural mode of storytelling. Despite the ravages of colonialism, the spiritual core of the country survives in the way the story is told visually.

Set in the 1920’s, when vast tracks of land were being claimed and worked as cattle stations, the story of an Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, played with quiet reserve and immense dignity by Hamilton Morris, brings conditions of the past resoundingly into the present. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) live and work on a homestead owned by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a Christian Preacher. There is a degree of safety for them in conversion and service, compared to life in the surrounding countryside, as we see in the brutal treatment of a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) and an elderly stockman, Archie (Gibson John). Worn down by systematic abuse, both gradually succumb to a state of complicity to survive.

We see in Philomac the conflict of the next generation growing up in the shadow of a white father who shapes him into “a man” through punishment. Philomac is part of a lost generation. It’s clear he will never be accepted as part of his white father’s line, nor is he able to return to his people and ancestral land. Like Archie, he has been taken from his home as a young boy and forced to work on the station. The vulnerability of this character is felt acutely in violent outbursts of self-loathing projected onto the son by his biological father. This enforced judgement of worth becomes an inherited cycle of deprivation and dispossession, infecting every character on screen in one form or another.

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

As the central protagonist, Sam Kelly is a complex figure of gravitas, self-possession and grace. Sam has learned to avoid conflict by turning the other cheek, until forced into an extreme position of self-defence. His relationship with his wife Lizzie is tender and trusting, revealed not so much in words, but the intuitive expressions and body language of two people at ease with each other. Sam is an everyman, who quietly absorbs the world around him, but like all the characters in the unfolding drama, he too is capable of judgement. When Lizzie reveals that she’s pregnant, the result of rape, he judges her. The underlying theme of what it is to be a man and what happens when the status quo of masculine power (black or white) is threatened comes to the fore. Sam is equally generous and compassionate, saving the life of Sargent Fletcher (Brian Brown) who relentlessly pursues him across the desert. With or without Christian influence, we feel the presence of a deeply sensitive man with a good soul. There’s gentleness and sense of underlying respect between Sam and the preacher Fred Smith, however this relationship isn’t quite friendship.

Smith is a kind man who practices the compassion he preaches, seeing everyone as “equal in the eyes of the lord” and asking Sam not to call him “boss”. However, his relationship with Sam and Lizzie is based on cultural loss and denial of existing lore, a well-meaning and subtle betrayal of identity that “saves” and obliterates with the same soft hand. Smith’s humorous out of tune rendition of “Jesus Loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so” is a moment laced with genuine belief, missionary zeal and ineptitude. Literally and metaphorically Sam is unable to have children, implying generational loss of life, culture and human potential in conversion. Even in this, the film resists black and White judgement. Human beings and the histories we weave are much more complex- this is the truth, reality and sincerity of the film and its maker.

The arrival of neighbouring landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), wanting to use the “black stock” on Smith’s homestead to work his own land, is an explosive catalyst revealing the true nature of racism as self-hatred, heightened by emasculation. March is a man defined by hate and brutality, having returned from WWI and survived its horrors, only to inflict a rule of violence on others. It is a moment of great sensitivity and insight when Sam identifies that March “is ashamed”, testifying at his outdoor trial just prior to the judgement which saves and condemns him. Although March is a vile character, the nature of his actions can’t be dismissed as madness or evil. Thornton places the viewer in a much more essential position, where we are unable to place the character beyond our own conscience as “other” by simply demonising him.

The insidiousness of racial abuse is a respectable uniform and a base need for power, absent in everyday life. In the lead up to a scene of sexual violence, perpetrated in the dark with only sound used to orientate the audience, we see March calmly closing all the doors and windows, barring light and any means of escape. The horror of this scene is that it isn’t in any way irrational, but highly controlled. We understand from March’s calm composure that he’s done this before and as a white man has no fear of justice. It is dispossession of multiple aspects of self, creeping into everything, twisting human behaviour into something monstrous and oppressive. The choice of this historical era, parallel to Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, reflects forces at work in our own turbulent age, making the story culturally specific and completely universal. Very uncomfortably at times, we are unable to relegate what we see on screen to the comforting distance of history, because it is so urgently relevant today.

Warwick Thornton awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Sweet Country is a gear change for Thornton, a more viscerally direct statement which never loses its humanity, standing very confidently on a world stage. The director’s creative evolution and artistic leadership is thoroughly inspiring. Australia is a country which so often seeks cultural validation outside itself, a quality that Thornton spoke about in his post screening discussion. Media attention at international film festivals and multiple awards including Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival have enabled greater recognition on home soil. As the film is distributed more widely, my hope is that this creative and political momentum will grow, changing how and what we’re taught about ourselves. I have no doubt that Sweet Country will generate healthy scrutiny and essential debate wherever it is screened. As Thornton stated in a recent Guardian interview (Jan 2018) “Australia is ready for films like this.” Thornton’s empowering work in cinema thus far makes me incredibly hopeful, not just for Australia, but in the humane, global reach of his work.

To respond hopefully to Sweet Country might seem strange, given what we bear witness to on screen, however this is clearly framed as a man-made environment. The opening sequence in closeup of a seething, almost molasses thick concentration of boiling billy tea, with a handful of white sugar dissolving into darkness, is accompanied by the sound of racist abuse depicting the violence off screen. It is such a powerful image of confinement in a world of overheated testosterone, imminent threat and negative masculinity about to boil over. Throughout the film, tension is prophetically heightened by flashforwards, giving us glimpses of characters and their potential fates, placing the audience emotively and psychologically on the edge of their seats. The combination of sound, images and editing, with no music, delivers a knockout punch of emotional intelligence. We’re not told what to think or feel, but are free to interpret the flow between past, present and future. The story is held in imaginative spaces of light and shadow in the mind of the viewer, an ultimate form of realism aligned with ancient traditions of storytelling and the birth of Cinema.

Ned Kelly’s last stand, from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Directed by Charles Tait.

Thornton reclaims this cinematic inheritance in a brief clip from The Story of the Kelly Gang, premiered in 1906 and at the time the world’s longest feature film, seen on a makeshift screen as part of a travelling Picture Show. This isn’t just hat tipping though. The subject on screen is national legend, the Irish Bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly, an underdog fighting against corrupt authority and instantly recognisable to most Australians with his tin helmet. Immortalised on film, in literature, song and in the iconic silhouette of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series of paintings, this mythic figure of resistance is subverted and transformed in the heat haze of a salt plain. During his Director’s Q&A, Thornton spoke about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation and massacres at the time, completely written out of history. Whilst Australians readily embrace the Irish outlaw/ bushranger as a heroic figure with the odds and justice tragically stacked against him, in stark contrast Aboriginal resistance to genocide has barely entered public consciousness.

The Western is a genre that naturally confronts audiences with the impacts of institutional racism and colonisation, right on the edge of human behaviour. There’s intense cruelty and enduring beauty in that whole landscape of memory, even more so in the Outback Western. This frontier of lawlessness is permeated with cultural references to masculine honour, fighting “for Queen and Country”, “the last post” reference to ANZAC bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli, Sargent Fletcher’s belief in the ultimate authority of his uniform and the unhinged discipline of March’s rifle drills on the homestead porch.  There’s an absence of blame and positive alignment with accountability in understanding what drives the characters.

Sadly, the underlying nature of their predicament is as relevant today as it ever was. However, the eyes behind the camera (Thornton and his son Dylan River) bring with dark recognition a stark light which is uniquely Australian. When the question is asked at the end of the film, whether change is even possible in the country, Nature answers with an enormous rainbow. There is an overwhelming sense of ancient forces greater and more enduring than humanity in this final sequence, as the preacher turns his back and walks away towards the horizon carrying his disillusionment and doubt. Above his head the sky he cannot see speaks its truth, and what a gift it is that Thornton captures that shining, undeniable projection of hope for all the world to see.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

Postcards from Glasgow Film Festival

I always look forward to February, spending hours in the dark, being transported around the world and out of time to places I never knew existed. Here are some of my postcard GFF18 Festival Highlights; Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Good Favour, More (DaHa), Thoroughbreds, Faces Places/ Visages Villages, Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Moontide,  A Fantastic Woman and Custody, with a full review of Sweet Country to follow in my next blogpost. Each of these films have important stories to tell and my hope is that they receive the widest possible distribution in the UK and internationally.

Valley of Shadows/ Skyggenes dal, Directed by Jonas Matzos Gulbrandsen.

Good Favour Directed by Rebecca Daly

More (DaHa) Directed by Onur Saylak

Thoroughbreds Directed by directed by Cory Finley

Faces Places/ Visages Villages Directed by Agnès Varda and JR.

Hibridos The Spirits of Brazil Directed by Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story Directed by Alexandra Dean.

Ida Lupino and Jean Gabin in Moontide (1942).

A Fantastic Woman Directed by Sebastián Lelio

Custody Directed by Xavier Legrand.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival