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Ivan Sen’s Personal, Indigenous Cinema

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It is needless to say the political affairs of this country are characterised by complacency, self-enrichment and parochiality. Refugees are treated as subhumans, little is done to alleviate economic inequality, and most enduringly, our Indigenous peoples are afforded no serious concern or attention. The long-overdue constitutional recommendations made by the Indigenous referendum council have barely rated a mention in our national political discourse. Our political leaders have refused to respond meaningfully to the recommendations, let alone demonstrate support for them. On top of that, Australia is the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its First Peoples.

This political inertia and indifference is not going unchallenged. Indeed, Indigenous Australians – in academia, in journalism, in theatre, in cinema, even those in politics – are fighting admirably for greater acknowledgement, consultation and respect. This is a collective effort, the success of which hinges on the concurrent and cooperative activities of Indigenous leaders in myriad fields of life, to educate and progress our society from various angles.

Ivan Sen is one of those leaders, an ardent advocate for the advancement of Indigenous Australia, an excellent role model for its emerging generations. Sen was born to an Indigenous mother, and a European father in rural New South Wales. From an early age, Sen regularly wrestled with questions of identity, of culture, of belonging. He has spoken openly of his familiarity with “being torn between two cultures,” remarking that he was embraced by his Indigenous family, but felt like an outsider amongst them; his white relatives accepted him, but they treated him differently on account of his Aboriginality.

Ivan Sen.

This liminality – having a foot in both camps – has recurringly manifested in Sen’s work to date, most notably in the Detective Jay Swan films, Mystery Road and Goldstone. Sen first engaged with matters of racial identity, though, in his debut feature, Beneath Clouds. Lena, a young girl of Irish and Indigenous heritage, is our main subject of interest. She lives in an isolated Indigenous community with her neglectful mother and step-father. Lena evidently loathes them, and cannot envisage a productive life in the town. “You’re never gonna get out of this shithole,” Lena tells her young, pregnant friend, Ty.

Lena leaves the town to live with her Irish father in Sydney. On her journey, Lena repeatedly encounters a wayward Indigenous teen, Vaughn, whom she finds abrasive and hopeless. He has broken out of prison to visit his dying mother. Beneath Clouds follows the respective but divergent journeys these two lost adolescents take. It would be fair to say Sen primarily focuses on Lena, paying substantial attention to her dislocated place within Indigenous culture. Lena tries to suppress and deny her Indigenous roots, telling Vaughn that she is only of white heritage. In view of her circumstances, Sen does not condemn Lena, but rather attempts to understand her crisis of cultural identity. This is achieved effectively through Sen’s unrelenting probing and interrogation of Lena through image: examining every quiver, grimace, smile and look of hesitation etched on her face.

Undoubtedly, the crux of Lena’s crisis is linked to the Indigenous experience since the colonisation of Australia. Throughout the road journey, Sen weaves in motifs of Indigenous dispossession, neglect and disadvantage to explain and sympathise with the historical plight of Indigenous Australia. Generally, Lena is received warmly by the strangers her and Vaughn meet. Vaughn is not, and it’s clear why. When Vaughn follows Lena into an outback pub, the locals make a point of staring resentfully at him. When Vaughn approaches a car that Lena has waved down, the elderly driver drives off without them. At play here is the intractable mark of centuries of racial oppression, which patently continues to this day.

Dannielle Hall and Damian Pitt in Beneath Clouds.

This key concern of the Indigenous ‘malaise’ is the main subject matter of Sen’s 2011 film, Toomelah. Filmed in a real remote community, with non-professional actors, Toomelah is a disarming portrait of racial disadvantage and its consequent effects. Sen’s realist approach in Toomelah effectively blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, delivering us a challenging but important cinematic experience.

The titular town in which the film is set – Toomelah – was formerly a ‘reserve’, before becoming a ‘mission’. Now it is an Indigenous community, upon which the horrors of the past have been imprinted. Gran is often confined to her dark, dingy room, immobilised by what she has experienced. Daniel is a young boy often left to fend for himself; his mother is sporadically present, and his father is an alcoholic. Like any child, Daniel is prone to bad decision-making, finding himself absent from school and friends with a local gang of drug-peddlers. Daniel is good-natured, a small innocent child exposed to tribulations most could not conceive of. Sen disposes us to unconditional sympathy for Daniel; when he fights another boy, Tupac, we lament, and when he shows interest in a friendly girl, we quietly support him. And when Daniel is urged to return to school, we intensely hope that he does, for education might be his ticket to a better life.

Sen anchors his films in a history steeped in misfortune, mistake and malevolence. Importantly, his films never drift into nihilism, but rather present nuggets of hope for the future of Indigenous Australia. Lena desperately craves for a bright future, and Daniel has the power to find a new, profitable path. Detective Jay Swan will continue exposing corrupt, self-serving white bureaucracies that trample on Indigenous rights and freedoms. Ivan Sen’s appraisals of, and visions for, Indigenous peoples are most indispensable.

Christopher Edwards, Daniel Connors and Ivan Sen on the set of Toomelah.

 

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Culture

Review: Blue

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Released earlier this week, Blue is an Australian-made documentary covering humanity’s impact on our big beautiful blue ocean. At only
Culture

Is criticism dead?

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Today, anyone can be a critic. All it takes is a social media account, a phone and a few people willing to pause and read your opinion. However, as the saying goes, just because everyone can cook, doesn’t mean everyone should. Unfortunately, we are feeding this concept of ‘anyone can cook’ when it comes to criticism.  

Advice is being taken more readily from sources who simply give a film a star rating or a few basic lines of feedback and, as a result, people are ignoring criticisms that dismisses such superficialness and delve into educated analysis. Why bother reading pages of critique when a one-liner from a peer can adequately tell us whether or not to go see a film or listen to an album? This cycle is swiftly killing reputable criticism.

Criticism in today’s world revolves around a cycle of instant gratification. We are all guilty of pulling out our phones and double checking our local cafes and restaurants Instagram feeds to satisfy questions over where or what we should eat. An image from social media is enough to placate our questions; likewise, a simple number of stars is enough to quell any doubts, regardless of its source.

As professional criticism is largely not a volunteer’s endeavour (people want to be paid for good analysis), publishers need to justify devoting pages, column space or articles to pieces which will be competing with any movie-goer or music devotee. In accordance with this competition, a critique needs to be attractive to the publication’s readers, therefore, creating a bias towards the message a producer wants. Whether that is to shock readers with a harsh rating or fit into a narrative of positivity, such a review will be toned in order to suit what the perceived readers desire at the expense of a more quality-focused, unbiased approach to the art.

People are more inclined to skip or skim a review in favour of looking at the seemingly ubiquitous star rating. So why bother with an in-depth critique?

Simply add an attractive number of stars fitting the current narrative of such reviews and seamlessly mesh into the wave of criticisms that saturate mainstream media. To be frank, you’re lucky if someone even enters the article when they can get the same information from a 30-character tweet, and even more so if someone pays you to write it.

Thus, when so much of a review is based around this sort of a rating, how does this diminish the quality and substance of a critique? With a focus on supporting a star rating aligned with generating readers, a review is bent and shaped so that the analysis matches the rating. Another bias that is formed and upheld so that theatrical techniques, sonic dimensions and dramatic devices are ignored in discussions where only the superficial elements that constitute the rating are touched upon.

Dimensions of film, especially, have largely lost their place in public criticisms. When was the last time an article discussed, in-depth, the art of cinematography? Or the staging conventions of vital scenes? These discussions have been lost as people largely ignore them in favour of finding a simple line or amount of stars stating whether they should see the film or not.

It’s hard to justify column space in papers or magazines to a medium that can satisfy readers in a few words, so no wonder why proper criticism is dying. It is simply not cost-effective. Much like the plight facing journalists in today’s era, anyone can be a critic. But that doesn’t mean they should.

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Culture

Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Every second of Blade Runner 2049 is a work of art; a triumph; a masterpiece. All 244,500 frames shimmer with polish, style and colour, seeping smoothly from the screen into your brain like a cinematic whiskey. For the visuals alone, you should see this film, but the fact that they also weave together a compelling, original and fitting story for the world created by its 1982 predecessor is nothing short of incredible.

It’s important to preface any discussion of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 with the warning that this film will not be for everyone, it is not a fast-paced action blockbuster, but a slow-burn, thematic science fiction noir that lingers on captivating moments of humanity as much as it showcases riveting fight scenes. However, saying that, this film is unlike any cinematic experience that has graced theatres years, so purchasing a ticket will not provide for a disappointing experience.

The story follows a replicant or humanoid robot (Ryan Gosling) in the not to distant future that hunts down other androids that have gone rogue and circumvented their original programming. In doing so, he uncovers a conspiracy that unravels everything he has been told to believe, morally blurring the lines between right and wrong; between replicant and human.

The film’s commitment to following the minor, internal struggle of an ‘average Joe’, with a fair larger, overarching narrative forced into the background, seems odd at first, resulting in a difficult to follow first hour. However, as Gosling’s character slowly fades into the bigger picture, and context is provided for his importance, the constricted story structure becomes truly effecting, resulting in a poignant conclusion for his character.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.

Gosling’s performance is also masterful, his stoicisms perfectly complimenting his sporadic bursts of emotion, somehow more impactful due to their rarity. Harrison Ford’s reprisal of Rick Deckard is also captivating, fully capitalising on the character’s lack of screen time with a truly memorable screen presence. When the two characters collide in the third act their interaction feels genuine, grounding and as breathtaking as the visuals that surround them.

These roof-shattering moments and sequences are carried to an almost transcendental height by the film’s all-encompassing score, composed (unsurprisingly) by Hans Zimmer. Unless the soundtrack is a nostalgic throwback to a culturally entrenched product, it usually does not play into my immediate enjoyment of the film, but 2049’s orchestral beats demand to be heard. Every note, number and crescendo moulds the bleak, futuristic world, adding additional stakes, tension and unspoken truths as the story unfolds. It’s a masterstroke in modern-day composing.

At this stage in the review, I think I’ve used three variations of the word ‘master’ to describe some aspect of this film, and that is not by accident.  Villeneuve’s movie raises the cinematic bar for every single technical element, constructing a benchmark for every subsequent science fiction flick to fail to live up to. Blade Runner 2049 marks a cultural landmark for this genre of filmmaking and its significance to cinema’s history will not be fully realised for another 32 years.

★★★★★ (5 stars)

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is currently in theatres.

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Culture

Modern Charm

Modern Charm (Jade Karp)
THE CHARACTERS ROSALYN, 53, three times divorcee. MAYA, 19, daughter of Rosalyn. SIERRA, 32, recently divorced next-door neighbour.   THE