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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Golden Slumbers

As a passionate believer in the importance of national film industries – and the sacredness of all kinds of film archives – the idea that a country’s entire cinematic output could be wilfully destroyed seems horrific. Unthinkable, even. Yet as Davy Chou’s intensely personal and poetic documentary Golden Slumbers recounts, that’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. 
The regime destroyed every film it could find, shutting down all cinemas and murdering most of the actors and filmmakers – accusing them of ‘decadence’. What makes this even more poignant is the fact that such destruction came after 15 golden years of Cambodian cinematic output. A vibrant and robust industry produced nearly 400 films between 1960 and 1975, but now only 30 films survive, along with a handful of the people involved in their production.
Inspired partly by the fact that his grandfather and his aunt were key figures in the Cambodian film industry, the Paris-raised filmmaker Davy Chou visits Phnom Penh in an attempt to patch together the fragments of what remains. And fragments they are: fading photographs, torn advertisements, poor quality film scraps and bits of YouTube footage. Some haunting voices from the past echo through musical recordings. Interestingly, the songs from the films of the Golden Age seem to have lingered longer than the images, imprinted in the memories of the people who loved them, unable to be erased by the state. 
It’s the paucity of physical archive materials that makes this documentary so unique, forcing Chou to cast his net wider than the usual film clip montages used to piece together film histories. Instead, the films must be recreated orally, by those who remember them, recounting their plots and their songs, and revisiting locations where they were shot. Interview subjects include two Phnom Penh cinephiles, reminiscing about how the cinemas kept open right up until the last invasions. Then there’s Cambodia’s first screen goddess, the still beautiful Dy Saveth, who now runs a dance school, with walls papered by the faces of those she misses. And there’s Ly You Sreang, a respected film producer who lost everything, including the woman he loved, and his entire body of work, when he had to flee to Paris, finding work as a taxi driver.
It must be said that, from what we can tell, the actual films of this period may not have appealed to a modern Western sensibility. They appear to have been melodramas, musicals, simple love stories and lurid supernatural B-movies with cheesy special effects. But of course this is not the point. They had their ardent fans and they represented a local culture, a local industry and a creative way of life that was snuffed out. Though Chou doesn’t venture there, it’s impossible not to think about the similar fates that befell other creative and intellectual domains – literature, music, dance – and their ghosts circle this film. Tactfully, and powerfully, the actual horrors of Pol Pot’s regime are alluded to but never made explicit. Of course there is the stark fact that 1 million people ‘disappeared’.
For me, the most haunting scene in Golden Slumbers is when an old black and white film is projected on the dirty brick wall of what used to be a cinema, but is now a makeshift slum, housing numerous families. They watch this footage, flickering lights reflected on their faces. What do they make of it? It’s hard to tell. 
Golden Slumbers is a gossamer construction, a film made of absences and holes, a kind of ghost story in itself. But it’s also a celebration of the moving image and the traces it leaves in our memories.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for Golden Slumbers on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Is it cyber terrorism, vandalism or legitimate political protest when a loosely organised bunch of computer geeks brings down an official website in order to make a point? What about when they hack into a person’s emails and steal his files, thus outing him as a neo-Nazi and an FBI informant? Is that theft or a public service? These are questions many of us asked a few years ago, when vague news reports started to filter through about the activities of the ‘shadowy’ and decentralised hacker collective known as ‘Anonymous’.
Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion is a fascinating glimpse behind the handsome, leering Guy Fawkes mask that has become the movement’s logo. Who are these people? What do they want, and how do they think? Are they cowardly bullies working from their bedrooms or courageous activists who are the last bastion of freedom of speech in an age of almost total Internet surveillance? 
Playful, annoying, disorganised and highly disruptive, hacktivist activities included attacks on the church of Scientology for its suppression of an embarrassing Tom Cruise video; the attempted ‘Operation Titstorm’ in 2009 to protest the Australian Government’s proposed filtering of the Internet; and attacks on PayPal, Mastercard and Visa disrupting service for days on end when services disallowed donations to WikiLeaks.
Knappenberger has collected a range of interview subjects who are prepared to go on camera to talk about their involvement. Sometimes these people are disguised by voice distorters and those disturbing Guy Fawkes masks, giving the notion of the ‘talking head’ a whole new dimension. In other instances, interviewees are out in the open, like the fresh-faced 20-year-old Mercedes Haefer, who was rounded up by the FBI in an early morning raid on the so-called ‘Anonymous 16’ in 2011. She’s in serious trouble but adamant she’d do it all again.
It’s clear that Anonymous encompasses a broad spectrum of participants – from the adolescent jokesters who think it’s funny to infiltrate a teen sim world and form swastika patterns out of avatars, to the serious conscientious objectors who are prepared to go court to defend their actions.
Academics, commentators and the odd victim of the stunts are also brought in to share their perspectives and their research. Yet on the whole, the tone here is forgiving and celebratory. A hard-edged musical score and tight editing create a sense of excitement about the emergence of this new kind of civil disobedience, one that has spontaneously grown out of the likes of the rude and anarchic 4Chan website. (According to one subject, 4Chan is the spawner and originator of those silly and addictive Internet memes and ‘lulz’ we all love and enjoy today.) Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the documentary is the way it traces the stages of evolution of this subculture, with its offshoots, splinter groups, internal conflicts and growing popularisation.
It’s hard not to feel inspired by some of the hacktivists’ political actions – such as restoring Internet services and enabling Twitter reporting during Egypt’s uprising in 2011. The essential secrecy, and indeed the anonymity required to stay out of jail, means that these stories are by no means the final, comprehensive account of what’s really happened in the buccaneering world of hacking. But for those interested in politics and the potential for resistance in the Information Age, We Are Legion is essential viewing.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

The Ambassador

Outrageous, gutsy and potentially offensive, it’s no surprise that Danish documentary The Ambassador is produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Films. Journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger won the 2010 Sundance World Cinema jury prize with The Red Chapel, in which he posed as a communist theatre director visiting, and covertly filming, in North Korea. With The Ambassador, Brügger again risks imprisonment, or more likely assassination, by putting himself squarely at the centre of a project that’s jaw-droppingly funny but deadly serious in its intent.
Brügger himself is the child of high profile journalists, and has described his own sensibility as a mix of Borat and The Economist. It’s a potent combination – not performance art, but as commentators have proposed, a new form of ‘performance journalism’.
Here Brügger poses as Mads Cortzen, a wealthy and eccentric European businessman who purchases a dodgy Liberian Ambassadorship to the corrupt Central African Republic (CAR). This lawless country is described thus: “If the Congo is the heart of darkness, then the CAR is its appendix.” Ostensibly there to empower the local people by setting up a match factory partially staffed by pygmies (!), Cortzen’s real goal of smuggling diamonds is clearly understood and accepted by the various politicians, mercenaries and business people he encounters. Every interaction must be greased with cash-stuffed “envelopes of happiness” – though these must be passed between underlings for fear of “getting the hands dirty”.
The French, the Chinese, the African warlords and politicians –all are implicated, according to this documentary, in the heart-breaking exploitation of central Africa’s natural resources and its poorest people. Racism is rife, the jokes are bald, and Brügger’s farcical speeches to his aids and contacts are deliberately off-colour. Not an eyebrow is raised as he jokes about Hitler and pygmies, and insults the Chinese for their “greed”. 
There is a scene where Brügger sails down a river gold-lit by sunset. He’s sitting on a throne-like plastic chair in a dug-out canoe steered by Africans, and wearing his designer colonial kit (knee-high boots, fitted blazer, sunglasses and elegant cigarette-holder held just so). It’s not surprising to learn that one of Brügger’s filmmaking heroes is Werner Herzog, and Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1970) comes to mind in this unforgettable sequence.  And yet, this beautifully shot scene takes the viewer outside the world of secretive filming and raises questions – even if, as we are assured, diplomatic immunity makes many kinds of filming unproblematic.
The most troubling and convincing scenes are shot in secret, using a variety of hidden cameras. Only a fraction of this footage is blurred and it’s superbly edited to make the complex tale coherent, tracking an increasingly tense set-up. The fact that Brügger is still alive after his trips to Africa and North Korea has had some critics arguing that he must be a fake.  Are we being punk’d? You may have questions and suspicions akin to those raised by films like the 2010 Banksy doco, Exit Through the Gift Shop – but perhaps such wondering is part of the pleasure.
A project of this nature begs for a follow-up or a ‘making of’ explanation of its construction, its ethics and its consequences. Brügger will be a guest of the festival, and no doubt there’ll be plenty of questions for him to answer – or evade.  One thing’s for sure: The Ambassador will be one of the most talked about documentaries of 2012.
Note: This article was first published as an extended program note for The Ambassador on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lasseter's Bones

Lasseter's Bones premiered as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

Australian history has never seemed appealing to me – dirty, masculine, embarrassing in its barbarism to the Aboriginal people, and let’s face it, decidedly lacking in glamour. But the opening title of the documentary Lasseter’s Bones reminds us that a wit no less than Mark Twain found it fascinating: “Australian history [...] does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies.” It’s a brilliant opener, pulling the viewer immediately into the extraordinary story of Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter, a man who claimed to have sited a 7-mile gold reef in central Australia, and reportedly died in the desert in 1931 after one of several failed expeditions to try to find it again. Conflicting stories suggest Lasseter was a con-artist, an obsessed fool or a tragic genius.

Documentary filmmaker Luke Walker (Beyond Our Ken, 2007) spent three years sifting through the stories and the facts in an attempt to establish what really happened, and why the story of Lasseter has gripped the imaginations of so many. What he uncovers is gold indeed, though perhaps not the kind Lasseter craved. The real nugget is Lasseter’s 85-year-old son, the sprightly Bob Lasseter, a bearded and amiable Aussie eccentric who has spent 50 years trying to vindicate his father’s assertions and rescue the family name. He invites the filmmaker to accompany him on the latest expedition to try to locate the famed El Dorado of Australian gold mining (somewhere near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory).

This trip, undertaken with modern four-wheel-drives, aeroplanes and good camping equipment, is so harsh and difficult that it really hits home how convinced Lasseter must have been to do it in the 1930s . We see the immensity of the landscape, the cruelty of the salt-bush (heavy duty car tyres are ripped to shreds every few kilometres and repaired at night by campfire) and the indifferent landmarks that all start to look the same after a while, especially when you’re looking for a rocky outcrop that resembles “a lady wearing a bonnet”.

Walker, a British-born former actor and VCA graduate is a personable presence throughout the film. Fit, tanned and enthusiastic, he’s nonetheless cowed by the landscape. “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed,” he tells Bob as they rest on a sandy mound after days of fruitless searching. “It is a bit immense,” admits Bob laconically, in a moment that sums up the entire project and his undaunted approach.

Lasseter’s Bones is a triumph of painstaking research, but it’s made to look easy. Interviews, maps, clippings and extensive detective work are utilised to make sense of the complex story. The Australian types and characters, most of them elderly now, are delightful as they reminisce. The long dead Lasseter lives on as a larger than life character, a Zelig or a Christ who is reportedly seen after his death on a boat to New York, and who claimed to have drawn the original design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The real revelation, however is the nature of obsession – the way that an idea can take root in a person and begin to choke out all other relationships, all other loves, all sanity. Even the filmmaker starts to look like he’s in its thrall for a while, as he considers: “Just one last trip to the outback…”

[This piece was originally published as a Program Note for Lasseter's Bones as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival]

Rochelle Siemienowicz