Divide in Concord

I’ve been thinking lately about my “latter years”. In part, it’s the passing of a dear friend who spent the last few years of his life living with dementia. In part, it’s because I’ll be fffff fffff fifty next year. Last night I’ve concluded I’d like to spend my “latter years” as Jean Hill, the bottled water campaigner in the American town of Concord, featured in the movie “Divide In Concord”.

In the film, Jean explains she reached a point in her life (in her 70s/80s), after the death of her husband, when she suddenly realised she no longer had to care for others. Everything in her life was about her, and about what her legacy would be. The film tells of a moment where her grandson told her about the amount of plastic waste now found in the world’s oceans.

“Other films have told the story of the environmental problems of plastic”, the film-maker told us in a Q&A at the US/Canadian Film Festival last night in Sydney. In contrast, Jean’s story is a more personal one: about how someone realised the connection between a bigger story and what they could do on an individual level. In a small town in Massachusetts, Jean embarked on a campaign to ban bottled water.

The small town, Concord (apparently) has an important part in the history of the independence movement in the America. On a micro-level, the documentary also notes other small town “revolutionary movements”, such as the woman who defended the rights of people to put their laundry out to dry (in defiance of body corporate laws which prohibit such things) and in the case of Jean’s campaign against bottled water. The earlier “revolutionary movements” are located in the context of the annual town meetings in Concord, where people can bring issues to the broader community for discussion and voting.

Jean brings the issue of banning bottled water to the annual debate twice, and then finally a third time, which is ultimately the film’s conclusion. Really, there are only two ways the film can end: either she wins or loses. No spoiler alerts in this review :)

Whether she won or lose, the film’s compelling because of the story. It’s classic David vs Goliath.

But it’s also a really important story about how people can make a direct connection between broader issues and personal action. A small town banning bottled water won’t make much of a difference. But when lots of small towns do the same thing, it CAN make a difference. That’s the reason why bottled water business interests, and people with a pro-business philosophical perspective in the community of Concord, became so interested in what was happening with Jean’s campaign.

What’s happened since the film was made, after the decision was taken in 2012? According to the film-maker at last night’s Q&A, a further couple of votes have been taken, and the community, once evenly divided on the issue, has “moved on” and voted decisively in one way. No spoiler alerts.

It’s a lovely film. I really love Jean Hill’s passion, even if she was possibly sometimes her own worst enemy in the debate. “I really stuffed that up”, she says (or words to that effect) after a radio interview in which she lost her cool. I think the occasional bout of losing your temper is quite okay, especially if/when I make it to my 80s I have as much passion as Jean demonstrates.

Monica Z

The last couple of weeks have been reasonably busy, and so I haven’t managed to immerse myself in the Scandinavian Film Festival as I’d hoped. There was one film, however, I definitely wanted to see on the big screen, having previously seen it only a small screen: the movie about the life of Swedish jazz singer, Monica Zetterlund.

I’d first heard about Monica twenty or thirty years ago, as Frida from ABBA had described her as one of her idols. The story of a jazz singer from a small country town who, in 1960s Sweden, has to find a balance between career and family is a theme in both their lives.

In the time since, I’ve come to know and really enjoy Monica’s work. I think my favourite song of hers is her Swedish language version of “Take 5″: it’s a great tune, sung with passion and energy. The film explains this particular song, and many of her others, comes from Monica’s desire to sing (mostly in Swedish) about things in her life. The film details a meeting with Ella Fitzgerald, where Ella, quite directly tells her not to sing about New Orleans and other such things (the staples of 1950s and 1960s jazz), but about stuff she knows.

Monica’s own experiences of travelling to New York are documented in the film: an early disastrous performance where the show was shut down because her backing musicians were black; and a later more successful show that brings her family and friends to tears. The film documents a difficult relationship with her father who lives in the small town of Hagfors. “Do you have any idea where that is?”, I whispered to Grant. Later, over a drink, we looked it up, locating it in the middle of Sweden, towards the border with Norway. There’s a really funny scene in the movie (which I won’t spoil) about Monica’s personal vow never to return to Hagfors.

I really loved this film. It’s a great story. Great music. Features great performances. And has beautiful cinematography which deserves the big screen. I really hope the film gets a broader cinematic run in Australia.

PS: After watching the movie we went out for a drink and a chat. We joked we should have played the “Monica Zetterlund Drinking Game”. It’s the game where you watch the film and have a drink every time she does. You would end up pretty sloshed pretty quickly. She liked a drink or 25,000, it seems.

Croc-a-Dyke Dundee

Years ago I remember watching a really fantastic documentary about the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras called, Feed Them to the Cannibals. As I recall, the title was a reference to the words of an Australian government official, who was asked what he thought should be done with those engaging in homosexual behaviour in the early days of European settlement here.

For me, that 1993 film was also an introduction to the larger-than-life character of Dawn O’Donnell, the subject of the movie I saw tonight, Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. For many years, a friend and I developed quite a routine between ourselves, as we remembered and laughed about some of the classic lines delivered by Dawn in that early film.

Co-incidentally both films were made by the same person, Fiona Cunningham-Reid. At tonight’s screening she mentioned how she had asked Dawn many years ago if she would participate in a follow-up documentary about her own life story. For many years, Dawn and her partner, Aniek Baton both refused.

At the Q&A session which followed tonight’s screening, Aniek explained what finally brought her around, was recognition the telling the story of Dawn’s life goes some way to telling the history of Gay & Lesbian life in Sydney in the last fifty years or so.

That said, the film also gives a really lovely insight into her life before she became a nightclub owner on Oxford Street. The film explains she was the daughter of a single parent, growing up in Sydney in reasonably rough circumstances, until she was sent to a convent school to “smooth off the edges”. She had an early passion for ice-skating, which eventually took her to live in both London and Paris, until an accident cut short her career.

On returning to Australia she married a man which, in the film she says, “lasted for about two months”.The film then goes on to explain how she made her career mostly in real estate, and then later in nightclubs.

The film doesn’t shy away from the more suspect parts of Dawn’s life. The film talks about her connections with the convicted criminal, Abe Saffron; the many allegations of nightclub arson; and even the suggestion she murdered someone. The film offers no new evidence on any of these allegations, but that’s okay, it wasn’t that type of film.

For me the really interesting insight into Dawn’s life, of course, came from Aniek, Dawn’s partner. They were together thirty years, and it sounds like they had an amazing series of adventures together, particularly the travel. Dawn died five or six years ago, and Aniek was left out of the will. At tonight’s screening she said she was still involved in a complex legal battle tonight which was “ongoing and private”.

Though the film wasn’t as ground-breaking and as memorable for me as “Feed Them To The Cannibals”, I really enjoyed it. I hope one day it will get a television screening as well.

Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel's Wedding - You Can't Stop Progress
Muriel’s Wedding – You Can’t Stop Progress

A few friends have been noting of late it’s twenty years since the film, “Muriel’s Wedding” was released. I guess it was the article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day which prompted most of the nostalgia.

For a lot of people, “Muriel’s Wedding” is a light-hearted comedy. For me, it’s actually a heart-felt comic-drama that has usually brought me to tears on the many, many occasions I’ve watched the film.

The first time I saw “Muriel’s Wedding” was at a cinema in Canberra. I was living in Wagga Wagga at the time. Of course there are many laugh out loud moments in the film. But there were also some very sad scenes in the film. In particular, the scenes surrounding the death of the mother. I’d lost my own “mum” at a young age, only a decade earlier. Co-incidentally, my “mum” was also called Betty, and in many ways, she was also neglected and abused by many parts of her extended family. The similarities upset me even now.

Do you ever feel like you're nothing?
Do you ever feel like you’re nothing?

Months later, I was living in Sydney, and a couple of my very close relatives, Pat and Michelle, came to visit me. I took them to see the movie at the Cremorne Orpheum, knowing they’d “understand” the film in the same way I did, and they did. In the darkness of the cinema, I suspect they also shed a few tears.

Growing up on the NSW North Coast – not far from the mythical Porpoise Spit – I “knew” those bitches who made fun of Muriel. I could name every one of them. And while I wasn’t Muriel, per se – though I did sit in my room and listen to ABBA songs – I knew the girls who were “Muriel”. They were also taunted, made fun of by the likes of Tanya.

Throughout my life, I’ve suffered with many of the self-doubts and low self-esteem that Muriel encountered. In lots of ways I’ve been much more fortunate than “Muriel”. I’ve had a good job which has allowed me to move to different parts of Australia. I’ve never had to work in a video store :) But like Muriel, I chose to “escape” the small-town narrow-mindedness of “Porpoise Spit”.

Muriel's Wedding - Goodbye Porpoise Spit
Muriel’s Wedding – Goodbye Porpoise Spit

One of my favourite lines – for many reasons – from the film is when Muriel says “When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one Abba song. That’s because my life is as good as an Abba song. It’s as good as Dancing Queen.” Though it’s ostensibly about a geographic shift, the line is also about a shift in a state of mind. I don’t dislike the North Coast, but I know I’m probably happier living here in Sydney.

Throughout the years, “Muriel’s Wedding” has remained with me.

Memorably, I was in the car with Pat a few years ago. We were doing a “blocky”. I should explain a “blocky” is what you do when you live in a country town and you’re feeling a little bored. You hop in the car and you drive around “the block” which is the main shopping district. As the song by ABBA, “Dancing Queen” came on the radio, without prompting, we began to adapt to a local setting the lines from the closing scene of “Muriel’s Wedding” where Muriel and Rhonda say “Goodbye Porpoise Spit”.

If, like me, you grew up on the NSW North Coast during the 70s and 80s, and were a little bit “not of the mainstream”, “Muriel’s Wedding” can mean so much more than a light-hearted comedy.

88 Documentary

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned this post contains an image which may feature deceased persons.

From 88 Documentary, image by Peter Solness
From 88 Documentary Facebook page, image by Peter Solness

Thought I’d give a mention to a documentary my friend, Michaela Perske has produced and co-written called “88”.

The documentary goes back to 1988, the year of the Australian Bicentenary, and tells the story of some of the many thousands of Indigenous people who travelled from all over Australia to join in protests on January 26. As well as being a seminal moment in the development of modern Indigenous affairs in Australia, it was also a seminal moment in the lives of many of those profiled.

The program goes to air on ABC1 on Thursday, January 30 at 8.30pm. A lot of hard work over a long period of time has gone into this, so I hope you’ll be watching :)

There’s more info about the program on their Facebook page.

The Darkside and Frank Yamma

I went to one of (maybe the first public screening) of the new film by Warwick Thornton, previously known for such brilliant works as Samson and Delilah (director) and The Sapphires (director of photography).

In contrast to the clear, strong narrative of those two films, you need to work out your own “narrative” for The Darkside, as the film is based on a series of social history interviews with people about “ghost stories”.

But rather than feature the original interviews, well known actors (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are brought in to relay the stories in a fairly stylised manner.

Although there were a few stories which I did’t understand (as the narrative wasn’t that clear), a few which I thought would have been better simply as audio (it’s the radio guy in me thinking the story didn’t need pictures), there were a few stories which really resonated with me. There’s a story, for example, of a “sighting” of the spirit of a young child near Coober Pedy which is beautifully illustrated as the artist Ben Quilty paints the scene. There’s also a lovely story presented by Deborah Mailman (featuring Marcia Langton in the background) which is fantastic, simply because it’s Deborah. Aaron Pederson brings great humour and authenticity to his story.

Frank Yamma
Frank Yamma

The final scene, where a young woman describes the slow painful death of an infant (and where she felt guided and supported by her granny), was the one where the film made sense for me. There’s a moment in earlier The Darkside, where one of the actors explains he believes that when you die, your body goes into the ground, your soul goes to your creator, and your spirit remains living amongst us.

The film will have a cinematic release at some point soon (I understand) and will also be a series of half-hour programs which will run on ABC-TV next year.

After the movie, we popped downstairs to the Corroboree Festival bar, enjoyed a chat, a drink, and the wonderful tunes of Frank Yamma.

Alan Partridge

We knew within seconds we were in the “wrong movie”. We had already felt a little uncomfortable about the size of the crowd and theatre, expecting a much larger crowd in a much larger theatre. But we sat there, chatting, half-watching the ads, until the opening credits appeared and within seconds we realised we were in the wrong theatre. We got up quickly, found the right theatre, and then made our way to the second front row, as the much larger theatre was close to capacity.

We knew little about the film, except that it was based around the fictional character of small-town radio announcer, Alan Partridge. Since we both work in radio, my colleague/friend and I thought it would be fun to go to. Indeed, there are lots of very funny “radio jokes”, and there were lots of moments when we both laughed out loud, making comparisons in our minds between some of the extreme egotism of the character, as an amplified version of the some of the behaviour we sometimes seem in our colleagues.

There were so many moments when we, and all of the cinema, laughed out loud at the roller-coaster of unexpected twists and turns the movie took. There were no moments of predictability. The film romped along at a cracker pace, and importantly, was about the right length. Despite the comic value of it all, the film has heart, and despite the sometimes farcical comedy, all of the characters were, in their own ways, totally believable.

It’s definitely a film I’d like to see again, as I’m sure there are moments, actions and lines I’d probably pick up on which were maybe lost on first viewing. I’d also like to see the first couple of minutes we missed from being in the wrong cinema.