Top Of The Lake

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Okay so sadly I got the flu and did not make it along to any more films at MIFF.

I did however spend my week in bed watching the entire season of Top of The Lake

At 7 episodes Top of the Lake is a punchy and atmospheric mini-series (or ‘tv event’ as the publicity material calls it) It is a study of small town life where the small town isn’t twee or peaceful but instead has a disconnected, drug-addled and desperate population. Campion and her co-creators/directors (Gerard Lee and Garth Davis) have set their bitter crime story against a picture postcard alpine lake which somehow manages to be both idyllic and foreboding,in fact, practically the first lines spoken in the show are ‘the water will kill you’. The camera dwells for long moments on towering hills and misty still waters that hint at mysterious depths, and any ideas of peaceful countryside are constantly shattered by the roar of motorcycles, rifle shots, dogs barking, and raised voices.

Jane Campion has a lot of great movies where nature becomes one of the characters – perhaps the most obvious being Sweetie, which actually features a woman with a phobia of trees, but you can certainly find it in the rest of her films as well, such as those lonely beaches and muddy bush in The Piano,  Bright Star with those massive heavenly fields of flowers in Bright Star. It often feels like the world around the characters ends up reflecting exactly what’s going in the narrative, and in the case of Top of The Lake, that brooding, deep, still water reflects the deep unhappiness, disfunction and corruption hidden beneath the surface of this small service town.

I once had a lecturer tell me that Jane Campion wasn’t really a feminist film-maker because she operated within the classical Hollywood style. And, while I agree that Campion isn’t as hard hitting or avant garde as say, Catherine Breillat or Maya Deren, what she does often accomplish is something that could maybe be called ‘a subtle side-long glance at’ feminist film making. That is, media that looks fairly mainstream and feels fairly mainstream, but when you go a little deeper often challenges the way we depict women and the narrative choices we give them. Or, if you want slightly more ‘critical-theory-ish’ terminology, Campion uses popular ‘Hollywood’ techniques and tropes but skews them so that they draw attention to the feminist issues sitting behind them. In particular, questions of female autonomy and victim-hood are always central to the stories Campion chooses to tell.

Top of the Lake is a premium example of this sideways approach to feminist issues, casting the two main female characters (Tui and Robyn) as victims initially, but ultimately giving them the initiative and opportunity to independently take control of their own fate.

Basically the story is this: Tui Mitcham is pregnant at 12 years old, she tries to kill herself, then disappears. The rest of the season is a series of questions around who the father could be, and where Tui has gone – has someone disappeared her deliberately, is she alive or dead, can a pregnant 12 year old survive hiding out in the bush, and can she avoid the biggest predators of all in this sleepy NZ town; the various adult males who decide to go looking for her or appear to have a vested interest in keeping her silent. Elizabeth Moss plays visiting detective Robin Griffin, home to care for her dying mother, who gets embroiled in Tui’s case when she is brought in as an expert for troubled children. As the show goes on it becomes clear that Robin has her own demons to deal with and Moss plays the character with a powerful combination of strength and fragility.

There’s also a lovely side story where a group of women have set up a container commune following a guru (Holly Hunter) called GJ. While I found the humour here a little uneven at times, and I think it occasionally came across as mocking, this story did also provide a platform for Campion to dissect issues of female identity and she does it with aplomb; the women in this space do not fit neatly into Hollywood ideals of body shape, beauty, sexual allure, or even intelligence, they are all a little weird, and a little awkward. Even the land they live on is a disputed territory, with two different parties claiming ownership of it – one of them being the local drug dealer who has, in turn, a romantic altercation with one of the women. The ‘womens’ space at the commune stands in direct contrast to the almost exclusively male spaces of the police station and Matt Mitcham’s house; in the women’s space sexual politics and identity are discussed and dissected, in the male spaces politics and identity are undercurrents, downplayed, ignored, or outright repressed in an effort to keep the status quo.

At first my reaction to the themes of rape and sexual violence in this show was one of frustration and distrust.  Mostly because I feel like there seems to be a trend in mainstream media towards this ‘rape as character development’ trope, as if, to make a woman seem legitimately strong and complicated she must have a back story of sexual violence. And there also often seems to be a certain inevitability to the narratives around rape, as if, once a story is set on that particular path, such as a girl being the solitary female in the company of violent men then the only end result can be her rape. I do understand that it is more narratively compelling if the story shows victims of rape as opposed to people fighting off rapists, or other people coming to their rescue. But there is a part of me that wishes that a) women in shows about violence (especially cop shows) could be shown as strong characters without having encountered sexual violence in their past and b)more of the many rape narratives there are out there in TV-land were told as encounters where the victims fight back and win, without any sense of inevitability about it.

However, as the story in Top of The Lake develops you can see here how Campion is using her ‘sidelong glance’ technique at women’s issues to draw you into the story and make you think about it. Firstly, she shows you alternative male character’s points of view where they were uncomfortable with the acts of rape or condemned the acts of rape in the show. Campion gives us a diverse range of viewpoints and also explores the incredibly complicated cultural norms that surround situations of rape and gang rape in particular such as bullying, fear, machismo and entitlement.

She also (spoiler alert here) portrays victims of rape that are male. This might seem like a pretty simple concept but unfortunately the idea the men don’t get raped is so pervasive that even the UN Health Organisation only defines rape as that ‘of a man raping a woman’ rather than ‘women raping men’, which is a problematic scenario for everyone involved, from the male rape victims whose ordeal is ignored, to the transgender and transexual rape victims or are not even included in the equation, and the reinforcement of the concept of women as victims and men as perpetrators which surely contributes to the already high levels of females who are raped or sexually assaulted around the world today.

The show is also, despite it’s fairly dark subject matter, not as violent as it could have been, yes there are storylines that involve rape, however there’s no protracted torture or imprisonment scenes and not much blood and gore. This is not attention grabbing torture porn like the average episode of SVU or standard mystery-of-the-week cop shows, which means there is no reducing bodies of victims (usually women’s bodies by the way) into depersonalised fragments. Victims in this show remain whole and we get to see the consequences of the acts done to them played out in the public space.

Top of the Lake is a really good series, it is a rollicking good mystery story that keeps you guessing, it has sweet romance and tragedy, it’s well written, has excellent performances, complex and multi-dimensional characters and captures that smothering small town desperation and all the complicated factors that surround it, like economics, landscape and culture. However, I have one really major criticism of this show, which is that it felt like a serious missed opportunity not to have any well developed Maori characters in the cast. There are a few supporting guest characters of Maori descent, and Robin’s mother’s partner Turangi is Maori, however he is almost silent for most of the show and is implied to be violent although we never see it. This portrayal of Maori as silent and violent is simply unacceptable in modern NZ narratives, and I do not for one second accept the argument that this is a show made for international audiences who wouldn’t understand issues of local indigenous identity. Firstly, I think that attitude is kind of a cop out considering this show expects its audience to be pretty smart on most other levels of storytelling – there’s no ‘last week on Top of the Lake’ segment, and we don’t get talked down to at any point in the narrative. Secondly, the Maori population in small town NZ is pretty visible, and I find it really strange that Maori people and culture are not featured in a show that is so much about the NZ landscape, particularly when one of the central story lines is over a land dispute. Thirdly, I think this omission speaks more to attitude of the writers (Campion and Lee) and their own uncomfortableness talking about indigenous issues – Campion’s Maori characters and stories in The Piano were also fairly simplistic, although they at least got to say a few more lines than Turangi does. Bottom line, Maori culture and its place in NZ public life is rich, interesting, visually compelling and powerful, the creators here could have done their research, consulted with experts and incorporated some of this richness into this story, but they didn’t, and I think that’s incredibly sad. It would have taken an already excellent show up to the next level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face

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Hey so it’s the Melbourne International Film Festival for the next couple of weeks and hooray they have lots of lady-directed films on, so much so that I can’t actually afford to see them all but I am going to at least make it along to a few.

And this is the first one.

So, Nan Goldin is kind of a legend. Her phenomenal pictures capture a beautiful dark side of human nature, and for me it feels like when you look at her photos, you see something that we all know is there but rarely express to one another: that deeply buried tragedy, pragmatism, joy, pride and general neediness of the human condition.

hair Her photo-slideshows, especially her constantly updated and re-imagined seminal work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, simultaneously give the sense of capturing an important time and a place in history (Berlin squats, New York in the epicentre of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a burgeoning LGTBQ and arts culture) while also projecting a sense of transience and immediacy, they are snapshots and polaroids snuck in drunken moments at parties, lonely journeys on trains and in the backs of taxis.

800px-Misty_and_Jimmy Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face is a meandering, slice of life documentary, directed by Sabine Lidl. With charming simplicity it carefully captures Nan’s curious nature, her close friendships which have inspired her photo subjects and that constant tension between living life as an artist and the realities of the mundane like how the bills get paid and how it feels to always fall in love with gay men.

However, on the other side of the scale this film felt very haphazard – intensely personal subjects like childhood trauma, self mutilation and drug addiction get a quick once over but are never delved into, we jump from place to place without reason or explanation and the film feels a wee bit as if it is trailing behind Nan just trying to keep up.

The camerawork is hand-held and extremely low fi, and, while in some ways this does mirror Nan’s snapshot aesthetics, when you take a good look at her slideshows and collections, Nan’s work also feels carefully curated. It would have been nice to see some more constructed shots that reflect the curatorial side of Nan’s artwork as well.

For me, what makes Nan’s art important and interesting is that vulnerable darkness she seems to pull out of her subjects using just light and a camera, something that this documentary never quite seems to pull out of her, although it gets tantalisingly close a few times.

In short, the documentary is lovely, and if you’re a fan of Nan Goldin it’s decidedly worth seeing, but the most enjoyable parts are when the camera stops moving, Nan stops talking and we just dwell on her glorious photographs for a time. Which I am going to do now:

Funny Women: Both Familiar and Phenomenal

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So there’s this report that’s just been released.

A group of researchers studied 600 films over 6 years,  analysing the top 100 grossing films for each year between 2007 – 2013. Author of the Study, USC Professor Stacy L. Smith said that “Our findings this year are both familiar and phenomenal”

Because to nobody’s surprise the numbers are pretty heavy in favour of the male end of the population.

Women said less than 30% of lines in all movies, and only 2% of the sample of movies had more female characters than males. Behind the camera 15.9% of key creative roles (Director, Writer or Producer) were held by women. (It’s a pretty safe bet that number would also be much much lower for the other key creative areas like cinematography, production design, costume design and make up design)

The report also highlights there is a massive discrepancy in employment of female directors when you compare independent films to mainstream films. 28% of the films at Sundance in 2013 were directed by women, but  only 1.9% of the top 100 films in 2013 were directed by a woman, that’s an all time low across the 6 year study.

However, there is one small glimmer of light in this otherwise fairly grey portrait of women’s status in the film industry. It looks like funny women are getting more screen time, or at least, slightly more screen time than in other genres (hooray!) Professor Smith says that trailblazers like Tina Fey, Amy PoehlerKristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy have helped women make strides in comedic films and demonstrated that films with female leads like Bridesmaids and The Heat, can bring in box office dollars just as much as comedies with male leads.

Now, while I would hesitate to call 36% percent representation a ‘stride’.  It does feel like there has been a very small move towards agreeing that women can be funny and can hold their own as leads in funny movies (and not just as one half of a couple but actual leads in movies that are actually about them).

The report has a lot of other incredibly interesting findings around things like sexualised portrayals of teens,  and the percentage of characters by age (men were more likely to be middle aged, women were more likely to be under 39) but does not really go deeper into more questions of diversity like race, sexuality, non-binary gender depictions and so on. (My guess would be that non-binary gender depictions in the top 100 grossing films of 2013 would be close to nil, and that depictions of men and women of colour would also be grossly under-represented in these films. I might dig out some reports with statistics on those soon as well) .

Anyway, in the spirit of positivity, I thought I’d profile some of the women that I’m finding funny right now. It’s not a comprehensive list because there are LOTS of incredibly funny women doing hilarious things right now. And it’s mostly TV/web series based because sadly, even though women get to star in funny movies, they still aren’t really directing them yet so I haven’t seen many female directed, female lead comedies this year.

But for the record, here’s some ladies doing things (mostly TV shows) that are making me laugh. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments too.

Mindy Kaling

I love the gentle humour in this show, and the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s basically designed to poke fun at the rom-com genre and everything that comes with it. Mindy’s character is obsessed with rom coms and is constantly waiting for her life to turn out like one, unfortunately the real world gets in the way all too often. For example, she goes to the lobby of the Empire State Building and hangs out there on the regular just waiting to meet Mr Right. Unfortunately, she goes there so often she gets noticed by security and pulled in for questioning as a potential terrorist. Misunderstandings and hilarity ensue.

The one thing I did notice that wasn’t great, is that the parade of potential suitors that Mindy dates is exclusively white. But then again, maybe that’s deliberate too, they all do look almost exactly alike in that typical square-jawed rom-com leading man trope kind of way. Overall though, a very funny and endearing show and absolutely worth curling up on the couch and laughing at on these cold winter nights.

Miranda Hart

I’m not entirely sure how to describe Miranda. Prat-falls, visual comedy and word play? It’s very very british, (and has an uproarious laugh track which takes a bit of getting used to in this day and age) but gosh that woman can fall over and make it look very very funny. The show is delightfully absurd and while the story-lines are fairly generic (will she get it on with hot chef Gary? Will her over-bearing mother get her way?) the quirky humour and the off beat dialogue make this show super enjoyable.

I know it’s been around for quite a while now (in fact I think they might have stopped making it!) but I’m one of those people who re-watches shows I really like so I’m currently exploring season one again. Sadly in terms of diversity the show has a few people of colour in the guest cast, but none in the core cast at all, which is a little disappointing for the BBC to be honest, but I guess you can’t have it all.

Ally Ju, JJ Fong and Perlina Lau 

Flat 3, the web-series created by the lovely Roseanne Liang is funny, smart and incredibly addictive. Ally, JJ and Perlina handle the comedy with low key pinache, and it perfectly captures the comedic anxiety that comes with being in your early twenties, living away from home and realising the rent must be paid no matter what your dream job is or whether your dream guy just walked through the door. Because it’s a webseries each episode is around ten minutes long or sometimes less so it’s excellent bite sized comedy and while it has a lot of very nice funny moments, it’s also a great exploration of friendship and coming of age. All in all totally worth a watch.

Anna Akana

There was an article that came out when Bridesmaids was released about how that film missed a lot of opportunities to make jokes about women in a uniquely female way (eg: menses jokes instead of diarrhoea jokes!).

Anna Akana had nothing to do with Bridesmaids. But I do think her comedy stylings have a uniquely female edge to them and are pretty funny to boot (Pregnapocalypse is weird sci-fi comedy gold). They’re also charming, genre-driven and weird. This isn’t actually a web-series or a TV series, it’s more of a Youtube channel and a collection of short films. The humour is uneven at times (and she has an obsession with guns that I’m slightly uncomfortable with but maybe that’s an american thing? Or a genre thing?), and it’s mostly V-logging (is that a real word?) which I guess is kind of stand up without the audience? But guys, she plays all the characters herself! Which means clever use of split-screen and rotoscoping and some nice editing skills. I really like her style of observational humour. Definitely one to keep an eye on for the future coz she’s a wee young thing. A young up and coming, one could even say.

Wanda Sykes

Okay so from a young up and coming to a comedy stalwart, Wanda Sykes is also funny and weird and just immensely enjoyable to watch. If you’re ever feeling a bit blue or a bit bored I recommend dialling up some clips of hers on Youtube and giggling along (she had a short-lived talk show for a bit but her stand up is much funnier so I’d search for those clips) Her humour is kind of edgy at times (and there’s a lot of sex jokes, which feels a little…unoriginal? But sex is pretty funny so I guess there’s a lot of material there) but for the most part she’s really endearing and just incredibly funny and smart.

So, that’s a few of my fave comedic women at the moment. It’s exciting to see a lot of really funny women just getting out there, making funny shows and telling funny stories.

What do you guys think? I realise that the 3 actual TV series I featured here are all about straight women ‘looking for love’. Do you know any female driven comedies out there that aren’t about romance, and mostly straight romance too really if we’re being honest here? 2 Broke Girls maybe? I haven’t watched that one so I’m not too sure.

Do you think it’s sad that those are the female stories that get told in mainstream media?Or are most TV comedy shows just about romance/relationships by default? (Off the top of my head I can think of a few that aren’t: Seinfeld, Community, Alpha House, The IT Crowd, and a few that are: How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Mike and Molly, Happy Endings, that other one that’s exactly like Happy Endings so much that I can’t tell them apart)

Anyway, feel free to share your thoughts or your favourite lady comediennes in the comments.

Stay Awesome Gotham (as Anna Akana would say)

Peace out,
Kat

A Different Kind of Politics

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Okay so I have a long and meandering post about rom-coms coming soon, which I am still in the throes of researching.

BUT, given the current political situation in Australia (which is very anti-refugees) I thought it might be timely to plug a couple of films about refugee rights in Australia

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

This…. is actually directed by a dude. However, one of the co-creators is a woman (the inspiring Jessie Taylor) . And really, I am writing this blog to discuss inequality and at this point in time, asylum seekers (particularly those who come by boat) are getting a pretty raw deal in Australia.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is thought provoking, heart-breaking and compelling. It’s an exploration of the reasons why someone would risk their lives to sail in a leaky boat to the shores of a country that does not want them. It highlights the fact that seeking asylum by boat is just as legal as seeking asylum by plane or on foot, and that by turning away or imprisoning refugees who survive the long and dangerous journey over the sea is, Australia is breaking several UN conventions.

The film follows several characters in limbo waiting in Indonesia for ‘processing’ (At the current rate of processing the wait could be 40 years or longer, many of them have already been there several years already), they are a people in-between, not legally recognised by the Indonesian government, not accepted by the Australian government, no income, rough, unsanitary, and cramped living situations, and traumatised from where they have just come from. And yet, they have hope, they somehow still cling to the idea that they might be the ones, they might get through, if only they take the right boat and pay the right people, they might get to the ‘lucky country’.

Mary Meets Mohammad

Directed by Heather Kirkpatrick, an ex-relief worker who has worked with refugees in many different countries. She was studying film-making in Australia and stumbled upon this story about the first refugee detention centre in Tasmania.

I haven’t actually seen this one yet but I am very keen to get my hands on a copy because it looks like a great watch and its been getting rave reviews.

It’s the story of a woman who is vehemently opposed to refugees in her community, and the encounter that leads her to change her mind. It looks fascinating.

See, it’s a pretty confusing topic for many, Asylum-seekers. Often people seem to treat it as if it is an immigration problem (and oh I could say so many things about the western world and our labyrinthine immigration policies but I’ll leave that to another post). However, as these films take care to remind us, and as many advocacy organisations point out, refugees are actually not immigrants. They didn’t come to Australia because they like the climate, they are desperate escapees, running from persecution, strife and outright violence in their own countries, they cannot return home, this is not a choice for them.

At it’s heart, the issue of Asylum Seekers is a human rights issue.

This is one of the reasons why films about refugee issues are so important, they give the debate a human face.

In Australia media are not allowed in the detention centres (in fact, not even Amnesty International are allowed into the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island) and so completed films and documentaries about asylum seekers are few and far between, and often a battle to get made. These are the two most comprehensive films that I could find about the subject.

If anyone has any others they would like to suggest, feel free to share them in the comments.

Thanks for reading.
Peace Out.

 

Oh and also

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TODAY: Life In The Home

Some friends of mine (the delightful and very talented Prisca Bouchet and Nick Mayow) made a documentary as part of Loading Docs, an online film festival of short documentaries all based around the theme ‘Home’.

Their film is a beautiful and sensitive study of life in a retirement home in NZ and it’s definitely worth a watch.

There are also several other lovely short documentaries on the site and I would recommend checking them out also.

 

So many exciting and inspiring documentaries out there people! Go forth and enjoy!

And Now For A Bit of Shameless Self Promotion

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And Now For A Bit of Shameless Self Promotion

Hey so I made a short film. Well, more of a short documentary. Well, more of a kind of artist profiley thing. But it’s a film (well, a video technically) and it’s playing in Melbourne at the City Library for the month of June.

It is a ‘behind the scenes look’ at the art work of the amazingly talented Ellen Sorensen, who makes painfully exquisite and detailed papercuts that will transport you to other worlds and tell you stories that will inspire your mind.

Her work is exhibiting at the library this month and is dotted around all the nooks and crannies between the books in excitingly lit spaces.

So if you live in Melbs and like beautiful art come down to the city library on flinders lane and have a wander around!

Now…. to stick on topic and say something slightly relevant for this blog. It has not escaped my attention that a lot of female directors tend to gravitate towards documentary. And I can say that after working in drama for many years and then making this tiny tiny documentary I can see the appeal.
You get a lot more control of content, you work with smaller crews so it’s much more intimate and you have more control over the hours you shoot.

Obviously this is not always the case with all documentaries where the content might be controlled by a network, or they might end up controlling your hours but even then it feels like it would be much easier to work documentaries around childcare and life in general than it would be when you’re working the 15/18 hour day standard that most drama shoots require. Why is childcare something that only female directors need to take into account? Well that I don’t know but it’s one of the theories as to why more women don’t become directors so I guess that’s still a function of the society we live in.

Anyhoo, rant over for now. If you live in Melbs do come down and see some lovely artwork and a film about aforementioned artwork 🙂

Peace out,
Kat

Reading List: Some Things That Might Delight and Surprise You

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Just Cheer, Baby Nowhere is the gender pay gap more apparent than in sports where cheerleaders get paid $1250 per season and the football team players get paid millions. Because Cheerleading isn’t a real sport. Obvs. (and yes I know that men cheerlead too but the cheerleading teams themselves are still extremely gendered towards women in general but if you want to be less binary I guess we could say this is perhaps an arts/sports disparity issue too)

Rachel Sklar writes about Jill Abramson and her shock dismissal from the New York Times.

An All Female Horror Anthology and A Call Out for Black Female Horror Directors, a minority within a minority within a sub-genre that’s particularly bad at celebrating diversity.

Makeovers in Movies and the hilarity of anyone trying to make over Audrey Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn!

Red Carpet Politics and the delightful Sarah Millican

So far, 9 mainstream films have passed the Bechdel test this year. Have you seen any of them? I plan to see Belle later this week hopefully!

and as a final treat: The inimitable Patti Smith performs Alan Ginsberg with Phillip Glass, what’s not to like about this!