Sydney Film Festival 2018

Thursday 7th June – Sunday 17th June 2018

While somewhat tiring given the schedule, this year’s film festival was a real joy. I saw 32 films altogether and can safely say I didn’t actively dislike anything. There was a really diverse range of films, in style, subject matter, and place. I saw films this year from places I don’t think I had ever seen a film from before, including Finland, the Arctic, Indonesia, Kosovo, Slovakia, and Paraguay among others. It’s always interesting, and a pleasure really, to see how people live in other places around the world, watching other cultures, and discovering the differences as well as how there are some experiences, love, loss, family for example, that bind us all together.

While there were a lot of films I really enjoyed just as films there were a couple that I found interesting in terms of my research. To start with there was a film called Transit (2018, Christian Petzold) which is about a German WWII refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), fleeing France by impersonating a writer who has been granted passage to Mexico through Marseille. Whilst in Marseille, he meets and falls in love with a woman who, naturally, turns out to be the wife of the writer he is impersonating. I didn’t think it was a super fascinating story but the notable thing about it is that it was actually set in modern day Marseille. This is not directly addressed in any way in the film nor is it overplayed, there aren’t smartphones or computers or anything like that. It is a much subtler approach, the most obvious nod to it being so modern are the contemporary cars. Otherwise, it becomes steadily clearer as the film progresses as you begin to realise that certain things seem out of place if we’re dealing with the beginning of the occupation of France by the Nazis. For one thing the soldiers we can assume are meant to be German are dressed almost like modern SWAT teams with high powered assault weapons. Also, once Georg reaches Marseille, the American embassy is guarded by American soldiers who are in modern American Army uniforms we’re used to seeing from films and news footage about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once I finally realised the setting was modern I was immediately a touch confused. I wondered whether I had misinterpreted the narrative and we were not dealing with events of 1940 but a hypothetical version of events happening now. As the film went on however, it was apparent this was not the case and that got me to think about why the filmmaker would choose to approach the story this way, displacing the narrative in time. I have thought about it a lot since the screening and the more I think about it the more I think that I might have been partly right when wondering whether it was a hypothetical version of events for now. Perhaps the filmmaker was, by setting a story about refugees fleeing perhaps the most infamous oppressive regime in history, making a point about history repeating itself. Maybe he was remarking on the political climate and the plight of refugees in Europe at present. I can’t answer these questions with any certainty, but it feels to me that if this was not the intention, then it’s definitely an interesting way to look at the film. The idea of using a historical narrative not just to obliquely examine modern issues but directly address them by setting the historical narrative within a contemporary time period is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before nor even considered.

Another film that was relentlessly thought provoking for me was a film called Bisbee ‘17 (2018, Robert Greene). This was described in the festival guide as “a hybrid film” in that it almost feels like a documentary and a narrative feature film rolled into one. The film is about the town of Bisbee in Arizona, on the Mexican border. Bisbee is a mining town and in 1917 there was a strike by the largely immigrant mining workforce. The result of this strike was that the mining company and the Sheriff’s department, who deputised most of the men in the town that were not miners (mostly white men), and, armed, they gathered the miners up and any civilians that were deemed to sympathise with them, herded them onto cattle cars and dumped them in the desert of New Mexico with nothing but a warning to never return to Bisbee. This has come to be known as the Bisbee Deportation. This is a history that lingers over the town but has seemingly not been addressed properly. It is often referred to as having been kept a secret but whilst the town does acknowledge that it happened, there are still very mixed feelings about how it went down. Bisbee is still a mining town, with generations having worked within the company, so there are some who feel a sympathy with the company and the Sheriff’s department who in their words “had no other choice.” Then there are artists and others community members who feel certain shame about what happened, one man even describing it as an ethnic cleansing, as it was mostly migrant workers who were “deported.” Others in the town are simply apathetic about the events, claiming to see both sides of the story.

The film is in part a documentary about the organisation of a centennial commemoration of the Deportation within the town, talking to various members of the community and following groups as they put events and activities together. It also follows the organisation of a reenactment that almost the entire town will participate in. This is where the narrative film element comes into play. Rather than having the typical dramatisation that one might expect from a historical documentary, this film has the community act in the dramatisation, with townspeople playing characters in the story, not just of the deportation itself but of all the events leading up to it. These scenes are shot like any other drama film and are added and mixed into the documentary. At one point, a scene between the young migrant miner the story focuses on and his mother is interrupted when the young man playing the miner, who is himself a second-generation Mexican immigrant, becomes emotional about the conversation which is akin to something he wished he’s said to his own mother. The lines between documentary and reenactment becomes slightly blurred throughout the film.

The film culminates in the community recreating the deportation on the day of the centennial anniversary, with half the town rounding up the other half. As this happens, we get slices of the real people discussing how they’re feeling about the situation and reflecting on some changing feelings and opinions about the event, having to go through it themselves in a sense. The man who is playing the Sheriff in the scenario had previously felt apathetic about the event but as he herds these people whilst armed, he remarks about how it feels wrong. The young man playing the migrant miner begins the film talking about how he doesn’t like to engage in political debate or discussion and over the course of the film, becomes more engaged and angry about the specific situation as well as more widely, lashing out at a white man for saying that Mexican migrants had previously “assimilated” to white culture, by reminding the man that Mexicans had been on that land for much longer.

What I was interested in with this film was the extent to which performance allowed a particular engagement with history. We often talk about how film allows an audience to engage with the history because of some kind of experiential connection – we have more of a connection because we can clearly imagine what it would have been like for these people because the film shows us. In Bisbee ‘17 however, the connection for the participants is like a more direct and intense version of this I imagine. They are literally going through what the men of 100 years earlier had gone through (though of course with the full knowledge that they are in a reenactment and their lives are not actually in danger). The fact that it altered the way people thought about their history was really powerful to me. Then I was thinking about the layers with it, in that as a viewing audience we’re somewhat experiencing their experience if that makes any sense. We’re learning about the history of the Deportation through the townspeople learning about it. I’m still not sure exactly how to properly conceptualise or articulate these ideas but I think it was utterly fascinating.

The last film I want to talk about in any detail is Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, which I am admittedly a bit enamored with. I was really taken with the film in part because of how painfully relevant it felt. Set in the early 1970s in Colorado, the film is the true story of an African-American undercover cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. With the help of a fellow cop and Jewish man, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Ron in person with the Klan whilst Ron interacts with them himself over the phone, they successfully gain the trust of the klansman. It’s so successful that he establishes a relationship with the ‘Grand master’ David Duke, a racist, anti-Semitic, politician who’s still spouting his ugly rhetoric today, and gets himself nominated as the new chapter leader. It’s a really funny film but its sense of humour is sometimes a really dark one and a lot of the jokes come from the pointed way that Lee connects this story with our contemporary political climate, aligning the 70s KKK with the Trump campaign and administration as well as pointing out the same apathy from the white characters that no doubt helped in Trump’s election and with white nationalists once again feeling empowered. The Black Liberation movement that appears in the film that our main character Ron has a slightly tense relationship with mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement and it has a real sense of feeling like a contemporary film even though it’s very clearly a period piece.

This idea that we have not learnt from our history or that history is repeating itself (perhaps a theme for this entry) is brutally compounded by the last ten or so minutes of the film in which there is a shift from the KKK burning a cross after Ron’s investigation has been halted by the police department, symbolising that despite Ron’s best efforts, the KKK are still free to do their evil thing, to a documentary montage of footage from the neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville in August 2017. We bear witness to white men chanting “Jews will not replace us” with Nazi paraphernalia, and violent clashes between these men and anti-fascist protesters. We watch Trump claim there were “bad people on both sides,” effectively refusing to denounce Nazis and suggesting that the anti-fascist protesters were just as bad, and Lee pays tribute to Heather Heyer who was murdered on August 12 by a violent car ramming attack on protesters by a white nationalist. It’s a sickening few minutes of film that left the audience I was in at least, in stunned silence.

I’m interested with this film in the way that Lee connects the true story of Ron Stallworth with our contemporary climate, first through humour and then through a brutal reminder that racist violence really is not remotely funny when it’s really happening. Again, perhaps it links a bit with the idea of the visceral experience because for me and for the people around me that I spoke to, the film almost lulled us into a false sense of comfort. We know what’s going on in the film is wrong, the racist tirades from the klansman and the heartbreaking story of a black man’s murder told by an old Harry Belafonte, making a powerful cameo. I imagine that any decent audience understands that all these things are sickening but that tension is broken with the humour and we can take comfort in the fact that it’s history, right? Right up until the last moment where Lee reminds us that it’s really happening now, Nazis think they have power again and people are dying. It feels like being kicked in the guts. It’s confronting and its important. (For some context maybe, here is Spike Lee’s powerful response at Cannes to the idea of the film being relevant to what’s going on in America at the moment and addressing his reasoning for ending the film as he did. Fair warning there is some heavy language).

Again, I don’t really know exactly how to conceptualise any of my feelings and impressions on these films, but they did make an impact on me and got me thinking about my research and different ways in which the relationship of film and history could manifest itself.

Feeling Good! Who Would’ve Thought!

 28 April – 03 June 2018

Its been a pretty productive week I think. At least I feel good about it. I wasn’t feeling great going into my supervisor meeting on Tuesday. I knew I was taking too long with the presentation I’m doing in the middle of the month but it was a complete relief to hear I didn’t have to put a paper together for it which is what I had been working on. I’m not sure how I got it in my head that I needed to do that. Silly of me but oh well, nothing to be done now. But it did mean that I got the presentation pretty much together on Wednesday. All the notes are there and ready to go. My PowerPoint is not where I want it still but I’m not worried about that. I always do a PowerPoint a few times before I’m happy with it for anything. It doesn’t take very long at all.

I also went in to uni on Wednesday and Thursday which was really good and productive. I felt like I got a lot done those days. I work well at home but I think it’s the thing of if i’m going to get up at 5:30am to travel all the way to my campus there’s no point not making the most of it or it’d be a complete waste of time and energy. It’s just that little extra motivation paying off. And helpfully, having felt more productive those two days, it was easy to carry some of that motivation through to Friday, though my Saturday afternoon was nowhere near as productive as I wanted it to be given that I was going to be out all Sunday but I think I was just in day off mode as Saturday afternoons are usually my time to myself. 

Anyway, I managed to get a proper bibliography together this week. That was an interesting exercise because it showed me that I had actually been doing a decent amount of research in amongst all the reading and working on particular things. Sometimes a collected product like a bibliography is helpful to remind myself just what I have been doing. A little like these blogs if I’m honest. Just a little reminder that I have things to talk about, there is work that’s been done. The bibliography did also show me that I have a lot of stuff to check out if not read entirely. It also made me think about the idea of revisiting the stuff that I’ve gathered or noted down, just so that it doesn’t become a straight checklist for me to get through and I end up wasting my time on things I maybe don’t have to read. There were a couple things that I had left on there after last year that were probably not necessary anymore so I just took off. Also sending it my supervisors is something I perhaps should have done earlier to get their input, things I’m missing or are unnecessary for example. As I’m writing this, I just got an email from one to take a couple of sources off there, because there’s no use having them really if I don’t address them which she doesn’t think there should be any need for me to do, which makes sense.

I also found doing a chapter breakdown this week to be both a productive and frustrating enterprise. It was certainly helpful in trying to crack at how the thesis will come together. However, it was more difficult than I would have liked and I think I ended up with something really simplistic and not very good. I’m still struggling with the big picture, the idea that all of these parts will come together in one whole and trying to work out what’s going to go where is so overwhelming at the moment. The structure of anything I write, every essay, even blog post, all of it, is something I obsess about. It’s very important to me that a piece of writing flows nicely. So I think I’m finding it frustrating that I can’t visualise for sure how this thing will come together. But, having said all that, it was still a really helpful exercise to try and have a go at it, trying to think about the pieces and how they might fit together. I’m trying to make sure to think about it as a process, a ongoing thing that will be adapted and changed as I get further into the writing and the research. But it is nice to have a little map, even if it is a sketch that is probably missing some landmarks. We’ll get there.

So that’s the plan this week. I’m going to try to get rid of any backed up work so that I can go into the Sydney Film Festival without any worries. It’s going to be tiring enough as it is. 


Doing Alright

24th April – 6th May 2018

The past fortnight has been busy. I had my Masters graduation,  and some medical and family issues. It’s been kind of painful personally but productive in the way that it matters! I’ve been working on preparing for this presentation I have in mid-June as I really want it to be done by the end of May. I have such a busy time scheduled for the beginning of June.

So I’ve mainly been focusing in the last week or two on the historical research and reading what I can of what historians have written about themes present in the scene I’m working with. There’s lots to talk about and I might do a little more research but I think the historical part of the presentation just needs to be filled out and it’ll be pretty much ready to go.

This week I’m going to do some further research into the authors I’m talking about and focusing I think on doing some research into embodiment and really filling out and expanding my film analysis.

I’m also going to be really putting an effort into making sure I get on top of the admin stuff that I tend to push aside. I’m going to make sure to set aside time each day to work on those things, forms, emails, registering and applying for things etc, etc. I tend to go all in on a particular project or book or something and I’ve really got to balance all the aspects of the work including the bureaucracy, even though it might frustrate me.

So that’s the plan. I’m feeling a bit emotionally tired but I’m feeling good about the work so I’m hoping for a productive week.


Full Steam Ahead

16th – 23rd April 2018

I got a bit caught up and completely forgot about writing this yesterday! I had a decent but fairly relaxed week last week in the end. My dad took me out for my birthday and then a friend did the same and it was my monthly book club on Sunday. Not as much actual work got done as I would like in a normal week but I feel relaxed and energised and ready to crack on harder. Just an all-around more positive outlook than I feel I’ve had in a little while. Perhaps I needed to take a step back for a hot second to be able to take a few steps forward now.

I’ve mostly been focusing on the historical analysis side of the film. Looking into the facts of the issue I’m dealing with. I’m going to continue with this and then go back to the film analysis with some of this information in mind. I think that will inform not just what is being done cinematically but how that’s relating to the historiography. Filling in those helpful layers so I can put something good together for the full panel meeting next week.

I’ve still go to send something off to one of the historians that consulted on the film I’m working on (which is a little nerve wracking I’ll admit. Feels like cold calling someone) and I think I’m almost ready to put in the ECP (which seems ridiculous I feel like I’ve been messing around with that for far too long) and I should probably make an appointment with my school’s librarian as well soon. I’ve also been looking into the software for making clips. I downloaded Handbrake to have a go at that but it’s not reading my DVD properly and so I might have to either try and sort that out or just give up and invest in Tipard instead (which to be fair, I checked and probably looks like the better option).

In a nutshell, I feel like this week is going to be much better.


Today’s Mood: Frustration

9th – 15th April 2018 

I don’t really have anything to report this week because I feel somewhat like I’m in the same place as when I wrote this last week. I feel like I’ve progressed nowhere this week. Logically, this isn’t true. I put together the timeline chart for the Early Candidature Plan and I’ve put together shot lists for a few scenes from one of my movies but I also didn’t finish either of the things that I wanted to last week, that being the ECP in its entirety and Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo which frustrates me. I know that I’ve gotten things done and the shot lists for instance are already illuminating some interesting things for me but I still feel frustrated. I feel like I didn’t get enough done last week when I didn’t really do anything differently. Sometimes I won’t have gotten as much done but I know that there was I had a day where I had to do others things, or I took off, or I just wasn’t as focused or something but this week I really felt like I was working normally. Maybe I’m expecting too much of myself again but I felt like I really had a realistic goal for last week and have no real reason not to have met it.

I’m also getting frustrated with the way that I’m finding I’m putting little tasks off, admin stuff and things like that, and prioritising bigger things and then realising that I never did those tasks or I haven’t done them for weeks and that’s driving me a little mental. I guess though that it just means re-evaluating my schedule and setting time aside time to do those little things.

I don’t really have anything else to say, just got to make this week better. And work a little harder, especially as it’s my birthday this week and I’d like to be able to not to anything then.

Back on Track

2nd – 8th April 2018

This week felt productive! After carrying that yuck feeling about the synthesis into the beginning of the week, my meetings with my supervisors really helped sort me out. It was reassuring and constructive to get the feedback that the synthesis was actually alright for what it was. I think through talking about it I had to address how much my perfectionism when it comes to my writing can be a bit of a straitjacket. I have to relax and realise that not everything has to be a perfect mini version of my thesis, especially not at this point. I sometimes expect far too much of myself which is not so good for my productivity or for my mental health to be honest. Anyway, this is something I’m going to keep trying to work on.

Putting in the abstract to present at our history faculty’s In House felt really good! To be honest, I’m still quite intimidated by the prospect of doing it so I’m a bit proud of myself for just getting in there with it. I have a terrible tendency to simply avoid things that make me anxious but as that is going to get me approximately no where in the future, I’m feeling good about taking some steps to quit doing that. Big up my supervisors for their help and encouragement in this regard.

On this note, I now have to pick some scenes from my films to start working up shot lists for so I can present a proper in depth analysis. Its hard to limit myself to only certain scenes because ideally there’s so many I’d like to do. As it is I’ll have to just focus on a few for now.

I’m still reading Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo which is actually becoming a touch of a problem. I’m finding it so interesting that I’m reading it too slow. I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty decent at effectively skimming things so that I don’t sit and try to read every word of every book because I obviously don’t have the time for that. However, with this one I’ve found myself reading it almost word for word which isn’t I guess a bad thing because it’s relevant but it’s also taking more of my time that I would normally spend on one book. At least I’m gathering a lot of notes and interesting information I suppose.

So my plan for this week is to work on getting my shots lists together  so I can start really working on that analysis. I also want to get the Early Candidature Plan finished. I’m still working on putting that timetable together. I’ll finish Mr Smith this week and maybe have more of a look into the press for my films as well. Hopefully it will be another good week.


Crisis of Confidence

19th March – 1st April 2018

Last week I really didn’t think it was worth writing a blog because I got little to nothing done. I handed in the synthesis on the Monday I was feeling a bit yuck about it and then the next day I went to see Bruno Mars and then got a bit ill so I was pretty well wiped for most of the week. I did manage to get a bit of research done on some citations from stuff I’ve already read but otherwise I had a pretty dud week. The concert was great so there’s that at least.

This week has been a little better. I’m still feeling pretty crappy about the synthesis to be honest and it’s causing a bit of a spiral in my confidence. I’m looking forward to my supervisor meetings this week because I always find talking things through really helpful and often confidence building. I just didn’t really like how the synthesis came together and I’m not super proud of what I put forward which, because my brain is prone to overthinking, naturally led me to feeling sort of out of depth. I can rationalise that its early and I still have a lot of work to do and I’m obviously going to expand and perfect the analysis and the like so I’ve been trying to shake it off. This has also though, made it hard to approach the abstract for our uni’s History In House presentation, where the history faculty gets together once a semester to present and discuss their current projects. I’ve started working on it and I think I know probably how to go about it (though I’ve always been quite bad at abstracts which doesn’t help) but its just the confidence thing I guess getting a little too much in the way. I’m trying really hard to push through this though.

Otherwise I’ve been reading Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood which I’m finding really fascinating. Firstly just because I know next to nothing about the American occupation of Japan so its just interesting to learn a touch about that but also discovering how this intersected with film and censorship is really neat! I think its really interesting how the American occupation government had an eye on Japanese film as a means of trying to inform public opinion due in part to their experience with this with American films during the war. I’m enjoying this read a lot so far.

I’ve also been having a crack at filling it out my Early Candidature Plan as best I can at the moment. I’m still not quite sure when I should put that in but I don’t want to keep putting it off.

I think I’m going to be alright, I’ve just got to keep trucking along.

I hope everyone that celebrates has a good Easter!