Tuesday, 30 July 2013



2013 Film Festival Programme Launch

by Campbell Walker

A recent visit to Wellington’s new People’s Cinema sparked an ongoing conversation about the political possibilities of cinema as a form. . . and which way this form works best. In particular, whether it constitutes a more potent political meaning to adhere to cinema’s dominant forms but add explicitly politically engaged meaning, or, to attempt to generate a new formal structure found outside the system. I argued that the second – the “radical” rather than “activist” approach was the only approach that could avoid the risks inherent in working within the monoform – especially that of being subsumed or corrupted by the system. 

The film chosen for the programme launch of this year’s film festival really hammered home these dangers. The Rocket, a supposedly “charming” tale about a young Laotian boy’s triumph over adversity, is actually rendered quite repellent through it’s unblinking acceptance of the norms of western cinematic storytelling. Made by an Australian documentary-maker (who I hope is unaware of the condescending nature of their choice of structure) the film employs the romantic drama monoform to tell a supposedly “universal” story, in the process turning it’s main potential strength – a lively but unfamiliar cultural millieu – into severe weakness. 

The problem is that the modern commercial cinema very much serves the needs of the dominant political landscape: escapist storytelling reinforcing that the world  isn’t supposed to be easy but that, with hard work, heteronormative romance and a little lottery luck the hero and family can become the sole members of a community to upgrade their lot. Everything in The Rocket that is shown as ‘Normal,’ is shown within the modes of western cinema storytelling, and so everything that is outside the norms is thus shown as Other, as anatagonistic, and as primitive. The villagers are powerless, reliant upon western largesse and knowledge, especially (if implicitly) technologically. Their own culture, is largely reduced to colour (dick jokes) and dramatic device in a very traditional western mode (the hero’s narrative engine is generated by his desire to plant his dead mother’s mangoes). The inevitable triumph at the end of the film is only achieved after utilising western technological secrets channeled through a kind of cargo-cult James Brown. 

By showing his acceptance of his place, he is briefly allowed to permanently advance one class, on a strictly local level. Further, the ideas and traditions native to his own culture are obstacles to be overcome. . . so the process of expedient pragmatism triumphs over complex customary knowledge, as is shown within the forces of globalism. 

But there really are a lot of other ways to present these worlds, and they don’t all support these dominant discourses in such a virulent, invasive way. Unfortunately, cultural gatekeepers like the Film Festival, abandoned by public funding to the winds of economism, require ultimate recourse to such dominant discourses through an internalised profit imperative. As potential audience members are strained by systemic power shifts imposed from above, the possibilities of exposing ourselves to something more distanced from our own lives becomes more risky, more of a chore. Over the last two decades in film, I’ve seen a strong imperative towards a post-colonial cinema (with its interest in racially, geographically and culturally different ways of presenting film) slowly slide off the table and onto the floor, in favour of this kind of expedient, simplistic and falsely feel-good exotica, a neo-liberal co-option of neo-realism that replaces quiet open observation with forced imposition of identification.     

Reading the programme emphasised that this is not really a one off. There are of course wonderful and important films that will play, but extensive claims towards diversity are betrayed somewhat by a programme that features unironic categories like the documentary section “Real”, or a special one, “Bold – here are filmmakers who don’t play by anybody else’s rules”, that surely tells more about the other films selected than the single page of films in this category. What was, under gentler ideologies, an important contribution to diversity of our cultural landscape has retrenched under pressure to become a casualty of our acceptance that we don’t need to have one.

*This article was originally published in hard copy in POINT ISSUE#36.17-23.JUL.2013

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