Kuessipan (Canada, 2019) – CIFF6

Friends for life?

My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.

I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fotaine and Verreault, states:

‘Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.’

This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.

Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.

An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.

Samson and Delilah (Australia, 2009)

Desperate

Warwick Thornton’s second film as director, Sweet Country, blew me away so I had to catch up with this, his debut. In some ways it is less ambitious, which is to be expected in a low-budget, small crew venture but in others, particularly its lack of narrative drive, it is pushing the audience more. Sweet Country had stars; Samson and Delilah has nobodies: I don’t mean that negatively. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the eponymous roles (Aboriginal youths) who have no future, were unknowns when they made the film. They are both superb as people who are, in effect, ‘nobodies’: they are stuck in a dead-end community, near Alice Springs; he’s addicted to sniffing petroleum and she has to look after her ailing grandma. The latter makes ‘Aboriginal art’ which is sold for $200 and, as Delilah finds later, is priced a hundred times more in a chic shop.

Samson is almost mute, a melodramatic way of dramatising his lack of power in Australian society. Even his brother, who plays guitar in a band on the porch for no audience, refuses to let him join in. The one time Samson gets hold of the instrument he plays a raucous ‘screaming guitar’ and smiles: violence ensues. It’s not so much a dead end as a hell.

Thornton shows us this dispassionately. He doesn’t go out of his way to get the audience to sympathise with the plight of the protagonists. There are a couple of shocking moments which are shown and then the narrative moves on emphasising that terrible things are quotidian for these people and we understand the resilience of the characters. I mention melodrama, and that’s the genre it would fit into most, however it doesn’t do so comfortably as its observational camera ensures understatement. Yet as the narrative focus is on the relationship of the eponymous characters and, to a lesser extent, their families, melodrama is present. As noted above, there are demands on the viewer (not a lot happens quickly) which also places it firmly in arthouse territory.

As in Sweet Country, Thornton is his own cinematographer (he also shot the hit The Sapphires, Australia, 2012), and he captures the stark beauty of the landscape. There is an Otherness (to my western eyes) to the Australian Bush, as there is to how Aborigines are represented; is that because their culture is so ‘alien’ to western ‘rationality’ or is it merely an example of the exotic for jaded palettes? It could be both, the under-representation of Aborigines is, of course, part of the issue but Warwick Thornton is doing his best to change that. He’s currently working on the second season of Mystery Road, a detective thriller set in the Outback; the first season was excellent.

Sweet Country (Australia, 2017)

Sour

My intention is to watch films ‘blind’; not with my eyes shut but with as few preconceptions as possible. I try to pick up a vibe as to whether the film is worth seeing and then take it for what it offers me. After watching the brilliant Sweet Country I was surprised to see it described as a Western. Was I simply not seeing the genre signifiers or was it, as director Warwick Thornton had encouraged the idea the film was of that genre for marketing purposes, seen as a Western because the idea was planted in the spectator’s mind? Of course now I see how it could be read as a Western, but for me the racial aspect of the narrative was the key framework. Although American Westerns did deal with race (particularly the ‘revisionist’ ones of the ’70s) the indentured slave relationship that Aboriginals had at the time of the film (1920s) was absent. Other than being co-opted as scouts, Native Americans were not portrayed as being part of white man’s colonial society. Hence, I think it is better not to read the film as a Western; Roy Stafford has some interesting remarks on the issue.

Such is the complexity of reading texts and I make no claim that my ‘innocent eyes’ are any better than those steeped in preconceptions. A reading of the film as a Western would no doubt reveal things I have missed.

To an extent the narrative, the racism against Aborigines in Australia, is full of familiar tropes; Rabbit Proof Fence is one powerful example. That’s not to say the message that colonialism is evil is one that shouldn’t be retold as often as possible, just that different ways of telling the tale are needed. No doubt that the fact Thornton is Aboriginal, as is one of the scriptwriters (and sound recordist) David Tranter, ensures we get a new perspective because BAME groups remain marginalised. I particularly liked the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, which often operate as an expressionist manifestation of a character’s state of mind; for example, the veteran suffering from PTSD is shown in mental torment. Incidentally, the film is based on a true story related to Tranter by his granddad.

Sweet Country abounds with brilliant cinematography, also by Thornton, who shows an area he knows well, around Alice Springs, in a wide variety of often awesome landscapes. Veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown add heft but theirs are minor parts and the central characters, played by newcomers Hamilton Morris and Shanika Cole, are absolutely riveting in their roles.

Probably my least favourite scene in cinema is the ‘courtroom’, but even that is gripping in this film. Cole’s Lucy is called to testify and her painful inability to speak is a testament to the marginalisation of people who are Aboriginal and female. It also shows the subtlety of Thornton’s direction: almost unnoticed at the edge of the frame, and then in the background, the only two white female characters quietly leave the scene when they sense it is going to get nasty. Rarely has boozy ‘incel’ (there are understandably very few women about), male culture been represented so well: ‘toxic masculinity’ doesn’t cover it.

I need to catch up with Thornton’s debut, Samson & Delilah (Australia, 2009), and hope he gets to direct another film soon.

Goldstone (Australia, 2016)

The dead eyes of the heartless soul consider Aaron Pedersen’s detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver (above), keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age; not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, he is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.