MARVELous Melbourne Delights And Excites

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Years ago, for many children, the first reading experience was a comic – usually, a strip cartoon in the “Funnies” section of a magazine, newspaper or supplement and they were not sold separately.

The 1930s began the age of standalone comics with colourful front covers and the appearance of super characters/heroes like Superman and Batman who of course are still around today – albeit as part of the DC world and not the MARVEL Universe which has  Ironman, Captain America and The Hulk et al…

(In the pop culture circle woe betides anyone mixing up the origin of these characters and their worlds!)

Wonderwoman got her own comic too, but it is fair to say that comics were seen as the domain of boys up until the 60s when various subjects were explored, plus different genres and comics appeared ‘aimed at girls’.

In the Scotland of my childhood (the 50s, early 60s), no superheroes for my sister Cate, or me – she got a weekly dose of Bunty and I read all about Judy’s adventures.

Whether Britain was affected by Senate Hearings in the USA I don’t know, but a psychiatrist, Dr Wertham blamed comics for the rise in juvenile delinquency and his book Seduction of The Innocent forced the industry into censorship mode.

At least today, women who wrote and illustrated comics (and there have been many over the decades) are being recognised, plus more female protagonists are being included, storylines modernised – diversity and gender gaps rectified.

The first major comic book conventions began and gained popularity in the 60s and were primarily about promoting, buying, selling and swapping comics.

Today, San Diego and New York’s comic cons are huge events and are replicated in other countries, including Australia. Cosplay is also popular and I loved a comic-con I attended with my “geeky” daughter in Sydney four years ago.

It was the subject of one of my first blog posts about writing, different ways to tell stories, and moving out of my comfort zone.

Hollywood and the advances in moviemaking technology (CGI) have ensured comic cons are multimedia showcases with comics sidelined in favour of movies, video games, toys, cosplay, celebrity panels and special guests working in the pop culture industry.

An exhibition in Melbourne at the moment is a huge promotion for the next Marvel movie spectacular – Avengers: Infinity Warto be released this month too.

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However, the love of characters created in comics extends through to adulthood and often becomes a family affair and true devotees still love reading comics and will decry Hollywood’s interference in changing storylines – much the same as classic text lovers hate their Dickens or Austen novels being altered for the screen.

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WW2 produced Captain America but his adventures stopped in 1949 and he only became popular again when Marvel brought him back as a member of the Avengers in 1964 and it is the Avengers  (specifically the movie ones) who are the focus of a new exhibition in Melbourne that has fans excited.

Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. at Birrarung Marr

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A huge interactive exhibition for fans to enter and explore takes the comic characters and their storylines to another level. This Avengers Science, Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network is set up as if you are training to be an agent for SHIELD – there is plenty of real science and technology added to the movie magic.

Read about Dr Bruce Banner’s science lab and his transformation into Hulk. Measure yourself against his size and strength, stand nearby and quake as he shows off his power and anger.

Captain America’s 1940s personnel file, his shield, motorbike and lots of documents pertaining to his backstory is the first ‘security area’ you are given a pass to – and his intelligent first love Agent Carter has her moments of glory too.

Practice moves with Captain America’s shield, climb aboard his motorbike and let your imagination chase bad guys!

You can also try to lift Thor’s hammer, but since only the son of Odin can lift Mjolnir, I’d save your energy (they’ve made it immovable!) and just enjoy being in an Asgardian astral observatory, reading about NASA’s exoplanets program as well as Thor’s mischief-making brother Loki.

There are lots of special effects to titillate your senses, especially sight and sound.

Tony Stark’s engineering bay comes with costumes,  Iron Man VR flight simulators, and information on good guys and bad guys.

Powerful Women Exist Too

The evening the girls and I attended, most of the “security personnel” guiding us through the exhibition were lab-coat wearing women, Maria Hill, Deputy Director of SHIELD appears on the screen to welcome and farewell her “new agents,” and the costumes of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch are on display beside their stories.

A First For Melbourne

Melbourne is the first city to host the S.T.A.T.I.O.N’s newest exhibitions: Black Panther, The Wasp and Thanos. The replica movie props and costumes will certainly delight attendees but don’t stand still for too long as hundreds of clever scurrying ants are projected onto the floor in various formations.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest comic book superhero Black Panther is definitely a drawcard and you can read his story, see his mask, the powerful herb, and famous beads at close range. They embody the power and technological advancement of his particular African nation and you can learn about why.

The Importance of Black Panther the Movie

If you haven’t yet seen this amazing Marvel movie, please treat yourself.

It is powerful storytelling with a purpose, executed well, and for people of colour who have waited for generations to have a superhero they can be proud of and identify with I can only imagine how thrilling it must be as this article in Time explains.

If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you—executives, poets, garbage collectors, soldiers, nurses and so on. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Now, after a brief respite, you again have a President.

Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multi­faceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.

This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of super­hero movies is actually something much bigger. 

So get your security ID and know your enemy – Thanos – and write yourself into a piece of fan fiction or just enjoy the fantasy world and have some fun immersing yourself in the Marvel Universe.

 

We went early evening to miss the crowds that accompany school holidays and despite ridiculous claims and criticisms of “unsafe” Melbourne by rightwing politicians the precinct of Federation Square, the banks of the Yarra and Birrarung Marr Artplay glowed in the dark like precious jewels.

Take the time to appreciate your surroundings – we live in one of the nicest and safest cities in the world – voted the most liveable many times – and deservedly so. Birrarung Marr, on the Yarra River’s north bank next to Federation Square, is Melbourne’s newest major park. Opened in 2002, it frequently hosts events and festivals.

 

The art centre and play area are designed and designated for children and the pathway links to events held at the MCG or Melbourne Park. Birrarung Marr is terraced so that from several vantage points, you have wonderful views of the city and nearby icons.

 

The Birrarung Wilam installation celebrates the diversity of Victoria’s indigenous culture by interpreting stories through public artworks. A winding pathway acknowledges the significance of the eel as a traditional food source and a semicircle of metal shields represents each of the five groups of the Kulin Nation.

Other features of Birrarung Marr include Deborah Halpern’s two-headed Angel sculpture and the Federation Bells, ringing out three times daily with different compositions. The park’s William Barak pedestrian bridge leads directly to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

Comics and graphic novels are popular and shouldn’t be overlooked as a reading tool for reluctant or struggling readers.

Remembering A Reluctant Reader

I can testify to the usefulness of comics as a reading tool.  When I worked as an au pair in Canada during the summer of 1976, I was employed by emigre Jewish doctors from Russia. They wanted me to teach their six-year-old son, Leon to read so that he could start school in Toronto.

Leon was precocious and clever, fluent in English, Russian and Yiddish but totally enamoured with television, cartoons and Superman.  He refused to try and read the set English texts.

With his parent’s permission, I bought several comics and bargained with Leon – a comic story in the morning, and a school book in the afternoon. Progress also rewarded by a cartoon if he cooperated and tried.

The bribery worked and Leon discovered learning to read could be fun just like all the children through the ages who have been switched on to reading by newspaper cartoon strips and those earlier comics.

MARVEL has taken the stories, cartoon characters, myths and legends to a whole new level, it’s an evolving genre – visit the exhibition and enjoy!

This is fun for all regardless of age.

 

What Price Would you Pay to have ‘All The Money In The World’?

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On Wednesday evening, my daughters and I went to Southland to see the latest film release of Michelle Williams – All the Money In the World.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, she is a favourite actress. We love to support her films and this one seems especially relevant for our times when we have supposedly one of the richest men in the world as President of the USA and people divided as to his character.

Are wealth and business acumen an indication of character? Are they the most important attributes of a man/leader? Or is all wealth and power from wealth corrupting?

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, will also be forever linked to controversy because of the #Me Too Movement, Kevin Spacey’s hurried exit, and also the pay inequality exposed by the reshoot when the disparity of Michelle and co-star Mark Wahlberg’s payment made headlines.

Definitely a movie for celebrity-obsessed, social media times!

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The Power Of Story – Does Everyone Have A Price?

All the Money In the World inspired by real-life events and based on a book about the 1973 kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty 111 (played by Charlie Plummer).

There is the usual criticism from historical purists.

(The latest film about Churchill and WW2 released at the same time and on my to see list suffering a similar fate.)

However, as I said in my review of The Greatest Showman if you are seeking historical accuracy and “the truth”, which, in my view, is almost impossible to ever discover, please don’t expect it from Hollywood, an industry first and foremost about entertainment!

There are libraries, museums, historical documents and research institutes aplenty – seek your own facts but as far as movies are concerned, accept that stories inspired or based on real people or events will be dramatised to fit into a 2-3 hour window and suspension of reality.

Creative non-fiction is a literary genre and movie scripts based on fact aim for authenticity but sacrifice accuracy for the power of story too.

As Entertainment ‘All the Money in The World ‘Succeeds

From July – November 1973, the period the film is set, I was travelling in the UK while enjoying a year away from my university studies in Australia. 

I can remember the newspapers being obsessed by the kidnapping central to the film. At 19 years of age – not much older than John Paul Getty 111, and far from home and family, I could only imagine his terror and how his mother struggled to cope.

I received regular letters from my Mum and every time I rang home (reverse charges!) she would always end with ‘when are you coming home?

How does a family cope with something as horrific as a kidnapping?

How did Paul’s mother, abandoned by husband and powerful father-in-law patriarch negotiate and survive this traumatic turn of events in a world where women were only just beginning to assert themselves? A world, where authority and power were dominated by males.

Michelle Williams as Gail, the teenager’s mother, captures the emotional havoc wreaked by the heinous act, compounded by the seemingly cold, calculated indifference from John Paul’s grandfather ‘the richest man in the world’ and his refusal to pay the ransom.

Her body language, the tone of voice, range of emotion in facial expressions a stellar performance. Believable and engaging.

Her expression in the closing scene, as she looks at a particularly significant piece of Paul Getty Senior’s priceless object d’art collection, sums up how I think every viewer would feel about the billionaire played brilliantly by Christopher Plummer, in an exceptional performance for someone called in as a last-minute replacement for Spacey!

A major thread in the movie is Gail’s ability to stand up to the Getty empire and the powerful Paul Getty Senior. In a divorce settlement she eschews the Getty money for herself and only wants money for the children and sole custody to protect her children from a drug-addled father – hence her dire straits when the kidnappers want $17million for the return of her son.

Money she doesn’t have.

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The tension in the film is all about changing the grandfather’s mind from an initial refusal to pay the ransom because in his reasoning, he had 14 other grandchildren and he would soon have no money if he paid the kidnappers and invited criminal activity.

There is a suggestion that young Paul planned the kidnapping to get back at his grandfather and have a slice of his fortune. A sub-plot that allows Mark Wahlberg’s character, the grandfather’s head of personal security to figure large in the story and have a transformational journey.

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However, when the boy’s ear is sent to a newspaper office to prove the kidnapping is serious and the boy’s life is at risk, the grandfather finally agrees, albeit to offer a much lower sum that is ‘tax deductible’.

The scenes of the frightened teenager shackled in caves and barns, stripped of his wealth and privilege, abused and later mutilated (a harrowing, edge of the seat scene), are visceral and heart-rending and contrast with the luxurious, yet cold and soulless lifestyle of his grandfather.

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There is one kidnapper who develops a friendship with young Paul and nurses him through illness. He is genuinely astounded that a family so rich would value money over life and you wonder if his life circumstances were different would he be a hard-working farmer, factory worker, or professional living and contributing to society or would he succumb to the trappings of wealth and be corrupted… is there ever justification for criminal activity, excuses to be made for bargaining with someone’s life?

Did Marx get the divisions and problems of society right?

We certainly see the lumpen proletariat in action in this movie as well as the capitalists with and without conscience or integrity, and the bumbling, corrupt, brutal and ultimately efficient authorities.

A Movie of Our Times?

In a world still reeling from the effects of the GFC and a rising disgust for what many perceive as the failure of capitalism, the excesses of neoliberalism – this movie doesn’t pull any punches regarding the lack of morality of those who have so much money they become increasingly richer with little or no effort – money makes money if you are prepared to:

  • manipulate stocks,
  • break or manipulate laws or misuse legislation and tax havens
  • ruthlessly buy and sell works of art regardless of provenance or legality
  • ignore family responsibilities and treat people as commodities

The 1% don’t come out looking honourable (or really happy) – although by making Paul Getty Senior their representative, the film makes them larger than life. This richest man in the world revealed to be in a class of his own!

The film also exposes those with an insatiable greed and desire for money – other people’s money – people who don’t want to put in the time, investment or effort to earn a living honestly.

Mafiosi running the networks within the Calabrian underworld who kidnapped Paul Getty 111. They have no honour, no ethics, no integrity and no vision except self-service and dog eat dog.

Economic inequity is not new and All The Money In The World creates the historical background and setting well – Getty made his money by exploiting the Middle East’s oil.

The changing social mores of the 60s turned into the revolutionary and alternative 70s – and Rome was one of the playgrounds of the super-rich.

Hash and marijuana the drug of choice, along with alcohol, soon to be surpassed by cocaine and heroin a scourge of emotionally vulnerable, including the wealthy.

Paul Getty 111, still too young to be an all-out wastrel and bad guy but a rich teenager with more freedom than most. Aware of his status and mixing in adult circles more than the average teenager there is a hint his life will be as aimless as his drug-addicted father.

His kidnapping a brutal shock but not entirely unexpected.

There is the reality of the rise of various terrorist groups, urban guerrillas and ‘freedom fighters’ in the 70s demanding society’s perceived wrongs must be addressed. The Red Brigade operated in Italy and were early suspects in Paul’s kidnapping and although they professed higher ideals their methods just as questionable as the various criminal groups seeking money.

A heady mix of strong characters and action for the movie to handle and it does it well without descending into sensational car chases, shoot-outs, boring stereotypes and gratuitous violence.

Telling a well-known story is always difficult – writers and directors have to find a new angle or techniques to spice up the story to keep people’s interest.

Actors have to capture the essence of the character and try to make them believable but not descend into caricature or be so far removed from reality that those who remember the ‘real’ people reject the story out of hand.

(As an aside, one daughter commented on how busy the wardrobe and hairdressers on set would have been to capture the authenticity of the period so well!)

Through powerful acting and good storytelling, All the Money in The World has focused on what it means to be human – what all art wants to do – confront, challenge, explore the human condition!

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I’m sure this film will generate lots of dinner conversations – least of all the controversies around the making of it, the differences between the script and history, Hollywood’s sexual and pay equity scandals…

However, regarding the actual movie – go see and enjoy.

The production values are top shelf including some stunning cinematography and some memorable acting performances and scenes.

Think About…

What are the most important values for society to adopt?

Why do we revere the rich or cling to trickle down economics or accept the notion that being rich means being successful?

What are our own personal benchmarks?

Regardless of status or wealth is it the choices we make that decide our decency and humanity?

Is the pursuit of wealth in some people’s DNA?

How much is too much wealth?

Is it loving relationships, family, friendship and a feeling of belonging that provide true happiness, respect, and self-worth?

When Paul Getty Senior paid the ransom in All the Money in The World he facilitated the release of his injured and permanently traumatised grandson but didn’t buy happiness or heal damaged relationships – it takes breath and flesh to do that!

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Smile and Dance Into 2018 with The Greatest Showman

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I don’t go to the movies as often as I’d like but the long summer holiday is a chance to indulge – if there is something that appeals. Unfortunately, I’m not the demographic most filmmakers try to please so it is often a fruitless search for a good movie at Southlands Village Cinemas, the easiest place for me to reach by public transport.

On Boxing Day, a traditional new movie release day, I went to see The Greatest Showman with my daughters. One of the stars, Michelle Williams, is a longtime favourite of my oldest daughter, Anne, and we have developed a ritual of going to see her film releases as a family.

Michelle plays Charity, the childhood sweetheart and later devoted wife of PT Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, the greatest showman referred to in the title.

The movie has had poor reviews from those who consider themselves professional film critics yet to date my friends and family who have seen it, absolutely love it.

It is not historically accurate (what film truly is?) but does not shy away from Barnum’s character flaws either. We see his selfish and cruel exploitation of everyone to pursue his idea of success. To be honest, I may not have gone to see the release of The Greatest Showman if Michelle Williams hadn’t been one of the stars because what I have read about the real Barnum is not complimentary.

Also, I’m not a great fan of musical movies and like most people, the bad ones (Russell Crowe’s dreadful part in Les Miserables) tend to be more memorable than the good ones. 

As a lover of history, I prefer books and if on screen, choose documentaries or serialised dramas. Inevitably, there will be creative choices made condensing a life into what makes good entertainment rather than what may be accurate, especially if you only have an hour or so to do it.

But, taken at face value as a film, The Greatest Showman is entertaining – well worth suspending disbelief! It is freedom from the bombardment of doom and gloom from current media.

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To sit in a darkened room enthralled by an imaginary world is great escapism. A bonus is a film for family viewing – no gratuitous violence or sex – and no hurt animals because they are CGI or animatronic.

I’m not surprised about the disparity in reactions and reviews – professional critics often look through an academic or superior lens, many demanding standards the movie-going public doesn’t particularly care about.

We bring our emotional and cultural baggage to any art form so healthy differences of opinion should occur but as much as I loved listening to Margaret and David, Australia’s ultimate film reviewers, their ‘star’ ratings never influenced whether I saw a film or not.

Since I was a teenager and reading Jim Schembri’s reviews in The Age Green Guide, I’ve been out of step with mainstream critics of any genre and prefer to make my own judgement. In fact, if some critics dislike a movie or a book, it almost guarantees I love it! (Surprisingly, I’m in step with Schembri on this one.)

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It’s not often I leave a cinema uplifted and with the music and song lyrics in my head, but The Greatest Showman, a biopic on the life of PT Barnum of circus fame, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by Michael Gracey, did just that for me.

Barnum, as mentioned is played by Hugh Jackman – a talented showman extraordinaire using the full range of his acting, singing and dancing skills. He plays a man you want to succeed despite his weaknesses and flaws. You fall in love with the people around him and if they’re prepared to forgive his foibles so can we.

He is ably supported by some stunning performances from a cast who deliver an engaging story and catchy, memorable songs. A couple of scenes in a bar are fabulous.

music quoteAnne went straight to JB HiFi and bought the soundtrack after leaving the cinema – the last time I remember any of us compelled to do that was when we saw The Lion King!

There will be debates about sugar-coating Barnum’s story, but the film portrays a man who came from a poor, powerless family and who rose to fame and fortune by gathering even more disadvantaged outcasts (people labelled freaks) and creating a show that ultimately led to being presented at the court of Queen Victoria.

In the film, visionary Barnum realised he needed someone to help him to appeal to more upmarket clientele and those with money to spend on lavish entertainment. He goes into partnership with a successful young playwright, Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. This character is an imaginary persona not to be confused with James Anthony Bailey, the partner in the legendary Barnum & Bailey circus.

Efron’s character falls in love with Zendaya’s character, Anne, and allows the script to explore the endemic racism and class divisions of the period just as the cast of so-called  “freaks” explores gender, diversity, acceptance of the ‘other’, prejudice, intolerance, mob violence, and the meaning of family and friendship.

All relevant themes in this deeply disturbing time but they are not new. Like all good art, the film attempts to explore the human condition but it is a feel-good musical. If you want historical accuracy please research and read – there is information on Barnum available.

The story has plenty of dialogue that is not singing (one of the failings of previously mentioned and aptly titled film adaptation Les Miserables) and strong performances from others in the cast, particularly Zac Efron and Zendaya’s relationship.

The pacing is excellent and the 105 minutes disappears too soon. My favourite is a cleverly choreographed dance scene on a rooftop reminiscent of Mary Poppins (another musical film I enjoyed). It concludes with a magical light show. Aptly, this scene shows the romantic love between Charity and Barnum and the love they share with their two daughters.

The attention to historical detail regarding costumes and setting captures the essence of another century but the razzle-dazzle, upbeat music and meaningful emotional numbers are the best modern Broadway can offer.

I particularly love the scenes with the whole cast and the bearded lady (Keala Settle) leading the performance – amazing vibrancy and energy with a magnificent voice.

It was a fantastic and fun way to end the year  and in the words of Jackman’s character, Barnum, when accused by a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) determined to expose him as offering fake entertainment with a cast of stage personas like ‘General Tom Thumb’, Barnum pointed to the rapturous audience and said, “Do those smiles look fake?

My smile and enjoyment not fake either – go see the movie because what the snooty critic eventually realises and writes is Barnum’s show is ‘a celebration of life.’

And that’s how The Greatest Showman felt to the cinema audience as they spontaneously clapped at the end.

images.jpgAs the credits are announced, we see the making of the film employed 15,000 people and gave thousands upon thousands of hours of work. 

An industry and movie worth supporting despite the critics!

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Not to be Missed!

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On Sunday, September 24, I was privileged to attend ACMI for a screening of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the Q & A session afterwards, which featured former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr and American history professor Michael Ondaatje.

A big thank you to my daughter MaryJane for buying the tickets online when the sessions were announced because tickets sold out very quickly!

The guests discussed race politics and resistance from the civil rights era to present day America and with questions from the audience, this included politics of race in Australia and our inglorious colonial past.

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I’m not surprised the screenings were sold out at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, or the doco was nominated for an Academy Award – it has already won several gongs at various film festivals.

Director Raoul Peck took ten years to make this and his meticulous research, editing and execution are obvious and flawless – also gut-wrenching.

The raw footage of civil rights demonstrations, lynchings, and the aftermath of murders will have you shaking your head in horror, disgust, and disbelief – yet many in the theatre, including myself, lived through what we saw on screen.

I’ve seen other documentaries and movies, braced myself for scenes Selma showcased, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the naked violence, still felt emotionally drained and traumatised that racism and all its ugliness is so endemic – and then came the anger and despair about lack of progress, or progressing too slowly for me to see change in my lifetime.

Thank goodness that alongside the screenings, ACMI will present ‘a series of thought-provoking events discussing race relations, resistance and identity in modern Australia’.

As Baldwin said, “History is not past but present.”

In the light of debates over the date of Australia Day, acknowledging the truth of colonial settlement, the horrific recent deaths of Aboriginal people (Elijah Doughty and Ms Dhu recent atrocities), high-profile cases and deaths in custody of indigenous Australians, and the entrenched inequity of our justice system, this country has many conversations and corrections long overdue!

The Black Rights Matter Movement resonates here.

People hold up banners at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on July 16, 2016.Peter Parks / Getty Images         https://www.buzzfeed.com/susiearmitage/2016-was-the-year-black-lives-matter-went-global?utm_term=.bkdRGwN8KL#.eoY365ADMk

Connecting the 60s Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter

I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Remember This House, the unfinished manuscript of American novelist and intellectual James Baldwin. He started to write the book to reflect on his belief the history of the American Negro is the history of America sharing his personal experience of racism as considered through the lens of civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Prominent American leaders all murdered within a few years of each other.  Leaders who put their lives on the line in their 20s; leaders who didn’t live beyond 40 years of age!

Baldwin wrote 30 pages and yet, as this documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, shows, his insights into the history of racism in the United States is much-needed today and should act as a call to action against injustice in modern America and beyond.

White Supremacy is ugly and brutal, and an appalling indictment of humanity. Unfortunately, with the election of Donald Trump as President white supremacists and their supporters have crawled from under their rocks and become more visible and vocal than at any other time this century.

The controversy around sportspeople protesting the unlawful killing by police revealed by #blacklivesmatter and Trump’s labelling those kneeling or linking arms while the American National anthem plays, as unpatriotic, shows the profound and deeply rooted racism Baldwin confronted and challenged, is alive and well.

There is a growing black middle-class and increased wealthy African-American ‘elites,’ but despite some markers of progress, 30% of African-Americans still live in poverty. America grew from slavery, segregation, and subjugation of its citizens and still lock people of colour up in record numbers.

In fact, former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr explained that although he managed to stop racial profiling in Kansas, it exists in many states and unfortunately much of the racism in the USA is also now directed at Latinos, stirred up of course, by Trump’s insistence for that Mexican wall!

Betts asked us to imagine being black in America today, driving your car and seeing the flashing lights of a police car ordering you to stop. What goes through your mind?

Have you your insurance documents, registration papers, your licence?

The police officer approaches your car, points a flashlight in your face, searches the car interior, orders to see your identification.

Do you wind the window down straight away? Do you reach for the glovebox…

US police have already killed more than 100 people this year and overwhelmingly they have been black or native Americans.

 “Never before has Baldwin’s voice been so needed, so powerful, so radical, so visionary”

Director Raoul Peck

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Baldwin returned to the United States and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement because he felt obligated to do more than writing from afar.  The three men depicted in the struggle for civil rights are very different and chose different methods to achieve their goals. Baldwin was close to them all and when he describes where he was and how he was told about each of their deaths his grief is palpable.

Several scenes from the documentary will be forever etched in my mind:

The Evil of Segregation

The 1957 footage of a howling white mob pursuing Elizabeth Eckford, as the fifteen-year-old walked into school. She was the first African American to enter a high school desegregated by court order. What courage, what stamina, what poise!

James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry were with a group of activists who had a meeting with Bobby Kennedy and begged him or his brother JFK to walk with Elizabeth or at least appoint someone of high-profile from the Federal Government to go with her that first day to show that they were committed to desegregation and also to protect the teenager.

Bobby Kennedy’s response?  He refused, didn’t think it necessary… what a terrible price black Americans pay for the spinelessness of those in authority.

The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization… and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men…

Police Brutality and Rodney King

The footage of a group of LA police officers viciously beating and kicking Rodney King for a traffic violation shocked the world. I was a young mother in 1992 and remember the horror and revulsion at the news bulletin. Yet the four police officers caught and identified on camera were later acquitted – no wonder LA erupted with anger and people rioted.

Baldwin – A Colonial Writer Who Explored His Heritage

I first encountered African American writer James Baldwin, at Croydon High School in the 1960s. His novels, essays and short stories a profound influence when newspapers and television screens of Melbourne were dominated by news of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Vietnam War.

Baldwin made the political personal and explored questions of identity.

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His essays probed the psychic history of the United States along with his inner self. What language would his ancestors speak? How could he ever know when slaves were stripped of their identity? Who would want to accept the identity given to him by white society – that of worthlessness and inferiority?

When your identity is taken you are psychologically crushed and fear stifles your growth.

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko

Baldwin explored spirituality (particularly organised religion and the Pentecostal church), and the complex social and psychological pressures of being black in a racist America – a country he left, to escape the inter-racial tension, homophobia and demands of his social situation.

‘I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home… you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.

He escaped the social tenor of the United States in 1948 by moving to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. This journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an author and self-realization, which included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality.

“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.”

Go Tell It On The Mountain was published 1953, the year I was born; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, published the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Baldwin’s acclaimed critical essays, Notes of a Native Son first published 1955.

These books opened my eyes to conflict (racial, gender, domestic, internal), pain (physical and emotional), anguish, poverty, injustice, and intolerance — mostly an alien world to me, yet Baldwin’s storytelling influenced my lifelong commitment to social justice and to give ordinary people a voice by writing about them and encouraging them to tell their stories.   

He also made me realise it is important we tell our own stories. 

The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy… I certainly would not consider living it again… One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give…being a Negro writer… I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation…I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright…

But it is part of the business of the writer – as I see it – to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source…

James Baldwin

Born in 1924 to parents who were part of the Diaspora of the descendants of freed slaves who moved north seeking work and a better life, Baldwin chronicles the Black American experience and much of his writing is autobiographical.

‘The nationality of any literature is, at least partly, determined by the language in which it is produced.

Baldwin was the first Black writer I read as opposed to reading novels about Black Americans. (A Patch of Blue and To Kill A Mockingbird two that spring to mind.)

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely… It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly… the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly…

Focusing on the personal and interior of black life, he accepted he was part of the Western literary canon:

Be it also remembered that America was a British colony, that I was born in the English language have a British name, and speak as the descendant of the slave of a subject.”

His novels embody startling realism bringing Harlem and the black experience vividly to life.  They touch the heart with emotion while stimulating the mind with a narrative style reminiscent of Dickens, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America.

Moving through time from the rural  South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattled family, Go Tell It On The Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change.

However, Baldwin did not feel that his speeches and essays were producing social change. The assassinations of three of his associates, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, shattered his remaining hopes for racial reconciliation and his disillusionment is obvious in the documentary.

Don’t Let Them Divide And Conquer

During the Q and A, former Senator Donald Betts Jr talked about his lived experience of the change Baldwin foresaw.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, his political career began in his early 20s when he was elected president of the Multicultural Student Association becoming the first African-American student body president in the University’s history.

Inspired by Barack Obama, he ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives for the Democrats leading a grassroots campaign to better serve and address the needs of his community. Elected at the age of 24, Betts steered a number of successful campaigns to decrease community incarceration rates by setting up a rehabilitation program for first-time drug offenders.

In 2004, he was sworn in as a Kansas State Senator, the youngest Senator serving in the history of Kansas. There was only one other black senator – David Haley, the nephew of the author, Alex Haley, who wrote Roots and started a worldwide interest in genealogy. he told Donald they had to stick together, refuse to be separated by seating and although only two they were powerful.

Donald now lives in Melbourne and is a frequent guest commentator on the ABC, and other local Australian media outlets.

 

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Continuing the discussion after the screening

 

Australians can learn from this documentary; it will help to understand the current crises around race in the USA and help with perspective as well as context.

We need to confront our colonial past and the unfairness of the present. The silence of the white majority regarding indigenous rights, black deaths in custody, and government policies like the Northern Territory intervention, is appalling.

Why don’t we have a treaty? Why hasn’t there been Constitutional reform?

There is irrefutable evidence of institutional and culturally embedded racism. A recent report shows 1 in 5 Australians experienced racism and the rise of One Nation and increase of support for neo-nazi patriot groups should concern us all.

Much of racism is subtle – read this report in our local paper this week:

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An “African” is mentioned but not the nationality or ethnicity of the teenagers who robbed the shop earlier. Where’s the consistency? And unless a more detailed description, where’s the relevance?

We need to raise it up, we need to fight and to shout, but we also need to bring it down, to talk and to listen in order to make change”

Donald Betts Junior

A good first step is to read Australian indigenous writers – and we have many – from the past (personal favourites  Jack Davis and Oodgeroo Noonuccal ) and also the present.
James Baldwin said: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Listening to and reading others imperative – and then
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Dunkirk – A dynamic take on Operation Dynamo

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Movie Promo

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I went to Southland with my friend Barbara to treat her to a movie and lunch for her birthday.

We agreed on Dunkirk, although we knew if it was historically accurate it would not be light cinematic entertainment.

Our childhoods spent in the shadow of WW2 – Barbara in the 1940s and me in the 1950s – so war stories, if not from family, then from school, novels, television and film ever present. 

However, so much that is offered at the cinema today doesn’t appeal and the Dunkirk story seemed a good choice. It is about a definitive moment in World War Two of mythological proportions like the RAF’s Battle Of Britain.

Years ago, I was told my uncle sailed from Scotland to help with the rescue therefore like many families throughout Britain mine had some involvement.  Others knew someone, whether a member of the British Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English Channel in the attempt to save them.

Dunkirk, the movie, tells the story of Operation Dynamo – not from the point of view of government or military command but from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers (army, navy and air) and the civilians called upon to help them return ‘home’ to England.

(The link highlighted above is an article published in 2015 on the 75th anniversary revealing ’40 amazing facts’ about the operation and is a good starting point if you know nothing about it.) 

This 1940 evacuation of hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beaches of France turned a massive military defeat into a humanitarian triumph and spawned the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’ Words used in times of adversity when ordinary people show stoicism and courage beyond expectations. Words that became part of British culture.

The Setting of Dunkirk

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In the early stages of the war, the advancing German Army swept through Belgium and Northern France to rout the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies and trap them at the Port of Dunkirk

The recreation of the armies on the beach with nowhere safe to go as sand and sea explode around them creates some of the most intense and distressing scenes of the movie, especially when seen through the eyes of the main characters.

The setting was intense, and for the movie adaptation, Nolan strove to make the scenes feel as realistic as possible. He filmed on the beach during the summer so the weather would be right, and he tried to avoid computer-generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible. Instead of having spectators feel like they’re in a theater, Nolan wrote in an essay for the Telegraph, he decided that “we’re going to put them on the beach, feeling the sand getting everywhere, confronting the waves … on small civilian boats bouncing around on the waves on this huge journey heading into a terrifying war zone.”

Even the props were legit: The crew used actual World War II-era ships from nine countries, according to the Independent, including a 350-foot French destroyer that needed to be towed to the set. They also built and featured at least one replica of a vintage plane.

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In the movie, there is no individual protagonist as such, just several interwoven storylines of people we grow to care about as the minutes unfold. We journey through nerve-wracking, narrow escapes from death with the two young soldiers from the opening scenes.

We fear for the lives of the Spitfire pilots battling in the air, nail-biting tension because we know they have limited fuel for the journey across the Channel and aerial combat.

We worry the small pleasure craft will survive the obstacle course of rough seas, u-boats and attacks from enemy aircraft.

The film is told from three points of view: on the beach with the infantry (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the navy (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, showing how civilians came to the rescue) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in plane combat).

Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere magazine, Christopher Nolan stated: “For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film.”

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Barbara and I saw the movie on the large VMax screen. The naval and air battles with accompanying ear-splitting explosions and the fear for the recognisable characters is an emotional roller coaster. The soundtrack so loud that there were several instances where I literally jumped out of my skin.

Be warned!

According to actor-director Kenneth Branagh, roughly 30 veteran Dunkirk survivors, who were in their mid-nineties, attended the premiere in London. When asked about the film, they felt that it accurately captured the event but that the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment, a comment that greatly amused director Christopher Nolan.

However, this is not a blood and gore war movie – much of the horror implied, although you are in no doubt about the genre.  The aim for authenticity leaves you gasping and tearful at man’s inhumanity to man.

(It is difficult not to think of the situation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. The vast number of refugees and the constant bombardments they suffer.  The horror beamed nightly into our homes yet where is the coordinated rescue response for them?)

Barbara exclaimed at the end of Dunkirk, ‘Well, that put my blood pressure up!’

‘It raised my blood pressure too,’ I agreed. ‘And I cried.’

‘Me too,’ said Barbara. ‘I had no idea what it was like. I was a baby during the war and Dad never talked about it. My uncle was in Changi and so the war with Japan more talked about. I probably learnt about Dunkirk at school but can’t remember.’

(Historians point out that until the Fall of Singapore in 1942 the withdrawal from Dunkirk was widely viewed as the worst defeat in British military history so why would people talk about it.)

As we walked out of the cinema, I said, ‘None of us learnt about Dunkirk this way, but maybe if we did people wouldn’t be so keen to join the army and go to war – not that those poor buggers had much choice.’

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Promo for the film

Perspective Is Everything

The strength of the movie is showing the large scale event up close and personal from a variety of view points. Something writers always ask – who is telling the story?

The limited dialogue from the soldiers while on the beach and in naval ships works because they experience u-boat and air attacks and the soundtrack to their fear and the chaos of war is tension-inducing music, punctuated by explosions and all-powerful silences.

This is showing not telling – what film does best.

When interviewed by Business Insider, writer and director Christopher Nolan said,

“The tension between subjective storytelling and sort of the bigger picture is always a challenge in any film, particularly when you’re taking on, which I never have done before, historical reality.

So I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is.”

Two of the soldier characters do everything they can to get off that beach and we invest our energy in their efforts.

Escapades involve a tense scene of running with a wounded soldier on a stretcher,  chosen at random so they can board a hospital ship ahead of others.

Their quick-thinking and queue-jumping raise ethical and moral questions but we feel their terror and understand their will to survive. They are both traumatised by the death and destruction they’ve seen. 

Who can blame them for not wanting to follow accepted rules or orders from people who put them there in the first place?

Likewise, the events on board one of the civilian craft involving a rescued survivor suffering shell shock and a young boy who volunteered for the rescue mission. In a scuffle on board because the survivor wants to be taken home and not be part of the rescue mission, the young boy, George falls and hits his head. He dies from the wound but the traumatised soldier is never told it was his push that killed the boy. 

When he and other survivors are finally off-loaded in England he sees a covered body taken off the boat. We assume he puts two and two together and makes four but perhaps he doesn’t.

The three storylines are woven together to form a cohesive conclusion but not neatly tied in bows or predictable endings. Life is messy and war is definitely messier.

Actions speak louder than words. Dialogue occasionally moves the story along but silence and audience interpretation work too.

Even Prime Minister Churchill’s famous speech is delivered by an ordinary soldier reading a newspaper report. His mate more interested in the free beer and accolades from civilians on the railway platform than the spin officials try to put on the debacle.

Winston Churchill had only been British Prime Minister for 16 days at the time of this event so it is probably more realistic that his speech was a bit of a non-event at the time for the soldiers.

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This is a film about human frailty and courage, about death on a grand scale and on a personal level, about the survival of the fittest and collective responsibility, about selfishness and sacrifice, about deliberate and unplanned reactions.

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Actual photograph from Dunkirk 1940

The interwoven storylines of the fictional characters in Dunkirk have been criticised as only showing the allied perspective and for being so disparate that the film is disjointed. The characters have been called weak and the split timeline confusing.

I disagree and preferred this version of history with its limited dialogue, lack of melodrama, or made up romantic nonsense such as we saw in Titanic and Pearl Harbour. The characters and their relationships are believable.

Even young George’s desire for fame displays a teenage trait. He hopped on the rescue boat because he wanted to be part of something important, he wanted his name in the paper, to be considered a somebody, not a nobody who didn’t perform well at school, who others thought wouldn’t amount to much.

When George dies from what is really a freak accident and soldiers survive horrific air battles and boat sinkings we weep for the lack of justice in the world.

The characters represented every man, the human face to an overwhelming historical event.

Who can picture 400,000 troops trapped on a stretch of beach? And comprehend that many of the 338,000 were rescued by pleasure craft – ‘Little Ships” as they became affectionally called?

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The characters in Dunkirk may be made up but Nolan did his research in creating them and recruited Joshua Levine, a historian to work on the script. He also consulted veterans before filming the movie and those who attended the premiere gave it a thumbs up.

The story arcs of the soldiers desperate to leave the beach, the civilians to the rescue and the airman who fights valiantly and is shot down make sense and like the ending of a good novel the storylines merge to a satisfying conclusion.

The war is not over but we know how it ended. We can speculate about what will ultimately happen to the characters and be grateful we glimpsed a deeper insight into a momentous historical occasion.

Art Mimicking Life

The accuracy of Nolan’s interpretation of research verified by videos available on Youtube with footage discovered in 2015 in Manchester University’s Library.

We see evacuated soldiers packed on to destroyers. All the while, other troops waited patiently on the beaches for their turn to be rescued.

“This is a truly remarkable discovery 75 years after Dunkirk, these films are testimony to the bravery of the servicemen and civilians who risked – and in many cases sacrificed – their lives to rescue the stricken army. Without Operation Dynamo, Britain would have lost the war.”

John Hodgson, Manuscripts and Archives Manager

Scenes in Nolan’s Dunkirk mirror reality from this discovered archival footage:

The footage shows the rapid passage of arriving and departing destroyers, and one Cross-Channel ferry, assisting in the evacuation. Meanwhile a destroyer fires her rear anti-aircraft guns, and another appears so low in the water as to be sinking or aground. 

Historically the films are important because they capture key moments of Operation Dynamo. We see the camera pan across the scene of fire and smoke over Dunkirk town, with its distinctive white and striped lighthouse in the background. “

Kay Gladstone, Curator at the Imperial War Museum

Apparently, Christopher Nolan first got the idea for the movie when he sailed to Dunkirk in 1992. Before he started filming he made the crossing again,  “The way the civilians would have done during the Dunkirk Evacuation. Nolan said it took 19 hours because of the conditions of the sea.”

He also “rode in the Spitfire shown in the movie in order to get a sense of the aerial feel of the fighter plane; with the purpose being to help him shoot and provide an authentically realistic experience of the dogfights for the audience.

Just as research is important for novels, so too is it important for making authentic films.

Random Scenes That Stood Out For Me

  1. When the rescued men are ushered below deck on a destroyer and it is a mug of tea and the humble but effective jam sandwich they’re given. Britain was on rations for years after the war (up until 1954) and I can remember many a jam sandwich used as a filler to stave off hunger pangs until mealtime.
  2. The defeat and despair on the faces of evacuated men crowding the decks of a destroyer as it passes the pleasure craft heading for Dunkirk.

(This poignant scene triggered a memory of a story my husband, John told me of being a young recruit in the RN in 1954. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and the defeated French forces were evacuated by the aircraft carrier, Arromanches. John said you could smell the dead and the dying before his ship came abreast of the carrier. Tradition has it that crew stand at attention and salute each other when naval ships pass or draw alongside. That didn’t happen in this case and the Brits were shocked at the despair and defeat they saw from the demoralised troops aboard Arromanches.)

3.  The joy and cheers when the first flotilla of little boats arrive at Dunkirk and the men know they will be going home. Kenneth Branagh’s convincing Commander Bolton has tears glistening and you see him struggle to keep it together and not jump up and down and cheer like his men.

4. Minesweepers protect the destroyers against u-boats. These ships were not supposed to stop and pick up survivors but many did – my Uncle Captain John Dinwoodie one of those who was awarded a DSC and Bar for risking his life for survivors in 1942-45.

At Dunkirk, Lieutenant John Dinwoodie, D.S.C., R.N.R. was skipper of a trawler and went from Scotland to help in the rescue. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers, excursion ships, Dutch skoots (tugboats), British tugs, fishing boats, barges, small pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set sail in the early summer of 1940.

In the movie, Commander Bolton yells to one of the few women characters and a couple of other crew from little boats. ‘Where are you from?’ and if you know your geography there is a sense of how many citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

If you know your geography there is a sense of how many UK citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

(It is a pity the credits didn’t indicate the number of little boats but I guess Nolan was not wanting his film confused with a documentary, even although it is based on fact.)

  1. I was glad the other young deckhand went to the local paper to ensure George got his 15 minutes of fame and was recorded as one of the heroes of Dunkirk. A satisfying end to his story arc.
  2. The scene where a group of desperate soldiers trapped in an abandoned trawler turn on each other is confronting but realistic. Desperation does not bring out the best in people.

When they discover a French soldier has stolen the uniform of a dead British soldier so he can escape the ugly side of humanity appears. It doesn’t matter he has saved lives and is only showing the same survive-at-all-odds behaviour as them.  He is a foreigner, albeit an ally, and they let him know he does not belong!

Dunkirk has it all – the good, the bad and the ugly…

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the story Christopher Norton has decided to tell will keep you emotionally engaged for 106 minutes and give plenty of food for thought, debate and discussion.

What more can you ask from a film?

 

Hidden Figures – A Review

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I went to a special screening of the film Hidden Figures at the Nova Cinema Sunday night.

Hidden Figures celebrates the African-American women whose calculations enabled the Moon landings, and were then forgotten for 40 years. All profits from the event go to Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality (URGE), an organisation led by women of colour that fights for reproductive justice in poor, and particularly black, communities. It is on the front line of the struggle against Trump. This is the first of hopefully many events to raise funds for those resisting the right-wing tide.

The event raised $1500 – a great achievement because it was organised at short notice and solely through social media. It didn’t take long to fill the cinema.

NASA’s “Colored Computers”

Hidden Figures is entertaining, empowering, and an all round excellent film. And as most of the advertising hype suggests, it is a story long overdue in the telling, focusing on the journey of three clever women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

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I consider myself well-read and I have a double history major, yet I never knew about the “colored computers” as they were referred to by NASA.

Before IBM mainframes took over NASA’s number-crunching duties, the organization’s “computers” wore skirts. While an all-male team of engineers performed the calculations for potential space travel, women mathematicians checked their work, playing a vital role at a moment when the United States was neck-and-neck with (and for a time, running behind) the Soviets in the space race.

In tandem with the space race between America and Russia is the burgeoning and increasingly effective civil rights movement. Clips from real life news broadcasts and newspaper headlines are shown and there is some re-enactment of protests, but the film’s focus is detailing the achievements of three women who were crucial to the success of NASA’s program. They also trail-blazed for not only African-American rights but rights for all women to be treated as intelligent as their male counterparts.

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The Evils of Segregation

The film, set in the early 1960s shows the struggle for desegregation being fought state by state. Like Apartheid South Africa, coloured people are barred, separated, and herded by the predominant white authorities:

  • coloured drinking fountains,
  • coloured waiting rooms,
  • coloured toilets,
  • coloured canteens
  • coloured offices,
  • coloured counters in cafes and shops,
  • and of course coloured seats at the back of the bus despite the brave actions of Rosa Parkes.

This segregation appalling when seen on the screen, especially regarding the effect on innocent children. It’s almost impossible to understand what it must have been like – and it is not that long ago!

Thank goodness we have films like Hidden Figures and Selma to remind us of our common humanity and the evils of bigotry and hate.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

At NASA’s Langley, in the 1940s and 1950s, the women were split into two pools – the East computing unit for white women, and the West computing unit for black women. This segregation a requirement of Virginia state law that continued into the 1960s.

The three African-American women heroes were crusaders for both feminism and civil rights in segregated Virginia and helped put an American into orbit, which ultimately led to America beating Russia in the race to put a man on the moon.

NASA at least recognised the ability of women to work in the field, but in 1962 the “colored computers” were not afforded the same rights or treated with the same respect as their white male colleagues.

The detailing of overt and ingrained racism some of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the movie. Although the focus is always on the contribution and efforts to achieve a successful launch into space, the three women challenge and defeat prejudice and unfairness in the workplace.

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Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor in charge of West Computing and is one of the main characters in the film.  One of the first computer programmers when tasks from the engineers came in, she would allocate the work and show her team what they needed to do. Her ingenuity and intelligence and determination to be ahead of the game and yet protect her team, absolutely awesome.

She often goes toe to toe with her white manager, Vivian played to condescending perfection by Kirsten Dunst who has a face you itch to slap. As a woman, Vivian recognises discrimination yet refuses to accept her own attitude and behaviour as racist, not supporting Dorothy’s right to the title and pay of supervisor and saying such lines as:

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all”

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Katherine Johnson played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a human computer – a person who computes – she was a child prodigy and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

In the film, there is also a scene where astronaut John Glenn asks for Katherine to check the calculations for returning safely to earth before he gets into the spacecraft.

NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. “One thing we’re frequently asked,” he says, “is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to ‘check the numbers.'” The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson’s approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer’s results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.

When she is transferred into the all white domain in the West Computing Wing the tension and underlying resentment from one male worker, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons plays the stereotypical subdued white collar racist to perfection)  is palpable. It is the scenes in the operational room before and during the space launches that provide the most tension in the movie.

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Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. She petitions a judge to let her take the necessary night courses in the all-white high school that will allow her to apply for an open engineering position at NASA.

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Hidden Figures is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures, The Untold Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, a TIME magazine top 10 nonfiction book of 2016.

We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft. Those guys have all told their stories. Now it’s the women’s turn.

Margot Lee Shetterly

There is plenty of humour in the film as well as a great soundtrack. The fashions – from beehive 60s hairdos to colourful and impractical stilettos and skirts and cardigans detailed to perfection to brighten the sets. There are classic gas guzzling cars too.

Real footage of the times from speeches by JFK, shots of Dr Martin Luthor King Jr, and scenes of space launch successes and disasters all used to good effect in the film.

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Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch an artificial satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same.

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, beating the United States and stunning people all over the world.

  • October 4, 1957, First artificial satellite – First signals from space Sputnik 1
  • November 3, 1957, First dog in orbit ( Laika) Sputnik 2
  • April 12, 1961, First human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin)

The footage of the Russian efforts as reported by world news reminded me of my Dad singing a ditty about Yuri Gargarin. Britain wasn’t that involved with the space race and so the Russian success was probably looked upon with more admiration on Scotland’s side of the Atlantic!

YURI GAGARIN

Chorus
Oh dear, Yuri Gagarin,
He flew tae the moon when it looked like a farthing,
He said tae the boys at the moment of parting
“Ah’m juist gaun away for the Fair”

Now inside the ship he lay down like a hero,
The doors were sealed up and the countdown was near-o
Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero
An Yuri went up in the air

Now when he took off he was shook tae the marra
He circled the poles and he saw the Sahara,
He gave them a wave as he passed over Barra
The day he went up in the air

Now when he went up it was just aboot dawning,
The time when the rest of the world wis still yawning
Then Yuri returned to the land he wis born in
Withoot even turning a hair

When he came tae London they tried the saft pedal,
A wee bowler hat and a rolled-up umbreddle
But the foundrymen went an’ they struck him a medal
An gied it tae him at the fair

This song is in praise of the first man to go into space and orbit the earth, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12th April 1961.

The song was written in the vernacular by Glasgow actor and writer Roddy McMillan to the tune of ‘Johnny’s So Long At The Fair’ and has been published in a collection of traditional and new Scots songs as a resource for primary schools, Gallus Publishing  Great Britain, 2013.

Praise Long Overdue

Hidden Figures acknowledges the commitment of all those involved in the pioneer space program, including for the first time the contributions of the African-American mathematicians, engineers and computing experts.

Poetic licence sees the sequence of real events compressed and Kevin Costner plays the head of the Space Task group with dramatic flair, along with his crewcut, conservative collar and tie, and constant gum chewing; he’s a man of the times.

This is an important movie and it will trigger many memories for baby boomers – most of us were sent home from school in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In many of my writing classes that day looms large in memory but I guarantee no one knew about the amazing Hidden Figures.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did. I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the first man to go into space…

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Manchester By The Sea – a Review

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Last weekend, I went to see the recently released, Manchester By The Sea, at the Palace Cinema, Brighton with my daughters, Anne and Mary Jane.

Anne has been a fan of the actress Michelle Williams since she was a teenager and has a collection of her movies. When one is released we always try and see it because the subject matter and execution of Indie films are usually more enriching than the Hollywood blockbusters and populist ‘bums on seats’ fillers.

It’s the difference between enjoying reading a lightweight novel, but the stereotypical characters and plot forgettable compared to a novel, where the characters live with you for a lifetime, the story challenges or introduces a different perspective on life.

I want stories that tug at your heart and soul before adding another dimension to what it means to be human.

And there are so many scenes in this film that are touches of brilliance; they add to an already memorable story and characters.

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Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife and doesn’t disappoint in Manchester by The Sea – she has been nominated for the best supporting actress award.  The few scenes she has, and a gut-wrenching one, in particular – engages the audience the way good acting should – a total suspension of disbelief.

We are with her, feel her love, anger, pain, sadness, joy, guilt and grief. The whole gamut of emotions.

The logline of the movie is simplistic  “An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.” There are many stories in the subtext of this screenplay.

This is a film about broken lives and how easily tragedy and change can happen to any of us. It is a story exploring the journey and stages of grief and the effects of sorrow – different for everyone – especially if it compounds on other bereavements.

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Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan has won multiple awards – and I can see why – this film is a powerful story, but he has done a wonderful job of showing not telling, the pacing and tension breath-taking and balanced like any good page-turning novel. 

His choice of casting excellent with Casey Affleck playing a broody, moody Lee Chandler struggling to come to terms with inner demons. The first few scenes in the less salubrious suburbs of Boston sets the tone of the movie and reveals Lee’s personality.

In modern parlance, he has issues. 

He’s grumpy, socially disconnected, drinks alone and has violent outbursts yet he’s young, physically fit, reasonably good-looking and a competent handyman employed as a janitor for a landlord too cheap to pay tradesmen and prepared to ignore building regulations.

For a minimum wage, Lee Chandler does everything from cleaning, plumbing, electrical repairs, moving furniture, clearing snow, and changing light bulbs while demanding tenants treat him as if he’s invisible, beneath them, or to blame for their maintenance woes. Who wouldn’t be moody and pissed off?

But we sense something more to Lee’s surliness and brooding aloneness, especially when after a bout of solitary drinking in a local bar, he explodes into an inexplicable verbal then physical assault on two strangers.

We are intrigued.

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A phone call leads to a mercy dash to a hospital over an hour’s drive away. The pace of the story picks up as Lee is catapulted into a family crisis.

Through flashbacks, we start to piece together the life Lee Chandler left – the familial bonds, the close-knit community, the love for his brother who has just died. The unravelling of his past explains his choice of a life away from the Massachusetts fishing village where his family have worked for generations.

And when the full story comes to light, it is one of those moments, if it was a book, you would place it on your lap, close your eyes and struggle to get your breathing and blood pressure back to normal.  

On screen, these emotionally engaging moments are powerful indeed.

All the important storytelling elements keep the audience engaged with the use of scenery as clever metaphors. The movie begins in winter and ends in spring.

There is a brilliant scene where Lee is arranging his brother’s funeral but because it is winter the burial (they are Catholic) must be delayed, the snow covered ground too hard and the cost of heavy machinery too expensive. When Lee and his nephew Patrick leave the funeral parlour unhappy with the reality Lee can’t find his car because they’ve both forgotten where it was parked. Their actions and dialogue removing the angst and sentimentality often seen in other movies but so believable.

Anyone who has been left numb by grief will relate to trying to cope with the bizarre situations that occur as you go through the motions of dealing with death and funerals, especially if there are fractured family relationships (Patrick’s mother is still alive but left years before), complications of  beliefs (Patrick is not religious), cost and tradition.

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Lee struggles with coming to terms with the unwanted burden his brother has placed on him – legal guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. The relationship between Lee and Patrick, the adjustments and revelations provides much-needed and natural humour as well as penetrating insight into teenage grief.

The scenes where Patrick is trying to consummate a long-standing relationship with a girlfriend and even involves his Uncle Lee to keep an overprotective mother busy are hilarious.

My girls and I discussed the irony of wanting to see a film where one of the main characters is a teenager dealing with the death of his father. They were thirteen and sixteen when their father died.

However,  afterwards, as we discussed the movie they both agreed that the portrayal of Patrick’s reactions, the reactions of his friends, and scenes where his anger explodes are spot on and will deeply resonate with young people who have had to cope with a similar tragedy.

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There is a richness to this film with its multiple layers of stories and character development. Several scenes will haunt me for a long time because my life has been touched by grief – death by accident, death by illness and disease, the horrific shock of suicide and the natural process of ageing. It is strangely comforting to reflect that there’s a commonality with people from a different demographic and different country.

The actors convey real emotion and believability and as Lee Chandler tries to make a go of this new hand he has been dealt, we root for him and really want it to work so that he can be healed too.

(The film begins and ends with scenes on the family fishing boat showing a bond between Lee and Patrick although the events occur eight years apart.)

This story of broken lives reminds us how easily lives can be shattered:

  • a lapsed moment of concentration
  • a bad or rash decision
  • being in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • and good old Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will

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We can’t always distance ourselves from the past, we can’t always beat our demons but we can be open to love and just as chance tragedy can change the direction of your life so can a random spark of friendship and love.

Sometimes we just need a reason to reconnect with that healing journey…

If you go to see Manchester By The Sea, I’ll be interested to hear your impressions and insights.

Visually the film is appealing – Manchester Massachusetts, in the United States, is known for scenic beaches and vista points. 24 miles from Boston, at the 2010 census, the town population was 5,136.

Tonight I’m attending a fundraiser for Hidden Figures – a very different film! I’ll review that in a few days!

 

 

Courageous Catalyst For Change

 

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Yours truly with Yordy

 

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in movements for social justice, and privileged to meet, see, or read people who leave an indelible mark on my psyche, challenge my opinions, confront me with new knowledge, inspire me – and usually leave me feeling glad there are such amazing, vibrant spirits around working to touch the life of others in a positive way.

The Power of Storytelling And Art

Attending the preview of the film about the making of the stage play, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe at the Nova Cinema and meeting theatre director and filmmaker, Ros Horin and one of the “African Ladies”, Yordanos left me humbled and richer for the experience.

The after-screening discussion a privilege because we heard responses from refugees and asylum seekers, teachers and writers, radio broadcasters and actors. The raw honesty of so many people working to promote a strong message that violence against women is wrong, and there must be cultural shifts throughout the world – whether first or third world countries, institutions or the home.

Below is a snapshot from an extensive gallery online:

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From the stage production of the play

A Film and A Play

The only time I feel jealous of Sydney is when there is an art exhibition, festival, play or other performance that doesn’t venture south of the border. Melbourne may be the world’s most liveable city and we have memorable art venues and events here, but we missed out on a groundbreaking stage production.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe stage play never came to Melbourne although it did tour overseas. A great hit at the WOW  (Women Of the World)  festival in London.

I first heard it mentioned on Q and A by Tony Burke MP who supported the project. (In the film he has a cameo appearance when the then Governor-General Quentin Bryce  and other supporters like Tony, go backstage to congratulate the cast). On Q and A, Tony mentioned how powerful the play is regarding exposing the effects not only of violence against women in war but within families and communities.

Watching the film of how these four inspirational African women came together to not only tell their harrowing stories but work with Ros Horin to celebrate their survival by telling it on stage is the next best thing to actually seeing the play.

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Yordy and Ros at the Nova

 

As an extension of the work of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe theatre production, this film seeks to share the powerful stories of these four women and their traumatic experiences of civil war, rape, sexual abuse and violence to a much larger Australian and international audience.

The film reveals their extraordinary journeys of struggle, empowerment, and healing through the arts, as the four African women, former refugees, play themselves in a moving story based on their own terrifying experiences.

A Thought-Provoking Film

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of storytelling through the arts.

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I was invited to see the film preview because I donated to the crowdfunding for the I Came By Boat Campaign another project using the power of storytelling to challenge people’s assumptions and change attitudes.

I guarantee your emotions will be engaged when you hear the stories of the “African Ladies” but also uplifted when you see the empowerment of the women and pride of families, especially their children.

 

The aim of this unique and exceptional project is to be a catalyst for open dialogue about violence within communities all over the world. It needs to reach as many people as possible including schools, government bodies, and social impact groups.

 

Check out their website for screening dates, and if you can, please support the distribution of this film to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

It was such a privilege to witness the honesty and openness by Ros, Aminata, Rosemary, Yarrie and Yordy.  They not only shared the stories for the play but so much more about their personal journeys about acting for the first time – performing as the cold observer on their own story.

There are glimpses in the film about playwriting and acting and it was fascinating to hear all the contingency plans Ros had in place to protect the women from the emotional trauma of retelling their stories.

Yordy had a breakdown and withdrew from the project. Being the cold observer impossible but we see her recover and rejoin the troupe. There is a lot of joy in this film.

I hope The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has the viewing and success it so richly deserves.

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Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!

 

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from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

It is holiday time and I relaxed at the movies with my youngest daughter Mary Jane and two longtime friends and writing buddies, Barbara and Maureen.

‘Three generations watching Suffragette,said MJ, ‘coffee afterwards should be interesting.’ And it was!

MJ is 26, I’m 62, Barbara 78, and Maureen almost 80. Four women with varying degrees of knowledge about the ‘first wave of feminism’. Four women who have experienced very different lives and education. Women who have lived through legislative changes towards gender equality, and some profound changes in attitude.

Maureen and Barbara can remember WW2 and along with me, experienced restrictions and unfairness because of our gender. I joined Women’s Liberation in the 70s.

And of course, with today’s newspaper headlines, MJ can quite rightly ask, ‘How far have we really come?’

We wanted to come away from the movie feeling empowered and uplifted, although under no illusions that the struggle for equality and respect continues in 2016.

Instead, we left the cinema angry, sad, and with a list of disappointments about aspects of the script, the choice and performance of actors, and a storyline that tried to cover too many topics, too frugally.

Was Meryl Streep chosen to play Emmeline Pankhurst to attract funding? Her cameo role came across as wooden, the dialogue bland rhetoric and any personality buried under too many layers of period costume.

 

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BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

Criticisms aside, I hope people see the film, think about the issues raised, have conversations and initiate discussions – especially with fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and daughters.

Unless you deliberately seek information about the suffragettes, they receive a glance in history classes at school or are ignored altogether. Many universities no longer support Women’s Studies.

However, I’m at a loss as to what audience the film hoped for, because if it was to educate men (and new generations of women), I think it will fail to attract bums on seats.

If it is ‘preaching to the converted’ it disappoints.

If it is aimed at all women, or the general public, they should have placed more emphasis on success and focused on inspiration and the political journey.

At the end of the film’s action,  a scrolled list of various (not all) countries and the dates when women were allowed to vote is a lost opportunity. The list is not put into any sort of context to make it memorable. (A headline from a newspaper, or file footage of the achievement and public reaction against the dates would have been nice.)

Many women already know why the women’s movement developed and will go to see the movie to learn the history. They’ll seek a reason to celebrate, be entertained, empowered – there are so many women who were amazing at that time. Why the story had to be told through the life of a fictional character seems strange.

I was looking forward to a film celebrating the first wave of feminism and hoped for something as inspiring as PrideWhen that movie ended in the Kino Cinema there was spontaneous applause. The audience walked out of the cinema emotionally engaged, aware we had experienced something special;we  better understood and appreciated an important historical struggle, saw the best and worst of the human spirit.

I wanted that feeling after Suffragette. The courage and vision of those women not only gave me rights I enjoy today, but the inspiration and impetus to join the Women’s Liberation Movement when I started university in 1971.

I’ve been committed to telling and promoting herstory for years through my community involvement, my parenting, my writing, teaching, and social activism. All the issues raised in the film, including the right to vote (and why many women don’t) and wage inequality are still relevant today.

Meanwhile, domestic violence, especially the murder of women in the family home, a place where they should feel the safest, is the subject of a Royal Commission here in Victoria to grab people’s attention and effect real change.

Unfortunately, Suffragette is bleak and the sacrifices and gains the women made buried in a script that tries to do too much and tell too many important stories without giving detailed justice to most of them.

Why a fictional character when any number of women’s life story could have been told to make the same points?

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In the film, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes a suffragette, not so much by choice but by a series of accidents: she gets caught up in a direct action campaign of window-smashing, is approached by a fellow worker who cajoles her to attend a meeting.

Suddenly, from a reluctant convert begged to join, she’s blowing up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s country manor. Instant radicalisation and a speedy character arc that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about personal growth and why such violence.

Suffragette is clear about the power of men and entrenched patriarchy – from the deviousness and duplicity of politicians and police, to the tyranny of husbands and employers, but it introduces subjects like sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence and the abrogation of women’s rights over their own children, money and property – huge social topics – depicted briefly and focused on a handful of women as if they are the movement.

An empowered Maud rescues a young girl from the clutches of an employer who also abused Maud from twelve years old. She fought for this girl’s rights, but apart from a crying tantrum she lets a couple take her son after her husband puts him up for adoption because he can’t cope as a single parent.

The scene included to expose the lack of a mother’s rights but was a storyline that deserved longer exploration and didn’t gel with Maud’s feisty character.

Where was the sisterhood? The band of guerrillas Maud joined, would surely have stepped in. These were women prepared to damage property, suffer indignities in prison including barbaric force-feeding (the physical consequences down played in the movie).

If they couldn’t stop the adoption, they’d have encouraged her to kidnap the boy or at least make a public fight for her rights. Some of those women had money as well as influential husbands, who were not all anti suffragette.

Check out the Changeling, a movie on the profound power of a mother’s love, set in 1928 LA and based on a true story of single mother Christine Collins. A movie that tackles a host of social and political issues but never loses sight of the determination of a mother to get her son back. Ironically, 1928 is the year some British women get the vote – years behind the empire’s  ex-colonies.

This is another point of contention. There is not even a mention of the advances in other countries, no mention of our Australian hero Vida Goldstein, and no exploration of why British women had to resort to violence when Australia achieved voting rights with the help of the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

It wasn’t a documentary, but what exactly was the film when a key suffragette like Pankhurst is almost airbrushed out.

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Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

Suffragette emphasises at the beginning how devoted Maud is to Georgie, he’s her only son, she adores him. Why would she not put the same effort and commitment fighting for him as she does to the suffragette cause? The Maud they created in this film would explore every avenue, would demand the others help.

Edith Ellyn (played brilliantly by Helen Bonham Carter), a radical activist, based on the real-life suffragette Edith Garrod, and her supportive and committed husband would surely have helped Maud. (There is a brief mention that Edith’s husband went to prison twice for the cause and he plays an active albeit almost silent part!)

In fact, Georgie and Maud are too clean and well-dressed for the average worker in 1912 living in the squalid housing around the industrial factories of London. the opening scenes show the drudgery and relentless labouring required in places ignoring basic health and safety guidelines.

Another niggling point is when Georgie has a cough and is taken to Edith and her pharmacist husband for examination and free medicine. Given some barley sugar he doesn’t say thank you. Maud would have admonished his lack of manners. I mean this is a boy whose father makes him salute and thank the King’s picture every night.  The class system in Britain ingrained politeness and courtesy towards ‘your betters.’

Another minor irritant was Maud’s husband accusing her of wanting champagne on a beer budget… really? Doubt if that was a common expression among laundry workers in 1912 – he’d more likely berate her for trying to copy her ‘posh’ friends.

Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is not offering some joy.

I know the times were bleak for women, but I also know when a group of women with a common cause get together, we laugh, we dance, we take the mickey – and committed activists look after each other. They would not have Maud sleeping in a disused church if she is one of the inner circle.

Where were the fun scenes reliving successful operations? The frenetic scenes preparing banners, making the sashes and placards – some visual relief from the drabness and oppression?

I have happy treasured memories of Women’s Liberation meetings, Union of Australian Women events and International Women’s Day celebrations and marches. Despite  critics  wanting to portray feminists as dour, frigid and bitter, the term sisterhood is powerful has a different connotation for most women.

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There could also have been more use of actual footage of the times for impact if the film was deftly edited like Selma. The actual footage used at the end of Suffragette is powerful and it shows the movement was a lot bigger than what the film suggested, but achieving the goal of the vote is years away.

In Suffragette, one scene comes close to showing camaraderie of sisterhood – when two of the characters (Violet and Maud) find a room to rent after a distraught Maud is locked out of home by her husband. The women sit on the ‘bed of nails’, which collapses accompanied by their giggles and laughter.

Women are adept at laughing in the face of adversity – gallows humour if you like – similar to soldiers under fire. The film lacked that important essence to take us on an emotional roller coaster – the audience needed to feel the ardour of these women, breathe their fire, be touched by their soul and sadness, but also their laughter, love, humanity and the solidarity that gave them the courage and spark to continue.

Two scenes stand out – a riot revealing the brutality of the police and onlookers and the tense scene where Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse. The film suggests it was deliberate suicide, yet this is debatable, especially when you look at archived footage.

Personally, I’d love a film to be made on the life of Emily, beginning with that horrific media grabbing action and then showing her journey. How and why she became a suffragette. And why so few people actually know or care about her life, preferring to define her by that one action.

We need to inspire more women and men to question how far we have come and the structural changes needed for equality and basic human rights.

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Youth And Reaching For The Stars

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I love this still from Youth; it’s a great metaphor – are we all in cages waiting for the inevitability of death? Are we there from choice?  Do we talk ourselves into being ‘old’? What will it feel like to take flight, defy assumptions?

When you see the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this scene.

When I was invited by StudioCanal to the Premiere of Youth at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting because Sir Michael Caine was one of the main characters. I can’t say I’ve seen every film he’s ever been in, but I’ve seen many, and he rarely disappoints.

Youth is billed as a comedy/drama, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, and it has won several awards already in Europe, including the trifecta of Best Director, Best Actor (Caine) and Best film!

The storyline revolves around two elderly friends(70s/80s) on vacation in an elegant hotel/health resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are linked since adolescence, but also as in-laws – Mick’s son married Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), but at the beginning of the film we learn that marriage has broken down.

Fractured relationships and how you cope with them, a major theme of the film.

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Fred, a famous composer/conductor, is retired from the music world. Mick, a well-known film director, is working on his last testament, a final masterpiece and is surrounded by a bevy of young screenwriters thrilled to be near and to learn from ‘the master’.

There is laugh aloud moments, and several others when quiet chuckles ripple through the cinema. The movie is shot in the eastern part of the Swiss Alps; the magnificent mountainous scenery used to good effect with excellent camera work.

I loved a delightful scene with Fred in a field observing the rhythm and musicality of nature. He begins to conduct the cud-chewing cows, Swiss cowbells tinkle, there’s a rush of a flock of birds taking flight… the music throughout the film another delight.

David Lang’s score integral to the film, especially the emotional development of Englishman, Fred, who refuses a request from Queen Elizabeth II, to perform his most famous piece, Simple Songs. He’s told; it is the only music Prince Phillip listens to, and the Queen’s emissary is persistent and insistent that Royalty does not take no for an answer.

However, Fred wrote the piece for his wife who we discover has senile dementia and is in care. He hasn’t visited her for ten years but is determined he will not conduct or have anyone else conduct another diva singing the piece.

Fred’s memories haunt him. His past behaviour is a source of conflict with his daughter who accuses him of neglecting his wife and family. Fred finally admits, ‘You were right. Music is all I understand…’

The difficulties yet the importance of communication reinforced nicely in a scene where a young masseuse at the resort massages Fred. Few words are spoken, and she mentions the power of touch and what you can say without words. Fred understands.

Multifaceted human beings are another constant with scenes of the development of various characters (including the young masseuse) needing no words. I enjoyed the visual feast of many of the scenes and how the notable cameos and subtext were interspersed throughout the main story arc. (Watch out for Paul Dano, Maradona and Jane Fonda.)

The expository dialogue in a couple of major scenes, done I assume to reduce the film’s length, but no doubt some pedants in the industry will be quick to criticise. This is where I differ from screen purists. I just love the power of story, regardless of the method of execution and being a writer for text, not screen; I’m more forgiving.

Caine’s facial expressions, his body language and the delivery of some pithy lines like ‘intellectuals have no taste’ are brilliant. We empathise with the inner turmoil of a man coming to terms with ageing, dealing with the present while reflecting on the past, contemplating the meaning of life and wondering how, or if, to make amends. He mentions several times that he’s been judged ‘apathetic’.

Death is inevitable but the quality of life is important, and it is not about trying to reclaim an idealistic ‘youth’. A quote by one of my favourite poets, Rabbie Burns,  springs to mind ‘nae man can tether time or tide…’ 

There are several threads of humour and running gags in the film. One is the daily conversation Fred and Mick have about whether they’ve managed to pee and how much. (It will raise a smile for all of us oldies obsessed with signs of deteriorating health!) The other is a Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) meditating each day trying to levitate. (For all of us still reaching for the stars and determined never to give up!)

If you’re wanting an escapist entertainment experience like the latest Star Wars release, Youth is not for you. Apart from the fact the films are vastly different genres, Youth has few special effects. You have to pay attention to each character to discover their story arc; there is no assumption of backstory knowledge like the huge Star Wars fan base.

In Youth, there are scenes where nobody speaks nor appear to be doing much yet another layer of intrigue is added to an engrossing story. One poignant mini story that had my writer’s imagination working overtime is the young escort taken to the resort by her mother.

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Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For me, there are similarities with Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and not just because that movie has another of my favourite actors, Harrison Ford. In both movies wit, humour and dialogue are delivered with panache, and you’ve been entertained. What going to the movies is all about, first and foremost.

I went to see the latest Star Wars release with my daughters at 12.20am and the sleep deprivation was worth it. I loved the buzz inside the cinema complex and the enthusiasm of the audience that spanned several generations. So many had turned up in costumes.

None of the seductive sedation of Youth at the end of The Force Awakens as the audience chattered with energetic excitement reliving scenes, discussing minute details. Moviegoers were deeply moved by Youth too, but we sat and pondered in silence.

The appreciation of what you have just watched on screen is something Youth and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have in common. They both share themes of fractured relationships, ageing, relationships with children, yearning for lost passion and celebration of talent and achievement.

I took along a younger movie buddy to Youth, and she loved it – the hour long tram and train trip home (Elsternwick’s on a different line to Frankston) certainly gave us plenty of time to mull over the 124 minutes of the film. I put Youth in the same category as Still Life, another movie seen this year that I loved.

We deconstructed the dialogue, the scenes, the characters, the music, the metaphors, the message – there is a lot packed into Youth, and the contemplative silence at the end was not just the reluctance of people to leave the extremely comfortable seats in The Classic.

See it when it is released and let me know what you think. I’m happy to hear about Star Wars too – a step out of my comfort zone (I did see the original movie, but don’t consider myself hooked). However, my daughters are educating me…

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