Saturday, May 5, 2012


The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is upon us again. I spoke to my friend Tyson Namow who is one of the programmers of the film section of the festival about a few of the issues that occured to me after seeing the teaser program published on the website in March.

On that, I've been asked to point out that this interview was conducted in March, weeks before the full program was published. For the sake of clarity, the festival program does NOT include the documentary To Hell and Back again (I don't believe either of us suggested that it would but I'm happy to comply with this request).

P = Me (Peter Jetnikoff)

T = He (Tyson Namow)

P:  Could you tell us about your background such as it’s relevant to your being involved in the festival? What is your role?

T:I’m completing a PhD in cinema studies at Latrobe University.  I’ve also been teaching in the areas of cinema and media for a number of years at institutions including RMIT and the University of South Australia. And I also coordinate a film course for the Melbourne Free University. So it made sense to me to do some feature film programming for the Festival, given my vocational interests and my cultural interests. I’m also just keen to support volunteer-based organisations and up and coming festivals and events.

I was initially hired so I could give a fairly strong critical historical and aesthetic perspective on cinema. I wasn't coming from a particular human rights background or any particular political background to do the programming. So I think that’s actually good in terms of rounding off the programming team. Because you’re sometimes going to get people who come from more of an activist background or people who have done human rights work before, who may not have been much involved in cinema.

P:  Is that the case in the group of people who do the selection? Do they come from diverse backgrounds, not necessarily film-related? It is, of course an arts festival, not just a film festival.

T:  That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, there is a variety of backgrounds, some are from the festival administration side of things, some are film makers, some are film academics, such as myself, and then others will be coming from more human rights contexts to do with law, NGOs, things like that.

P:  Ok. I recently saw the documentary To Hell and Back Again, about an American soldier wounded in Afghanistan, and was moved by the portrayal of the man despite my opposition to the war. The film made impressive use of the approach of fiction cinema. With documentaries moving away from the always dubious notion of pure record, does a problem arise from choosing a film on its merits as cinema over those of it as a political statement?

T:  Yeah this is actually a really good question and it’s something I want to address at a conference that’s coming up at the end of the year in Canberra. Because it is very difficult, what some are talking about now, there’s this movement called docu-fictions which are not really mockumentaries or docu-dramas, they’re kind of something in between. They employ fictional techniques, unashamedly, to the point of wanting you to receive a documentary as a fiction film. Some filmmakers are taking it that far. It does raise some questions about how we approach the question of representing political issues, social justice issues, and what  the role of HRAFF is in educating the public and to what extent we are about 'issue' films.

On one hand, we’re raising public awareness about particular events and injustices occurring in the world. On the other hand, I think there is also a push to  be more of a pure cinema festival interested in questions about what it means to document the world, what is happening to the documentary genre, what are the ethics of filmmaking practice, and those sorts of things. I think both of these things are happening for HRAFF but HRAFF hasn’t quite worked out how to deal with them.

P:  Ok.

T:  To some extent I think there’s an ongoing tension and struggle regarding what is the primary aim and focus of the festival. I, personally, want to push legitimate questions about how things are represented, how cinema does or doesn’t do a good job in terms of bringing up issues of what’s happening around the world and I think there’s space for that and the film you referred to is clearly as much about representation itself and about a cultural understanding of war and a whole range of things.

So I’ve certainly been advocating a place for that. I also understand the criticism from some of the other programmers, or some of the other people within the festival, who have concerns that this might detract from our core, social issue raising agenda.  Does an interest in aesthetics and theory for its own sake threaten to obscure some really core emotional elements to a particular political idea?  I don't think it has to but I also certainly believe that we should be first and foremost about politicising the audience through film. It’s a difficult one so I think probably the answer is that, yes, it is a problem and that there is a tension there.

P:  With To Hell and Back Again because it does have those fictive elements in it it’s kind of spoonful of sugar isn’t it? Helps the medicine go down. If this is the case, if this kind of cinema is on the rise, a documentary that makes it easy to watch a documentary by behaving like a fiction film, is its legitimacy compromised? If that’s what a documentary is going to become -- however briefly if it’s a fad or if, like the Blair Witch Project effect, it’s going to really take over documentary filmmaking, what are you left with?

T: (laughs) Yeah, well of course in the history of documentary many would argue that documentaries would always have hybrid elements right back to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North where there’s clearly stylisation, scripted moments and so on. Maybe what’s happening now is a cluster of films which aren’t fitting into a kind of mockumentary or docudrama format but doing something else. I mean they are more or less documentaries but they’re entering a very interesting and maybe paradoxical space with their use of fictional techniques and hyper-stylisation. Basically there’s the idea that reality is always going to contain elements of fiction.

But clearly at the same time they are not saying that documentary doesn’t do something special.  Because they still talk about themselves as documentary films and the filmmakers still like this idea that there is still something authentic happening in terms of their film’s relationship to the subject. There’s still something that documentary does which fiction can’t.

Anyway I think it’s quite a paradoxical space. I think that’s one of the concerns that people are going to have to deal with. I think this is what caused some concern and disquiet among some of the fellow programmers: they felt that they were going into such an ambiguous space when watching these films. I think it’s the reception of it: the whole thing of “how am I meant to read this?” and “I’m not given clear signposts or enough signposts to feel comfortable about where the filmmaker is coming from” and “how am I meant to understand this act of war or this act of injustice?”

I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how spectators negotiate that sort of space. That’s very pertinent to how we program in the future . Maybe we really need to think about going, ok, maybe partly it’s about educating audiences, presenting the films in ways that help them through that, to give them context to what they’re about to see. But also, I think, maybe in a liberal society people who enter a theatre need to take some risks and need to think for themselves.

P:  It strikes me that it’s a problem that’s not going to go away and one never to be resolved. Either way, given that HRAFF has a particular focus that distinguishes it from universalist festivals like MIFF or alternative ones like MUFF, or the various ethnically-based ones. There is a likely perception of a string of human rights related films being a propaganda-fest. There’s a danger, it strikes me, that potential audiences might simply think they’re in for a lot of militant politics. Seems like quite a fight from the word go.

T: I think you’re right, I think that “human rights” is such a loaded term and that’s part of the problem. For me, personally,  I was never really sure it was the best title to have but you’ve got to work with what you got. Primarily, it’s a political film festival, it’s the politics of art and culture, and human rights is a big part of that. So yeah, I think you’re right, it’s a very loaded term. There’s plenty on the left who critique human rights as a discourse. And there are others in the community who are going to think it’s just going to be the latest “propaganda films” or an OXFAM educational film or something like that. So I think it’s really important that we convey the fact that that’s not what it’s about at all. And having people from my background  in there is precisely to get these much more compelling films that wouldn’t neatly fall under some sort of propagandist or educational umbrella. The film you mentioned earlier, To Hell and Back Again, is far removed from what probably a lot of people would associate with a human rights festival. And I think that becomes interesting when you do raise these questions about aesthetics and spectatorship which opens up a human rights festival to a whole range of agendas and issues which go well beyond how it can be tainted in terms of some of the things you’ve mentioned.

P:  Then your problem is to get back to grass roots and get people along who’ll get into the things to begin with. There might well be an elastic perception of human rights as a concept . But you must, of course, start somewhere.

T: Yes (laughs)

P:  Reading the descriptions of the films described in the teaser in early March, I was immediately intrigued but then concerned. It's become almost futile to describe something as worthy without irony. Can this act as a barrier to HRAFF's potential audience when the target audience must include those beyond the converted?

T:  Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think it’s an ongoing thing about how you promote films. One thing is purely technical, how do you plug into social media, how do you plug into Y-Gen, and as you suggest, how do you plug into what is now second or third level irony (laughs)

P:  Where does it stop?

T:  Irony’s been round for a while (laughs). I think you’re deadly right, though. There is a hipster/twee/irony audience out there, the Wes Anderson or Miranda July kind of audience, and so you have to think about how to tap into that. It is hard though because there has to be a certain earnestness with what we do, there has to be a certain lack of play in the human rights context which may not necessarily fit the 'irony' audience. I think that’s where having those films like Hell and Back Again can come into play because you can say this is about something serious but it is also about other levels of meaning that as a spectator  you can engage with. It is about aesthetics as well. It is about questions of representation in documentary, so you can open up the human rights festival in ways that may reach those wider audiences too.

I should point out that there’s going to be light hearted stuff in there as well, more popular stuff working in different ways with different strands of audiences. Not everything is heavy. Some of the programmers will go more for the darker stuff and others lighter to create a balance.
One of the films is a kind of postmodern, soap opera from South America, called Prime Time Soap,  which is set in Brazil in the late 1970s during the last years of the authoritarian regime, but which is told in a kind of kitschy way. So there are different strands in there already.

P:  Ok,  there are a few countries or areas whose film industries seem particularly rich with politics, particularly South Korea which brings out a lot of genre films  horror films and social fables and political thriller which refer to its own years of military dictatorship (eg. Memories of Murder or  The President’s Last Bang)  and also Iran with its almost exclusively serious and confrontational films about various social ills (most recently A Separation). There’s almost no humour in the latter but they’re compelling. Compelling for two reasons: the window into another culture and insights into problems that we share. A Separation has much to do with the judicial process which is eye opening.  It’s very confrontational but they are also talking about the issues at ground level. Those films still only get marginal release but the flag is flying for Iranian cinema. To a lesser extent South Korea which more popcorn enjoyable films like the host which itself has a lot to say about the American influence on the economy and culture (it’s where the monster comes from). And really quite a lot of Korean films about revenge and “natural justice”. Interesting films because there’s nothing Western about them.

You mentioned that there is a balance struck between heavy and light. Would films like The Mother or Memories of Murder have a place, as they do examine political and social issues but are also popcorn popular in their country of origin, have a place in the festival?

T:  Yeah, definitely. There’s the cinema that is emerging from the Arab spring. The only reason we haven’t been able to program any of that is really just logistics. ACMII stole our thunder and screened some of the things we wanted, films like Microphone. We do try to tap into those areas and there are a lot of films coming out of that region.

But there is a balance, The opening film  is Under African Skies, which is about Paul Simon's Graceland record. It is directed by Joe Berlinger, who did the Metallica film, Some Kind of Monster, and also Crude. Under African Skies is pretty light and populist. It’s mostly about the recording of the album and its reception. It does tap into some of the surrounding issues about apartheid and the cultural embargos that were in force at the time. So there are those elements but it’s as much a music doco as anything else. So, those sorts of films can come through. The populist element plays a role. The entertainment value plays a role.

P:  That, I think, is important to get across. I haven’t found that message coming through so strongly but then again I haven’t seen the full program.

Let’s talk selection. What’s the approach and do the other festivals in the calendar in any way rivals for material?

T:  They can. There is a hierarchy. One of our prime questions is: has it screened nationally somewhere? We try to get the national premiere but are happy to offer the Melbourne premiere. There’s also context. If it’s sufficiently worthy and different we might well screen it along with one of the other festivals, such as one of the ethically based festivals or the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, say. We also have to deal with how the film has been distributed. That can make a difference. The producers and teams behind the films may have an international strategy and say, “well we’d like to screen it with you but we’d rather go with MIFF”.

P:  The thing that might damage your claim the most would be that, the perception that you are on the lower end of the pecking order if only because you’re new on the block.

T:  It’s true, at this stage, we are quite low.

P:  I don’t think it would necessarily work against you but for the possibility that your program might lack the variety that the others revel in.

My concern is that after all the boss hens are sated, is there a festival that does justice to the concept or has there been the perception “if only we’d have got that we could have had a coup” which might have raised the profile?

T:  Yeah I think that there are certain films that could help that but I really don’t know that those films on their own are going to do that because it’s as much about how we promote ourselves and how we screen the films. Part of what we have to do is use the pull factor, something special that we can do for them, something that even MIFF can’t do. So our task is finding that special thing, a special context that we can give the film, a way that we present it and a certain audience that we get for a screening and a certain attention that we can give it which you might not get in the MIFF context . Our task is not just to get those bigger films.  I should add too that the bigger festivals also can offer a lot of new work from auteurs which are a big draw.

P:  Are we talking the unapproachable cinegod like Godard or some more amenable auteurs who might, if you paid their way come and represent their work here.

T:  It is some of that, getting the bigger names. It’s also some of the newer filmmakers. I think we really need to plug in more effectively (and this is part of teaching audiences):  this is a new auteur, this is a new exciting filmmaker. And whether or not we can get them in person, we can at least let people know that there is a kind of urgency in being there to see their work. You pointed it out before: out of all the social media and cultural sources out there, why would someone go out on a  Thursday or Friday night to a HRAFF film when they can do so many other things or when MIFF is only one or two months away? I think there’s a need to create that sense of urgency that this is an established filmmaker and it’s not just some kid out of college who’s politically engaged and has shot something cheaply that looks like a student film. Because we’re really not looking for that we’re looking for high quality products. So, I think it’s definitely something we need to work more toward, really promoting new wave filmmakers and new wave films as well. This is what ACMII and MIFF do, they’ve obviously got more money and exposure than us . But I think there are ways we can also tap into that and potentially show what they don’t show, more subversive things, perhaps. That also ties into what we’re doing to tap into different regions of the world , different cultural expressions and maybe sometimes even more problematic areas around human rights and political issues . We should never be about promoting a single idea. And I think HRAFF doesn’t do that. It is willing to show films that challenge ideas about human rights and even shock some people about what a human rights festival might do. I don’t think we do enough of that yet. There’s still a bit of a safety and populism. That’s part of the discussions you have as a film programmer.

There was one film Phnom Penh Lullaby that I and a fellow programmer thought was an incredible film but very problematic and ambiguous. Other festival programmers really struggled with it as a film and whether or not it was exploitative.

I think we really need to think more clearly and confidently about the value of having some of those films in and these new wave filmmakers and what is current in terms of thinking about cinema like the docufiction thing. How do we deal with that? Everything that’s happening on Youtube. Web series. All those things. How are people receiving and understanding things and how can we work with that environment Maybe even politically challenge that environment in a clever way . How are things being represented? How are people experiencing film? How are they getting their knowledge of the world and how can we get films that deal with that ?

P:  It’s not just locating the filmmakers and the films and trying to identify them with what’s happening throughout the world, keeping a finger on the pulse, but it’s important as a crossover to think of the legitimacy of having high quality films. But YT and FB have changed the game of what  a showcase of the moving image might be, from the Avatars down to the smaller indies. There is also YT used to everything from jokes to guerrilla cinema, a link with Soviet era samizdat; anything forbidden that is allowed to flow.

Is there a possibility with something happening with these more immediate media outlets on the guerrilla level (as well as oddities like Kony 2012) Can the website be further engaged to point to this kind of activity. Might that not be an enriching thing?

T:  I think so and using panel discussions for those sorts of things and the arts side of the human rights festival you could have installations that deal with that. While I’m not so familiar with the greater arts context of the festival I can see the need to embrace the new media and also just the online interactive documentaries they talk about these days . I think there’s definitely ways we need to plug into that but I also think that what’s important and I think you would agree with me here that is creating this kind of cinema space unto itself and that doesn’t mean naively harking back to some golden age but i think it is important to preserve some kind of viewing experience in the context of everything else that’s going on and I think that’s why these festivals are so important and the microcinema s that you’ve been involved with and myself as well. You know to keep that unique and distinct experience alive as well in relation to all these other sorts of things going on. So I think there’s a double role there, if I can put it like that.

Me again. The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is runs from the 15th to the 27th of May in Melbourne and then travels to other cities. I'll be going and reviewing. Details HERE

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