Film reviews

Adopting Ali

Letters to Ali
dir. Clara Law

‘One day I picked up my DV camcorder and followed Trish and her family, travelling 6000km across Australia through a desert to a remote detention centre, to visit an Afghan boy with whom they had been exchanging letters for 18 months.’ Clara Law (Floating Life, 1996, The Goddess of 1967, 2000) accompanies the Kerbi/Silberstein family on one of their extraordinary journeys to Port Hedland to see a boy called Ali, who came to Australia as an unaccompanied asylum seeker.

Letters to Ali continues Clara Law’s preoccupation with identity and migration. Ali is a 15-year-old Afghan boy who is in mandatory detention at Port Hedland. Tarkovsky called making films sculpting in time: Clara Law is a species of director who carves away at her subject with a sort of relentless gentleness. The film starts with a series of personal statements in text followed by stunningly simple imagery. Law’s amazement at having her own garden after growing up in Macau and Hong Kong reminds us of Australia’s ‘we’ve boundless plains to share’. This eventually resonates with why Trish Kerbi started to experience nausea whenever she heard Advance Australia Fair.

In the end this film is not just about its title subject, but about the Kerbi-Silberstein family and how Australia has become a country in which they no longer feel at home. Trish Kerbi was the instigator of the letters to a number in Port Hedland that turned out to be a 15-year-old boy. She is a country GP, living in a sprawling, self-built house on a few acres with her husband and four kids, horses, ducks, dogs and cats. It is an image of rational paradise, of being surrounded by natural beauty, living the productive and rewarding life. Her kids are like Aussie spring lambs, frolicking in a life of security and unconditional love. They grow healthily for themselves and for others: they are able to extend their privilege to the egregiously deprived Ali. To Trish, her husband Rob Silberstein and their kids, extending their good fortune in life to someone so much less lucky, is a natural thing, a genuine commitment. In writing and receiving the letters they come to know him as a person and Trish soon becomes ‘Mum’ to Ali.

They try to adopt him as their son, to make him an official part of their family, and run into the predictable problems that are imposed by the kind of people who caused Ali’s predicament in the first place. When they try to put adoption procedures in place they are mired in legal technicalities of such finessed complexity that it is hard to say exactly what they are. In doing this they come into contact with the Australia-wide network of pro bono lawyers who save us from complete shame as a nation by going in to bat for these victims of our racist fear.

Letters To Ali joins the growing chorus of compassion that comes from documentary makers from Mike Moore down: Molly and Mobarak, Anthem, and the countless smaller statements, rarely seen on big screen or commercial TV, all moved by the generosity that ultimately marks us as truly human rather than political robots. Go and see it.

Juliette Hughes

Oh, the horror

The Village
dir. M. Night Shyamalan

I was very excited when I saw the trailer for The Village—not because I’m a Shyamalan fan, though The Sixth Sense was an enjoyable and effective thriller. What excited me was the way in which The Village’s premise appeared to strip the genre down to its barest and most archaic elements—the uneasy tension between the seen and the unseen, the village and the forest, the light and the darkness (it’s no accident that the film’s heroine is blind).

The period and setting of the film are (deliberately) unclear, but appears to be a 19th-century Quaker-cum-Amish village, located in a picturesque valley surrounded by a dark and lowering forest. In this forest live ‘those of whom we do not speak’, beasts or monsters or men with whom the villagers have an uneasy truce of fear—the villagers don’t go into their forest, and the unnamed ones don’t go into the villagers’ valley. As the story begins, this truce appears to be unravelling. Livestock are found skinned but uneaten in the fields, secrets and tensions in the village abound, signs and portents loom, and some of the villagers are drawn by the lure of the corrupt and evil towns on the other side of the forest.

Shyamalan draws out the barrier between the villagers and their Other with an almost abstract simplicity. The forest leans against the valley like a wall, a border literally guarded by towers and watchers; to even take a single step into it is to hear the unnamed and unseen rustling and watching from the bushes. At weddings the forest is ritualistically hurled it’s share of the feast; red is ‘the bad colour’, which attracts the beasts, yellow the ‘safe colour’ which the villagers must wear as they approach the forest wall, and with which they paint the poles that mark out their border. One of most potent moments in the film occurs when two girls, sweeping a porch with balletic fervour, spy a red blossom peeping out of the ground, and rush to pluck and bury it.

One of the attractions of what I saw in the trailer was the possibility of a genuinely political fable—‘terror’ stripped back to it’s essentials, the unknown and unspeakable ‘they’ who threaten society, but also mould it into a cohesive and compliant mass to be led by men who preach fear as their one, true gospel.
But sadly, the fantasy film I created in my mind between seeing the trailer and seeing the film, was simply never there. Shyamalan’s all too predictable final twist does indeed turn the film into a political fable, but one about isolationism, and the need to turn one’s back to the corrupt and dangerous world outside. His mastery of the formal elements of the thriller is undeniable, but his whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Allan James Thomas

Flat white

Coffee and Cigarettes
dir. Jim Jarmusch

No point hiding my obsession with the films of Jim Jarmusch under a bushel. Ever since seeing his second feature, Down by Law, (back in the mid-80s) I have awaited every one of his strange films with an uncommon level of excitement. I have dragged an old water stained poster of Down by Law around with me for more than a decade. It is my version of the teenage band poster on the back of the bedroom door. Down by Law was like a pop song for me—it marked a moment. Anyway, you get the point.

Coffee and Cigarettes is a feature made up of 11 shorts. Each vignette shares the loose theme of drinking coffee (or tea in one case) and smoking. Jarmusch has employed this structure successfully before in films such as Night on Earth and more loosely in his first feature Stranger than Paradise. He clearly enjoys the lightness of the fleeting moment and the short film format allows him to explore exactly that—single, contained moments of nothing that open up a world of suggestion and mood rather than complicated plotting.

Jarmusch’s films have been both pilloried and praised for this cool off-hand style, and there is no doubt Coffee and Cigarettes will divide the critics
again. In fact it blows a great big raspberry at anyone searching for action or notable activity on screen. And despite my predisposition to like anything Jarmusch makes, this is the film’s great downfall. In the past, Jarmusch has managed to squeeze a magical strangeness out of the tiniest situations, but not this time. He has a cast that would make any director weep, but gets virtually nothing out of them—Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Steven Wright, Roberto Benigni, Cate Blanchett and the list goes on.

There are no great moments in any of the films that make up Coffee and Cigarettes. There are only better moments than others. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan are always a treat to watch on screen but here they are really making the best of an ordinary little story. It should have represented the worst of the vignettes, instead it was one of the best.

The only real highlight for me was the final film played out by William Rice and Taylor Mead; two old men on a coffee break. One floating on the outskirts of senility, the other planted darkly in reality. I was moved, genuinely. But the wait was too long, and remember, I’m a die hard fan.

Siobhan Jackson



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