A freelance writer and copywriter for over fifteen years, Helene has written for publications and brands all over the world and couldn’t imagine herself in any other job. A shameless film freak, her first onscreen experience involved a trip to Avondale’s Hollywood Theatre at the age of five to see Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and she hasn’t looked back since. A big fan of documentaries, she has interviewed subjects as diverse as Henry Rollins, Jimmy Choo and Beyonce Knowles, and also has her own beauty blog - which can be found at www.mshelene.com - for the purpose of raving about red lipstick, big hair and other essential indulgences.

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SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR

Posted on Thursday 16/11/2017 November, 2017 by

A few months ago I reviewed a great documentary on here called SATAN LIVES. It chronicled all manner of theories about the Man With Horns, and also talked about the daycare witch-hunts in the early eighties that occurred after the release of the book ‘Michelle Remembers’. For those unfamiliar with the tome, it was the story of a young woman named Michelle Smith, who was a patient of distinguished psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Pazder, in Victoria, Canada, during the late 1970s. Pazder was married, a devout traditional Catholic family man, and Michelle presented originally with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Pazder suspected child abuse might be a factor in Michelle’s psychological problems, but she had no memories of such, so Pazder started probing her subconscious memory through hypnosis. These hypnotherapy sessions became more and more frequent, sometimes lasting a day. After several years of treating Michelle, Pazder divorced his wife, Michelle divorced her husband, and Lawrence and Michelle got married to each other and published ‘Michelle Remembers’. The book detailed the horrific sexual abuse and torture that Michelle supposedly suffered at the hands of a sadistic satanic abuse cult, as a very young girl. Pazder became an expert in “recovered memory”, and as more and more everyday parents began to question the slightest changes in the behaviour of their toddlers, the US became obsessed by the idea of satanic abuse in the childcare system. The specific cases detailed in the film are terrifying, and it goes without saying that the book has subsequently been discredited by several investigations that found no corroboration of the book's events. Others have pointed out that the events described in the book were extremely unlikely and in some cases even impossible, but nonetheless, lives were ruined on both sides.

Which bring me to the modern day witch hunt detailed in tonight’s documentary, SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR, which details a case some have called the “last gasp of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 80’s and early 90’s”. An unbelievable true crime story, it explores the nightmarish persecution of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, four young Latina lesbians who were wrongfully convicted of allegedly gang-raping two little girls in San Antonio, Texas. The film begins its journey inside a Texas prison, after these women have spent nearly a decade behind bars. They were just 19 and 20 years at the time that allegations surfaced, and it is immediately obvious that the situation has effectively broken their spirits. Director Deborah S. Esquenazi uses the women’s home video footage from 21 years ago to share their personal histories, then seamlessly adds in recent footage and interviews to expand the tale.15 years into their journey, she incredibly captures an on-camera recantation by one of the initial “victims”, now 25 years old although just seven at the time of the investigation. This brings the filmmaker into the role of investigator along with attorneys at the Innocence Project, who are just beginning their quest for truth in the case.

As poor, lesbian, women of colour, it is clear that the women hold intersecting identities that make them the most vulnerable to incarceration and juror bias. This under-reported injustice is reportedly widespread: Latina women represent one of the growing populations heading into prison. In addition, most reported exonerations and wrongful convictions focus solely on men, and cases involving women - let alone gay WOC - are largely under-reported. Unique to the San Antonio Four case, none of the four women ever took a plea bargain or even considered it, and this is despite the women serving their time in separate prisons and being permitted zero contact. Their unified innocence is palpable, and the frustration you feel as the documentary unfolds is incredible.

Together with attorneys, the film culminates with the women being released from prison to await exoneration hearings in San Antonio. Helming new legislation, theirs was the first case in U.S. history that allowed wrongfully convicted innocents to challenge convictions based on ‘Junk Science’, or debunked forensics. This is evidence used by prosecutors that they think is based on science, but which, on later examination, does not stand up to scientific testing. Junk science! With no DNA evidence to support their convictions, this is what a lot of what their incarceration came down to, and it was the same “science” used alongside recovered memory at the heart of the aforementioned daycare trials.

Anyway, this is a fantastically crafted film that I believe will give hope to innocent people who have been convicted everywhere. It ends on the women’s lives now – and that of one of their key accusers – and it is testament to their forgiving natures and incredible personal strength that they are all putting their lives together again, piece by tiny piece.

A triumph in the true crime genre.

SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR premieres Thursday 16 November 8.30pm on Rialto Channel 

Watch trailer here

 

SATUDARAH: ONE BLOOD

Posted on Thursday 9/11/2017 November, 2017 by

When it comes to notorious, rabble-rousing motorcycle gangs, you may have heard of the Hells Angels in the US, Bandidos in Australia, and the likes of Black Power and Mongrel Mob here in little old New Zealand. But have you heard of Satudarah? I never had before watching tonight’s true crime documentary on Rialto Channel, SATUDARAH: ONE BLOOD, but by god I was intrigued.

The Satudarah are known as the Netherlands' most feared biker gang, and with good reason. They frequently make headlines across Europe due to their alleged involvement in large-scale drug trafficking, extortion and murder. Busts on members’ private homes and clubhouses happen regularly, and their highest-ranking members are constantly in and out of prison, and the front pages of the press.

A relatively recent phenomenon in the history of outlaw bike gangs, the club was only founded in 1990 in Moordrecht in Holland’s south, starting with just seven members, most of whom were ex-soldiers. These days, there are more than 40 chapters across the Netherlands, and the gang has also gone international with a presence everywhere from Norway to Spain, Indonesia, Thailand, Belgium, France and even Australia – although the Sydney chapter was reportedly raided and shut down not long ago.

Unique in the fact that they are a multi-ethnic gang, initially, the Satudarah were ethnic Moluccans from the Maluku Islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The story goes that following WWII, the Moluccans helped the Dutch re-establish the Dutch East Indies as a colony. Known for their fighting skills, they served in the Dutch East India Army before 1949, and also fought with the Dutch against the Indonesian independence movement As a result, the Moluccans were seen by other Indonesians as traitors and were eventually forced to migrate to Holland. The Moluccans said the Netherlands had promised to help them shape a homeland, but the vow was never fulfilled.

In 1951, the Dutch Government re-housed South Moluccans in a former Nazi concentration camp where an estimated 15,000 Jews were confined during the German occupation in World War II. Today many of them still live in rural areas, where they feel displaced and mistreated with good reason. As with any culture that has been treated indelicately and taken from their homeland, they have suffered greatly as a result, and convictions for crime amongst the small ethnic group has been high.

The latter is explored to some extent in SATUDARAH: ONE BLOOD, which gives real insight into what makes the unusual gang of misfits tick. As aforementioned, Satudarah permits members from any ethnic or religious background, and filmmakers Joost van der Valk and Mags Gavan who were given exclusive fly-on-the-wheel insider access to the gang demonstrate this ably. It’s interesting to note that in their world traditionally 'classical' ideals like virility, brotherhood, loyalty, courage and spirituality are held in extraordinarily high value, and they live by some very strict codes.

One of the most realistic documentaries about outlaw clubs I think I’ve ever seen, SATUDARAH: ONE BLOOD is by no means perfect, but its fly-on-the-wall access is a credit to the filmmakers. The film provides a broad view of the club and still remains relatively objective, with an equal emphasis on both their strong Moluccan traditions and their terrifying impact on those that cross them in the criminal underworld. An interesting watch on a fascinating subject.

SATUDARAH: ONE BLOOD premieres Thursday 9 November 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

Watch the trailer here

Remote record here

15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY, on condemning children to die in prison

Posted on Thursday 2/11/2017 November, 2017 by

“One day, I’m 15 years old I’m in society then… next I’m out. You telling me that I’m gonna never go home?” 

Writing about documentaries over the past few years I’ve had the chance to see some pretty humbling and disturbing stories, and probably use the term “heartbreaking” to describe way too many of them. Not many have actually moved me to tears however, but tonight’s film 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY most definitely did that.

Directed and written by Nadine Pequeneza, it tells the story of a young black man called Kenneth Young, who is sentenced to what equates to a life – and more – in prison for his role in several armed robberies. This is despite the fact that he was a troubled 14-year-old at the time, and wasn’t actually armed.

“They was like, ‘Mr. Young, you know, you’re not going home, you’re going to die in prison’,” says Young in the opening minutes. “It’s just like one day I’m 15 years old, I’m in society. Then, the next day, I’m not and you’re telling me I’m gonna never go home? That’s kind of like, hard to deal with. And I couldn’t grab the concept of that.” I challenge anyone to say that they could, and when more of his background is revealed it demonstrates that the poor kid definitely had the numbers stacked against him from day one.

With a mother who was a crack addict at the time and 15-year-old sister with a baby that he was forced to drop out of school at the age of eleven to watch, it’s clear from early on that Young’s violent neighbourhood and problematic home heavily influenced his actions. Jacques Bethea, the man who coerced him into crime and Kenneth’s mother’s crack dealer, also played a major role. He was the man holding the gun, known to be a violent character and supposedly threatened the teen’s life if he did not assist in the robberies. And despite all of this, Bethea actually ended up with a lesser sentence than Young, how bloody unfair is that?

In prison now, serving four consecutive life sentences, Young - who was tried as an adult - is one of 200 Florida prisoners sentenced to life when they were children. The United States is the only country in the world that routinely condemns children to die in prison. 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY is the story of one of those children, now seeking a second chance in Florida with the help of a dedicated, kick arse legal team.

As the film goes on it suggests that Young’s case is complicated by the fact that it’s over a decade old and by Florida’s wildly unpleasant history regarding black men, in particular, a pattern of fear and punishment that extends into today’s penal system. Quite appallingly, it turns out to be complicated even more by what he’s done right during his time inside. When the judge hearing his case assesses that his good behaviour and impressive educational achievements only go to show that his imprisonment has been appropriate, I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. A kindly retired warden, Ron McAndrew testifies on Young’s behalf, saying: “nobody’s handed him a thing. Because of the length of his sentence, [the state] won’t give him a GED program. They won’t give him any education because they feel it’s a waste”. The emotions passing over Young’s face as the court case goes on are so hard to watch, and yep, with undoubtedly lead to more than one viewer’s “leaky eyes”.

Young’s story is incredibly sad, and even sadder is the fact that he is not alone. The United States justice system has sent 2,500 children to life without parole since the early 1990’s. 70 percent of those crimes by juveniles were, like Young’s, under the direction of an adult. If by watching 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY even a handful of people are moved to help bring about change then it is more than worthwhile – the fact that it is a captivating watch is an added bonus.

15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY premieres Thursday 2 November 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

THE QUEEN OF IRELAND and LITTLE WHITE LIE

Posted on Wednesday 25/10/2017 October, 2017 by

This week’s documentaries on Rialto Channel, THE QUEEN OF IRELAND and LITTLE WHITE LIE both focus on identity, and the way that your culture defines you as a person – whether you like it or not. It can also force you into activism, and the two personalities that the films shine a light on do that in very different ways.

Tonight’s film is THE QUEEN OF IRELAND, a documentary that follows famous Irish drag queen Panti Bliss. Hailed as “part glamorous aunt and part Jessica Rabbit”, she a wittily incisive performer who is widely regarded as one of the best drag queens in the world. Director Conor Horgan is a longtime friend of the infamous Panti, so he couldn’t be more qualified to bring her story to the big screen.

Created by Rory O'Neill, Panti started out as an alternative way to make a living but also became an accidental activist, and in her own words “a court jester, whose role is to say the un-sayable”. Horgan apparently just set out to create a profile of Panti with the documentary, but then the now-infamous “Pantigate” happened and his film took a more dramatic turn. In an interview on a popular Irish talk show, host Brendan O’Connor asked Rory – as himself, not Panti - to name some of Ireland’s most prolific homophobic public figures. And so he did. But despite very concrete evidence to support Rory’s claim, those named got litigious. And they got paid. With the public on her side, Panti found herself at the forefront of an equality movement. Her campaign officially kicked off with what’s now known as the “Noble Call” speech – a monologue where she opined that homophobia is a sickness that afflicts the whole of Ireland, because it was bred into them. Even she suffers from it, when she “checks herself” on a street corner to make sure she isn’t drawing too much attention to her “gayness.” Unsurprisingly, the speech went viral, and her profile rocketed.

The film continues to follow Rory/Panti in the lead up to 22 March, 2015, when Ireland became the first country in the world to choose, by popular vote, to allow same-sex marriage. This, in a country where there were supposedly no "out" gay men 30 years ago. It is an emotional and incredible moment, and Horgan captures every moment through Panti’s eyes.

The style of filmmaking is quite standard, but the subject matter elevates it to the status of a “must watch”. Rory O’Neill is such a likeable and clever figurehead, and even his reflective moments are tinged with a sad wit. On living with HIV, he says: “I made my AIDS-y bed, now I must lie in it”, and jokes that the diagnosis effectively killed his love life. The film is full of warts n’ all moments, as well as real human fears as Rory considers whether material about “anal fissures” is suitable or not for a hometown show in front of his parents. Watching Panti perform to a loving home crowd in her birthplace of Ballinrobe, a small town in County Mayo, is a moment of pure joy – and the perfect ending to a great film.

LITTLE WHITE LIE is another close examination of a life, this time following filmmaker Lacey Schwartz as she delves into her history – at times reluctantly. Schwatrz’s story begins with her growing up in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity - despite the questions from those around her about how a Jewish girl could have such dark skin. She believes her family's explanation that her looks were inherited from her dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather, and a lack of siblings meant that she only had her parents to compare herself to. But as the years go by her gut starts to tell her something different.

She says in a recent interview that as she got older, she began “questioning my whiteness because of what other people said and because I was aware that I looked different from my family,” and when you look at her it’s no surprise. She said nothing to her family, but was bothered by the issue enough not to know what ethnicity box to tick on her college application. So, based on the photograph accompanying her application, Georgetown University passed her name along to the black student association, which contacted her.

The university “gave me permission” to explore a black identity, Schwartz says, but it’s a culture she was unsure how to inhabit. After her first year however, she finally confronts her mother, and Peggy Schwartz acknowledges that her biological father was not the man who raised her, but a black man named Rodney with whom her mother had an affair. The scenes as she attempts to discuss the situation with her “daddy” are fraught with emotion as he is forced to confront his own feelings about the fact that she isn’t his biological child. How long did he know? He doesn’t say, clearly uncomfortable with the intrusion.

A film about denial, race, family secrets and a search for identity, it’s interesting to note that learning that she was half-black did not fundamentally change the way Lacey saw herself, she says it did influence how she saw the world. It’s a strange film in that everyone seemed to know about Peggy’s affair but was simply unable to admit to it, or to acknowledge Lacey’s obvious biracial makeup. I would like to have seen more of that explored, and perhaps one day it will be.

 

Lacey Schwartz talked to Francesca Rudkin ahead of the premiere of Little White Lie on Rialto Channel:


Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October

 

HARRY & SNOWMAN and DANCER

Posted on Wednesday 18/10/2017 October, 2017 by

“Throw your heart over the top, and your horse will follow,” says a student of champion show jumper Harry deLeyer; recalling some of the most sage advice from her much loved riding teacher. It is the perfect quote to sum up the life and work of deLeyer, whose extraordinary experiences with one very special horse are on show in tonight’s documentary, HARRY & SNOWMAN.

A Dutch immigrant, deLeyer relocated to the United States after witnessing the horrors of World War II and developed a transformative relationship with a broken down, Amish plow horse he rescued off a slaughter truck bound for the glue factory. Costing him the princely sum of eighty dollars, the horse, which he called Snowman for its white coat, was mostly a salvage effort. Despite thinking he was a pretty sweet little guy, Harry soon sold him to a local doctor friend to honour an agreement, and his story could have ended there. However, after Snowman repeatedly jumped the doctor's fences, only to return to Harry's home several miles away, it was determined that the rather special white horse was destined for bigger things.

In less than two years, Harry and his trusty steed Snowman went on to win the triple crown of show jumping, beating the nation’s blue bloods with aplomb. As they became increasingly famous they began to travel the world together, and the documentary offers up the idea that their chance meeting at a Pennsylvania horse auction saved them both and kicked off a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

When we meet him in the film, tough taskmaster deLeyer is pushing 86 and still riding as often as he can. We see archival footage of the pair and Snowman’s talents slowly unfolding: in summer he is a super cute water taxi for a bunch of lucky children; in winter he pulls them on skis. This footage of the much-loved horse is in interesting juxtaposition to scenes featuring deLeyer’s family, including hints that he may not quite have been the model dad. His daughter Harriet doesn’t hesitate when admitting that the horses always took priority over his eight children, as did his own illustrious career. “A lot of times the kids went without so that he could have,” she says.

If this nod to deLeyer’s darkness had been investigated further I think it would have given the film a more compelling vibe, but maybe I’m just looking for controversy when viewing what is a pretty feelgood film. I love that it almost doubles as an animal-rescue advocacy tool, and wish it had first aired during the school holidays as I think a lot of horsey kids would have loved the tale.

A film that doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker side of a famous name is tomorrow night’s documentary, DANCER. Filmmaker Steven Cantor shines his lens on the life and career of troubled-at-times ballet super talent Sergei Polunin, from his prodigal beginnings in the Ukraine to his awe-inspiring performances all over the world.

It is interesting to observe as the film goes on exactly how much the young star was living his mother’s dream, as much as his own. Both his father and grandmother left the Ukraine to work and send money home to support the young boy and his mother as she took him to the best ballet schools available, and their dedication to the task is heartbreaking to watch. Without his family’s support, he would never have had his chance, but it also became their collective downfall. When, after years of struggle, he was eventually accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London (where he was to become the youngest ever principal), he had to leave his family behind due to visa problems. His motivation for becoming a star dancer was to bring the family back together again - but his parents’ inevitable divorce destroys that dream.

Cantor has done a great job of telling Polunin’s story thus far, and the incredible archival footage of him dancing from a very young age is absolutely extraordinary. It underlines again and again what an absolutely freak talent the dancer is, and how hard he has worked since he was a very little boy to be the best. Scenes of him rehearsing with an almost savage intensity as a student in London is wonderfully juxtaposed against private footage of after-hours shenanigans with his mates, demonstrating how easily he could transition into being just another teenage goof.

A willing participant who seems almost relieved to have his tale told in full, Polunin speaks frankly about the physical grind, loneliness, and monotony of his life in ballet and of his struggle to stay motivated after quickly achieving every goal he set himself when starting out.

He’s been called the “bad boy of ballet” but I saw little evidence of this in the film, instead witnessing breathtaking talent and a young man who questions his commitment to dance just as he is about to become a legend.

After he went viral as the star of David LaChapelle’s short dance film set to Hozier's "Take Me to Church", Polunin came out of retirement and returned to the stage, one hopes on his own terms. Apparently his sights are now set on Hollywood, where if he applies the same dedication and intensity, he will surely shine.

Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October

 

 

AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY and HOOLIGAN SPARROW

Posted on Tuesday 10/10/2017 October, 2017 by

In the course of this job – and years as a documentary obsessive – I have heard and seen some pretty crazy tales. Tonight’s documentary, AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY has just been added to the top three weirdest and damn, it had me totally transfixed.

The definitive look inside the mysterious case of early 2000s literary sensation JT LeRoy, it is an absolute rollercoaster from start to finish. On January 9th 2006, the New York Times sent shockwaves through the literary world when it unmasked “it boy" LeRoy, whose tough prose about a sordid childhood had captivated celebrities and literary world icons alike. He had been photographed and publically adored by everyone from Tom Waits to a gushing Winona Ryder; yet 16-year-old JT didn’t actually exist. He was the creative expression of troubled 40-something San Francisco former phone-sex operator turned housewife, Laura Albert. It has been said that LeRoy was a creature so perfect for his time that if he didn't exist, someone would have definitely made him up.

It begins with the origins of an unknown writer called Terminator, whose acclaim in underground literary circles sees him attain almost overnight cult celebrity status. Revealing himself to be Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy (JT for short), the writer went on to release a series of books chronicling his experiences as a queer, gender-fluid teenager, raised in rural West Virginia by his prostitute mother. The world devoured his work. Celebrities clambered to find out what the mysterious savant looked like to the point where he finally made an appearance - in a blonde wig, sunglasses, and black hat, hanging with everybody from Asia Argento to Courtney Love, and Bono. Overweight, reclusive Albert couldn’t manage to pass herself off as a waif-like teen, so she engaged her androgynous sister-in-law for the task and JT was a hit. Albert soon developed her own personality to tag along - a brash, British woman named “Speedie”.

So yep, things got weird. It’s almost hard to keep up with the deception as a viewer, and it’s obvious that for Albert, it was both exhilarating and bloody terrifying. How she found time to raise a child and write novels while the whole mess was going on, I don’t know. As you watch the archival footage director Jeff Feuerzeig has collected and the home-movies and recorded phone conversations Albert has saved, it’s hard to believe that so many people could have been fooled for so long. This documentary is the first time that Albert has publicly given her perspective on the whole chaotic mess, and she reveals not only the JT LeRoy story, but her own history with gender identity, mental illness, and sexual abuse. She is clearly a troubled woman and never viewed JT LeRoy’s fame as a literary hoax, but rather that the young author was just another part of her.

I agree with one commentator who said that this film is not only a chronicle of a bizarre moment in pop culture, but also a “study in the gullibility and narcissism of the celebrity class”. JT Leroy’s friends included everyone from Bono and Courtney Love to Billy Corgan, whilst filmmakers Gus Van Sant and Asia Argento’s passion when confronted by the young talent is seriously embarrassing to watch. The most cringe-inducing scene for me was the footage from an early-2000s event in New York City where Winona Ryder gushes over their friendship and Lou Reed is among those who read from the young author’s works. Phenomenal.

It was interesting to read about an upcoming film directed by Justin Kelly based on the memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy by Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. It stars Laura Dern as Albert and Kristen Stewart as JT/Savannah, and the story coming to the big screen was inevitable. It’s just sad to think that Albert wasn’t the first person to profit off the expose.

I’ve ranted on a bit about AUTHOR, but also want to stress how equally as great Thursday’s documentary, HOOLIGAN SPARROW is. Over the course of the film, a young filmmaker named Nanfu Wang follows activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a the Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant Chinese government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. Filmmaker Wang becomes a target too, but keeps shooting, guerrilla-style, with secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses. In the process, she exposes a startling number of undercover security agents on the streets. Eventually, through smuggling footage back to her home in Brooklyn, NY Wang is able tell the story.

Part political thriller and part character study, the film sheds a truly unflattering light on China's secret police and within days of an announcement in the US that the film had been shortlisted for an Academy Award, government authorities visited Wang’s family in China. Terrifying, and a brilliant and vital watch.

Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October

 

Up close and personal: BOBBY SANDS: 66 DAYS & HOCKNEY

Posted on Wednesday 4/10/2017 October, 2017 by

This week for Rialto Channel I have been tasked with writing about two very different personalities, both of whom are the subject of two very different documentaries that attempt to go beneath the surface and discover what makes the men tick.

In tonight’s film, BOBBY SANDS: 66 DAYS, director Brendan Byrne offers us an insight into the life and death of political prisoner Bobby Sands, a modern-day Irish martyr. Documentaries that look into the thoughts of desperate, incarcerated men are common, and their stories usually both compelling and polarising. A few weeks’ ago I looked at the film CHASING ASYLUM, which tells the story of Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. It highlighted the sense of hopelessness brought about by long-term detention, with tales of detainees setting themselves on fire, stitching their lips and eyelids shut, and more. Bobby Sands’ own incarceration wasn’t quite as long as many of those innocent men, but for him it felt just as unjust and his actions just as extreme.

In the spring of 1981, the proud Irish Republican embarked on 66-day hunger strike that brought the attention of the world to his cause. Drawing on an Irish Republican tradition of martyrdom, Sands and nine other men - all prisoners at the infamous "H-Block" in Northern Ireland -starved themselves to death over the course of almost six months, in protest at the British government’s refusal to give political prisoner status to those who had been incarcerated for actions associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Sands was the first to participate and the first to die after a long, painful process that would leave him blind, unable to be touched by even blankets, and with a physique akin to a bag of bones. He was just 27 at the time of his death, and had spent the majority of his adult life imprisoned in the same location.

The film doesn't tell us much about the man behind the story, but it does examine the reasons Sands became an icon for the cause, and the worldwide face of the conflict. I was disappointed not to discover more about the man behind the story, but the film does demonstrate how Sands’ non-violent protest became a defining moment in 20th-century Irish history. His death was a key turning point in the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and it has been said that it turned a global spotlight onto the conflict that eventually triggered international efforts to sort the whole damn mess.

The following evening Rialto Channel presents HOCKNEY, which sees charismatic British artist David Hockney take director Randall Wright on an exclusive tour of his archives and into his studio, where he still paints seven days a week. It’s interesting that I left this film feeling a little short-changed as well, despite the fascinating nature of its subject. It’s definitely one for diehard fans of the artist but doesn’t deliver much for those perhaps less familiar with Hockney and wanting to know more. Indeed Hockney was an important contributor to the pop art movement of the 1960s and is considered by many to be one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, but it’s the scenes depicting his heartbreak after the end of his first “real” relationship and his time discussing the climate when the Aids crisis took hold that I found most compelling as a viewer. I also loved details like the fact that a Clairol ad persuaded him to dye his hair blonde, and his fantasies about the surfers he discovered upon moving to Los Angeles. “He was really like a high-school girl about it,” a friend remarks, and the devil as they say, is always in these delicious details.

Part of the PERSONAL PORTRAITS season on Wednesdays and Thursdays in October at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel 

ELIAN – the boy that captured the hearts of the world

Posted on Thursday 28/09/2017 September, 2017 by

Executive-produced by Alex Gibney – the man Esquire magazine once said is “becoming the most important documentarian of our time", tonight’s film ELIAN is flawlessly executed, with a fascinating subject at its heart.

It tells the remarkable story of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who rose to international fame after he was plucked from the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. Footage of his rescue went worldwide, and when it was coupled with the news that he was the sole survivor of an ill-fated sea journey, hearts everywhere went out to the sad little boy. His mother, Elizabeth, and nine other people who were taking part in the clandestine trip drowned after their rickety boat capsized in high seas as they made their way from Cuba to the United States, and Elian was sent to live with relatives in Miami.

Soon, a custody battle erupted between Gonzalez's Cuban father and his aforementioned Miami-based relatives that sparked a flashpoint for long-simmering post-Cold War U.S. and Cuban tensions. The poor, lost little boy effectively became a political football. His Miami relatives argued passionately that if Elian was sent back to Cuba, he would become a brainwashed trophy for Cuban leader Fidel Castro in his long-running feud with the US. Miami’s Cuban-American population joined in their fight, saying they too wanted him to remain in the U.S. to flout their defiance of Castro. The U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Janet Reno, wanted to send him back to avoid a nightmare situation with Cuba, but also feared the inevitable political fallout. 

On the Cuban side, Elian's father, Juan Miguel, fought to bring the boy back to Cuba, whilst Castro led massive protests of his own on the island demanding Elian's return. When Elian's relatives in Miami continued to refuse to hand him over, a nighttime raid was put into action to get him out. Armed federal agents stormed the home of his uncle and seized the boy, with an Associated Press photograph of the terrified child, cowering as an officer in riot gear points an assault rifle at him, went global and inflamed passions even more.

Rioting broke out in Miami as many in the Cuban-American community reacted in anger, but after Elian was reunited with his father the Supreme Court rejected the Miami relatives' efforts to get him back. Father and son flew home to Cuba, and the boy – now a man – remains there to this day.

When little Elian returned to Cuba in 2000, the idea was for him to slip right back into a life far from the glare of the media spotlight he had endured in Miami. Seventeen years later, it hasn't quite worked out that way, but he seems to be a well-adjusted young guy and proud of his past. At 23 he is reportedly one of the most identifiable figures on the island and one of his generation's most outspoken supporters of the Cuban Revolution. He graduated from a military academy in 2016 with a degree in industrial engineering, and after Castro pretty much adopted him as a grandson, he seems none the worse for his childhood trauma.

The film tells his tale using archival footage as well as interviews with the subject today, and it is extremely well edited so as to get the maximum benefit from both. When Castro died at the end of last year, Gonzalez played a key role in the official mourning. "He was like a father," he said. "I wanted to show him what I had achieved so he would be proud of me." If he’d stayed in Miami the outcome could have been quite different I reckon, so give the film a watch and see what you think.

ELIAN premieres Thursday 28 September at 8.30pm

Watch trailer here

Remote record here

THE FAMILY: on the lives ruined by Australia’s most notorious cult

Posted on Thursday 21/09/2017 September, 2017 by

I’m happy to say that I’ve never had personal experience with the relatively modern phenomenon that is the “cult”, but I’ve come close. When I was a kid growing up in the leafy suburb of Titirangi in West Auckland, the word “Centrepoint” was being tossed around by my parents and their friends, a vision of a utopia just out of the city where families could be raised free of society’s rules and at one with nature and the like. The vision was a strong one, and many were tempted by the charm of its leader, Bert Potter. Lots of my friends disappeared with their parents to live at the commune, which set up on a large plot of land in still-rural Albany. My mum loved the idea of the place but didn’t like the idea of relinquishing all of our worldly possessions, and her very unpopular financial nous proved to be my saviour. My mates went on to have their young lives destroyed within the walls of what became a truly hideous example of power gone mad, the notorious “sex commune” run by self-styled therapist Potter not exposed for the hell that it was until many years later. The charismatic guru, along with seven men and two women, was later imprisoned for multiple counts of child sexual abuse and drug manufacturing. The fallout continues to this day.

I’ve also talked here about a well-made documentary about the early 70’s US psychedelic phenomenon THE SOURCE FAMILY, which I immediately thought back to when I watched tonight’s film, just called THE FAMILY. A true spiritual collective - a cult, if you will - of what ended up being about 140 members, the original Source Family group were a new age dream. Most of them were under 30 and good looking, they ate raw food and home-schooled their home-born children; they dressed in floaty robes and made “right on” sounds with their house band. At their head was Father Yod - a hairy individual who cruised around Los Angeles in a sweet Rolls Royce, was keen on “nice things” for the “life trip” and believed that money was “magical green energy that will produce anything for you instantly.” It was a winning formula for kids looking for an escape route, and they flocked to hear his every word. It all turned to hell in a handcart eventually and some its followers were irrevocably scarred by their experience, but it definitely didn’t have the heartbreaking effect on innocent children to the extent that Centrepoint did, or in fact the ones spoken to as adults in tonight’s film.

A raw, heartbreaking investigation into one of Australia's most notorious cults and the scars its survivors still bear today, THE FAMILY is the work of award-winning filmmaker, writer and editor, Rosie Jones. Jones had an incredible amount of material to work with for the film, including videotaped police interviews, TV reports from the period, and present-day interviews with witnesses. There are snippets of bizarre propaganda footage shot by the cult, and dramatic re-enactments illustrating bizarre details, such as cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne's habit of putting a hex on her enemies by writing their names on slips of paper frozen into ice cubes.

Hamilton-Byrne was definitely unusual, and for many, unusually compelling. She was beautiful, charismatic and also, incredibly dangerous. Convinced she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, Hamilton-Byrne truly ruled the sect, which was prominent in Melbourne from the 1960s through to the 1990s. With her husband Bill, she acquired numerous children - some through unbelievable adoption scams, some born to cult members - and raised them as her own, completely isolated from the outside world.

These poor children were dressed in matching outfits, had identical bleached blonde hair to appear more like a “family”, and were allegedly beaten, starved and injected with LSD. Taught that Hamilton-Byrne was both their mother and the messiah, the children were only rescued during a police raid in 1987. Many haven’t fared well on the outside, and the documentary shows former victims fidgeting nervously as they recount their stories to Jones' camera, while others look unsettlingly calm. Whatever their reaction, there is no disguising the pain they feel and the memories that can never be erased.

While nobody claims to understand what made the monstrous Hamilton-Byrne tick, the film gives us enough detail to speculate, although it is delivered in a bit of a scattered way. Her husband, the businessman Bill Byrne, remains a much more shadowy figure, as does Dr Raynor Johnson, the distinguished physicist who co-founded the cult.

Although not perfect by any means, this confronting documentary does effectively expose not just what happened within the still operating sect, but also within the conservative Melbourne community that allowed The Family to flourish. In fact, The Family lives on, and perhaps this film is not the last word on the bizarre beliefs that lie beneath.

THE FAMILY premieres Thursday 21 September on Rialto Channel at 8.30pm

Watch the trailer here

Remote record here

CHASING ASYLUM – Australia’s not-so-secret shame

Posted on Thursday 14/09/2017 September, 2017 by

Taking us inside Australia’s detention camps, tonight’s documentary CHASING ASYLUM is one of the most distressing – but important - films I have seen this year. It’s a film we all need to watch and subject matter we need to act upon, especially if we are to change the way first world nations everywhere react to people in need.

A harrowing 90 minutes in length, CHASING ASYLUM tells the story of Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, examining the human, political, financial and moral impact of current and previous policy. It features appearances from many of Australia’s former prime ministers and politicians, and confronts the country’s shameful, hard line policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore processing centres, effectively demonstrating how damaging and terrifying the places really are.

Crammed with damning testimony from brave whistle-blowers and disturbing footage of the truly wretched conditions inside camps on the island nations of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the frequently heartbreaking documentary created shockwaves on its home turf when it first aired, and unsurprisingly, stirred up plenty of interest elsewhere. It’s impossible not to be moved to tears at least once I reckon, and its incredibly moving yet minimalist delivery is a credit to its director, Academy award-winning filmmaker Eva Orner. Orner, who produced Alex Gibney’s also very affecting TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, focuses on the human cost of Australia’s hard line policy of offshore detention by using secretly filmed footage from places where no cameras or journalists are allowed. Orner and her team gathered heart-wrenching footage of detainees describing their reasons for seeking sanctuary and the sense of hopelessness brought about by long-term detention. Terrifying hidden camera footage also shows riots in progress and security personnel, some of them former nightclub bouncers from the Gold Coast, describing the centres’ residents as “c***s” and joking about the prospect of “shooting the f***ers”.

Equally as disturbing are the interviews with some of then university students with no experience in dealing with refugees that were hired as support staff on Nauru. Given no training other than to “go and be their friends,” these workers were immediately confronted by distressed and sometimes mentally ill detainees who had no idea about when, or if, they would ever leave. “Asking them not to kill themselves” is how one former staffer describes her main task on Nauru, and that included during conversations with adults and children. One support worker recalls being told about needing training on how to use a Hoffman knife. Asking why, she was told it is to cut people down when they’re found hanging. Others tell tales of detainees setting themselves on fire, stitching their lips and eyelids shut, and more. Allegations of the physical and sexual abuse of children are rampant, and graffiti scrawled above a line of payphones merely says: ‘“kill us”.

Orner won an Oscar for producing 2007’s TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, which was an investigation into torture practices conducted by America in the name of the “war on terror”. CHASING ASYLUM also shows us a government that bends the law to its own ends and even goes above it. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been found to violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture and has recently been ruled illegal by Papua New Guinea, yet change is slow, if at all.

It’s the small details in this grim but important film that make it so powerful, and so hard but essential to watch.


CHASING ASYLUM premieres Thursday 14 September at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

Watch the trailer here

Remote record here

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