Hey there, stranger! Where have you been these last twelve months?
2013 has been a strange year professionally. While I didn’t make a short film of my own this year, I began the year in a rather alien position for me -- shooting ‘B’ camera on my good pal Shane Dunlop’s sitcom LEONGATHA (which screened on C31 in Melbourne and Sydney mid-year). I say “alien” as I’ve rarely been a Camera Operator outside of one of my films or a school environment. It was a fantastic experience, working with a lovely crew on a fun, fast-paced shoot. I learned a lot, got some nice footage -- and the shoot introduced me to the glory of the 50mm lens, for which I shall be forever grateful. So a huge thanks from me to Shane, Luke Morrison and the Sengsouvanh (aka Scallions) brothers for having me along. It’s a funny show, too, and all available on YouTube.
Then, thanks to the gale-force powers of Rubia Braun, I lent my services to the Armed With The Arts Peace Crane Project, shooting some footage of origami cranes and kids playing in Melbourne for the Australia arm of this excellent project. Supported by the United Nations, no less, the project aims to get children all over the world engaged in artistic pursuits, and exploring its potential to understand other cultures, start a conversation and find alternative ways to express emotions and resolve conflict. It’s a brilliant initiative, and the video we shot in the US, India and Australia was screened in New York, before the UN. Here it is, and it’s pretty darn cute.
There was also the usual work of shooting and editing pitch videos for friends’ TV projects and actors’ showreels... but the most exciting development for me this year was writing my very first feature film screenplay. I’ve been developing my “inverted slasher film”, MENTOR, for a little while now, but finally put Courier New to Final Draft (the new “pen to paper”, in case you’re wondering) this year and, by September, was able to hold an 88 page printed document, that included a beginning, a middle and an end, in my hands. Needless to say, this was a massive thrill for me. Literally decades of starting feature film scripts and hitting the wall at page 30 are now over. It feels like a new era has begun. I’ve since started work on my “official” first draft, cleaning the script up and turning it into the movie I want to make. It’s going slowly... but brilliantly. I’m even surprising myself, which is nice. I’m looking to have this draft locked in by March 2014, which is when things will start to get really exciting!
But enough about me. I know you’re all here for...
If I had to vote for a collective cinema MVP of 2013, it would be American Independent Cinema. The US Indies have killed it this year, showing more than ever that you don’t need a big budget, special VFX or even a script to get to the truth: you just need to find your own way there, in the way that speaks to you. Films in among my favourites this year include a midnight movie take on the 1%/99% divide, a completely improvised comedy of unresolved tension between friends, possibly the greatest feminist rom-com ever made and a look at a care facility for at-risk kids that manages to dodge all sentimentality for beautifully lived-in truth - and breaks your heart anyway. What’s more, 2013 is also the year where the spearheads of the so-called “mumblecore” film movement -- Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski -- finally graduated with honours, making films that were funny, touching, inventive, scarily relatable and beautifully crafted.
As always, this countdown arrives with disclaimers:
145 films enter... how many will leave?
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILMS OF 2013
1) THE ACT OF KILLING
The film of 2013 for me was a film -- truly, no hyperbole now -- unlike any you’ve ever seen. (And, hopefully, will scarcely see again.) After hearing about the mass murder of over one million communists in 1965-66 Indonesia, co-directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn went to speak to the survivors of this little-known holocaust. Strangely, they found them silent and uncooperative -- at least publicly -- before discovering why: even today, the genocide was still celebrated by Suharto’s Indonesia. A real-life exemplar of “history is written by the winners”, they found the leaders of this movement, former gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, and those beneath them, all-too-willing to boast loudly about their war crimes. (Imagine a world where the Nazis won WWII, the Hitler Youth continue to hold rallies and Hermann Goering appears on morning talk shows to chat about what a service he did by killing the Jews -- that’s what this is.) But the form the film takes is even more startling: how do you even begin to persuade these murderers that they’ve done something so wrong, when they lack even basic empathy for their victims? Anwar and his cohorts were all huge movie fans -- they used to sell black market movie tickets before spearheading a genocidal death squad -- so the directors decided to conduct what amounts to art therapy on an epic scale: Getting these gangsters and paramilitary stand-over men to reenact their crimes in the idiom of classic movie genres. They gave them cameras, extras and only the most limited assistance to film their ghoulish deeds in musical/western/war/noir fashion. Watching this startling, weirdly-amusing-despite-itself, yet fundamentally distressing footage is as confronting, conflicted as anything you’ll see, and will leave you pondering all manner of ethical questions. The scenes are interspersed with Anwar and co showing us around their everyday errands; going on TV, walking the streets like heroes, shaking hands, shaking shopkeepers down. It’s like seeing Goodfellas: Indonesia Style, but chillingly real. Also intriguing is the variation of responses from the war criminals involved, running the gamut from internal struggle, to moral justification, to unshakeable belief. We’re shoved, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, into a front row seat to the crass humanity and banality of cruelty, and makes us watch for 159 gruelling minutes... but something amazing happens toward the end of the film. I won’t say what, but it will stay with me forever. As a tragic postscript to the legacy of the Suharto regime, Oppenheimer and Cynn make sure to include the hundreds of “Anonymous” credits in the final scrawl: Indonesians who helped make the film but still can’t be credited due to fear of persecution -- hoping to see a day when their names can finally be reinstated. A singularly horrific, fascinating and important film, THE ACT OF KILLING is nothing short of a landmark documentary work.
Thank you for joining me again (or, if for the first time - welcome!) for my annual epic journey into my movie year! Hope you found my picks interesting, and are encouraged to seek out the films here you’ve not seen! Have a happy, healthy and cinematic 2014!
Viva la cinema!
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.