64th Sydney Film Festival – Documentary Highlights

Whitney: Can I Be Me

Wednesday June 7th, 6:30pm (Event 4) & Friday June 9th, 6:30pm (Dendy Newtown)

It’s another Amy. Well, almost. Amy Winehouse died at 27, Whitney Houston died at 48. But there are many other similarities, chiefly, a propensity for addiction, the abuse of drugs, her manipulation by the music industry, her family, and most, significantly, her husband. All of these elements helped to corrode her already fragile self-esteem. Whitney has gifted, but she was also very vulnerable. Seasoned and provocative UK documentarian Nick Broomfield (who made the excellent 2003 doco Kurt & Courtney), along with veteran music industry filmmaker Rudi Dolezal, has fashioned the incredibly moving story of Whitney’s early life, her extraordinary career, and her tragic death. 

Using previously unseen video footage taken of Whitney’s “My Love Is Your Love” world tour (which was her last successful tour) as the doco’s backbone, the story of the pop singer’s childhood unfolds around it; as a girl, singing with her mother’s gospel choir, hanging with her two older brothers, who introduced her to marijuana, and probably cocaine, at a young age. She was thrust into the deep end of showbiz when she was signed and molded as a “white” pop singer, despite wanting to sing proper r&b (“Can I be me?” she’d always plead). She was booed (for selling out) at the Soul Train Awards in 1989, the same event she met Bobby Brown, the so-called bad boy of r&b. He got Whitney into booze, she got him into coke, and eventually they started doing crack. 

Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was born, but they were already sliding down a very slippery slope unable to stop. Whitney’s soul mate friend, Robyn Crawford, was kicked out of the entourage, which broke Whitney’s heart. You don’t need to be familiar with Whitney Houston or a fan of her music to appreciate this fascinating portrait of talent gifted and squandered, of emotional fragility and corrosion. It’s unlikely there’ll ever be another Whitney Houston, and as heartbreaking as this tale is, it’s a necessary one to tell. 


Friday, June 9th, 6:15pm (Dendy Newtown) & Monday June 12th, 8:20pm (Dendy Opera Quays)

“The death of a woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” said Edgar Allen Poe, and the gialli movies of the 60s and 70s made them their centrepieces. Brian De Palma, who has rebuffed claims of ripping off Hitchcock for most of his career, also champions their peril in cinema; “Women are more sympathetic creatures in jeopardy, plus they’re more interesting to photograph.” 

Alfred Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho (1960) is a standout sequence in a standout movie. The masterful director broke so many rules with Psycho, not least by refusing to directly follow North by Northwest another colourful romantic adventure. Instead he took Robert Bloch’s pulp shocker and turned it into a case study of successful cinematic rule-breaking, and the murder of Janet Leigh’s character one-third of the way into the movie was the clincher. 

Alexandre O. Philippe has made a thoroughly engaging, fascinating, and often quite funny, examination of this iconic scene. 78 was the number of camera set-ups for the scene, and 52 was the number of shots that ended up in the final edited scene. Numerous celebrities, actors, directors, and film technicians offer their thoughts, including Bret Easton Ellis, Elijah Wood, Eli Roth, Richard Stanley, Walter Murch, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Guillermo del Toro, and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis. You may know Psycho well, but I bet you didn’t know the shower scene quite like this. Scintillating stuff. 


Saturday June 10th, 8:45pm (Event 4) & Sunday June 11th, 8:50pm (Dendy Newtown)

Florian Habicht has framed a very kooky picture of the extended “family” that work in the Southern Hemisphere’s most successful theme-park, Spookers, a fun place outside of Auckland, New Zealand, where people go to get frightened, and in some cases so spooked they actually crap their pants (a “code brown” for the unfortunate staff who have to clean it up on a semi-regular basis). The Spookers clan took over a derelict mental institution that sits on the edge of a small forest. Perfect. The owners, Andy and Beth Watson, also created a huge maize maze (which was the original Spookers experience) to add further bang for your boo! 

It’s a frequently funny, and disarmingly poignant look at the kinds of young people that have been taken under the Walton’s wing. They’re “freaks” in the most affectionate way, or “carnies” to outsiders, fringe-dwellers who have finally found a home. It’s amusing to learn that Beth has never watched a horror movie, and sad to learn that the zombie bride is HIV. Habicht lets the freaks tell their stories, and in true Kiwi style, they are happy to admit their foibles, quick to champion their bosses, and keen to stay in character. 

Spookers is the first family movie, and also the first documentary programmer Richard Kuipers has included in his "Freak Me Out" section, and it fits hand in glove. A colourful delight, with a great soundtrack, Spookers may have been New Zealand’s best-kept secret, but now, due to Spookers, it’s going to be added to every travelling horrorphile’s bucket list. 

A Modern Man

Sunday June 11th, 3:45pm (Dendy Opera Quays) & Sunday June 18th, 7pm (Event 9)

Documentarian Eva Mulvad’s portrait of virtuoso violinist and sometime Armani and Hugo Boss model Charlie Siem is a quietly compelling look into a kind of elusive loneliness, an almost silent quest for happiness; that contentedness people take for granted, that no amount of money or fame or striving for perfection can ever attain. But the search continues, the gaze burns on. 

Siem seems to have most of what most people can only dream about. He is young, but mature, very handsome and composed, incredibly talented (not only can he play a fiddle like there’s no tomorrow, but he’s a dab hand tickling the ivories too), is fabulously wealthy, has loving parents (a Norwegian father and English mother) and sisters, and is charming and quick-witted to boot. But. Turning thirty he reveals he hasn’t had a relationship in six years, and he doesn’t have any friends. He spends most of his downtime in fancy hotel rooms and ritzy plaza cafes. He spends spare change on a new Porsche, and is told by his personal masseuse that his detached bond with his mother – and competitive bond with his tycoon father - is the reason why he seemingly can’t connect with any prospective partners. 

Charlie is very likeable, but he’s driven, a machine tuned for maximum delivery in very specific areas; classical music and a toned physique. It’s unlikely any woman is going to be able to break through that chiseled front, and Charlie knows it. But, for the moment, maybe even the next ten years, his career is top priority, and if that means more modelling to expand his musical presence, then bring in the next photographer, and measure him up for his next performance suit, for this is one man who is resolute in his modernism. 

Roller Dreams

Sunday June 11th, 7:15pm (Event 9)

Aussie editor-turned-director Kate Hickey’s loving tribute to a very special time in dance culture’s history, a period during the free-wheelin’ late 70s and 80s when Venice Beach, California, become the hot spot for improvised roller dancing is both a wonderful date-stamp, but is also surprisingly affecting and poignant. The veterans and survivors of this curious scene, mostly black folk - and a clutch of funky honkies - congregated along the beach promenade and listened to rollerskating jams (called Saturday) and electro-funk boogie tunes on ghetto-blasters, while crowds, sometimes into the hundreds, would gather to watch these street dance hustlers roller-strut and glide their stuff, each known for their individual styles and moves. 

Oakwood Venice, originally referred to as the slum by the sea, became known in the 70s for its bohemian influence, a kind of wild, wild west full of roller cowboys and cowgirls. Roller Dreams focuses on the recollections and musings of a small bunch of these cats; Tyrell, Larry, Sally, Jimmy, Duval, and, last but not least, Mad. They’re older and crotchety now, but they’ve got stories to tell, most importantly, the destructive power of racism and police prejudice that eventually ruined the Venice Beach roller scene. 

Venice Beach became gentrified, it happens. There was an ethnic cleansing, the anxious affluent manipulating the council. Noise control came down hard. Gangsta rap didn’t help either. It’s such a shame to see, time and time again, while the physical landscape changes, yet the social climate remains tainted, poisoned by racism. Even when Hollywood wanted a piece of the Venice pie, back when the 70s ended, they whitewashed it, with Roller Boogie, Skatetown USA, and Xanadu all featuring exclusively Caucasian casts. But socio-political gripes aside, let the retro-cultural magic of Roller Dreams spin your troubles away. 


Sunday June 18th, 4:20pm (State Theatre) & Sunday June 18th, 8:35pm (Event 9)

New Zealand director Roger Donaldson has several hefty notches on his belt, having kickstarted the New Zealand film industry proper with Sleeping Dogs in 1977. He went on to direct my favourite Kiwi feature, Smash Palace, and my favourite Kevin Costner flick, No Way Out. His first directing credit was a short documentary for television on Burt Munro, a Kiwi motorcycle land-speed record holder. He returned to Burt for a feature biopic, The World’s Fastest Indian, and has returned, once again, to the world of speed and champions, this time with the story of Bruce McLaren, the humble Kiwi motor racing legend who conquered the world of Formula One racing and lead the longest-running and most successful racing team ever (behind Ferrari). 

By using archival stills, Super-8, 16mm, early videotape, and combining them with talking heads of his weathered colleagues and wife (four of whom passed away during the making of the film), and reenactments, the story unfolds of young Bruce’s peerless passion for driving and his knack for custom engineering and pioneering design, which eventually lead him to pole position in all the major racing championships. But there is a tragedy lurking in the background of this tale of sweat, motor oil, and sweet Champagne. Bruce McLaren died behind the wheel of his new M8D, whilst test-driving it at high speed in 1970. He was just 32. McLaren is the fraternal documentary to Senna (2010). 

On one hand McLaren is strictly for the rev-heads, as it doesn’t dig that deep into the bigger picture of what drives certain people, like Bruce, to drive at such crazy speeds on narrow, treacherous circuits. That fascinating philosophy is barely touched on. On the other hand, McLaren is a compelling and smartly-paced portrait that exudes much charm, character, and poignancy, chiefly by the main interviewees. McLaren is a winner. It’s curious to note that there were two pioneering McLaren enterprises that came out of New Zealand, one developed top shelf audio equipment for the serious audiophile, the other developed world class auto equipment for the serious petrolhead.


For more information and ticketing please visit the Sydney Film Festival website here.