MIFF 68½ – Day in the Life (2020) / The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019)

Day in the Life (2020)

Directed by Karrabing Film Collective

In some ways, this half hour experimental documentary plays like an extended hip hop video clip. Centred around the Belyuen community of Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, this film breaks down into three interwoven sections exploring different aspects of the neglect and mistreatment perpetrated on our Indigenous people.

Section A is concerned with the modern experience of living in Belyuen, providing glimpses of everyday life in different sections of the community as a young man meanders on a vague quest to find anyone whose house still has power, propelled aimlessly forward by a hip hop soundtrack which keeps circling back to the question: “Forward to the bush, but where’s he going to go?” These parts of the film are dominated by Indigenous hip hop, which merges into the minimal dialogue and back into the soundtrack to convey the community’s feelings of abandonment. Further into the film we meet one of the local groups as they talk about over-policing and incorporate traditional percussion into their music.

Section B strips back the hip hop to be replaced by an audio collage of radio and television samples discussing the stolen generation, the White Australia policy, and the Northern Territory Intervention over a plaintive piano backdrop. Footage of the modern community begins to merge with archival film and re-enactments, assisted by the occasional overlaying and/or tinted image.

Section C moves into outright fantasy, evoking Dreamtime mythology and emphasising the history of Indigenous Australian culture as the music shifts entirely to traditional percussion and wind instruments. In the modern community, four guys drive off into the bush after being warned of shapeshifting doppelgangers who will pretend to be people they know and lure them away. As they go further into the bush, the camera is undercranked, the layering of images multiplies, the use of filters and tinting increases, the soundtrack mounts, and two people are lured into the bush by doppelgangers who entice them with the prospect of excellent mobile phone reception (!).

The film follows a rough structure of ABCABC, each new section labelled with a title but merging in and out of each other rather than separated by discrete boundaries. The final section depicts four men pre-colonisation who receive a visitation from our present, informing them of what’s to come and inciting them into a ritual to erase this future, as quick shots of modern footage from earlier in the film spiral into vortices, sucked into the music and unwritten. It’s an effective ending to a documentary which is far from conventional but successfully immerses the viewer in a perspective which couldn’t be as effectively conveyed by a more traditional documentary narrative.

The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019)

Directed by Ja’Tovia Gary

Another experimental documentary about the experience of being a black woman, this is both more straightforward and more obtuse than Day in the Life.

The centre of this film is a series of interviews conducted by the filmmaker on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. She conducts short conversations with a variety of black women sparked by the single question: “Do you feel safe?” Most of the interviewees begin with a “yes” which becomes qualified under further questioning. The teenagers are the quickest to provide examples related to the uncertainty of street violence or being followed by creepy men. Women in their 20s or 30s are more ready to identify safety as linked to a style of dress which doesn’t emphasise their body. One woman who had not always lived in Harlem stated that she felt safer when she lived in Sierra Leone, which is a pretty damning statement in light of their long-running civil war.

The interviews are framed by extracts from archival footage, live video of police brutality, and sections of the director’s video collage Giverny I (Négresse Impériale), broken up and mixed together with Brakhage-style animations which are presumably intended to undermine the viewer’s sensation of safety. It’s this aspect of the film which both drew me to watch it in the first place and frustrated me as I tried to work out what function some of these drop-ins performed.

There are several extended extracts from Nina Simone’s performance of “Feelings” at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Although these extracts are a better representation of her piano skills than her vocal delivery, there’s a raw quality to her performance (which she interrupts several times in order to question the purpose of the song) which serves to express the unexpressed experiences of the interviewees. The purpose of the extracts from Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (which is a piece I’d like to watch in full) was more difficult to parse, consisting of scenes of a black woman walking or posing in Monet Gardens, but perhaps it was intended to represent a pastoral sense of self-contained peace and bodily autonomy which is broken apart as the reality of being a black woman in America imposes itself.

The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is more formally polished than Day in the Life, but for me it wasn’t as successful in putting forth a coherent message. Despite this, it’s an interesting work which displays a range of techniques from a talented director.

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