Brisbane 2013: The Darkside and Dirty Wars
Posted on Friday November 22, 2013, 16:09 by Sam Toy in Under The Radar
Since picking up the Camera D’or for Samson And Delilah in 2009, indigenous Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton has kept himself busy with a string of gigs across various disciplines (he’s an in-demand cinematographer for one thing), but The Darkside is his first feature as director since that amazing debut.
That sizeable wait becomes instantly understandable when you realise the film’s concept and process: Thornton first had to canvass Australia for first-hand ghost stories with a link to the Aboriginal spirit world. The director and his team conducted around 120 interviews, and whittled those down to (if memory serves) thirteen, the transcripts of which were then mostly given to actors to interpret, with no improvisation allowed.
It’s a fine idea and all of the stories are compelling, but for me too much of the film is just static camera interviews, with The Darkside coming off like a really long Halloween special of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. The content is good, but the dose is too big. Occasionally, when Thornton breaks out interesting visual ideas (as one audio recording is played back, visual artist Ben Quilty creates a four-canvas impressionist painting of the scene, while another story about an Elder’s spooked reaction to having a solar eclipse explained to him uses a single black dot on a white background, to surprisingly hypnotic effect on the big screen) The Darkside soars. I also found the device of using famous Australian actors to represent the original storytellers distracting – they have to work like hell in their ten or so minutes of screen time to make you forget who they are. The fact that they all manage to achieve this is testament to their skill, but then the next segment starts and I was thrust out of the film all over again.
Another high point is the variety in the stories themselves; everything from traditional spooks, malevolent forces, poltergeists and curses to guiding ancestors and blessings; whitefellas seeing indigenous ghosts and blackfellas running into the spirit of an old racist white guy.
Thornton has certainly struck upon a great concept. For one thing, it’ll help non-indigenous folks around the world better understand an aspect of indigenous Australian culture that generally raises more fascination than any other – their relationship with ‘the other space’ - but the feature film format doesn’t quite do it justice; if the ABC has the programming smarts, The Darkside will go on to become a brilliant, very successful and long-running TV series.
One might wonder just how many shocking, revelatory documentaries there can be about the ‘War on Terror’, but if Dirty Wars is right, there’s going to be a whole lot more of them. Jeremy Scahill is a war correspondent and investigative reporter who, after several years covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, became skeptical of the official narrative and began looking into (who he would eventually find to be) the highly secretive and even more unaccountable Joint Special Operations Command (prior to them killing Osama bin Laden), and why they were first covering up killings of civilians with no proven connection to the Taliban, and then killing US citizens without trial. If that seems every bit as labyrinthine and sinister as a Le Carre plotline, it is.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers sometimes strike this note a little too hard. There’s no doubt that much of Dirty Wars’ claims are both well intentioned and well founded, but I found its tone frustrating, almost counter-productive at times. From the beginning, Scahill places himself unnecessarily prominently within the story – there are many “I”s in his dramatic narration (impossible to tell whether this is Scahill’s fault or that of director Rick Rowley). The argument would be better served by calm objectivity, letting the facts speak plainly and simply for themselves. At one point it skirts dangerously close to unprofessional, rushing past at least one inconvenient counter argument (asking several ex-military and intelligence high-ups their opinions and then pretty much ignoring it), which only served to set conspiracy theorist alarm bells ringing and slightly unravel the filmmakers’ hard work.
These tics may be noticeable, but they’re rare, and they don’t derail Dirty Wars’ otherwise solid evidence and wholly valid questions. It also finishes strong, saving its most depressing, and yes - shocking – revelation for last.