Films can bring international realities to our doorstep, informing and educating, even serving the cause of political protest.
To some, linking the filmmaker's art and politics summons images of the propaganda movies of North Korea or of China during the Cultural Revolution. But a carefully curated selection of films at this year's Melbourne Festival illustrated just how provocative and political filmmaking can be in the service of a wide range of causes.
"Art, Politics and Protest" was curated by Richard Moore, former artistic director of the Melbourne and Brisbane international film festivals. He chose eight films which he says "set out to demonstrate that politics marches on, and artists are left with no choice but to respond. In too many instances, they have had to put their lives on the line in support of social and political justice."
The Melbourne Festival's film component was introduced three years ago when Moore approached then-artistic director Brett Sheehy with the idea. Its selection of art films in that first year was heavily promoted and well attended, last year's movies a little less so, and this year's selection (shown from October 16-24) appeared lost amid the hubbub of the main festival programme.
A pity: Moore had put together a diverse and challenging selection.
The films, all documentaries, screened unclassified (audience members must be 18 years or more). The centrepiece was the award-winning Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. In it, Thomas Allen Harris uses photographs from his family albums to show how images of "blackness" have affected him and his sense of self worth, as well as his entire family.
Another notable entry was Indian-British coproduction Salma, about a 13-year-old Tamil girl who was locked up by her family for 25 years after refusing their choice of a husband. After teaching herself to read from newspapers wrapping vegetables and using a pencil stub and toilet paper, she wrote poetry. She later became one of India's most noted poets, an activist and a politician. The film by Kim Longinotto "is very emotional. It has her going back to meet members of her family, her mother, who was also like her jailer," Moore says.
On a lighter note, there's The Sheik and I by Caveh Zahedi ( I Am a Sex Addict). Asked by the emirate of Sharjah to make a film about art as a subversive act, the American actor-director broke its ruler's one rule: don't make fun of the sheikh/emir.
Also in the selection were Anneta Papathanassiou's Playing with Fire, which documents the director's visit to Kabul to teach ancient Greek theatre and the risks the actresses take for their art, and The Alien's Dream: Story of a Political Prank, which has filmmaker Alberto D'Onofrio and street artists staging political stunts on Italian streets.
The focus on artists also was apparent in: Lynn Hershman Leeson's !Women Art Revolution, about breaking down barriers facing women in the art world; Heiko Lange's The Noise of Cairo, about 12 artists celebrating their newly won freedom through their art forms that now perhaps looks a little dated; and Viktar Dashuk's Self-Portrait in Handcuffs, profiling an eccentric artist who uses his art against the repressive Belarusian dictatorship.
In the brief festival programme notes, Moore quotes George Orwell: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."
Moore says the intersection between art and politics has always been a strong personal interest. "I thought that if I could find the programmes at that intersection, it would be interesting to show up by default in a way, without belittling Australian artists, how small our problems are by comparison to other parts of the world where artists are facing really fundamental problems that are life and death."
And if that sounds as though he thinks Australian artists and filmmakers complain too much, that's exactly the case.
"Stop whining about funding and grant allocations. The opportunities here are fantastic, the funds available, the training. It's a very privileged class, Australian filmmakers," Moore says.
A former documentary producer himself, Moore faced intense competition for screening rights. Melbourne now has numerous film festivals. "I was very, very specific, combing through documentary festivals: it had to be material that was not screened," he says.