Prove your humanity

As the movie business continues to be dominated by franchises and corporate product, experiences like the Revelation Film Festival are a refreshing reminder of the joy to be found in smaller, weirder pieces of filmmaking. For 20 years, the Revelations Festival has been Perth’s leading independent film event. It’s not just for snooty art films though; this year’s line-up had a good mix of experimental and genre sensibilities. I saw as much as I could on a poor film-student budget, and eight films and a notable chunk of my monthly finances later, I need to justify my spending. So, here is a ranking, from worst to best, of all the films I saw at Revelation—there was a high standard of quality on display, and some true gems that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

8. Ghost Stories I suppose that seeing eight films at one event increases the chances of disappointment, which is unfortunately the case with this one. Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremey Dyson and adapted from their stage play, Ghost Stories is a horror anthology of three separate ghost stories, linked by an overarching narrative following our protagonist, Dr Phillip Goodman. Goodman is a lonely professor dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics. He’s shocked to discover his idol, paranormal investigator Charles Cameron, living in a trailer park after being missing for decades, and now a believer in the supernatural. Cameron, sick and impoverished, asks Goodman to investigate three cases of supposedly real ghost sightings that he failed to solve himself.

Anthology movies are generally a hit-or-miss proposition—it’s difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality and cohesion over several different stories. The inconsistency here is that only one of three chapters is any good. They have a decent sense of the mood and language of horror, but fall prey to the overly loud, obnoxious sound design and jumps that have infected modern horror. Every story ends the same boring way that spoils all the build-up: with a scary monster finally getting the hero, leading to cut to black or fade out from the character’s scream. The first tale is the worst, focusing on a boorish night guard in an abandoned insane asylum. There’s some decent tension created in the beginning, but it ends in the same predictable, seemingly rushed manner as the others, with nothing interesting gleaned about the asylum’s history. Regrettably, it’s also got the longest running time of the three.

The bigger problem for me is the larger framework and story stitching them together. There is a truly unfortunate hack twist in the third act that reframes everything that happened before; the type of twist that makes you feel smart for getting it once it’s announced, but the more you think about it, the more silly and shallow it seems. It also makes the individual ghost stories feel somewhat pointless, and ruins the one genuinely terrifying moment in the whole film. I can see what it was going for. I’ll try not to spoil it, but it seems to be a statement about the ghosts of the past being worse than any supernatural one could be. It didn’t quite get there.

Ghost Storieshas its merits. It features some committed performances, a wicked sense of black humour, and some well-crafted moments, all of which ultimately makes its flaws even more frustrating. Perhaps it worked better in stage form, or would have in the old British anthology films it’s referencing. This particular version failed to resonate with me.

7. Let the Corpses TanLet the Corpses Tan is a love letter to cinematic excess with absolutely nothing on its mind. Filled with extreme close ups, crash zooms, and hilariously strange metaphors—the appearance of rain is foreshadowed by having a mysterious, godlike woman piss over a model of the set—it’s the sort of trashy exploitation flick that Tarantino would endlessly reference if it was released in the 70s.

The plot, barebones as it is, involves a gold heist, a psychopathic artist, a runaway wife, and two police officers determined to put a stop to it all—none of this really matters, though. What does matter is that they all converge in an isolated set of Mediterranean ruins, that happens to be loaded with hidden guns. Shootouts, double crossings, and gratuitous violence and nudity ensue.

It’s a blast to witness, with Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani employing wild characters, psychedelic sequences, and a killer soundtrack to completely overload the senses. It also plays with time and perspective, continually replaying moments from a few minutes earlier, from a different character’s point of view.

Its style is overbearing, and borderline incoherent at times, but it’s definitely distinctive. Let the Corpses Tan is completely wack, and destined for a cult following.

6. Five Fingers for MarseillesFive Fingers for Marseillesis a western set in post-Apartheid South Africa.The Five Fingers are a group of boys in the colonial town of Marseilles, who unite under Apartheid rule to challenge their oppressors. After their most violent member kills two policemen, he’s forced out to live in disgrace. Decades later, he returns to the town boiling with anger and shame, only to find them dealing with a new threat.

This is a really sprawling film, a slow burn unfolding over more than two hours. That slow burn allows for a lot of beautiful, slow moving compositions that use light and shadow to great effect. However, the slow burn wasn’t necessarily rewarding in narrative terms, and I found the characters to be a bit underdeveloped. They’re all western archetypes: the strong, silent anti-hero; the story teller; the corrupt town mayor; and so on. They’re well-acted but not quite enough to be completely emotionally engaging on their own. The villain, as well, was rather one note—I remember his gravelly voice, but almost nothing else about him.

Five Fingers is beautiful, exciting, and occasionally moving, but it buckles under the weight of the genre tropes it utilises.

5. Lost Gully RoadThis is the sort of small film that would probably get no screenings and little attention in Perth if not for Revelations. It’s also the sort of film that makes me regret doing a ranking; despite its relatively low placement on this list, I very much enjoyed it.

It’s an Australian haunted house film, made on a micro-budget of $40,000 (according to its director, Donna McCrae). The narrative follows Lucy (Adele Perovic), a young woman travelling to an isolated house in the forest for mysterious reasons. As Lucy struggles to escape the oppressive influence of men from the nearby town and her past, a sinister presence in the house also appears to take an unwanted interest in her.

McCrae crafts an old-fashioned gothic horror with timely themes, aided by a terrific central performance by Adele Perovic. In spite of its small budget, it’s hugely atmospheric and meticulously crafted, with everything from the electricity inspired sound design to the blood red colour of Lucy’s jacket serving a purpose.

It’s got its faults: it’s a little slow, it repeats some of the same spooky beats too often, and overdoes some sound design for the scares—similar to Ghost Stories.

However, Lost Gully Road has a subtlety and depth that was sorely missing from that effort. There’s very little exposition, leaving it up to the audience to piece together Lucy and the location’s backstory. The moments when it starts to click are horrifying, but also deeply satisfying, due to the filmmaker’s faith in the audience to work it out.

This is a moody tale that explores the horrors that men commit, and their enablers that choose to be complicit.

4. Leave No TraceIn 2010, director Debra Granik introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence in the rural thriller Winter’s Bone. Now, she returns to the Ozark with her first fictional film since.

Deep in a vast Oregon park lies the camp of veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They aren’t homeless or desperate; they live here by choice, free from the noise and mayhem of modern life. They manage to get by on survival skills, and a small amount of money generated by selling Will’s ineffective medication for PTSD. One small mistake derails their lives, forcing them into social services and out into the world they have tried to avoid for so long.

The premise is similar to 2016’s Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen, but this film comes out on top—there’s none of the cloying sentimentality of that film, and this one interrogates the father’s actions much more critically. Will is a loving father, and he’s equipped his daughter with an impressive set of skills, but at what cost? Tom struggles with social situations, and has never had a chance to develop skills necessary for life outside of the wild. When she begins to adjust to the rhythms of “normal” life, even coming to like it, questions begin to from in her mind about her father’s motivations. Will, meanwhile, is a restless soul, clearly damaged (perhaps beyond repair) from his time in the military. He’s unable to stay in one location for too long, eternally trying to escape from the demons that haunt him.

Ben Foster retreats inward for a incredibly restrained, pained performance that reveals very little. Seventeen-year-old New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie is excellent as Tom, communicating repressed emotion and an intelligence well beyond her years. It’s a truly great performance, heralding a young talent to look out for in the future.

Leave No Tracedoesn’t have the pulp or urgency of Winter’s Bone, but it has a quiet power that sneaks up on you, leaving an imprint in the head and the heart.

3. Terror NulliusThe most purely entertaining film of the festival, Terror Nullius is a radical mash-up of classic Australian media. Devised by the video art duo Soda_Jerk, it’s essentially a bunch of samples from Australian films, edited and stitched together to create new meaning and narratives. Soda_Jerk aptly describes it as a “political revenge fable”, with dominant cultural narratives and forces in their crosshairs. For example, the filmmakers place Mel Gibson’s real life abusive call to his ex-wife into Mad Max Fury Road, after which the ambush scene in the original Mad Max becomes Australian women beating the shit out of Mel Gibson. Other acts of editing revenge include turning kangaroos into vicious killers—getting back at characters participating in ‘roo hunts from Wake in Fright—and gleefully giving some of Australia’s most masculine heroes homoerotic tension. It’s not all fun and games, though; in another scene, refugees from the underseen Lucky Miles are chased by Russell Crowe’s hateful skinhead from Romper Stomper. Other moving scenes see characters breaking down over John Howards’ infamous speech, outlining his opposition to apologising to Indigenous Australians.

Terror Nullius attacks with a righteous fury our treatment of refugees and Indigenous Australians, our culture of hunting, the colonising myth of terra nullius, pervasive sexism and homophobia, and every controversial political topic you can think of.

There really isn’t anything else like this.

Bizarrely, the closest comparison I can think of is Ready Player One, except this is devoted to Australian cinema rather than geek culture—and it’s actually good.

There’s a lot of love on display for the history of Australian film, but ultimately this is an indictment of much of Australian culture. It’s bound to make people uncomfortable; its own financiers, theIan Potter Moving Image Commission, have disowned it, reportedly referring to it as “un-Australian” (surely the most meaningless phrase in existence, and somewhat of a compliment in this case).

Terror Nullius tears through the mythologies that cling to Australian culture, and it does so with fierce intelligence and a cheeky grin.

2. You Were Never Really HereJoaquin Phoenix is a raw, terrifying beast in this existential noir thriller. Adapted from an already-lean novella of the same name, director Lynne Ramsay strips back this story of a half-mad hitman to its bare essentials.

Phoenix portrays Joe, a traumatized veteran who now works as a sort of enforcer, rescuing kidnapped girls for families who don’t want to involve the authorities. In between regular bouts of suicidal ideation, Joe receives a call to rescue Nina, the daughter of a popular senator. Unsurprisingly, the job isn’t as simple as it seems, and as a conspiracy begins to unravel, so does Joe’s precarious mental state.

Ramsay directs the carnage subjectively, placing the audience inside Joe’s fractured mind. It’s an unbearably tense, tight experience, not necessarily from physical threats to Joe—although there is that. It’s tense because we’re experiencing the streets and dingy underworld of New York from Joe’s traumatised perspective—a man with a “head full of glass”, as Ramsay puts it. She holds on uncomfortably extreme close ups of Joe or things caught in his thousand-yard stare, the normal sounds from the street are a deafening roar, and quick, unexplained flashbacks come out of nowhere—some offering hints at a childhood of suffering, others the unspeakable things he’s seen overseas, killing for country.

Important pieces of the narrative simply aren’t there, or are cut into bits; the practically subliminal flashbacks are some of the few pieces of exposition in the film. Jonny Greenwood (the guitarist for Radiohead, and now well-renowned film composer) contributes to this atmosphere via a sinister soundtrack that mixes the catchy synth beats found in crime thrillers of this type with broken strings and shifting time signatures.

Ramsay is riffing off of countless pulpy vigilante stories seen before, from Taxi Driverto Drive, and refracting it through her arthouse style. It’s not a complete subversion of the tortured anti-hero story, nor is its core story original—a broken, violent man given hope by a little girl—but the oblique, visceral way it’s told gives it an electrifying impact. The violence is almost never seen explicitly, and always shown from unconventional angles. One sequence shows Joe infiltrating an underage brothel entirely through CCTV footage, skulking through each angle to his next victim, the view cutting to the next empty frame before the impact of his hammer. Another memorable moment shows Joe’s messy life-or-death struggle with a henchman through the reflection of broken mirror, with only the sounds from a nearby TV able to be heard.

The violence is balanced by tender moments of genuine connection and emotion, like a scene where Joe is singing and cleaning utensils with his mother—something you suspect may be a long-held, healing ritual for the both of them.

It’s the gaps and fragmentations in the narrative that give You Were Never Really Hereit’s unique power. It’s beautiful, brutal poetry that reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.

1. The RiderAnother one that will never have a wide cinematic release in Australia, The Rideris the best film I saw at Revelations, and also one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

This moving realist drama dives into the world of the South Dakota rodeo, merging fictional and non-fictional techniques to achieve a naturalism rarely seen outside of documentaries. Director Chloe Zhao focuses on Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreu), a talented member of the rodeo circuit who’s suffered a head injury and been forced to quit riding. He struggles to adjust to life off the saddle, frustrated by the drudgery of his job at a convenience store, and by the varying expectations of his friends and family.

Fascinatingly, all of this is a semi-fictionalised account of Jandreu’s actual life. Slowly, you begin to realise that the performers are all non-professional actors, playing versions of themselves with different surnames. They’re all flawless, bringing an authenticity to the film that doesn’t sacrifice nuance or quality.

The film doesn’t give in to a romanticisation of the job or the world, nor does it use the horses as grand symbols, as Westerns are bound to do. It’s a grounded, mostly literal film, showcasing the beauty of the South Dakotan land and its horses, while also highlighting its rampant poverty and suffocating masculine expectations.

One of the few metaphors the filmmakers allow is Brady’s loss of motor control over his right hand—as Brady begins to dip his toe back into the rodeo world, his hands occasionally lock up, refusing to let go of the reins of his horse.

The Riderisn’t relentlessly grim, though. Sequences in which Brady trains horses are an astounding showcase of his innate understanding of the initially hostile animals. Zhao holds the camera long and tight on these near wordless scenes that are among the most gripping action sequences this year (the audience collectively gasped at some of Brady’s particularly dangerous slips).

The Rider’s most impressive feat is one that many great movies share: it has a sense of specificity in the community and people it depicts, while engaging a universal theme—the devastating separation between dreams and reality.


Revelation Film Festival will return in 2019.