Built For Speed’s MIFF round up

I’ve checked out three films at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) so far.  Not all of them have further screenings but you can be sure they’ll pop up on SBS at some time in the future. Here are my thoughts on:

Boxing Gym (Director: Frederick Wisemen, 91 mins)

Veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing gym is an extremely minimalist documentary that simply has a camera floating around a very grungy looking but surprisingly welcoming boxing gym in Austin, Texas.  We see people training and chatting… that’s it.  There’s no narration, no subtitles and no incidental music. This is fine if you just enjoy watching people training but if you want to know who these people are, why they got into boxing and where they see themselves in the boxing world it’s annoyingly bereft of information.

The film strives to show that this is a supportive community as much as a fighting gym so alot of the focus is on newcomers seeking a release from everyday pressures.  The clientele of the gym range from lean, chiselled pros to pudgy businessmen, kids, senior citizens and even young Mothers with baby’s snoozing in capsules.

The film mostly downplays the potential dangers of boxing instead focusing on people honing specific skills on the pads and the bags and strengthening their bodies.  Toward the end, though, the film does feature some fierce sparring sessions between what appear to be seasoned pros.  The only problem is that the combatants have headgear obscuring their faces so we don’t know if these are name fighters or even people we met earlier in the film.  It would have been much more interesting to know who we were watching and the trajectory of their boxing careers.

While largely unstructured the film does centre around rugged looking but avuncular gym owner R. Lord who offers counselling as much as boxing lessons.  Even he is a bit of a mystery, though, as we don’t learn much about his background.

As it doesn’t investigate anyone’s life in great detail, there’s little human drama. Consequently, non-boxing fans may be twiddling their thumbs. For those with an interest in boxing technique, training and culture, though, this is a treat.

You can catch another screening of Boxing Gym on Mon Aug 1st 11am ACMI – depending on ticket availability.

Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 (Director: Goran Hugo Olsson, 100 mins)

This film is actually an update of a Swedish documentary that examined the socio economic and political circumstances of African American people and the subsequent black power movement in the US in the 60’s and 70’s. The film focuses on the prominent figures in the black power movement such as Professor Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and others.  Much of the film is composed of news reel footage and interviews with them as they advocate a less passive approach to removing inequity in human rights than the one observed by Dr Martin Luther King.

The film draws parallels between the black power movement, the women’s rights and gay rights movements and protests against the Vietnam war without suggesting that these movements were necessarily in concert with each other.

This is a fascinating doco, the only problem is that it was listed in the Backbeat (i.e. music documentaries) section of the MIFF guide and the blurb suggested that it would document the burgeoning African American music scene of the 60’s and 70’s as it paralleled the growth of the black protest movement.  Unfortunately this is not the case, there’s no examination of the music of the time, no James Brown, no Sly and the Family Stone etc.  The only music references involve commentary from contemporary musicians like Erykah Badu.

Despite the absence of expected musical acts it’s still a compelling study of an important and volatile time.

Persecution Blues: The Battle for The Tote (Director: Natalie Van Dungen, 57 mins)

Persecution blues: the Battle for The Tote chronicles the life and near death of Melbourne’s most iconic live music venue, The Tote.

Featuring interviews with former owner Bruce Milne, band Booker Amanda Palmer, RRR legend James the hound dog Young and various Melbourne indie rock figures including veteran gig attendee Julian Wu, the film is a love letter to the great music and outsider spirit of The Tote.

The film focusses on the 2010 fight to save The Tote when liquor licensing laws made it virtually impossible for the venue to survive. Melbourne’s passion for live music and its cultural icons became overwhelmingly apparent when 20,000 people gathered outside parliament house for a save live music rally.

Like much of the music at the tote this is a fast paced, passionate and at times funny doco. The sight of John Brumby sitting next to a weirdly attired Dave Graney at a meeting between the state government and the live music delegation is priceless.

Because so much of the film focuses on Bruce Milne’s battle to save The Tote, there’s unfortunately less emphasis on the awesome array of bands who have graced the venue and anecdotes about all the crazy shenanigans that must have gone on.  Also, the performance footage is mostly from the last two years so anyone hoping to relive memories of that Scientists gig from 1982 will be disappointed. These omissions are partly due to restrictions on the film’s length; it was commissioned by the ABC so it has been kept to a TV friendly 57 mins.  Still, there are a few thrilling performances featured here including the fierce Joel Silbersher/ Drones collaboration on the God classic My Pal.

While not the definitive story of this amazing music venue, this is still an engrossing and at times moving document of one of Melbourne’s most vital landmarks.

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