Film, Reviews, Screen

Three must-see WTF documentaries at the Sydney Film Festival

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The Sydney Film Festival kicked off Wednesday night, a 12 day cinematic smorgasbord plucking numerous treasures and oddities from around the globe.

Included in the program is a large range of documentaries, exploring subjects as diverse as night parrots to the world’s first televised suicide. This year the festival sports a particularly healthy quota of fascinating WTF non-fiction films, destined to provoke responses such as “huh?”, “what?” and “say again”.

Here are three of the best, from three different countries.

Tickled (New Zealand)

Another film festival, another shocking exposé exploring the dark underbelly of the competitive tickling industry. Hang on, what?

When New Zealand television journalist David Farrier happened upon an amusing tickling video online he knew he’d found his next quirky story. But after an interview request was met with ferocious personal attacks and legal threats  he was shocked to discover – and audiences will be too – that the online tickling industry is no laughing matter.

When Farrier announced his intentions to make a documentary exploring the subject, mysterious men flew in from America to huff and puff about how he might like to reconsider. When Farrier follows them back to the USA (“something about bullies with way too much money has convinced me I shouldn’t drop it”) the extent of what exactly he was getting himself into gradually becomes apparent.

Narrated in a gonzo Louis Theroux-esque style and littered with personal observations and dry humour Tickled (co-directed by Farrier and Dylan Reeve) premiered to considerable buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Much of the enjoyment in watching this punchy, stranger-than-fiction story comes from following Farrier’s journey as he discovers one weird revelation after another. Talking points include fetishes, the online shaming culture and a Catfish-esque quest to identify the perpetrator.

Weiner (USA)

Another film that will compel viewers to repeatedly pick their jaws up from the floor. Weiner is quite something: almost certainly the best political campaign documentary ever made.

The film is equal parts riveting and infuriating, with a behind-closed-doors appeal that goes beyond fly-on-the-wall to something that provokes sheer warts-and-all disbelief.

Viewers will inevitably ask: why are we allowed to watch this? Why did the subject agree to be so closely followed and documented? One of the filmmakers asks the ubject that very question. It lingers in the air for a moment then the film moves on, no answer declared.

Weiner follows the biggest fight and most turbulent period in the career of former politician Anthony Weiner. His troubles began in 2011, when Weiner resigned from congress following a sexting scandal and epic social media #fail. He accidentally tweeted a photograph of his own crotch to all his followers online.

Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg jump on board the Weiner campaign trail for his 2013 bid to become mayor of New York, fight to bounce back politically and restore the trust of the populace. To say the plan goes catastrophically wrong is to put it lightly.

The calm-headed, rational mind of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin (now Hilary Clinton’s top aide) contrasts with the protagonist’s angry, shoot from the hip style. The question of why she decides to stick by him is never really asked or answered; the question of why Kriegman and Steinberg were granted such unfettered access is even more mystifying.

Thank god they got it. For anyone vaguely interested in car-crash politics – and who isn’t? – Weiner is unmissable.

Notes on Blindness (UK)

Few documentaries – or feature films– are as inspiring or as profoundly humane as this extraordinary, poetic, innovative rumination on disability and determination.

It is commonly said that the loss of one sense, such as sight, can lead to heightened use of others. For English theologian and university professor John Hull, becoming blind transformed everything about him – ultimately making him, to paraphrase his own words, a complete person.

When Hull began losing his sight in the early 1980s he recorded his thoughts and mental processes extensively on audio cassette tapes including conversations with his wife Marilyn.

Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney play large segments of those tapes in Notes on Blindness. In a fascinating twist, they recruit actors (Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby in the main parts) to lip sync the dialogue.

The result is a highly cinematic experiment that comes together brilliantly and uniquely; I can’t think of a comparable work. The format transcends documentary, given the presence of actors. It transcends re-enactment, given voices are of the actual subjects. For those reasons, and others, it also transcends the biopic.

Notes on Blindness is a sublimely immersive experience. It’s dotted with scenes that will undoubtedly define some of the finest moments in cinema this year including one in which Hull comes to terms with the sound of rainfall.

The film is many things, including a beautiful love story. At one point Marilyn ponders whether she might join her husband by scratching her eyes out.

Ultimately, as the theologian himself put it, his story is about a choice between living in nostalgia or living in reality. Hull chooses the latter, and following his journey is among the most rewarding cinema experiences in recent memory.

Notes On Blindness – Clip from Notes on Blindness on Vimeo.

One response to “Three must-see WTF documentaries at the Sydney Film Festival

  1. Hey Luke, I see you’ve been busy, what with the Sydney Film Festival and so on. Too busy to correct your mistake in not crediting the woman behind The Kettering Incident, Vicki Madden, in your article about it. We’re still waiting.

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