‘Human Flow’: visual metaphors cut through political apathy
Ai Weiwei’s new documentary finds new ways of seeing an accepted global trauma

It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to hold the familiar narratives of global displacement, war and catastrophe at bay. “Refugee numbers are increasing,” says Wella Kouyou of the UNHCR in Kenya, in the new documentary Human Flow, “but resources are diminishing.” Sixty-five million people are displaced worldwide – an incomprehensible figure, grim and dehumanising in its immensity. There are only so many newspaper images of forlorn boats, apocalyptic camps and beached corpses that we can bear before we psychologically switch off. What can an artist’s eye bring to the fatigued discussion of the global refugee crisis?

In Human Flow, Ai Weiwei, an artist-activist and filmmaker with his own history as an exiled political refugee from his native China, chooses a new tactic – visualising the scale of the crisis from the miniscule to the massive, to find new ways of seeing an accepted global trauma. An ambitious amalgam of artist’s film and political documentary, Human Flow is a grand meditation on how to cut through political apathy with solidarity and visual metaphor. Its loveliest resonance is the way it unites the visual with the political, rendering the refugee crisis – itself a phrase overused to the point of bleak cliché – human-sized in scope and impact.

We begin in Europe, the continent that birthed the United Nations’ refugee convention. The images should be familiar, but by reframing them carefully and creatively in a new narrative, Ai makes the familiar resonant again. A fluoro-jacketed bureaucrat motions to a single gate through which a million refugees passed in the previous year, breaking down the mass dimensions of movement into something tangible. Gold emergency blankets glint in the night off the island of Lesbos. In makeshift camps in disused railway stations, diagonal rows of Muslim asylum seekers face Mecca in worship. Aerial shots of the Tempelhof hangar in Germany, now an emergency shelter to 1300 refugees, show rows of rooms without ceilings, each housing five bunkbeds, like derelict Ikea showrooms. Even the film’s direct metaphors shine: the waves of Mediterranean Sea, lit crimson at sunset, seem to crash with the blood of the drowned.

“It’s not the Europe we dreamt of,” says one aid worker. Another says that the biggest challenge isn’t logistical – doling out food and supplies – but making people feel like people: “You are robbing the person of all aspects that would make life not just tolerable but worth living.” Ai also creatively coopts a device of broadcast news – the headline ticker, scrolling sideways through the bottom of the frame – as a neat way of packing more information into the film without more talking heads. Eventually, the ticker morphs towards the rhetorical: “Berliner Zeitung: What Now, Europe?”

Ai visits refugee camps that have developed their own economies – miniature states for the stateless – and one in Lebanon in which generations of children have grown up and died. We zoom out on what appears to be a pile of discarded life jackets. By the time the shot has finished, we are high above a landfill containing nothing else but the fluoro vests.

It’s this image that most directly evokes Ai’s artworks, which are not directly about crisis, but making the enormous scale of crises comprehensible. Last week, Law of the Journey, a 60-metre refugee boat by Ai, made of the same black rubber that carries thousands across the Aegean, was installed at Sydney Harbour, and it is a work that the island of Australia needs to seriously think about. Law of the Journey’s inclusion in the Sydney Biennale (where Human Flow will premiere in Australia) is a kind of curatorial masterstroke – a pointed backward glance to the 19th Biennale in 2014, which was boycotted by artists enraged by the event’s sponsorship by Transfield, a company with ties to Australian offshore detention centres.

Ai makes work responding to political repression in his home country, to corruption, to scandal, but the centre of it is always the same: finding the smallest, most personal parts of giant catastrophes. His 2009 work, Remembering, arranged 9000 children’s backpacks in a long public banner, commemorating the lives lost in dodgily constructed schools that fell in an earthquake in Sichuan, China, the previous year. Likewise, his 2016 installation, Laundromat, featured over 2000 items of clothing and blankets salvaged from an abandoned refugee camp in northern Greece, organised and displayed as sculptural objects en masse – a small, orderly universe of loss, cut loose from political rhetoric.

Just as Ai’s art embraces scale and metaphor, his filmmaking is epically proportioned. Human Flow – his 13th documentary in as many years – corrals twelve cinematographers, an evidently large budget, a crew of 2000 and a subtle score performed by Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg interwoven with the traumatic clatter of truck wheels, bombs and chatter. This is not your regular televisual, journalistic documentary, and though it is not especially articulate about policy solutions, it is a fine thing to see a contemporary art sensibility carried across to cinema, to see that ways of thinking can migrate, too.

Ai is someone who trades in images and symbols. He knows their power. Some of Human Flow’s footage comes directly from his iPhone, and he is shown constantly framing and reframing what’s before him with the little device. His presence is personal. “Really, thank you,” says a man called Mahmoud, to Ai, on his way to Europe through the stretch of land that was once the Eastern bloc. “I respect you,” replies the artist.

When Ai gives the screen over to refugees, he positions them in the centre of the frame so that we cannot ignore them any longer. A woman and her husband, cross-legged in a flowered meadow in Eastern Europe, look down at the camera and speak directly of their former life: “We baked our own bread. We didn’t need anything else. Life must be worth living.” Another man holds the ID cards of his deceased family members, who visit him at night in dreams. One of a group of women from Palestine lament that her homeland has bled the largest and longest-standing refugee population of anywhere: “Gaza has gotten lost beyond the world.” Her friend says that her “one and only dream is to travel on a cruise ship. But that is impossible.”

By this time, we have learned enough to know that these women will likely never find home. In Human Flow, we feel their sense of displacement anew.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a Sydney-based writer and artist and author of Not at a Cinema Near You.

Editor’s Note April 2018

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” tweeted Donald Trump six months ago. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Two months earlier, he warned North Korea it would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, if Kim Jong-un escalated the threat to the United States.

Tillerson was fired in March via a tweet, another victim of Trump’s impulsiveness. Trump evidently decided he would negotiate with Kim Jong-un personally. What could go wrong?

“Surely no one has taken to the task of radioactive brinkmanship with quite the same freakish enthusiasm as Trump,” writes Scott Ludlam, in this month’s timely and quietly terrifying essay on the renewed threat of nuclear war.

Impulsiveness and random threats of aggression should never be in the same room as nuclear weapons negotiations – this is self-evident. However, the problem is not just with the man who boasts about his big button and is currently occupying the White House. Nuclear weapons systems in the US and Russia are designed as a matter of military strategic doctrine to operate on a hair-trigger. The physical threat from them is overwhelming and ever-present. Scared yet?

“No matter how bad you think the global nuclear weapons complex is,” writes Ludlam, “it is worse than you know. Much worse.”

In better news, a global nuclear ban treaty supported by nearly two thirds of the world’s governments (as well as a growing international network of non-government groups) is within reach. Ludlam lays out the workings of the plan.

But where is Australia in all this? Even under a president as shambolic and capricious as Donald Trump, our leaders aren’t tempted to reassess their own supplicant position. (On the nuclear ban question, we support the United States and won’t sign a treaty either.) Instead, Malcolm Turnbull uses his leadership to confirm the Australian government’s preferred role of trusty deputy sheriff.

Australia remains, albeit willingly, in the grip of a longstanding existential malaise over who we are: still looking outward for direction and, in one way or another, still colonised. Don Watson writes that as a nation “we are unfettered and in no sense tyrannised. Our successes, like our failures, are all our own.”

In this issue’s Rethinking the Republic special, both Watson and Megan Davis tackle Australia’s identity problem head-on. The current thinking on the republic is blithe and ill formed, they argue, and this will continue to have real consequences.

Unless the unfinished business of the Australian state with the First Nations is addressed, Davis says, a republic is worthless, or worse: it will repeat the injustices, errors and omissions of the constitutional monarchy, and only serve to formalise dispossession.

“There is an opportunity here for the republican movement, though,” she writes. “Don’t go it alone.” Australia can cut itself free from the monarchy but it can’t cut itself off from its own past. For now we remain mired in the present.

Moment of Truth
Australia is on the brink of momentous change, but only if we can face up to the past – a Quarterly Essay extract

Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to “see” the profound historical importance of the Uluru Statement pointed to a far deeper problem: the culture of entrenched indifference towards Indigenous Australia. One of the most striking absences from the Turnbull government’s press release was the Makarrata Commission. There was no mention of the proposal for a body to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling about the nation’s history. The silence was deafening, yet unsurprising. If anything makes a Coalition government uncomfortable, it’s facing up to the way the country was conquered. The two most significant acknowledgments by federal governments of historical injustice in the last thirty years – Paul Keating’s Redfern Park Speech (1992) and Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) – have both come from the Labor side of politics. By contrast, John Howard turned the condemnation of “black armband history” into a political calling card for a generation of conservatives.

Yet the reasons for the Turnbull government’s disregard go beyond the confines of Liberal political philosophy. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu suggests, they reflect a deeper cultural prejudice. “The Australian people know their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own,” he argues, “which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.”

Mick Dodson agrees, claiming that there’s “something in the Australian psyche that goes back to colonisation and the way in which present-day Australia came by the country and there’s fear of facing up to that truth … we don’t want to confront these wrongs and be called to account for them.” What Dodson calls “the Australian psyche” W.E.H. Stanner referred to as the “Australian conscience,” a state of heart and mind, a moral calculus that was inherently resistant to confronting a profound historical truth: “there was more than an accidental correspondence between the ruin of Aboriginal, and the making of European life in Australia. There was, in fact, a functional concomitance … the destruction of Aboriginal society was not the consequence of European development, but its price.” It’s precisely this recognition – that the material success of Australian society was built upon the dispossession of Indigenous Australia, a history that clearly demands treaty and settlement – that causes so many to avert their eyes.

In 2017, it was not only the government’s response to the Referendum Council that betrayed a deep-seated fear of confronting the past. It was also starkly evident in the public controversy over the inscriptions on colonial statues and the debate over the memorialisation of the frontier wars and the future of Australia Day. Even these disputes are only the surface ripples of a far more prolonged and all-encompassing national project, one that we have yet to see “whole” rather than through its constituent parts – reconciliation and constitutional recognition; the republic; and the recent resurgence of Anzac Day as Australia’s national day. All of these designs for national renewal are intimately connected to the challenge of truth-telling and the acknowledgment of history, yet so far we have failed to see the connections between them. We contemplate recognition. We remain divided over the meaning of Australia Day. We gather around the hearth of Anzac. We discuss the republic. But these debates and their histories circulate in parallel universes. This essay is an attempt to bring them together, to yoke a vast body of historical scholar­ship that has transformed our understanding of Australian history over the past five decades to the deeper currents of a country on the brink of momentous change.

Within the next decade Australia has the opportunity to achieve a meaningful constitutional settlement with Indigenous Australians, to become a republic, and perhaps in the process, to redefine the way we see ourselves and the way the country is seen by others. If these changes are to have any realistic prospect of success, we need to articulate a more cohesive and unified vision, one that understands the crucial importance of truth-telling, together with a fundamental paradox: that acknowledging the past – or, more specifically, what the poet Judith Wright called the “attitudes that helped us to conquer and settle this country” – will not weigh us down. It will liberate us. This applies as much to Indigenous as it does to other Australians.

In his extraordinary essay “Rom Watangu: The Law of the Land,” published in The Monthly in July 2016, Galarrwuy Yunupingu recalled how his father, Mungurrawuy, was present “when the massacres occurred in [East Arnhem Land] in the 1920s and 1930s.” He was also “shot by a man licensed to do so.” “These events and what lies behind them are burned into our minds,” he explained. “They are never forgotten. Such things are remembered. Like the scar that marked the exit of the bullet from my father’s body.” The scars – memories of forced removal, murder, warfare, resistance and survival – are etched into the bloodlines of Australia’s historical imagination. In the past, we have dealt with them by repression, silence and denial. But we have yet to understand how we can use them productively. As Marcia Langton wrote in 2003, because of the work of historians and Aboriginal people who have shared their oral histories over the last decades, we now have “a much more robust idea of the past from which Australians need not shrink in denial, but which, if wrestled with honestly, lays the foundations for a new story of the nation.” This “new story” is one that we have barely begun to glimpse. Ever so tentatively, we are coming to accept the relationship between the acknowledgment of history and the re-founding of the nation on more honest, just and legitimate grounds.

The cultures and histories of Indigenous Australia that were believed to be destined for extinction at the time of Federation in 1901 have not merely resurfaced, they have moved from the periphery of Australia’s national imagination to its centre, where they rightly belong. This gradual transformation – the rise of the very presence that had allegedly been van­quished – represents the most significant shift in Australia’s historical consciousness since European settlement began. And its expression is central to the new constitutional settlement we are striving to accomplish. Many writers before me – historians, novelists, lawyers, artists, journal­ists, theologians, politicians, anthropologists, political scientists and countless more – have grappled with the complex relationship between history, constitutional justice and national legitimacy. This is a collaborative project. And we have to take the long view.

Since the 1970s, Australia has been struggling with the challenge of founding what Noel Pearson has eloquently called a “more complete Commonwealth.” No longer able to rely on the old narratives that sustained what was seen as an isolated, essentially British society in the South Pacific, and confronting a rising tide of Indigenous protest and revisionist history which exposed the lie of peaceful British settlement, the country has witnessed an ongoing crisis of faith in its legitimacy. At the heart of this crisis is a dispute about the way the country was conquered and set­tled – the long history of Australia’s frontier. The very first Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s “In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right” (2001), interpreted the bitter debate over the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Bringing Them Home report (1997) as a symptom of a much longer-lasting and “larger culture war – over the meaning of Aboriginal dispossession.”

Sixteen years later, we are still trying to understand the meaning of this history and its significance for the nation’s future. The question of whether Australia Day should be moved – debated in one form or another since the commemoration of Governor Arthur Phillip’s arrival at Sydney Cove began in earnest in the nineteenth century – is merely the latest example. But it is also a sign of a slowly dawning realisation: the way we acknowledge our history has the power to make or unmake the nation. If we really intend to found a more complete Commonwealth, are we prepared to change the way we represent the nation’s past and include the perspec­tive of Indigenous Australians? Are we willing to honour the democratic process and Indigenous consensus that underwrites the Uluru Statement? And can we find the political will to transcend the bitter divisions that have plagued public discussion of the country’s history for so long? A bird’s-eye view of Australia’s culture in 2018 suggests that we remain deeply divided over the way the country was founded.

Our government dismisses the Uluru Statement from the Heart, refusing to embrace a truth-telling commission. Our legal and political system grapples with questions of native title and the ongoing legacies of the frontier in remote communities. Our schools, universities and media debate the terminology we should use to describe the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and how much emphasis we should place on invasion and dispossession, while on Australia Day this year tens of thousands cried “change the date,” as they marched in cities and towns around the country. Our journalists, historians, poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, composers, scriptwriters, filmmakers, dancers and curators produce work that deals with the troubling inheritance of the frontier. Our citizens erect memorials to those killed in massacres and violent encounters. Our clergy and community leaders speak of the need for reconciliation and recognition. More than any other history, the history of the frontier continues to unsettle and trouble us – we rake over the embers, endlessly searching for redemption.

This is an edited extract from Mark McKenna’s Quarterly Essay 69, “Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future”, out now.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

Masculinity in crisis in ‘Off the Record’
Craig Sherborne’s satire could be an ingenious portrait of deluded conceit

Callum Smith, aka “Words”, is an unscrupulous middle-aged crime reporter who has recently separated from his wife. Since their separation, he’s taken “a bracing cut in pay” to work for an online media company, with the hope of making his name and fortune. These major life changes, combined with the infidelity that led to the breakdown of his marriage, point to something like a classic midlife crisis.

Craig Sherborne – who once worked as a journalist and shares his protagonist’s initials – employs the first person past tense for the bulk of Off the Record (Text, $29.99), but Words occasionally breaks into the present to explain his philosophy of life. Early in the novel, he insists: “My reason for living is my wife and my son. They, Emma and Oliver, are my religion: without them I doubt I could make an attempt at goodness. But a reason to be good is far from being good.” We understand from this, and other attempts to justify bad behaviour, that Words might possess a redeemable soul, despite his tainted and “half-human” status.

Whenever Words exploits or deceives someone, he claims to do it for the right reason (“I was doing it for my family, it was worth the cruelty …”) and if he has developed “a dead glitter” in his eyes, he insists that it was acquired in the service of his religion. But these avowals of love and self-sacrifice become harder to entertain as the novel wears on. Words fails to recall the month of his wedding anniversary, and his true passion is on display when he tells his son’s teacher: “Ollie recently made me the proudest I have ever been as his father. I asked him what it was he wanted to do in life. You know what he said? He said, ‘I want to be like you.’”

If conventionally masculine men are expected to speak plainly and truthfully while abhorring sly manipulation and deception (contra Odysseus), then Words is far from masculine in the traditional sense. Readers are put on their guard from Off the Record’s opening pages, when he says: “I do not believe in honesty.” Later, Words tells us: “I have spent my working life not taking people’s word. In my world all talk consists of riddles. There is no such thing as face value. Trouble is, it spreads to all your judgments. You do not know when to give trust or withhold it.” In fact, Words is far more trusting of others than they are of him, and wrongly imagines that his Machiavellian outlook offers personal and professional advantages.

In the broad sense, Words is a private-schooled, white-collar narcissist of a certain generation who is happy to get his soul but not his hands dirty. He believes that an elite education, his writerly talents, and a modest public profile grant him a higher position in the social hierarchy than those who work with their hands or teach, and he jealously guards that self-perception. “I have clout in this town,” he insists. “I’m not some shitkicker.” The world is there for him to conquer, through rhetoric and trickery, and people exist to be exploited.

Words is obsessed with status and shamelessly solicits tokens of praise and admiration from his family or colleagues. For him, “The definition of life is holding on to where you are in society. Hopefully getting ahead or not falling back too far. It’s having loved ones looking up to you, admiring how you’ve held your position.” The gap between this regressive understanding of the world and his actual capacity to thrive under those conditions is the source of much of the novel’s comedy: while Words insistently embraces the notion that social rules are subservient to the impulses of “nature, red in tooth and claw”, he isn’t equipped to prevail against genuine competitors. If he was once formidable, he is now afflicted by impotence and uncertainty.

Words wants nothing more than to be respected and feared, but his attempts to acquire esteem and wield power prove farcical. Imagine a dogged but mediocre Iago, or a Frankenstein-like assemblage of dysfunctional male impulses.

There is a strong hint, in the early sections of Off the Record, that Words might be in the process of critically reassessing his behaviour and worldview. He says of his wife: “She had her own job, a worthy job … Did I ever hero-worship her or give her fawning? I barely asked how her toiling was going.” But these self-interrogations fade away, which might leave some readers wondering exactly who the story is addressing, and why. If it isn’t a plea for readerly sympathy or understanding, and if Words’s calamitous account is unlikely to attract the kind of admiration or awe that he yearns for, what is its purpose, and who is it aimed at?

Throughout the novel, Words talks to himself (and occasionally yells) in front of the mirror, while eating or walking the streets, when alone in his office or driving. “My bantering habit,” he says, “was enough to make any onlooker think he’s mad. I was animated in my discussions. I pointed at myself, slapped my palms together in recrimination.” It is possible, then, that Words addresses his story to the one person who truly matters by his standards: himself. If so, Sherborne has conjured an ingenious form of past tense narration that is perfectly suited to his protagonist’s nature.

Off the Record is ambiguous, funny, and refreshingly unwise.

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and critic from Adelaide.

‘The Workshop’: teen angst in a post-Charlie Hebdo France
Laurent Cantet’s new film explores the lure of political extremism for the young and bored

Laurent Cantet’s L’Atelier (The Workshop) got a bit lost in the shuffle at Cannes last year, where it was overshadowed by another French premiere, the Grand Prix-winning BPM (Beats Per Minute). Robin Campillo, who directed BPM, also co-wrote The Workshop, and in many ways it’s a fascinating companion piece, as well as a culmination of the filmmaking project Cantet and Campillo, who attended film school together, have been pursuing for the last two decades.

Campillo was best known as an editor and screenwriter on Cantet’s films before he turned to directing with 2004’s They Came Back (later adapted for TV, where it became the wildly successful Les Revenants). Their latest collaboration began percolating 20 years ago, when Campillo was working as a TV editor and saw a story about an English novelist running a creative writing workshop for French teens. Cantet wanted to set the film in the French coastal city of La Ciotat, at the time reeling from the closure of its shipyard in 1986.

The setting remains, though the context has shifted. In the ’90s, Cantet says, the film would have been about young people coming to terms with the city’s working-class past. “Nowadays that past has lost all meaning [for them], but I nevertheless thought the workshop was an interesting way to make the youngsters talk about how they felt.”

Cantet and Campillo returned to the idea in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “The world is different [now],” says Cantet. “The world is more violent. In little cities such as La Ciotat, youngsters are often very bored. That’s what I really wanted to look at.”

French star Marina Foïs signed on when the filmmakers realised they needed a local actor (rather than an English one, per the real-life inspiration) to pull off the verbal cut-and-thrust that powers the film. A fan of Cantet’s work, Foïs jumped at the opportunity. “To be perfectly honest, I would have said yes to any proposal. And the subject of this film interested me: how to reduce the gap between generations, how we as adults can make room for the younger generation and stop despising them.”

Foïs plays Olivia, a glamorous Parisian novelist who is simultaneously repelled and fascinated by Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), the prickliest member of her creative writing group. Antoine loves baiting the Muslim members of the workshop, and often seems to make arguments in bad faith. He’s a loner who plays with guns and watches far-right demagogues on YouTube (as well as instructional videos about building his abs). If he’s not at home on his computer or at the workshop, he’s swimming off the cliffs, as though pushing against the physical limits of his humdrum everyday world.

Like the other teenagers in the film, Lucci was a non-professional spotted by Cantet’s casting director. “He was having a fag with his pals outside school,” laughs Cantet. “Don’t tell his parents he was smoking.” The actor is coolly riveting in the film, with the curled bottom lip of a young Vincent Cassel. “He fitted what I wanted, which was a character who could be almost frightening and at the same time impossible to accept as such: he had this very teenage thing about him that made what he was acceptable. I didn’t want us to judge the character.”

Foïs is equally effusive about her young leading man. “He was a fascinating partner. You could really relate to whatever he was playing. You could be fearful, fascinated, seduced. I think we’ll be hearing a lot about him. I spoke to his parents, who are quite worried, but I’m not worried at all.”

Cantet rehearsed with the group for two weeks, and Foïs joined a week before shooting began. The two leads rehearsed a key scene in which Olivia interviews Antoine about his life – purportedly to help her with her fiction. There’s a kind of ethnographic condescension to the interrogation, and one of the threads yanked on by Antoine is Olivia’s failure to really inhabit characters from a background vastly different to her own. “Antoine reproaches Olivia for being the puppeteer, and obviously these are the kind of questions that I’m asking myself when I’m working with young people,” says Cantet. The solution, he says, is a long rehearsal process, and lengthy conversations.

As in BPM or Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class (2008), his newest film is about the group dynamic, though the filmmaker thinks The Workshop has more in common with his 2001 feature Time Out. “Antoine resembles the main character in Time Out. He’s a wanderer, and he’s always expecting [that] something will pop up and change his life. He’s also constantly making fiction.” The noir story spit-balled by the group over several sessions is both a reflection of their identities and a way to escape them. And gradually, as Antoine begins following Olivia home, the film starts to resemble a thriller.

Antoine is frustrated by the inability of his peers to follow an idea to its logical, if unpalatable, end. But his presumption that most people at least think about killing gives Olivia pause. The Workshop might be about the lure of political extremism for the young and despairing, but it’s not prescriptive, and the film’s coda is hopeful. “My films are not sociological treatises,” says Cantet. “The story comes first, and the story is always conveyed by a character. What interests me is that it’s the literary process that helps Antoine. As he manages to find the appropriate words to speak about his boredom – and his violence – he’s able to overcome both.”

The Workshop is playing at the Alliance Française French Film Festival.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

Unholy trinity suffers a setback
The sacking of Roman Quaedvlieg is only a minor impediment to Dutton’s plan


Peter Dutton’s unbending plan to rule the world encountered a minor setback last week. Not only did he put his own jackboot in a cowpat, but his chief enforcer, Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg (anagram: love and quagmire) hit the wall over findings of inappropriate and misleading conduct with the employment of his girlfriend.

It took almost a year, during which Quaedvlieg trousered some half a million bucks for doing nothing much other than texting his lover about 14,000 times, which works out at about $36 an SMS.

But the lavishly uniformed bureaucrat will have to be replaced, no doubt at vast expense. And Dutton’s very well-paid éminence grise – Home Affairs departmental head, the almost insanely ambitious Mike Pezzullo – is surely already on the case looking for someone equally arrogant and brutal.

Dutton’s quest for power has so far gone pretty well: the various amalgamations to his empire now run to a workforce of some 23,000, making it one of the biggest bureaucracies in Canberra and one of the least accountable. The magic formula, “we stopped the boats,” is seen to justify any excess, any outrage.

Thus when the question arose about if, how and when South African farmers might be forced to leave their land, Dutton did not hesitate. These were the real refugees, he proclaimed, persecuted and threatened by a ruthless government. The only proper course would be to bring them to Australia where they would, being white, Christian and Anglophone (apart from those who only spoke Afrikaans – and surely they could learn), become model productive citizens.

Of course, they were not the only ones being persecuted and threatened. It is widely rumoured that there could be others: Rohingyas, Syrians, Afghans, Libyans, Sudanese … Quite a lot of victims, really, including a few asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, where they have already been found to be genuine refugees, but remain indefinitely.

Most, if not all, of these are in much worse plight than the South Africans, who, if they are forced to leave their rainbow nation, will do so more as what Dutton used to call economic refugees rather than the real kind.

But Dutton insists they are entitled to a “civilised” country, the clear implication being that South Africa is not one: presumably it is what Donald Trump would describe as a “shithole”. Unsurprisingly, the South Africans are not amused, and Australia’s refugee advocates have dismissed the minister’s thought balloon as racist. And it is, in a low-key sort of way – more ignorant and stupid than malicious, but embarrassing nonetheless.

Although there were those who poured shit on him, Peter Dutton remained undeterred, haranguing the ASEAN meeting about the need to beef up borders on an international basis – with, presumably, him in charge. The original unholy trinity of Dutton, Pezzullo and Quaedvlieg may have been broken up, but there are always more budding tyrants willing and eager to fill the gap.

As Bertolt Brecht once put it:

“This was the thing who nearly had us mastered.
Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

‘The Square’: comfort food for the self-loathing
Ruben Östlund’s hilarious film is an uneasy mix of silliness and brow-furrowing

Few things excite well-meaning liberal audiences more than being scolded for their bourgeois attitudes, and in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which charts the unravelling of a blithe gallery curator’s comfortable existence, they’re served up an art-house platter of guilt and chin-stroking class critique. That the film won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is no surprise, while its nomination for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards all but sealed its middlebrow credentials. Despite its considerable smarts – and this is a clever, fitfully hilarious work – The Square faces a classic festival-film dilemma: it’s art that threatens to resemble the very subject of its critique, indulging its smug audience with a knowing sense of collusion.

Nominally a satire of the contemporary art world, Östlund’s film is set in and around the fictitious Stockholm museum X-Royal, the kind of institution that’s transformed a stately old-world palace into a forum for buzzy exhibits designed to lure big crowds. Its handsomely crumpled curator, Christian (Claes Bang), presides with frayed detachment, his life held together by expensive neckerchiefs, GQ looks and a spin-doctor gift for expediency. Tasked with overseeing the gallery’s flagship new piece – a conceptual art work called The Square, which is billed as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” for patrons – Christian’s facile life is upended by a chain of increasingly farcical circumstances that the filmmaker throws his way.

Östlund, whose previous Force Majeure (2014) applied a wry scalpel to a patriarchal meltdown, likes to push and prod his subjects like hapless dolls in a fateful puppet show. The hunt for a stolen phone thus sends Christian into an awkward, potentially criminal ethno-cultural predicament, his flirtatious relationship with American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) needles the institutional dynamics of male power, and a disastrous publicity campaign for the new exhibit adds corporate funding, social media, and viral-chasing millennials to the film’s satirical targets.

It’s certainly a lot. The Square works when it adheres to Östlund’s agreeably puerile strain of humour, which can manifest in comedy skit obviousness – an early interview finds Christian perched in an antiseptic white space, the words YOU HAVE NOTHING framing his profile – or generate cheerful visual gags, like when a gilded palace statue is indifferently beheaded by the construction team clearing the grounds for the new exhibit. The ultra-grisly viral campaign conceived by two ad agency douches, meanwhile, is about as plausible as an old Monty Python gag – yet its silliness is preferable to the movie’s brow-furrowing elsewhere.

Christian is a slippery audience avatar. Though sympathetic, his noble intentions towards workplace diversity, the underprivileged, and the greater good are motivated by self-preservation – witness a scene in which Christian doles out cash to a homeless woman, not in a spirit of generosity, but as performative altruism – and reflect an all-too-familiar behaviour among certain types who occupy prominent positions in the arts. Bang’s world-weary performance is wise enough to suggest a more complex man beyond the character, too. “Why is it so hard to admit that power is a turn on?” Christian asks Anne at one point, post-sex; moments earlier, he’d clung to his used condom like a mewling child unwilling to give up its toy – a cheerfully gross metaphor for men coveting their power at all costs. Such moments distil Östlund’s grander themes to funny, filthy sketches, and the film is livelier for them.

Yet just as much of The Square busies itself with laboured observations, with entry-level “what is art?” jokes and broad strokes applied to class and privilege. (Raise a glass of expensive white every time Östlund shows a homeless person begging on the street.) The film’s easy targets align it with the kind of bourgeois takedown that’s come to epitomise a good chunk of post-Haneke European festival cinema, work that seems to enter into an unspoken contract with its audience – it’s satire for and by liberal intellectuals, effectively comfort food for the self-loathing set. (Look no further than the aggressively quirky a cappella music here, goofily punctuating every second episode of social crisis.) Whether intentional or not, The Square’s thunderous central irony – that the concept of the eponymous work of art isn’t practised by those curating it – might arguably stand in for the film itself.

Östlund’s film is at its best when playfully pushing its own boundaries, be it through the absurd – Anne inexplicably sharing an apartment with a lipstick-wearing chimpanzee – or the abrasive – during a Q&A session a blowhard, pyjama-clad artist (Dominic West) is shredded by an audience member with Tourette syndrome. The film’s most memorable sequence, unfolding at a black-tie arts gala, features a howling, simian-like performance artist (played by beefcake Hollywood choreographer Terry Notary) who taunts the assembled patrons well beyond their comfort threshold, allowing Östlund to explode the latent intolerance of his otherwise urbane guests in violent, confrontational fashion.

But Östlund’s willingness to diffuse such outbursts moments later speaks the central conundrum of his film: as intelligent and well assembled as The Square is, it lets its audience off the hook with a wink at every turn. Even Christian’s final plight – literally reduced to rummaging through the trash that he’s become – is too clean, too art directed to be uncomfortable.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is an award-winning film critic and editor whose work has appeared in ABC’s Final Cut, 4:3 Film and SBS Movies.


Meaning and play run deep at the ‘Museum of Water’
The Perth Festival event encourages reflection on a precious resource

Photography by Bo Wong

The Museum of Water, developed for the Perth Festival but continuing until March 23, is a delightful exercise in participatory storytelling with a deeper, more crucial, significance.

For more than a year UK artist Amy Sharrocks toured one of Australia’s driest states in a rusty trailer, accompanied by custodians of the land, collecting samples of water and the memories that they represent. A sculptor and filmmaker, as well as an artist, Sharrocks first began her water project in London in 2013 and has since toured it across the UK and Europe through 50 sites. In 2016, she curated Do Rivers Dream of Oceans?, a festival of water across the English city of Reading. The Perth event is the third major iteration of her project as she continues to make her point: we can no longer take this most precious resource for granted.

Her theme, presented with imagination and humour, is described as preparation for the drier future that we can expect global warming to bring to many parts of the world. With 70 per cent of Australia classed as desert, arid, or semi-arid, and Perth fretting about urban water shortages, Europe’s future is WA’s present. Quite apart from its obvious role in irrigation for agriculture, for example, water makes up some 60 per cent of the human body.

As the festival’s dedicated webpage instructed: “Choose your water. Find a bottle to put it in. Tell us why you brought it.” More than 500 bottles and jars and other receptacles that came in are laid out on tiered surfaces in a room of the Fremantle Arts Centre. Some of them were given directly to the centre; the cut-off date was the final day of the festival, March 4. While the festival was on, the centre also ran a variety of water-related workshops on everything from how to have a three-minute shower to how to build a boat to how to make ceramic receptacles. A number of talks on the science of water were also presented.

The water samples and their stories range through kitsch, cute, interesting and deeply moving. All are thought-provoking and the sheer variety of ways people responded to the idea is thoroughly absorbing. “Water”, as creative producer Sarah Rowbottam told me, “becomes a symbol for starting to talk about so much else.”

One of the donations is a collection of shells placed in water in squat, silver-lidded jars. The children who made it are being home-schooled and their mother encouraged them to take part as an education project. When we were there, they were upstairs at the boat-building workshop.

There are some Asian-language contributions and stories from the Waylen Bay Sea Scouts. An empty green bottle on its side with its cap nearby is what remains of a spiritual adventure. A surfer put some water from Rottnest Island in a bottle for the project before experiencing qualms about his entitlement to do so. He returned to Rottnest, asking the ocean for safe returns of surfboard riders as he poured the water back.

Perhaps the most moving story came from a 16-year-old Year 11 girl who had kept a small half-empty bottle of water on the dresser in her bedroom for months as an aide-mémoire. One day, she had seen a homeless man begging on the street and she gave him what she had in her hands – a sandwich and a bottle of water. He accepted both gratefully, drank half the water and gave back the bottle. She kept what was left where she could see it every day, to remind her how much the smallest things matter to those who have nothing, and how easy it is to help them.

The walls of a room next door are festooned with written accounts of what people would have done for the installation if they could have. Some slips of paper outline complicated scenarios of captured water; others are cheeky responses, clearly from adolescents, which nonetheless got a democratic showing.

The project sent out film crews to make four documentaries in cooperation with schools. Both donors and the custodians were asked about the significance of the water. Some questions, Rowbottam says, are answered in two words; others took a long time to tease out the import. And a slow but fascinating hour and a half of Sharrocks’ findings is recorded in a podcast followed by some commentary and 16 of the donors’ personal stories.

The Museum of Water is one of those exhibitions that combines art and science in an intriguing exercise of empathy and imagination. Along the way it teaches us plenty, about the importance of water to the environment, to biology, to history and, via memory and symbolism, to our deepest psychological selves.

Miriam Cosic attended the Museum of Water as a guest of the Perth Festival.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

The PM faces failing his own Newspoll test
What next if Malcolm Turnbull loses 30 successive polls?


In around three weeks’ time, unless either a major miracle occurs or The Australian imposes censorship, Malcolm Turnbull will confront his 30th successive losing Newspoll.

So what happens then? Actually, not much. As Christopher Pyne has pointed out with the unarguable logic of arithmetic, our prime minister still has the numbers. When Tony Abbott hit the same target in 2015, he did not, and there is the difference.

True, the unwanted milestone will be a huge embarrassment for Turnbull. The PM is already geeing up his reluctant supporters to explain that it really doesn’t matter, that although he perhaps over-exuberantly mentioned Newspoll in passing, the real reason for his ascension was his promise to reform and reboot economic leadership.

And, of course, he has delivered this in spades: more than 400,000 jobs created in a single year, you can’t ask for better than that. So don’t forget about debt, deficit, wage stagnation and low growth and investment. It will all come right when the company tax cuts come through.

But, unaccountably, the voters seem monumentally unimpressed, which is no doubt why the 30th losing Newspoll is looming – and actually it’s even worse than it appears, because the slump under Turnbull has already been longer and deeper than that under Abbott.

Words like “irredeemable” are being bandied around in the party room – not in terms of defiance, but of despair. There is no credible challenger, and none is likely to emerge in time to prepare for the next election. The marginal backbenchers are stuck with Turnbull, although it appears that he won’t or can’t do anything to produce order from the chaos that has engulfed the Coalition for more months than anyone wants to remember.

There have been suggestions for a major reset; Peter van Onselen, normally the sensible adult in the national daily, advises Turnbull to call a snap spill of the leadership and recontest his position as soon as the Newspoll axe falls.

This would involve recalling the Libs to Canberra during the parliamentary recess, in itself a seemingly desperate manoeuvre, but it would, we are assured, guarantee Turnbull an overwhelming win and an endorsement that would finally shut the Abbottistas up for good.

Well, it might; the probability is that Turnbull would be unopposed, although some recalcitrant might just put up their hand for the sheer mischief of it. But there could be a worse embarrassment: what if, as in Abbott’s case, there were no challenger, but some of his colleagues voted for an empty chair in protest?

There would not need to be the 39 rebels who deserted Abbott; even a handful of resisters would be seen as disastrous, an awful portent of worse to come. The risk is simply not worth it. Turnbull will just have to eat the shit sandwich he has prepared for himself and push on in the hope that something will turn up (his record shows that something will, and it will be, as usual, bad) or that better yet, Bill Shorten will self-immolate.

And in the meantime, he can push on to the 31st losing Newspoll, and the 32nd … But it really won’t matter. He will already have broken the record; trying for a new personal worst is surely overkill.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

‘Red Sparrow’ keeps us guessing, to a point
Jennifer Lawrence reunites with her ‘Hunger Games’ director in this dated thriller

Based on a book written in 2013, the new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow manages to be both topical and wildly behind the times. Directed by Francis Lawrence, who oversaw the last few Hunger Games films, it’s a spy thriller about Dominika (Lawrence), a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi who suffers a gruesome accident onstage and finds herself manipulated into working for Russian intelligence by her unscrupulous spook uncle (Rust and Bone’s Matthias Schoenaerts).

It’s enjoyably ridiculous, stocked full of Brit staples (Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons) doing wonky Russian accents, and it’s the kind of densely plotted thriller that studios have largely abandoned to television. It’s also propaganda in the Bruckheimer-Bay mould, in which the virtuous American government goes up against Russian brutes who wear fine suits and do things unconscionable, like, you know, torture people.

Dominika discovers she’s been sabotaged by the male principal (real-life dancer Sergei Polunin, of “Take Me to Church” fame), a revelation lent a smidgen of unlikely credibility by the Bolshoi’s 2013 acid scandal. Her response announces just who we’re dealing with: leaving the wintry flat in which she tends to her invalid mother (Joely Richardson), she follows the destroyers of her career into a sauna, where she interrupts their fucking to royally fuck them up – and this is a nice touch – with her new cane.

Red Sparrow doesn’t stint on the gore, here or elsewhere, and Dominika’s comfort with it marks her out as a killer from the start. After she’s dangled in front of an oligarch as bait and witnesses his extrajudicial garrotting by the state, her uncle gives her a choice: work for us or die. And so it’s off to sparrow training, or “whore school”, as Dominika puts it, where Rampling teaches her how to manipulate a mark by diagnosing their wants and needs – and filling the lack.

Sadly deprived of the chance to chew on a Russian accent is Joel Edgerton as Nate, a CIA operative whose story is intercut with Dominika’s until they join up, after she’s tasked with uncovering the FIS mole he’s been running for years. Part of the fun of Justin Haythe’s script, an adaptation of the novel by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews, is its ability to keep us guessing: is Dominika playing Nate, cowed by fear of her uncle’s positively medieval enforcer (the Teutonic Sebastian Hülk), or is she really looking for a way out?

A third possibility, that she’s actually a patriot deep down, never enters into it. The film’s politics preclude it. At one point the mole reveals him/herself to Dominika, rattling on about the rot festering at the heart of the Russian state; the pair might as well high-five each other.

The events of the last 12 months haven’t exactly made it hard to root against Russian baddies, but they do make the contrast that the film presents – between darkness and prairie light – a little tougher to swallow. It’s a boom era for Cold War fictions on the small screen (The Americans, Deutschland 83) and big (Atomic Blonde), but most of them are period pieces, whereas Red Sparrow is contemporary but not quite of the present moment.

It’s perhaps best appreciated as a showcase for some amusing supporting turns from perennials like Mary-Louise Parker and Bill Camp, both of whom play Americans. They’re salty, weary, vivid; detailed where their adversaries are rote. Parker gets a good line where she wonders at the beauty of Russian women, given all the men resemble toads. One of them rapes Dominika at the beginning of the film, and another, later on, attempts to do so. But Edgerton’s Nate is a gentleman – an American – and the last shot reframes the entire thing as something entirely unexpected, and perhaps not so out-of-date after all: a long-distance love story.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.