Film & Television

Blurring the lines

By Lauren Carroll Harris
‘The Silent Eye’ is the latest of Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s films to resist easy categorisation

What makes an art documentary in Australia today? While most filmmakers adopt the talking heads conventions of television factual programming, The Silent Eye, the latest work from Amiel Courtin-Wilson, which screened recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival, continues the filmmaker’s genre fluidity by approaching documentary as an artist rather than as a journalist.

The experimental film records a collaboration between free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor and modern dance artist Min Tanaka. These are not conventional artists. Taylor has modified the strings of his piano with scrunched paper and a butter knife, and he manipulates the keys more rhythmically than melodically. Tanaka, meanwhile, seems to be literally animated by the piano – squiggling his limbs, jabbing his fingers, as his body and his face wholly and spontaneously react to the sounds. What we are seeing here is a thought process between two artists made audible and visual.

In any storytelling project, an artist finds the perimeters of the story’s world and declares them. The same goes for documentary. In The Silent Eye, the action takes place entirely in Taylor’s light-filled apartment in New York City. Alive with creativity and stacked with dusty books, the space is far from the clinical soundproof box of a recording studio or a theatre.

There’s a third component in this small universe: Courtin-Wilson himself. He stretches the pair’s material outwards, towards his own ambient soundscape (a passing train, insects, a plane, the air itself) and then into deeper abstraction with sequences that combine slow motion and silence. Though the shoot unfolded over three days in January 2016, it feels like real time: one 70-minute largely wordless conversation. There’s a kindness and a sweetness between the onscreen pair, such as when Tanaka drapes a hoodie over Taylor’s shoulders at the end of the jam and bows. They are more than collaborators, they are friends.

This dynamic of friendship animates all of Courtin-Wilson’s work. Though he follows a peripatetic path through video art (he won the National Portrait Gallery’s Digital Portraiture Award last year), feature filmmaking and documentary, the line between him and his subjects in all his projects is deliberately blurred and his films are better for it. Regardless of the genre, that openness between him and his subjects – or rather, collaborators – remains the point of unity.

His 2008 work Bastardy, about the life and crimes of iconic Indigenous actor Jack Charles, held no aspirations to documentary’s usual pretence of objectivity. In devoting seven years to capturing his friend’s trajectory, Courtin-Wilson became something of a co-conspirator with Charles, whose lifelong heroin usage and burglary threatens to return him to the nick. Courtin-Wilson is not an embodied presence in the film, but we feel him there all the time: when, just minutes into the film, we zoom in as a needle slides into Charles’ forearm in the downstairs laundry of a Melbourne block of flats; when Charles scopes out the mansions of rich white people to burgle; and when, as an off-screen voice, Courtin-Wilson tells Charles that the cops have a warrant for his arrest and “will come around Monday”.

Watching it almost ten years after its release, Bastardy seems to speak to the psychological space from which self-sabotage springs. The moment of injection, seen several times, opens up an impossible gap in Charles’ self-awareness: how could an otherwise thoughtful, articulate elder of the community succumb to his own destruction? In this way, Bastardy is startling in the way it weaves a traditional redemption arc into an unconventional documentary blueprint. The film’s personal directive of active, honest involvement is evident in Charles’ words in the grim group laundry: “I feel that if I was to hide any of this, this wouldn’t be a true depiction of the things I do in my life.” The heroin usage “is a major part of my life, it’s what a fella lives for”. Courtin-Wilson was involved; this is the filmmaker acting as both an accomplice and a patient, supportive friend.

Perhaps this is why the director is at his best working in that blurring of art and documentary. His most conventional feature, 2013’s Ruin (co-directed with Michael Cody), is his least engaging, as it seems to lack the feeling of organic implantation in a specific milieu – in that case, Cambodian lovers on the run in an unfeeling, uncaring world. But his 2011 feature Hail transcended all the usual terms of fictional filmmaking. Another story of society’s forgotten members – “based on the life and stories” of Danny, tailspinning since getting out of jail and losing the love of his life, Leanne – it opens laterally, mythically, with shots of a grand Norse painting, and ends with a 40-minute third act that is almost entirely absent of dialogue. After Hail’s release, critic Adrian Martin wrote that the film connected, or rather, eclipsed, its social-issue foundations with raw emotional themes of love, loss, revenge, anguish and fear of the unknown. Yet the bleed between documentary and fiction is what makes Hail gleam with possibility. So much independent filmmaking – in this country and abroad – remains driven by plot and dialogue, neglecting cinema’s metaphorical and audiovisual potential. But Hail tells a story based on real people playing themselves without the detachment of observational documentary traditions.

The Silent Eye blends genres even further, making a space beyond narrative. It qualifies less as cinema than as a 70-minute piece of video art, which is not a put-down. Indeed, the loveliest, most surprising element of The Silent Eye is that it is showing in cinemas rather than galleries, despite its evident origin as a commission by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in the United States. I can imagine wandering in and out of an open-ended, anti-narrative work such as The Silent Eye in a museum context, but theatrical presentation ensures that viewers sit and be present and pay attention as audience members, which is precisely what Courtin-Wilson does as a filmmaker.

Creativity comes from a place we don’t fully fathom. Courtin-Wilson understands that. His films, in which storytelling is primarily aural, visual and gut-level, present important potential through-lines for Australian art cinema, which remains, still, a largely unexplored field.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

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