The Aussie connection. Reviewed: Stateless, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Posted in Australia, Berlin, documentary, Drama, Fashion, photography, Prison, Refugees, TV by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto used to be movie city, a place with countless films in production at any one time, competing for access to location shots and studio space. Dozens of screens showing the latest releases and over a hundred film festivals showcasing upcoming hits… but that was pre-Pandemic. Now the city is so dead you can almost hear a pin drop.

But don’t panic, movies are still being shown. The Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest continues at Ontario Place, showing everything from Bollywood comedies to Italian dramas to crowd pleasers from Brazil, the US and China. Go to ICFF.ca for tickets. And if you want to stay home this weekend, don’t miss the Toronto Arab Film Festival, premiering features and short films online from Canada and around the world, today through Sunday. Films are all free or PWYC. For more information, go to arabfilm.ca.

This week I’m looking at two new productions, a glamorous documentary and a human TV drama, both with an Australian connection. There’s an Australian who wants to be deported to Germany, and a German fashion photographer who finds refuge in Australia.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

Are the high-fashion photographs you see in Vogue magazine revolutionary and sexually subversive looks at our culture? Or are they violent, misogynistic views of women? A new documentary asks these questions about the pictures of renowned photographer Helmut Newton and the story of his life. He isborn in 1920 in Weimar Berlin. His father owns a factory that makes buttons and buckles. By the time he’s a teenager the Nazis are in power. He’s both repelled by and attracted to the fascist imagery of photographers like Leni Riefenstahl – he’s German-Jewish, immersed in the culture all around him but also highly restricted and persecuted by government laws.

He works as an apprentice for a woman named Yva, one of the first to use photographs within the fashion industry. In 1938 he boards a ship with a ticket to Shanghai, but disembarks in Singapore, and from there to Australia, where he spends two years in an internment camp, joins the army, and eventually becomes a fashion photographer. And he marries his life and work partner, June, AKA Alice Springs.

His photos become a smash hit in Europe, where they change the whole look of fashion photgraphy. By the 1960s he’s the first to use nude models in fashion spreads. His images are filled with fear, embarssment and the threat of violence. They often include statuesque women with domineering expressions, chiseled features, athletic bodies and large breasts. Many verge on soft core porn, with images of women dominating men. There are also photos of women as victims of violence, swallowed whole by aligators, missing limbs or brandishing knives.

And, surprisingly, a series of photos showing the erotic violence of roast chickens.

Newton settled into the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood where he died in a car accident, aged 83.

This film takes an unusual tactic. Rather than the narrator intruding into the film, we hear instead from all the women, the actors and models, he worked with: Grace Jones, Isabella Rosselini, Catherine Deneuve, Hannah Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Wintour and many more. They talk about whether they felt liberated or exploited by posing in the nude; what it was like to work with him, and how the final images are often very different from the shooting itself. Many mention how he treated models like puppets, dolls or manequins that convey Newton’s ideas not the models – that’s undeniable. But most say they loved working with him and also liked the shocking and subversive images they played a part in. This film mirrors Newton’s gaze of women and turns it around by reversing the POV to that of those women examining Newton and his work. Very clever.

If you like the aesthetic of glamorous images, high fashion, and stark, nude women’s bodies — that also gives a subjective voice to the women Newton used as objects — you will love this doc.

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

It’s the 2000s in a remote detention centre somewhere in Australia. High fences stop inmates from escaping, while visitors must line up to pass through security inspections. It’s just another day in the life prisoners in the carceral system. The problem is this isn’t a prison at all and the inmates have committed no crimes. They’re actually asylum seekers, refugees from around the world, who arrive there by boat.

One such inmate is Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) who is separated from his wife and kids. The family fled the Taiban in Afghanistan only to find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous refugee brokers who steal their savings and set them adrift in leaky boats. Ameer manages to reach Australia on his own, but now he’s locked up in the detention centre and can’t find his beloved family.

Another inmate is Eva (Yvonne Strahovski). Unlike most of the detainees, she’s not a refugee from the developing world; she’s European and just wants to leave Australia for Germany. But she has no papers to prove who she is. That’s because she’s actually an Australian flight attendant on the run from a creepy personality cult.

The inmates are guarded by people like Cam (Jai Courtney) a likeable newlywed from a nearby town. With the decent salary he can afford a new house with a swimming pool. But after a few months of working in the toxic prison-like atmosphere he finds himself morphing from ordinary guy to sadistic torturer.

Then there’s Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious federal civil servant. She’s sent there to clean the place up, keep journalists at bay and restore the centre’s reputation. But she arrives to find news helicopters filming despondent Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camped out on rooftop, with others driven to suicide by the horrible and hopeless conditions there. What will happen to the refugees? Will Ameer ever find his family? Why is a mentally ill Australian woman locked up in a concentration camp? And for that matter why are asylum seekers there at all?

Stateless is a six-part drama, based on a true story about actually refugees imprisoned in Australian detention camps, as well as the case of an Australian woman who ended up in one of the camps. It’s a heart-wrenching TV series with powerful acting and compelling characters played out against an extremely bleak setting. I found it really interesting – I wanted to find it what happens and binged-watched it in two sittings. It’s a bit strange though that – except for Ameer – the asylum seekers are all peripheral characters while the three Australian characters all have backstories, histories, neuroses and sex lives. I guess that’s the point – it’s not about asylum seekers, per se, it’s about how poorly the Australian government treats them, and how passionately other Australians fight for their rights.

Stateless is streaming on Netflix, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is playing now on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

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