David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Three Sum­mers (M) Na­tional re­lease The Or­nithol­o­gist (O Or­ni­tol­ogo) (MA15+) Lim­ited re­lease School Life (M) Lim­ited re­lease

Over three years the same peo­ple at­tend a (fic­tional) music festival, Wes­ti­val, staged in ru­ral Western Australia and dur­ing this pe­riod at­ti­tudes change, re­la­tion­ships evolve, friend­ships are born. That’s Three Sum­mers in a nut­shell.

It’s Ben El­ton’s se­cond fea­ture as di­rec­tor and comes 17 years af­ter his first, Maybe Baby (2000). What’s more, it’s a thor­oughly Aussie ex­pe­ri­ence from the tal­ented Bri­tish satirist who has made this coun­try his home.

This is a movie that’s easy to take, even though it’s re­ally not very sub­tle. There are some as­pects of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian society that clearly bother El­ton, and here he homes in on them. The plight of refugees left in un­lim­ited de­ten­tion is one of his con­cerns and the prob­lems be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced in some Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties is another.

Among the reg­u­lar at­ten­dees at Wes­ti­val, apart from ra­dio com­men­ta­tor Quee­nie (Magda Szuban­ski), are the War­rikins, a folk rock band fea­tur­ing fa­ther (John Wa­ters, ex­cel­lent) and daugh­ter (Re­becca Breeds, also very good). The old man is an al­co­holic but won’t at­tend the coun­selling ses­sions con­ducted by Deb­o­rah Mail­man, while Kee­vie, his daugh­ter, is get­ting sick of one-night stands. When she meets Roland (Robert Shee­han), an earnest young techno musician who plays the theremin, it seems that ro­mance will fol­low, but such is the struc­ture of El­ton’s film that it will take a cou­ple more sum­mers for that to hap­pen.

Then there’s a cranky old Mor­ris dancer — played by Michael Ca­ton com­plete with bells and flo­ral hat — who reck­ons Abo­rig­ines should stay in their place and refugees should go back to where they came from. In fact, as his perky grand­daugh­ter (Ni­chola Balestri) points out, he was a boat per­son him­self, hav­ing come to this coun­try from Eng­land — in­vol­un­tar­ily, be­cause he was one of those sup­pos­edly or­phaned English schoolchil­dren trans­ported to Australia af­ter World War II.

Though these char­ac­ters are, over a pe­riod, ca­pa­ble of mod­i­fy­ing their views, some re­main true to their prin­ci­ples, such as the fem­i­nist folk singer who changes the lyrics to time­less Aus­tralian songs ( Waltz­ing Matilda be­comes Rap­ing Matilda!).

Kel­ton Pell plays an Abo­rig­i­nal dancer and didgeri­doo player con­cerned about the wel­fare of the younger gen­er­a­tion, while Amay Jain plays a young Afghan refugee liv­ing with foster par­ents — he some­how man­ages to or­gan­ise for a trio of Afghan mu­si­cians to be re­leased from a de­ten­tion cen­tre long enough to play at the festival and to make a speech about the hellish life they are lead­ing be­fore they’re re­turned to de­ten­tion un­der po­lice es­cort.

These and other char­ac­ters (in­clud­ing a butch and au­thor­i­ta­tive se­cu­rity guard played by Kate Box) are ex­plored with­out a great deal of nu­ance. El­ton seems so ea­ger to get his so­cial mes­sages across to a wide au­di­ence that he all-


The Or­nithol­o­gist ows no shades of grey to in­trude. But the film is worth see­ing for Wa­ters, giv­ing a spir­ited por­trayal of a lov­ing fa­ther set in his ways and un­able to see that times are chang­ing, and Breeds as his lively, tal­ented, worldly wise daugh­ter. Sin­gling them out shouldn’t de­tract from the rest of the en­sem­ble, all of whom do ster­ling work un­der El­ton’s con­ven­tional di­rec­tion. Three Sum­mers is easy to take but not up to the stan­dard of El­ton’s past tele­vi­sion work. If your taste runs to ma­te­rial that’s gen­uinely orig­i­nal and strange, seek out The Or­nithol­o­gist ( O Or­ni­tol­ogo), a stun­ningly well-pho­tographed Por­tuguese film from writer-di­rec­tor Joao Pe­dro Ro­drigues. In this, the title char­ac­ter is Fer­nando (Paul Hamy), a gay bird­watcher who has left his lover be­hind in Lis­bon and headed into the north of the coun­try, near the Span­ish bor­der and the San­ti­ago de Com­postela track, to study black storks that are breed­ing on the banks of a fast-flow­ing river.

Catas­tro­phe strikes when the un­wary Fer­nando drifts into fast-flow­ing rapids and his ca­noe is wrecked. He’s res­cued by a cou­ple of Chi­nese Chris­tian girls (Han Wen, Chan Suan) who have strayed a long way from the pil­grims’ walk. They spend a friendly evening to­gether but the next morn­ing he awak­ens to dis­cover that he’s se­curely bound to a tree and that the girls have some­thing very nasty in mind for him. He man­ages to es­cape and stum­bles on a deaf and dumb goatherd named Je­sus (Xelo Ca­giao), who sucks milk from the teats of the an­i­mals and swims in the nude.

And so the strange story pro­gresses, with scenes of nu­dity, sex, muted vi­o­lence and in­creas­ingly bizarre sit­u­a­tions. I was thor­oughly puz­zled by what it all meant un­til I did some re­search and dis­cov­ered that the story is in­spired by St An­thony of Padua (who is quoted in the film’s open­ing title); the saint’s real name was Fer­nando, he was ship­wrecked and he had other strange en­coun­ters that are mir­rored, and sub­verted, in Ro­drigues’s film. With this in mind The Or­nithol­o­gist can be seen as an al­le­gor­i­cal and at times satiri- cal ver­sion of the saint’s life, and the clos­est cin­e­matic com­par­i­son I can make is Luis Bunuel’s La voie lactee ( The Milky Way, 1968), which was set in the same vicin­ity and which cheek­ily satirised as­pects of Catholic dogma.

Even if el­e­ments of The Or­nithol­o­gist are a bit baf­fling, it’s still a vis­ual treat and it’s cer­tainly never bor­ing. You tend to ex­pe­ri­ence the film with a sense of won­der, puz­zling what on earth is com­ing next. When so much cinema is painfully pre­dictable, that’s no bad thing. School Life is an Ir­ish fly-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary by Nersa Ni Chi­anain and David Rane that looks at teach­ers and pupils of Head­fort, Ire­land’s last board­ing school for pri­mary stu­dents. A co­ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion, the school clearly has been lucky to have as teach­ers for well over 40 years John and Amanda Ley­den, who are about to re­tire. The Ley­dens, who met as teach­ers and mar­ried in 1972, live in a house on the school grounds with their dogs, and they’re well aware that when they re­tire they’ll have to move home as well.

In the mean­time they throw them­selves into their teach­ing. Amanda runs the English de­part­ment and is pro­duc­ing the an­nual school play, which this year is Ham­let, while John teaches, among other things, music and or­gan­ises the school band. The head­mas­ter, Der­mot Dix, is him­self an old boy of the school and as a boy was taught by the Ley­dens.

The school year be­gins with new­com­ers racked with home­sick­ness on their first night as board­ers, and ends with more tears as they say good­bye to friends and teach­ers. But in be­tween the chil­dren vis­i­bly ma­ture and pros­per, and re­late to the ex­pe­ri­ence and ded­i­ca­tion of the teach­ing staff. Board­ing school, espe­cially for these young­sters (aged eight to 12) has rarely looked more ap­peal­ing.

Tak­ing aim in a scene from


Three Sum­mers; a scene from School Life,

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