If there was every any doubt that the Art Gallery of New South Wales is currently Sydney’s best repertory screening institution, their newest film series entitled “Wild in the Streets” (running 5th August – 30th September) ought to convince cinema lovers. Screening in conjunction with the See you at the barricades exhibition — a gallery’s survey of “dissident art” in the gallery’s collection — the film series shares the exhibition’s focus on the intersection of political struggle and aesthetic forms, giving us a broad overview of “cinema’s engagement with social struggle and revolutionary culture.”
Much like their previous series, the program offers a satisfying mix of well established films and directors with lesser-known works, and once more gives a considerable and much-needed degree of attention to Australian film history. It’s refreshing also to see a mix of documentary and fiction in the program, adding some nuance and variety to this survey of engagé cinema. As always, all films are played in their original format, with 16 and 35mm prints sourced from a range of Australian and international archives.
Starting with the classics, the series opens with a double bill from the late silent era, pairing Sergei Eisenstein’s debut feature Strike (1924) with Joris Ivens and Henri Storck’s short Misère au Borinage (1931). This double bill brings together three major experimental filmmakers coming out of the aesthetically radical and ideologically charged avant-garde of the 1920s, and bringing together two wildly different re-creations of strikes makes for an interesting thematic coupling. Ivens also appears later in the program with The 17th Parallel (1968), a documentary on day-to-day life in the demarcation zone between North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War co-directed with his wife Marceline Loridan Ivens that is about as close to “guerilla filmmaking” as the term will allow. On the fiction side of things, Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) plays alongside the Jean Vigo short that inspired it, Zero for conduct (1933), making for a neat back-to-back commentary on institution, authority and rebellion. One of the great blights on the French cinema is its total lack of engagement with the war in Algeria as it happened; it took an Italian in Gillo Pontecorvo with The Battle of Algiers (1965) to give us one of the most striking depictions of guerilla warfare in cinema history.
There’s also an impressive selection of Australian documentary films on offer courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Tying the films together is a kind of direct social and political activism, dealing with and criticising the management of specific historically-grounded conflicts: NSW’s Stolen Generation, the establishment of the Tent Embassy and disputes over urban development in Sydney to point out just a few. Interestingly, the links between unions and filmmakers are highlighted with the inclusion of Rocking the Foundations (1985), a history of the NSW Builders/Laborers Federation, and The Hungry Miles (1955), produced by the Waterside Workers’ Federation’s own film unit. I’m particularly looking forward to Australian documentary stalwart Tom Zubrycki’s Kemira: diary of a strike (1986), which sounds like a local take on Barbara Kopple’s classic mining strike document Harlan County, U.S.A..
American cinema on the margins is also well represented in the program, with a particularly interesting group of low-budget, 16mm documentaries growing out of the Direct Cinema ethos of the 1960s. My picks of the documentary bunch: Town Bloody Hall (1979), a seldom seen collaborative film by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedegus on the infamous women’s liberation debate at New York Town Hall, and Attica (1973), Cinda Firestone’s similarly under-seen document of the 1971 Attica State Prison rebellion. Also, the inclusion of Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970), a dystopian political thriller that is the culmination of the director’s three-year collaboration with the leftist, New York-based Newsreel collective, is a major coup for the program.
The full program for Wild in the Streets (August 5-September 30, 2015) can be found here. All films are free and play at the AGNSW’s Domain Theatre.