This year we’ve been trying to broaden our home video coverage by looking at films that go straight to online streaming services, whether Netflix, local clones like Presto and Stan or through marketplaces like Google Play. It’s a means through which we can catch the festival or theatrical releases that slipped under our radar months earlier, but our coverage of ‘streaming’ films has taken on a new meaning in light of the release strategies of a handful of feature documentaries on a variety of platforms.
For the most part, the choice to debut films on streaming platforms solely is both an effective publicity move but also a means of opening up access to these films. All of the streaming-only features that we reviewed this year, bar Junun and Atari: Game Over, were available for free to their targeted audiences.1 Some, like the duo of Hit 2 Pass and Here’s to the Future!, came with suggested PayPal donations, others were freely distributed as a result of their non-for-profit aims: the two BBC iPlayer films we reviewed and Tim Wong’s Out of the Mist all received relatively sizeable government funding.
Time is also a factor in terms of restrictions: Hit 2 Pass and Here’s to the Future! were only available for limited window, as was Junun, which streamed exclusively on MUBI as a result of a very impressive distribution coup. As Felix wrote in his straight-to-video roundup, there needs to be a shift towards this kind of distribution for a certain style or set of films, and those which we were able to review this year are indicative of that.
Bitter Lake (dir. Adam Curtis)
Rarely screened outside of European or American film festivals (and even then, sparingly so), the films of Adam Curtis are firmly at home in the world of online distribution. His made-for-TV documentary miniseries can be found in varying levels of quality on YouTube and are reliably traded on torrent networks. His films are at the intersection of broad-ranging conspiracy theories, history lessons and, for my (lack of) money’s worth, brilliantly edited collage works. Bitter Lake, his first feature in four years (All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace in 2011 was the last ‘finished’ film) takes the presence of the West in Afghanistan as its subject. In his review of the film for 4:3, James Hennessy put it like this:
“Curtis directs with the same intensity as a YouTube conspiracy doco producer, and in some senses they are very much aligned. Both weaponise footage – turning in-the-moment footage into aggressive, primitive cinema vérité…Working with a two-and-a-half-hour web film rather than a multipart miniseries, Curtis feels more willing to let certain shots sit for a while.”
Bitter Lake is still streaming on the BBC iPlayer service but, be warned, you need to be in the UK to stream it without any geocircumvention technology.
Fear Itself (dir. Charlie Lyne)
Charlie Lyne’s teen movie mixtape film Beyond Clueless was something of a cult success in its theatrical run, and its eventual arrival on Netflix reflects the commercial prospects of a collage film in a way that most prominent versions of the form do not.2 The film’s narration, provided by The Craft actress Fairuza Balk, placed Beyond Clueless in the realm of essay film as much as a collage, recapping plots and forming links between features decades apart. Fear Itself, though, is quite a big shift of gears. The narration is from the point of view of a fictional protagonist, who binges horror cinema to repress memories of a recent, horrific accident. There’s analysis, for sure, but the leap to hybrid docu-fiction is a very compelling one, not only engaging through its clip selection (the early usage of footage from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is a highlight) but also in the notion that this film is less a declarative thesis but a personal reflection. Fear Itself is a rarity amongst the streaming-only films this year (bar Curtis’ YouTube similarities) in that it seems always aware of its method of distribution. I reviewed the film in October and noted:
“A marked difference between Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself is in its it format of release and, thereafter, its differing approaches to presentation. The former film had a theatrical run and its uniform 1.85:1 aspect ratio rendered all of these disparate films part of the one visual world. The latter jumps freely between aspect ratios and image quality, mimicking the very nature of online streaming and access to films whilst also commenting on the selective nature of restorations.”
Fear Itself is also still streaming on BBC iPlayer.
Out of the Mist (dir. Tim Wong)
Whilst it’s not exactly New Zealand’s answer to Los Angeles Plays Itself, Tim Wong’s debut feature documentary is concerned with the representation of a specific subset of New Zealand culture: it’s independent and oft-ignored film industry. In the same mould as Fear Itself, Wong’s film is almost entirely comprised of clips from other films, ranging from horror (Next of Kin) to experimental short (Time is a Spider) and documentary (Patu!). He makes an argument for rediscovery and awareness, that the canon of New Zealand films be expanded to include these underseen and striking works. There’s something quite inspiring about Out of the Mist, in that not only does it stoke your curiosity and expand your to-watch list but also prompts an investigation into your own national cinema, regardless of where you come from. From my review:
“In terms of revisionist film history, Not Quite Hollywood this is not. Rather than a interview-heavy celebration, Wong instead gives us an intelligently composed and consistently insightful argument about the state of a forgotten cinematic landscape, a version of Red Hollywood where the suppression of filmic ideas and personalities isn’t as a result of the red scare but a widely-accepted, and relatively conservative, depiction of national identity on screen.”
Out of the Mist is streaming for free over at The Lumière Reader.
Hit 2 Pass (dir. Kurt Walker)
Kurt Walker’s debut feature might be the biggest stretch here in terms of ‘streaming-only’, considering its fairly successful run on the festival circuit this year and last, but in terms of our access to the film here in Australia, the two-week streaming window was it. Paired with Gina Telaroli’s Here’s to the Future!, Walker’s experimental documentary was made available to stream on Vimeo for free. It’s not the kind of film that would neatly fit into any of the bigger film festivals here, though Antenna might have been a good fit, so any chance Australian viewers have to see low-budget, experimental cinema should be celebrated. From my review:
“Walker’s film reveals itself to be a multi-faceted concoction of familiar elements: it’s a travelogue, reflection on colonialism, interrogation of nostalgic storytelling and the end product of a group of young filmmakers experimenting with form and image.”
Hit 2 Pass is currently unavailable to stream but will, presumably, be made available through video on demand or streaming services in 2016.
Junun (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Like Hit 2 Pass and even Out of the Mist (which had a run at NZIFF), Paul Thomas Anderson’s film did screen at a festival, namely New York Film Festival, though its one off-screening isn’t enough to displace it as a major player in the year’s streaming-only films. MUBI pumped money into its online and print (UK only) advertising campaign and rightly so: it isn;t every day you get to say you have the exclusive streaming rights to a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. It was a good fit, too, as Junun isn’t really a documentary you need to see on the big screen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some gorgeous cinematic moments (see: PTA messing around with a drone) but that the content of the film and its intimate execution lends itself more to a more intimate viewing experience. From my review:
“PTA and his camera team rove around the makeshift studio with a fish eye lens, toy with drone cinematography, let the image go in and out of focus; this is the director as enthusiastic amateur, and that enthusiasm is infectious.”
Junun finished its run on MUBI after 30 days and is now available to purchase or stream on iTunes.