National Geographic’s Women Hold Up Half The Sky is an annual film festival featuring films by women about women.
Here I Am, the feature debut of documentary director Beck Cole, follows Karen, a young Aboriginal woman who has just been released from prison and her journey to find a place outside. Beck’s decision to cast non-professional actors pays off well here, especially in Shai Pittman’s wonderfully subdued yet profoundly eloquent portrayal of Karen. Cole explained that she intentionally picked the women in the film because it not only “added to the film’s honesty, but it also gave them a chance to be humorous and very real.” The story takes places in the Port Adelaide women’s shelter that Karen lives in and, indeed, despite the very difficult circumstances its residents face, the dynamic is vibrant and the environment surprising nurturing. Cole spent time visiting these homes and described how they are often “regular houses on suburban streets.”
Here I Am is unique not only in that it features modern Aboriginal women on screen, but also in that those women are the key characters. While it shows the discrimination and bleak reality Aborigines face, it is also a testament to the strength of the characters who have overcome it—for example, Karen’s social worker and parole officer are both Aboriginal women. The film also portrays the marginalization that Aborigines have to contend with—in several instances, we see the thread of “do not be the way they assume you to be” and the need to get the “white man’s certificate”[and by implication, approval] to find one’s way in the rather divided environment. There is the pervasive sense that the shelter is of life-saving significance to these women who are doubly ostracized for being ex-convicts and for being Aboriginal.
The evocative cinematography is a beautiful milieu for Shai Pittman’s engrossing performance as Karen, who is equally vulnerable and tough. The role’s minimal dialogue allows for Pittman to play up the character’s quiet resolve and indomitable spirit. Devoid of self-pity and platitudes, Karen’s single-minded determination to find her way back to her 2 year-old daughter and her estranged, tough Mother is fervent and intense, without relying on fanciful plot twists and calamitous events or melodrama. Cole said that “it is important, as a film-maker, that your work be inward-looking. I wanted to take a different approach than ‘pointing the finger.’” Her focus on the characters themselves makes for a beautiful paean to getting a second chance.
My Wedding And Other Secrets, based on director Roseanne Liang’s autobiographical documentary “Banana In A Nutshell,” riffs on the all-too-familiar cross-cultural rom com theme. Sure, Chinese-New Zealand-born Emily Chu’s nerd-heavy romance with fellow geek James is cute and endearing, but it is also incredibly contrived and barely elicits a chuckle in the first half of the movie—how many groan-inducing Klingon and Dungeons & Dragons and never-been-kissed jokes can one make!? It would not an exaggeration to call it a geek-romance-by-the-numbers, replete with self-referential “aren’t we just too cute!?” overbearing and cringe-inducing “humor.” It’s only when Emily’s parents’ disapproval of the relationship comes into play that the film hits a stride and sparks some interest. In one particularly meaningful scene, when people applaud Emily for “sticking it to her parents,” by marrying James does the struggle of loyalty to one’s family become palpable. Then, the conundrum of choosing between selfishness-to-a-fault as a signal of “independence” Western-esque bend and the concern for her parents comes to life. The parents’ characters are especially nuanced and not easily dismissed as two-dimensional “narrow-minded”/racist. When Emily plaintively wonders why she “can’t have both,” there is a lot of depth behind this seemingly childish and simplistic sentiment.