Film Fess by Helene Ravlich

25 Latest News Articles

19 January


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Since 1953 and Edmund Hillary’s legendary ascent with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit, Everest has fascinated the world. The arduous yet rewarding journey has been added to many a bucket list, and Westerners the world over have also attempted to “knock the bastard off”. It seems like a magical goal in a brutal but beautiful place, but the scene of a fight? Unheard of.

But it happened, and back in 2013 news channels around the world reported an ugly brawl at 6400 m (21,000 ft) as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas. What had happened to the smiling local guides from Eastern Nepal, their faces so common to many summit snaps, and their dedication to getting foreigners to the top of the mountain they held so sacred? Something was amiss, and it clearly had been for a long time.

Determined to explore what was going on, filmmaker Jennifer Peedom and her crew set out to make a film about the 2014 Everest climbing season, but this time from the Sherpas' point of view as opposed to the Western climbers’. Whilst there, they also witnessed a tragedy that would change the world’s view of Everest forever. 

Peedom had reportedly always been interested in the lives of the Sherpa guides, having worked as a camera operator in the Himalayas filming two Everest expeditions with guide teams. She was fascinated by the risks the local men took, and had become frustrated at how their lives and stories were so often excluded from narratives about the mountain. As well as guiding their charges, they set up the tents, prepare the food, carry equipment, prepare routes, and ensure that crucial pieces of equipment like oxygen tanks are in working order. With this in mind, when she set out to make what would become tonight’s documentary, SHERPA. Peedom went in with the goal of turning the spotlight on what a Sherpa guide actually does - and how high the costs of their job can be to them and their families.

The latter is bought to the fore even more keenly when the documentary takes a tragic turn. Peedom and her crew had been filming a group of Sherpas as they left camp in the dark hours of the very early morning to fix ropes and prepare the next route for climbers they were assisting. It is the time when ice is apparently most stable, but at around 6:30 am, Peedom heard a noise and realised that there has been an avalanche of sorts. A 14 million-tonne block of ice had crashed on to the Khumbu Icefall, crushing the guides below. Chaos ensues as it emerges that 25 men have been buried by snow, ice, and rocks. Devastatingly, 16 are declared dead in what has become the worst disaster in the history of Everest.

It was the final straw for the tight-knit Sherpa community, who had quite frankly had enough of their treatment by Westerners and the dangers they faced every day. Peedom reveals how mistreated and disrespected by their clients the group feels, and how underpaid they are. While Western climbers routinely pay sums like USD$75,000 to climb Everest, the Sherpas are paid little and expected to undertake massive risks. The documentary also demonstrates the spiritual toll of working on a mountain they see as equivalent to a god. "We see the mountain as a holy place," one Sherpa says. "The Western people, they see it as a physical challenge."

After the April 2014 avalanche, the Sherpa guides held meetings and announced that they would not be climbing for the rest of the season in honour of those who died. Peedom follows what happens next, talking to members of the community and their families. We also see Western climbers frustrated that their long-awaited expeditions would not go as planned, including one who complains that the Sherpas should just do what "their owners" want. Ugh.

Anyway, it’s an important tale that needed to be told, and Peedom does that well. One would hope that if people are thinking of climbing Everest, they will watch it – and you should too.

 SHERPA premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 19 January at 8.30pm

12 January


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“I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand,” said the ever astute Norman Lear last year, a man who at 94 has still got his finger firmly on the (slightly elevated) pulse of the American nation, its foibles and its fears.

Even if you are way too young to have watched his television masterpieces like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, if you’re a pop culture fan then you’ll know the Norman Lear name and its signature style. Often called “the most influential creator, writer, and producer in the history of television”, the once- poor Jewish kid from Connecticut singlehandedly brought US primetime television into step with the times back in the Seventies, and his talents have never waned.

Tonight’s documentary NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU – airing for the first time on New Zealand television on Rialto Channel, naturally – is the story of how one man came from modest beginnings to become one of the most successful television producers ever. Importantly, Lear also brought provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice into 120 million homes every week – a veritable first for US TV at the time. He proved that social change was possible through laughter, and the impact he made was both impressive, and important.

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s have made a fun, classy and well-assembled celebration of the TV veteran. It uses a clever theatrical devices to tell the tale and ask important questions, in that the producer’s life is presented as a theatre dressed with overlapping television screens. It’s cool to see the 9-year-old Lear (played by Keaton Nigel Cooke) walk around a live collage of past, future and present, while the genuine item - then 93, now 94 - looks on.

I love that as well as talking to big names like George Clooney, Louise Lasser and Rob Reiner, the film shows Lear himself watching on, shedding a tear for loved ones past and laughing along with us at some of his funnier memories. One of the most affecting looks back at the past features “All in the Family” star Carroll O’Connor, who played the bigoted working-class nightmare known as Archie Bunker. Lear acknowledges that Archie is a version of his own father, and openly cries watching a famous episode where Archie describes his dad, a bigot who beat his values into his son, as a great man and a loving parent.

Bunker’s satirised bigotry on screen directly reflected a US population still raw from the Civil Rights battle, and unaware of how it felt about true racial equality. It has even been said that the upwardly mobile black family at the heart of Lear’s creation “The Jeffersons” paved the way for the likes of “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, and that he decided to create the show after a couple of Black Panthers burst into his office to tell him that his then-screening show “Good Times” was racist!

Interestingly on that topic, NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU also features footage of an interview with Esther Rolle, the African-American star of “Good Times,” in which she condemns the show’s breakout character JJ as “a way of putting us all down,” closing with a plea for “comedy without buffoonery”. I would have liked to have seen the filmmakers show Lear’s reaction to these claims in detail, if only for a little shade during an otherwise pretty damn effervescent outing.

So in conclusion, watch! Even if you are one of those aforementioned folks too young to have seen Lear’s seminal work, it’s a great night on the couch anyway.

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU premieres at 8.30pm on Thursday 12 January on Rialto Channel SKY TV 39


22 December


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The last few documentaries left on Rialto Channel stellar schedule for 2016 will see a somewhat dodgy year off with a bang, whilst the first for 2017 sets us all up with a whole lotta love.

The first up is THE WRECKING CREW, which makes its New Zealand television debut tonight. This one is a definite winner if you were a fan of 20 Feet from Stardom, 2013 American documentary film directed by Morgan Neville delving into the lives of background singers and their own hopes and dreams. It focuses on the era of popular music of the 1960’s in America, which was dominated by young bands like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, Jan and Dean and the Monkees. Rather than zeroing in on the stars of the era, THE WRECKING CREW looks at the work of the super studio players who recorded the tracks for such hits as "California Dreamin'", "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", "Be My Baby", "The Beat Goes On", and "Good Vibrations”.

Filmmaker Denny Tedesco has emphasized that the amount of work that the crew were involved in was tremendous. As well as the big names, they were also involved in groups that Tedesco likes to call the “Milli Vanillis of the day”. A producer would get the guys in and lay down some instrumental tracks. If it became a hit, they would record an album and put a group together to go on the road. This happened many times with groups like the Marketts, Routers, and T-Bones. The next day they would do the same thing and call it another name. Same musicians, but different group name. Fascinating stuff, and oddly soothing to know that manufactured pop acts were just as rife back in the good old days!

Denny also has a deeply personal connection to the film and the era, as he is the son of legendary late Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. His father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Denny wanted to get as much on film or on tape as possible before his father passed. What transpired over the next few years surprised everyone involved and created one hell of a story.

The last documentary airing on Rialto Channel for 2016 is a humdinger - MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN. 

The legendary Brown changed the face of American music forever, but by god he was a controversial figure off stage. Charting his journey from rhythm and blues to funk, MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN was made with the cooperation of the Brown estate, which opened its archives for the first time. And it shows. The documentary features rare and never-before-seen footage, interviews and photographs, chronicling the musical ascension of the "hardest working man in show business," from his first hit, "Please, Please, Please," in 1956, to his iconic performances at the Apollo Theatre, the T.A.M.I. Show, the Paris Olympia and more. 

But how do you capture the full story of hardest working man in show business in just two hours? Well you don’t. Filmmaker Alex Gibney makes the decision to rush the biographical aspects of Brown’s early years, providing almost all the family history of the man over still photos with on-screen text. The director is clearly more interested in Brown’s on-stage personality than what he did off stage, which is where his most controversial tales can be told. It glosses over his status as an acknowledged domestic abuser (no surprise there), which is kind of the story that I want to see finally explored on screen – in all its unpleasantness. It does cover the importance of Brown to the civil rights movement, however. From the show he did to stop the riots sure to ensue on the night that Martin Luther King was shot to the international reaction to the legendary “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Brown was more than a musician, he was a cultural and political figure. Just not the best guy to be in a relationship with.

Last up in my rave but first up for 2017 is HEART OF A DOG, which chronicles multimedia artist Laurie Anderson relationship with her beloved terrier, the super cute Lolabelle.  “From the gripping, hypnotic and warm opening moments, Anderson’s Heart of a Dog becomes a deft exercise in balances of various styles and forms of artistic philosophies,” said the Toronto Film Scene, to which I say yes – and more. Dedicated to Anderson's late husband Lou Reed (who presence can be felt throughout), it started life as a lament of sorts to her clearly much loved but now deceased terrier, and it’s an eccentric, erudite essay-film that is pure Anderson. Yes it moves all over the place - from an eerie explanation of the Buddhist view of death to some astonishing childhood anecdotes and kooky dreams – but it does so in an arty, beautiful way. It’s the kind of paean that we’d all like to create for our beloved pets, and a magical, meaningful watch.

Rialto Documentary, every Thursday on Rialto Channel SKY TV

15 December


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“When you hear Clark, you hear his life. Only a master can do that.”  

Herbie Hancock on late musician, Clark Terry

A true labour of love in every sense of the word, tonight’s music documentary, KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON is the perfect film for this most silly of seasons. Without wanting to lay the mozzarella on too thick, it is a chance to pause and reflect on the good in the world, so cancel that Christmas party, pour a glass, put your feet up and enjoy.

Shot over the course of five years by first time filmmaker and drummer Al Hicks, the film depicts the remarkable story of jazz legend Clark Terry, who died at the age of 94 not long after the film was finished. Sometimes called a “living monument to the Golden Era of Jazz” in his time, Terry is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands and his talents knew no bounds. Right-handed, he taught himself to manipulate the valves of the trumpet with his left hand too, and could even play the instrument upside down with the backs of the fingers of either hand. This enabled him to play flugelhorn in one hand and muted trumpet in the other, swapping four-bar exchanges with himself!

Terry actually played mentor to Miles Davis in his early days, and the young upstart soon fell under the spell of the slightly older musician. Terry befriended Davis - who was six years younger - In St Louis, and was trusted by Davis’s father to take the teenage Miles to play at all-night jam sessions. Davis said of Terry: “I started to play like him. I idolised him.” The two men remained lifelong friends. It was Terry who showed Davis the beauty of the mellow flugelhorn, which resulted in its becoming a major jazz instrument.

It was also Terry who reportedly initiated Davis’s interest in boxing and boxers. The former was an extremely good boxer when he was younger, and was friendly with the great light heavyweight Archie Moore, also from St Louis. Terry recalled: “Archie used to tell me that if I had stayed in boxing, I would have become a champion, but I stopped to think that I’d have had to meet cats like Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, and I’m glad I got out of that.”

In the 1960's, he broke the colour barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC (on "The Tonight Show"), and continued to work as a teacher and mentor to young people in the music industry until his death almost two years ago. The man never slowed down and never stopped giving, and just to hear him speak will fill you with joy.

But back to KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON, which documents an unlikely mentorship between Terry and a driven, blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin. Equal time is given to the younger musician, which is a great plot driver and stops the film from just being a biopic – despite the fact that Clark’s work is worthy of a biopic and more! The camera introduces us to the world of 23-year-old Kauflin, who met Terry through one of the programs the trumpet player ran for many years for young musical talent. Kauflin went blind when he was in sixth grade, which he admits seriously limited his life. No playing with friends, no video games… so he sat down in front of a piano, and something truly amazing came flowing out. Kauflin’s story is one that falls into what Roger Ebert likes to call the “perspective documentary genre”, which is a phrase I really like and try to employ when the time is right. If you think you’re having a rough day or can’t escape from whatever hole life has dug for you, Kauflin’s – and Terry’s - worldview should give you a little perspective. As I said, perfect for dealing with Christmas madness and end of year stress!

During the course of the film it emerges that Justin – a true rising star if ever there was one - is invited to compete in an elite, international competition while battling terrible stage fright. Terry is dealing with his own struggles, finally starting to lose his battle with diabetes in a serious way. His health takes a critical turn for the worse, and during the course of filming, he loses his sight completely. Amazingly, this deepens his bond with Justin, and we witness the two great friends tackling the toughest challenges of their lives. 

But enough said – this is an inspiring story of multi-generational friendship and it is a joy to behold. Clark Terry becomes so much more than just his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an inspiration as much for his character as for his talent. A beautiful film, and one so perfectly timed to make one stop, and smell those damn roses.

 KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON premieres Thursday 15 December on Rialto Channel 39 SKY TV 

08 December


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This week’s music documentary on Rialto Channel is MAVIS!  - airing December 8 on New Zealand television for the first time. It is an ode to an extraordinary woman, Mavis Staples. A key member of family gospel group The Staples Singers, she and her family members inspired millions and even helped propel the civil rights movement with their music. Mavis was a true trailblazer (as well as one hell of a vocalist) and after 60 years of performing, her key messages of love, acceptance and equality are more relevant than ever.

Staples was born way back in 1939 in Chicago, the youngest of four children born to Oceola and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. Pops worked as a meatpacker by day but played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees at night, eventually growing frustrated with his bandmates' lack of commitment to their music. The solution? Turning to his talented children to become his new bandmates. "Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples has recalled.

When Mavis was ten, the family band made its debut singing at a local church. After they received an enormous ovation, Staples recalled her father saying, "Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!" Although she was the youngest member of the band, Mavis soon became its lead singer with a voice that many thought belonged to a woman several decades older and reportedly many times larger! She has gone on record as saying that her father told her: "Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in." Staples added, with a laugh, "And I still don't know what key I sing in."

In 1953, the Staple Singers dropped their first single, but it wasn’t until 1957 that they scored their first major hit with "Uncloudy Day”. They had toured the country and developed an impressive grassroots following, but limited their concerts to weekends until Staples graduated from high school that same year. From there on in it was all guns blazing and their career went full steam ahead.

In 1963, the group played a concert in Montgomery, Alabama that was attended by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A meeting with the civil rights leader after the show had a profound effect on the group's direction, and for the next several years they wrote songs exclusively in support of the American civil rights movement. "We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song," Staples has recalled her father explaining. "We're living in dark times, troubled times; we wanted to spread a ray of light on the world."

The Staple Sisters achieved their greatest financial – and global - success in the early seventies when they moved away from traditional gospel and protest songs to record now-legendary anthems like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There". It was around the same time that Mavis’ solo career took off, and she actually released eight solo albums during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all of which received high praise from critics but didn’t sell as fast as her work with the group. Oddly, that pattern changed when she released her self-financed album, Have a Little Faith in 2004 - her first release following Pops’ death. This time she received rave reviews as well as major album sales, making way for a late career renaissance that still continues today.

But back to the film, which features raves about Mavis from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Prince and Bonnie Raitt, all of who profess to the difference that the work of the living legend made in their lives. It’s common knowledge that Dylan had a crush on Mavis Staples when they met in the early ’60s, and Staples felt the same. Dylan had long admired The Staple Singers, covering their song "Dying Man's Prayer" in 1962, and the Staple Singers had in turn recorded several Dylan compositions. In the late 1960s, the folkster actually proposed marriage to Staples… but she turned him down. Although she now considers Dylan the “one that got away” and laments dropping him like a hot coal, she explained her reasoning at the time in a 2004 Washington Post interview: "We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy." Dylan has referred to Staples ever since as "the love that I lost”. Awwwww!

As well as looking back, MAVIS! looks forward – and for me, that is one of its true charms. I love that the film shows her continuing to tour and perform – and most definitely winning new fans - as she remains a formidable force of nature well into her 70s. And she has no intention of giving up the calling that has consumed her since she was a child. "Ain't no stopping me, I will sing," Staples declared in a recent interview. "You know, you'd have to come and scoop me off the stage. I'm gonna sing till I die."

MAVIS! premieres Thursday 8th December on Rialto Channel

01 December


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2013’s exceptional - and not unexpected - choice of ‘Searching for Sugarman’ as the Oscar Academy’s Best Documentary Feature reinforced what many of us music fans have been saying for years: we are living in the Golden Age of the music film. With the unmissable backing singers documentary ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ up for the same award and the Coen brothers’ ’60s New York folk scene period drama ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ also nominated that year, of late we have been truly spoiled for choice. To say that there are literally scores of great music documentaries making the rounds right now would be an understatement - and even if the genre is not always your bag, the subject matter can still be utterly compelling. 

Rialto Channel’s upcoming collection of lovingly curated music documentaries – under the banner “Where words fail, music speaks” are a great reminder of some of the compelling films of late that fall under the music genre, and there just may be something in the line up for everyone. 

The first to air is one for the metalheads like me, and comes in the form of AS THE PALACES BURN, showing December 1 on New Zealand television for the first time. The correct word to use when describing the documentary about metal band Lamb of God would be the same word I would use to describe their music i.e. heavy. But in a different way. The band set out with the intention of making a movie about how their genre of music has gone global, named after one of their most celebrated albums. Following a successful tour in the Czech republic, they decide to return to the country a year later whilst making the documentary as they have always had such a great response there. However, upon arriving at the airport the band are taken away by the authorities and lead singer Randy Blythe arrested and charged with the manslaughter of a young fan from the previous year’s tour. Completely blindsided, it was a death the band knew nothing about, and they are understandably in shock. Paroled only after lengthy negotiations (he was held for 38 days), Blythe opted to later return to Prague to stand trial, where he faced the very real possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. 

This caused the project, which was originally meant for fans, to drastically switch tracks, turning it into an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller – and it’s a good one, with some incredible twists and turns. At the time Blythe's trial was only being covered by Czech papers, and this film does an incredible job of filling in all the blanks and providing the true version of the story. 

We see plenty behind the scenes as the band rally together to find memorabilia to auction in order to fund Blythe’s defense, as well as his work with his legal team as he struggles to make sense of the crime of which he is charged. We also get see the heartbreakingly emotional final statement from the uncle of the young fan who died, a powerful speech where he states Randy ultimately was not responsible but that doesn't stop the loss and hurt his family ultimately feels. 

One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when the final verdict is read and Blythe’s confusion due to the language barrier is palpable. The exact moment where Blythe learns he's exonerated is made even more powerful by the soaring, very personal score by Lamb of God guitarist and composer Mark Morton. Gripping stuff. In conclusion, the film is a fantastic insight into a terrible time for Lamb of God, whose fan base continues to grow on a daily basis. Time spent early on with a male fan in Colombia and a female fan in India discussing the impact the band's music had on them is heartwarming and real, but the courtroom drama - with an unbelievable twist – that follows elevates AS THE PALACES BURN above the usual music doco. Not a metal fan? Then watch anyway, as in the words of The Guardian’s reviewer: “even if you hate the music, there's much here to impress”.

AS THE PALACES BURN premieres 1st December at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

24 November


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Nominated for an Academy Award in 2016, tonight’s documentary LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM looks at a war that we have all heard about time and time again, but tells it from a refreshing – for want of a better word –new angle.

The Vietnam War has been depicted on film and in documentaries for nigh on forty years, and many of us are familiar with the iconic image of the last US plane leaving the country. It signaled the end of an event that had affected a generation of young people most acutely, and that moment of escape was fraught with difficulty. This documentary tells the historic tale of that particular moment in time from the point of view of those who were there – and examines the emotional turmoil they faced.

Like most wars, the war in Vietnam was a goddamn mess. The end was no different, but it came swiftly. The Fall of Saigon, or the Liberation of Saigon - depending on who you talk to – was in effect the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (also known as the Việt Cộng) on April 30, 1975. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period to the formal reunification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic.

North Vietnamese forces, under the command of General Văn Tiến Dũng, began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, 1975, with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces commanded by General Nguyễn Văn Toàn suffering heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport killed the last two American servicemen to die in Vietnam, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points of the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The South Vietnamese government capitulated shortly afterward and the city was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City, after the Democratic Republic's late President Hồ Chí Minh.

The capture of the city was preceded by the evacuation mentioned earlier of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. During those chaotic final weeks as the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon, American soldiers and diplomats alike confronted a soul-destroying moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only…or to risk treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. Slowly, they began the difficult mission of evacuating as many friends, family members and South Vietnamese collaborators as possible before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The images from this chaotic mass evacuation have become iconic. They show people being helicoptered away, sometimes under fire, to waiting American warships. Such was the speed of the evacuation and the number of people involved that the ships soon became overwhelmed with humans and the helicopters that had brought them. Orders were given to push surplus helicopters over the sides of the ships to make room for more. Some pilots were told to drop off their passengers, then ditch their machines in the sea, bailing out at the last moment to be picked up by waiting rescue boats. It was utter madness, and a messy end to a messy war.

Exhausting, heartbreaking and also heart warming at times, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM paints a picture of ordinary people with human consciences who are caught up in a truly crazy war. It shows them defying their orders to do the right thing when bureaucracy fails them, and refreshingly, the film makes no apologies or justifications. A great watch.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM premieres Thursday 24 November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

17 November


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Before we talk about tonight’s heart-stopping documentary, KORENGAL, we need to discuss RESTREPO, an equally important and directly related work that came before it.

RESTREPO, the 2010 American documentary film about the Afghanistan war was directed by American journalist Sebastian Junger and the late British/American photojournalist Tim Hetherington. The film explores the year that Junger and Hetherington spent in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, where they were embedded with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army in the notorious Korengal Valley.

Nestled between high mountains on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan, the Korengal Valley has easily been one of the hardest fought over patches of ground in the War on Terror. As far as I can tell 54 Americans have been killed (although the number could be higher) and four Medals of Honor were earned in the valley.

Today, the American military rarely moves into the valley, but handpicked Afghan commandos (some trained by the CIA), are still fighting constantly with militants there. The Afghan government maintains offices at the Pech River Valley, the entryway to Korengal. Their police execute raids and patrols in a continuing attempt to shut down or limit the shadow government operating there, but by all accounts it remains truly terrifying territory. As it is located on the border with Pakistan in steep mountains and thick forests, it has served as a major conduit for smugglers for decades, especially during Soviet occupation. The Pakistan side of the border is in the tribal region, which has historically served as a recruiting and training ground for terrorists. The valley itself is so inaccessible that the Afghan government temporarily gave up on trying to control it, even before the people began a strong resistance.

There are many reasons why Korengal Valley is one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, not least the nightmare-ish terrain. Steep mountains, loose shale, thick forests and open patches of land make the area a nightmare for an occupying force. Combat outposts were built in relatively open areas so that defenders could see approaching militants. However, this meant patrols returning to the base had to cross the open ground, sometimes under heavy small arms fire from nearby wooded areas and houses. Korengal’s steep hillsides allowed snipers to climb above outposts and fire into the bases as soldiers slept.

So on to RESTREPO, which received the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film also received a certified fresh rating of 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus stating: "Forsaking narrative structure for pure visceral power, RESTREPO plunges viewers into the experiences of soldiers on the front lines of the Afghan War." Additionally, numerous critics and publications included it in their annual top film selections and the National Board of Review named it as one of the top documentary films of 2010.   

KORENGAL picks up where RESTREPO left off. Same valley, same men. And with all of the above in terms of accolades in mind, it had a wee bit of pressure to perform! It was also a project that Junger ended up taking on alone after Hetherington was tragically killed in Libya covering the civil war. The film’s maker also opted for a slightly different tack this time, as in the same general territory but a very different look at the experience of war. KORENGAL not only shows what war looks like, but how war works and what it means to the young people who fight it. While one soldier may cheer when he kills the enemy, another asks if God will ever forgive him for the killing he has participated in. As one soldier grieves the loss of a friend, another explains why he misses the war now that his deployment has ended, and admits he would go back to the front line in a heartbeat. Breathtaking and heartbreaking in turn.

It takes the viewer so close to the minds and the motivations of the ordinary young people that fight every day around the world in service to their countries, and is a sobering watch especially in light of last week’s US Presidential election and its inevitable global fallout.

KORENGAL doesn’t have the immediacy of its predecessor but it’s equally as affecting, and a reminder of how young and innocent the people many nations send to defend them really are.

Director’s Statement: to the men of Battle Company, 2/503…

Many ago, you welcomed my colleague, Tim Hetherington, and me onto your bases in the Korengal valley. We spent a year, off and on, at the KOP and at Restrepo; we went on innumerable patrols and were in countless TICs. You helped us keep safe and you answered our questions and mostly, you gave us your friendship and your trust…and the result was our film, Restrepo. We wanted to make a completely non-political film that would help civilians back home understand what you were doing for them, and we could not have done it without you guys.

Tim and I often talked about making a follow-up to Restrepo, but after Tim passed away I was left on my own with the project. I enlisted the other two members of our old Restrepo team and we went back to work. The result, Korengal, is another feature-length film and like with Restrepo, we paid for the entire production ourselves, which gave us complete control of what the film would be. Restrepo was intended to be a way for civilians to experience what combat feels like; Korengal is very different. It tries for understanding rather than experience. How does fear work? Courage? What is it like to come home from war? Why do so many soldiers miss the war they were in?

I think that many of the questions that you have been asked by civilians over the years, are answered in this film. I’m incredibly proud of it; it truly does pick up where Restrepo left off. I hope you get a chance to see it, I hope you like it and - above all - I hope you are doing well out there in the world. If you come through New York, please let me know. And if you would like to help bring attention to this film, we would be thrilled to have you on the team.

Best wishes,

Sebastian Junger

 KORENGAL, premieres on Thursday 17th November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

09 November


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Rialto Admin

The documentary I wrote about last week for Rialto Channel - ONLY THE DEAD – was no easy watch by any stretch of the imagination. It was harrowing, brutal and infuriating in turn, and as I said at the time of its first showing, unmissable viewing. This week’s foray into the personal stories behind wars is THE LOOK OF SILENCE, and it is no less a hard watch but in a more elegant, cinematic way.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING was a profound indictment as well as what some critics have called “a stunning experiment”. Its main subjects were the ruthless, seemingly heartless death squad leaders who had been responsible for brutally killing thousands of their own people during the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia. Unbelievable to watch at times, it depicts the killers as openly proud as they elaborately reenact their most hideous crimes in an almost comical fashion. This “re-staging” of their unspeakable deeds for Oppenheimer’s camera is a sickening thing to watch, especially as the perpetrators are filmed laughing over the horrors visited upon their victims. It was transgressive stuff upon its release but told an important tale, and those that saw it will never look at that time in history the same way again.

This week’s documentary, THE LOOK OF SILENCE has been called a follow up of sorts to Oppenheimer’s original work about the Communist purge in Indonesia, this time focusing on the victims of the genocide. The main focus is on one - an Indonesian man with a communist background named Ramli was brutally murdered when the aforementioned genocide took place in 1965. His remaining family members reportedly lived in fear and silence until the making of this documentary, making it an essential watch if ever there was one.

Oppenheimer follows Adi, a young, married optometrist who is also Ramli’s brother. Adi never met Ramli, whose killing is recounted in decade-old video interviews shot for the earlier film. His mother, Rohani confesses that Adi was born out of her grief, and it appears that while his birth perhaps allowed his mother to keep on living, it did not help her move on from the death of her first son. Ramli’s killing still haunts his family, with Rohani continuing to commune with her dead son and admitting that she sees him in her dreams. Meanwhile, their invalid father is now struggling with full-on dementia, the only silver lining being that he has forgotten the horrific death of his son.

In the gut-wrenching doco we see Adi revisit both the horrific incident and - amazingly – meet with the men who were responsible for the killings. These meetings uncover sadistic details of the murders that no family member should have to hear, as well as show the indifferent reactions of the killers' family members about the horrors their relatives perpetrated.

Although serving as an accompaniment to Oppenheimer’s earlier film, THE LOOK OF SILENCE easily stands on its own as a carefully and elegantly made documentary. It is astonishing to stop and think about the fact that it details a genocide in a country where vast swathes of the population have yet to admit any crimes took place at all, much less come to terms with them.


03 November


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There are times during tonight’s documentary ONLY THE DEAD when images speak for themselves. And often, those are the times when you most want to look away.

Directed by two-time Oscar winner Bill Guttentag in collaboration with Australian journalist Michael Ware, ONLY THE DEAD examines the Iraq war and its moral consequence through the story of the rise and fall of jihadi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the progenitor of ISIS.

It throws the viewer into situations most of us can barely even contemplate due to the fact that the film is told largely through hand-held video footage, which was culled from hundreds of hours that Ware shot while reporting over the course of the war. It is in your face, extremely confronting and at times, most harrowing.

The Australian war correspondent-turned filmmaker Ware has said that he hopes his feature documentary will help enlighten global audiences on the origins of Islamic State, which I believe it does – and much more. The film is an intensely personal account of the Australian’s own experiences during eight years in Iraq as a correspondent for CNN and Time magazine, and was even filmed on a video camera he’d bought on the black market in Kurdistan.

“The viewer, like I did on the ground in reality, will witness the birth of Islamic State,” said Ware in an interview upon the film’s release. “You will also see how America’s young men, soldiers and marines, fight these people…but more importantly how it shaves away at their souls. When you have to reach out and fight against a great darkness, that darkness touches you back.” It is heart-stopping footage at times and a beyond difficult watch during others, taking us as close to the experience of being at the frontline of a real war as possible without well, actually being there.

One of the key narratives in the film is Ware’s pursuit of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the aforementioned al-Qaida leader whom he describes as a “hideous genius” and the creator of Islamic State. Ware actually met al- Zarqawi after slowly earning the trust of the Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad in 2003. After a suicide bombing - which he captured on film - he first heard the notorious leader’s name, and in early 2004 was escorted to one of the first Islamic State training camps. Once again even just watching the footage taken inside the camp is terrifying, it’s difficult to comprehend how Ware managed to keep his cool, let alone film the whole thing. After al-Zarqawi created his first gruesome propaganda video showing the beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg, he walked over to Ware, handed him the raw material and simply said, “give this to the infidel”.

In interviews Ware has acknowledged the personal toll that spending time in Iraq took on his spirit, leading a life during those eight long years that can never be forgotten. “All soldiers and marines know that place you must go to in your head and your heart to fight,” he has said. “It’s a very animalistic and brutal place. It’s also a place filled with love among the men fighting on the front line. I went to that place as well. War became my normal. It’s ghastly the things you become accustomed to.”

A harrowing and graphic account of both sides of the war zone, ONLY THE DEAD is an unmissable film… but don’t go waiting around for any bright moments to save the day. The unique, on-the-ground view delivers scenes here that you can't un-see - much as you might want to - and is most definitely a look at the Iraq war unlike any other.

ONLY THE DEAD premieres Thursday 3rd November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel 39

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A freelance writer and copywriter for over fifteen years, Helene has written for publications and brands all over the world and couldn’t imagine herself in any other job. A shameless film freak, her first onscreen experience involved a trip to Avondale’s Hollywood Theatre at the age of five to see Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and she hasn’t looked back since. A big fan of documentaries, she has interviewed subjects as diverse as Henry Rollins, Jimmy Choo and Beyonce Knowles, and also has her own beauty blog - which can be found at - for the purpose of raving about red lipstick, big hair and other essential indulgences.

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