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KYD is proud to present a selection of film writing from this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival Critics Campus. Now in its sixth edition, Critics Campus enables eight emerging Australian film critics to develop their skills in a live festival setting, including mentoring sessions with eight prominent film critics, and panels with key Australian industry and media players.

For more great film writing from this year’s festival, check out the MIFF Blog!

In My Blood It Runs
(dir. Maya Newell)

Dujuan Hoosan can run: across outback plains at dusk; on corrugated-iron rooftops; down Alice Springs streets, waving a bubble wand to the wind. He’s buoyed by boundless energy – the kind that comes naturally to a ten-year-old.

But in the classroom, this lively Arrernte boy is reserved – and who can blame him? He raises his hand to correct his teacher on a misconception about Indigenous culture, only to be dismissed. ‘I find it a bit confusing about the spirit and Dreaming,’ she says, ‘but we’ve just got to believe it.’

As Maya Newell’s new documentary In My Blood It Runs reminds us, classrooms are not neutral spaces, and neither are welfare systems. Neither are detention centres. Neither are governments.

Newell’s previous work was 2015’s Gayby Baby, a documentary on families with same-sex parents that incited uproar from conservative commentators and federal lawmakers. What made Gayby Baby so radical was its hands-off treatment of its subjects, observing stories of quiet existence – and resistance – without explicitly offering its own agenda.

In My Blood It Runs adopts a similarly observational approach, but here it’s politicised in a way that Gayby Baby wasn’t. It’s a stronger documentary for it.

In My Blood It Runs reminds us classrooms are not neutral spaces, and neither are welfare systems. Neither are detention centres. Neither are governments.

Newell deftly splices together scenes of domesticity – Dujuan lounging with his mother and grandmother, or using his budding traditional healing powers to help family members – with archival footage of the Stolen Generations and Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. By exposing the immediacy of threats like violence, familial separation, the police state, the film becomes polemical in its intimacy. These dangers, familiar enough to become matter-of-fact topics of discussion around the kitchen table, underpin Dujuan’s every move as he bikes around empty playgrounds at night or falls in with a crowd of older boys at a local carnival.

Dujuan – and those as young as him – risk punishment for every mistake. Yet there are times where he’s allowed room for error, when Newell yields the camera to him and lets him run wild. Blurry, candid and imperfect, the footage grants agency to someone deprived of it for too long. And as he interviews his relatives about love, justice and inequality, he almost seems free, even if just for a moment.

– Michael Sun

The Dead Don’t Die
(dir. Jim Jarmusch)

In The Dead Don’t Die, director Jim Jarmusch attempts to spoof both the zombie genre and his trademark sardonic style. Beneath the film’s hyper-ironic surface simmers a sincere condemnation of the consumerism and political inaction that plagues our current political context. This critique, however, is ultimately bogged down with what feels like five hundred half-baked gags and nods to George Romero’s Dead films.

Set in a Midwestern American town, the simple premise follows a world caught in the throes of an environmental meltdown caused by so-called ‘polar fracking’. Extreme climate fluctuations lead to a chain of supernatural events drawn from the canon of apocalyptic thrillers: animals escape into the wild, technology conks out and the dead rise from their graves, hungry for flesh. The townspeople react with bland disinterest, preferring to complain about foreigners rather than listen to doom-saying scientists.

In this anti-thriller, the cast makes no attempt at passing as a believable small-town community, with almost every character played by an iconic Jarmusch collaborator – from police officers Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) to Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician; indeed Swinton appears to parody both her character in Only Lovers Left Alive and her real-life vampire/alien/Celtic-adjacent/Orientalism-prone persona.

Despite striking images, the film’s cartoonish nature bleaches the urgency and emotional nuance out of the issues Jarmusch champions.

There are moments when Jarmusch’s sense of weariness hits with clarity. The film’s constant celebrity cameos – from Selena Gomez as a ‘Cleveland hipster’ to Iggy Pop as a coffee-obsessed zombie – lampoon the soulless absurdity of our brand-driven culture. Like in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies are also closely linked to consumption; they pause from slurping intestines to moan about wanting iPhones, Xanax or a Wi-Fi connection. Living or undead, all characters are disengaged from their wider world, more concerned with useless, materialist minutiae. This sense of existential exhaustion with late capitalism is evocatively portrayed through roaming shots of zombies pillaging stores, assisted by Frederick Elmes’s ghostly cinematography of lightless roads strewn with dismembered appendages.

Despite striking images, the film’s cartoonish nature bleaches the urgency and emotional nuance out of the issues Jarmusch champions. Steve Buscemi’s turn as a small-minded racist wearing a hat that reads ‘Make America White Again,’ and a plodding B-plot following a trio of black teen detainees, render timely political concerns like racism and mass incarnation into inconsequential asides. Ultimately, Jarmusch’s homage to Romero lacks punch. Its emotional distance and barrage of meta jokes make it indistinguishable from an instalment of the Scary Movie franchise.

– Claire Cao

Sorry We Missed You
(dir. Ken Loach)

If anything sums up the loss of dignity involved in gig economy work, it’s pissing into a plastic bottle. Last month, Amazon’s UK workers protested their working conditions across the country, stating they were urinating in bottles in order to meet impossible work targets. This abasement bleeds into Ken Loach’s stark new drama Sorry We Missed You, when the film’s lead Ricky is handed a grimey empty bottle by a fellow contractor, who warns him: ‘You’re going to need this’.

Sorry We Missed You is the latest addition to Loach’s career-long quest to chronicle struggling, working-class Britons and the cruelty of a government that routinely fails them (see: Ladybird Ladybird, Bread and Roses (MIFF 2000), and The Navigators from MIFF 2002). His 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, explored the bureaucratic minefield of trying to claim basic welfare benefits. Here, he turns his attention to a more recent exploitation: the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.

The film follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a former labourer who finds a role as a freelance delivery driver, where he works, punishingly hard, without any benefits. As his warehouse boss explains to him early in the film, he’s not hired, he comes ‘on board’; he doesn’t drive for the company, he ‘performs services’; there are no wages, only ‘fees’. Oh, and he has to purchase or rent his own van to work.

Ricky’s routes are plotted by a portable scanner, ominously referred to as a ‘gun’, and he’s required to hit an impossibly narrow delivery window. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) finds herself in different but similarly demeaning circumstances, working as a carer where she feeds, fills emotional voids and scrubs faeces off her patients with no overtime. With the couple working from dawn until late into the night, the lives of their two children begin to unravel alongside them.

There is a brutality to Loach’s vision – from the abrasive cacophony of desperate productivity in the warehouse to the increasingly haggard faces of Ricky and Abbie as they slide further into financial woe.

The film is anchored by Hitchen and Honeywood’s shattering performances, which texturise screenwriter Paul Laverty’s sometimes platitudinous script with real grit and depth.

There is a brutality to Loach’s vision… It’s punishing and confronting, but feels like necessary, urgent viewing.

There are also moments of real tenderness and grace: Ricky’s daughter accompanying him on a delivery run, the family bonding over a meal of Indian takeout, and Abbie’s cathartic phone confrontation with Ricky’s boss.

The greatest strength of Sorry We Missed You is how Loach plots incremental indignities that mount as the film goes on. It creates a sense of suffocation, culminating in a near-unwatchable, bleak finale. It’s punishing and confronting, but feels like necessary, urgent viewing.

Yet, Loach’s focus on creating a pressurised environment can come at the expense of nuanced characters. Ricky’s son Seb (Rhys Stone), for example, is thinly drawn as a troublemaking teen; his truancy and acts of petty crime and vandalism seem designed to drive tension and service the plot, with little exploration of his inner life.

His reiteration of the family’s innate goodness and tireless work ethic, too, often feels excessive. Countering damaging, false narratives of the working class is one thing, but benevolence should not be a prerequisite to earning a living wage and retaining basic labour rights. No one deserves to be this powerless.

– Isabella Trimboli