Ben Speth – an ex-New Yorker now based in Melbourne – begins his second feature Forever in the style of an observational documentary. We see a woman (Helen George) dealing, in a relaxed, everyday manner, with her autistic son (Joshua George).
After a few images, we expect a reassuring, television-style voice-over from the woman to begin, filling in the background of this situation. But this voice never comes.
The observational images, for the most part still, quiet and uneventful, are only occasionally, ominously broken by a slow-motion shot accompanied by a resonant cello note.
Little by little, unusual details enter this portrait – and, eventually, we are completely unsure whether what we are watching is documentary or fiction, or perhaps a strange, surprising hybrid of the two forms.
Helen's attachment to her telephone is revealed to be not simply the way she copes with loneliness; in fact, she is a phone-sex worker. While she arouses clients down the line, Joshua plays his video games in the lounge-room.
Film buffs who have seen Chantal Akerman's classic Jeanne Dielman (1975), covering three days in the life of a diligent Belgian housewife who is also a work-at-home prostitute, will recognise where Speth is coming from.
Like Akerman, he is keenly sensitive to the double-edged sword of domestic experience, especially as lived by women: this home comes across both as a prison and a haven, with the affection flowing between mother and son deeply palpable. (Another influence – another film with a housewife juggling domestic child-rearing and phone-sex – might be the Jennifer Jason Leigh strand in Altman's Short Cuts, 1993.)
With its very modest means, Forever, shot on digital video, manages to maintain an admirable edge of mystery and poetry in its framing, cutting and unfolding. It is a fascinating example of the school of Melbourne Minimalism, alongside Bill Mousoulis' A Sufi Valentine (2004) and Anna Kannava's Dreams for Life (2004).
It is only near the very end that anything really happens – and even then, questions and open-ended speculations remain in the air for the viewer to take away and contemplate.
© Adrian Martin July 2004