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Motherland

(Kriv Stenders, Australia, 1994)


 


Over the last few years, Australian documentaries have gone boldly in the direction of stylisation. Comic studies such as Cane Toads (1988) or Body Work (1988) pose their subjects stiffly in front of a fish-eye lens, while more contemplative pieces like Eternity (1994) or Memories and Dreams (1993) aim for a stately, lyrical aura.

But I have never seen a more relentlessly aestheticised documentary than Kriv Stenders' Motherland. It strings together every imaginable optical trick, and repeats them ad nauseam: pixillated motion, moody landscape shots, unreal lighting, and a camera that pans idly across faces in extreme close-up.

Those faces belong to two very likeable and captivating old Australian-Latvian women, Irene and Gaida. They tell of their lives in the motherland and the 'stepmotherland', of their cultural heritage, of their close relation with the filmmaker (who humbly pictures himself as a glowing, angelic child).

At every point, the narration of the women struggles against a torrent of over-composed images and heavy musical settings. For any detail mentioned – be it a birth or a funeral or simply two dogs running down a street – Stenders laboriously supplies a visual illustration or re-enactment.

I found myself longing for some old-fashioned, unadorned, purely observational camera work – or at least a more understated level of filmic poetry, as in the classic documentaries of Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain, 1942).

© Adrian Martin April 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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