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July 24th, 2007

About a month ago, I was contracted to write a review of the documentary, Words From the City, for Screen Education. I was pretty up on both the film and the idea of reviewing it, to be honest, since I thought a documentary about hip hop in Australia was going to prove interesting, and I might be able to score the occasional paid reviewing gig.

Well, it didn't happen.

The film was, frankly, wastage, and I wrote a review that pretty much said so. Anyone who has read my reviews before knows what to expect, though in this case, I was told that I could go up to two thousand words, and that the review was to be about more than the film. All good, I thought, and I had a fine time writing it. The problem showed when I handed in the piece, and I was told, by the editor, that the review was too negative, and that they wouldn't publish it unless I rewrote it, focusing on the positive. Since they went to lengths to assure me what a fine and wonderful and witty writer I am, I was also given the impression that there was nothing wrong with the review as a separate, independent piece of writing, and since I was only going to score two hundred and fifty bucks out of it, I told them no. It would have been another day of work, and that probably would have also meant a bit of back of forth that would have bled into another day or three and the pay just didn't equal that. In addition, it went against my personal little morals, in which I simply will not pull my opinions back just because something is Australian and because films are difficult to make in this country, and a magazine would like to support the local scene. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? I'm going to be dodging that logic my entire life, I bet. Anyhow, so I said no, I wouldn't, asked for a kill fee, and got a hundred bucks and reimbursed for the ticket for film--the producer never organised me a pass--and left the whole experience feeling quite satisfied about it. Sure, it would have been nice to get more cash, and more gigs, but it doesn't work out that way all the time, and I got no ill will towards anyone for it. This kinda shit happens, you know? I banked my kill fee, shrugged, and moved on.

However, I am also left with a review that I wrote, and which isn't doing much now. I figured I would put it on the blog here, for you all to read. In a nice way, someone paid me a hundred bucks to write a blog review, and who can argue with that? I got to say, though, that I had fun writing the review, and if I could find a place that didn't want me to be patriotically supportive of bad art and paid me nicely, I'd be all up for doing this kind of thing on a regular basis.

Ah, but a poor, poor author can dream, can't he?


Words from the City

(Banal, Tepid, Ill Conceived, And So On and So Forth)

by Ben Peek


The biggest mistake that any one person can make regarding an artist, be they an author, painter, or musician, is in thinking that they as a person are as interesting as their art. As a text book example of what happens when you make this mistake, Words from the City succeeds amiably, but that's hardly an endorsement to watch it.

Words from the City is the first feature documentary from director couple Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham. It is focused on eight bands from the current hip hop scene in Australia, chosen with what will later be discussed as a political goal, but all of which all are spread across various career positions, from the well known Hilltop Hoods, to the struggling, lesser known artists, such as Layla. At ninety minutes in length, the content of the film can be best summed up as a collection of live performances and rehearsals, all unsatisfying due to their vignette like length, and scenes in which a camera has been placed in front of an artist who, with unseen prodding from the directors, informs the audience about his or her life, family, and art, all the bland insight and forgettable intelligence of that dying leviathan of Australian television, Big Brother. The comparison is one that I do not made lightly. While Words from the City is better shot than an episode of the show – the camera work is all that there is to recommend, actually – all that the film lacks to be a piece of reality TV is an interactive buzzer for the audience to vote out the artists they are bored with. Tired of MC Trey's painful interactions with Islander kids in the Western Suburbs of Sydney? Click. Goodbye. The kids will thank you too. Would you like Joelistics from TZU to get stoned again and give us his rambling opinion of race politics in Australia? No, me neither. Maybe he can do some cocaine. Maybe he'll be more insightful with harder drugs. How can I get my friends to vote?

Interactive documentaries. If only.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that Words from the City warrants such a degrading comparison, since the simple math of putting eight bands in ninety minutes of film amounts to around eleven minutes of screen time, if equally shared. Since the directors have attempted to do this, most of the time is spent introducing the artists, the environment, and the music of each. There's simply not enough time, then, for any depth or exploration of the men and women on the screen. This problem is further compounded by the fact that Gadd and Graham are trying to make a specific statement about race politics through the film. In fact, perhaps most damaging of all, is that all the artists and music end up becoming a vehicle through which the directors hope to make a statement about hip hop and, one suspects, Australia itself.

The last five years have seen a rise in hip hop in the country and there is no doubt that documentaries and writing on the artists involved are long over due, but since neither Gadd nor Graham are interested in exploring the rise of the music as a form, or even the culture that surrounds it, Words from the City pretty much fails completely at this. Instead, the directors are much more concerned with creating a statement that tries, through its main performers, to convince the audience that hip hop is an outsider art from, that it is born in predominantly working class environments, and that its performers come to it as a way to express their disconnect within society. Like rich kids slumming it in poor neighbourhoods, Words from the City would have you believe that hip hop is thus more real, more truthful, because of this.

The first artist introduced to the audience is the genial, family orientated Hau, one half of Koolism. Here, in the streets and working class backyards of Canberra, Gadd and Graham begin their thesis about Australian hip hop as an outsider art by focusing on Hau's Tongan heritage. However, as the film will later shown when Hau begins to talk about his lyrics, his racial heritage brings no real fundamental insight into his music, and where he might be influenced by his family, by his heritage, he is also influenced by his life playing, for example, football. From the outset, then, Gadd and Graham's argument feels forced for, while there is no doubt that Hau comes from a supportive family environment, it is the fact that it is a Tongan family that is of true importance to them. The focus becomes even more interesting to note when Gadd and Graham switch to Hau's partner, DJ Danielsan Ichiban, and make no acknowledgment of his white heritage, and no examination of his family. It is if Danielsan has no existence outside his relationship with his record collection. The same scenes are repeated throughout the film. Joelistic stands beside fellow TZU member Seed MC and explains his mixed European and Asian heritage, while, silent, and without voice, Seed stands with the dog. MC Trey and Maya Jupiter from Foreign Heights – and the band name itself is a tip to Gudd and Graham's thesis – similar talk about their heritage, but while Jupiter herself limits her cultural influence and would rather talk about Sydney itself, any conversation with third member of the band, the white Nick Toth, is reduced to one or two tiny snippets in which you will be lucky to remember his name.

This is repeated, again and again, throughout the film, and within fifteen minutes, you realise that Gadd and Graham are only interesting in identifying non-white culture. In the context of mainstream Australia, and quite wrongly, I have to unfortunately admit, men and women from non-white backgrounds are considered 'the Other' and it is this otherness that the directors are interested in. They focus on it so much that, within a short amount of time, the very white directors of the film turn all non-white culture into a fetish, an attribute that is, and always will be, the most important facet of the non-white artist they are interviewing.

The problem with doing this – well, there are a few problems, but the most important – is that Gadd and Graham forgo any interesting conversation on race politics within Australia because they are incapable of acknowledging white culture as an 'other' as well. Consider this: For the majority of people, the word Australian evokes the mental image of a white man or woman. It's not right to do so, but that's how it is for the majority of people within this country, and to include a Aboriginal man, an Asian woman, or an Indian transsexual, most people will add a word to explain what kind of Australian they're talking about, so that you end up with Indigenous Australia, Asian Australia, and Indian Australian (and gay Australian and transsexual Australian and so on). Here, in this simple collection of every day terms, lies one of the fundamental problems with race politics in Australia, and that is that whiteness is simply not acknowledged. It is unseen. It is, even more damning, considered natural – natural in a country that just over two hundred years ago was invaded and, through a series of events that add up to an attempt of genocide on the men and women who had called the country home for thousands of years, made their home. To say, therefor, that white men men and women have no weight, have no identifying culture, and to engage in no conversation with it while discussing the other cultures within Australia, is to create a large blind spot, and a flaw in any argument.

In the context of Words from the City, however, it is more damaging. The Hilltop Hoods, perhaps one of the scene's most successful artists in recent years, are presented with no cultural weight. They are shown, instead, in production. In rehearsal. In interview. In concert. They are defined by their relation to the music alone, despite the fact the references to family in their lyrics. But Gadd and Graham are not interested in this because there is no argument to be made out of a special culture in the background and lives of the Hilltop Hoods. It becomes even more telling when they are placed against MC Wire, an Aboriginal artist who is first shown on the streets of Redfern, then discusses his criminal past and, later, is shown his father, helping a young group of mostly Aboriginal children make a CD. He is, at every moment he is on screen, a black man: even scene Gudd and Graham show relate him to his culture, to people of similar cultural background. He is shown, once, and very briefly, in performance. His music is a poor second to the colour of his skin and cultural background to the directors.

Just as damaging to the film, however, is that by focusing so relentlessly on creating a fetishised other, Gadd and Graham ignore anything that might prove interesting about the hip hop scene. Artists reference the hip hop music produced by Americans in the 80s (back when it was rap, yo) and artists such as NWA and Ice-T are brought up more than once. However, no point is made of this, either in a way to explore the earlier influences of the artists, the rising monoculture we live in, or as a way to explore just what was going on in Australia in the 80s in relation to the music. If you were to believe Gadd and Graham, hip hop just suddenly appeared, somewhere in the late nineties, much in the way that parents tell children a stork delivers babies. In addition, the directors don't explore the rise of independent labels in relation to the music, the rise in live venues – it is interesting that TZU appear to be performing in an alleyway in Melbourne, but nothing is made out of this – and the difference in equipment and recording opportunities for each of the artists. No, Gadd and Graham ignore all of this and more to focus on their thesis of hip hop being the chosen form of youth from working class and non-white cultures, as a way, somehow, that they can find an outlet for their views in society.

Not, however, that any of them are found in the film voicing opinions. Bland, tepid, and interspaced with shots from urban environments, Words from the City cannot even make its argument regarding race interesting. It becomes interesting only when the viewer looks at the fetishes and absences, and the fact that not one of the artists involved in the film has a single fascinating thing to say about race or music in the country. This last problem, however, speaks more to the skills and ability of the directors as both artists and interviewers since, from the reported fifteen hundred hours of footage originally shot, they could not find one single convincing argument or interesting statement about race, Australia, or even hip hop itself.