Monday, 17 October 2011

LFF 2011: DARWIN review

There’s a strong slate of documentaries at this year’s LFF, with new efforts from powerhouses Werner Herzog, Jonathan Demme, Nick Broomfeld and Frederick Wiseman, alongside hotly tipped works from lesse-known film-makers such as DREAMS OF A LIFE, DRAGONSLAYER, and this, Nick Brandestini’s charming and engrossing DARWIN.

Darwin is a town in Death Valley, California with a total population of 35 - previously a mining town that saw a huge influx of workers when silver and subsequently lead was discovered there, Darwin has since been ravaged by fire, labour disputes, and water problems, whittling the population down from thousands to the handful of eccentrics that are left today.

There are no jobs, no social areas, no entertainment, and no services, a fact emblazened on a sign personally erected by residents to dissuade any out-of-towners from stopping by. Brandestini spends the film delving in to the recent history of Darwin, in the process exploring the remarkable lives of the people who live there and, crucially, how they ended up there.

In lesser hands, DARWIN would be pretty unpleasant viewing. It so easily could have been a depressing dirge or taken the easy route of ridiculing and belittling its ‘trailer trash’ occupants. The closest the film comes to this is in its early scenes, including a moment where the proclamation by the local librarian that “we’ve got every kind of book you can imagine in here” is accompanied by a close up of a box of trashy bestsellers, including Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’. But it doesn’t feel condescending – instead the amusing opening passages in retrospect feel like they are there to subtly reinforce our prejudices about small-town folk, so that as their contradictions and complex inner lives are unveiled as the film progresses, they are all the more surprising and effective.

These ‘hicks’ prove to be a surprisingly multicultural and diverse bunch. There’s the weary, sardonic postal worker (possessor of the only job in town) who supports Obama and says ‘she’ll never understand bigotry’; the yoga practicing San Francisico hangover (“too young to be a beatnik, too old to be a hippie”); the naturist boogie-woogie man; and, most memorably of all, an aging old coot who sounds like a cross between Grandpa Simpson and the cranky gold prospector from The Onion, yet harbors am incredible skill for painting and sculpture.

Early on, we meet an obese young couple living in a trailer, yet rather than being the braindead consumers that are so often presented as representative of America’s underclass, they turn out to be extremely progressive, multi-faceted and interesting: one professes to like Darwin because of ‘’the lack of proselytizing here”, while the other gives a moving account of their lifetime struggle with gender and identity.

For a storyteller looking to establish a sense of foreboding the town of Darwin is a gift – a town with a history of violent residents, it now resides next to a huge, top secret American military base, with the sound of detonated bombs being a semi-regular soundtrack for Darwin’s inhabitants. It’s no wonder that it seems like the only thing that properly unifies the population of Darwin is the belief that the end of the world is imminent. Some are committed survivialists, armed to teeth and building up food reserves, while others just plan to pull up a chair and watch the fireworks.

The sense of impending Armageddon is strong in DARWIN – even if the Mayans were wrong about 2012, the exodus of young people from the town and the borderline elderly average age means that the end really is nigh for its inhabitants. The new roles, reinventions and redemptions the townspeople are currently undergoing make this ghost town feel even more eerie and purgatorial – a place where people are preparing for death.

If that all sounds a bit heavy, it isn’t: Branadesti is clearly affectionate towards the oddballs of Darwin, and what you come away from the film with is awe at the amount of humanity that pervades throughout both the town and the film-making in some pretty inhuman surroundings. DARWIN is accomplished, entertaining, and thought-provoking, and well worth 90 minutes of your time.

Darwin - Trailer from Darwin Documentary on Vimeo.

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