HAIL. Starring Daniel P. Jones, Leanne Letch. Directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson. Rated MA 15+ (High impact violence and sex). 104 minutes.
Writer, producer, editor Amiel Courtin-Wilson has said that his film has polarised audiences. This was true even of the small group at a press preview where several reviewers left during the film. Sitting towards the front, I did not realise this until afterwards and was surprised because, even though the film is demanding and confronting, it seems to me to be something of a high artistic achievement. Which means a limited audience but, for those who are drawn into it, a tellingly disturbing experience of sanity and madness, humanity and inhumanity, ugliness and a great deal of beauty.
I thought the director’s statement from the Media Kit explains the intentions.
“HAIL is the culmination of my intensely personal 6 year collaboration with Daniel P. Jones.
I first met Danny in mid 2005 while shooting a documentary about Plan B, a Melbourne theatre company founded to rehabilitate ex-prison inmates through performance. Danny had been released the previous day and arrived at a Plan B rehearsal to take part in that year’s performance. I was instantly taken by his mercurial storytelling ability, his inky black sense of humour and his unique turn of phrase. As the weeks went by, I recorded him rehearsing several scenes with the other men in the group and his intensity on stage was striking.
We slowly got to know each other and after six months of shooting, Danny and I become close friends. As I had met Danny in the context of a very collaborative, improvisational theatre group, it was easy to ask him if he wanted to make the leap to film. Danny was thrilled.
In 2006 I started conducting in-depth interviews with Danny about his childhood, life on the streets and life in jail. It was around that time that he first told me the story that unfolds in the short film entitled CICADA.
I was moved to tears by his experience as a 5-year-old and when I spoke to Danny about the impact it had on him, he quoted Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Per Ardua Ad Astra ...’
This was a pivotal moment in my collaboration with Danny as it inspired me to develop a process that was also used in the shooting of HAIL. I interviewed Danny, transcribed that material, edited it, then fed it back to him as honed dialogue in the context of dramatic scenes. In this way Danny was able to truly own the material while performing, thereby transcending the all too common problem of non-actors being given dialogue that never really sits comfortably with them.
This working methodology proved highly successful with CICADA premiering internationally at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2009 as well as winning and being nominated for several major awards in Australia.
HAIL was the exciting next step in our creative relationship and it has become a life changing experience.”
We are asked to contemplate a classical painting for the first few minutes of the film, something like the rape of the Sabine women, then a king on horseback with a mallet. The director places all kinds of images before us, artistic, realistic, surreal, as well as the widest range of musical accompaniment and sounds in any film. At one moment, there is an increasing intensity and volume of sound, accompanied but white flashes on the screen that made me wonder how long I could sustain it – a evocation of the torment of a disturbed psyche.
While the narrative to the latter part of the film is clear, once Danny’s madness turns into some terrifying brutality and time shifts are part of his madness, it is more complex but always leading us deeper into Danny’s statement that there is disturbance in his inner self.
One reviewer remarked that this encounter with Danny and his friends, the working class backgrounds and their pubs, homes, drinking, drugs… is something so many of us do not experience unless our work takes us their directly. How would we handle meeting them? This is part of the challenge that director and actor want to offer their audiences. It is a sombre experience, not to everyone’s taste or liking, but very well done indeed.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 25th October 2012.