Tattooed across the heart with a Bert and Ernie duo, Melbournian filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson has been unapologetically making films since the tenderoni age of single digits, when he was just barely old enough to grasp a camera, let alone its understanding.
“My father exposed me to cinema when I was very, very young… like maybe from age five?” He says, punctuating a good half of his statements with what sound like question marks, as if both telling and asking at the same time. “My dad’s an artist but he used to make these experimental Super 8 movies. I felt beholden to him, y’know, to make my own films to show him… by the time I was seven or eight, I was really obsessed with cinema.”
It’s got to be kind of crazy growing up with two artist parents, I say, to which he responds: “I think, they don’t realize what they’re doing while they’re doing it, but they expose you to a lot of stuff; they probably expose you to too much stuff, too early, y’know? Many times, I’d be watching things and have no idea as to how to comment on it. For example, the closing scene of Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni? I had no idea why my father liked this film or why it was politically relevant… I’d watch it, and then feel this huge pressure to speak about it in some cogent fashion, and I wouldn’t be able to, so, I’d feel it viscerally, I’d feel it emotionally, but I wouldn’t know how to talk about it politically or within a film theory frame.”
Actress Sang Melen of “Ruin”
Watching his films, it’s clear how heavily they center around the themes of culture and identity, and how largely drawn they are towards societies’ underrepresented underdogs and under-bellied worlds. In this sense, Courtin-Wilson’s aim is to dissolve the current cultural barriers that surround us… focusing instead on what draws us together and what makes us human beings. His films all deal with intensely raw, intimate character portraits and relationships that we can all, on some level, embrace with compassion and profound empathy; fascinating characters that just so happen to shuffle along the perimeter or the outskirts of society.
“I think in Australia our problem is probably complacency?” he continues. When I ask him about Australia’s cultural divisions, he continues: “We don’t really have guns, we have free health care, we have free education, and we have a very great welfare system… It’s a very comfortable country,” he adds. “It’s probably closer to a Scandinavian country really, in terms of social constructs. So in that regard, the general social malaise is not something that is born of any kind of trauma… Because Australia is so isolated, because we, like America, are a country born of immigration, we are totally formed by multi-cultures and diversity… so a city like Melbourne, where I grew up, is a city where, outside of Athens, has the highest population of Greeks in the entire world. We have a huge Greek population, a huge Vietnamese population; we have a huge East African population now. So I think these things speak of what it is to be a Melbournian.”
Actor Jack Charles of “Bastardy”
Looking at his second feature documentary Bastardy – starring the beloved, indigenous actor Jack Charles, released in Australia in 2009 (the tagline: “Addict. Homosexual. Cat burglar. Actor. Aboriginal”), Courtin-Wilson formed a strong bond with Charles, which continued long after the film wrapped; he followed Charles around for seven solid years, filming him and his life in what would become an award-winning documentary.
(In regards to race): “In Australia, we’re a far more repressed, English-influenced kind of society… we repress that stuff, we don’t speak about it, we deny it; we certainly deny the genocide of the aboriginal people, we only apologized to them, there’s no treaty…”
When I ask him if Australians feel the heaviness of “white guilt”, he replies: “Certainly, I feel like we owe the owners of the land in Australia far more than we’re giving them, so in that regard, I feel like it’s not only guilt but it’s touched by a sense of action. Y’know, there’s a sense of, there’s a way to remedy this; it’s not just the static sensation of guilt, it’s about, I guess there’s – yes, there’s guilt and yes there’s rage and yes there’s sadness, and what do those things coalesce as? They coalesce as trying to reconcile these things.”
Just a few short months after Bastardy was released, his short documentary film Cicada internationally premiered at Cannes Film Festival, and his feature film Hail (2011) premiered at Venice Film Festival in 2011, followed by Ruin (2013), also selected for the Venice Film Festival, where this time it won a Special Jury Prize award. He also won The Byron Kennedy Award at the AACTA Awards* recently – pretty much Australia’s version of the Oscars.
Not bad for someone who was then just barely thirty-six years old. Then again, Amiel made his first film at the ripe old age of nine (Gladwell would have a heyday with this and the whole “ten thousand hours theory”). Side note: At nine, I was still sleeping in my Lisa Frank bed sheets, daydreaming about my future marriage to Jonathan Taylor Thomas).
By seventeen, Amiel won the Longford Nova Award at the 1996 St Kilda Film Festival and by nineteen, wrote, directed and produced his debut feature documentary Chasing Buddha, about his cool, bald auntie Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun; the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2000.
As an established filmmaker, Courtin-Wilson has a keen ability to burst outside of the film genre-framework, moving seamlessly through the murky divides of this planet and capturing the essence of what film is all about in the process: stories with soul, stories that are human, complex, wounded and full of hope. Like his statements dotted with questions, it seems that by scanning the world’s landscape and the characters birthed along its perimeters, that Courtin-Wilson too, is searching – both for what story to follow next and for his own story; questioning where he himself belongs, a triangle peg in a world full of rectangles.
Unconventional is his style, ACW uses mostly non-actors and moves towards stories of the underdog in places most people find, at most, uninteresting (a group of kids in Oklahoma City for example, for which his latest film The Empyrean is being shot). His drive and patience as an artist shines a literal light on tremendous characters from this world’s underrepresented, from aforementioned Jack Charles to Buddhist nun Robina Courtin to the complex yet oh-so-human American jazz artist Cecil Taylor, of which ACW’s last documentary The Silent Eye, which premiere-released at The Whitney here in Manhattan, is based.
The films are a fine example of concrete stories laced with beautiful poeticism, and little by little, they are helping to shift the global landscape of film, pouring out the storm of these intimate character portraits and allowing the audience a glimpse of the aftermath’s rainbow. His key weapon is time – patience and persistence, and the ability to weather through the inevitable storms that is the process of filmmaking. From Melbourne to Oklahoma to Johannesburg, he embraces a unique insight into the complexity of human beings at this juxtaposition in our lifetime, capturing stories, documenting history, and all in a way that is stark and poetic in style, and elegant and raw in its portrayal of today’s people on society’s fringe.
*Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, a non-profit organization whose aim is “to identify, award, promote and celebrate Australia’s greatest achievements in film and television;” it “recognizes a person in their early career for outstanding creative enterprise within the film and television industries.”