March festival season in Adelaide is a time when a city often scorned for its dullness alights with culture. This year is Unsound’s second showing, a festival with its name in Europe but its roots in Wagga Wagga, a country town 900 kilometres west of Adelaide across the Shire of Bland and through the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (“the MIA”).
Co-founder Mat Schulz grew up in Wagga Wagga where Unsound began. He re-started the festival in 2003 in Krakow and, a decade on, its events have spread to London, Minsk and New York. Now, thanks to the affinity of vision between Schulz and Adelaide Festival’s artistic director David Sefton, Unsound may become a permanent fixture in the city’s comfortably funded flagship event. Maybe in a few years it’ll be “our Nicole”, “our Kylie”, “our Russ” and “our Mat”. Australians are fond of their tall poppies coming home stamped with foreign validation.
If you bring a European festival to Australia, open it with a local work
Walking to the Art Gallery of South Australia I realise Adelaide light is not buttery like Sydney’s but sharp and silvery like Tasmania’s and, though I’ve flown from city to city and I can’t see it, I can feel it: vast empty space is near and spans upwards to the bright high sky. At the gallery – stately and sandstone though not steepled like so many buildings in Australia’s “city of churches” – a local friend recalls her family holidays to Port Lincoln as a kid. “It was endless around there. It was frightening.”
In 1999, eight bodies were found in barrels in an unused Snowtown bank vault. The victims had been tortured and murdered in the seven years preceding. The Kurzel family grew up close by and in 2011 Justin Kurzel’s debut feature Snowtown was released – produced by Warp Films. His brother Jed composed the score.
With the exception of one unwatchable scene (“you’ll know it when you see it,” a friend warned me) the film’s most disturbing aspect is not the violence but how its open spaces feel closed and how trapped its characters seem within them. They are unpinned from social structures but do not seem free, not even willfully, dangerously free. From the opening frame their fate seems swallowed up by an unpreventable outcome – a common sensation in films based on true stories where the grim end is foretold – but in Snowtown, particularly, all exits appear sealed.
Snowtown: Live is Unsound Adelaide’s only local flavour. Obviously, the murders are not a proud topic for Adelaideans but where better to premiere this show than the city’s stuffy-spirited Town Hall, a place where you imagine serious-minded law-makers have beavered away for centuries on matters of public policy.
The show consists of unreleased footage edited into a dream-like sequence as a five-piece band expands on ideas previously pruned back for the soundtrack. It begins with the score’s most memorable motif: an ebbing thump that is both resolute and scared stiff, like a fast-beating heart before a terrible act. It heralds the arrival of something bad but, as it fades, also marks the passing of any chance to stop it. It is the sound of inevitability.
Some of the footage is remarkable. Do all directors squirrel away so much of worth? It depicts the same entrenched neglect as the film: derelict backyards, shopping trolleys full of rubbish and kids who look wise beyond their years in all the wrong ways. Miserable rain drips from gutters. Swings hang. Grass shudders. A merry-go-round spins in the rain, too fast for the kids to get on or off without getting hurt. The water seems to be washing them away and it ends in a smear of ascending colour. Like the film, the outtakes are hued thin bloodless-blue as though in perpetual dawn. A cold has seeped into the bones of the place and it can’t get warm again.
For the audience, the rules of engagement are left undrawn. Should we watch and let the sound seep in, as we would a film? Listen and let the visuals complement the music? Or observe the tenseness of the partly improvising band as their eyes follow Kurzel? Probably, we should just let it all swirl subliminally together but I dart fitfully from one medium to another, unable to settle. The best moments are when I have no choice because the elements combine so seamlessly and forcefully. A weirdly harrowing close-up of a snake swallowing a mouse is one such moment, as is a boy cross-dressing before a mirror to a kind of post-rock soar. The most powerful metaphor, however, is an outtake too subjective for a filmmaker to use: fingers splayed messily over the camera’s lens, obscuring our view. You don’t want to see this, it implores. Don’t look. Turn away.
The Quietus version here.