Reviews and notes
Grand Prix, Cinema du Reel, Paris 1989
Documentary is a hopelessly inadequate word to describe JOE LEAHY'S NEIGHBOURS
. This wonderful film has the dramatic strength of a first-class feature. It is an anthropological tragi-comedy full of conflicts amongst fascinating characters. It is also a psychological thriller about collectivism vs. capitalism, about 'primitive' ways vs. 'sophisticated' ones, that regularly seems about to erupt into violence, possibly murder. And, like all great stories, it keeps you itching to know what happens next...
The drama is unfolded, over 90 minutes, with some interviews, but mainly in confrontations between the characters, against a background of day-to-day activities - funerals, farm work, trips to town to buy clothes. Without any travelogue heaviness, we are drawn into the place and its customs and tactfully given close-ups of private and public lives. Joe remains an enigmatic or ambiguous figure, consistently intiguing as a man of two worlds, but leaving nearly everything we see him do open to question about motives. The mixture of comedy and tragedy comes from the portraits of men trapped by, or profiting from, their own vanity, deviousness and greed or frustrated in their hopes of finding a path between loyalty to ancient ways and the need to come to terms with the business values introduced by Europeans and fine-tuned by the mixed-race Joe.
- Ned Jillett, The Age, 3/5/89
Joe Leahy lives in a house of suburban comfort, spending his evenings watching Australian television with the help of a satellite dish. He is a shrewd businessman whose plantation grows and prospers while nearby tribespeople remain unblessed by his prosperity, except, perhaps at certain moments, such as the death of one of the tribe's elders, when Joe is there to pass out gifts of money. The theme here is an old one: tradition vs. modernity, the disappearance of the old ways that cannot survive the onslaught of the new.
The tribe tries to cling to its customs, even as its members wear Australian military camouflage caps and T-shirts emblazoned with logos of rock groups like Iron Maiden. They pay bride prices, they chant at funerals, they even prepare for war with shields and spears when one of their members is wounded by a gunman from another tribe, though they change their plans when the man recovers. At the same time, the tribe perceives that Joe's modern ways, as practised on land they practically gave him, has brought him a better life...
Joe, who has an ambiguously paternalistic attitude toward the tribe, tries to convince them that times have changed. "Business," he says, "that's how you raise up your name now. Killing and raping won't do anymore." In short, a revolution has occurred. Adapt or die is the message. But it is a message delivered with grace and understanding by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, who never blame, never explain too much. They have the good sense to allow their characters to express themselves in all of their confused truculence, so they emerge neither as heroes nor villains but as wounded humans struggling to prosper and to understand.
- Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, 1/4/89
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