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As a teenager, I loved being scared.

The X-Files, Stephen King novels, roller-coasters, playing spotlight in the bush. I was up for all of it. Then – somewhere in my mid to late twenties – I lost that love. I watched Paranormal Activity during the day, with all the curtains open and the sun streaming in, and still couldn’t sleep for a week afterwards. I began to feel nervous about flying, something I’d done without a second thought since I was sixteen. I gave up scary movies in favour of documentaries. I thought I was done with ghosts and demons.

But recently – maybe as a result of the fucking insanity of the last nine months – I’ve started to gravitate towards horror again. I’ve become addicted to My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left (both excellent true crime podcasts), and have read a couple of fantastically disturbing novels (The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent). But when it comes to horror, film – I feel – is the ultimate medium. And it was with no small amount of excitement (and some trepidation) that I turned off the lights and settled in to watch these two recent horror releases.

Hereditary (2018), Director: Ari Aster

This film had been on my radar for a while, and I was a little nervous about watching it (perhaps because the media was calling it the scariest movie of the year). It is scary, in a way that slowly fills you with dread. Hereditary focuses on a family that has just lost its matriarch, Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, Ellen. Ellen, it turns out, had D.I.D (dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder) and dementia. At a grief counselling meeting Annie also reveals that her father starved himself to death, and her brother hung himself at sixteen, leaving a note accusing their mother of trying to ‘put people’ in him. Yeah. Creepy. And it gets worse. Annie sleepwalks, and once woke to find herself standing over her paint-thinner-covered children holding a match.

I felt like this was what the film was really about; the things we inherit, the curse of mental illness/depression/schizophrenia. Being at the mercy of our own brains, totally out of our control, not knowing what to believe. It seems to be Annie’s own paranoia that is driving the film, but in the end that’s not entirely the case. I’m not sure the ending really worked, to be honest. It seemed to cheapen some of the themes and ideas that came before it.

This is definitely a film that needs a second watch, if only for the chilling shots of Toni Collette floating in the corners of dark rooms, so that you almost don’t notice her. There are also lots of intentional threads to find, recurring characters, little Easter eggs hidden in the scenes. It feels like a film that was very carefully, very intentionally put together, which I appreciate.

Ghost Stories (2017), Directors: Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

I knew very little about this film before watching it, apart from the fact that it features Martin Freeman (of The Hobbit and The Office fame). Ghost Stories feels in places like a dark comedy, although there are some very frightening moments. Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career out of debunking the paranormal. When he is called upon to investigate three disturbing cases, his skepticism is tested. Like Hereditary, this is a film that I think would be worth a second watch, knowing what you know by the end. Also like Hereditary, the ending does feel a little disappointing, a bit like cheating. But the three stories are interesting, and creepy – the suspense builds effectively, and the performances are great (Alex Lawther as the demon-obsessed Simon Rifkind is particularly good). I found Professor Goodman irritating and unlikable, but I think that was largely intentional. Martin Freeman manages to be both extremely proper and extremely weird at the same time.

So what is it about horror films? Why is it so enjoyable to be scared, to hear about horrible things that have happened to other people (true crime), or to watch someone be haunted, hunted and dismembered? Is it healthy? Or is it morbid and disrespectful?

I think I’ve been asking myself these questions most of my life, as I’m sure many other horror fans have. I don’t know if it’s healthy or ‘right’, but I do know that there is something satisfying about immersing yourself in the truly terrible. The same way listening to sad songs when you’re depressed is devastating, but also somehow wonderful. If the world is fucked up and uncertain around you, it’s comforting to see this reflected in film. Especially when so many other aspects of culture seem to ignore the dark side of life. Horror films are at once an escape from and an acceptance of the shitty parts of existence. It’s cathartic, it feels balancing. The more we ignore feelings of horror the harder they are to deal with.

Plus it’s just really fucking fun to get scared.

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They brought a woman from the street

And made her sit in the stalls

By threats

By bribes

By flattery

Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don’t understand art

Sit still, they said

But I don’t want to see sad things

Sit still, they said.

And she listened to everything

Understanding some things

But not others

Laughing rarely and always without knowing why.

Sometimes suffering disgust

Sometimes thoroughly amazed.

And in the light again, said

If that’s art I think it is hard work

It was beyond me

So much beyond my actual life.

But something troubled her

Something gnawed her peace

And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything

This time understanding different things

This time untroubled that some things

Could not be understood

Laughing rarely but now without shame

Sometimes suffering disgust

Sometimes thoroughly amazed

And in the light again said

This is art, it is hard work

And one friend said, too hard for me

And the other said, if you will

I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured.

                                                                     – Howard Barker

Back in 2013 a friend who works in the film industry gave me a folder of more than seventy films. About a week ago (five years later) I watched the last one. I opened this collection, over the years, in fits and starts; sometimes watching a film every night, sometimes ignoring the folder entirely for months at a time. Watching these films wasn’t always easy (some were slow, many were subtitled, most were completely different to anything I’d ever seen before), but it was also often addictive. I came to love the surprise – not having read anything about any of the films before I watched them – of pressing play. The experience of being drawn into so many different worlds – countries, times, perspectives – was magic.

Not knowing what each film was going to be like – I had only the title and the year to judge them by – was exciting, but it was also challenging. It could also turn me off starting if I was in the mood for a particular type of movie. There’s a chance, I would often think, that this will be boring, that I won’t like it. In fact, what happened was that I found something to like in almost all of these films. Not one of them felt like time wasted. Even if it was just an image, a line of dialogue, or the whole plot. Just the simple act of sitting down and watching so many different films has taught me more about the world (and the film world) than any course ever could. This collection has pushed me to see and think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience reminds me of Howard Barker’s prologue to The Bite of the Night (quoted in full above):

But I don’t understand art

Sit still, they said …

And in the light again said

This is art, it is hard work …

I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured.’

I watched films in Canada over Christmas, tucked up under blankets while it snowed outside. I watched as we prepared to leave Cambodia, under the ceiling fan, surrounded by half-packed suitcases. I watched as a respite from uni assignments, separating myself from pedagogy by diving into rural China and jungle Thailand. And, most recently, I watched while I was sick, curled up on cold nights with my computer and a sleepy puppy. It’s been a journey, and an education; I’ve found it frustrating and fantastic. And it has changed me, in a multitude of subtle ways. To come to the end of the folder feels like an achievement, but is also a little sad. I don’t have that work anymore, that challenge. But I will come again; I will be on the lookout for more.

It was difficult to pick favourites – so many of these films affected me in so many different ways. But I have put together a rough top ten list. Here, in no particular order, are the films that have landed and settled themselves somewhere deep in my mind.

1) Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009) – Greece – Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

From the director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, this film focuses on a family separated from society. The three adult children are told by their parents that cats are deadly, that the word ‘zombie’ means ‘flower’, and that they will be allowed to leave home when their dog teeth fall out. Very dark, at times uncomfortably funny, littered with weird moments and startling images that will stay with you. Dogtooth is my favourite of Lanthimos’s films.

2) Innocence (2004) – France – Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

Like Dogtooth, this is another ‘isolated-from-the-outside-world’ film. Set in a boarding school for young girls, where new students arrive through secret underground tunnels in coffins. The school is surrounded by forest, and every scene looks beautiful – green and slightly dark and mysterious. Innocence is somehow both hopeful and sinister, like a fairy tale.

3) Kill List (2011) – UK – Director: Ben Wheatley

A truly unsettling horror film about an ex-soldier turned hit-man. Jay takes on a new assignment – a ‘kill list’ – and the line between reality and disturbing fantasy quickly begins to blur. What’s really going on here is ambiguous, but it is also terrifying, violent and thought-provoking. I loved the performances in this, the music, the way the tension was built. The kind of film that leaves you wishing you had someone to discuss it with.

4) Margaret (2011) – US – Director: Kenneth Lonergan

I had the extended version of this film, and – at almost three hours long – it felt like watching a novel. I don’t want to give away the event at the beginning (I think its impact is so much more powerful if you don’t know what’s coming), but the film is essentially teenage Lisa’s response to this experience. In essence, this is a coming of age film, but putting it into that category doesn’t do justice to its scope and complexity. Lisa is manipulative, emotional, dramatic, immature, selfish; she is a teenager, only able to relate to the world in terms of its effect on herself. The film’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: Margaret, are you grieving … it is Margaret you mourn for. I loved this film; I watched it in its entirety in one sitting, and was captivated the whole time.

5) Miryang/Secret Sunshine (2007) – South Korea – Director: Lee Chang-dong

For some reason – perhaps because of the title – I had it in my head that this film was a romantic comedy. It most certainly isn’t. After losing her husband in a car accident, Shin-ae moves to his home town with her son, Jun. It seems like this will be a new start, that Shin-ae may find love, happiness. But then her son is kidnapped, and the tone of the film shifts dramatically. A film about grief, love, chaos – Secret Sunshine is beautiful, sad, and very memorable.

6) Mang shan/Blind Mountain (2007) – China – Director: Yang Li

Set in China in the early 1990’s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

7) Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens (1976) – Spain – Director: Carlos Saura

I love this title. A film about three young girls who have lost their mother and father and are being raised by an aunt. The middle child, Ana, is the protagonist. She is the most traumatised by the loss of her mother. Ana saw her on her death bed, heard her say ‘Nothing exists … I don’t want to die’. Cria Cuervos is at once chilling, funny, warm, and very sad. And a warning: it features a song that will get stuck in your head.

8) Khaneh syah ast/The House is Black (1963) – Iran – Director: Forough Farrokhzad

I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film in the Persian language. The House is Black is a short documentary film (26 minutes) about a leper colony. Not much dialogue, but lots of images and voice-overs from different texts, including the Koran. Black and white, short, largely uneventful. But I found this film so striking, particularly the school room scene at the end.

9) Banshu/Late Spring (1949) – Japan – Director: Yasujiro Ozu

In post-WWII Japan, Noriko doesn’t want to leave her widower father. He, however, insists that she must marry – even though he loves her and doesn’t want to be parted from her. This is the way of human life, this is how human history has always gone, he seems to be saying. I was really moved by this slow, quiet film; it has such a peaceful, beautiful sadness about it. There is a scene where Noriko’s father comes home, alone, and peels an apple. Such a simple moment, but somehow so full of everything that has happened to this character.

10) Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki/When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Japan – Director: Mikio Naruse

This was one of the last films I watched – right down at the bottom of the folder in the ‘W’s. Another beautiful, calm but loaded film from Japan, about a woman (Keiko) working as a hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district. She is a widow, and doesn’t want to dishonour her dead husband by sleeping with her customers. She is a strong woman, but the (male-dominated) odds are stacked against her. She ascends the stairs to the bar in which she works.

My car is full of 90s mix-tapes. Driving in Australia has become an exercise in nostalgia: Rage Against the Machine, Spice Girls, Take That, the Scatman. Each song carries with it a high school memory: a party, a friendship, a boy, a fight. It is a strange form of time travel.

It’s been eight years since I’ve lived in Australia. Eight years since I’ve had a fixed Aussie address, tax file number, bank account. Coming back toimg_20161214_182114 Australia from Southeast Asia creates a kind of reverse culture shock. We are surprised when cars slow down for us at pedestrian crossings, shocked by the seemingly exorbitant price of mangos, and confused by the workings of local government. It’s a tricky transition, but an exciting one. There is the thrill of fresh air, of bird song, of having a backyard that borders the bush. And, of course, there is the joy that comes with reuniting with family and friends.

We’ve moved back to my home town, where my parents still live. We are renting the house across the street from where I grew up, and earlier this year I did a teaching placement at my old high school. In a way it’s like slipping into a parallel universe – the same place, but a very different life. The same birds (kookaburras, king parrots, currawongs), the same trees (gums, pines, wattles), the same mammals and reptiles (kangaroos, possums, blue-tongues). But instead of walking to school I’m driving; instead of studying for SACs and exams I’m teaching for them. I pay rent and bills and (try to) remember to put petrol in the car. Suddenly I’m living a ‘grown-up’ existence in a place where I was always a kid. Needless to say, it’s taking some getting used to.

We moved here for a number of reasons. We moved in such a hurry because university said I had to. Since February I’ve been studying a Master of Teaching (basically a one-year diploma with an extra six months of research tacked on the end). I could write an entire post on this course – on how it’s taken over my life, on the disconnection between theory and practice, on the wonderfully hard-working teachers I’ve met on placement. But, to be honest, I need a break from all-things-uni. Perhaps when it’s all done in mid-2017 I’ll be able to write about the experience with some objectivity.

As busy as it’s been, working as a pre-service English teacher has allowed me to dive back into reading. In the last year – for my teaching placements – I’ve read: Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein and 20160429_125519Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson (Year 7); Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden (Year 8); Deadly Unna by Phillip Gwynne, Parvana by Deborah Ellis, Private Peaceful by Michael Murpurgo, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein (Year 9); The Secret River by Kate Grenville, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do, 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose and First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung (Year 10); Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Turning by Tim Winton, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Year 11); The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (Year 12).

Somehow I also managed to read quite a few non-school books, mostly thanks to the local library. To be honest, I stopped keeping track after a while, but the ones I did write down included The Tiger’s Wife by Tea O’Breht, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, After the Flood by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to Oryx and Crake), Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2016, it would be Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. A novel by an Australian author, set in Iceland in 1829. A little slow moving at times, but very atmospheric. Lovely descriptions of weather and the landscape. There is a compelling mystery at the heart of the story that kept me up late. In many ways, Burial Rites feels simple – a very readable novel about a crime committed, about relationships and place. However, there is a lot left to the imagination, too. The powerlessness of individuals in the face of the law, the relationship between Iceland and Denmark, the impact of religion. This is a novel that cries out to be re-read.

When uni became too much I retreated to my hard drive, and watched Sleeping Sickness (2011, director Ulrich Kohler), Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong), Sound of My Voice (2011, Zal Batmanglij), Narcos (TV series, 2015-, created by Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro), Through the Forest (2005, Jean-Paul Civeyrac), Vinyan (2008, Fabrice Du Welz), The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Steven Soderbergh), They Might Be Giants (1971, Anthony Harvey), London to Brighton (2006, Paul Andrew Williams), Mingri Tianya (2003, Yu Lik-wai), West of Memphis (documentary, 2012, Amy J. Berg), Dark House (2014, Victor Salva), The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers), Hunger (1966, Henning Carlsen), Post Mortem (2010, Pablo Larrain), The State I Am In (2000, Christian Petzold), Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977, Richard Brooks), Ravanche (2008, Gotz Spielmann), Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), The Last of England (1988, Derek Jarman), Girls’ Night Out (1998, Im Sang-soo), Old Boy (2003, Park Chan-wook), Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) and Snowtown (2011, Justin Kurzel).

A number of films stood out for me this year (The Witch, Old Boy, Miss Bala, Vinyan, Sound of My Voice, Secret Sunshine, Snowtown). The film that had the biggest impact on me, however, was Blind Mountain (2007), directed by Li Yang. Set in China in the early 90s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Li does a good job of showcasing the pressures that result in such a horrific situation. This is the kind of film that could create conversation and potentially instigate a shift in thinking. Potentially. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

Now it’s December, and life has finally afforded me some good weather and free time. I’m using it to sit outside, look for platypuses, write, and generally comes to terms with where I am.

So far, so good.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year. Scraps & Fragments will be back in 2017 – see you then!

20160813_140957

Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide. Her most recent novel, The Good People, was published in 2016.

Li Yang is a Chinese director and writer. His first film – Blind Shaft – was released in 2003.

My boyfriend and I first moved to Phnom Penh in 2009. I had just turned 25. We flew into the country with no jobs, nowhere to live, and no connections. Six years later we found ourselves leaving an apartment thatimg_20160302_113803 had come to feel like home, and friends that had come to feel like family. I’ve stared at this screen for five minutes trying to think of a way to adequately express just how much the people I met in Cambodia mean to me. No single sentence is sufficient, so I’ll just say this – friends in Cambodia (you know who are you are!), you are some of the most genuinely wonderful people I have ever known. Meeting you was finding a place to fit – perfectly – and saying goodbye was leaving a part of myself behind.

Cambodia gave me so many incredible experiences. In Cambodia I learned how to dance; saw gibbons in the wild; was introduced to the mythology of Angkor; found my favourite island; learned how complicated it can be to “make a difference”; got my bike fixed; helped some of my best friends get married; lived with diabetes; got rained on; visited river dolphins and jungle elephants; went to Thailand; saw Bob Dylan play live in Vietnam; volunteered at the Kampot Writers Festival … and a hundred other things that would take a year to write down.

We moved to Cambodia because we wanted to travel and live somewhere different. We stayed so long because of the friends we made. And we left because – to put it simply, although it is always so much more complicated – we’d been away from family too long.

20160220_113657Originally, we’d planned a long, slow exit from Southeast Asia. Things didn’t turn out that way, thanks to the uncompromising inflexibility of Australian university scheduling. Six-months-left-in-Cambodia quickly became six weeks. In that small window of leaving I coordinated my last writing workshop; taught lessons on space, Canadian wolves, and Taylor Swift; watched Ponyo until way past everyone’s bedtime; ate pancakes with my favourite radioactive friend (and a baby goat); and – finally – drove to the airport with two of the world’s most beautiful people, and their incredible little girl (all of whom I miss every day).

In the last few weeks before I left – when everything was too-quick and too-much and completely surreal – I went to a meditation session at Wat Langka with a friend. We sat for an hour in silence, a whole Wat full of people12801438_10153989122340477_1756996893335274105_n with racing minds suddenly putting on the brakes. And just as the clock hit sixty minutes a thin cat wandered in, meowing. A furry, pink-tongued alarm clock. Time to go.

The mental turmoil of packing up and moving countries at short notice makes reading difficult. While I was leaving Cambodia I read exactly one book (When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris). Film-watching, on the other hand, lends itself to leaving. In the midst of lists and half-packed bags I watched L’Originne (2009, director Xavier Giannoli), Welcome to Me (2014, Shira Piven), Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallee), Wish You Were Here (2012, Kieran Darcy-Smith), Queen of Earth (2015, Alex Ross Perry), The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell), Mean Girls (2004, Mark Waters), The Jane Austen Book Club (2007, Robin Swicord), Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola), Bad Timing (1980, Nicolas Roeg), Murderous Maids (2000, Jean-Pierre Denis), Tamara Drewe (2010, Stephen Frears), The Old Garden (2006, Im Sang-soo), Oslo August 31 (2011, Joachim Trier), Le Orme (1975, Luigi Bazzoni), and Primer (2004, Shane Carruth). A strange, often disturbing, sometimes boring, always different mix of moments: a French con-man, an American theme park, a New Zealand herd of cows, a Korean uprising, a Norwegian heroin addict. Somehow lifted me off the ground, onto a plane, and back to Australia.

And though I’m no longer there, it is comforting to know that Cambodia is not so far away. We might have moved away, but we won’t forget where we’ve been.

The rowing boat passes by

The bank remains

12227002_1069951289704820_6014716642778760925_n

Photo by Yeng Chheangly

(from ‘Cambodian strolls and proverbs’, Isabelle Fournier-Nicolle & Anne Yvonne Guillou, 2009)

On my first ever trip to Canada I got off the plane in Vancouver – in a dopey, what-day-is-it Valium-haze – and was greeted by a tank of drifting jellyfish. I hadn’t even left the airport and already I knew I was going to like it here.20151216_111352

We flew to Canada from Cambodia last December. The country was a flurry of snow and Christmas lights, and family. In just over a month we ate the biggest piece of apple pie I’ve ever seen in a Vancouver diner, hiked through snow (in snow-shoes) in the Pacific Ranges, and browsed Munro’s Books in Victoria. And somehow – awake in the wee hours of the morning on jet lag and too much Tim Hortons – I managed to watch around 12 films/TV shows and read at least 10 books. Yeah. It was a pretty good Christmas.

Pemberton

20151220_104112A few hours’ drive from Vancouver is the small town of Pemberton – home to bears, the second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want To Believe), and a lot of snow. In Pemberton I woke up at midnight to see a snowplow clearing the street. In Pemberton I hiked to a glacial lake where a Whisky Jack bird landed on my hand. And in Pemberton I read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I bought this novel months before reading it, at the little bookshop in Kampot, along with a collection of Lahiri’s short stories. I found it hard to get into at first, but then I finished it quickly. Like many of Lahiri’s short stories, The Lowland is a novel that moves between20151218_115941 India and the United States. It spans generations of characters, and time is non-linear (in this sense it reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Unlike Roy’s novel, however, I found it hard to connect with characters in The Lowland – there are perhaps too many different perspectives, interspersed with a lot of politics. There aren’t many narrative surprises in The Lowland, but the writing is beautiful – wonderful use of metaphor, vivid descriptions of place, the smells of food, the heat. A strange book to read in the midst of a snow storm, but a good one.

Victoria

We spent Christmas in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. Victoria is a playground for squirrels, raccoons and deer (and sometimes, consequently, cougars). There seems to be beautiful, rocky shoreline in walking distance of almost everywhere – the perfect place to sit with a takeaway coffee and contemplate life (or spot seals and 20151221_113647bald eagles). In Victoria I was introduced to hockey, candied salmon, and drive-through Tim Hortons. I was also (re-)introduced to that most excellent Christmas tradition of endless amounts of reading (and film-watching) time.

In Victoria – mostly while on the couch with a heated blanket – I read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, The Gathering by Anne Enright, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. My Boxing Day book – a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s parents – was Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

This novel was like nothing I’ve read before. Nora Webster is a quiet, character-driven book. At first I was expecting events to thread themselves into a story. Instead, the novel explores all the mundane, everyday moments that help (and don’t help) Nora deal with the grief of losing her husband. It is an almost stream of consciousness style of writing, Virginia Woolf-esque, although the language is less flowery, the prose crisper and simpler. It is very well written. In the background is the larger story of Ireland and the ways in which it comes to terms with its own grief. Even though the plot is not ‘traditional’ there is a sense of resolution towards the end – a climax that is without fanfare but that is real and satisfying. There is something very gentle yet intensely beautiful about this novel. I finished it in just a few days.img_3405

In-between books I explored the (seemingly endless) contents of my hard drive, and watched Brand New Life (2009, director Ounie Lecomte), The Fall (2013-, TV series, created by Allan Cubitt), A Hanging Offense (2003, director Guillaume Nicloux), Claire Dolan (1998, director Lodge Kerrigan), Dogtooth (2009, director Yorgos Lanthimos), Innocence (2004, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic), Kill List (2011, director Ben Wheatley),
Margaret
(2011, director Kenneth Lonergan) and Nenette and Boni (1996, director Claire Denis). The film that has stayed with me the longest, however, was The Lobster (2015, director Yorgos Lanthimos).

Perhaps not quite as strange as Dogtooth, The Lobster is still wonderfully weird and completely compelling. The premise – a dystopian future where people without partners are corralled together in a hotel and forced to find true love or be transformed into an animal of their choice – is both imaginative fantasy and insightful social commentary. Visually it is beautiful and surreal – random animals walk by in the background, a flamingo here, a camel there. It sounds fantastic – the music in the first slow motion hunting scene is magical, and there is something strangely stilted about the way actors speak their dialogue that works really well. The Lobster is weird, thoughtful, shocking and lovely. The kind of film that makes me want to watch more films. Highly recommended.

Pitt Meadows

On the outskirts of Vancouver is Pitt Meadows – a suburb that feels more like a small rural town, home to berry farms, mountains, forests, red picture-book barns, and my boyfriend’s brother and his family. In Pitt Meadows we went for long walks, learned all there is to know about baby zombie alien lizards, and – unfortunately – had a run-in with 20160114_140817some black ice. Miraculously everyone was fine, but after a family trip to the emergency room we spent the rest of our visit indoors, where the kids watched Minions and I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

A family epic, over 500 pages long, Middlesex starts in Greece in the 1920s and ends in Berlin in the early 80s. Middlesex is the story of the passing down of a genetic trait that leads to the narrator, Calliope, (later Cal). A first person novel that is also omniscient in style – reporting the thoughts and actions of people the narrator couldn’t possibly know. I’m in awe of the expanse of this novel – of the amount of history and historical detail it encompasses. It did take a while to get into, but by about two-thirds of the way through – when the story finally reaches Cal – I was addicted. I liked the narrative voice, but at times I felt like passages were too wordy. The family history probably didn’t need to be quite so detailed, but at the same time I did appreciate the breadth and depth of this novel. Middlesex completely envelopes the reader for days. A wonderful, overwhelming read.

Vancouver

The highlight of our Vancouver visit was definitely The X-Files forest (a.k.a. the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve), but we did manage to see some other sights. Rabid 20160117_131927raccoons and beaver dams in Stanley Park (no actual beavers), Emily Carr paintings at
the art gallery, and some frighteningly large seagulls. We ate Nanaimo bars on Granville Island and about twelve different types of eggs Benedict in Kitsilano. I also raided my boyfriend’s sister’s bookshelf, and discovered a classic Canadian dystopian novel – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Told from the point of view of a narrator known as Snowman, Oryx and Crake tells the story of a destroyed Earth and a new species – Crake’s children. The novel skips between Snowman in the present – hunting for food in dilapidated shopping malls – and his memories of the past. I liked the world Atwood has conjured in this book – so vivid, recognisable enough to be plausible, different enough to be fascinating. Intriguing exploration of gene splicing and the creation of new species’, as well as consideration of the role of art and the influence of advertising. I wanted a bit more to happen at the end, but I did have to finish it quickly before getting on the ferry to head back to Victoria (and then to Cambodia a few days later). I’m not usually a fan of science-fiction/fantasy writing, but for some reason Margaret Atwood really draws me in.20151220_135805

We ended up staying longer in Canada than we had originally planned. For a number of reasons, but largely because it was so good to be with family. Our time in Canada was a catalyst, I think, for the making of decisions that eventually led us to leave Cambodia for
Australia. I’m at a point in my life when a Christmas spent on the couch with a pile of books is preferable to travel; when New Year’s Eve at home with family and Chinese takeaway is better than bar-hopping and drinking ’til sunrise. Canada came along at just the right time. And from here – in the heat of Australian December – I’m looking forward to our next rainy Vancouver adventure.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author born in London. She currently lives in New York.

Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer and essayist. Nora Webster is his eighth novel.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek film director and screenwriter. His next film – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – is due for release in 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer. He is perhaps best known for his novel The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film in 1999. Middlesex was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author. In addition to Oryx and Crake, her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.

The Last Reel portrays my belief in the overwhelming human need for stories and storytelling as part of the reconciliation process.

Sotho Kulikar, director, The Last Reel

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately – particularly Cambodian stories. In the lead up to the inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (which starts today) I’ve been busy putting together a panel of writers to talk about what it means to be a Cambodian storyteller in 2015. There are so many directions in which such a conversation could move – traditional versus modern forms of literature, publishing opportunities, translation – and I can’t wait to see what ideas come out of the discussion. But at the core of any conversation about art, I think, sits the (often unspoken) question – What is it for? Particularly in a place like Cambodia, a country that is still recovering from war, where basic survival (food, water, shelter) remains for many people a daily struggle. Why are you writing, painting, dancing – when there isn’t enough to eat?

But – slowly, perhaps, but surely – things are changing in Cambodia. People still work hard, but they are now also more able to find time for creativity. I am in awe of the young Cambodians I meet who run their own businesses, study at university, and still find time to write. Once our basic physical needs are met, we are able to move on to more abstract necessities. One of those necessities, as Sotho Kulikar points out, is reconciling with the past.

Cambodia suffered a period of violence so devastating it is almost impossible to comprehend. Many Cambodians find it difficult to talk about. The aftermath of war often brings with it a sense of meaninglessness, chaos, a loss of hope. How do we deal with this? How do we move on – without forgetting or repressing the past – to create new life, new hope? This, I believe, is why stories are so important. Stories allow us to give meaning to something that seems absolutely meaningless; they allow us to create new narratives that don’t hide the past but help us to understand it. And the very act of creation is hopeful in itself – it motivates, inspires, and makes us believe that things can be better. Such is the power of imagination.

With The Last Reel, director Sotho Kulikar and writer Ian Masters have created a film that brings together Cambodia’s past and present. Through Sophoun (Ma Rynet) we learn just how strongly the war is still felt forty years later. As Kulikar notes, ‘History has left its scars on her [Sophoun’s] parents’ generation in a way that continues to impact on the present.’ Sophoun feels her parents’ pain almost as if she has experienced it herself (a scene that places Sophoun back in time, moving through the spaces her parents moved through during the war, is particularly memorable). But Sophoun is also the key to healing – she is able to help her mother and father remember and grieve for the past, and show them that there is a future waiting to be created.

The Last Reel is important because of its subject matter and the way in which it uses story to both recognise and reconcile with the past. However, it’s also important to me on a more personal level; that is, as a foreigner living in Phnom Penh. This film allowed me insights into Khmer culture in a way I haven’t experienced since reading the translated collection of short stories ‘Just a Human Being’ (edited by Teri Shaffer Yamada). Watching The Last Reel I recognised so many places and customs that I see every day, but never really understand.

It should also be noted that The Last Reel is simply fantastic filmmaking. The music, the lighting, the wonderful locations (such as the old cinema/motorbike parking garage). There is a beautiful blend of past and present – flashbacks are done with great sophistication: my favourite is a scene where the cinema owner (played by Sok Sothun) remembers showing films for people sheltering in the theatre as the city was being bombed. The performances are incredible – Dy Savet is heartbreakingly subtle in her portrayal of Sothea, Sophoun’s mother. Likewise, Hun Sophy gives an amazing performance as a man haunted by the violence of his past. All of these characters are incredibly relatable, and sympathetic. They are all flawed, all human. History is so complicated – and that I think is where the hope comes from in this story. Bad actions do not necessarily make bad people. Lives can be turned around.

There is great sadness in this film, but there is also hope. And there should be both. Crying for the past shows our respect for it, for the people that suffered, for all the culture that was lost. Looking to the future gives us strength. Stories allow us this balance.

From the mid-1960s to the 1970s Phnom Penh was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia.’ As Ian Masters notes, it was ‘the golden age of Khmer cinema.’ However, of the more than 300 films that were produced at that time, only around 30 have survived. There are sadly similar stories about other forms of Cambodian art – about a year ago, for example, I met a writer who had lost almost all of her poems during the war.

I watched The Last Reel at Aeon mall, and stepping out of the cinema – still dazed and a bit teary – into the glare and noise of Dairy Queen and Daiso, my heart sank slightly at the thought of how far Phnom Penh now seems to be straying from the cultural city it once was. I find myself easily disheartened by the constant construction of luxury apartment buildings, the new Burger Kings, KFCs and coffee chains. Those are the things we see on the surface – the big, the bright, the glaring. But then I remember one of the main reasons I love Phnom Penh, and why I have stayed so long. And it is the sense of culture, and tradition, and beauty that sits between the hotels and the banks. It is Java Cafe, with its dedication to promoting Cambodian arts and literature; it is the Nou Hach literary journal; it is open mic nights and galleries around the city, and films like The Last Reel (which I really hope more people – both Cambodians and foreigners – will have the chance to see!)

It is also why I’m feeling so optimistic about the writers festival this weekend. The Khmer writers at KWRF are harnessing their imaginations to create something new. It’s an exciting time for film and literature in Cambodia – a time for remembering and appreciating the past, but also for creating the future.

The Last Reel is Sotho Kulikar’s directorial debut. It was filmed in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang (Cambodia) in 2013. For more information go to their website www.thelastreel.info.

The Kampot Writers and Readers Festival begins today (Thursday 5th November 2015) and runs until Monday 9th. The program is available here. The panel I’m coordinating (‘Being a Cambodian Writer in 2015’) is happening on Sunday 8th, from 12-2pm at The Columns in Kampot town.

This review contains spoilers.

Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?

I think I first saw a trailer for this film back in January, and I had been looking forward to it ever since. (Oddly enough, I ended up seeing Inside Out with my parents, in the cinema I used to go to as a kid.) Right from that initial teaser I was struck by the uniqueness of Inside Out’s premise: a film set primarily inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, with personified emotions as its central characters. Not so strange, perhaps, if Inside Out were a Wachowski flick, but this is Pixar; an animated, fun-for-the-whole-family affair. And it is undoubtedly the best Pixar film since Up in 2009 – Inside Out and Up share the same sweet sadness, the same depth, the same thoughtfulness (and, unsurprisingly, the same director/co-writer, Pete Docter). In fact, I will even go as far as to say (my nostalgic love of Fern Gully and The Little Mermaid aside) that Inside Out is the best animated film I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The idea behind Inside Out may be a great one, but it is also incredibly complex. Apparently it took Pixar’s team of writers a long time to decide just how to build a story around a young girl’s thought processes. They wrote numerous drafts, and consulted psychologists. The wait, and the hard work, certainly paid off. While Inside Out focuses primarily on the inside of Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) mind, it does a good job of showing how external events (like a family move across the country) can influence internal ones. Our inside and outside worlds are inextricably connected, but what Inside Out does so well is indicate just how important our inner (mental) wellbeing is, and how easily the balance can be upset. The climax of Riley’s outside journey comes when she decides to run away – we see her pack a bag, walk up a street, get on a bus. But on the inside things are much more chaotic. Inside we see Riley losing her sense of self (depicted as collapsing islands); all the things that have connected Riley to her family and her external world.

Inside Out does so many things so well: story structure, animation, voice acting (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are perfect as Joy and Sadness; Richard Kind also deserves a mention for his portrayal of Riley’s doomed imaginary friend Bing Bong). It’s a little complex for younger kids – there were a few restless five-year-olds present during my cinema experience – but for anyone over the age of about eight Inside Out is right on the mark. Part of me wanted to see more scenes of the inner-emotions of other characters (like Riley’s parents), but I also think this would have made the film unnecessarily complicated.

The thing I love most about Inside Out is the way it presents the landscape of the brain. Imagination is a theme park, the train of thought travels everywhere, the subconscious is a dark cave best avoided. The idea of little creatures working in the brain’s memory throwing up annoying advertising jingles every now and then is hilarious; the way core memories are often tainted by sadness so that they become nostalgic and bittersweet is beautiful. Inside Out is a film about emotions, and it had me so emotional. Which only helps to drive home the central theme – that sadness is necessary, and important. In order to be really healthy, inside and out, we need to be sad sometimes. I would love to see more family-orientated films like this that tackle complex and relevant themes (rather than the same-old ‘hard-work-pays-off’ type ideas that are easy to write but fairly dull and uninspiring to watch).

So – go and see this film. Take your kids. Or, if you don’t have kids, take your parents. And if you cry a little bit that’s okay. It’s just your brain trying to keep things balanced.

Released in 2015, Inside Out is rated PG. It is Pixar’s 15th film.