Double Review: Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze

Renowned painter Del Kathryn Barton made her directorial debut at this year's 69th Sydney Film Festival with Blaze, a coming of age tale at once visually sumptuous and unsparing in its depiction of the young protagonist's vulnerability and fury. H.R. Hyatt-Johnston and Erin McFadyen saw the film at Sydney's State Theatre.

Feeling and “Feeling” on Film 

Erin McFadyen

Before the premiere screening of Blaze at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Del Kathryn Barton stood on the stage of the State Theatre and offered a framework to interpretation: that this was, amongst other things, a film about the generative power of female rage. The audience applauded; some (including me) cheered.

Rage has a certain proximity to shock – to outrage, perhaps – in the way that it strikes our nervous systems, running freezer fluid through the veins of the person possessed by it. It can feel like some external force taking the wheel from the body, which then takes the wheel from the mind, an experience at once of total self-alienation and a new, alarming self-possession. Blaze begins with series of luscious shots across Barton’s five-panel painting sing blood wings sing, 2017, before launching into the sequence of shocks which will determine the logic of the film as being precisely one of rage: one of embodied thinking and feeling, of comradeship (especially, but not only, between women), and of a radical softness which is absolutely commensurable with strength. 

To say this is also to offer a word of warning to those considering watching Blaze: the scene of sexual assault and murder on which the film is grounded holds nothing back – not even the urine running down the leg of its witness, the twelve-year-old girl whom the film is named after, played with sensitivity by Julia Savage. (Some might say that this sensitivity is “beyond her years,” yet it is precisely the wisdom of young women that is shown to be beyond a society which would constrain and manipulate them, in this film). From the film’s outset, material details like this stream of urine, rustling on a carpet of fallen leaves in a Paddington alleyway, are central to its affective and visual operation – as befits the logic of rage, perfectly. 

Though the film is pitched at a high emotional intensity for most of its run, silent moments of material richness are some of its most subtly moving. In many of the scenes set within her bedroom, Blaze is accompanied by a dragon, crafted as a larger-than-life puppet in a visual vocabulary instantly recognisable as Barton’s own. While court proceedings stutter on, her relationship with her father (Simon Baker) fogs over, and the world becomes by and by less legible for Blaze, it is through her relationship with the dragon that it also becomes more sensible. Shots of her hand running across the embroidered, sequinned, and beautifully lumpen fabric of the dragon pique us because they allow us to revel for a moment in a world of joy, exuberance, and physical pleasure, alongside a protagonist who is still only coming to understand the power and the danger of these things. 

In this sense, Barton and her team also make an astute case for the ongoing relevance of “low-tech” effects in cinema. Their work reminds us of the materiality of film as a medium and film production as a practice – a condition which is often obscured both by its increasingly digital production and delivery (though these, too, are deeply material modes) and the dominance of VFX in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other products of Hollywood conglomerates. Puppetry, intricate costuming and sets, and stop-motion animation with a chorus of porcelain figurines allow the imaginative and emotional experience of the protagonist an appropriate sense of “actuality.”

Barton also uses these tactics, I think, to engage with a history of feminist artmaking which critically reappraises domestic and interior space. One set in particular – a resplendent interior where Blaze meets Hannah (Yael Stone), the victim of the crime she witnesses – reminds me in formal senses of Faith Wilding’s Womb Room, part of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Womanhouse, 1972. At the same time, it also represents a departure from this diagnostic lineage of artmaking, imagining instead a kind of feminist utopia: one where subjugation and pain (and, indeed, rage) become the foundations for a different future.

Elsewhere, out in the “real world,” Blaze goes to school and to martial arts practice, drifting through these scenes of ordinary life but rarely really touching them. She sits on the grass at school with a friend, sharing soft disclosures of the traumas they’ve been witness to. Viewers who wore school skirts will be just about able to feel the cold freshness of the grass on their knees; all viewers will be able to feel the expanse of space between these characters shift to accomodate new and weighty shared knowledge. Despite moments of connection and kinship like this scene on the footy oval, the space between people is rarely a functional container for fury, and this is especially the case with the space between Blaze and her father, who tries earnestly to find a way of supporting a daughter he struggles to reach. 

It was this relationship between Blaze and her father which sparked the most interesting question when Barton was joined by the cast and her co-writer, Huna Amweero, for a Q&A after the screening. A viewer asked Barton and the team what they wanted parents of young girls, possibly dealing with similar situations, to know. The responses were heartening, but they weren’t answers to the question. Blaze does not offer packageable “answers” to the injustices, difficulties, and states of being in the world that it pictures (which is a great strength). More powerfully, it offers to viewers a way of imagining a response to this bluntness of the world – through anger, yes, but also through kinship, through pleasure, and through play – and of imagining this world back into legibility.  

A Raging Coming of Age

H.R. Hyatt-Johnston

Archibald Prize winner Del Kathryn Barton ventures beyond the artist’s studio to direct her first full-length film that takes us into the real and imaginary worlds of twelve-year-old Blaze in a harrowing coming of age tale. 

I really wished I had not heard Sydney artist turned filmmaker Del Kathryn Barton’s introduction to her first full-length feature film, Blaze, at this year’s 69th Sydney Film Festival. The film was in part informed by her own experience of violence. Her preamble shepherded me in an overtly prescriptive way into how I should view the film. 

Her introduction made me recall US art critic Jed Perl’s words in Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts: “The idea of the work of art as an imaginative achievement to which the audience freely responds is now too often replaced by the assumption that a work of art should promote a particular idea or ideology, or perform some clearly defined civic or community service.” 

The seething rage in the film was palpable, as was the endless conflict that arises in trying to make sense of the senseless. It also did not help that it was screened at the State Theatre alongside other films such as Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Close, 2022, which was a shattering coming-of-age drama, and the Gaelic-language film by Colm Bairéad, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), 2022, produced with partner Cleona Ní Chrualaoí. Both films used restraint and nuanced storytelling to illustrate the impact of the loss of innocence. 

In Barton’s film, Julia Savage is emotionally compelling as the twelve-year-old Blaze who witnesses a violent crime and is then torn between debilitating powerlessness and the desire for retribution and justice. The opening scene is the rape and murder of a woman. I assume this was intended to create the premise for the film, but it felt gratuitous. An understated opening scene would have been more provocative, with Blaze returning home, traumatised, leaving her bewildered single parent father, along with the audience, trying to uncover what caused his daughter’s distress. Did we really need another fumbling, albeit well-meaning, male as the father? The cast of adult characters overall came across as inadequate, unenlightened, and ineffectual. 

The film is loaded with symbolism, sometimes dazzlingly wondrous with visions made up of a maelstrom of colours, but then all too often heavy-handed. Like much of the imagery in the film, Blaze’s menarche amid various moon references felt clichéd and predictable. The theme of birth or renewal occurs throughout the film. One scene has Blaze’s father trying to drag her out of her bed from between dark pink, satin bedsheets that read like labia minora. 

The more realistic scenes along with the dialogue in the film were jarring and sounded like they were straight out of a British crime procedural, and just in case we did not get the message, included examples of more violence against women. Some of the scenes were confusing. As a witness to the crime, why did Blaze have her DNA taken, particularly when it looked like a vaginal swab? Why was she in court with the accused, when children give evidence by video depositions? 

Recurring eyes feature throughout the film, either emerging from a cicada’s discarded exoskeleton, covering Blaze’s face, or peering from a dragon’s head. The French philosopher Henri Bergson said that “the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend,” but in this case the innocent witness does not have the skills or maturity to understand what she has seen.

It is Blaze’s imagination and her internal universe that offer more viable solutions to what is understandably an overwhelming world. One of her pathfinders arrives in the form of the aforementioned reptile: a rainbow dragon, but it’s more Puff the Magic Dragon rather than Daenerys Targaryen’s Drogon from Game of Thrones. Blaze is aware enough to know that she needs the creature’s support and questions the pharmaceutical interventions being offered with “Will the medicine kill the dragon?” Towards the end of the film, the dragon transforms; no longer necessary for Blaze’s survival, it drains of colour and morphs into what looks like the sculpture Nature Study, 1984, by the French-US artist Louise Bourgeois. 

Perhaps the high point of the film was the animation and puppetry, which were evocative and far more articulate in creating visual suggestions and questions than most of the screenwriting. I was haunted by the animated images of the doll climbing a ladder from Blaze’s throat in order to collect the medicinal capsule from her mouth. Then there were the oversized, useless hands, the animated kitschy collectibles, and the ladder to the moon, with Blaze dancing silhouetted against it whilst removing her clothes. I kept thinking of the command “Moon prism power, make up” spoken by the lead character in the girl-power manga series Sailor Moon to banish evil.

I am sure I heard “healing isn’t linear” in the film. It was a line that implied so much. It did not need to be explained further. One can only hope that this film has helped Barton move on from her personal trauma that clearly informs the story. You cannot change the past, but you can change the way you think about it. The imagination can be a powerful tool in healing trauma. Perhaps the main failing of this film is that the audience was not allowed to use more of their own imagination. However, I am certainly interested in seeing Barton’s next filmic foray and hope by then she has more faith in her visual storytelling skills.  

These reviews were originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022.
Images courtesy the artist, ABCG Film, Melbourne, Causeway Films, Sydney, and Motto Publicity, Sydney.

Del Kathryn Barton
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