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Monday, 10 November 2014

Unchained (2013)

Director: Andrew & Elise Gooi
Stars: Nicole Rowe, Derek Solorsano, Daniel Westfall, Calion Maston and John Rich
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
When I reviewed the delightfully meditative Pensil from last year's Phoenix Film Festival, I took a look at the other work available online from Gooi Films. Most of their product is commercial in nature and that's all that's currently visible in the portfolio on their website or their YouTube channel. However, they have made narrative films, because I saw some of them at that point in time, especially what could easily be regarded as a thematic trilogy of short films about much darker, if just as thoroughly personal, subjects: Bittersweet, Brother and Unchained. I have no idea if they were aimed at being a series or in what order they were made, but they have much in common, taking us into key moments within tough experiences like suicide, abuse and death. This one was specifically made for the Unchained movement to help raise awareness of domestic sex trafficking. It has domestic abuse shift to prostitution in a vicious cycle where ways out are often also ways back in. Fleeting escape clearly can't be taken for granted.

Unchained is phrased like a public service announcement, which makes it all the more surprising when it doesn't end with statistics. There's power in the way that it's shot handheld, appropriately shaky but not so much that it inspires the motion sickness of found footage movies. There's even more in the fact that we never hear a single line of dialogue, everything unfolding silently to an accompanying score that's at once bubbly and sad. The piece only runs for three minutes of visual footage but that's plenty of time for Andrew and Elise Gooi to distil down the experiences of an unnamed young lady, who we first see hiding in her bathroom with a notable bruise on her arm, into the pivotal moments as she finds her freedom but eventually finds herself right back where she started, merely in a different house, with a different bruise and a different man behind both. It's a well known cycle, from domestic abuse to prostitution, and there is no solution to the problem offered here, just a retelling of how easy it is for that cycle to run.

Normally, this would be a film anchored to the performance of the lead actress, who is Nicole Rowe, and she certainly does a fine job. However, the approach taken to strip her of a voice and so anonymise her to a larger degree renders the technical side just as important as her acting. The handheld approach to the camerawork was surely taken to give the piece more vitality, but it actually makes it creepier too, as it reminds us that there's a camera in play and someone behind it, who is doing nothing to stop what we see. Given that the camera provides our perspective, it makes us a little uncomfortable and again, that's surely something that the Goois were aiming for. How the frame of reference changes is notable too, as it begins up close and personal but expands as this young lady runs away from home. Suddenly, she's just a small part of a big world, until a young man sits with her at a bus stop and gives her food and it closes back in. It's good to see this on the big screen, but I wonder why it's disassociated on the little one.

Unchained can be viewed for free on Vimeo, which location includes a poem by Rachel Irby to accompany the film. I should also link to the website of the Unchained movement.

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