London can proudly boast of its preeminent position among the great multicultural cities of the world. The world comes to Londoners and, particularly during the London Film Festival, it comes to them in the form of films that transport them to places they may never visit and introduces them to cultures even they may never encounter. That enriching opportunity to travel the world through cinema broadens our horizons and deepens our understanding of the lives of others. It is one of the reasons why an adventurous, pick and mix approach to the festival always pays dividends. It never fails to yield delightful surprises. Nick Brandestini's award-winning documentary Darwin is one such surprise.
The Swiss director's lyrical, moving film is set in the barren but beautiful part of California's Mojave Desert that the early pioneers named Death Valley. Darwin itself, once a violent and licentious mining town, is now home to an isolated community of non-conformist misfits who have either withdrawn from society or retired hurt. These are stubbornly independent folk who live life by their own rules, having finally found a place to settle, in some cases even companionship and inner peace. Brandestini's respect for those he interviews, and the trust they have in him, are equally evident in the frank, no-holes-barred interviews that gradually build up a compelling, compassionate picture of this ramshackle town of 35 souls.
He neatly sidesteps judgemental cliché to paint a poetic portrait of people we grow increasingly fond of as the film unfolds. At times we laugh at their eccentricities, at times we shake our heads at their wilder flights of fancy, but their vivacity wins us over. They are at the heart of the film's success. Which is not to say that Michael Brooks' restrained soundtrack and Brandestini's sumptuous cinematography don't make a vital contribution to the whole. The elegiac electric guitar riffs that punctuate the film work wonderfully well to set a wistful, melancholic tone, while the aerial footage of Darwin brilliantly emphasises its isolation and that of its inhabitants.
Darwin focuses on three endearing couples: salty ex-miner Monty and his softly spoken wife, Nancy; gentle ex-convict Hank, and his feisty partner, Connie; and their transgendered ‘son', Ryal, and his partner, Penny. The film anchors itself in these loving central relationships while charting the storm-tossed lives of residents for whom the town appeared as a welcoming haven. Given that most of those we meet in the film washed up in Darwin having been battered by life, the town's remoteness and comparative tranquility must have helped heal raw wounds. At the same time, we can't help but think of the unsettling affect the vast, eerie emptiness of the local landscape might have on unsteady minds and wonder at the impact of the sandstorms that regularly ravage the town. Although many of the homes look built to last (Monty and Nancy's place looks like a comfy suburban dwelling, but then they've been there for 50-odd years), many more look no more capable of standing firm before nature's wrath than some of the residents.
A more balanced treatment might have shown us Darwin being buffeted by wild winds and violent storms but Brandestini, a one-man crew, chose to shoot exclusively in the trembling heat of clear days. He might have made more, too, of the bickering and belligerence, fights and fires caused by those who brought their baggage and often their drugs with them. His approach, though, is to let these free spirits tell their own stories and they, understandably, prefer to emphasise their pride in the place. Be it ever so humble, it is home. For all its problems, this is a community bound together by live-and-let-live tolerance and intolerance of bigotry. Hank says of his neighbours: “They accept you for what you are today, not for what you were,” which is just as well, because many have checkered, painful pasts that they are still struggling to come to terms with.
Keen to remind the wider world that theirs is a town with a long history, and eager to dispel the prejudice against them, the residents organise regular open days, to which few venture from the safe, ‘civilised' world beyond. Outside their open days, though, the Darwinians prefer to keep that world, even one another, at a distance. When Brandestini screened the finished film in Darwin, those present were surprised to learn things about neighbours of whom they knew next to nothing. They have erected a “No Services Ahead” sign in order to discourage casual visitors. The police, for their part, are certainly more than happy to leave the residents, many of whom are heavily armed, to their own devices.
Darwin, then, is no hippy utopia, but aspects of the town's life resemble failed experiments in commune living and, to its inhabitants, it, too, represents an embattled final refuge from an insane world. Much of the film's melancholic atmosphere arises from an abiding sense of the defeat of the dreams of the ‘60's, Although Brandestini acknowledges a debt to Devil's Playground, Lucy Walker's film about an Amish community; and although it is reminiscent of the observational documentaries of the Maysles Brothers and Errol Morris: the film made me think more often of Woodstock and The Beverly Hillbillies. The residents of Darwin seem caught between two myths, that of the Hippy dream and that of the Wild West . Many Darwinians carry within themselves residual traces of those myths, indeed, in some ways, they represent the best aspects of both; their creativity and search for alternatives speak of the former, their battle-hardened resilience of the latter.
The three couples at the heart of the film speak of their lives and their town with humour and candour, as do their neighbours; who include a hirsute anarchist, a boogie-woogie pianist, a French bon viveur, a sculptor, a survivalist, and a couple of writers. The film's most eloquent voice, though, belongs to Susan, the town's Postmaster, a sagacious and wonderfully witty woman who, despite her hippy idealism, can, nonetheless crack heads together at rare town meetings when push comes to shove, as it often does. Susan is the only one in Darwin who has a job; better say she's the only one in the film who had a job, as the post office has, sadly, been earmarked for closure since the film was completed.
The Darwinians continue to cling tenaciously to their marginal, make-do-and-mend existence but one fears for their bastion and retreat. The town's future is threatened by an erratic water supply and is at the mercy of the nearby Naval base, which practises warfare in a top secret bombing range from which the water flows. If we worry for the town's survival, we also worry for the residents' zealously guarded privacy, for, if this beautiful film takes off, and it ought to, they might find themselves besieged by well-wishers and their open days could become very lively affairs.