Days And Nights In Bundaberg: Jaydon Martin’s Docu-Fiction Journey Leaves Outsiders Adrift
Falling under an atmospheric shadow of loss and regret, Flathead, the directorial debut from Jaydon Martin, offers a pure vibes journey through Australia’s Bundaberg community. This docu-fiction hybrid leans experimental as it eschews a traditional narrative in pursuit of uncovering “ecstatic truths” about its subjects and their working class milieu. However, its hyperfocus on regional specificity with little background information may make this a film that resonates more deeply with locals than with those abroad.
Seventy-seven year old actor and gadabout Cass Cumerford serves as the film’s wandering spirit. Through a mix of what appears to be both scripted and unscripted encounters, Cumerford shares his struggles with addiction, the tragic death of his son, and his battle with an unspecified illness. Winding his way through bars and motels, Cass appears to be seeking some kind of earthly redemption for his past sins before he meets whatever awaits him in the afterlife. “I should’ve been a lot better,” he reflects, opening himself up to the opportunity of being born again, while also exploring more esoteric healing methods offered by rural hippies.
Vast sunbaked landscapes, recreational gunfire, bonfires, welcoming pubs, worn out apartments, and evangelical Christian fervor are all captured with a striking eye by cinematographer Brodie Pool. The visual language of Flathead is perhaps more important than the people in the frame in reaching what Martin aims to uncover, but the format arguably trips him up. The film wants to achieve an unfiltered portrait of the region that aspires toward a certain kind of transcendence, but Martin’s obvious guiding hands do the opposite. The manufactured scenarios risk presenting its people as one-dimensional clichés of those living outside Australia’s metropolitan centers, instead of citizens with equally complex and varied lives.
The film’s decided lack of context further reduces rather than enriches those who find themselves in front of the camera. The issue is underscored when Andrew Wong, the film’s supporting player, enters the film. Described in the Flathead press notes as a “reality TV personality” and “local legend,” that doesn’t come through during his time on screen. When his father passes away and the family chip shop, Busy Bee, comes under new ownership, you would need to do a Google search to find out there was significant seventy-plus year legacy behind the chipper. As Andrew mourns the loss of his father and begins to move on, there is no discussion about what it means for him and the time he spent behind the counter slinging deep fried favorites. However, even from the start, there is a sense that the viewer will need to meet Flathead more than half way. The film opens with text noting that labor shortages in Australia’s regional agricultural sector have led to an increase in the cost of living in the country’s cities. It’s an interesting factoid, but it quickly becomes apparent this is not the focus of the picture, but merely texture for what we’re about to see, as the subject isn’t brought up again.
Martin sets himself up with an ambitious endeavor for a first time feature, but unfortunately, it’s just out of his reach. Utilizing abstraction to achieve universal sensations is almost like pulling off a magic trick — it looks easy when done well, but the seams split and show when it doesn’t come off just right. While Cass and Andrew’s twin paths ring with a relatable authenticity, Bundaberg feels like it could be any small town anywhere, rather than a singular place where two unique souls like theirs could meet.
Reviewed on January 28th / International Film Festival Rotterdam – Tiger competition section. 89 mins.