ROR AT MIFF
Words - Jerram Wurlod. Photos - Justin Leijon
I have to admit going into this film I was quite sceptical. After years of being bombarded by Aussie hip hop songs revolving around the cliché of following your dreams, defying the odds and making it to the top, I just wasn’t sure this film would be for me.
Once upon a time I gave some credit to the rise of hip hop in Australia if only for the fact that they were having a crack at something that had its beginnings in African American culture but making it their own. But to be honest these days I’m pretty over it. The premise of a young up and coming hip hop artist from Fitzroy sounded just like the lyrics to another mundane, crudely self-referential Aussie hip hop song on Triple J.
However, thanks to the clear and uncontrived honesty that is young Ror Akot I was pleasantly surprised by what is quite genuinely a beautiful story. Director Natalie Cunningham is to be congratulated not only for being selected at MIFF but also for being able to win over a naysayer such as myself.
Ror is the second short documentary from Cunningham to make it to MIFF in successive years. Both Ror and her previous documentary (You Know What, I Love You, MIFF 2013) were projects completed as part of her film course at VCA. With her current track record its clear Cunningham has a talent for documenting interesting stories.
After meeting her to chat about Ror and other projects it’s easy to see why. Whereas You Know What, I Love You centred around her grandmother she had to seek out Ror after hearing about him through a youth music program run by the Yarra council in Fitzroy. Having travelled for many years with a view to one day find and document stories abroad, Cunningham has returned home to find that in fact there is a plethora of great stories to tell right here in Melbourne. She goes further to suggest that in order for a city such as Melbourne to develop and mature as a dynamically cultural place then we are obliged to tell these stories. It’s with this mantra in mind that Ror has been filmed.
The film is the story of Ror Akot a South Sudanese born year 12 student hell bent on succeeding as a hip hop MC. It also touches on his home of Fitzroy and those in the local community who are helping and cheering Ror on as he forges ahead on his journey. For the first time Cunningham has done her own cinematography; “they really push directing at uni, but every time I picked up the camera I thought, I want to control this part too”.
In doing so she has been able to articulately capture Fitzroy and Melbourne in general. Whether it’s Ror’s home, a tram or his school the unobtrusive shots combine to tell a story that feels authentic. Spending a lot of time behind the camera also helped Cunningham with the editing process; “that helped me find the pace of the film”. That and of course Ror’s music which naturally runs through much of film.
Cunningham spent around 4 months on and off with Ror just getting to know him, some of his family and his general day to day life. During this time Ror “really let me in and let me get to know him” says Cunningham, and it shows. It was interesting to note that during some of these early stages Cunningham was able to do some test shoots in preparation for a more intensive and ultimately controlled shooting period. However, nearly half of the footage in the final edit comes from these initial test shots.
It’s a testament to Cunningham’s instincts as a documentary film maker that she has chosen to do this. It would be easy for a film maker at her level to stick with the controlled shots which may have been more technically sound but no doubt would have made for a lesser film. Credit should also go to Ror of course for being so open and upfront during the process.
Sure there are some clichéd remarks and an occasional sense of having seen it all before but because it’s so genuinely real and honest this doesn’t detract from the experience. If there was any hint of arrogance or ego, Ror’s story would have quickly fallen flat and perhaps felt like another music industry PR stunt to be bandied around internet video channels.
Nothing feels contrived and Cunningham neatly and succinctly presents us with a young artist, who is open and humble about his aspiration which makes for a truly interesting story.
Ror is screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday, 9 August at 8:45pm and Tuesday, 12 August at 6:30pm ahead of the film Time is Illmatic. Check the MIFF website to buy tickets.