Magazine article Screen International

'Winter at Westbeth': Sydney Film Festival Review

Magazine article Screen International

'Winter at Westbeth': Sydney Film Festival Review

Article excerpt

Dir/scr. Rohan Spong. Australia, 2015, 87 mins.

Over the past decade, both Bill Cunningham New York and Iris have presented moving, amusing portraits of long, creative lives well lived, proving as enjoyable and endearing as they are insightful and informative - and as enthusiastic about their elderly subjects, too. The small-in-scale, big-in-emotion documentary Winter at Westbeth follows jubilantly in their footsteps.

Rather than concentrating on one specific figure, Australian director and cinematographer Rohan Spong turns his lens to three, as well as the building in Manhattan's Far West Village that they inhabit. Indeed, the tangential follow-up to his 2011 documentary All The Way Through Evening - which focused on annual concerts honouring composers lost to HIV staged by pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe, who then introduced him to one of Winter at Westbeth's key players - explores the intricacies of a place most filmmakers can only dream of finding.

After premiering at the Sydney Film Festival, Spong's fourth full-length film is set for a local theatrical release later in the year; however its New York setting, joyous contemplation of pursuing creativity at any age, and lively real-life characters should help the poignant documentary attract broader international interest.

"Am I being filmed in colour?" asks Isla Gilbert early in the film as she peers at the screen from behind green-tinted sunglasses; for the 81-year-old poet and her fellow Westbeth Artists Housing residents, there is no other option. When 95-year-old dancer turned filmmaker Edith Stephen makes her first appearance, she's sporting a shock of orange hair, a slathering of black eyeliner and ample green eyeshadow, which she subsequently explains in an impromptu makeup lesson. While more muted in behaviour than his neighbours, fellow dancer Dudley Williams still follows suit, donning a bright red shirt for his initial introduction.

It is hardly surprising, then, when Stephen declares that "you can tell a lot about your neighbours by looking at their doors" as she reflects upon more than four decades spent living in Westbeth. Ostensibly led by Gilbert, the trio's talking-head chats and voiceover narration furnish details of the structure's 1970 transformation from Bell Telephone Company offices to eclectic artistic experiment, though the true spirit of the thriving 385-apartment complex and its multifaceted populace spring not from the external marks they leave on building, but from their personal stories. …

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