Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and domestic abuse in a way that may be distressing to some readers. This review contains mild spoilers.
In the realm of cinema, the exploration of inner worlds is a rarity, often eluding capture. But in acclaimed Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton's 101-minute feature film debut Blaze, co-written by Huna Amweero, the viewer is subjected to an emotional visual punch showcasing a surreal literal and internal life that never relents. Barton's vision, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and showed at the Sydney Film Festival this weekend, transcends the aesthetic, effortlessly traversing imagination, emotion, and sensory experience — and takes the viewer along on the journey.
Blaze, while genre-defying, can be classified as a coming-of-age story. It features Blaze (played by immensely talented newcomer Julia Savage) as a 12-year-old girl who witnesses a violent sexual assault on her way home from school. She struggles with the inability to express the magnitude of what she has experienced, and the structures in place to support her (her father, the court system and therapy) consistently fail her.
Unable to meaningfully understand and articulate what she has witnessed, she processes her feelings through her imaginary friend Zephyr ("Zepphie"), a gender-hybrid (a deliberate choice, according to Barton) dragon, as well as a host of anthropomorphic characters, including a litany of vintage dolls, some of which belonged to the artist's mother. The resulting visuals are a visually arresting dichotomy of the horrific and the beautiful — a "safe, fertile place where you have to look at darkness," according to Barton.
The film doesn't come with a formal trigger warning, but it certainly should. It thrusts viewers into an opening scene of excruciating intensity, depicting a graphic and prolonged sequence portraying the violent sexual assault and murder of Hannah, played by Yael Stone. In a talk held after the movie's premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, Barton said it was important that the rape felt authentic, but for audiences, the experience is undeniably distressing. After witnessing the scene, Blaze is overcome with guilt and horror, which as a bystander, she is forced to relive by the court system. Between having her testimony questioned and invalidated, a cold court-commissioned psychiatrist who never manages to connect with her and a well-meaning but distant father (played by Simon Baker), the pre-teen is forced to contend with the powerlessness of both victim and witness.
As a viewer, I spent the entire length of the film teetering on the verge of tears. Blaze is not an easy watch; it serves as a searing indictment of a criminal justice system that often fails to convict perpetrators of gendered violence. In Australia, where Blaze was filmed, the statistics paint a grim picture: every week, one woman is killed by a current or former partner. The film unflinchingly showcases the institutionalisation of Blaze while the rapist, Jake, played by Josh Lawson, remains free. Bolstered by a powerful soundtrack, gripping visuals and a haunting storyline, Blaze is essential viewing, if you have it in you.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.
Blaze is showing in Australian theatres from 25 August 2022.