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.
There's a reason that inner worlds are seldom captured through the medium of film. But in acclaimed Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton's 101-minute feature film debut, 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, 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 trigger warning, but it certainly should. It starts off with a horrible, graphic, extended scene portraying the violent sexual assault and murder of Hannah (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, it is undeniably tough to watch. 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 on the verge of tears. Blaze isn't an easy film to watch — but it's a startling indictment of the criminal system and its failure to convict perpetrators of gendered violence. In Australia, where Blaze was filmed, the statistics are shocking: each week, one woman is killed by a current or former partner. In one scene, we see how Blaze is institutionalised while the rapist Jake (played by Josh Lawson) remains free. Bolstered by a powerful soundtrack, gripping visuals and a haunting storyline, Blaze is a must-watch if you have it in you.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.