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By Joshua Smith

AFTRS Short The White Tree (1998)
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: June 16, 1998

Main Crew: prod, Cheryl Wood; dir, Paolo Bassi; writ, Paolo Bassi; dop, Simon Higgins; ed, Maria Rita Barbasallo; mus, Oonagh Sherrard; prod d, Alessandra Englaro; sound, Sion Tammes.

This week, I was fortunate enough to be treated to a screening of a selection of AFTRS film school graduates' short films. The AFTRS is regarded as Australia's premiere film school. It was established as a government initiative during the Australian cinematic renaissance of the late 1970s, and since then has grown to become a major force in the short film festival circuit. Past graduates of the school include Jane Campion and Rolf de Heer.

This year's films reflected a sense of maturity and artistic vision comparable to some of the school's most successful shorts. Especially worthy of note are the computer-generated short Serving Suggestion and the masterful homage to pop-art, The Zipper, as well as the moving drama The WHite Tree, which I have reviewed below.

Written and directed by AFTRS student Paolo Bassi, The White Tree, like Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, traces the tragic life of a man who has become so disjointed from life that he can't function properly in the Real World. His frivolous attempts to relate to people can only, at first, be replicated through art.

The lead character is a morbid mortician who labours monotonously in a claustrophobic funeral parlour. His loneliness is unexplained - perhaps the result of the death of a loved one, as indicated by the character's attitudes towards treating the deceased with respect. The character's angst-ridden relationship with his adolescent apprentice is indicative of his inability to relate interpersonally.

Upon encountering a young man in a freak collision, however, the lead character is slowly brought out of his shell. Bassi's assured direction and the sensitive, rhythmic cutting delivered by Maria Rita Barbasallo creates a familial tension between the main character and his teenaged companion in a matter of minutes - an emotional bond that is positively palpable. It is to be but a brief encounter, though one that changes the main character's worldview significantly.

Prior to his chance encounter, the main character's only companion was an incomplete sculpture - a headless Frankenstein-esque being that recalls the outcast's morbid creation in the short film Bowl of Oatmeal. This half-baked creation is a metaphorical representation of the main character's claustrophobic state-of-mind. Having shut himself off from the world at large, his mind has been lulled into a state of mechanisation, his only creative impulses being directed at a failed attempt to create life from a series of disparate, inanimate objects. The sculpture is directly linked to the film's major visual motif, which is used to represent the main character's unconscious emotional transition.

The film's opening image, a disturbing extreme-close-up shot of an eyelid being pulled closed over the cloudy, lifeless eye of a deceased man, represents the main character's failure to respond to life's stimuli. His teenaged companion wears the abstract image of an eye on his chest, acting as a dynamic bridge between the Real World and the symbolic, narrow world created by the main character. In the film's concluding seconds, it is revealed that the main character's sculpture has been completed. As if he had been waiting for such an encounter in order to proceed to the next step of realisation, the main character finally creates the top piece of his statue - a single, open eye.

Thus, while the teenager's tragic end initially appears to tear the main character apart, it is simply the instigation of the main character's journey back into Reality. The character is forced to confront a multiplicity of genuine human emotions within a matter of days, freeing himself from the hum-drum monotony of his previous existence.

Simon Higgins' expert cinematography and Alessandra Englaro's production design has created a world in which the main character's ethereal transition from a claustrophobic state (vividly executed through the employment of dark, crowded indoor sequences cluttered with a series of static or slow-moving close-up shots and low key lighting schemes) to a far more romantic vision is revealed with a series of emotive signs. Sion Tammes' sound design, placing emphasis on seemingly insignificant sounds (such as the scratching of the sculptor's instruments on wood) equally enhanced the closed mise-en-scene that dominates the early scenes of the film. The lead characters' performances, likewise, are complex and virtuoso displays of raw human emotion, enhancing each of the film's themes.

Writer/Director Paolo Bassi's vision has been realised in all its glory. The White Tree deals with issues of Art vs Life, complex emotional journeys, guilt, the transience of life, and death and mourning in a sensitive, effective and creative manner.

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