As expected, this year’s MIFF program is filled with a plethora of interesting art films that have the potential to push the boundaries of cinema. Lucky for me I don’t have to speak on that. If you’re keen to watch Bruce Lee kick the shit out of the film industry, but also a bunch of yelling dudes – and hear about why he did it – then I’ve got a much better option for you.
Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is a turbulent documentary journey through the rise of martial arts cinema – as it took over Hollywood and Hong Kong, then built itself into the Civil Rights movements and the creation of class identity. It’s a film both big time fans and the completely oblivious can enjoy.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere at MIFF, Hunter Keeble talked with the film’s producer, Veronica Fury, about what makes an engaging documentary, the cultural impact of martial arts cinema, Veronica’s passion for her medium, and the future of ‘films about films’.
Hunter Keeble: So, Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, I gave it a watch, I gave it two watches in fact, it’s a bloody excellent documentary.
Veronica Fury: Thank you!
HK: Not always my thing though, documentaries. I didn’t expect to be writing on one.
VF: Well I’m glad I could take you to the dark side.
HK: I like my superhero movies and my action films, what kept me very engaged [watching Iron Fists] was just the raw pace of it. How do you guys go about keeping up the speed across the film?
VF: First I’d like to mention that the director, Serge Ou is the pacemaker in many ways – he’s amazing at that. This project is an expulsion, an explosion of his brain and his passion. But from my role I’ve produced Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010) and Electric Boogaloo (2014) – and that’s what they do – they rollick along and take you on this journey that’s not a dry, contemplative sort of documentary experience. They are engaged, immersive rollicks through really interesting histories. That’s what I love about them as they go into culture and subculture, as well as the films [they explore].
I’d done those first two films with director Mark Hartley, we were looking for someone who had that sensibility [for the next film]. Serge is my business partner at WildBear and we ended up making a film together almost by accident on a rescue film called Stranded that we did for the ABC. After working with him I went ‘Oh my goodness’, there’s a director who can jump into those stories with that energy. He and I started to develop Iron Fists together and you can see that he’s given it that energy that I look for in these films. They’re festival favorites, audiences love them, a fan is going to love them, but the general public is going to love them too. I think because of the pace and energy and excitement behind them they work for a broad audience. We’re not going into dry long interviews with an expert – we’ve got funny, intense tightly structured story bites that feed into this bigger story.
HK: That’s true, my experience with Kung Fu films is limited to Wu-Tang song intros and that miniseries Miguel produced about the rise of hip hop in the Bronx [The Get Down (2016)].
VF: Oh yeah, I think that says it all. The fact that you say that, Hunter, means that this film has done its job in that its tapped into that broader pop culture influence – an infection through which you can relate to these films on some level. It’s touched you – you’ve come across it before. My first introduction was a cartoon dog called Hong Kong Phooey that I would watch on Saturday mornings.
HK: One of the big takeaways that really grasped me was the influence that martial arts and these movies have had on Civil Rights movements, in building identity for Black America but also in Hong Kong itself which I had no knowledge of, and even later in Thailand and Uganda. From a producer’s perspective, how important was it to you and your team to be showcasing and telling those stories? Was it an original intent or did you find it along the way as you went about developing the film?
VF: So, in Machete Maidens, we explore the Philippines under the Marcos regime and the Americans coming in, and that interface with the American filmmakers and the Philippine political climate. It explored how films played into blaxploitation in the 70s. Yes, we were definitely looking for it, but we didn’t realise until we started just how deep and influential it was going to be. [In both films], it was quite a surprise. I’ve got to take my hat off to Serge for that one but yes, the brief was intended, but as we delved in, we uncovered some really interesting connections. The film probably could have gone for 10 hours – [the film] did end up becoming longer than we had planned to fit these things in but it deserves it for a fuller story.
HK: Absolutely, I found that if anything I’d be happy for the film to run longer and to contain more of that side of the story. When you choose to invest your efforts into this project, with your business partner, were you backing him, or the idea?
VF: Look I love my reputation as a producer of these kind of films, I get a real kick out of it. We do a lot of projects at Wildbear – around 150 hours of commercial documentary film and television every year, but a film like this comes along and I get my creative vocational kick out of it. I love working with Serge, and for me it felt like a really good platform for him to showcase his skill. He’s a really skilled director [and] he tells deep, entertaining, but complex stories. I thought this was a perfect platform to showcase him as a director to the world. I was very proud to do that.
HK: It sounds like these three, Machete Maidens, Electric Boogaloo, and now Iron Fists, seem to be your favorite sort of films to make. Are you most proud of these works?
VF: Yes, these films about films.
VF: I have to say I love the kick I get out of them. I love the big audiences, I love the way people respond to them, and I love that they have a long life. They become classics, not just throw away pop TV after a run on a platform. They seem to have a life. I try and do one every two years, though it takes a couple of years to fund them.
HK: On that note, have you already got a weird part of cinema you’re keen to explore through these formats? Something in the works?
VF: The next one I know! It’s ‘Cat Fight’. It explores women’s positioning in films from the women’s movement to today – exploring that through a similar lens, high level experts, culture, and of course, a wide variety of films.
HK: That’s awesome.
VF: Yeah! I’m doing that with director Susan Lambert from Sydney. She’s got a good eye for that sort of thing.
HK: The last thing I wanted to touch on was that you seem to have a very broad set of projects that you’ve worked on.
HK: I mean that! But what is your actual specific taste? What does Veronica watch tonight or this weekend?
VF: That’s a good question. I love documentaries, and I actually can’t feed myself enough. I think it’s great that we’ve got DocPlay, we’ve got Beamafilm – that have a real doco focus, but with Netflix I get bored very easily. As soon as they put something good out, I hoover it up. I love feature docs. I enjoy factual content, real people in real circumstances experiencing real life.
One of my last premiere documentaries was Ella (2016), which followed the first Indigenous dancer to be accepted into the Australian Ballet. That film will be on DocPlay in August if I can give it a plug. It’s magnificent to be able to step into that world and tell that amazing story. Again, I don’t want to use that term ‘buzz’ but that’s what keeps me going – that we’ve facilitated the telling of an amazing story and an amazing person. So, if that makes sense, I guess it’s an honour to do what I do.
HK: I can hear that you get a kick out of it in the way you speak about it.
VF: I’m never bored! There’re always new stories.
HK: How do you find your stories? Say in the case of Ella – do you chase them down or do they fall into your lap a bit?
VF: Someone once said I have a head of antennae, I’m always looking for good stories. I read the paper, I watch the news and pause the TV often to check up on a character or personality, or an expert that’s caught my interest. Hearing something in the arts world, interesting histories, going into op shops and looking through old books that jump out at me. I’m always looking.
Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks will be playing on 14, 16 & 17 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Hunter Keeble is a fiction writer studying at Melbourne University. He also works at a pub, which is cool too.