Michael Retter’s Youth on the March aims to tell a story authentic to Adelaide’s suburban life but with a unique twist: the film was shot on a camcorder turned sideways.
“It’s a vertical film, but that’s not the thing that defines it,” says Michael Retter of his film Youth on the March, set to make its world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival. “It’s an attempt to make a very honest film about young people smoking pot and that lifestyle and world around it. I guess I was attempting to make the greatest stoner film of all time.”
Youth on the March follows the life of a teenager who lives with his single mother and smokes pot with his friends. It’s not Cheech and Chong or 8 Mile, though. Retter has aimed to make a true-to-life story about a not insignificant portion of Adelaide’s population.
“It’s about an archetype that exists,” he says.
“There are a lot of boys that live with their single mums, and the mums go out and work while the sons stay home smoking pot and playing video games. It’s very, very common. I was exposed to that when I was a teenager. I wasn’t the one with a single mother, but I would go to a friend’s home and he would just be smoking a bong in the living room, his mum would walk in and grab her keys and leave for two days. That’s what the film’s about. It’s about the joys and consequences without too much moralising.”
The most obvious feature of the film to a casual observer will be that it’s shot in a vertical aspect, like so many videos shot on the omnipresent smartphone these days. Retter’s previous film, Stanley’s Mouth, was also shot vertically, but he believes Youth on the March is the first feature-length film shot vertically, and says his choice isn’t made as some sort of comment on the ubiquity of phonemade video. Indeed, he doesn’t even own a smartphone, and the film was shot on a camcorder turned sideways.
“I’m pretty sure this is the first feature narrative shot this way,” he says. “There are some experimental films, but I think this is the first feature… It’s not made to have a connection to the phone, but certainly people shooting that way did make me think about it. I think in many ways it is the aspect ratio of our time. People are shooting hours and hours of footage on these phones, possibly more than the entirety of home video and super 8 combined.”
That choice, at once quite sensible and surprisingly original, gives Retter’s film a distinctly different feeling. There is a certain sensuality to the footage, so focussed on its characters and less the environment around them, with a tinge of voyeuristic delight in watching a story that feels like Joe Citizen shot it on his iPhone. “If you film someone like that, you tend not to have a lot of dead space on either side, so you just focus on them and their body, their face,” says Retter of the stylistic effect. “We love to go close up and intense, too.”
It’s certainly an experimental experience for the viewer. Asked whether he thinks Youth on the March will land better with the arthouse cinema crowd or its stoner subjects, Retter believes each has something to gain from the film.
“I think that cinephiles have been wanting this kind of film from Australia for a while. We’ve been pretty banal in our output for a while, right? But on the other hand, I think that people from the suburbs who don’t know who Tchaikovsky is will probably get this film. They will understand it a bit more authentically.”
On the subject of authenticity, Youth on the March aims to differ from the American stoner film tradition of trite stereotypes and clichés by showing the potentially surprising daily grit of a pot smoker’s life.
“There are things that take place in this film in regards to habitual pot smoking, that I’m not aware exist in any other film,” says Retter. “For example, there’s a thing that pot smokers do, and they do this all the time. When they run out of pot, they get their bong and they scrape the black tar out of it, dry it, and smoke it. That is so normal to a pretty large section of the population, and habitual, but I’ve never seen it depicted.”
Honesty is key to Retter’s approach here, particularly in response to the depiction of the working class and single parent families.
“Australia makes suburban films about working people, low socio-economic films, and more often than not they’re really fake, because they’re made by rich kids,” he says. “They’re made from the outside in, and have an anthropological feel, and some politics that is irrelevant to people’s experience…
“I had a video shop a few years ago and had a work experience kid come from high school in Port Adelaide and we stayed in touch. He’s a dope smoking kid, right? So I shared the film with him and he said it really does capture the melancholy of being a stoner. That means as much as anything a critic could say because it means there’s some authenticity there.”
Youth on the March
Friday, October 13, 7pm
Hart’s Mill, Port Adelaide