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CRACKS IN THE MASK

Australia, 1997 (MIFF 1997, Australian)

Director: Frances Calvert

Ephraim Bani journeys from the Torres Strait Islands to the great museums of Europe, where his plundered heritage is on display. He carries the hope of all Islanders to see the turtleshell masks made by his ancestors, and stolen by the Cambridge Anthropological Expe­dition more than a century ago.

Restitution of these artifacts proves anything but straightforward. The objects themselves have undergone an indefinable transformation; something of their essence has been sullied. Bani finds museums competing to acquire the greatest treasures, and curators reluctant to give them up. With exquisite if unconscious irony, one storeroom manager insists Bani, "Look but don't touch"!

Frances Calvert's documentary shines a harsh spotlight on the very notion of museums. Seen through Ephraim Bani's eyes, they are subjected to a novel form of scrutiny. However enlightened or sensitive towards the cultures they exhibit, it seems museums' very existence ensnares them in contradictions. What can be their rationale into the future, when we can call up any object on our computer screens? As the title suggests. even the thickest cultural masks can crack when the original owner comes to visit.

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