It began with a lone voice. Aimée Falzon, seated at her keyboard, gradually looped her voice into an impressive one-woman symphony, repeating the words "I'm not here." At the centre of the performance of 'Rizzy's 18th Birthday' were two people, Falzon on vocals and keyboard, and S. Shakthidharan on guitar, who is also the director, co-writer and editor of the multimedia show. The main attraction though the titular film, playing on four screens (one on each wall of the performance space) for which the duo, along with pre-recorded drum loops, provided the musical score.
It was immediately apparent how much planning and practice has gone into perfecting the combination of film and live music for 'Rizzy's 18th Birthday Party'. The musicians were attuned to cuts and tiny cues that made the music work like a pre-recorded soundtrack, including drops in volume during scenes with dialogue. After a short time spent watching the musicians, trying to figure out the strange coloured notation on their musical scores, the film took over, but the recurring musical themes composed by the duo were ever-present and a welcome addition to the screening.
'Rizzy's 18th Birthday Party' is the story of Rizzy (played by Varun Fernando). He comes from an immigrant family and resides in Cabramatta with his friends, many of whom also come from various immigrant backgrounds. At first, the story seems fairly innocuous, as well as gently humorous. Rizzy discusses plans for his 18th birthday party the following day with his friends, has a date with his girlfriend Kylie, and attends a party where he gets extremely drunk. At several points early on, it seems as if the story is about to delve into some clichéd 'drugs are bad' rhetoric, but thankfully it plays with those expectations to create some of its humour.
The musical score is important in furthering this humour, creating a sense of portent that a moment later is revealed as completely unfitting for what is actually happening. However, later on, toward the film's climax, there were moments of local humour (specifically references to the suburbs of Fairfield and Cabramatta) that elicited boisterous belly laughs from the audience, even while the film continued on its trajectory toward its emotional apex and the score maintained its melancholic drone. Jarring moments like this felt like either poorly-timed humour, or perhaps even unintentional humour.
Generally, though, the story of 'Rizzy's 18th Birthday Party' is a gripping one. Its themes of friendship and betrayal are aided by a more subtle, but very clear examination of the mindset of immigrant families in Australia. Rizzy is torn between the cultural identity and sense of belonging given to him by being among his friends in Cabramatta, and the prospect of going to uni and finding something better outside of what he describes as a "bubble." The film's script is strong, and for the most part very realistic, though at some moments it does veer a little uncomfortably close to melodrama.
The actors all do well with the material. Varun Fernando in particular is wonderful; perfectly capturing the pain of a person who is constantly hiding something and is constantly torn between two possibilities. He makes clear the character's intelligence, but also plays with aplomb the loutish, foul-mouthed persona that Rizzy adopts around his friends. There is an unswerving sense of realism. Scenes are often crowded, so that the dialogue becomes little more than garbled word-salad, but the meaning is implied and comes across lucidly, thanks in no small part to a group of actors who inhabit their characters completely.
The film is smartly made. It is no easy task to create something meaningful from a group of drunk young men talking at a party, but scenes like this succeed thanks to the director's steady, confident hand. The camera work and editing are extremely artful, making use of lovely tracking shots, long takes and jump cuts, so that the film's always interesting to look at. Even the requirements of the film's low-budget are navigated successfully; the live music does an excellent job of making up for the lack of licensed music in the film, while adding an intriguing layer of performance to the screening.
During the screening, the mix of live music and film seemed slightly unnecessary - almost a gimmick - but in hindsight, it was essential to the success of the project. The musicians did not just play the score, but performed it. Aimée Falzon in particular, though small and demure, showed great power with her vocals, and sang with fervour, at one point letting out a high-pitched "woo!" that added a sense of energy to the film. One-off moments like this turned what could have been just a film-screening into something more intimate and special.
'Rizzy's 18th Birthday Party' may not be a groundbreaking piece of multimedia art, but it is true and honest. The story is a simple one, but full of complex emotions which the score manages to echo beautifully. It gives a voice to a group of people that are greatly marginalised, both geographically and socially. At the beginning of the performance, Falzon sang "I'm not here," which, as it turns out, captured the tenuous connections at the heart of Rizzy's dilemma in the simplest terms possible.