In the Realms of the Unreal - The Mystery of Henry Darger

As part of its First Look program, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) presents two films that challenge our understanding of the term ‘history’.

Art Exhibition previously on at ACMI - Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Flinders Lane precinct, Victoria, Australia.
From Thursday 30 June 2011 to Sunday 03 July 2011

In the Realms of the Unreal - The Mystery of Henry Darger image

Published by anonymous on Thursday 02 June 2011.
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From American director Jessica Yu comes the critically acclaimed documentary In the Realms of the Unreal – The Mystery of Henry Darger (30 June – 3 July), and from Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong, the award winning feature film Mundane History (7-10 July).

Examining the secret life of a reclusive janitor, In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) tells the true story of Henry Darger, a prolific artist who remained undiscovered until just before his death at age 81.

With a childhood scarred by poverty and the death of his parents, Darger spent time in a boys’ home and a children’s asylum before commencing work as a janitor at age 17. In 1930, he moved into a bedsit in Chicago where he lived for more than 40 years. It was not until he moved out that his landlords discovered his room was filled with hundreds of paintings and a 15,145 page novel written and illustrated by Darger curiously titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Seemingly drawing on his turbulent childhood, Darger’s novel told the story of the seven Vivian sisters who courageously battled against child slavery at the hands of cruel adults. With no formal training as an artist, Darger was inspired by pictures he collected from newspapers and magazines, and experimented with overlay, collage, copying and tracing techniques to produce countless and frequently bizarre illustrations to accompany his story.

Yu, an Academy Award winning director, merges interviews and found footage with animated sequences of Darger’s dream-like artworks to give In the Realms of the Unreal a highly stylised and colourful aesthetic. Narrated by Larry Pine and Dakota Fanning, the film also relies on Darger’s diary entries to try and piece together the story of the artist’s peculiar life.

Since being discovered, Darger has become one of the most well known figures in outsider art with his work now commanding upwards of $80,000. In 2001, The American Folk Art Museum in New York City also paid tribute to his talents by establishing The Henry Darger Study Centre.

Encouraging the viewer to think about history in broader terms, Mundane History (2009) poses the question ‘What constitutes history?’ by focusing on the routine activities of a Thai household. Examining the relationship between a young paraplegic, Ake, and his new carer, Pun, the film raises many issues surrounding Thai politics, class and history.

While Ake is initially very hostile towards his carer Pun remains unwavering in his duty of care. Eventually Ake lets his guard down and the relationship between patient and carer improves considerably. But with Ake’s physical desires never far from his mind, he is forced to realise his worth despite the limitations of his body.

Winning a Tiger Award in 2010 at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Suwichakornpong relied on contributions from her family and friends along with award and grant money to raise $150,000 to fund Mundane History.

Like fellow Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Suwichakornpong combines the dreamlike and the pragmatic to create a striking cinematic language that resonates with the viewer long after the film has ended. To this end, the film was also edited by Weerasethakul’s regular collaborator, Lee Chatametikool.

ACMI Film Programmer Kristy Matheson says, “While these films are very different in style and tone, they both challenge the notion that only large scale and very public events can make history. In the case of Henry Darger, it would probably have come as a big shock to him that his life and work would form such an important chapter in art history. Similarly, the work of Anocha Suwichakornpong teases out a larger tale of contemporary Thai society despite being completely played out through the domestic rituals of a single home.”