Captain Crook

by Bill Mousoulis

(Captain Crook, 2023, 70 mins, dir: Saidin Salkic)

Australia's most singular avant-garde-narrative filmmaker Saidin Salkic continues his work apace. Since 2007 he has made experimental psyche-dramas exploring dislocation and trauma, themes basically stemming from his own family experience of genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s, in the period when Salkic was a teenager. Featuring mainly himself in his films (and the "new hope" of his daughter Sevdah), in recent years (since 2020) he has broadened his palette by featuring the legendary critic-actor John Flaus in increasingly central roles (and also the figure of Dirk de Bruyn in some other films). Astoundingly prolific, Salkic makes a number of features every year currently (see a filmography here), and he is clearly at the peak of his powers. He continues to be under-recognised, but his body of work is one for the ages for Australian cinema.

One of his latest films, completed in November 2023, Captain Crook is an extraordinary film that can be approached and understood from different angles, and has a number of different ideas running through it, all intermingling in fascinating ways. To say that his work is experimental is an understatement, but we have to always remember and appreciate that both the thematic and formal elements of his work are equally as important.

Different elements in play in Captain Crook:

Disorientation: Whilst Salkic's early work focused on personal trauma, with its original shock and then the rebuilding of the self afterwards, the recent films with John Flaus are more about mental disorientation in a more general sense (but also referencing Flaus' actual dementia in recent years). Salkic is clearly essaying the overlaps between trauma and dementia in these films, the way the mind and self get fractured. And, in Captain Crook, we can see how the disorientation of dementia allows a paranoia to come in, as our dear Captain tries to re-align himself in, and protect himself from, the environment he finds himself in.

At the start of the film, pictured above, he sits parked in his car on some land and outside a property, and wonders where he is, confused by the surroundings. Not having much of an alternative, he decides that what he sees is his home, his land. But, he wavers between surety and doubt regarding this. Eventually, however, he convinces himself that this is indeed his home, but a new problem then arises: he becomes paranoid that intruders are wanting to break into his house and take it from him, killing him in the process. And so the film presents the disjunction between the human will (to make sense of the world and to survive in it) and the objectively real world (through the power of cinema: it is only we as spectators who can see that objective reality of the characters).

Invasion: Captain Crook. Crook as in (James) Cook of course. And then, crook as in sick, and crook as in criminal.

As our Captain re-aligns himself with the environment he finds himself in, he notices that the trees are bleeding (a nice stylistic touch by Salkic), and he concludes from this that murder has taken place on this land, and that most likely he was the one that "had to" commit the murders, of the previous owners, in order to claim the land, to make it his own. He sees the murders as necessary, so is not bothered by them, because he believes he is the rightful owner of the land, the Emperor of the land.

Salkic is well familiar with genocidal acts of invasion of course, having witnessed the Bosnian violence of the mid-1990s first hand, and he is clearly in solidarity here with Australia's Indigenous peoples, their history of massacre and oppression. The Captain here, with his dementia, represents the amnesia that still exists within Australia, an amnesia in tandem with a lack of empathy that caused something like the Indigenous Referendum of 2023 to fail (in a way, Captain Crook, made in Oct/Nov 2023, is Salkic's response to that failure).

Knowledge bases: As our Captain lies on his bed and contemplates his acts of murder, half-grappling with them, he looks over to his bookshelves which are stacked full of books, and he shifts the blame over to them, to the knowledge they contain, the philosophies and culture they contain: "They made me do it!"

We see two different sections of books, one a pile of feminist books and one a pile of film books, in particular screenwriting manuals. The Captain puts the blame on the screenwriting books. Which is a great in-joke for Salkic and filmmakers in general of course, the filmmakers who try to do something different that is, rather than follow the conventions.

Apart from the fact that Saidin is a committed experimental filmmaker, the classic screenwriting manuals on "stories" always emphasise things like the "hero's journey", with the hero being all-conquering, and always on the "right" side of wars and history. Captain Crook, I think these books did make you do it!

As for the feminist books, these will be echoed later in the film, in the "Greek tragedy" finale of the film.

Paranoia: As the film's narrative unfolds, our Captain leaves behind his reflections and doubts, to attend to more pressing matters: the sense he has that his house is under threat from an intruder. Of course, there's no "do unto others" here: even though our Captain himself invaded a land and killed people, he is outraged that someone would try to invade his land, his house, to kill him.

Salkic as a filmmaker shines with this kind of material, the frantic nerves and fear of invasion, the paranoia, the tension. As an experimental filmmaker, he understands the mode of repetition and variation, and he uses it brilliantly, applying it to this kind of narrative material. Shards, fragments, repeats of shots from different angles, rough editing, accumulation of tension with no release, Salkic's cinema is an insistent and intense cinema.

Horror: The heightened atmosphere of Salkic's films, even though they are formally experimental, do remind one of conventional horror and/or thriller cinema, and Captain Crook sees Salkic use some horror tropes in a more direct way. The film is enveloped in that tense atmospheric sound used constantly by horror filmmakers, and Salkic even throws in some screams and bangs, and a surprise shot too (no spoilers here).

And, as every cinephile knows, there will be blood, and there is in this film, and it is the blood of tragedy, the blood of confusion and self-destruction.

In the hands of an avant-gardist such as Salkic, the horror genre is truly transformed.

John Flaus: The recent work Salkic has done with this legendary actor will ultimately stand as a testament to Flaus' belief in the art of cinema, the idea that cinema must always progress, that it must always be alive and challenging. In particular, a film like Captain Crook will stand as a document of Flaus' failing body and mind, a portrait of his dementia, and proof of his trust in Salkic as a creator.

These films that Salkic has made with Flaus in the past couple of years will no doubt turn out to be the last of Flaus' career. If so, they will be a fitting conclusion to a career that started 50 years ago with classics such as Yackety Yack (1974, Dave Jones) and Queensland (1976, John Ruane).

Ultimately, Salkic's frantic productivity works against him, as it does not allow him to spend time on his films to promote them. The film ecosystem basically cannot handle artists who are prolific, as it functions on profiling over time, over 2 or so years, for each film. When there are too many films available, the festivals and other organisations don't know where to start. I myself have only seen a few of Salkic's films from the past few years.

But these films will remain and be discovered, slowly.


Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and a programmer and critic. He is the editor of the Pure Shit: Australian Cinema website.

Published July 10, 2024. © Bill Mousoulis, July 2024