George Gittoes/Australia/2006; R0
Madman, NZ$29.95 | Reviewed by David Levinson

“DON’T LET the palm trees confuse you,” one of the Lovett brothers warns about sunny Miami, though what he’s referring to isn’t exactly the city’s coke-and-disco patina. No: as Michael Mann’s po-faced update suggested, those first days of Tubbs and Crockett have passed, only to be replaced by something much more grim and ambiguous.

But even in sleazy digi-vision, Mann’s account of local drug skirmishing seems to fall short of dosing the day-to-day realities of those living in Miami’s Brown Sub (aka Brown’s Subdivision) – a square-planned lesion of state housing, plunged right in the heart of Liberty City. With just over 14,000 residents, the area subscribes to the familiar ghetto tale of a close community unwillingly shot through with violence, and among those who now, with confused pride, call its streets home are the three Lovett brothers, Elliot (22), Marcus (20) and Denzel (14) – freestyle rappers with a gift for turning glimpsed horror into bullet-runs of sound and fury.

Certainly, it’s the hope of transcending Brown Sub – both figuratively (via art) and literally (via a record deal) – which composes the just of George Gittoes’ documentary Rampage. But for all the man’s commitment to surveying Miami’s latest non-hotspot, the film didn’t in fact originate there; rather, it arose out of the gunsmoke of Gittoes’ previous effort, Soundtrack to War, a 2005 documentary which found the puffed-up Australian adrift in Iraq, getting up close and personal with US troops, after managing to bypass the military’s lockdown on media. In the end, Gittoes’ bullheaded ambition paid off: firstly, because it resulted in footage from the film being used in Fahrenheit 9/11; and secondly because it was while over in Baghdad that Gittoes first met Li’l E (aka Elliot Lovett): the wordstung trooper who ultimately led the way back to the rich stable of his family talent – and casual hell of his homelife.

Picking up on Elliot’s trail one year later, Gittoes’ mindset doesn’t seem to have ever left Bush’s warzone; indeed, Wikipedia describes him as a “war artist” – a tagline that could just as easily apply to his blustery, ADD rhetoric as it does the pet subject of his various paintings, drawings, photographs and videos. Which means if there’s any skeleton of a thesis to Rampage’s bloodbath, it’s that while most of the media’s focus is turned towards military activity abroard, small pocket-wars like that in Brown Sub continue to rage on – unnoticed and unassisted.

Instead of fleshing out a real argument though, Gittoes seems happy to settle on a totally noncommittal dialogue of fashion-spread imagery: young black men posed against stark skies and decrepit housing – shots of which are intercut with footage from the war in Iraq, in the hope that the two will somehow fuse into a parallel. In other words, it’s a safari-hunt for the new millenium, where, rather than try to familiarise the alien, ghetto culture is offered up in all its ‘savage’, uncut glory. But as a symbol of what? The bleary free-for-all of today’s global economy? Bourgeois nihilism channeled into a ‘legitimate’ stance of oppression?

Not that artists are exactly untouched sanctuaries – a fact which seems to evade Denzel once he’s seated in a New York highrise, trying to explain to record executives that he’s the (4ft. high) “voice of the streets”. Ultimately, Rampage’s first half – a freewheeling tour of Brown Sub’s trenches – may be Gittoes’ attempt to justify Denzel’s claim. But even after being granted such privileged access to the lives of the residents, Gittoes can’t seem to muster a sustainable portrait of their existence; foregoing any kind of critical distance, he simply wanders the streets like an aimless piper, as streams of kids break out into contending freestyles, having been activated by the sudden presence of the camera. If anything, their performances seem to speak only of hip-hop’s diluted economy, where every corner kid now has a token verse to sell about where he’s been and what he’s seen. On the flipside though, you could argue that ‘authenticity’ in the artform has always been a factor of marketing, which is why Denzel’s A-B progression from soulja to (aspired) superstar across the span of the documentary feels so rote and, in the end, unable to capture the messiness of rap celebrity. Unfortunately, Gittoes is so tied up in the novelty of being in the ‘hood that he can’t pull himself away in order to consider what’s really at stake. The only example of reflexiveness comes too late – after Marcus Lovett is gunned down at a party – where, speaking alone to the camera, Gittoes freely admits that it may have been him who inadvertantly caused the death, due to the attention he was showering on Marcus. But however self-serving the admission might seem, in a movie as riptorn and bent on rehabilitation as this one is, the moment poses a troubling question about the possible futility of coming to the aid of those in need.