MIFF 2020: High ideals flounder on the high seas in adventure doco ‘The Leadership’ (includes interview with director Ili Baré)

Taking charge: Expedition leader Fabian Dattner has her hands full in ‘The Leadership’.

THE LEADERSHIP ***1/2 (97 minutes)
Knowing you are about to make history can engender a very special, very peculiar type of happiness.

We see it early on in Ili Baré’s terrific, illuminating, issue-driven adventure documentary as 76 smart young women prepare to sail into the bracing climes of the Antarctic with their dauntless expedition leader Fabian Dattner.

Dattner used to be in the fur business but she has long been renown as an expert in leadership. This voyage, taken in 2016, is to be the first of 10 annual “Homeward Bound” trips designed to educate and empower women about the challenges of leadership in the modern world. The enterprise was Dattner’s brainchild and she clearly loves her charges.

Packed into the small, crusty ice-breaker are women scientists from the fields covered by the all-encompassing acronym STEMM – Science, technology, engineering, medicine, maths – and their mission is to come back as stronger, smarter, more confident women ready to shatter glass ceilings and take on male-domination in all its forms.

So off they sail on a wave of euphoria, bound by a noble agenda, fuelled by feminist ideals, lead by a passionate, professional figurehead whose guidance shall steer them all to a better understanding of their future and of themselves. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty. As detailed by Baré and her nimble film crew, idealism has a tendency to fray once it begins grinding against reality. Good intentions, too, can lead to friction and complaints about just how useful Dattner’s lengthy on-board lectures actually are.

All in the same boat in The Leadership.

From the outset you are warmly invited to buy in to the goals behind the trip, and you might find yourself holding fast to the spirit of the endeavour even when it becomes obvious that things are going off the rails.

Yet just when you start feeling guilty for thinking that what these women are being subjected to is a load of touchy-feely twaddle some of the women face the camera and bluntly say that what they’re being subjected to is a load of touchy-feely twaddle.

Matters don’t exactly descend into chaos but the film does a good job chronicling the fractures that occur, all the while making sure not to neglect the stunning scenery of the Antarctic with icebergs looking like meticulously finessed sculptures.

As Dattner herself says, part of this inaugural voyage’s brief is to basically see how well the idea floats and register all complaints and observations to make the next one better. So, the whole film rides on the amusing irony that finding fault with the program is part of the mission.

After the voyage’s end, however, the film hits an ironic pitch of a much darker hue when the behaviour of a male member of the ship’s crew comes to light. It’s an unsettling revelation and, given the circumstances of where it occurred, underscores how the work these voyages have to accomplish has a long way to go.

From the comparative safety of her Sydney digs director Ili Baré took to Zoom to discuss the film and mull over the suggestion of how the voyage was “doomed to succeed”.

For more details about The Leadership at MIFF visit https://2020.miff.com.au/film/the-leadership/

Those eager for a deep dive into the film and Homeward Bound, visit:

Please enjoy.