I’m Wanita – movie review

What a woman! As the saying goes, they broke the mould when they created her, as shown in Matthew Walker’s documentary I’m Wanita. The Wanita of the title likes to be known as Australia’s queen of honky-tonk. In her late 40s, she’s autistic, a binge drinker, a smoker and a prostitute of 18 years who loves God. She swears like a trooper and is kind to all in need, especially the homeless.

Her mother left her father when Wanita was two or three years old. At that tender age, her obsession with country and western music began. Wanita ran away from home at 15 and made it to Tamworth at 19, where she has stayed. Twice married, she has a grown daughter of her own, Ellymay, from whom she is estranged. How she came to be with a Turkish man (25 years older than she is) by the name of “Bubba” is a story in itself.

Wanita’s obsession with making it as a singer songwriter underpins this film. She wants to record in Nashville and, ideally, meeting her idol Loretta Lynne. None other than the winner of 22 Golden Guitar Awards, Kasey Chambers, calls her “a hell of a singer”. But unlike Chambers, Wanita has never really succeeded with her singing career … and the question has to be asked “why not?” The answer gets down to focus, or the lack of it, as she appears to be all over the shop.

She’s unashamedly an enthusiast who insists on doing things her way, but her renegade appeal also has a dark edge. It’s often difficult for those closest to her to work with her. She can’t seem to concentrate on one thing for any length of time and, as we see some way into the picture, her drinking can be a curse. Wanita does get her chance to travel to the US – to Sun Studios in Memphis, to work with jazz musos in New Orleans and finally to Nashville. But things don’t go smoothly.

The documentary charts Wanita’s meandering path, complete with interviews with family (Ellymay and devoted, but frustrated Bubba) and friends/fellow musicians. They include a man named Archer who becomes her “bagman”; and a woman called Gleny Rae Virus, who doubles as her manager. We also get to see and hear the raw Wanita.

I’m Wanita is shot fly-on-the-wall style by director Walker. He appears to apply no filters. The camera just keeps rolling. Even phone conversations are recorded. For all her foibles, I desperately wanted Wanita to succeed but it’s unclear whether she will.  In fact, far from it, for she can be spectacular and, alternately, a train wreck. Instability is her middle name. And that’s why she’s such a good subject for a documentary feature.

Wanita is unique, frustrating and talented.  If I’m Wanita was a narrative feature I’d say it stretched credibility. As a doco, it’s utterly compelling.

Alex First

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