Directed by Andy Deere and Ryan Heron, Bludgeon is a documentary which invites the viewer into the fiercely competitive and misunderstood sport of medieval combat in rural New Zealand. Ardently committed to enacting these fantasy battles, players of the sport don antiquated armour and wield handmade swords and battleaxes. Unlike LARPing however, the sport is full contact – players hit hard, and wear costumes weighing almost 30kg. While the film tries to offer insight into the sport and the community who participate in it, what it does instead is covertly invite the audience to laugh at its subjects.
Nick from Rotoura introduces us to this world; he travels to Taranaki, keen to join his local medieval combat team, the Steel Thorns. He is out of shape and practice, but his optimism drives him. Nick’s sunny nature makes him easily the most likeable subject, and as the only Maori player in an otherwise deeply colonial sport, I couldn’t help but wish his position and experience was explored more. After several gruelling rounds of initiation tests, Nick fails to make the cut. Disappointed but spurred on, he sets about establishing his own local team, at which point dips out of the film’s central narrative.
Ex-military officer Martainn happens to chance upon the sport, and this becomes a revelatory outlet for his feelings. He is deeply troubled by his past and his aggression, and takes great pride in his work with the Steel Thorns. But Martainn occupies a peculiar position in the film: The directors can’t seem to decide whether he is their muse or the butt of their jokes. Even though there are moments where he opens up about his anger and trauma, the gaze of Bludgeon feels derogatory. Rather than asking questions about the dynamic of the group, the history and cultural context of the sport, the film decides it’s not worth it. The result of this is a detached, and fragmented picture of a misunderstood subculture. Instead of a very real exploration of the personal, and social significance of the sport, the documentary centralises grown men talking about dressing up and play-fighting as a point of interest. In doing so, the direction of the film is clouded by its participation in toxic masculinity, and infantilisation of its subjects. As such, by not contextualising the sport and the community in a tangible and human way, Bludgeon fails utilise its full potential.
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