These are the many faces of Australian country music, a genre that has changed over the decades. Figurehead after figurehead has emerged, breaking into the greater public consciousness in a way that most country music struggles to do. As a genre of music, country tunes sway in and out of favour with commercial stations, and each popular iteration transforms the genre just a little bit differently than the last, making the twang of the geetar feel new and alive again.
But what of the artists that are inspired by the core roots of the genre? The unknown legends that idolise Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams, laying their own legacy down on the ground at her altar and living a life proudly steeped in the tragedy and hope that thrives within country music as a whole. With the expressive, vibrant, and true blue documentary, I’m Wanita, we are introduced to a slice of genuine country music stardom: Wanita Bahtiyar, aka Wanita, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Honky Tonk’.
Wanita is a devout country musician, and has been for twenty five years. She’s also a sex worker who lives with no compromises; her truth is the one that sings loudest of all. Wanita comes from a working class background, an aspect of modern country music that seems to be absent from the stadium filling superstars like Keith Urban, or even Taylor Swift (once upon a time). Through country music, Wanita finds her own holy gospel that speaks to the cultural truth that lives within her. In one of the many rip-roaring scenes that’ll leave a smile on your face, Wanita proclaims her love for her music idol by explaining succinctly why they, and by extension country music, matters the most for her: ‘Loretta Lynn was the greatest interpreter of the common man, the common person, the common woman, the common transexual, whoever, I don’t give a fuck’.
When you think of country music, the image of someone who has lived a full life opening their soul up through music conjures in your mind through a haze of whiskey and tears. Wanita’s journey is one that’s steeped in emotional life events, and as such, her songs expose her as someone who has clearly lived a life, pouring her emotions out in her songs. Like most talented country musicians, Wanita has a particular turn of phrase that utterly delights with equal amounts of truth, vulgarity, and honesty, such as when she spits out stunning lines that includes the words ‘soft cockerism’.
Living in Tamworth, Wanita’s regular life of music consists of belting out her stunning voice with ultimate passion to a half full pub of disinterested diners chowing down on dinner. Her Turkish husband, Baba, lives with growing agitation alongside Wanita. His own story feels like one ripped from a classic country tune: he is the father of the man that Wanita was paid to marry so he could become an Australian citizen when she was in Turkey. Instead of returning with him, she fell in love with Baba, and the rest, as they say with a harmonica wailing in the background, is history.
At 46, Wanita realises her own full potential as an artist, yet she also knows that the time for local success in Australia has likely passed. As such, the hope for some kind of fame and adoration in America sits in her future. With her close friend Gleny Rae Virus by her side, and despite the fact that money is hard to come by, Wanita journeys to the great land of Nashville, Tennessee to record a record and try her hand at making it big. For fans of the underappreciated Wild Rose, Wanita’s journey might feel a little familiar, but given this is a documentary, the authenticity of Wanita’s story sings a little stronger. Naturally, I’m Wanita releases alongside Wanita’s new album, yet while the pairing of the twos releases might feel all too neatly tied together, there’s never a feeling of monetary monopolisation at hand here.
Instead, I’m Wanita feels like the ultimate introduction to a legend we should all know. As minute after minute ticks by, it’s hard to shake the enduring question: after twenty five years of continued work as an artist, why hasn’t Wanita been elevated into the realm of music royalty (or, at the very least, country music royalty) in Australia? Regardless of her faults and foibles, Wanita is a legend in her own right, and additionally, is a walking talking archive of country music, as we see in a sorrow-tinged moment of joy, where Wanita binge drinks with young folks to teach them about Slim Dusty. In these moments, we realise that without country music, life means little at all to Wanita.
Yet, leaning into a certain type of stereotype for country musicians, Wanita isn’t without the liquid worries. With frequent consumption of varied spirits, and the dream that she hoped for in sight, Wanita’s chance of recording an album in Nashville is threatened to be scarpered before it even begins, as it becomes harder to keep her focused in the studio. In these moments, a palpable feeling of attaining a lifelong dream permeates from the screen, with tangible anxiety and stress hanging on every breath.
Frustrations carry across from Wanita’s friends and bandmates, to Baba, the husband who doesn’t understand her English, who argues with her about car problems as she sits in Sun Studios, Nashville, a world away from home. Throw in a daughter who can’t and won’t talk to her, each instance of life-disturbances simply amplifies Wanita’s passion and life force via country music.
In these moments, I was reminded of the multitude of music documentaries I’ve seen, often being rote life stories that follow from start to denouement, delivered in a talking head fashion that fails to truly harness the energy or prowess of the artists they’re documenting. They’re often respectful to the point that they can sometimes diminish why the musician or band became who they were. I realised fairly quickly that I’m Wanita is not that kind of film. It sweeps you up completely in her life. This is far from being a rose-tinted glasses documentary, instead, it’s a full-bodied, full-throated, beyond passionate embrace of its subject, the genre they adore, and life itself.
This is thanks to the masterful direction from Matthew Walker, and the immaculate editing from Peter O’Donoghue and Nikki Stevens, that is both supportive and critical of Wanita. Each cut swerves and ducks alongside Wanita’s trajectory to recording success, culminating in a grand and glorious staged performance with a full band helping amplify Wanita’s celebrated grandeur.
A standout moment comes late in the film, where Wanita sits in the recording booth, conjuring her record in Nashville out of the ether. Here, we hear her voice by itself, stripped away from the backing music, getting a glimpse of its power entirely. It’s alive with vitality, thriving with importance. It’s spine-tingling stuff. It’s here that we recognise that Wanita is an icon alive out of time. If she were around in the golden age of Slim Dusty, it would be Wanita that we hold high alongside that Aussie icon.
But even though she may be an artist out of the right era, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t thrive or be honoured as she is. Wanita is a down-to-earth legend, and her strength comes from honouring how deeply country music is steeped in other people’s lives. Sure, the arguments I’m Wanita is peppered with are engaging in a ‘look at what the neighbours are up to’ manner, but each time we witness one, the film pulls you back to remind you that these are real people with real hopes and aspirations.
Wanita’s hopes create a splashback, drenching the battlers and the street urchins with support and adoration. She leans in and gathers them up in a warm embrace, either literally, or metaphorically with her music, swooping in and making sure that everyone that soars in her orbit lives with as much comfort and care that she can muster. Instead of being the next Coal Miner’s Daughter queen, Wanita ends up getting stuck in the world of reality, singing amongst the people she wants to sing about.
That kind of energy can be exhausting for those wanting to lift up and support Wanita, leading them to get worn down themselves. In that way, I’m Wanita isn’t a hagiography. It works alongside Wanita’s legacy, stating: this is who I am, warts and all. Like it, or leave. As mentioned in the film, people are continually challenged by Wanita’s precipice existing.
There’s a power to I’m Wanita that I didn’t realise I was craving. The musicality of Wanita’s life is intoxicating, joyfully so. Yet, as she sits outside Loretta Lynn’s house, with Loretta Lynn’s cat, Angel, we can’t help but weep a little for the life she’s lived in the shadow of greatness, hoping for a moment in the spotlight. Whether this film will help usher that in or not is another aspect altogether, but I sure do hope that like Searching for Sugarman did for Rodriguez, I’m Wanita ushers Wanita onto the mainstage in the prime spot, because she darn well deserves it.
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