Discussions surrounding the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) a few years ago always seemed to focus on the question of its very existence: will it survive and, following on from this, what needs to be done in order to ensure its survival? The question was answered in part last year with an overhaul of the subscription structure and the introduction of single session tickets, which allowed for greater flexibility and access for non-subscribers. Not a bad thing it seemed. And it appeared that the crisis was over when it was announced that the Festival had moved from a considerable deficit in 1999 to breaking even in 2000. Also positive. But somewhere in all of this the question of what the purpose of a film festival should be apparently got lost. To question the quality of the SFF programming is assumedly the same as questioning whether or not it should exist at all. Film festivals are no doubt shaped to a degree by what is on offer in each particular year, and the SFF certainly does bring out some films which might otherwise not be screened in Sydney (although increasingly it seems we can rely on the Australian Cinémathèque and the AFI to a degree for this too – whether the SFF is getting more mainstream in general or arthouse exhibition outlets are getting more adventurous these days is another debate entirely). But should not the premier film festival of a city the size of Sydney do so much more than that? Does Sydney really not have the numbers to support a greater diversity of programming? And should a film festival of this size not support Australian screen culture in all its permutations, as well as the film industry?
Of course this is not the task of the SFF alone, but one wonders whether such considerations inform any of the programming decisions at all at this point in time. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:
The Sydney Film Festival announced today that its admissions have grown for a second year, with total admissions up from 91,000 in 2000 to 97,000 in 2001. The ticket sales increase for the event in 2001 were the more flexible ticketing options introduced in 2000, particularly in the four to ten ticket packages, with subscription sales decreasing by 15% as projected, reflecting the migration of subscribers to smaller packages. (1)
While opening the Festival up to a broader audience has distinct financial benefits, which are necessary as much as desirable, the effect that this has on programming is surely a crucial issue which the SFF seems loathe to address at least publicly. A 15% decrease in subscriptions is telling, and that these figures were projected does not lessen the impact of it in a broader sense. Exactly who comprised this 15% drop seems to me to be extremely significant and I would be very surprised if this group did not largely comprise filmmakers, critics and cinephiles. To lose this audience or, perhaps more importantly, the faith of this audience in being shown innovative, important, rare and unexpected films seems to me to be a very grave loss and not quantifiable in the financial terms that seem to be the only language used to discuss the SFF these days. One hopes that as it gets truly back on its feet and into the black, the SFF will be able to adopt a broader, more expansive charter over primarily economic considerations and will consult with a wider cross section of interested parties. If not, it might be up to these groups to come up with some kind of alternative to the SFF to fulfil the intellectual and cultural gap that its current programming leaves.
The lack of focus on Australian films was an unfortunate omission this year, particularly in a fairly healthy year for features. With the separate tickets for opening and closing night films, Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) and La Spagnola (Steve Jacobs, 2001) respectively, subscribers only had access to two new Australian films, Alkinos Tsilimidos’ Silent Partner (2001) and Facing the Music (Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, 2001). The former was a modest, well executed treatment of a fairly uninspired premise – the dynamics of a bond between two disenfranchised men as explored through their failed attempt to successfully race a greyhound. There were no surprises in terms of characterisation or narrative in this film, and it bore all the marks of a filmed staged play, particularly in terms of the set design and the focus on occasionally overly mannered performances. Still, from a critical point of view, it was interesting and useful to watch a new Australian film in the context of international cinema.
In terms of retrospectives, while last year boasted ten works by Alan Clarke, and the year before, all bar two of Cassavetes’ groundbreaking films, this year offered only three films by the extremely prolific Satyajit Ray. Thankfully, these were newly restored prints and turned out to be easily the highlight of the Festival – the trilogy in its simple perfection was also somehow representative of Ray’s oeuvre. But the focus on Paul Schrader was another story. The choice of only three works of this productive filmmaker seemed like an oddly truncated, haphazard homage. It was a great and rare opportunity to see Schrader introduce his favourite among his own films, Light Sleeper (1991), but a careful and wider selection of his films would have more accurately reflected the range and diversity of his oeuvre, including his critical work, as well as giving some substance to the venture. And the choice of Schrader over so many other filmmakers whose works are not so readily available on video or for screening would have made more sense had the engagement with his work been more thorough. Admittedly I didn’t make it to the interview session however (which was again a separately ticketed event rather than part of the ‘Meet the Filmmaker’ sessions of the past) and so I only hope that it at least filled in the gaps a little.
Still, despite some fairly fundamental shortcomings there were nevertheless some transcendent moments at the Festival this year, which made me ultimately grateful to have attended.
Was there a dry eye in the State Theatre after each of the Apu trilogy screenings? David Stratton’s introductions to Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sangsar (1959) were full of personal anecdotes about his friendship with Ray that were a treat. Full of humour and heart, Stratton’s introductions provided the perfect preamble for the films by putting them at once in a personal, film historical and cultural context. They also sadly reflected how much the SFF has moved away from being a festival for cinephiles. The beauty and simplicity of these films did not fail to translate for a somewhat jaded audience and all three made the SFF audience’s Top Ten (an official poll announced at the end of the Festival). While the subtitling, particularly for Aparajito, could have been better, the restored prints allowed for the subtlety of Ray’s films to be fully appreciated. Having only seen these classics on video and television in the past, the contrast was marked. The swirling black clouds framing Apu’s head in Pather Panchali possessed a very different resonance on the big screen, and much the same could be said for all the carefully composed nature shots in particular. These prints made for a new and enriching cinematic experience.
Three Iranian films were amongst the most interesting in the program. Most notable perhaps was Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), which examines the predicament of women in Iran in a particularly interesting way. The film is book-ended with the window of a metal hospital/ prison door closing, suggesting an equation between birth and prison in that country for women. The title of the film also reflects this sense of inevitability, in addition to being a central motif throughout. Yet this is not as simple nor schematic a treatment as it might seem. Panahi’s commentary takes place through the experiences of a number of women whose lives interconnect mainly through having been imprisoned, yet they are not reductive figures. Close attention is paid to characterisation and their particularity. It becomes apparent that these are women who because of circumstance or disposition have not towed the line, and Panahi also makes clear how easy this is to do in Iranian society. This becomes most obvious in the women’s frustrated attempts to light cigarettes throughout the film.
In a sense, The Circle instils the women’s anxiety in the viewer itself through long takes and digressions. In one scene, a timid young girl who has escaped from prison seems to constantly foil her own attempts to leave the city by repeatedly getting off the bus that will take her to apparent safety. Another escapee makes herself conspicuous by pursuing a friend who works on a hospital to help her organise a termination. These women were for me reminiscent of Ken Loach’s characters – victims of a system yet who also often make self-defeating choices. Perhaps this is Panahi’s way of beating the censors; the women he deals with are seen to defy not only religious edicts but also bureaucracy, and as such one can imagine that their return to prison could be read as fitting by the censors. But ultimately through implicating the women to a small degree in their own predicaments, it also makes for a complex and fascinating film.
At the other end of the stylistic spectrum was Marzieh Meshkiny’s The Day I Became a Woman (2000). While covering similar territory, this film is broken into three parts, each of which focus around a striking visual metaphor which serves to comment upon the position of women within Iranian society. The film has a parable like quality, and has also quite accurately been described as Buñuelesque. (2) There is a pointed, absurdist humour at play in all the sections. Each of these take place on Kish Island which provides a visually stunning backdrop while also overturning any expectations one might have about Iranian landscape. The print I saw was saturated with colour, and the images had a remarkable vitality. Meshkiny’s film concerns itself more with the interior world of these women/girls and how their preoccupations are expressed or acted out in a visual and material way. In a sense it is a complement to The Circle in that it depicts not women who are marginalised and disenfranchised, but those within some sort of familial economy who are similarly disadvantaged. Each filmmaker uses particularly inventive ways to explore this potentially obvious subject matter.
Bahman Gobadi draws on his early life in a Kurdish village in his debut feature A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), which depicts the life of a family of orphans who survive by smuggling goods near the Iraqi border in Iran. This is an intensely beautiful and moving film yet also unsentimental and at times harsh. One of the children, the much loved Madi, is in need of an operation and the older ones, each in their own way try to procure money for this; the eldest sister Rojine through marriage, and the nominal head of the family, the adolescent Ayoub, through increasingly more treacherous smuggling operations. The drunken horses of the title refers to the method for keeping mules warm for the difficult journey amidst mines and ambushes on the snow covered hills along the border. Bottles of alcohol are poured into their drinking water, in varying amounts according to the weather. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, the mules, too drunk to stand, fall about in the snow during an ambush, while their desperate owners try to beat them into sense. This story of wise children trying to survive and the fierceness of sibling bonds brings to mind a number of similarly themed films, most memorably, Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1989), also about a dispossessed community. But Gobadi’s strong visual sense – in one scene, Madi’s yellow coat renders him a small bright dot against the vastness of the snowy landscape – as well as his narrative restraint give this work a depth and sensibility all of its own.
I missed the most talked about documentary this year, Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly’s Facing the Music (2001), which from all reports was an important and moving examination of the progressive downgrading of Australian universities. It has already been released locally. Of the rest, The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls, 1970) was as engrossing and thought provoking as expected, but unfortunately badly effected by the white subtitles often being unreadable against the faded print. Those non-German speaking viewers interested in knowing what lederhosen wearing men could possibly be thinking were none the wiser by the end of the film and viewing this four and a half hour masterpiece was, because of this technical problem, at times an extremely frustrating experience.
Promises (BZ Goldberg, 2001) offers some unusual insights into the conflict in the Middle East through the lives of a number of Israeli and Palestinian children. It conveys a sense of the rhythms of their everyday experience, and the way in which they are possessed of at once an innocence and a world weariness beyond their years. It also uncovers the ways in which individual and familial experiences of loss has politicised these children. Goldberg has managed to capture some fascinating moments on camera: an Orthodox child of settlers purposefully scrolling through his Torah to find the passage which he believes proves his God-given right to live in the occupied territories; a baby-faced young Arab citizen of Jerusalem walking through city and going through what is clearly for him the deeply emotional ritual of praying at the Al Aqsa mosque; a young Arab boy who has lived his life in a refugee camp being snuck through the check points by the filmmaker to visit his ancestral home with his Grandmother. What is perhaps most affecting about this documentary however is the filmmaker’s success in engendering the trust of these impossibly sweet but wary children.
Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2000) managed to avoid to a large degree what a number of other documentaries screened displayed overwhelmingly – the transposition of a lazy kind of voyeurism for any unexploitative engagement with the issues and people examined. This film looks at the life and relationships of a female to male transsexual Robert Eads while he is dying of ovarian cancer, and more broadly of the very significant issues faced by the transgender community. For many reasons, not least because of the compassionate nature of its enquiry, this is a thoughtful documentary, though at times it seemed to me to delve too voyeuristically into the intimate life of a dying man, perhaps offering insight at the expense of dignity. Still it was far more watchable than Rosa Von Praunheim’s Fassbinder Was the Only One for Me (1999/00). Poor production values aside, this doco strings together interviews with a number of actresses as they recount their personal and professional relationships with Fassbinder. If the intention was for the masochism underlying the narratives of the women to parallel the masochistic subtext of Fassbinder’s films, then this is done particularly artlessly and with a lack of generosity. Only the stellar Hanna Schygulla emerges with her self-respect intact.
Similarly, in Pie in the Sky: the Brigid Berlin Story (Vincent Fremont/ Shelley Dunn Fremont, 2000), the eponymous subject seems to be traded on for her pathological need to be in the spotlight at any cost. Some of the archival footage is amusing and others parts, such as Berlin’s famous live phone calls to her estranged socialite mother onstage, shed some light on her somewhat opaque motivations. Overriding this however is the feeling that there is something ultimately problematic about watching the faded Warhol star’s obsessive-compulsive mania and food obsessions out of abject fascination. Without wanting to enter into the debate surrounding “reality TV”, I couldn’t help but wonder if the tendency of these programs, if not the influence just yet, has already begun to effect the sorts of documentaries being produced at this point in time.
Among the French features screened was the delightful The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000), Ilan Duran Cohen’s The Confusion of Genders (2000), which is something like a thoughtful farce, and François Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000). This last film is deceptively simple and relies on the carefully modulated performance of Charlotte Rampling as Marie, a middle aged, middle class woman whose husband disappears, presumedly drowned. Ozon takes this seemingly straightforward premise and uses it to lay bare not only what loss and loneliness mean, but thanks to Rampling’s performance, how they feel on an everyday level. The film follows Marie’s meanderings, as she has breakfast, shops, eats in a cafe, looks for a flat and meets a new lover, all the while in quiet restrained denial, believing her husband is still alive and nearby. What could easily have become something quite mawkish is rendered believable and touching – Ozon manages to capture all her heartache in one single final scene as she runs desperately towards a distant figure on the beach where she last saw him.
And finally there was one little surprise within the program – actor/director Jerzy Stuhr’s Kieslowski scripted gem The Big Animal (2000), about what happens to a small town clerk (played by Stuhr) and his wife after they adopt a rather magnificent camel abandoned by the circus. The simplicity of this parable about parochialism betrays its genesis in a past era – Kieslowski wrote it in 1973 – and even children’s films these days have more of an edge. But the final sequence of the couple visiting camels in the snow at the Warsaw Zoo is unexpectedly magical and the film has a timeless warmth, thanks largely to the expressively shaggy faces of the two camels, as well as Stuhr’s own.
So it is not as though the SFF was without its pleasures this year. For any film lover, there is nearly always something, even if it’s only one film, which redeems a festival. It’s more a question of what could have been. It would have been wonderful to have had the opportunity to see Béla Tarr’s earlier work Damnation (1988) and Satantango (1994) which form a black and white trilogy of sorts along with Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000) which was screened at the Festival, and the latest Chantal Akerman and Michael Haneke films would also have been a treat. But more generally, I can’t help but feel that the task of seeking out the most innovative, interesting and important films being made at the moment as well as those of the past is one that the SFF feels is no longer part of its core agenda, and this is a great shame for anyone in Sydney who still believes strongly in the exploration of the possibilities of film.