The outrage over the Australia-wide banning of Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002) forestalled much of the broader media’s critical discussion of the 2003 Sydney Film Festival (SFF), both in terms of the quality of the films actually shown and the overall experience of the event. It also overshadowed the celebrations, summations and critical reflections that the event’s 50th anniversary should have generated. Before engaging in a critical discussion based on the 35 or so films that I saw, I need to make a couple of admissions. First, my observations are based only on the last nine days of the Festival (and according to several critics I spoke to some of the highlights – such as Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2002) – were shown in the first five days). Second, this was the first time that I had visited the Festival, normally waiting for many of the same films to show up in Melbourne a month or so later. This, of course, led to inevitable questions about the respective merits of the two festivals, queries that I mainly refrained from answering while in Sydney (but which I will address here).
In the past I have been somewhat critical of the grab-bag, smorgasbord approach adopted by the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), pushing to the back of my mind the days when a shared experience – sometimes torturous – of the event was common to most patrons (now everyone pretty much ‘creates’ a different event or schedule for themselves from the multitude of films on offer). My sojourn to Sydney reminded me of these older, smaller Melbourne festivals that used to run out of the Astor Theatre in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the difficulties of attending films at other venues (often on the other side of town) dividing the festival into several – almost separate – events. The two venues used by the SFF in 2003 (the State Theatre and one cinema at Dendy Opera Quays) and the completely different films and ticketing attached to each, meant that most patrons’ experiences were restricted to one venue (and thus to many of the same films). Such a directed and to some degree ‘dictated’ program of screenings has both advantages (it is easier to summarise, spot and compare trends and notes) and considerable disadvantages (the ‘forced’ exposure to several Australia films – Georgina Willis’ Cannes-entrant Watermark  and Sofya Gollan’s ’embalmed’ Preservation  – among them).
The films selected at SFF this year themselves reflected a somewhat conservative and conventional view (not necessarily a bad thing) of what a film festival should actually do: basically to collect and show a limited range of films from a wide variety of countries which have played at other festivals (and perhaps won awards), combined with some premiere Australian films and curated retrospective programs (in recent years Sydney has had a much stronger record in this last area than Melbourne). Such an approach can leave the audience with a sense of certain trends in world cinema, but without much focus or any kind of guarantee that what they have seen is representative or comprehensive (SFF’s approach in this regard seems to be to cherry-pick but not adequately ‘focus,’ while Melbourne can sometimes – as in the case of Korean cinema in recent years – over-explore fairly barren territory, offering a welter of choice with sometimes limited or questionable quality control). One audience member at SFF 2003 suggested that the job of a critic at such an event is to find a hidden or subconscious theme (their nomination was the ‘absent father’), but such an approach seems to me to be mostly a wilful, hackneyed ‘invention,’ an over-determined attempt to put order into what is commonly a fairly disparate collection of films and even filmic experiences; saying more about the critic than anything else. This is especially true when the festival does not run many focused spotlights (outside of such almost useless general categories as “Contemporary World Cinema” – which meant pretty much anything shown at the State – “Docos at the Dendy,” or “New Directors,” even when not all of them actually were), or brackets films in ways which say little about their content or the tradition they belong to – take, for example, the “Mavericks” tag which joined only three films, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus (2002), Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s often fascinating essay on the M25 bypass, London Orbital (2002) and Godfrey Reggio’s typically bombastic Naqoyqatsi (2002)!
SFF is in many respects a boutique event designed to cover some of the gaps left by other theme or nation-based festivals (so its small number of Asian films is perhaps justified by the operation of the Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival, though the selections in this regard at SFF were particularly uninspired). It is also restricted – I assume – by its delicate financial situation, and needs to be very careful not to over-stretch its capacity (by all accounts this year was a significant improvement over the last in this regard). From an outsider’s point of view one of the problems of SFF is its reliance on its flagship venue, a beautiful building that is a fairly ordinary place in which to watch films (a larger number of slightly smaller venues would be better and would allow for a greater range of films, programming strands and ‘festivals’). Such a move might also enable the Festival to expand its subscriber base and attract a wider audience (an audience not necessarily pre-attached to things like venues, slightly more old-fashioned ideas of film programming, having the same seat night-after-night, etc.) It might also facilitate the Festival in becoming both a readily noticeable event (it seemed a little lost in Sydney’s sprawl in a way other Australian film festivals have been able to combat) and one which attracts a younger, ‘future’ audience (which, with some concessions admittedly, MIFF has been successful in doing in recent years).
So let’s get down to discussing some of the films. One of the most surprising aspects of SFF in 2003 was the quality of the American films that were shown. American independent or non-mainstream cinema is seldom a highlight of such festivals – and never in my own past experience – but many of the most significant and satisfying films this year emerged from within this cinema (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor  – the film that replaced Ken Park – Gus van Sant’s somewhat lost, Bela Tarr inflected Gerry , and Peter Sollett’s Scorsese-lite but sometimes commanding and generally lyrical Raising Victor Vargas ) or on its margins (such as Auto Focus and Frederick Wiseman’s Domestic Violence 2 ). There is little that links this collection of films, though Schrader’s film and George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) (one of sell-out films at the Festival) do contain many similarities which help delineate the superiority of the former, coolly disturbing work over the latter. Clooney’s often-deft film is potentially fascinating as it follows the life of Gong Show impresario Chuck Barris, and his supposed double life as a C.I.A. assassin. Based on Barris’ fantastical and factually dubious book the film places everything within ‘quotation marks,’ with the wearying effect that everything seems weightless, more likely bullshit than not (surely a more interesting approach would have tested the veracity of some of Barris’ claims, needing perhaps, heaven forbid, a filmmaker like Oliver Stone). Written by the clever but increasingly tiresome Charlie Kaufman (who, one imagines, will disappear up his own asshole one day very soon) it also features another toneless performance by Julia Roberts. Auto-Focus is a considerably more assured and intriguing film, exploring, in typical Schrader fashion, the seedy underbelly masked by the bucolic canned laughter of a ’60s sitcom. Telling the story of Bob Crane, Colonel Hogan on the long-running Hogan’s Heroes, it delves into the compulsive, auto-erotic world of a nascent home video, focusing on the repetitive sexual exploits of Crane and his increasingly disturbed video-buddy, played by Daniel Defoe. Difficult to place, the film has a chilly sheen which spookily glosses over its implicit critique of anodyne American sexuality.
Two American documentaries, Comandante (Oliver Stone, 2003) and Domestic Violence 2, illustrate vastly different approaches to their subject. Wiseman’s film relies upon a disturbing patina of repetition also encountered by Schrader, but in the service of a devastating but characteristically distanced portrait of the legal system’s attempts to adjudicate in cases of domestic violence. Wiseman’s fixed-gaze aesthetic is everywhere in the film but he is also categorically absent. Stone’s Comandante takes an opposite approach to its almost too-familiar (as caricature) subject, at turns both fascinating and embarrassing in its ‘revelation’/dismantling of the director’s hagiographical approach to and chummy ‘personal’ relationship with Fidel Castro. Throughout the film, Stone has an uncanny ability to virtually never follow through on a line of critical questioning, and, unlike Wiseman (but very like Mike Moore) is almost always a pictorial presence in front of the camera. Stone’s deeply flawed but often fascinating earlier films on ’60s political icons – JFK (1991) and the underrated Nixon (1995) – provide more nuanced and strangely equivocal views of their subjects. Let’s hope he doesn’t complete the circle with portraits of Ho Chi-Minh and Nikita Khrushchev.
The retrospective component of the SFF program – though a little disappointing to anyone with an on-going, active interest in film history – did, nevertheless, provide an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the Festival (covering films screened throughout the first 50 years of the Festival). It is admittedly unfair to compare the quality of those films chosen – by past Directors – with the contemporary films in the Festival, but they did provide illuminating insights into programming practices and emphases at particular times. Though not a greatest hits package as such, the retrospective did highlight the different reasons why particular films and national cinemas might dominate programming at any particular point; the choice of Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1985), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), for example, partly standing in for the importance of specific cinemas, and the often vanguard nature of individual films, at particular points in time. The retrospective possibly played too heavily on films that have been available for screening or were important for political as much as aesthetic reasons (though these categories are not always easily separable), but the opportunity to see such rare films as Theo Angelopoulos’ visionary Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) should be applauded. The dreamy rigour and inclement physicality of the film helped provide a stark contrast to the multitude of less visionary and more stolid works which dominated the program – cue Jo Kennedy’s Lantana-esque The Forest (2003), Gillies MacKinnon’s Pure (2002), Lone Scherfig’s self-consciously ‘dark’ and quirkily ingratiating Wilbur wants to Kill Himself (2002), and Patrice Leconte’s tedious, fly-weight two-hander for Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort, The Man on the Train (2002). Though not as potentially revelatory as several retrospectives of recent years (e.g. Jean Eustache in 2002), this spotlight (running to 17 features) nevertheless cast an interesting light upon the strengths and weaknesses of both the past and current Festival (and this, ultimately, was a good thing). Melbourne’s similar moment of self-reflection in 2001 produced a much more half-hearted and solipsistic response. Both the “Bright Sparks” programs (celebrating past winners of the SFF’s short film awards) and the “Persistence of Vision: Fifty Years of the Sydney Film Festival” symposium were also welcome, substantive additions that added to the scope of program.
Ultimately, the main highlights of the Festival came in parts or individual images. Aesthetically the most impressive and interesting films I saw were Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002) and György Pálfi’s Hukkle (2002). Denis’ film might seem slight or even somewhat chaste within the context of the sexually explicit trends of contemporary French cinema, but her somewhat whimsical account of a one-night stand is an acutely sensual piece of filmmaking, its emphasis less on plot, dialogue or even moral implication, than colour, texture and the visceral sensations of touch, taste and smell. In this respect, it has something in common with Chantal Akerman’s somewhat cooler (and some might say sillier) Night and Day (1991). This may make it sound like a kind of experimental film, but its warm focus on the elemental nature of experience (in this respect not so far removed from Beau Travail ) seemed totally in keeping with its dramatic emphasis. In its ‘architectural’ representation of a Parisian traffic-jam it also evoked the work of Fellini (Roma ) and Tati (Play Time ). Hukkle provided an equally impressionistic view of everyday life and ‘murder’ within a small Hungarian village. Someone in the audience suggested it was like a cross between Twin Peaks and Microcosmos, but the film seemed more systematically concerned than either of those works with alternating between a close-up view of its characters and the detail of the world around them and a view from a much more distanced perspective (the above films are useful ‘mainstream’ art-house correlatives but only if combined with or filtered through Malick’s Days of Heaven  and Akerman’s D’Est ). Though not always successful in its shifts of perspective and tone, it did provide several of the most eye-popping moments in the whole Festival.
So, for a festival that was dominated by a debate about the increasing conservativeness of the Australian censorship system, SFF (2003) was surprisingly safe, tame and undemanding in its choice of films and range of experience (though often enjoyable, few films truly challenged or charted new territory aesthetically or thematically). As is common these days, the much-touted crowd-pleasers which dominated the audience vote for the most popular fiction films – revealed at the close of the Festival – were mostly either of only average quality or amongst the worst films on display. That Cédric Klapisch’s rarely funny sub-Amèlie portrait of a group of multi-national European back-packers holed-up in an over-crowded Barcelona apartment – The Spanish Apartment (2002) – won both the most popular film and the jury’s Prix UIP award for best European film, says something about both the low expectations of the audience (who in the case of the screening I went to tried extremely hard to have a good time) and the weak (and limited) range of European films programmed. Thank goodness that Andrei Konchalovsky’s absurdly undisciplined and overwrought allegory of recent Russian history – whose first 15 minutes, in which characters in a mental hospital spontaneously break into brief moments of dance, is amongst the worst I have ever seen at any festival – House of Fools (2002) won no awards and only polled eighth most popular film overall.
Rather than the seared-into-my-brain-for-eternity visage of Bryan Adams performing, music video-style, on a train speeding through the Russian landscape – a nightmare fantasy which kept returning in the film and which truly should have been banned by the censorship board – that palls across Konchalovsky’s film (and my memory of the Festival), I’d rather conclude with a couple of other brief, more touching moments and observations of my nine days spent at SFF. The two best Australian films that I saw were Tom Zubrycki’s Molly and Mobarak – ostensibly about an Afghan refugee and his bittersweet experiences in a NSW country town – and Ruth Cullen’s Becoming Julia – intimately revealing the life of Julia, a pre-operative transsexual. Both films were followed by moving question-and-answer sessions that for once extended the Festival beyond the boundaries of what was presented on the screen, bringing together the filmmakers and the subjects they so humanistically and touchingly represented on film. Such small moments were also the highpoint of Catherine Breillat’s otherwise disappointing Sex is Comedy (2002) (in my opinion, there are few more overrated filmmakers in contemporary cinema). The way Breillat’s film moves towards its quiet – and surprisingly intense – sex scene put further into relief the increasingly bombastic and relatively dichotomous arguments that dominated discussion of the banning of Ken Park. Instead, Sex is Comedy focuses in intimate detail on the filming of what might seem to be a matter-of-fact, but relatively explicit sex scene. The film builds to this scene, vacillating around it with a series of sub-Irma Vep (which was itself sub-Day for Night) observations about the everyday banality of filmmaking. Thus, nothing in the banal foreplay of the rest of the film prepares us for the intensity of this sex scene, and the focus it places on the bodies, faces and fragile emotions of its participants. Ultimately, its effect subsided, leaving few lasting impressions or deeply felt memories. Not unlike the Sydney Film Festival itself in 2003, actually.
Best 5 films of the Festival:
1. Friday Night (Claire Denis)
2. Suspended Step of the Stork (Theo Angelopoulus)
3. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
4. Domestic Violence 2 (Frederick Wiseman)
5. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
Worst 5 films of the Festival:
1. House of Fools (Andrei Konchalovsky)
2. Watermark (Georgina Willis)
3. The Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte)
4. The Spanish Apartment (Cedric Klapich)
5. Preservation (Sofya Gollan)