2-12 August 2007
In the first days of the Festival news came through in quick succession of the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni which resulted in an outbreak of nostalgia by those who can recall arthouse cinema’s supposed halcyon days in the 1960s. While there was a certain excitement then in discovering films of Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, Bergman, Antonioni and Fellini the story is a mixed one. These discoveries were often made on small cinema screens in converted newsreel theatrettes with prints frequently cut by the censor. By mid-decade Bergman’s boldest engagements with narrative, Persona (with several minutes cut), Skammen (Shame), Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf) and En passion (A Passion) were being given only perfunctory releases as were the third of fourth films of the what is now regarded as the seminal Antonionian tetralogy, L’eclisse and Il deserto rosso. Some films with Australian distributors such as À bout de souffle, Viridiana and Une Femme mariée did not make it beyond the censor’s screening room at all.
In a similarly nostalgic vein comparisons are often made between the film festivals of the time and contemporary festivals, to the latter’s detriment, the claim being made that the succession of masterpieces that graced festival screens in those years is not matched in today’s festivals. In the ‘60s festivals were actually not at the forefront of placing the path-breaking European films on Australian screens to the same extent that they are now with Asian cinema, the explanation being that many of the films by key European filmmakers were then being given some kind of release on the increasing number of arthouse screens, at least in Sydney and Melbourne. The more formidable barrier in the ‘60s was not so much the vagaries of commercial distribution as those of censorship.
More than ever the Brisbane International Film Festival (popularly known as BIFF) in 2007 confirmed East Asian filmmakers’ current place in the forefront of the renewal of the art analogous to that of European cinema in the early ‘60s. The sudden intimations of path-breaking European cinema brought about by the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni had faint echoes in some of the films, mostly East Asian, on offer at BIFF this year.
Hong Sang-soo’s Haebyonui yoin (Woman on the Beach) brought to mind Eric Rohmer’s contes moraux sans Rohmer’s neoclassical literary refinement. Hong views his characters with quiet irony and ambiguity injected with abrasive humour in a relatively plotless concentration on an ensemble of young people with an element of what might be playful self critique (the central character is a film director with writer’s block). There is also a touch of une nouvelle vague play with the interaction between fiction and non-fiction in Xiaolu Guo’s debut feature Jin tian de yu zen me yang? (How is Your Fish Today?) In the words of the Variety critic (1) “documentary bleeds into fiction” during the traversing of China by train from south to a remote northern border town with the film’s co-writer Rao Hui appearing as himself on the screen while narrating the fictional man-on-the-train escaping a murder he has committed. The strong sense of a contingent reinvention of film narrative reminiscent of the breaking of the French New Wave is also present in Ying Liang’s blend of fiction and non-fiction bordering at times on the absurd in Ling yi ban (The Other Half). Although more measured in the portrayal of dislocated lives against the background of man-made environmental disaster, Jia Zhang-ke’s inflection of a surrealist edge into his vision in Sanxia haoren (Still Life) of a Chinese landscape (the Three Gorges) literally being submerged in the name of economic empowerment is a further recognition, earlier hinted at in Shijie (The World, 2004), that realism is insufficient in the face of such social and environmental trauma. Less ambiguously, the stark realism of Lai xiao zie (Walking on the Wildside), the debut feature of Han Jie, a former assistant to Jia (who also produced Han’s film), places the characters – three casually and violently aimless teenagers – in the bleak social and physical landscape of a Shanxi mining district. By taking this path Han, apparently drawing on the experience of an event in his own schooldays, implies that the cause of such hopelessness lies overwhelmingly in the environment (analogous to the neo-realism of Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] and Sciuscià [Shoeshine]) rather than implicating the boys’ inner lives (as in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados). In a form that Tony Rayns well describes as “deadpan allegory” (2) replete with an unsettling, distinctly apocalyptic dark humour recalling his Bu san (Goodbye Dragon Inn), Tsai Ming-liang deploys realism in Hei yan quan (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) like no other, in portraying existence set in Kuala Lumpur’s side streets and eerie, half finished buildings (Tsai’s first film in his home country) shrouded in smoke from Indonesian forest fires. A wayward almost casual sense of impending apocalypse is present too in another debut feature, Majimak Babsang (The Last Dining Table), by South Korean Roh Gyeong-tae. Roh dedicates his film to Roy Andersson, a Swedish filmmaker with strong surrealist affinities. It has some of the droll end-of-the-line humour and the structure as Andersson’s Sånger Från Andra Våning (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000) – a series of tableaux capturing the existential stasis of his people on the margin of society and the city (Seoul) – the unsettling undercurrent of dark humour punctuated by sudden angst to an inventively discordant soundtrack, this is both a homage to Andersson and a staking out, by Roh, of his own aesthetic. A profound sense of displacement, but of a different order, also pervades Tian Zhuangzhuang’s elliptical portrait of Wu Qingyuan, the legendary Chinese master of the chess-like Japanese game of Go, in Wu qingyuan (The Go Master), bypassing emphasis on psychological causality in favour of an impressionistic tableaux-like distillation of a spiritual struggle closer to the narrative austerity of Robert Bresson or Hou Hsiao-hsien than to the eventful linearity of a more conventional biopic.
The ennui in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s portrayal of relationships in Iklimler (Climates) recalls Antonioni without dissolving psychology into abstraction. Whether one is aware of the fact or not and without implying that Ceylan is filming the break-up of their real life relationship, the presence of the writer-director and his wife as the couple in front of the camera does introduce a certain precision to the notion of alienation more correctly expressed in Turkish culture, it seems, as spiritual anguish or hüzün.
All but a presence on BIFF screens in 2007 (see below), even more pleasurably original than I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, is Thai Apichitapong Weerasethakul’s serenely absurdist, narratively challenging Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) with its sense of both malaise and resilience, a mysterious reflection of what Weerasethakul describes as his pleasure not in remembering his parents so much as “capturing the feeling of the memory”. (3)
Priority has been given to a strong Asia-Pacific representation since the first BIFF in 1992. This is consistent with a Brisbane-based cultural strategy brought into pre-eminence by the success of the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial and the recent opening of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) replete with the twin screen Australian Cinémathèque, the site of the Festival’s Luis Buñuel retrospective. BIFF has thus continued to maintain a place in the gap earlier left by the somewhat erratic past engagement with the cinemas of the region by the southern festivals. This year new features from Asia accounted for 25% of BIFF (28 features) but only 10% of Sydney’s program (15 features) and 9% of Melbourne’s (22 features). Yet the ten most popular features as voted by BIFF audiences, including four Australian productions and one Australian co-production, were all in English; eight already have Australian distribution. Australian features also won both the awards in which they were competing with a nominated field of Asian films: the FIPRESCI Jury for Asia-Pacific film selected Tony Ayres’ The Home Song Stories with the BIFF Interfaith Award for Humanitarian Values going to Dee McLachlan’s The Jammed. The preference of a substantial majority of festival goers would seem from this evidence to be for a mix of the parochial and the relatively familiar preferably without the necessity of subtitles to which might be added hot new titles from the main events in major festivals such as Cannes. In this context retrospectives are likely to register as arcane offerings for the dedicated cinephile who in turn might see their presence in a festival program more than anything as the harbinger of impossible choices.
Retrospectives have been an ongoing feature of BIFF from the first festival in 1992 which included five films of Agnès Varda (who was also a guest of the Festival) and her husband Jacques Demy and four films of the veteran Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. The greatest problem for the festival goer has been to fit retro screenings into a crowded viewing schedule which was made a little easier this year by the screening of three of the films twice (retro films normally only have one screening). This year’s retrospective was Buñuel in Mexico featuring 11 of the 20 productions and co-productions that Buñuel directed during his time in Mexico the series ranging from Los Olvidados (1950) to Simón del Desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965) with El (1953), Abismos de pasión (Wuthering Heights, 1954), Ilusión viaja en tranvia (Illusion Travels by Streetcar, 1954), El rio y la muerte (The River and Death, 1955), Ensayo de un crimen (Archibaldo De La Cruz, 1955), Nazarín (1959), The Young One (1960), La Fièvre mont à El Pao (Fever Mounts at El Pao, 1959) and El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962).
The majority of his Mexican films were made from scripts not of Buñuel’s choosing, genre films shot mostly on three week schedules – melodramas and comedies, even a musical. Oscar Dancingers who produced nine of the Mexican films nevertheless promised him a free hand on every third feature if he kept costs down. One of Buñuel’s most personal films, El, was the result of this arrangement. He was able to form close partnerships with two writers Luis Alcoriza (for seven films) and Julio Alejandro for three Mexican films (and later Tristana, 1970) and he invariably had a hand in shaping the screenplay and claimed in his autobiography that he “never made a single scene that compromised my convictions or my personal morality”. (4) Films like Los Olvidados, Nazarin and The Young One show that Buñuel was not against realism only against its acceptance as sufficient. It is a means of drawing us into the world in order to contaminate reality and throw realism’s insufficiency into relief. Dreams in Buñuel are coextensive with the everyday, they are not contained at a safe distance from it. His Mexican period is also something of a rebuttal to those who still insist on confining surrealism in the modernist avant garde and quarantining Un Chien andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’or (1930) as almost the only truly surrealist films. A surrealist engagement with the subversive potential of popular culture can be found in Buñuel’s injection of black comedy into a melodrama such as El which Lacan used for years in the classroom as an illustration of Freud’s theory that paranoia results from repressed homosexuality, (5) or Buñuel’s demonstration in The River and Death of how mythic conventions of the Mexican way of death could be deployed in an anti-western many years ahead of its time in what Raymond Durgnat called “a study in the dialectic of individuality and communal spirit”. (6) Andrew Sarris characteristically coined a nice paradox by claiming that Buñuel “could have been one of Us” except that Sarris’s rider that Buñuel “hated everything that Hollywood stood for” (7) is demonstrably not true. After all, one of Buñuel’s favourite films, Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948), was the labour of love of an archetypal Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick. In his demonstrated ability to work in an industry framework without compromising his surrealist affinities the Mexican period also offers plenty of evidence to the contrary although it is unlikely that Buñuel could have achieved the relative collaborative freedom in the Hollywood studio contract system, with its strict division of labour, that he did in the Mexican industry especially in the political climate of the time that obliged him to pursue a career south of the border.
In continuing to give this kind of space and resources to retrospectives BIFF yields more rewards than a small minority has a right to expect of a festival struggling with a seemingly indifferent constituency. Despite its value, Bunuel in Mexico attracted a disappointingly low attendance per session similar to the results of BIFF’s Ozu retrospective a few years back. It did conclude with a well attended forum but one wonders if BIFF might be better served leaving the challenges of finding a respectable audience in Brisbane for such series to the new Australian Cinémathèque in the GOMA which provided state of the art projection and live subtitling for most of the (unsubtitled) prints from the Film Archive at the National University of Mexico. Within three weeks of the Festival GOMA was offering, free to the public over three months, a 120 film celebration of 50 years of the French New Wave.
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It is no longer the truism of a decade ago that the technology of the cinema has remained essentially unchanged for 100 years. While 35mm film still continues to tenuously dominate as the projection medium, more and more films are projected on festival screens either directly via a digital format or by transfer from HD digital to film. To take three such transfers in BIFF: Climates shot on HD looked to me indistinguishable from 35mm, Still Life had a digital texture that was not at odds with the film while Inland Empire was often distractingly “soft”. It is most strikingly obtrusive in the early scenes when Lynch seems intent on drawing us into the narrative, seductively issuing an invitation only to slowly begin to ease the door shut on any conventional notion of cause and effect. The out of focus images of a “bad quality” which Lynch seems to have deliberately embraced by choosing a cheap video camera which he operated himself not for economy reasons but because he likes both the freedom and the effect. He sees this as similar to ‘30s soft focus which he problematically describes as “impressionistic” or like a moving painting that he says, also problematically, “gives you room to dream”, (8) a claim that seems to be at odds with the dream life, so often vivid and “in focus”. If Lynch’s deliberate use of “soft focus” in Inland Empire is rather contrary to the surrealist rejection of aesthetic effect, his way of developing the screenplay would seem to bear some relation to automatic writing.
Described in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis as “a baroque entertainment with one foot in silent cinema and the other gingerly toeing the sound waves”, (9) Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! is a transgressively demented flood of images and inter-titles at an average shot length, it seems to me, of less than 24 frames or somewhere between 5-6000 images in 95 minutes, staking a claim in the canon of phenomenological extremity of the cinema, along with films like Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) (although at the opposite end of the spectrum) and Michael Snow’s La Région centrale (1970-71). Ms Dargis also informs us that Maddin presents his film in person as a happening on occasions with live sound from an orchestra, several foley artists and a narrator who Maddin insists is a castrato.
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Festivals in the ‘60s were less complex beasts because a subscriber became part of what was in essence a captive audience. Once the decision was made to become a subscriber it was quite feasible to see every film on the program at no additional cost. At the 1968 Sydney Film Festival (SFF), for example, there were a total of 28 sessions over 13 days on a single screen, less than one-tenth of the sessions and films screened at the SFF in 2007. Of the 26 features, 20 were of European or Soviet origin with a single feature length documentary in the program. There was a greater sense of shared experience – a community of festival goers in cinemas accommodating up to 2000 or more for a series of single screenings open simultaneously to all subscribers. In its place is now a segmented program spread across a number of venues aimed more often than not at niche audiences making its promotion more complex. Not only is the range and number of films now on offer so much greater but a series of national film events presented by a mix of commercial and cultural interests – French, Italian, Spanish, Russian – spread throughout the year present a form of competition to the main event in that they pre-empt, in their selections, possible festival screenings of films from countries that have historically been staples of arthouse cinema. The problem for a festival like BIFF is not, however, availability of variety and quality but that of focus – how to engage audience interest in a program dominated by the unfamiliar – the cultural “other” – and the exotic leavened with titles that excite a recognition factor: mostly new Australian features and films that are already scheduled for release by an Australian distributor generally dominated by European and American independent productions; 30 (31%) of the features in BIFF this year have an Australian distributor. Of these only three were from Asia. To further complicate matters no longer are festivals seen simply as showcases by distributors. Increasingly since the ‘80s festivals have been required to pay substantial rentals to distributors for many of the films they screen. In some cases the international festival circuit is a major source of income for specialist distributors and producers so limited are the prospects of a number of films for normal commercial art house distribution in regional markets.
There have been major changes this year at the helm of each of the three film festivals in the eastern states: new directors in Sydney and Melbourne and a change of status for Anne Demy-Geroe formerly Artistic Director of the BIFF for virtually the whole of its 16 years, now Executive Director for the first time. Close scrutiny of the respective programs for 2007 reveals a broadly common structure shared with the mainstream festivals around the world – international outreach balanced by regional emphases, fiction by non-fiction, state of the art and cutting edge experiment by retrospectives and a generous serving of short films – but with significant variations. This reflects both the differences in scale between the Australian festivals and the different history of each festival. Melbourne (MIFF) and Sydney are amongst the world’s longest running festivals while Brisbane remains a relative newcomer. Now in its 16th year, its emergence in the early ‘90s was then viewed askance by the senior festivals down south. With the solid backing of the State government Brisbane quickly sought to establish its credentials by bringing on board former SFF Director David Stratton and the expertise of Tony Rayns as consultant on Asian cinema reflecting the intention to take an Australian lead in showcasing Asia-Pacific cinema. By the third Festival former MIFF director Geoff Gardner had also been coopted as a program consultant. David Stratton has continued his association with Brisbane primarily through hosting the Chauvel award for significant contribution to the Australian film industry. This year David himself was the recipient of the 15th award.
Brisbane is the shortest of the three festivals with the smallest number of seats to fill. This year Melbourne had approximately 400 sessions, Sydney 300 and Brisbane 230 more than four times the number of sessions at the first BIFF in 1992; aggregate attendance has increased around threefold in the same period.
After years of relatively rapid growth, attendance to the “core” program which has regularly been favourably compared with those of the southern festivals, in recent years has been relatively static. The additional numbers have come mainly from outreach events such as the Cine Sparks festival for young people (free to school groups) and free open air public screenings spread around the suburbs (BIFF in the Burbs), this year a retrospective of the films (one feature per suburb) of the Festival patron George Miller. In 2006 the screenings in these two categories (Cine Sparks and free public) generated an audience that produced a new record aggregate for the Festival of more than 31,000. Reduced funding for Cine Sparks in 2007 has resulted in its substantial scaling down after several years of pioneering work by BIFF. This has meant an overall decline in aggregate attendances for BIFF over last year’s figures.
The average per session attendance to the “core” festival grew by a modest 5 % this year due mainly to increased attendances to English language features. The best attended Asian films were the Oscar nominee and the only Asian film in the program with a major Australian distributor, the China/Hong Kong co-production Ye yan (The Banquet, Feng Xiaogang) which is clearly aimed at a wide international audience, Valley of Flowers, an epic tale of passion, death and reincarnation from Indian writer-director Pan Nalin, Sankara with a Buddhist theme from Sri Lanka, Hiroshi Kore-eda’s revisionist samurai film Hana yori mo hano (Hana), a South Korean genre bending crime thriller Jjakpae (The City of Violence, Ryoo Seung-wan), Tachigui: the Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters (see below) and Kubrador (The Bet Collector), a multiple award winner from the Philippines which also won the NETPAC award for Asian Cinema at BIFF.
BIFF’s tear sheet rating system, averaging around 40% returns per screening, provides useful information on audience response. There is not a subtitle visible on the screen for any of the films with the strongest positive audience consensus: Unfinished Sky, The Home Song Stories, Death at a Funeral, Control, a Canadian feature Away from Her, the Irish “arthouse musical” Once, all with local release pending, and a documentary stalking the MPAA’s self serving secretiveness in the regulation of film classification in the USA, This Film is Not Rated. The films that most divided audiences were Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle toujours (a double bill with Belle de Jour required!), Bruno Dumont’s powerful but disconcertingly inconclusive Flanders, Ying Liang’s The Other Half, Han Jie’s Walking on the Wildside and a late evening full house for Oshii Mamoru’s Tachigui discovering that Japanese postwar history through the lives of fictitious food grifters delivered as a rapid fire “lecture” behind images generated by Mamoru’s new “liveanimation” technique does not amount to another Ghost in the Shell.
If program share is taken as the criterion BIFF seems to have given lower priority in 2007 to non-fiction film. Excluding music films, Sydney and Melbourne each screened around 45 docs (respectively 19% and 23% of feature length films) while BIFF screened only 14 (12%). Adelaide, a festival of similar size to BIFF, screened more than twice that number. Several of those programmed – Rumi: Poetry of Islam (Houchang Allahyari and Tom Dariusch Allahyari), tracing the life eight centuries ago of the eminent philosopher and mystical poet of Islam, Sound of the Soul (Stephen Olsson) celebrating the annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco and the previously mentioned This Film is Not Rated (Kirby Dick) – drew above average audience numbers. There would seem to be plenty of scope, however, to expand and broaden the appeal of this section of the program in 2008.
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More than 200 film festivals worldwide represent a third circuit outside the mainstream multiplexes and arthouses serving distribution within national boundaries, the festival circuit overlapping with the latter. Eighty per cent of festivals are concentrated in Western Europe, Scandinavia, the US and Canada. Only 10 % are in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East (one third of those in Israel) with the balance in Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. The only listed film festival in the whole of the African continent is in South Africa. (10) To an extent this concentration produces something of a closed cultural system with a select number of feature length fiction and non-fiction films circulating under the imprimatur of “the best of current world cinema”. This circuit rests on a kind of paradox. The majority of films “representing” a national cinema have little or no audience in their countries of origin finding an international middle-class audience in the festivals. (11) It would seem to be quite feasible for a feature film to gross US$50,000 or more in rentals on the circuit, much of this effectively met by public subsidy central to the system although a high proportion of this would be absorbed in the administrative and print costs involved in servicing festivals. Some of the most prominent festival auteurs such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Theo Angelopoulos, Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Guy Maddin, Apichatapong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhang-ke, find most of their audience in festival screenings their films registering more in critical acclaim and awards than in audience numbers. The breaking of the nexus between commercial arthouse release and festival exposure for culturally innovative and internationally cutting edge work, has been a product of the growth of the number of festivals which began to gather pace in the 1970s and ‘80s. Effectively the reputation of films by filmmakers such as those listed above, are created on the international circuit with the main subsequent release being on DVD rather than theatrically by regional distributors.
The imperatives driving festival programmers would seem to pull in several distinct but often complementary directions. The showcasing of new feature films from within a festival’s country or region and other features with local release pending largely sell themselves and account for a disproportionate share of the most popular and best attended screenings.
It has also become a mark of the circuit that a festival has in its program films the presence of which also act as a confirmation of its credentials. Examples of “core” circuit films that screened at all three Australian festivals on the east coast in 2007 are Belle toujours (France), Bunny Chow (South Africa), Hana (Japan), How Is Your Fish Today? (China/UK), Brand Upon the Brain! (Canada), I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Taiwan/Austria), Shotgun Stories (USA), The Witnesses (France), Bella (USA), Woman on the Beach (South Korea), Still Life (China/Hong Kong), Opera Jawa (Indonesia/Austria) with Syndromes and a Century (Thailand/Austria) not screening in BIFF only because it had already received its Brisbane premiere in the presence of the filmmaker at the GOMA’s Cinémathèque. (12) These films and more than a dozen others screened at BIFF will appear on festival screens around the world during 2006-08 this most likely being their only appearance on a cinema screen in the region serviced by the festival. While including indies from North America and European films that are more likely to be picked up for arthouse release they also include films from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America, most often co-productions dependent on European finance, a mix of state of the art and cultural “otherness” whose only appearances on cinema screens is likely to be at film festivals and similar cultural events. Along with experimental work, more often these days coined “cutting edge” and documentaries that may set the parameters but can too often be seen as worthy rather than immediately engaging, a substantial representation of these “core” features and the like can rightly be seen by critics and aficionados as a primary raison d’être for an international festival. Faced with a rising cost pressures without commensurate increases in box office revenue and demand from sponsors both private and public for a popular profile, this raison, for a festival like BIFF, is also its greatest challenge.
Brisbane International Film Festival website: http://www.biff.com.au
- Variety, 9 May, 2007.
- Vancouver International Film Festival Catalogue 2007, p. 72.
- Sight & Sound, October 2007, p. 47.
- My Last Sigh, Vintage Books, 1984, p. 198.
- Bill Krohn; Paul Duncan (ed), Luis Buñuel Chimera 1900-83, Taschen, Cologne and London, 2005, p. 97.
- Luis Buñuel, Studio Vista, London, 1967, p. 95.
- The American Cinema, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1968, p. 147.
- Interview with David Lynch, Sight & Sound, March 2007, p. 19.
- New York Times, 22 January, 2007.
- Based on the listings of the highest profile international festivals in Variety International Film Guide 2006. Its parent publication Variety has identified a total of around 1000 film festivals of differing complexions worldwide. In Australia, for example, other festivals include the Revelation Film Festival (Perth), the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, the long running St Kilda Short Film Festival, animation festivals in Melbourne and Brisbane, Queer film festivals in most capital cities and the OtherFilm Festival (Brisbane).
- There are notable examples of governments using the festival circuit to ameliorate the image of political repression, the most notable being the circulation of Cinema Novo films to festivals in the ‘60s while they were banned from home screenings, a form of “repressive tolerance” by Brazil’s then military junta. Recent, if more ambiguous, examples have been some films from Iran and mainland China screening on the circuit.
- In 2007 BIFF shared 34 features with MIFF and 37 features with the SFF or approximately one-third of the features screened in Brisbane. The titles in bold also screened at the Adelaide Film Festival 5 months earlier in March.