When the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) rolls around in early August, that final month of winter always feels a little warmer in Melbourne, Australia. The festival’s 69th inception was planned to be its big comeback after having to significantly minimise their program and move online in 2020. Although plans were made and tickets were bought for a glorious week of in cinema and drive-in screenings, complimented by a range of online offerings, the recent string of lockdowns in Melbourne put a sad halt to all of the in person festivities this year. The week before MIFF finally cancelled their in-person screenings felt like everything was in disarray. Cineastes were on the edge of their seats, constantly eyeing their phones for an update on the proceedings while the rest of the city began to tremor once more under the weight of the pandemic (and now, as I’m writing this, literally tremor under a 6.0 magnitude earthquake!). But alas, the show must go on! MIFF chose to screen their program online for the two week duration of the festival. In lieu of the dropped headliners such as Leos Carax’s latest musical epic Annette (2021), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film out of his native Thailand Memoria (2021) and Janicza Bravo’s Zola (2020), a crime, road movie, which is the only film I know of that’s been adapted from a Twitter thread, MIFF announced that they would add more titles to the already large amount of online offerings, from the likes of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s latest scaled back saga Genus Pan (2020) and the posthumous release from Orson Welles Hopper/Welles (2020), which charts an intimate, drunken conversation between Welles and Dennis Hopper in 1970 to name a few, fleshing out the online program up to over 100 features and short films.
So for better or worse I traded away the cold, dreary streets of Melbourne to attend the festival virtually, stowed away on my lonesome with my trusty projector in Bogong Village in the foothills of the Victorian Alps here in Australia, where I was taking part in a field recording project, recording the soundscapes of the high alps region. Irrespective of state mandated self-isolation, Bogong Village can be a pretty lonely place with only myself visiting and two other people that actually live in the Village. While I did my best to imitate a cinematic viewing experience, I truly missed waiting around in the long lines that stretched for a block or two, to get into a crowded, sold out screening at one of Melbourne’s heritage theatres. Hell, at this point I even miss seeing films at Hoyts! (For anyone that isn’t familiar with Australian filmgoing, Hoyts is a franchise that normally screens commercial trash and their decor matches this vibe. You can imagine how bemused I was watching Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book (Le Livre D’Image, 2018) there back at MIFF 2018!)
Ultimately, this social isolation and nostalgia for past festivals seemed to colour everything I watched at MIFF 2021. As such, the films that really stood out were the ones that took me beyond the cold white glow of the screen in my dark room and into the world, into places where I could experience community and be reminded of the intimate relationships we share with the world and each other. Although the cinema has always been seen as the ideal environment to watch a film, experiencing these films at home has the capacity to inspire and imbue something that feels a lot more personal. By experiencing these films in our homes, the separation between us and the film becomes quite small. You can always leave a theatre at the end of the film, but in a time where you can’t leave your home, there’s no true escape from the reflections the films may cast.
At the beginning of MIFF I watched Alexandre Koberidze’s sophomore feature and FIRPESCI Prize winning film, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (2020) The film, centering on a Kafkaesque love story, is captured in a series of romantic, cinéma vérité-like increments, shot in a transfixing blend of digital and 16mm photography. Footballer Giorgi (Giorgi Bochorishvili) and pharmacist Lisa (Ani Karseladze) spontaneously bump into each other one summer afternoon and make plans to go on a date, only to be cursed by an unseen evil eye. They wake up in different bodies, doomed to never recognise each other and requite their love.
The diegesis takes its cue from fairytales and folklore, transposed onto the quotidian happenings in the gorgeous, Georgian city of Kutaisi. The roaring Rioni River cuts through the city, alongside cobbled stone walkways and bridges echoing the fairytale dynamic of the diegesis, further underscored by the audience’s guide who emerges through voice over narration who gives a voice to the fantastical apparitions and canine companions of Kutaisi. These apparitions are embodied in inanimate streetlights and flowers, underscoring the fairytale dynamic, like the light Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. Hence the film often blends a neorealist style with a heightened aestheticism in the dramatisation of Kutaisi. It’s as if the city itself is the glue between reality and fantasy.
A sequence of the Rioni River ultimately breaks these conventions, leading to a moment of true fourth wall shattering ingenuity. As we watch a rogue soccer ball being swept under the waves of the raging river, Koberidze takes over the role of narrator to question the very nature of filmmaking during a time of global unrest. Festering beneath Koberidze’s metatextual musings, these powerful waves come to reflect this unstable world and the futility of cinema to truly represent or even attempt to change it. This is the film’s most personal and poignant moment, by completely breaking the illusion of cinema. It’s a feat few directors would attempt so directly, it asks the audience to truly question how we shape our world through our own personal experiences and how that can be a beautiful thing to do.
In a similar fashion, Tsai Ming-liang’s return to feature filmmaking with his latest film Days (2020), similarly draws upon the metatextual. Ming-liang forgos a script and instead constructs a new narrative through sewing together archival footage of his dual leads, long time muse Lee Kang-sheng and first time actor Anong Houngheuangsy, from over the last five years.
Ming-liang had documented their lives on and off throughout these years, filming Houngheuangsy as he went about his daily life, frequenting Bangkok night markets as well as cooking and praying in his tiny apartment. Kang-sheng reckons with the side effects of a minor stroke and a neck injury, drawing an uncanny parallel to his younger self in the iconic 1997 film The River (Tsai Ming-liang), where his character similarly spends the film trying to treat a mysterious neck injury.
Ming-liang’s seamless blend of reality and fiction in Days sees him taking inspiration from his recent gallery video artworks which are also reconstructed from archive footage that document his subjects as they silently make their way through the world. The influence of this work on Days fills the screen with a sense of immediacy, imbuing the film with a heightened level of sensuality that slowly seeps in until it finally bursts when the two men finally come together, only to part. Ming-liang has said this scene, which stands out as one of the most heartwarming and sentimental in his entire filmography, was constructed to recreate a real life moment he had shared with Houngheuangsy. It’s a scene that feels so personal and yet so universal at the same time, capturing the entire essence and resounding power of human connection through a small, heartfelt gesture, in a time where we’re seemingly so close to each other yet so inexplicably far apart. We need films like Days to show us that we’re not so alone in the world.
Another film that traces the connection, coming together and falling apart of two people is Orson Welles’ Hopper/Welles. The film charts a drunken conversation between these two heavyweights of cinema, or more accurately, Welles’ drunken interrogation of Hopper. The conversation is shot by Welles in a style that echoes the dizzying cinematography of The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962). I think being cornered and interrogated in a bar by an inebriated Welles would actually be my worst nightmare, even though I love the man with all my heart.
Yet the most intriguing facet of this conversation – aside from Hopper lamenting how his mother treated him as a child (only to turn around and say he wished he could have slept with her) is the revelation of how these two directors’ careers almost seem to parallel each other. We all know the story of Welles who in 1941, at the age of 25, directed and starred in his first film Citizen Kane (1941). This changed cinema as we know it. Similarly, 28 years later in 1969 Hopper directed and starred in his first film Easy Rider, which ushered in a new age of American cinema. Their careers are an anomaly that few filmmakers can match. At the time of this interview, they again seemed to be travelling on a similar trajectory. The conversation was initially set up by Welles as a screen test for The Other Side Of The Wind (2018), which was left unfinished for decades due to a lack of funding and Welles death in 1985. Until Netflix ultimately financed a restoration in 2018.
Likewise, Hopper was facing his own troubles at the time. The maverick was editing the highly anticipated sequel to Easy Rider, The Last Movie (1971), which had already gone infamously over budget and over schedule. Unlike Welles, Hopper would release the film a year later. However, the film was a critical and commercial flop upon release, taken out of rotation and shelved for a number of years. Almost ending Hoppers’ career. Fortunately, like The Other Side Of The Wind, The Last Movie has since been critically reconsidered and coincidentally, was also restored in 2018 (what a year for cinema!). It’s truly incredible how closely their careers resembled each other. While I wish their conversation focussed on a critical interrogation of each other’s work, I’m also grateful that a document of this meeting exists and that it’s finally seeing the light of day and the darkness of my home cinema.
The closing night feature, Language Lessons (2021) where director Natalie Morales stars alongside Mark Duplass tells the story of two characters who form a close platonic friendship through online Spanish lessons. What starts as an intimate, funny and heartfelt narrative descends into bereaved, tragic moments. The first of these delivers a mighty blow and happens so suddenly that it sucked the air out of the room, no doubt due to Morales and Duplass’ incredibly emotive performances. Yet the film unfortunately becomes more formulaic as their friendship is marred by a series of miscommunications which leads to a reconciliation that feels way too cliché.
In light of this, the film’s unique power emerges from being shot in its’ entirety through FaceTime. While I’m normally quite skeptical of what we’ve come to know as ‘vertical films,’ Language Lessons completely changed my perspective on the style by successfully encapsulating the joys and trials of connecting and maintaining a friendship online. Particularly because these types of cameras allow the audience to remain in a uniquely close proximity to the actors that many other films don’t permit, giving the film a deep feeling of intimacy, as if we’re a silent bystander on their video chats. In a time where many of us are still separated from friends and loved ones, it just hits that much closer to home.
Before I close this report off I did want to give an honourable mention to Taiki Sakpisit’s slow and terrifying debut feature The Edge of Daybreak (2021) that filled the screen with a quiet dread and expertly blends its sound design and score to create a truly unnerving ambiance that lingers long after the film is over. In a homage to my Maltese heritage, I also want to mention Alex Camilleri’s neorealist inspired slow burner Luzzu (2021). Set in Malta, the film does an incredible job at capturing the tensions within the country as well as its stoic beauty. Which I felt was important to showcase, as Malta’s national cinema is quite scant and the country is often merely noted as being an outpost for Hollywood and other international productions. The film also premiered at Sundance and has now been selected as the Maltese entry for the 94th Academy Awards, so I have my fingers crossed in the hope that Luzzu will help usher in a new wave of Maltese cinema.
Every film I saw at MIFF managed to serendipitously highlight the many ways in which we try to stay connected with each other while the worlds we inhabit enforce a divide. Although the start of my MIFF journey this year was tinged with sadness and longing for the electricity and excitement of past festivals, rushing through the Melbourne CBD from screening to screening, brimming with friends and strangers alike, on that final night, when I finally switched off my trusty projector and the room faded into darkness, I felt a little less alone. And with that I bid you dear reader adieu. So long, till next year where I hope MIFF will be able to hold its 70th anniversary in the cinema and we can celebrate its return together.
Melbourne International Film Festival
5-22 August 2021
Festival website: https://miff.com.au/