Taming the GardenSharing Sensations with a Community of Strangers: The 68th Sydney Film Festival Joshua J. Taylor January 2022 Festival Reports Issue 100 Mask wearing, social distancing and QR code check-ins may have become normalised practices in our everyday lives, but in the context of an international film festival they remain novel (and at times onerous) additions to the cinema-going ritual. During the 68th Sydney Film Festival last November, these new customs gave me cause to reflect on the evolving cinema experience. In the era of cinema closures, lockdown viewing and adapted festival formats, with future metamorphoses inevitable but as yet unknown, we’ve been forced to confront what we value about cinema-going, about cinemas as public spaces and the experience of being part of an audience. Our recent domesticated movie experiences might suggest a full retreat into the privacy and anonymity of our own viewing practices. We may have felt removed from our communities and shared cultural spaces for such extended periods that they began to feel alien to us; we may have only cultivated individual interests and personal responses to films. Yet, when we watch films at home, we lack a community of strangers coinhabiting the darkness. When we are isolated from our public spaces, there is no one else present to whom we are anonymous. Private viewing feels profoundly different to viewing anonymously in public. Cinemas offer the chance to retreat not into our own worlds, but shared worlds. We become anonymous in the darkness, and we bring our private fantasies and desires with us, but this anonymity is dependent on the presence of others. Such fantasies are most powerful when in tension with the fantasies of others with whom we share the sensations of light, sound and stories in the dark. The 68th Sydney Film Festival allowed me to rediscover a community of strangers, to once again become anonymous in the dark and share in cinema’s sensations. For 12 days, Sydneysiders weary from a protracted lockdown cautiously ventured back to the palatial State Theatre, as well as more humble cinemas across the city, for their first festival experience in over two years. Having mounted a limited online edition in 2020, then postponing from June to August and finally November in 2021, one could detect relief as much as excitement behind festivalgoers’ masks. At this audience-centric festival, the predominant theme of muffled and illicit foyer conversations (“Please proceed to your allocated seat!”) was gratitude – for being out of the house, back in cinemas, in front of big screens with big sound. Most of all, there was gratitude for a program bursting with highlights from two deeply disrupted but nonetheless rich years in world cinema. Memoria The decisive moments of my festival experience hinged upon this rediscovery of anonymity and the almost forgotten pleasures of publicly shared sensations. These were often sensations that leveraged the scale of the big screen and surround sound, those that would have been felt differently – or not at all – in the domestic space. The sensation of sound, in particular, was definitive. This was felt most keenly in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, the director’s most notable work since Uncle Boonmee Who Can’t Recall his Past Lives (2010) and one that comes close to matching the beguiling ambience of Tropical Malady (2004). The folds of time and memory remain a persistent and entrancing theme, and elongated durations are as present as ever, but this film marks an expansion of the director’s lexicon with a newfound focus on sound. The resonant thud that disturbs an ethereal Tilda Swinton is felt as much as it is heard – an otherworldly sound only she and the audience can hear, described as akin to a concrete ball slamming the bottom of a metallic well surrounded by seawater. Its first iteration at the conclusion of the opening credits jolted an agitated audience into stunned silence, and its sparing but persistent use thereafter sustains its power. Later, after Swinton wanders the Colombian jungle and the audience is hypnotised by an immersive, richly textured ambient soundtrack, she lays her hands on a mystic who curiously claims to have never forgotten anything; the gesture triggers a startling silence, arresting the viewer with as much force as the sonic booms. The unexpected although not entirely uncharacteristic sci-fi turn at the end of the film – reminiscent of Apichatpong’s pulp- and folk-inspired video installation Primitive (2009), as well as the take-off of the brutalist building-come-spaceship in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) – might have been divisive, but it struck me as entirely consistent with the lucid dream state into which Apichatpong and Swinton have lulled their audience. Sound also distinguished Andrea Arnold’s first foray into documentary, Cow. Arnold’s impressive observational portrait of the life of an ordinary dairy cow leans heavily on the intimacy and immediacy of a handheld camera bravely taking a place amongst the herd. Yet it is the blaring, caustic pop music coming from the workers’ radio in the milking shed that gives the film its most compelling moment. As the subject steps aboard the milking carousel, Arnold matches the diegetic music, fading in the same song on the non-diegetic soundtrack over the tinny echo of the radio. It’s an intrusive and strange moment, inconsistent with the hitherto diegetic soundtrack of squelching mud, purring tractors and (of course) mooing cattle. There is a sense Arnold is taking us deeper into the scene, no longer observing but inhabiting the aural experience of these dairy cows. But more than this, the soundtrack amplifies the uncanniness of the entire enterprise: docile creatures shepherded off grassy paddocks and latched by the teat onto mud-stained steel machines, living nodes in a complex commercial network of commodity extraction and distribution. Arnold’s manipulation of the soundtrack gestures towards what may be the film’s broader thesis: just as this bland cultural commodity has become the backing track to many everyday situations, so has the intensely strange reality of commercial dairy production become banal, obscured by the ubiquity of the products that rely on it. This idea takes on more grave implications as the subject becomes ill and is unceremoniously shot dead. Here, the shock is all the more potent amongst an audience, everyday people confronted with the cold reality behind their everyday products. Cow Different kinds of shocks punctuate Radu Jude’s satirical spectacle Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. The 2021 Golden Bear winner has been pitched to audiences as provocative and irreverent, primarily for the extended and explicit ‘porn’ video with which it begins. But this ‘porn’ is actually a private sex tape made by respected history teacher Emi and her husband, suspiciously uploaded without her consent to the internet. This distinction is important and underpins Emi’s defence against the parents of her students who have been scandalised by her (however unintentional) public display of private desire; they demand she resign in a farcical, socially-distanced kangaroo court trial in the film’s third and final part. Rather than leave it to the viewer’s imagination, the unedited presentation of the sex tape as the film’s prologue is vital to its critique: unlike the quasi-transgressive glimpses of non-simulated sex in Lars von Trier’s pretentious and self-defeating The Idiots (1998), Jude does not try to affront bourgeois taste and prudishness but expose bourgeois desire for its mundanity. Is consensual sex between a wife and her husband all that obscene? Are these not desires and actions in which we all participate? The answers are all the more self-evident compared to the grotesque nationalism, racism and sexism that are uncovered during the mock trial and that Jude explores in the film’s second part – a Brechtian A-Z dictionary sequence of terms, concepts, absurdities and atrocities that sketch out the discombobulated conditions of our contemporary age and their roots in historical traumas, illustrated equally by archival materials and digital audio-visual debris. There’s an edgy humour here that may not always land, but what Jude’s film offers is collective catharsis. Bad Luck Banging is an appropriately absurdist response to the deep divisions and discontent degrading democracies around the world, a wickedly sardonic look at the difficulties of civil discourse and what feels like the futility of liberalism in the age of misinformation, moral absolutism and face masks. The polemical energy of Bad Luck Banging stood in stark contrast to the measured tone and meticulous pacing of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. This was one of two Hamaguchi titles in this year’s program, with the charming and playful triptych Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy offering a more recognisable follow up to Asako I and II. In these films, mistaken identities, impulsive desires and moments of self-revelation spontaneously twist narratives in unexpected directions. Drive My Car, however, departs from this. Hamaguchi absorbs the masculine self-loathing typical of Haruki Murakami (on whose short story the screenplay is based) and builds a masterful slow-burn character study of a grieving, taciturn director who builds an intimate relationship with his stoic, similarly reticent chauffeur. Drive My Car For me, Hamaguchi and Jude delivered the most exciting and important pictures in the Official Competition, but in the end David Michôd’s jury awarded the Sydney Film Prize for the most “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” film to There is No Evil. No doubt, the persecuted Mohammad Rasoulof is a deserving winner for this timely and clandestinely made feature, which interrogates the impacts of Iran’s death penalty on four ordinary citizens whose ethics are troubled by their obligations as instruments of the state. However, the occasional black-and-white framing of the theme kept me at a distance. It was a nuance also somewhat lacking in Parallel Mothers. Pedro Almodóvar’s latest features a quintessentially Technicolour palette across its domestic interiors and a magnetic lead performance from Penélope Cruz, whose passionate intensity is neatly offset by the precocious poise of Milena Smit as a glamorous teen mum. Yet, the political commentary on the lingering traumas of the Spanish Civil War is too forthright. The parallel between Cruz’s lost child and the lost remains of the village’s war dead is a laboured and, in the end, banal attempt at intergenerational empathy-building. I remain sceptical of the film’s reliance on our sympathies for the maternal trials of two wealthy women with their own maids. In contrast, Salomé Jashi’s stunning eco-doco Taming the Garden keeps its politics in the background; the fantastical narrative, as well as the local villagers we encounter across Georgia, speak for themselves. Georgia’s billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has cultivated the peculiar hobby of collecting grand century-old trees, supposedly in the pursuit of a longer life. He tasks a team of men with uprooting and transporting these living relics to his own private garden. Jashi quietly observes this bizarre spectacle: towering trees are laboriously dug out of their earthen homes, roots and all; money is paid, roads are built and other trees are felled to make way; the collectibles are clumsily hoisted onto trucks and barges before finally, peacefully, they are floated down the serene Black Sea coast. These images – lonely terrestrial giants traversing a flat expanse of ocean – are strange and spectacular, compositions striking in their simplicity but unnerving in their surrealism, like scenes from a Studio Ghibli animation. But Jashi’s film is equally fascinating for the commentary of the local communities from which Ivanishvili sources his souvenirs. Speaking amongst themselves, some welcome the economic benefits, whilst others are jealous their neighbour’s tree is chosen instead of their own. Some are grateful for the construction of new roads through perilous mountain passes, whilst others lament the destruction of local environments for the benefit of one man. Some are nostalgic and sorrowful, trading memories of idyllic childhoods spent in the shade of now lost companions, whilst others are plainly indifferent to the private follies of an exceedingly rich man. What emerges is a rich tapestry of competing perspectives on the value of the natural world, intertwined with the pressures of economic need and the pursuit of private interests. Only in the final moment does Jashi offer a subtle critique of her own, when we at last arrive in Ivanishvili’s lush, mythical garden… and the sprinklers turn on. A fantasy indeed. Other politically charged docos at the festival included Frederick Wiseman’s latest study of an American institution, City Hall. Despite some rousing moments, the film feels too heavily weighted towards Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s curated public appearances, offering less of an insider’s view than the terrific Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017). I was more impressed by the urgency of Camilla Nielsson’s President, a gripping portrait of Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Nelson Chamisa as he rides a wave of popular support to the first election in the post-Mugabe era. It’s a contemporary companion to Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s seminal The War Room (1993), but where that film’s earnest depiction of the freely turning wheels of democracy now has a halcyon glow about it, Nielsson offers a view of democracy’s global ill health through truly arresting, at times devastating, verité filmmaking. As we witness first-hand the obstruction and corruption of the democratic process – both by legal farce and violent force, in scenes eerily redolent of Trump’s big lie – President reminds us that democracy is only as strong as the people and institutions entrusted with safeguarding its principles. Floating Life Discovering or revisiting classic titles from the depths of cinema history at home may have been every cinephile’s raison d’être these past two years, but there remains something special about seeing such films (often older than this author) in the cinema – something like a collective visitation to important sites in our cultural memory. At this year’s festival, there was the vivid restoration of Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi (1968) and Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996), a distinctive Australian story charting the difficulties of holding a Hong Kong diaspora family together across three continents. Dion Beebe’s memorable cinematography dazzles the viewer with the sharp light and open spaces of Australian suburbia as much as it does the émigré grandparents. This familiar setting starts to feel artificial and uncanny, as if we too had just arrived from a lifetime in bustling high-rise Hong Kong. There was also a very popular retrospective of the masterworks of Abbas Kiarostami, with eight of the director’s most revered features screening to often sold-out audiences. As we are whisked around Tehran in the incredible dialogue-driven digital experiment Ten (2002), I was once more struck by the unique sensations of the cinema experience. Kiarostami’s inventive approach, viewers perched on the dashboard of Mania Akbari’s car, allows us to bear witness to intimate and intense conversations: fierce family arguments between Akbari and her insolent son Amin; the aftermath of a marriage breakdown; the unfiltered thoughts of a street-smart sex worker who dispels women’s delusional faith in the righteousness of married men. The audience assumes a privileged but anonymous view of the minutiae of a distant place and foreign culture; this world, for a fleeting time, becomes present to us, alive to our own private experiences, desires and fantasies. Moviemaking continues to evolve since Kiarostami mounted those digital cameras, and moviegoing will never again look or feel like it did in 2002. But as I experienced at the 68th Sydney Film Festival, the sensation of retreating into new worlds of light, sound and stories, of allowing private fantasies to play out alongside those of a community of strangers, delights as much as ever.