This year’s St. Kilda Film Festival was another massive event. Whilst the bulk of its program was devoted to Australian short films, there were various side-bar and specially curated sessions including: an International program (‘Asian perspectives’); The Heart of the Journey, a multimedia slide/film presentation; Vision, show casing video art and film performance; various forums focussed on the filmmaker; Fusion – live performance and film; Emuvi – Finland, electronic music video competition; the ever popular Industry Market Day; the always interesting ‘Confessions of a Filmmaker’, this year devoted to Tim Burstall; and a Popcorn Taxi Melbourne link-up with British indie filmmaker Shane Meadows. Considering this all takes place over four long nights and two full days, one cannot be but overwhelmed by such a Festival. Obviously, different programs target different audiences, however, one gets the feeling that the Festival’s reach to excess reflects less a rigorous approach to programming in particular and more a desire to cover everything in general. This is also a point raised in the other pieces included in this Issue’s report of the Festival.
The strongest part of the program, and that which pulls in the largest audience numbers, is the Australian Films in Competition. Over 30 hours of short films, it is always a good indication of the current state of short filmmaking in Australia overall. Despite the traditionally well-attended Opening Night, however, these individual sessions are much more thinly attended, often mainly by the filmmakers and their supporters. The Festival currently operates as a fairly egalitarian and open event, providing many Australian filmmakers with the valuable opportunity of having their films screened before an audience. There is room though for the Festival to tighten its programming, to limit the number of films, and consequently raise its standards. But, admittedly, this is a separate direction that St. Kilda is currently not pursuing. And as it has existed over the last two years, growing considerably, I see the St. Kilda Film Festival as essentially – and successfully – an egalitarian and populist event celebrating Australian short filmmaking.
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The international sessions are always an invaluable addition to the Festival program, specifically because they provide an international context within which to view Australian short films. This year’s ‘Asian perspectives’ included an Indonesian and Singaporean component. The former was comprised of three documentaries made within the last 2 years, and all reflecting on the recent upheavals in Indonesian politics and the suffering this has caused many people. This session was not that well attended, perhaps due to its time slot (10pm, Thursday night). Its connection to the rest of the program was also slightly spurious – these were essentially political documentaries that would better suit SBS and that demanded a particular audience. The shorts from Singapore were generally excellent and this particular component of the international session seemed to blend in very well with the program overall. Disappointingly, it was very poorly attended. Following the shorts was a brief Q&A with a filmmaker and SE Asian scholar, during which it was emphasised that Singapore society is a very non-expressive one and that only recently, with the initiatives of the Singapore International Film Festival, has short and feature filmmaking in general “exploded” in recent years. It became evident throughout the screening that short filmmaking had provided an avenue for expression and commentary on various aspects of Singaporean society. The highlight for me was Ryston Tan’s Hock Hiap Leong (2001), about a young man paying tribute to a 55-year old coffee shop in his neighbourhood that is about to be demolished. The drabness of the affair is suddenly and brilliantly derailed as the film launches into a fully-blown musical number, instantly reminding me of Tsai Ming-Liang’s superb The Hole (1998). Eahlong.com (Colin Goh, 2001) was an hilarious and clever satire on the highs and lows of e-commerce entrepreneurships. Royston Tan’s Sons (2000) was a sensitive and moving account of a man trying to rebuild his life after the passing of his father. While Datura (Abdul Nizam, 1998) was an intriguing though at times overblown and pretentious exploration of themes of spirituality and existence.
Rain (Melanie Brunt, 1999, 16 mm)
A Festival highlight, this 2-minute mosaic of voiceover and imagery captured with poetic lyricism and a poignant accuracy the way that memory and ’emotional’ details of the past invade, ever so insidiously, the ‘official’ day of ‘must do’ chores and errands. I found its themes to be fully realised in its miniscule timeframe of only 2 minutes.
Bad Ass Mono-Winged Angel (Kieran Galvin, 2000, SP Betacam)
The trait of ‘overkill’ indicated in its title, this film suffered from the classic case of trying to fit a feature in a short film. Despite its effective flashback structure and overall dream-like quality, this was hampered by a blunt approach to storytelling – plot points and high-emotional peaks of the narrative were over-dramatic and over-amplified to the extent that they completely missed their intended mark. I did however enjoy its occasional contemplative mood.
The Shallow End (Michael Henry, 2000, SP Betacam)
This was, and there were many of them, a film without a pulse. According to the program catalogue: “A young woman grapples with the loss of her memory after an horrific car crash”. While definitely a sensitive account of memory loss, alienation and post-accident trauma, its ‘hands-off’ approach, its ‘distance’ from the story and character – its quality of sustained poetic aloofness – became extremely tiresome after a while (this short was 10 minutes long). According to the catalogue, the object of narrative significance – the statute of a man on a horse – does not have such impact in the viewing of the film. Ultimately, murky and unsatisfying.
Traces (Suzanne Howard 2000, SP Betacam)
This was an excellent and moving meditation on death and photography. Its voiceover bore the distinct quality of the inquisitive and reflective voiceover belonging to Chris Marker’s classic Sunless. The filmmaker imposes, and arrives at an understanding of a personal loss, upon a ‘neutral’ object (the death of another, recorded in a photo). This short exhibited an excellent control of the medium and an efficient tempering of the personal with an objective reality.
Swing (Beth Taylor, 2000, SP Betacam)
According to the program catalogue, this film was “experimental”. However, if “experimental” refers to an unconventional and innovative approach to the medium, a probing of accepted meanings, which I believe it does, then it is highly careless and misleading of the Festival to categorise this film as such. Similar to The Shallow End, this short was about the ‘healing’ or ‘therapeutic’ effects of the act of swinging. It mainly focused on a young woman swinging back and forth in slow motion with a reflective ‘homily’ voiceover and accompanied by a single note piano score, contrasting this with various other women of other ages also swinging. Perhaps the most daring question this ‘homily’ voiceover asked was “I wonder why they don’t make swings to fit adults hips”, implying I suppose the carefree nature of childhood and the positive effects of swinging on a stressed, grieving mind. In a way, this short continued that very annoying trait of ‘lofty poetic-ness’ prevalent throughout the Festival, and in this case misunderstood as experimental. Above all, it pointed to a bourgeoisie set of values – a constant emphasis on the ‘individual’ at the cost of anything else. Heavy and uninspiring . and not experimental.
Sparky D. Comes To Town (Maciek Wszelaki, 2000, SP Betacam)
This short – awarded the Best Short Film Award by the Festival – is a gem. Its high energy, humour, vivid detail in characterisation made it a very charming and infectious film. Perhaps Goodfellas relocated to the suburbs of Melbourne, twenty-first century, would provide a good capsule description. Sparky D is all drive, all momentum, all fun. And it knows it. Practically verite-like mixed with a little Tarantino, this short angles in on one young Croatian man (who happens to be writing a script) tied to an “Aussie” girlfriend, striving to successfully close a drug deal. This is the night’s prime aim; however, various obstacles get in the way, mainly a Croatian relative his parents insist he pick up from the airport and whose lateness (detained at customs because of Hungarian prosciutto) ricochets onto the evening’s strict plan (pick up the girlfriend, complete the drugs ‘pick up’, and make it to the club to see DJ Sparky D.). Swimming in a very particular urban sensibility – digital, electronic, consumerist and ephemeral – that infused every level and detail of the film (pace, narrative ‘sampling’, characterisation) and combined with a very funny and equally verite observation of suburban life, generational and ethnic conflict made Sparky D genuine and effective. Its ultimately life-affirming qualities also made it a welcome change to the pervading senses of melancholy across most other shorts.
Oral Sensation #4: The Pash (Marion Lee, 2000, SP Betacam)
Another highly effective short – using every second of its 4-minute duration to full effect. Built on a single premise – a couple’s remembering of their first ‘pash’, expressed in voiceover, accompanied by its enactment – the filmmaker keeps the realisation simple: one, slow zoom, long shot toward the “meeting of mouths” and the simultaneous swelling of the score. Elemental and effective.
Breathing Static (Corinne Preston, 2000, SP Betacam)
While it began in a promising way, with an intrigue reminiscent of David Lynch’s classic Lost Highway, an effective dream-like quality throughout and some rather interesting moments, this short suffered from the same ‘aloofness’ that plagued other shorts: characters continuously staring blanking into mid-air apparently meant to signify isolation; occasional moments of conflict between the two key protagonists with the ‘reason’ or exact cause unclear. This ‘alluding’ quality of the story became tiresome after a while.
Coffee And Catharsis (Sandra Fairthorne, 2001, SP Betacam)
The main problem with this short was that the main characters were very uninspiring and uninteresting. A woman is disgusted by her ‘man’ who has apparently slept with another woman, yet again. Privileging the woman’s interior world and the emotional vagaries she experiences as she stares at the man she hates/loves, this short was in the tradition of a Seinfield episode. A humorous account of an everyday situation involving a pair of fairly superficial ‘yuppies’. With some cool jazz and the affirmation of female independence to make it ‘hip’. But who is to say this woman won’t end up with another man just like this one?
Pacman (Lee Galea, 2000, SP Betacam)
Some very interesting work comes out of Footscray City College. This was an intriguing short that reflected on existential issues in a clever and effective way. Through observing other people’s conversations, a young man reflects on the nature of existence. A little rough around the edges but genuine and searching.
Elly (Kate Riedl 2000, 35 mm)
This was an excellent short. In a matter of 10 gripping minutes, a personal history is revealed “up close and personal”. A rather busy woman is forced to stop and face herself, or more precisely, the dark side of herself encapsulated in the maliciousness she has shown to her sister since they were children. Through fractured time, jump cut editing, excellent performances in addition to excellent sound post production for which it won an award, this short successfully captured the feeling of an inner turmoil without ever being heavy-handed or preachy.
Cement Tree – Life In The Fast Lane (Luke McGowan, 2001, SP Betacam)
There was something prophetic about this film and its portrayal of ‘road rage’ as a symptom of the frenetic and mad pace of contemporary life. Ironically, even though this short won Best Use of Digital Technology, the values of its story world are rather humble and ‘conventional’ (though in the best possible sense of the word): what heals the main character of his uncontrollable road rage is witnessing the miracle of life, a childbirth, which helps him place everything into perspective. And in a rather traditional way, the film’s style is directly keyed to the characters two states of being (aggressive and hyperactive; calm and humble).
The Third Note (Catriona McKenzie, 2000, 35 mm)
Another excellent AFTRS short, this took a familiar theme – ‘outsiders’ (an immigrant and a blind woman) coming together and connecting after initial hostility – and realised it in a simultaneously light and compelling way. At 15 minutes, it proceeded at an assured pace, revealing various sides of each character in an overall leisurely and affective way. Performances were excellent and director Catriona McKenzie was deserving of her Best New Director Award.
Delivery Day (Jane Manning, 2000, 35 mm)
Awarded Best Achievement with an Original Screenplay, this film is notable for much, much more. One of the longest shorts of the program, clocking in at around 26 minutes, it wastes not a single minute. The entire short proceeds with an air of lightness and unselfconsciousness that is exhilarating. It is essentially a day in the life of a Vietnamese family, seen from the point of view of the young daughter, Trang. Whilst the older generation of parents, aunts and uncles apply their strong work ethic in order to meet the day’s deadline for work, the younger generation help out half-heartedly, more interested in flirting with each other or their own personal activities. Young Trang, in particular, desperately wants to make her ‘parent-teacher’ night “like all the other students”. Her staunch Vietnamese mother reminds her, however, that she is unlike the other students. Eventually however Trang makes it with the help of her older brother faking it as her father. The entire story unfolds in such a way that one feels even if the camera were not there, this world of bustling activity and myriad lives would continue. Its light and even regard ensured that the story and its themes (of ethnic and generational conflict) were expressed in the subtlest and gentlest of ways. Its ending – fade to black as Trang and her brother continue playing basketball at day’s end – affirms with an acute poignancy the indivisibility of sibling bonds (ever important in an ethnic context such as theirs).
Pyjama Girl (Maryanne Lynch, 2001, 16 mm)
This short was notable for its excellent production design and its evocation of an era and mood through this means. Fragments of imagery and sound accumulated a sense of fear and dread. Perhaps its quality of being experimental noir ensured it the SBS Eatcarpet Award. The artifice of the story – fragments, recreation of an era – was revealed in the film’s prologue to be firmly grounded in reality, as the story is revealed to be based on the true story of a woman who was murdered by her husband.
The Collective (Norah Mulroney, 2000, 35 mm)
This was an excellent animation, which won Best Achievement in Special Effects, that was a sort of Cronenberg meets Planets of the Apes – the revenge of nature and the animal kingdom upon man being its central theme. Superbly controlled, it was a Festival highlight for me.
Joy (Cate Shortland, 2000, 35 mm)
While some claim that Cate Shortland’s Joy is somewhat futile, I would strongly disagree. For me, it remains haunting and effective upon each viewing. It achieves a lot on many levels. Firstly, its sound design is brilliant – the way in which the rhythm, texture and beat of the score is perfectly choreographed and modulated with the action of each sequence, and the way the film works in this way as a modern day silent film. The many ‘voices’ of the film, the way it complicates and entangles notions of character, objective storyteller, and auteur via the clever use of titles that ironically comment on Joy’s wild, ‘unladylike’ behaviour. The latter in particular generates a haunting effect caused by the simultaneous gesture of showing the action and making an ironic commentary upon it. Shortland plays with the medium in a refreshingly innovative way to heighten and aggrandize this adolescent girl’s ‘night out’ – and all its socially disapproving aspects. The style then takes a conventional turn when Joy returns to her suburban home and her parents shouting and arguing over their daughter. And so Joy becomes an original and haunting exposition of the simultaneous chasm and affinity between an adolescent girl’s desire and temperament and the socially conventional world of her ‘parents’.
The Big House (Rachel Ward, 2000, 35 mm)
Rachel Ward’s latest short film offering comes again laced with excellent production values and an impressive ensemble of actors giving excellent performances. Her work confirms that a director with a good understanding of the craft of acting is in turn able to elicit excellent performances. Perhaps, on this count, she deserves the Best Direction Award granted her by the Festival. This is generally a well-realised film – a rounded story, a strong sense of place, good use of the score – that is overall rather modest and understated. However the internal value system of the script is rather odd – blatant male nudity, male sexuality, and involuntary homosexuality sits alongside a warm and fuzzy humanism. At the centre of the narrative is the relationship between Sonny and Williams. The former is ‘protected’ from the evil intent of the other inmates in return for some company on those “lonely nights”. Sonny obliges, as he really has no choice. In turn, a friendship blooms especially when Sonny returns the favour of ‘protection’ by teaching Williams how to read. At the centre of this film is the strange yet beautiful bonds that can emerge between men. But the real question, and the most daring, which the film poses but refuses to answer is what about a sexual relation between father and son (as Williams’ son later replaces Sonny)? Would this also be grounds for a glowing humanism?