July 27–August 8, 2005
An Introductory Note on Methodology
“I’m going to see so much that my eyes are going to bleed!” I told my friend Mark excitedly. It was early July and we were sitting in my room at university, looking over the program for the 14th Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF). We’d been very impressed by what we’d been reading and were beginning to work out what we would see. I had, in 2004, broken my school’s record for the number of films seen by a student at the festival and was planning on breaking it again by as wide a margin as possible this time around. I had, quite consciously, attended every single one of my lectures and tutorials throughout the semester so that I could disappear from campus for the two weeks of the festival without my participation marks suffering accordingly. BIFF was going to be the point on which my life pivoted for a fortnight. My eyes, indeed, were going to bleed, and this, indeed, was a wonderful thing.
My reasons for adopting this methodology were not particularly competitive in nature, even if the idea of breaking my own record did provide some small incentive. Rather, my initial reason was perhaps the most obvious one: I am a voracious and volume-centric cinephile with a desire to see as many films from as wide a cross-section of cinema as possible (I use the word “see” as opposed to the word “consume”, as the latter implies a certain uncritical gluttony that I find kind of perturbing). In retrospect, this methodology affords one far more than mere exposure to a great many number of films, however. It also affords one the opportunity to recognise and appreciate the fact that a group of films – a season at a cinémathèque, a private collection, an individual director’s oeuvre – has the very real potential to be a work of art in and of itself.
Curation as Creation
If curation is a form of creation or artistic expression – and I like to believe it is – then the festival programmer or artistic director is really a kind of bureaucrat-bricoleur, juggling the no doubt often infuriating political aspects of the job (dealing with distributors, exhibitors, etc.) with the potentially rewarding artistic act of putting together a programme that is, if not “greater than”, then at least equal to the sum of the films that comprise it. A good festival program is more than just a collection of strong stand alone films; it is a collection of films that speak to, react to, inform, and collide with one another, resulting in a certifiable mass of cinema in which every individual picture serves as a potential entry point into the overall dialogue that is the festival.
I first became aware of this fact on about day five or six of this year’s festival, the program of which, as word on the street would have it, was not only more daring and challenging, but also simply better, than those of both Sydney and Melbourne, and which was, at least in my opinion, exactly the sort of work-unto-itself that all good programs should be. BIFF’s program was a collection of films that had ultimately become a work unto itself, complete with its own formal concerns, thematic preoccupations, fetish points, and dialectical fissures. Over the course of the festival, the status of BIFF’s long-serving artistic director, Anne Démy-Geroe, only grew greater and greater in my mind, and I none too hyperbolically started referring to her, if only in my notebook, as the festival’s auteur.
David Stratton’s Phone Call
“It’s customary at events like these,” said David Stratton into the microphone on the evening of his interview with Chauvel Award recipient David Bradbury, “to make sure that everyone has turned off their mobile phones. However, I won’t be turning my phone off this evening, as I’m expecting a very important phone call from my colleague, Margaret Pomeranz, who’s currently waiting at the Office of Film and Literature Classification in Sydney where the Classification Review Board is reviewing Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. It’s currently half past seven in the evening and they’ve been in there since about ten o’clock this morning. We don’t know what’s going on.”
Half way through Stratton’s interview with Bradbury, the phone rang, the crowd hushed, and David answered: “Hello?” After a moment’s pause – which was very dramatic – he turned and gave the audience the thumbs up, and the crowd, accordingly, broke into a warm, spontaneous round of applause. “Margaret’s pleased you’re with us,” Stratton told us, before saying brusquely into the phone, “Yes, Margaret. I have to go. It’s excellent, yes. Goodbye.” And the interview continued.
The connection between Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), the potential ban that faced it, and Bradbury’s career as a politically committed documentary filmmaker – particularly his harrowing and as yet unreleased film on depleted uranium, Blowin’ in the Wind (2005), which screened after Stratton’s interview – wasn’t lost on anyone. Mysterious Skin was being reviewed by the OFLC’s Classification Review Board after the Australian Family Association’s Richard Egan – who hadn’t seen the film – labelled it “a ‘how to manual’ for paedophiles” (1) and canvassed the support of the Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock. It was also, however, in direct contrast to this reactionary reading of the film’s synopsis, one of the most popular pictures at the festival (2) and the winner of the Interfaith Award for the Promotion of Humanitarian Values – a delightfully ironic result, and a pointedly defiant decision on the part of the festival’s ecumenical jury. Araki’s picture, which revolves around the explosive nucleus that is Jason Gordon Levitt’s performance, urges the viewer to uncover, confront and understand things that go unseen – things like paedophilia – something that Blowin’ in the Wind demands and, indeed, does for itself, taking to task the United States’ deplorable and woefully under-publicised use of DU in the Middle East – and, quite possibly, in Australia, too. It is ironic that these films, which are essentially about bringing to light what has been, for whatever reason, kept out of it, have to fight to be seen themselves. Not only did Mysterious Skin face its ban, but Blowin’ in the Wind was, is and looks set to continue struggling to get someone to broadcast it on Australian television.
Seeing, Remembering and Bearing Witness
It was clear from the outset that this year’s BIFF was going to be a festival with a political agenda. Not only did Bradbury receive the Chauvel Award for his distinguished contribution to Australian filmmaking, but a significant number of the pictures selected were explicitly political as well, calling attention, like Mysterious Skin and Blowin’ in the Wind, to that which often goes unseen but shouldn’t, urging us to try and see things through one another’s eyes, and demanding, in no uncertain terms, that someone, somewhere, bear witness.
Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004) and Coca: The Dove from Chechnya (Eric Bergkraut, 2005) are exemplary of the type of films that can be said to have expressed such concerns. Both are documentaries, set worlds away from the relative comfort of a festival screening, and both furiously, urgently, aim to bring to the viewer’s attention the atrocities – economic and military alike – that are currently being persecuted in Tanzania and Chechnya respectively. Sauper’s film, which charts the myriad of effects caused by the introduction of the Nile perch to Lake Victoria, the cradle of civilisation, is a slow burning work of social topography that erodes the disconnect between the first world viewer – the consumer of the fish – and the third world subject – its poverty-stricken producer. Coca, meanwhile, concerns itself with the activities of Zainap Gashaeva, a Chechnyan businesswoman who, in lieu of witnesses from the Western world, has been documenting Russian human rights abuses against her people on video and audiocassette since 1994. Zainap is one of the 1000 women collectively nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize (3) and, by stroke of luck, was able to get a visa approved at the last minute to attend the festival. There is, at present, no audience for her work, Zainap says; rather, her primary reason for putting together this audiovisual history of the Chechnyan struggle – rife with oral testimony of murders, abductions and torture – is that it might one day be presented at a much hoped-for human rights or war crimes tribunal, a damning indictment of Russian brutality. One can’t help but feel that Darwin’s Nightmare, too, might one day be used as evidence to indict the neo-liberal globalisation that has lead to environmental and social degradation on the shores of Lake Victoria.
While the moral imperative behind seeing the unseen and bearing witness to it is obvious, so too is the imperative to remember the past and learn history’s lessons – indeed, it is the assumption that we will one day do so that Zainap Gashaeva relies on. Thus, while a number of films at the festival aimed to write the history of the present, a number of others made the concerted effort to dig up and remember the past. Documentary films like State of Fear (Pamela Yates, 2005), which draws implicit parallels between former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s war on terror and that of George W. Bush, and fictional features like Machuca (Andrés Wood, 2004), which takes place in the period directly preceding the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, lay history out across the screen and try, with varying degrees of success, to extract relevant meaning and thereby learn from it.
There was also the question of point of view and of seeing through someone else’s eyes, and the festival’s Sketches of a New Moon series, as Démy-Geroe wrote in the festival program, “[embraced] voices from filmmakers both within and outside the Muslim world, voices that resist its stereotyping and all-too-frequent demonisation.” (4) These films, which varied in style and, admittedly, quality, insisted on bilateral identification and mutual understanding between people, races, East and West. While watching Simone Bitton’s observational documentary on the “security fence” that separates Israel from Palestine, Wall (2004), which, with its tense and eerie calm, feels like it was shot in the eye of a storm, one can’t help but feel that the camera is trying to see as the ordinary citizens of the region see, taking on the role of a kind of contact lens for Bitton so that she might better understand. This is made all the more potent by the knowledge that Bitton herself holds dual French-Israeli citizenship. This feeling that the camera is being used as an artificial eye of another might also be said to pervade Dominique Dubosc’s beautiful Palestine Remembered (2004), quite possibly the most subtly affective short film of the festival.
Interestingly, both Wall and Palestine Remembered – video diaries in which the respective filmmakers have tried to use the camera to see through another person’s eyes – were shot on consumer-level digital video, a medium that strikes me as being somewhat well-suited to the task. Given the inherent potential for something like videoblogging to take off, one might be excused for wondering whether or not the spread of camcorders and other mobile recording devices could eventually engender a better understanding of one another and the world. There are problems with access and training, of course, particularly in the developing world, but this report, obviously, isn’t the place for addressing them.
All these questions about the morality of seeing and the necessity of remembering find their synthesis, if not their solutions, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre musique (2004), a film that, more than any other, urges us to bear witness, to learn from our past mistakes, and to reconcile our conflicting points of view by looking at the world from different perspectives. What’s more, it urges cinema to do the same, as Godard has, again and again, all throughout his career. What’s different here, however, is that the urging has taken on a mellower, somewhat more resigned tone; indeed, the film is more a plea than a typically Godardian demand. The message and the images are still timely, pedagogical and urgent, of course, but Godard now seems less indignant and more inclined to accept, if not embrace, the blindness and amnesia of the future we all seemed destined for. (5)
But They Are Driven
As Notre musique suggests, often quite explicitly, there are a number of other questions that we can ask about seeing as well. These questions are not merely concerned with what we see, or even with the morality of seeing, but also, just as importantly, with how we see and with ways of seeing – by which I really mean “ways of experiencing”; i.e. ways of seeing and hearing – clearly, these are questions that are ultimately more or less about cinema itself. A number of films at this year’s BIFF took it upon themselves to broach these questions – some implicitly, some didactically – and it’s these films that were ultimately among the most challenging and compelling of the festival.
Films like Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2004) and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man (2004), like many of the formally intriguing films that are coming out of Asia at the moment – a number of which were featured at BIFF as part of Tony Rayns’ Korean Independent and Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Underground retrospectives, which were both very strong – implicitly question our assumptions about what makes a picture compelling viewing. The Pan-Asian Style (6) of Tsai and Hong – long takes, fixed camera and the occasional deliberate pan – demand that we adopt new ways of looking at – or more accurately, into – the image, and that we re-evaluate our traditional reliance, insofar as narrative films are concerned, on character and plot. These “demands” are all implicit of course, but still, one can’t help but feel that one’s sensibility – one’s relationship to the image – changes qualitatively under the influence of Tsai’s long takes, the Asian variation on what James Benning has referred to, in regards to his own work, as “the spatialisation of time. And the temporalisation of space!” (7)
These films, to borrow an idea from Adrian Martin’s “There’s a Million Stories, and a Million Ways to Get There from Here”, (8) which I’m quoting from memory, “aren’t plot driven or character driven,” but “are driven”, an idea he reiterated forcefully at the one seminar session I attended, ominously titled “Diagnosing the Australian Film Industry”. (9) To paraphrase the argument: perhaps it is our reliance on the literary and theatrical models that place undue emphasis on character and plot at the expense of the cinematic that is the problem with the recent output of the Australian film industry. Neither The Wayward Cloud nor Woman is the Future of Man is character- or plot-driven. They are driven by the cinematic – by their shots, by time, by space, by form – what Australian cinema really needs is new, uniquely cinematic ways of seeing and listening. I only saw one Australian feature at the festival (Kriv Stenders’ Blackdown , which was an interesting but disproportionately derivative rehashing of Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz ), but Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005) – which not only won the FIPRESCI Award for Asia-Pacific film, but was also voted by audiences to be the best film of the festival – may just prove itself to be something special, something cinematic. Or it might not.
Paragraph in Which There Appear Commas, Dashes, Overly Long Sentences, Etc.
By the way, they say that more avant-garde filmmakers are using animals in their films these days.
Animals! You mean poor, dumb, brute beasts?
Self-pity aside, yes, that’s exactly what I mean.
– The two pandas in On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? (Owen Land, 1977–79)
And then there were the films in which seeing and remembering, and their relation to cinema, were the explicit focus – a group of films spearheaded by Mark Webber’s hilarious, programmatic and, indeed, enlightening retrospective, Reverence: The Films of Owen Land.
Just as the work of Tsai and Hong fosters new ways of seeing, Land’s short avant-gardist films take great pleasure in examining – and deconstructing – our current methods. With much gusto and humour, they set about exploding the illusory nature of the cinematic image, whether by systematically and pseudo-scientifically demonstrating its plastic materiality by melting the film strip (Bardo Follies [1967–76], Diploteratology [1967–78]), exploring the nature of the frame (Film in which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. [1965–66]), or making plain the two-dimensional nature of moving images on a screen (Fleming Faloon , The Films that Rise to the Surface of Clarified Butter ). They also call into question and force us to reconsider various other preconceived notions and assumptions we might have about any number of things, namely documentary (A Film of Their 1973 Spring Tour Commissioned by Christian World Liberation Front of Berkeley, California  doesn’t contain a shot that runs longer than three frames) and avant-garde cinema itself. Indeed, his masterpieces are On the Marriage Broker Joke…, which stars two structuralist filmmaking pandas that exist only “by textual error”, and Wide Angle Saxon (1975), in which an ordinary filmgoer has a transcendental Augustinian epiphany while watching an experimental film.
Agnès Varda’s Cinévardaphoto (2004), particularly the first two films in this triptych, Ydessa, the Bears and Etc… (2004) and Ulysse (1982), furthers this analysis of the image (specifically the photographic image, though by association the cinematic one as well), extending it so that it might also take into account the role of the image as history and memory. It seems we’re back in Godardian territory. On the last day of the festival, two short films grab my attention (unfortunately, very few at the festival did): Open Cut (Phil Burke, 2004), which “remembers”, by way of archival footage, the town of Yallourn, which was evacuated, destroyed, and wiped from the map in 1970s; and November (Hito Steyerl, 2004), which comments on the way in which an image travels and, slowly but surely, becomes a historical document over time. What was striking about the images that appear in all these films – Ydessa’s archive of forgotten family photographs, Varda’s black and white still of a man and a child on the beach, the faded images of Yallourn – is that they are somehow fragmentary, incomplete, ephemeral – they aren’t permanent, they don’t suffice. History, it seems, is fragile; we remember, yes, but we do so in vain. Perhaps it is not the memory itself that matters, but the imperative to at least try and remember? Perhaps seeing – whether with a camera or not – is the first step on the road to remembering? We have come full circle.
Have You Read the Koran?
From Elvis to Eminem, Warhol’s art, / I know your stories, know your songs by heart. / But do you know mine? No, every time, / I make the effort, and I learn to rhyme / In your English. And do you know a word / Of my language, even one? Have you heard / That ‘al-gebra’ was an Arabic man? / You’ve read the Bible. Have you read the Koran?
– He (Simon Akbarian) to She (Joan Allen) in Yes (Sally Potter, 2004)
For aught that I could tell, this was a festival about seeing and remembering. It was about how these two things come together to foster understanding (of others, of ourselves, of the world, of the cinema) and about cinema’s capacity, which is forever fluctuating, for allowing us, helping us and, indeed, teaching us, to do both. Even Jack Sargeant’s marvellous road movie retrospective, Blacktop Dreaming – a curatorial triumph within a curatorial triumph – seemed to me to be all about redrawing the boundaries of the critical genre that is the road movie so that we might see and approach it differently, as the inclusion of a film like Andrew Kötting’s marvellous travelogue-by-way-of-avant-garde-home-movie Gallivant (1996) – which is certainly not your typical testosterone-fuelled petrol head movie – suggests.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why I might go as far as to call Sally Potter’s virtuosic and affecting Yes and James Benning’s masterwork, 13 Lakes (2004), the best films of the festival. Both deal with everything I have discussed here and, in my mind, do so perfectly.
Yes is particularly representative of the first group of films – those that stress the importance of seeing through other people’s eyes and of remembering the past. Conflict stems from the characters’ inability to do so; it is resolved by their finally being able to. But it also belongs to the second group – those that pose questions about how we see and about how we experience the world. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his review of the film, Yes openly defies a number of assumed truisms, forcing us to re-evaluate the way we see the world in general and cinema in particular:
That movies are a visual medium, so images matter more than sounds in general and words in particular… That movies shouldn’t try to address the state of the contemporary world. That using individual characters to represent nations, cultures, genders leads to facile generalizations… That communism is dead and Cuba… isn’t worth thinking about except to scoff at. (10)
13 Lakes is more representative of the second group of films and is, like so much of Benning’s work, a lesson in looking and listening. It is, as others have already pointed out, a treatise on the frame, on off-screen space, and on duration in its relationship to landscape. However, it too stresses, however implicitly, the importance – and ultimate hopelessness – of bearing witness and remembering. History writes itself upon the landscape just as we write history upon a strip of celluloid or on magnetic tape. Like a camera, the landscape bears witness; like a photograph, it is evidence. However, as with the faded images of children and their bears in Cinévardaphoto, history eventually fades from the landscape, becoming more and more indistinct and eventually disappearing all together. Duration in 13 Lakes is the same thing as erasure. We must learn the lessons that the land has to teach us, Benning seems to be saying, before it is too late for us to do so. To do this, we must change our ways of looking and listening at the world around us. Perhaps cinema can help us achieve that.
How can we learn to see things differently? To see things through someone else’s eyes? What is the connection between seeing and remembering? Between history and point of view? Between cinema and all these things? What is the connection between cinema and its ability to engender understanding? Between cinema and its ability to teach us to experience the world differently? How does one learn to look and to listen? And why should we want to do so?
The point of the 14th Brisbane International Film Festival was not to provide answers to any of these questions, but rather, simply, and perhaps more importantly, to pose them in the first place. In this, BIFF was an unqualified success, and a marvellous, Langloisian example of curation as creation. My eyes may not have bled as such – and for that, I suppose, I’m actually quite thankful – though they were, without any shadow of a doubt, widely, wonderfully opened.
- “Film gets under people’s skin”, 28 July 2005, ABC News Online.
- The official Showtime and Merchant Solutions Top Ten lists (features, documentary features and shorts) are available online at http://www.modmove.com/movies_BIFF05_news.html.
- Anne Démy-Geroe, “Artistic Director’s Welcome”, 2005 Brisbane International Film Festival website.
- A blindness that can just as soon affect those of us who consciously try to combat it. Indeed, I myself have to admit to my own festival blind spot: the 50 Years of Malayalam Cinema retrospective, which I stupidly and – what’s worse – deliberately didn’t bother to attend. I just didn’t think that Malayalam cinema would be up my alley is all! – but now I realise, in retrospect, that I didn’t even give it a chance. I was told by a friend whose opinion I respect greatly that what he’d seen of the retrospective was remarkable, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since for my ignorance – particularly now that I’m writing this report and am pretty sure that these films would have further supported my general argument.
- James Udden. “The Future of a Luminescent Cloud: Recent Developments in a Pan-Asian Style”, Synoptique: The Journal of Film and Film Studies, Issue 10, 1 August 2005.
- Danni Zuvela, “Talking About Seeing: A Conversation with James Benning”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 33, October–December 2004.
- Adrian Martin, “There’s a Million Stories, and a Million Ways to Get There From Here”, Metro, no. 142, pp. 82–90.
- See also “Adrian Martin on the Australian Film Industry”, a videoblog entry of Martin’s talk at the seminar.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Love in the Time of Terror”, Chicago Reader, 8 July 2005.