June 10–25, 2005
Despite procuring State Government funding, the 52nd Sydney Film Festival featured a reduced number of films (170) compared to previous years, the most notable effect of the management’s efforts to “save” the event from economic ruin. Although organisers have since claimed an increase in the number of sell-out screenings this year, the festival is now even more clearly dwarfed by the ever-expanding Melbourne International Film Festival. There was much conjecture upon his appointment about where Lyndon Barber would take the festival for his first year as director. Upon the program’s launch, and now after the festival itself, the general feeling has been that Barber played very safe with a not particularly impressive or risk-taking program, and without a substantial retrospective (the one area in which Sydney’s festival traditionally has some claim over Melbourne’s). This was something of a surprise after the superb, and almost exhaustive, Michelangelo Antonioni program last year; I for one hoped that its enthusiastic reception (most screenings were sold out) finally proved that audiences are interested in viewing and discussing (there was a well attended forum) extensive retrospectives of historically influential and demanding “modernist” or “arthouse” filmmakers. Some compensation for this was a selection of CAAMA (Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association) films, featuring substantial follow-up Q & A sessions with directors, producers and key CAAMA figures.
Another perennial attempt to open the festival up to a new audience this year came with a series of cult music films screened at the George Street multiplex venue, which joined the traditional State Theatre and more recently sequestered Dendy Opera Quays venues as the main screening sites. The superb NSW Art Gallery screening room was the venue for sidebar programs of documentaries and a selection of older films chosen by Australian cinematographers. There were the much-discussed organisational problems throughout, notably countless projection errors early on at the State and some films arriving without English subtitles, but after the first few days it was mainly plain sailing.
* * *
First up for me was Hassan Yektapanah’s very humorous Iranian black comedy Dastan Nataman (Story Undone) (2004), which combines the filmic reflexivity we are used to seeing in Abbas Kiarostami and other Iranian filmmakers’ work but with a much broader, and blacker, comedic strand. Two seemingly inept filmmakers attempt to film some people smugglers as they herd a group towards the border, whereupon one of the filmmakers decides to join the exodus. Although an increasingly serious and pathos-tinged tale, the film is largely characterised by a light touch and absurdist humour (the protagonists’ ineptitude is represented when one of them starts to film some dogs whereupon they have to climb a tree as the dogs become rabid).
Much more serious and meditative from the outset is Danielle Arbid’s Maarek hob (In the Battlefields) (2004). This highly affecting and masterfully constructed film portrays the 1980s civil war in Lebanon from the inside through a completely fractious – “at war” – middle-class family who are forced to stay together for financial reasons and through frequent nights spent in their apartment building’s bomb shelter. This decidedly cold yet virulent reality is seen through the eyes of a pubescent girl who is seeking her moral way in the world without any viable adult – and ethically compelling – role models to speak of. Directed with precise sensitivity for adolescent sexual-existential angst, family breakdown and a particular hopeless socio-political milieu, the film also offers starkly poetic renderings of a city in a state of omnipresent violence through frequent non-narrative still shots of decontextualised, war-ravaged urban decay.
Iki genç kiz (Two Girls) (Kutlug Ataman, 2005) features similarly fragmented and dysfunctional family relationships and culture, but with a more affirmational quality via an intense relationship between two teenage girls in Istanbul who find solace in fantasy (plans to run away to Australia) and rejection of their apparently hopeless realities that seem enforced by socio-economic scripts. The film is an accessible but substantial offering in the international genre of female buddy movies, with the specifics of urban Turkey’s social problems kept largely, but not completely, in the shadow of existential teen angst.
Entirely different in tone and thematic treatment were two standout films from Vietnam. Set during the French colonial period prior to Japan’s invasion, Mua len trau (Buffalo Boy) (Minh Nguyen-vo, 2004) is a delicately rendered story of a peasant boy who leaves his parents’ low-lying (hence very wet) delta house to become a buffalo herder. But what could have been a familiar male rite-of-passage film becomes a subtly reflexive take on time, mortality and the need for self-reliance when faced with the multilayered uncertainties of a poor, pre-industrial existence. The performances are most effective, and with the inclusion of modern-day book-end sequences in which the now old man sets up and concludes his story as told to his granddaughter, one can’t help but notice that the material way of life appears little different in the wake of Vietnam’s 40 years’ revolutionary struggle and independent socialist rule.
If forced to pick one, I would nominate Hat mua roi bao lau (Bride of Silence) (Doan Minh Phuong and Doan Thanh Nghia, 2005) as the most impressive film of the festival. Another Vietnamese period piece, here we have a much more sophisticated formal construction. The story of a young woman’s refusal to name the father of her illegitimate child and the various narrativised accounts of her fate as told to her son once he is a teenage boy, initially makes for a Rashômon-style tale of different perspectives on history and the truth via a non-linear, slithering temporality. However, a relativistic address is ultimately transcended with the remarkable shift in tone and style of the film’s second half, when we follow what appears to be the “correct” version of events in a breathtaking opening out of narrative time and space. The fragmentation and heterogeneity of the film’s first half in effect becomes swallowed up by a stretching, meditative openness comprised of very long, symbolically rich shots. For a first feature, the film is nothing short of astounding in its visual and conceptual nuances and sophistication.
In apparent contrast to Bride of Silence‘s sublime images that seem to hover around yet also float outside of history, Temporada de patos (Duck Season) (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004) is a resolutely contemporary parable. In Mexico City two teenage boys spend an afternoon at home alone in one of their mother’s apartment along with a slightly older girl from next door and a pizza-delivery man who hates his job. The four of them hang around and talk – though mainly sit in silence – as they eat, get stoned, etc., but surprising and evocative “magic realism”-style flourishes develop around the figure of the duck (as generated from a tacky painting on the wall). In the end, this quietly deadpan comedy is more interesting and suggestive than its “slacker” premise suggests.
The festival featured a series of films from Argentina, but none struck me as particularly notable. Lucrecia Martel’s La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl) (2004) is an archetypal Latin-Catholic study of sexual curiosity and taboo, telling the story of a young girl obsessed with “saving” a medical doctor who pressed his crotch against her from behind in a crowded street. Set during Argentina’s recent economic woes, Jorge Gaggero’s Cama adentro (Live-In Maid) (2004) centres on the master-slave relationship between a now bankrupt businesswoman who refuses to give up her comfortable lifestyle, and her maid. No surprises as to who has the real power by the end of the film, which sticks to a very apolitical “human” message delivered via light comic drama.
Also humorous, but far more thematically (and politically) ambitious, is Sally Potter’s new film Yes (2004). As with the assortment of different responses to Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004), fans of Potter’s previous work will certainly find much to admire and ruminate upon here while other, less committed viewers will likely find the filmmaker’s eccentricities increasingly annoying at their stylistic and conceptual apogee. With this tale of bourgeois female angst Potter seeks to pack in about five films’ worth of thematic material – most notably, like many films at the festival, attempting to foreground post-September 11 debates around the US/“the West”–Islam relationship. While some well-conceived dialogue canvasses these issues clearly enough, its impact is diminished by an at-times arch kind of self-consciousness (oh, the dialogue is delivered in “verse”), not to mention Potter’s continuing obsession with the sexual exoticisation of non-western men by attractive middle-aged waspy women. Though thematically central, the portrayal of such a relationship actually blunts the film’s political discourse in making for an insufficiently reflexive enactment of what Edward Said influentially described as Orientalism, liberal-left platitudes notwithstanding. The film concludes on a hackneyed, fantastic note of left-wing nostalgia when the protagonist goes to Cuba – posited as a kind of utopia where the two can pursue their love “outside” the political and cultural barriers they face in England – to wait for her middle-eastern lover, obediently acting upon her dead grandmother’s communist reveries heard from beyond the grave. (A final shot even shows the word “yes” formed in the idealised Havana sand in an image that looks like an Alpine cigarette commercial from the ’70s.) Contrary to the festival program’s blurb on Yes, making the audience “think” does not guarantee a good film. Thought-provoking perhaps, it is also deeply flawed and confused – even ultimately superficial, when judged against its ambitions.
Less thought-provoking and even more problematic is The Hamburg Cell (2004), Antonia Bird’s dramatisation of the lead up to the events of September 11. Throughout, the Muslim protagonists speak neither Arabic, nor German (the film is mainly set in Germany), but English! The film thereby – unwittingly? – reinforces the linguistic and cultural domination that is exemplary of the Western-Anglophone hegemony and imperialist impulse that, presumably, doesn’t exactly discourage angry young middle-eastern men from turning to violence.
Svoi (Our Own) (Dmitri Meskhiyev, 2004) concerns the part of World War II with which Anglophone cinema and politics is always noticeably the least concerned: the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. This Russian film addresses the local effects of a rural political leader who has sided with what he initially saw as superior and more “cultured” invaders but comes to realise the full horror of the Nazi machine as he gets to know some escaped Russian POWs, developing some late-blooming nationalist pride. Shot in exquisite CinemaScope and sepia tones, a madcap kind of sexually liberal warmth builds up (complete with buxom rural women-folk and hard-drinking Red Army soldiers who are soft at heart), which ultimately expresses immense pride in the motherland beyond any sordid political dimensions.
More warm, but insufficiently complex, humanism characterised two other festival films from former-eastern bloc countries. Though less grandiose than his previous films, Zivot je Cudo (Life Is a Miracle) (2004) offers Emir Kusturica’s trademark absurdist humour generated out of war-related national suffering as played out on (and reduced to) the field of personal relations – but without offering any real insight into the political machinations and cultural complexities of the former Yugoslavia’s final eruptive years. The central family’s dramas (the moral confusion and insanity resulting from a typically boyish father acquiring a prisoner-of-war half his age who becomes his girlfriend, and the pesky problem of his “mad” wife) are by now rather tiresome and familiar.
An almost comparable madness and light-hearted drama pervades Horem pádem (Up and Down) (Jan Hrebejk, 2004), a film about national identity and racism in contemporary Prague. Featuring a returning son who has lived for many years in Australia (a sun-drenched Brisbane where he and his aboriginal wife and son appear to live out a utopian existence), the film grapples with potentially interesting debates around the issue of a radically transforming Europe in ways that challenge every traditional criterion of national identity and culture. However, the insistent madcap levity – seen most clearly with the almost cartoonish portrayal of football hooligans as representing the most regressive strain of mono-cultural Czech identity – often works against the film’s thematic ambitions.
While the recent German Film Festival that toured Australia featured a lot of big-budget films, many of which were aesthetically and conceptually conventional, Der Wald vor Lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees) (2004) at first appears much more like a Dogme-style film. This German feature, by first-time director Maren Ade, develops a unique, squirm-inducing portrait of a young school teacher who arrives in a small town and finds it very hard to fit in, ultimately spying on and harassing another woman with whom she desperately wants to be best friends. The flow of the film, and its subtle shadings (the woman being harassed is for a while quite happy to use the one-sided infatuation for her own ends) is superbly maintained, and culminates in an ending that casts what we have just seen in the broader, more universal – though non-reductive – light of perennial existential problems of responsibility and freedom. Though one of the “smallest” films of the festival, this was for me one of the most successful.
In a more conventional, though in its way just as effective, vein was Kongekabale (King’s Game) (Nikolaj Arcel, 2004), a compelling – if very glossy and TV-oriented – political thriller about what one might call the “imbeddedness” of the mainstream media with the political power/party of the day. Though no doubt some knowledge of established social democratic Danish politics could give the film extra resonance, it is more layered than the majority of English-language thrillers of this kind.
More daring in its conspiracy themes was Absolut (Romed Wyder, 2004), a consistently interesting offering in the emergent globalisation/virtual technology paranoia genre. But while many productions of this kind (such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) tend towards a myopic kind of crisis without political dimensions, this Swiss film offers a nice balance involving “gen-x” relationship problems around personal and political commitment/activism (the protagonist’s girlfriend wants a baby, but he is busy trying to shut down the G8 summit with a computer virus) and corporate influence within traditionally public enterprises such as hospital research programs. Chilling and very entertaining, the film utilises its urban and rural locations and Swiss cultural context to good effect.
Many hardcore aficionados of present-day ”serious” arthouse cinema were eagerly anticipating Trilogia, To livadi pou dakrizi (Trilogy, the Weeping Meadow) (Theo Angelopoulos, 2004). The film certainly presented Angelopoulos’ aesthetic and thematic obsessions in spades; like 2046 or Yes, again here we have a regular festival favourite’s filmmaking trademarks in extremis, testing the commitment of each viewer. Although admiring some of his previous films, I for one came out the other end after three hours feeling that this would-be present day Tarkovsky is now both visually predictable and wilfully obscure in his temporal jumps and slivers of political and historical material. The first instalment of a planned trilogy on the twentieth century (presumably from a European, or more precisely Greek-Baltic, perspective) features two rather unengaging protagonists who don’t visibly age throughout the three decades the film charts, commencing just after the Russian Revolution (it is often 15 minutes into a shot or sequence, by way of an obscure cue, that we realise ten years or so have passed since the last scene). This kind of formulaic “jarring” soon becomes for me annoying and distracting – nearly as much as Angelopoulos’ now tiresome technique of providing grandiose ending-type set pieces and compositions complete with either excessively loaded or sometimes very obscure symbolism, to the extent that the film becomes comprised almost entirely of such moments. I’m a passionate advocate of cinema that forces time upon us in complex ways, but I feel Angelopoulos is ultimately not nearly as interesting as his obvious and notable forebears (Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais), or contemporaries (Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang) when it comes to what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called the modern “time-image”. He is the Arvo Pärt of cinema, for good or ill – grabbing us by the lapels so that we feel Eastern and Baltic Europe’s pain in often very affecting but also highly prescriptive and didactically “spiritual” terms. By comparison, even at his most sanctimonious Tarkovsky is very generous in allowing not only time but space for the viewer’s own contribution and perspective on the material, not to mention being much more aesthetically innovative, suggestive and compelling in his filmmaking.
Of the four French features I saw, the least interesting ones are being released theatrically in Australia: 5 x 2 (François Ozon, 2004) and De Battre mon cœur s’est arreté (The Beat My Heart Skipped) (Jacques Audiard, 2005). While I enjoyed Sous le sable (Under the Sand) (2001) to some extent, Ozon’s new film is so concerned with superficial Gallic chic and cinematic referencing that his work often seems little more engaging than a feature-length lifestyle advertisement. Many critics have commented on the more interesting The Beat My Heart Skipped in its connection to the cool Parisian criminality of Jean-Pierre Meilville’s films of the ’60s and ’70s. However, there is a twist: the protagonist (Romain Duris) tries to transcend the generic nature of his film/social class and milieu, “cheating” on his tough business associates by re-discovering a childhood love of classical piano. While the redemptive movement – whereupon his racist, chauvinistic Old-France tendencies are challenged by the reality of a Chinese piano teacher who initially speaks no French – might be predictable and questionable, one is left with a striking portrayal of present-day Paris in which Haydn is performed in a concert hall while a block away men bash immigrant squatters with baseball bats.
Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004) received the second-worst audience reaction of any of the films I attended. (Even the festival round-up in The Sydney Morning Herald was scathing, noting with snide stupidity that the lengthy credits came before the film!) This French film has an openly mysterious (easily designated as “pretentious”) set up – a series of country mansions in a large enwalled park in which young girls are kept prisoner by two kindly, elegaic women until they are old enough to board a train whereupon they end up playing in a large fountain. Definitely the kind of film you need to be in the mood for (it was relaxing to ease into this early ’70s style arthouse excess after seeing many documentaries), it is also rare now for contemporary European filmmakers to attempt this kind of blatantly non-realist, allegorical cinema. With impressive formal bravura (including a great soundscape), the film works as a meditation on power, complicity, cultural indoctrination and “safe” enclosure – themes that are at the very heart of contemporary real world debates about Europe and the West, while also being applicable to many eras and cultures.
The very worst response was metered out to Demi-tarif (Half-Price) (Isild Le Besco, 2004), almost a third of the audience loudly tramping out of the theatre by the end of a very short feature. I understand why many people reacted badly to this film. Though radically different, like Innocence this is go-with-it-or-don’t filmmaking that transcends narrative considerations. And if not as convinced as Chris Marker that this is the most important debut since Godard’s À bout de souffle (incidentally, the voiceover style was actually quite reminiscent of Marker’s own work), I nonetheless enjoyed the film. Certainly testing one’s patience in terms of repetitive sequences and longueurs with at times little interesting aesthetic content, the film still works for me in its combination of banality and a virtual surrealism in a rendering of both what these children get up to in the city (it could be called “Paris belongs to us”) and their mysterious emotional-psychic bonds. Despite the DV-realist look and its untutored aesthetic simplicity, the film can be read as a completely anti-realist piece about identity and consciousness; the question of where the children’s mother is remains unresolved, and there is the gnawing question as to whether they are in fact separate entities or not.
One of the effects of the loosening up of distinctions between “fiction” and “non-fiction” over the last decade or so seems to have been that the feature-length documentary has reached a point of standardisation. Accordingly, I found many of the non-fiction films this year rather formally unadventurous.
The US documentaries were the most formally conventional. While Music from the Inside Out (Daniel Ankar, 2004) was engaging enough for classical music-enthusiasts like myself, its account of the Philadelphia Symphony on tour and at home is ultra familiar in its TV-style presentation. What the film ultimately confirms is that musicians are not necessarily any more analytically insightful about their occupation than workers from any other profession. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005) is a typical Bush-era documentary. While relaying disturbing revelations (such as the company’s direct involvement in – or actual cause of – California’s energy crisis in the name of share price and market dominance), the total reliance on key player talking heads means that the Enron “guys” are ultimately treated like ambitious bad apples rather than personifying free-market ideology and culture at its zenith. Meanwhile, Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005) charts another – probably more important – cultural, political and economic moment and “text” in US history. But the film offers very little in the way of analysis via the slickest of feature-length doco formats, sticking to a simplistic libertarian/Christian Right binary debate on pornography.
A more middlebrow earnestness characterises A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, 2004), a fascinating film primarily for its almost unprecedented glimpse into North Korean society. But it is not only couched in the most traditional of documentary terms (in the BBC tradition), it also offers a very Cold War-style commentary in its analysis of the culture of elite gymnasts in Pyongyang. Footage of the girls in training is rarely without an inadvertently comic, would-be chilling voiceover intoning that they are being indoctrinated to “submit their individualities to the will of the collective, making them perfect communists”, etc. One cannot imagine a similar western documentary about the complex large group manoeuvres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with a commentary emphasising the dark side of “team work” as indicative of a depraved ideology beneath patriotic fervour.
Similarly middlebrow was Frank Hurley – The Man Who Made History (Simon Nasht, 2004), which tells of the controversial photo-journalist who in his Antarctic and War photography pioneered the doctoring of images to make them look more “dramatic”. In additional to its remarkably traditional ABC-style form, it also repeated what I find a common problem with contemporary docos about photography: a distrust of the still image. The film never allows the viewer to look at a photo without the camera zooming, panning or tilting to provide movement, denying us the full framing of the original aesthetic construction about which we are supposed to be so enthused! On top of this, of course, is often-obtrusive music that serves to prescriptively delimit the would-be still (and silent) image’s meaning and affect.
This problem was also present (to a lesser degree) in another Australian film, Girl in a Mirror (Kathy Drayton, 2005), a historically interesting piece about photographer Carol Jerrems’ life and work, and more broadly Sydney and Melbourne’s artistic/bohemian culture of the early 1970s. The film’s attitude to its subject brought about a familiar sense that whenever Australian ’60s/’70s “counterculture” is addressed, it must always be in a nostalgic way that implicitly points out how progressive the era was compared to today’s political and cultural mores – which is all very well, but also works to proscribe any critical reflection on the real political and artistic legacies of that period.
Actress/director Maria de Medeiros’ Je t’aime… moi non plus (2004) offers filmmakers’ and critics’ insights into the often-messy relationship between the two professions. Canvassing a large range of critics, directors and producers of different ages, nationalities and publications (though with an emphasis on Europe), many engaging anecdotes are relayed over unglamorous footage behind the scenes at festivals, publicity screenings, etc. Critics and directors assess the truth or otherwise of their infamous mutual antagonism, with Wim Wenders bucking the trend in announcing that critical reviews of his films have often helped him as a filmmaker. Amusing and intermittently interesting for festival regulars and film writers, the doco also emits and exemplifies the kind of hermetic world in which the film critic – and perhaps film culture in general – seems to live.
There were of course also less conventional “non-fiction” films at the festival, such as Jabe Babe – a Heightened Life (Janet Merewether, 2005). Though impressed by this Australian film’s elaborate baroque/fantasy images, wherein the real protagonist will peer into elaborate model-work versions of her fragmented personal history (suburban streets, hospitals, etc.), I found the film’s story less engaging – to the point, I confess, of exiting the cinema after 45 minutes for a much needed break in a long day. But what I saw exemplified a frequent thematic problem I find in Australian documentary films whereby the subject – be it conventional and “conservative” or non-mainstream and hence automatically “radical” – is either affirmed or ridiculed depending on the cultural politics of the filmmaker.
Of the internationally celebrated documentaries at the festival, I found the Canadian double bill of Alter Egos (Laurence Green, 2004) and Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004) nearly as interesting as its publicity suggests. It is most effective watching Ryan‘s expressionist animation, as we watch eye-popping digital images of now derelict late-’60s Canadian NFB wunderkind animator Ryan Larkin’s brains and interior organs springing out of his body at thematically opportune moments, then the comparatively abrasive reality of Alter Egos in which we see both Larkin’s reaction to Ryan in discussion with Landreth and the true pathos of his demise into alcoholism plus his apparent disinterest in his art. The other much-lauded documentary at the festival, Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003), is for me highly emblematic of a prevalent contemporary myopia and narcissism. A friend later commented, “at the end I didn’t feel like I knew, or cared about, any of those people at all” – a bad sign for a film about the hermetic world of self-dramatising damaged humans by way of the protagonist’s filmic diary, no real cultural, political or philosophical connections being made beyond references to “outsider” or B-films and music.
Cinévardaphoto (Agnès Varda, 2004) is a compendium of three short Varda films. Fascinating for fans of her work, a little bit too cute and quirky for others, the films are familiar in tone to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000), though not as thematically rich and layered. Modest and personal in scope, the most compelling film for me was an essayistic reflection upon Varda’s early photography in which she both analyses the original image and interviews its male subjects in the present day. An early film about Cuba (Salut les Cubains, 1963) is an interesting insight into how enraptured the French left was with Castro’s revolution in the early ’60s, its tone light and celebratory, emitting Gallic delight in a third-world culture and its exotic/erotic – and now political – splendour.
The White Diamond (Werner Herzog, 2004) was a documentary and festival highlight. Though not a hardcore fan of Herzog’s cinema, and feeling the film was a little overlong, I nonetheless really enjoyed the latest instalment in his very particular and genuine (as opposed to simplistically “ironic” or cool) fascination with obsessive dreamers/madmen, as we accompany an English scientist-inventor determined to show that a radically re-designed (much smaller) airship can fly safely, so as to float about the last earthly frontier – the canopies of Central America. The film was full of Herzog’s trademark Germanic meditations on sublime nature and humanity’s deeply ambivalent, “fundamental” relationship to it, as well as the colonial history of Europe – substantial material all tied into an appropriately light, floating account of this expedition to Guyana.
* * *
While I certainly enjoyed some of the films, judged in terms of quantity and variety, and for the lack of a substantial retrospective program, the 2005 Sydney Film Festival was on balance one of the poorer festivals of recent years. However, I acknowledge how much pressure the festival is increasingly under. What with the recent Sydney closures of the Valhalla cinema in Glebe and the imminent demise of the Chauvel in Paddington (which was also the home for Sydney’s cinémathèque program), there has never been a bleaker time for the screening of non-Hollywood cinema in Australia (Melbourne has its own problems with the closure of the much-loved Lumiere cinema). Hence the festival must both try and weather the economic storm and stand up to increasing cultural scrutiny. There is much debate over the reasons for falling cinema attendence (especially collective guilt over the purchase of DVDs). This was addressed at a noisy meeting at the Chauvel last month concerning the reasons for its closure and possible means of saving the cinema, out of which also came a renewed push for the State government to subsidise screen culture, as is the case in Victoria and Queensland (ACMI in Melbourne and the new repertory venue in Brisbane couldn’t survive without such public funding), so that a supposedly cosmopolitan city can claim a cultural smorgasbord across the arts, the more traditional “high” forms of which receive consistent government assistance. (Ironically enough, such funding – plus waving of rent from city councils – is apparently quite common for equivalent cinemas housed in heritage buildings in the US.)
In such a dire climate, the Sydney Film Festival is to be congratulated for acquiring some government money this year. With this rare subsidisation and the closures of independent arthouse venues, it now assumes even more responsibility as the prime conduit through which Sydneysiders can keep up with international cinema in a cinema. But if the festival persists with modest, unadventurous programs it will do nothing to stem the tide of world cinema aficionados keeping up with cutting-edge filmmaking via online DVD purchases, not to mention attending other festivals. These serious cinephiles ought to be a primary target audience of the festival, as such folk much prefer to first see films on the big screen. Instead, the festival tries to reach a new – read, young – audience in a way that is counterproductive across the board. In addition to alienating hardcore arthouse viewers and giving regular subscribers a skewed sense of state-of-the-art word cinema, such attempts also presume that young people are broadly incapable of engaging with difficult or radical films. In my ten-year experience of teaching undergraduate film studies, I think this is a serious and damaging misunderstanding, which (as with similar pronouncements by senior academics about students’ disinterest in unconventional, challenging cinema from the past and present) reflects more the populist and middlebrow assumptions or tastes of the management than any insight into what might appeal to a younger generation of film lovers.