March 2–12, 2006
In do you remember sapphire the writer bell hooks talks about the experience of not seeing herself or anyone like her (a black girl) represented in the films that she saw, and the extraordinary sense of inclusion and relief that overcame her on seeing Sarah Maldoror’s film Sambizanga (1972). Her beautifully written piece makes clear the importance of representation in the medium that dominates contemporary culture – an importance easily overlooked by those not so obviously denied it. When I lived in California I went to see Notting Hill – a film I knew I would dislike, in a location (the Town Centre Mall in white flight Valencia) that seemed designed to destroy all traces of the soul from the living body, and felt a sense of hunger for these images of “home” I knew to be absolutely false. I find it important to hold these things in mind when considering the 2006 London Australian Film Festival – and the 18 films that I saw there in early March of this year. Of those films (and I do not forget that I saw less than half of the films screened in the festival) there were pieces that were both good and poor, films that I enjoyed and a couple I deeply disliked, but there was nothing that elicited any kind of excitement – something that both saddens me, and makes me think.
The grouping of films by their country of origin sometimes strikes me as an odd concept. I don’t deny the existence of a national cinema or its importance – to the country it belongs to and to the development of cinema as a whole. But such movements matter most during specific time periods rather than existing as a constant – the movements of importance rise, then fall away (the New Wave in France in the ‘50s, the American Independents in the ‘70s) and are often the result of a small group of connected filmmakers reacting against something else – usually the dominating cinema of their own country. And as the new wave becomes the dominant cinema, things change – a new status quo is reached, where each country makes some wonderful films and some terrible films, but the sense of a nation speaking though images is lost until the need arises in a new generation to challenge and to recreate.
Globalisation means that the only true dominance at the moment is that of American filmmaking, which, as it eats up the local markets and productions of each country, becomes less inspirational (much of the inspiration for the French New Wave came from Hollywood after all, even if from the “B” pictures rather than the “A”) and more oppressive. While I am sure Australian cinema has a vital “Australianness” – has had it, does have it, will have it – it wasn’t present in any of the films that I saw. I did not get a sense of a country speaking out in its own unique voice. Too often it seemed like a ventriloquist had his hand up the back of the filmmakers’ shirts. Even the better films seemed to be bowing to dominant modes of expression. These modes are ones that I personally find increasingly harder to get involved with, but more importantly, in the context of this festival, they never struck me as authentically Australian.
For instance, in Cool (Kylie Washington-Brook, 2005), one of the more interesting of the shorts shown, the body of the film shows a woman (Susie Porter) isolated in a radiation room during treatment for cancer. The opening and closing shots felt like addenda. Echoing each other, both were slow motion tracks through the oncology ward, one ending and one beginning at the woman’s isolation room. Expensive and showy, we saw extras (patient and doctors), we saw the hospital, while the slowed-down movement gave a sense of “watching a film”. None of these things, the doctors, the money, the space, the speed, seemed to have anything to do with what the film was actually about – one woman, alone, facing the reality of her illness. A similar shot was found towards the beginning of the often-interesting Three Dollars (Robert Connolly, 2005). Eddie (David Wenham), having been escorted from his office after losing his job, steps on to the street only to have a sudden wind sweep up piles of papers from the box in his arms, papers that flew and twirled in a picturesque but essentially fake, essentially showy fashion, in slow motion (again) pictured against the glass windows of the building from which Eddie has been exiled. Such a grandiose gesture felt out of place in a film essentially about the decent nature of this one good man. More than that, it felt like a Hollywood shot. These three shots felt like betrayals of the films they inhabited. They felt as though they had been placed there in concordance with some other person’s rules, rules nobody had thought to question. They felt like shots included because one felt that one ought to have them and not because one needed them. They felt American.
They were not so American though that the audience, predominantly Australian, didn’t react to the films they saw. Apart from the dull but well-meaning Landmines: A Love Story (Dennis O’Rourke, 2005) there were strong audiences for all the films I saw, and a strong response from the audiences to all films. I sensed the same need from the audience – munching the Australian snacks and confectionary that had been shipped over with a hunger that seemed to come from more than their stomachs – that I felt watching Notting Hill. But I also remember that I would never have gone to see Notting Hill in London, and I wondered how many of these audiences would have made the same effort to attend these films if they were back at home. I do not know what the percentage of films screened and viewed in Australia are Australian but if it is anything like Britain then it’s very low. England doesn’t feel like it has a national cinema anymore, it seems to function as a respected production base for American films, or as a place that makes (with the obvious exceptions) films exporting a fake sense of Britishness to prospective tourists. None of the films I saw at this festival, even the good ones, gave me the sense that Australia has a vibrant national cinema either, and this made me sad.
Not to say that none of these films had a deeply rooted sense of place. Oyster Farmer (2004), intelligently presented by director Anna Reeves (and it was heartening to see how many women filmmakers were represented in this festival) was hard to fault. Set among the oyster faming community of the beautiful Hawksberry River, the film has all the sweetness of the director’s genuine knowledge and affection for a specific place. Presenting the film Reeves spoke about knowing she wanted to make a film there, and looking for a story. As she said it I felt a sinking. And it proved correct, because the film IS about the river and its community, and when it was that, just that, it had a lovely pureness. But when it tried hard to impose a story (young man from Sydney robs the fish market and send the money to himself on the river, only for it to get lost) the film stopped feeling honest and started feeling fake. From the overly cute robbery (done with a frozen lobster) to the trick of the lost money (crusty postman has comedy heart attack and all mail falls in the river – strange that in so human and sensitive a film the death of an individual is given so little respect), when the film felt itself obliged to follow conventional narrative structures it floundered. One felt a much better film pounding from the inside to get out, flowering and flying when it was allowed and then suffocating in narrative arcs, character development and “quirky local colour”. Though I enjoyed the film, this made me feel so disappointed, and the disappointment was crystallised in the closing shot. The hero and his lover lie on a pier over the river, together at last. And with the same sinking heart that I had when I heard Reeves talk about “searching for a story” I was waiting, just waiting, for the camera to move upwards, for that long, expensive, totally predictable and utterly pointless crane shot what would show us (who had already been shown so much better, and without such interminable cliché) the lovers, the river, the banks, the land, the location, the beauty, the credits, the end.
When reading the above paragraph, there seems to be an element of churlishness, and I ask myself why I am so critical of such a lovely film. As a filmmaker myself I have to constantly be aware of the other influences that affect my response to films – professional jealousy, an overly developed sense of criticism that relates more to my own work than to what I am seeing, and the fact that too much knowledge and too much thought can get in the way of just looking at what is in front of me. And I am aware that my feelings for the films I saw at this festival reflect a wider, and growing, sense of dissatisfaction with much that I see in the cinema at the moment. There are a number of current films that I have liked very much, from the very conventional Brokeback Mountain through Capote to the more extreme Caché (Hidden) as well as films of pure entertainment such as The Incredibles. But these films are exceptions to a powerful sense that the way so many films are made has lost its internal integrity. It is as if the nut, the truth, the honesty, is no longer in the shell, but the shiny shell is still the template, even though it’s empty, and at the end of each film I just feel hungrier.
But if the sense is that the old ways of telling stories (be they true or imagined) is no longer satisfying, I wonder too why films that seemed to be trying to do something different also displeased me – indeed, the two narratives I saw that were using a slightly different template, were the ones that bothered me the most – Puppy and The Magician. In many ways Puppy (2005) was the only film I saw that most seemed to want to make something quite different from the norm. The absurdity of its story married with elements of real human pain and struggle indicated that the makers were trying to do something. In their annoyingly joking introduction to the film producer Melissa Beauford and director Kieran Galvin did describe the film as being about making the most of what you have – even if it is very little – both in the film’s subject matter and in the way that it was made.
The biggest problem with Puppy was that I couldn’t quite believe the premise of it, or indeed, its development. I couldn’t believe in the man’s (Bernard Currie) madness in holding the woman (Nadia Townsend) prisoner and I certainly couldn’t believe in the woman’s journey from prisoner to lover. The two deaths, of the doctor and the wife were completely beyond belief. The film wasn’t consistent, it didn’t make a world where such beyond belief things can be accepted. It began in a very realist fashion, and then lurched around, like a teenage girl trying on every outfit in the wardrobe because she isn’t quite sure who she is, or wants to be yet. All these things led to a film that was neither exciting nor different, but just tedious. The Magician (Scott Ryan, 2005) was something else again. Introduced (by the festival not the makers) as a “mockumentary”, its tale of a hitman being filmed for a documentary by a film student was not only tasteless but deeply derivative of the much better (though to my mind equally unpleasant) Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, Rémy Belvauz, 1992) where a documentary film crew trail a serial killer, gradually becoming more and more implicated in his crimes. Like Puppy I found The Magician deeply tedious, and also upsetting, though not, I suspect, in the way the filmmakers may have intended. The shooting was drab and repetitive, as was the story, and the leading character had neither charisma nor interest for me. And again, like Puppy, no attempt was made to create a parallel universe that lives by its own rules. At the beginning of the film, when the first victim is shot, the audience laughed – a laugh the film invited. But it wasn’t the laughter that comes from the rich vein of intelligence and critique found in true black comedy (Dr. Strangelove for example) it was a cheap laugh – a kind of “hey, how about that, I shot someone!” – kind of a laugh. And without being po-faced I can’t see how a man getting shot in his garage is funny – I really can’t. I couldn’t understand what the film might want to be saying other than how cool it was, and by the end I suspected it didn’t really want to say anything at all. The very word, mockumentary, seems to sum up the film, fake and cute and all about the surface.
It seems that actually, while on the surface these films were trying to break away from conventional narrative structure – the efforts were only skin deep. Ra Choi’s director M. Frank was described as having made experimental shorts, but there was little experimental about this well-meaning and deeply-felt story of street kids (predominantly of Vietnamese origin) in Sydney, and that was probably its downfall – it too seemed a slave of the empty shell of narrative filmmaking tropes. The most pertinent example of this is the scene where Trinh (Nammi Le Benson), suffering from heroin withdrawal, breaks into the house where her parents, sister and daughter live in order to get money. Earlier in the film Trinh’s genuine love for her daughter had been established with a sequence where she buys her a crystal for her birthday. Now we see her ransacking the empty house, desperate. In her daughter’s room she sees the crystal, displayed with pride in a kind of shrine, and watch her struggle with the desire to take it, and see her decide not to, and move away. But the camera remains static, and there was something so heavy and depressing in the way we wait for the inevitable return of Trinh in to the frame to finally take the crystal. Like that final shot in Oyster Farmer, how painfully obvious, and how obviously unnecessary. I can’t stop asking why such intelligent and sincere filmmakers as Reeves and Frank clearly are, are still using such fake and outdated tropes.
Ra Choi screened on the same day as the documentary Landmines: A Love Story which told the story of two landmine victims in Afghanistan who had married and started a family. Another conventionally told story, this film saddened me with how little I got involved with it or its subjects. Of course the suffering caused by landmines is immense and needs to be seen and heard but this correct impulse was not enough to make the film engaging. Often with such documentaries one senses that their powerful subject is asked to carry the film. But this doesn’t work. Even the most activist film is a made thing and needs to be made with art and thought in order to allow the importance of its message to come across. The conjuncture of these two films, the documentary with the emotive subject and the narrative with the drug addicted children made me think of a third film, Three Five People, completed in 2002 and not shown in this festival, though its director Lin Li is, I believe, a naturalised Australian of Chinese origin. Three Five People is a documentary about three heroin-addicted children living on the streets of Cheng Du, China. Li encountered them when waiting there for a visa to go to Tibet to make another film, became involved with them, and was so touched by their lives that she started to film, and then became deeply involved in efforts to help them. Containing scenes among the most painful I have had to watch, and yet shot always with an eye that is as steady as it is compassionate, Three Five People is a documentary, but it doesn’t feel like a documentary in the way Landmines: A Love Story did – it didn’t wear its identity like a badge as thought the fact that it deals with real pain (which one must always respect) justifies its dullness. Ra Choi on the other hand, which tried so hard to tell about the pain and humiliation heroin addiction brings to the young felt as though it ought to have been a documentary, as if it suffered because it was fictionalising a truth better told as truth.
When I think of the irrational fury that overcomes me just hearing the term mockumentary I start to feel that much of my dissatisfaction with what I see can be to do with the rigid nature of genres, and I long for a breakdown of all this pointless classification, the idiocy and stifling concept of pitch and marketing. Why make a “documentary”, why make a “narrative” be it “romance”, “horror”, “period”, “quirky”, why make, dear God, a mockumentary? Why not make something that is a real attempt to look and to tell, honestly and with art, something that matters to that filmmaker or filmmakers, in the way that is right for that subject and those people at that time. That is what Three Five People is – made not because it was planned, like most films, or because it was a good location in search of a story, like Oyster Farmer, or because it was a cute idea, like the effective, well made but ultimately empty short film Barely Visible (Jody Dwyer, 2005), but made, en route to something else, because it demanded of its maker absolutely that it be made, and because the filmmaker was not afraid to follow that demand to make that arose inside her as a response to what she witnessed. It was as if with the other two films the intention was there before the film, and the film was shaped around the intention, giving it a forced feeling. That is how they felt to me. Never quite easy, never quite right.
Perhaps it is this need to market one’s work, pushing films into genre camps, that leads them to adopt methods that do not seem to be personal, but imposed by another, dominating system. This may explain why I missed so strongly a sense of Australianness when watching these films – as well as the deep sense of disillusion and sadness that this festival failed to unseat. There is though another possible reason that returns to the sense of unease at the proposition of a national cinema in itself. When I think about Australian films that have in the past moved me deeply, the ones that come to mind are Two Friends (1986) and An Angel at My Table (1990) by Jane Campion and a number of her shorter films and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) by Gillian Armstrong. When asking myself whether any of these films had a powerful and inherent Australianness I don’t know that I can honestly answer that they did. Certainly it was not this that struck me about the films, though one was always aware of where they came from. With Peel (1982) for instance one could say that it was from Australia, or even from New Zealand, but really, when I think about it, it was actually from Campion. And it was from this, from the unique, subjective and accessed land of Campion that the film takes all its strength – and not, I think, from the land of the director’s birth or her training or even the land in which and of which the film is made. Even as the film does stand as part of the Australian canon, this is not its most important definition. Of course national cinema matters, in so many ways, and for many reasons just as Notting Hill mattered to me, when I saw it. But Notting Hill is not a great film, no matter how much I might have needed it that afternoon at the Valencia Town Centre Mall. Peel is not a great film because it is Australian and Sambizanga is not a great film because it depicts black people in a way bell hooks had not previously seen. Peel, Sambizanga and Three Five People are great because their makers have found a way to express themselves via the medium of film that is honest to their story and themselves. They are films that have managed, possibly because of the intense and personal connection with the nature of their subject, to be unfettered by ways in which other films have been made. Thus, without it necessarily being the intention of each filmmaker, something very new, and alive was made. For all that there were films of great quality and good intention at the 2006 London Australian Film Festival, not one of the films I saw felt new or alive. Hopefully next year.