22 February – 4 March 2007
Adelaide has a long tradition of putting money into its Arts events. It was the first Australian city to present a major international arts festival whose existence required continuing large amounts of State Government funding. That festival has now been presented biennially for four decades or so. Yet the city has never really embraced a major film festival and in fact, until quite recently its audience for anything beyond mainstream movies was always problematic. But things stirred. Prior to the last state election but one, the Labor Party included a commitment in its policy document to establish an international film festival. The first such event was in 2003 and the festival has now been presented twice more in the ‘off-year’ to the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. It’s an interesting concept and essentially it involves the organisers having to ignore most world film production for twelve months before gearing up for a new event. I can’t think of any other similarly timed film festival but Adelaide’s event does try to put the time out to good use.
The connection with the Arts festival has paid off in several huge respects and, in the process created a whole new way for Australian film festivals to do business. This year AFF was also the beneficiary of a relationship the city developed with Peter Sellars. Sellars had an unhappy experience as Arts Festival director, being fired before his event took place. But it seems he holds the city in good stead. As well as providing the festival with the impetus to sponsor its own film productions, about which more later. Sellars enabled Adelaide to have the first Australian screenings of the seven films made under his aegis to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. That group of films is now collectively called the New Crowned Hope movies
The New Crowned Hope brief, according to the program notes, was for each filmmaker chosen to “respond to” the masterworks created during the last year of Mozart’s life, the operas The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito and his Requiem.
The films are a mixed lot. Their connection with Mozart is almost entirely tenuous though the Indonesian Garin Nugroho does stick to the brief by filming his own folk-opera version of the Requiem. Nugroho’s Opera Jawa (2006) is quite a stunning work full of colour and movement, blood and sensuality, supported up to the hilt by traditional Indonesian music. It benefits from the relatively generous production facilities made available to the director. Its exploration of female sexuality picks up and engages with Mozart more closely than any of the other films in the set.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Hei yan quan ( I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, 2006) has a few bars from Mozart broadcast on a radio before it embarks on another of the director’s meditations on the end of the world as we know it. Not a word is spoken by the actors. Communication seems to be beyond them. Tsai returns to film in his Malaysian homeland and represents it as bleak, decayed and poisonous, similar in effect to his Taiwan settings.
Other films in the series seem to have allowed their directors to make another movie without worrying about Mozart at all. The extremely minimalist Hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, Paz Encina, 2006) was the hardest to deal with. Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s Daratt (Dry Season, 2006) was the most winning. It was classical African filmmaking, accessible, moral and very wise.
Peter Sellars apparently also first conceived the idea of the Arts Festival commissioning new films. The early success of that decision (the first batch produced Tracker [Rolf de Heer, 2002], Australian Rules [Paul Goldman, 2002] and Walking on Water [Tony Ayres, 2002]) and prompted the State Government to provide AFF with a production investment fund. Adelaide’s program makes the claim that as a result “AFF has led the country in encouraging local production”.
Whatever, in the interim between film events, Adelaide’s festival organisers get to spend time and money, $1 million to be precise, commissioning or supporting film productions intended to premiere at the film festival or the Festival of the Arts. There are precursors in Europe, most notably the Hubert Bals Foundation established by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, which for a decade or so has provided funding for independent film producers to make films for screening there. But no matter what the provenance of the idea Adelaide’s festival has contrived to invest in the last two AFI Award winners Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005) and Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006) and this year has again given itself a shot at AFI glory. I don’t know what processes the festival goes through before it backs productions but clearly it’s getting something right without seemingly having any great infrastructure for script assessment, hopefully without holding scriptwriting workshops and quite possibly without sending every applicant off to write endless drafts before finally going into production.
(In the meantime though, the Adelaide model appears to have set off a round of competition. Melbourne is to apparently embark on its own investment/production slate and also sees itself, with state government encouragement, as developing a film market, “the Toronto of the Pacific”, to spread its ambitions further.)
Kriv Stenders’ Boxing Day (2007) was fully financed by the AFF and it’s a model of low budget digital filmmaking. There was, according to Stenders, plenty of rehearsal and work with the actors in creating the film but that seems to me be a qualitatively different approach to getting something going, than submitting projects to near-sclerotic bureaucracies which might provide early funding and development money.
Stenders has now made two recent films using improvised dialogue and long takes filmed with a mobile digital camera. Both offer startling evidence for the director’s forte for intense drama not otherwise apparent in his bigger budget The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005). Boxing Day has only a dozen shots and it relies on its actors to give the drama its intensity. The influence of John Cassavetes looms large over this, as does the Dogme method. In fact, this film has more than a few parallels with Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), another intense dysfunctional family drama in which tension is apparent immediately and a deep secret is at the core of the film’s revelatory ending. Stenders’ use of aboriginal oppression to drive the plot is almost a cliché but Richard Green’s performance as the dried out ex-junkie, ex-alcoholic trying to keep some semblance of family together does provide something new. Family relations between black and white Australians haven’t featured much in our movies. Nor has hyper-emotion. It’s an exercise that works and although its unlikely to find anyone prepared to back it for full-scale release in the theatres it warrants much more public exposure.
Boxing Day got all of its modest funding from the AFF and it seems to me that if festivals are going to get into this scene then it might be better to fully back low budget films like this, presumably on some gut instinct about the people involved than worry too much about script assessing and taking a share of a bigger movie. That way there might be a chance that our brightest might be freed up, admittedly with only small amounts of money, to make whatever they want rather than, possibly, what someone else thinks they should make. In the event, this year’s AFF showed four features, three feature length documentaries and five shorts, all of which may not have been made without the Festival’s timely contribution of funds. It allowed for quite a bit of variety. Rolf de Heer went off and made a silent film, Dr Plonk (2007), which went out on closing night, after I’d left, but the bravura involved will surely warrant international attention. De Heer is currently Australia’s most highly regarded international figure. He gets considerable backing from international producers as well as local sources and his films do make it into the international competitions. No one else can make the same claim.
One other AFF-funded feature film will eventually get more attention. Michael James Rowland’s Lucky Miles (2007) has a warm inner glow that hits audiences with a neat one two of drollery and conscience pricking. It situates itself a time, maybe even an already golden past in the nation’s recent history when refugees weren’t automatically put into offshore gulags, when most of the citizenry seemed to have a little compassion for those arriving after horrendous boat journeys and when arrivals weren’t treated as alien invaders but as humans with strengths and weaknesses.
Taking a lead from any number of stories of human cargo dumped on out of the way beaches, it looks at one boat load comprising a couple of national groups, mutually distrusting, who head off in different directions each seeking to improvise their way to a new civilisation. It may have been in the filmmaker’s mind from the start to allow the film to slowly gravitate towards a succession of increasingly comic scenes or it may have been the way such situations always played out. The sight of a rebuilt wrecked car, repaired by an Arab engineer, careering backwards across the desert, sums up a lot about tolerance of difference. The scenes with three Army reservists, languid and po-faced seeking to intercede, have even more bite. It all seems to want us to hark back to a time, a mere decade and a half ago, before the Government started building the razor wire camps in the desert, and it seems to ask where’s the harm in being humane to a few stragglers from the third world.
Lucky Miles was chosen to open the Festival. It got lots of attention and I wish I could tell you the names of its producers, actors and technical crew. However no Australian film, nor indeed any film AFF presented, has any production participants’ names systematically recorded, except that of the director. The festival “catalogue” is completely deficient on this information. Similarly, no filmographies or biographies of directors are mentioned, (though the various members of the juries had their bio included). Australian festival catalogues, with the exception of Brisbane, have dropped in standards in recent years as cost saving measures kick in but Adelaide’s reached a new low in the provision of essential detail.
Elsewhere there was plenty of the festival fare that will tour around elsewhere this year and which drew in good crowds. These included a few films that otherwise screened as part of the French Film Festival, several more Australian premieres of local work, including Cherie Nowlan’s Sundance hit Clubland (2007) and a selection of new Russian films from a national cinema that has been almost completely neglected elsewhere. The selection of new films from Asia ranged from ultra-commercial hits like Bong Joon-ho’s Gwoemul (The Host, 2006) and Johnnie To’s Fong juk (Exiled, 2006) to some genuinely brave selections like Miike Takashi’s 46-okunen no koi (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, 2006). One Miike film doesn’t make a summer and the neglect in recent years of this prolific director’s work by festival programmers continues to surprise me. There was lots of other activity as well but digital workshops, industry forums, art gallery extension programs and so on aren’t on everyone’s radar as substitutes for a program that people want to stand in line for.
Two jury prizes were given. The first by a FIPRESCI jury went to Daratt. The biggest of them all, the Natuzzi Competition with a prize of a wow-inducing $25,000, went to a deserved winner, Jia Zhang-ke for his Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006). This is a film that confirms Jia as the major Asian filmmaker of our time, a master whose films about the new in China already form one of the finest bodies of modern work, an almost Balzacian contemplation of the figures and foibles of his society, a chronicle of society from pickpockets to wealthy bureaucrats which is now starting to comprehend ensembles of recognisable characters weaving in and out of earlier work.
AFF has now put together three major festivals over five years. Maybe it’s time to take the leap into an annual event and abandon the role it now plays as an event inserted into the city’s arts calendar when the bigger and much more grandiose Arts festival isn’t happening. Giving punters a taste of the best only every couple of years shouldn’t be satisfying enough. Too much gets made that shouldn’t be ignored. However, the current format, with its expenditure emphasising developing productions intended for World Premieres (the festival claimed 17, including five features) is an arduous and expensive one to sustain and that in itself may preclude taking the next step. Wait and see.