8-24 June 2007
By almost any measure, the 2007 Sydney Film Festival has been the best since at least 2004. The range of films was good, even if there weren’t an abundance of surprises; many of the highlights came with much festival and critical weight behind them. New director Claire Stewart picked up the pace with a large program, and a reasonably strong central world cinema selection. There were also special strands devoted to new Brazilian and Turkish cinema, mini-retrospective sessions devoted to Norman McLaren and Pixar animation, and a John Huston retrospective series. Again the State Theatre in the middle of Sydney and Dendy cinemas at Circular Quay were joined by Greater Union on George Street as the venues, in addition to which the adjacent Metro Theatre was used for music and performance themed films and some post-screening live entertainment. Overall, the festival seemed like a good start to what will hopefully be Stewart’s developing tenure, working to exponentially build SFF to the event it could be.
There was a bit of debate around the US documentary Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, 2007). Charting the increasingly awkward tale of a wannabe Iraqi filmmaker called Muthana, first “discovered” by MTV then later offered an internship on an American Liev Schreiber film, it charts the vertiginous free-wheeling ambition, opportunism and improvisatory skill of its young protagonist as he wrestles with his own expectations versus the disappointment when being asked to make coffee for the crew. But the biggest revelation, irrespective of director Nina Davenport’s conscious awareness of this (she is featured as an off-screen and narrational presence interrogating and negotiating with Muthana), is the apparently blind double standards and prescriptive expectations of the self-conscious “liberals” producing Schreiber’s film (keen to voice opposition to Bush and the Iraq invasion, etc.), and their cultural brethren in New York. All this comes together in a hilarious sequence when we watch film school types in Manhattan cooing over the “authenticity” of Muthana’s performance in an audition piece, which we sense is likely performative in a more complex sense than they realise. He is soon on the set of another film, rather than return to war-torn Iraq, and more Hollywood liberal types (The Rock makes an appearance, providing the necessary cash for Muthana to attend the London Film School) round out this – possibly unintentional – portrait of earnest, naïve and ultimately self-serving first-world film industry folk who increasingly insist they’ve done a good deed that’s gone unappreciated.
War plays a much more prominent role in surely the most appalling film I saw at the festival – and one of the worst films ever made by a major filmmaker. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006) tells the story of Dieter Dengler (based on his memoirs), a German-born US fighter pilot who crashes during one of the illegal “secret” bombing raids on Laos. The tale of his eventual escape, survival and rescue as filmed by Herzog in this Hollywood film is simply the most racist, triumphalist film about the US war on Indochina I have seen, complete with unfeeling “barbarian” prison guards at the other extreme of which is a morally righteous can-do US military as embodied in the boys’ own adventure heroics of Dengler. Going way beyond the already self-indulgent existentialist confusion that was the focus in “liberal” US films about the war in Viet Nam from the 1980s and ‘90s, Rescue Dawn is like a wet-dream US imperialist fantasy vision – something far from needed at this time in history. One can, of course, seek to explain the film as a kind of “surrealist act”, Herzog trying to appal and challenge us as he has so often done, though usually in a productive if often apolitical way; or, to literally give Hollywood and the US the kind of film about the war they “really” want, with no moral nuance or sliver of mollifying retrospective doubt in sight. Irrespective, to me this film is at the very least irresponsible in its blithe whitewashing of history (considering there is an ambiguity in the US itself over the cause and even outcome of what they euphemistically call the Vietnam War), and, in essence, reactionary rubbish.
Handily, a corrective was available at the festival in the form of the Australian film Bomb Harvest (Kim Mordaunt, 2007). Peppered with amazing, newly unearthed archival footage of the US bombers over Laos, this documentary tells the quietly heroic story of the bomb detonation teams in that country today, lead by Australian Leith Stevens. The film is touching and truly sad, detailing as it does the human cost of the original eight-year bombardment, but also the ongoing devastation the thousands of still-live bombs have caused since cessation of violence 24 years ago. There is some ambiguity as to whether this was an “Australian” angle to a broader story or whether Stevens is as important as the film suggests, seeming to run the entire operation. Some unintentionally patronising words by the filmmakers about their “love for the Laos people” after the screening not, fortunately, characterising the tone of the film itself, this was conventional documentary-making at its finest. (And it was moving to hear Laotian-Australians at the screening thanking the filmmakers for shining a light on this little-known atrocity of an already appalling war.) Not only should the film be compulsory viewing for every US citizen, but likewise those of any country whose government and media continue to espouse “just war”, “precision bombing” and other such euphemisms.
An earlier, now often forgotten “hot” outbreak in the Cold War was the historical background of Crossing the Line (Daniel Gordon, 2006), an unusual UK-North Korean co-production. It tells the truly amazing story of a handful of US soldiers stationed on the South side of the Korean demilitarised zone who defected to the North as young men. Interviews with the one surviving figure pepper the film, in which he claims to be thankful to the North Korean government and people for a good life (he has lived there more than twice as long as he did in the USA). However, while a fascinating story, and not as simplistic as most Western accounts of North Korea (including director Daniel Gordon’s 2004 film about the country, A State of Mind) all too familiar fudging of the origins of the 1953-5 war in Korea and its aftermath persist in the Christian Slater-read narration, which paints the communist North as a dictatorial behemoth from the start while we’re told the South is a “fragile democracy” – even though in reality it was a brutal right-wing dictatorship for many decades following the war.
On a much lighter note indeed, and a key archival airing of the festival, was the delightful The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (Roy Rowland, 1953), the primary contribution to cinema by Dr Seuss, who scripted the film and was in charge of production design. So popular it demanded an encore screening, the film is a true Hollywood oddity – very 1950s in both its initial basis in Eisenhower middle-class conservatism and a child’s fantastic visions of escaping the noose of adult-designated behaviour and hierarchical regimes, represented in his dreamscape as a tyrannical piano teacher forcing a galley of children to perform a composition on an enormous piano. A clear forerunner to some of the more adventurous animated films of later years (not to mention the odder moments of The Simpsons and Sesame St.), the mise en scène and set-pieces (a highlight of which is a truly crazy orchestra number featuring the “bad” – i.e. non-pianistic – instruments) are still striking in their combination of pop-modernism, parodic Albert Speer-like architectural grandeur, and texturally ambiguous organic forms.
Similarly charming, though very different, in its modernism-meets-the mainstream ingenuity was a welcome tribute package devoted to Norman McLaren. Generating much humour out of men’s (the figure is always male) problems with recalcitrant material objects – be it a microphone that refuses to stay put in Norman McLaren’s Opening Speech on the Occasion of the First Montreal International Film Festival (1961) or a chair that moves and dances its way around a young man as he tries to sit down and read a book in A Chairy Tale (1957) – these seminal Canadian Film Board productions remain fresh, if sometimes a bit overlong. More serious and recognisably abstract are Lines: Horizontal (1962), Synchromy (1971) and Pas de deux (1968), all of which when looked at today show clearly how the (here family-friendly) formalist avant-garde of yesteryear is today’s screen-savers. The highlight was probably Neighbours (1952), which is both charming in its stop-motion animation and humanist warnings about selfishness when it comes to property and the environment, yet also shocking and absurd (especially when the two men’s fight over a flower culminates in the murders of their respective wives and babies). Simple enough, its “message” is hardly irrelevant now, and rather than earnestly serious, is almost flippant in its pragmatism: respect your neighbour, or you’ll end up killing each other.
As can be expected of central world cinema strands at contemporary film festivals in recent years, Scandinavian films played a prominent role. The latest work of two directors well known to SFF and Australian audiences, Lukas Moodysson (Sweden) and Susanne Bier (Denmark), showed opposite trajectories – one moving further away from commercial forms and the other sliding into the terrain of Hollywood melodrama. Neither was totally convincing. For many viewers Container (2006) was almost risible film-school faux avant-gardist introspection, complete with textbook black-and-white imagery of the detritus of domestic and industrial modernity over which we hear the monotonous intonations of a voiceover diaristically regaling what might be the various crises of a young Hollywood actress-type (a young US English female voice is featured while a overweight transvestite is the main presence on screen). Yet while I may be overly influenced by Moodysson’s other work and cultural context, I saw something else in the film as well: a distanced, ambivalent northern light – familiar from a lot of Swedish cinema – cast upon what happens to subjectivity when faced with, addicted to and defined by the screwed-up machinations of mainstream affluent (here seemingly US-based) – popular culture. The film certainly skirted cliché and vapid nihilism at every turn, yet it can also be seen as presenting a quite chilling gaze upon the ultimately, seriously (as opposed to hip and glib) nihilistic elements that drive and simultaneously destroy such a culture, its pleasures and self-obsessed modes of reflection, its behavioural traits and textual articulation.
Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding, 2006) had the opposite problem. Bier’s previous balance of middlebrow drama and charting the moral complexity of personal relations via quite intense affective performative modes this time rather degenerates into very familiar melodramatic clichés. Despite a promising set up concerning an idealistic and emotionally “damaged” charity worker in India who returns home to Copenhagen to find he has a rich daughter, the film ultimately leaves behind any potentially interesting ideological and ethical material in favour of predictable emotional gravitas, albeit expertly performed as is usual.
A very different Danish film, Sprængfarlig bombe (Clash of Egos, Tomas Villum Jensen, 2006), was certainly funny in its exposé of the vanities of film culture. Featuring an overblown director who is sued by a disgruntled working-class man because his film was “crap” despite the reviews proclaiming it a masterpiece, the film is peppered with interesting contextual detail (for example, Sweden is portrayed as the reference point for Danish actors as to how film stars should be treated; and the director figure denigrates a bad New York Times review on TV because, of course, he doesn’t take American views on his work seriously). Yet the film’s pot-shots are too easy, and while what we see of the film in question is undoubtedly “crap”, the clearly “pretentious” ambitions of its maker feeds automatically into cynicism about intellectual or “art” cinema per se (a funny scene when he tries to explain Brechtian distantiation to the disgruntled blue-collar character who has now scored a role in the writing of the film, seems to imply that all film aesthetics ought to pass through the censor of “the man in the street” before they are legitimate). And the inevitable fall from grace of the would-be arthouse master in favour of the everyman is hackneyed, just as is the latter’s becoming a filmmaking star himself only to reject the ”superficial” life and return to his honest working class would-be girlfriend.
More interesting, if mixed, was a two-film series from Iceland by Ragnar Bragason, Börn (Children, 2006) and Foreldrar (Parents, 2007), the latter easily the better of this black-and-while pair. Featuring excellent dramatic performances, Children was nonetheless fairly predictable in its narrative arc, whereby a working class mother and her three children must come to terms with the return of her criminal ex, who is gradually redeemed from his violent way of life when he and his son nearly die in two separate events, the latter an attempted suicide. Featuring a different narrative, and portraying a different class, the problems essayed in Parents are more “bourgeois” and indulgent yet the film is ultimately tougher I think – less sentimental and more open in its portrayal of the endless, frustrating procedures of maintaining relationships and families as portrayed within the claustrophobic, airless “modern” designer interiors of middle-class Reykjavik.
A sole German feature, Die Unerzogenen (The Unpolished, Pia Marais, 2006), maintained my interest through its convincing portrayal of an aimless culture of people who move freely through the “new Europe” without employment or purpose, forming an irreverent yet ultimately desultory (and partially criminal) communion – all as glimpsed through the increasingly appalled eyes of a young teenage girl, who is both “free” and all at sea as a result of her parents’ hybrid of liberalism and negligence. The film steers clear of moral or political material, and doesn’t really dig for major insights into the German and European contexts that underlie this story.
As usual, the French offerings at the festival were numerous and mixed in the extreme. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for many I talked to was Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch the Axe, Jacques Rivette, 2007), though many positive comments were overhead in the foyer too. Although not expecting much (despite my affection for his earlier work) from what was supposed to be a reasonably “faithful” Balzac adaptation, the film was theatrical and trying. Due to extraneous factors (a rare quiet audience at the State, a frantic morning), I did nevertheless settle into the slow rhythms of the film, and Jeanne Balibar is compelling in her unusual way, if a little too “knowing” here. (Guillaume Depardieu, however, is highly irritating and uninteresting as the constantly deferred would-be lover.) This is perhaps Rivette’s least ambitious and interesting feature.
Les Amitiés maléfiques (Poison Friends, Emmanuel Bourdieu, 2006) was familiar in its milieu and concerns – the ethical and artistic confusions of a group of colleagues studying literature at the Sorbonne; likewise, in terms of film style it could have been made decades ago. In many ways, somehow this “conservatism” is part of the film’s charm, and it tends to initially mask what turns out to be harder material. The truly vertiginous nature of artistic judgement is powerfully evoked as we watch the gradual devolution of a charismatic figure (whose emphasis on criticism is based around a hardcore disdain for all contemporary fiction writers as needlessly polluting the world) within a group of students, to his eventual demise and unmasking as a charlatan. Or is he? The eventual “winners” who once looked up to him in part due to his authoritative gravitas were indeed duped; yet the fallen critic’s relentless remonstrations spurred these comparably lazy-seeming figures on to hitherto perhaps unattainable heights. The designation of fraudulence, and its ethical implications, turns out to be murky in rather more complex ways than the other characters’ initial outrage suggests.
Beginning in a completely different French setting, Flanders (Bruno Dumont, 2006) features two contrasting – though clearly connected – locales: the former WWI battlefields of Flanders, now farmland, and the desert of an unnamed country to which the young male farmers are sent as soldiers. The shocking, if not surprising, behaviour they exhibit at war (wanton raping and violence for no apparent military end) is contrasted with their seemingly benign if alienated home lives. Though effective in part, this opposition wasn’t carried through to its thematic (or political) potential, and a major plot stream concerning a “promiscuous” young farm woman who ends up with one of the war survivors (and seems untroubled by his tales) is also dubious in its portrayal of female psychosexual neurosis.
The only French documentary I saw was Chris Marker’s Chats perchés (The Case of the Grinning Cat). Made in 2004 but only now being circulated outside France with an English-language voiceover (as favoured by Marker for non-Francophone territories, rather than subtitles), the film is already dated in its political detail – pertaining to the last French Presidential election, rather than this year’s – and the now very familiar and mainstream critique of the then-new invasion of Iraq. Yet what’s striking, in addition to Marker’s undiminished leftist “engagement”, is the nuanced relation he forges with the youthful progressive demonstrators of contemporary France, expressing solidarity in the main but also carefully critiquing their rhetoric at times (for being too glib in comparing Jacques Chirac’s government to the Vichy regime).
The French/Italian co-production Riparo – Anis tra di noi (Shelter, Marco Simon Puccioni, 2007) featured an interesting set up: a lesbian couple who, when coming back to Italy from a Tunisian holiday, find a young stowaway asylum-seeker in the boot of the car. The ensuing impact of the young man’s presence in their lives has predictably destabilising effects, in particular opening up the class-based fault-lines between the two women (one is a factory manager and heir to a footwear empire, the other works on the factory floor). Initially the working class woman is distrustful of the new arrival, and chastised by her privileged partner for having an insufficiently humanitarian attitude towards asylum seekers; yet gradually it is the two figures at the respective local and global “bottom” of the socio-economic pole who establish a bond, one ultimately punished by the establishment characters who were first very self-consciously liberal. The apparent devolution of the cross-class gay couple is not, however, really replaced by a cross-cultural hetero bond build on a sentimental class solidarity that belies other important issues of difference (he is appalled, morally and/or sexually, by the idea of lesbianism). Rather, we are offered a big question mark upon the film’s conclusion with the desperate young man driving a stolen car through a field of long grass as he flees the immigration police. How far does “tolerant”, human rights-respecting Europe (let alone more clearly reactionary and pigheaded political discourses, such as the Australian government’s) live up to its proclaimed values when asylum-seekers come knocking at the door, and will they be welcomed beyond an initial feel-good liberalism?
Stylistically and thematically familiar from recent years, the former Eastern-bloc cinema at the festival was often strong. In most respects a standout film here was the Russian Blokada (Blockade, Sergei Loznitsa, 2006), the earliest contribution to the festival’s many films about war and its aftermath that often problematise (if not always consciously address) the morally simplistic, triumphalist and deeply ideological dominant Western media accounts of history. In fact the only possible fault with Blockade is that its brevity and lack of framing information about the German Army’s 3-year blockade of Leningrad can easily result in western viewers who are unfamiliar with this WWII tragedy (making the Battle of Britain pale in comparison) coming away unaware of the broader facts beneath this event and film: that it was the millions of Russians who died during the war that brought about the defeat of the Nazis. Of course this is a problem with western ignorance about a war we think English-speaking soldiers won, rather than the film, which is a stunning montage of astonishingly well-composed shots of the Siege’s various stages, accompanied by a rich soundscape of hypperreal imitation “diegetic” audio.
Two films from Romania featured the black humour that Eastern and Central European cinema has been famous for over many decades, both concerning the same historical event (one staged as it happened, the other looking back from the present day) – the night of President Nicolae Ceauşescu’s overthrow, and thereby the end of communism. Hîrtia va fi albastrã (The Paper will be Blue, Radu Muntean, 2006) is a chaotic account of that night from the perspective of an army squadron; confusion and comedy reigns when a young soldier defects to the rioters’ side, prompting his sergeant and comrades to wait for him at his house (where they enjoy endless enforced hospitality from his mother’s insatiable cooking). All this humour, and poking fun at revolution from a less glamorous and relatively apolitical perspective, is however tempered by the knowledge that the whole squadron will be ambushed and killed at dawn. A fost sau n-a fost? (12.08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006) is funnier still – and less tragic – as a TV talk-show host in the ramshackle post-communist reality of present-day Romania seeks to establish (on air) whether the town in which they live actually participated in “the Revolution”. This debate, in which old resentments dating back to the communist era re-emerge, gets mired in absurdist arguments and outbursts concerning whether a group of possibly drunk teachers entered the town square, and if they arrived before or after the radio announcements of Ceauchescu’s downfall.
Kráska v nesnázích (Beauty in Trouble, Jan Hrebejk, 2006) is sometimes too glib in its shorthand framing of class differences in the Czech Republic (an urbane, upper-class “cultured” 60-ish protagonist is seen reading Milan Kundera while the central working class equivalent is mired in conservative attitudes, bad taste and general resentement). Nevertheless, the film does get beneath some of the possible historical causes of this disparity, and the conversion of many Czechs from communist allegiance to Catholic dogma is humorously and tellingly figured. Even so, the particular brand of Czech black humour, which inevitably seeks to celebrate yet denigrate the banality and uncouth “reality” of socio-economic losers, can get tiresome here; and the central narrative, in which an attractive working class woman leaves her husband for an affair with the Kundera-reading dandy of leisure only to inevitably return to an unglamorous but authentic real, is all too familiar.
Unlike other viewers around me (if noise during the screening and end-credits complaints is anything to go by), I very much enjoyed the Hungarian Friss levegö (Fresh Air, Ágnes Kocsis & Andrea Roberti, 2006). The film depicts the quietly grim and desperate lives of an alienated mother and daughter who share a flat yet never speak, shot through with a deadpan occasional humour (the highlight being when the young woman thinks she’s succeeded in leaving Hungary as a hitchhiker with an Italian couple, only at dawn to be let out of the car exactly where she got in, failing to glean through lack of common language that “Rome” was their point of origin, not destination). Despite a potentially sentimental narrative trajectory in which the mother is bashed and the daughter makes silent overtures of material care, the film manages to avoid the predictable emotional and ethical denouement with a strikingly minimalist yet very affecting conclusion. A near-silent final scene shows the young woman, a budding fashion designer, visit her mother’s place of work for the first time, the cleaning and toilet-paper dispensing room adjoining some train station public toilets (and decked out by the older woman’s trademark red fabrics and obsessive deodorant collection), so as to cover her shift. Slowly, she is able to continue working on her own green-themed clothes designs in what amounts to a lovely hybrid of real working class drudgery and artistic and cultural aspirations in aesthetic, moral and existential harmony as if for the first time.
The cinema from “Asia” I saw (despite the problematically broad and Orientalist baggage of such a ridiculously sweeping geographical and cultural designation, film culture continues to use it as imprecise shorthand) was indeed consistently good, though of course I heard other reports indicating weaker spots in the programme. So it was disheartening to read Claire Stewart’s probably accurate comment in a post-festival interview that the audience’s response to the Asian films in the programme was disappointingly lacklustre. Here was easily the most challenging and “contemporary” – in both aesthetics and conceptual terrain – cinema at the festival. Even the surface anime escapism of Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006) with its familiar apocalyptic trajectory, built up a mind-bendingly layered portrayal of reality once the full psychological (and psychotic) implications of virtuality are given proper form and thought.
By comparison Jin tian de yu zen me yang? (How Is Your Fish Today?, Guo Xiaolu, 2006) seemed rather earnest in its documentary take on early-30s existential doubt in the face of others’ success, complete with faux-profound narration. Yet this Chinese film works in part as a banal portrayal of the everyday challenges and advancing doubt upon realising one’s life (here an under-achieving writer) is not panning out as the more hopeful and idealistic early-20s version would have it. The journey of the protagonist – himself copying, and confusing, the life of a favourite character from his own in-progress book – takes in reflections on urban life (Beijing) and then the perhaps inevitable failure to find some kind of spiritual or existential revelation upon travelling to the remote and mythically built-up Mohe in the far north of the country (the possible highpoint of which turns out to be our long-take witnessing of the truly banal and unromantic eating and drinking habits of a local couple).
The least surprising success of the festival was Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006) by the wonderful Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke. Though not as towering in ambition and achievment as Jia’s Zhantai (Platform, 2000), one of the truly great films of the last ten years, he has given us a small masterpiece which manages to riff on favourite themes with yet new layers and perspective. This time the director presents us with two thematically linked though only tangentially connected narratives that show the problems faced by working- and middle-class people as a result of the massive relocations brought about by the damning of a large river. With his familiar actors in the mix, the masterful long takes contain so much thematic material, subtly encapsulating the communism-to-capitalism complexities of industrial, economic and ethical life as rendered within masterful framing, camera movement and mise en scène. On the surface a quiet and even modest film, Still Life seals Jia’s status for me as the most consistently rewarding director at work today.
More experimental in its approach to narration, featuring a fragmentary series of scenes and set-pieces, the South Korean Majimak babsang (The Last Dining Table, Roh Gyeong-tae, 2006) is both a downbeat “modern life sucks” essay yet also at times very funny (especially a scene in which a man repeatedly shouts at the abyss while simultaneously blaming the anonymous residents of adjacent high-rises for their failure to grasp the horror). I’m not sure that the film thematically coheres as such, but its portrayal of life in Seoul through a combination of “pre-modern” religious and modern rituals is strikingly shot through with a varied nihilism, making for a banal-yet-grandiose treatise on the meaning/lessness of contemporary experience.
Intricate use of music, dance, myth and dress gave the Indonesian production Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2006) a thoroughly intertextual appeal. Part of the New Crowned Hope programme (commissioned by Peter Sellars for the 2006 Vienna Festival, and debuted in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival this year), the film was certainly sumptuous, yet the inevitably of the female protagonist’s death at the end was not entirely justified for me. Ultimately, while I found other films in the Vienna commission series richer, more familiarity with the references to other Indonesian cultural texts and performative modes would undoubtedly allow for a more appreciative response.
The low-budget Malaysian film Love Conquers All (Tan Chui Mui, 2006) was at the other end of the spectrum, slow and realist in a pseudo-(almost amateur) documentary sense. Initially charting the drab everyday reality of a Kuala Lumpur noodle shop family, the film gradually becomes a quietly devastating account of how an aimless young woman is lured into a life of prostitution by a charming fraudster – her new boyfriend – who claims to be in financial trouble if she doesn’t “help out”. Shot with strikingly “non-artistic” yet somehow affective heavily saturated digital video, I enjoyed the film more than many others did.
Charting an even less glamorous socio-economic reality in the Malaysian capital, Tsai Ming-liang’s Hei yan quan (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, 2006), also part of New Crowned Hope, is primarily interesting for this filmmaker’s portrayal of the globalised streets of his home country’s metropolis (this is Tsai’s first Malaysian film, his previous work being Taiwan-based). This is effectively staged through the director’s usual minimalist and elliptical approach to thematic material, as is the oneirically suggestive “dual” portrayal of two mainly sleeping figures (both played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng), one of whom could feasibly be dreaming the other, being medically and erotically tended to. But for me, Tsai’s formal tricks and very familiar thematic arc – wherein alienation gradually becomes overcome by sexual desire, which leads to new layers of alienation, with a possible (as here) ultimate fantasy-like vision of child-like togetherness – are feeling a bit hackneyed, no matter how sumptuously staged (and the film’s “trick” ending is indeed gorgeous).
I suppose the most initially bizarre film I saw this year was Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006), by the innovative Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, also from the New Crowned Hope series. This quietly radical film, which with more viewings doubtless gains in coherence and thematic layering, is clearly rich and very evocative, light and dream-like yet also rigorous and “organised”. Apparently based around the notion of reincarnation, we watch the same actors playing out subtly different but very similar narratives of courtship as staged in and around two different hospitals (one urban and modern, one more rural and rustic) and seemingly across two different time periods (the present-day scenes photographed with sharper tones, while the past is rendered with a more dappled palette). But issues of internal narrative logic and interpretation notwithstanding, what is so impactful upon first viewing is the sheer on-screen “fact” of the same actors playing out these very similar stories (sometimes only a single line of dialogue will differ) as interspersed with bizarre, non-narrative filmic interludes comprised of rhythmic tracking shots passing by outdoor statues before the slowly prowling camera investigates the duct-infrastructure in a/the hospital basement.
There were quite a few films from Latin America this year, in particular a strand featuring new work from Brazil of which I caught three. O Céu de Suely (Suely in the Sky, Karim Ainouz & Felipe Bragança, 2006) was a reasonable enough slice of gritty realism, telling the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown and ends up running a lottery with a prize of a “night with me”. Following familial rejection (then reconciliation), and despite a seemingly non-judgemental and benign re-discovered boyfriend, she leaves town (and her young child) for the promise of elsewhere. The film is effective enough in its way, culminating in a final shot that eventually eschews the more familiar “open ending” in favour of a negative answer to the “will-they-or-won’t-they stay together?” cliché by suggesting a leave-the-past-behind sense of possibility, no matter how wishful and unlikely.
The other Brazilian films were documentaries of contrasting style. São Paolo CityTellers (Francesco Jodice, 2006) was an effective, often disturbing but sometimes uplifting portrait of contemporary São Paulo in which class differences are radically apparent through spatial and geographic delineation (the rich increasingly fly to work on helicopters). The only thing missing was some more political context, including what left-ish President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his government have to say about this state of affairs. Rather less well-received was Acidente (Accident, Cao Guimarães & Pablo Lobato, 2006), the appearance of its final credits inspiring a young woman in front of me to shriek “Yay… it’s over!” – in this case, an understandable response. Though this abstract portrait/documentary filmed across a variety of Brazilian locations had its stunning moments of image-texture and thematic slivers, it was definitely overlong and the travelogue element was made most trying with periodic (and slow) listing of the previous “bracket” of locations we’d elliptically visited (sometimes for less than a minute).
El Telón de azúcar (Sugar Curtain, Camila Guzmán Urzúa, 2005) was both interesting and frustrating. Though in one sense providing a rare chance to see a documentary about Cuba from a Cuban perspective, the film’s qualities and problems both stem from the fact that its maker is essentially giving us an account of the country from the point of view of her particular generation, most of who (like herself) no longer live there. Recalling with forthright positiveness her schooling during the 1980s, when she insists Cuba was indeed a socialist “paradise”, interviewing old friends to corroborate the story, then begins a lament for what has happened in the country since. Though effective in its autobiographical elements, the film does play out as a familiar “our time/generation was fantastic; now it’s shit” mantra, rather than a particularly lucid analysis.
The biggest turn-up of the festival for me (knowing the latest Jia would likely be stellar) was another New Crowned Hope film I had no expectations about – indeed nearly didn’t bother attending. But Hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, Paz Encina, 2006), reportedly the first Paraguayan film production in three decades, is probably my pick for best film this year – even if the modest Dendy Opera Quays cinema was only half full for its one screening, and I heard no talk of it later. A truly remarkable formal-conceptual construction, very long takes set up a story essentially comprised of an elderly couple waiting for their son to return from fighting in a just-ended civil war, with the suspicion that he is not coming back. From this simple premise, first-time director Paz Encina has in the first instance conjured a masterpiece about fatalistically tinged waiting. With every one of these magisterial long shots we sense the presence of sublime primordial life – implicitly in the way the camera frames the vaguely threatening trees, earth and sky that dwarfs the seated couple, then more explicitly with occasional cutaways to a strikingly new kind of shot featuring the rich textured greys of an overcast sky. Yet alongside this gaunt grandeur there is the almost constant banal chatting and bickering on the soundtrack of this man and wife as they debate both their son’s whereabouts and a stream of pragmatic considerations (such as when to eat, where to find some quiet so as to be able to sleep).
But the formal achievement of Paraguayan Hammock also develops more subtle and complex variations. Rather than this being the kind of long-take aesthetic in which time rolls in one direction very slowly, we gradually realise that what we’re seeing and the stuttering narrative information gleaned by what’s on the soundtrack (the couple’s repetitive conversation) do not share one same space-time continuum. When after many minutes we get a medium shot, it is not clear that these figures are actually moving their lips to the words we hear. Finally there is a change of scene, and an extraordinary pattern is set up whereby an oblique back-angle long shot of one of the figures, now alone and in a different space (and, we learn, time), is followed by a medium shot from the same angle while we hear a conversation between the given parent and the son, presumably occurring on the day he left. (This set-up is then repeated with the other elderly character.) But not only can we not see the young man – when we finally get an oblique close-up of a parent via the same non-frontal angle, it is finally confirmed that sound and image are entirely non-synchronous (two very different temporalities occupy sound and image tracks), and that there is in fact no way for us to navigate the relationship between the two. This is truly stunning cinema: I haven’t experienced such aesthetic and thematic pleasure from the first moment of a new film at the festival in a long time.
The “Middle East” & beyond
Rounding out the New Crowned Hope series was a film from Chad and one from Iran. Another work about the morally challenging aftermath of war, Daratt (Dry Season, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2006) tackles the desire for reprisals in the face of official Chad government amnesty for the perpetrators of wartime crimes and violence. Though its outcome is clear enough from the start, the film is very effective in charting a teenage boy’s conflicting feelings upon being employed and taken in by the man who killed his father. The outcome of this moral crisis certainly puts faith in youth (as opposed to his still hate-consumed grandfather) in ultimately rejecting vengeance.
Niwemang (Half Moon, Bahman Ghobadi, 2006) is an odd hybrid film – part black humour, part heroic story of artistic courage against the violence of politics, war and repressive religious dogma, and part fantasy story. This Iranian film’s portrayal of a re-formed Kurdish musical group (including a female singer, whose illegal status in Iran, which they must pass through, means she has to hide in a secret compartment under the bus), lead by a famous composer, as they try to get to Iraqi Kurdistan for a performance, is stirring in many ways. After their journey turns tragic, the appearance of what is essentially an angel – an impossibly beautiful and magical young woman who helps them resurrect their quest – risks rejection by many viewers (such as this one). Yet when her fantastic arrival is matched by the death of the composer, it can be suggested that the openly fairy-tale twist just when actual reality goes to shit is perhaps the only way such a story or mission can be “accomplished” – i.e., not in the realm of the real. Even so, bathos is dangerously close in the final minutes.
The only other Iranian film at the festival was the unusual Khoon bazi (Mainline, Mohsen Abdolvahab & Rakhshan Bani Etemad, 2006), telling the story of a heroin-addicted young woman engaged to a man currently in the West and unaware of her condition. While generally not a fan of films about junkie problems on the whole, the film maintained my interest through what seems the unusual (at least compared to the Iranian cinema we usually see) aesthetics of heavily de-saturated images that certainly suit the film’s psychological space, and mise en scène comprised initially of the high-rise part of middle-class Tehran then a bleakly framed nearby countryside. Of course, thematically the film is open to interpretations vis-a-vis the tragic and fatalistic existential state of a certain strain of liberal middle-class Iranian culture in the face of the post-1979 regime. This potential symbolism was clearest in the figure of the addict’s understanding father, who seems to have been a cultural mover and shaker in the past but who now sits moribund in a wheelchair amongst the debris of a run-down country home.
A more clearly expressed and appalling tragedy of dispossession is charted in the Israeli-Palestinian documentary Malon 9 Kochavim (9 Star Hotel, Ido Haar, 2007). Not a film to watch for anyone in a bad mood with Israel in the wake of its bombing of Lebanon, we see here the rage-inducing conditions in which Palestinian guest workers live in the wastelands surrounding the Israeli construction sites on which they are illegally employed. The humour, camaraderie and political debates shared amongst the young men is moving in light of their wretched existence. When Israeli security guards find their shabby accommodations (cardboard boxes essentially) and torch all their belongings while they hide in the shadows, all the injustice and rampant economic and ethical hypocrisies of the Occupied Territories are set into truly stark relief.
Rounding out the “Middle Eastern” selection (another deeply problematic designation of course) was a well-received program of Turkish cinema. The documentary components of the package seemed under-whelming, including most of the shorts and the longer Ibret Olsum Diye (To Make an Example of, Necati Sönmez, 2006). This film about the reasonable enough issue of capital punishment in Turkey is a worthy reminder about barbarity at the heart of any state that murders its own citizens – and should of course resonate with other nations who continue this Middle-Ages practise. Yet the film is formally slack, and repetitive in its extensive reading-out of the condemned victim’s final letters.
Though with much to recommend it, I did not find Takva (Takva – A Man’s Fear of God, Özer Kiziltan, 2006) as successful as did others I spoke to. The first half of the film is very good, charting the gradual journey of a simple, very religious man from a lowly position in a company owned by his local Istanbul mosque through to a job requiring him to extract rent and other payments from the Mosque’s many business interests. Now being told to wear a smart suit, use a mobile, and be chauffeured around in a Mercedes, his simple faith is tellingly put to the test by all this shiny modernity and ethically disinterested capitalism (not to mention the attractive women spied in the glitzy shopping malls he now frequents for work, about whom he has recurring sexual fantasies). However, for me the playing out of his inevitable existential crisis is ultimately overblown in its execution, the film resorting to bathos rather than understatement or analysis.
Bes vakit (Times and Winds, Reha Erdem, 2006) was certainly more subtle, featuring a very (perhaps too) self-conscious poetic approach to telling the story of a series of children as they collide with the traditional tenets of their parents’ religious-based culture in a small Anatolian village. The scenes with the children alone – enjoying illicit early pubescent voyeuristic pleasure, taking turns reciting poetry, and the repeated motif of their lying together in the grass with eyes closed and in odd configurations – are lyrical, yet also often marked by a creeping unease and occasional intimation of violence. Throughout, times of day are marked “backwards” (by on-screen titles laid over calendar-like horizon shots), though the order of the events shown does not seem especially important to the film’s accumulation of only partially narratively justified sequences. A suggestive film, then, though for me just a little too close to mood-piece “beautiful” filmmaking.
* * *
Again, as in recent years, there was a clear gulf between the audiences at the State and elsewhere, judging by noise during screenings and post-session complaints. It seems that many of these patrons (many of whom are day- and night-pass holders) are increasingly intolerant of aesthetically challenging cinema. The audiences at the other venues are on the whole less vociferous. It is too easy to argue that Sydney viewers “don’t want” or “can’t handle” challenging films as, for one thing, the success of the fabulous (and nearly complete) Michelangelo Antonioni retrospective three years ago proved. Such proclamations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet Claire Stewart’s understandable lamenting of the lukewarm response to the excellent cinema from parts of Asia does ring true: I both heard and participated in conversations where Still Life, in one instance, was described as “very weird” and that “all my friends thought so too”. While I think the film is superb, it is not so much weird as exemplary of what main-game contemporary “art cinema” can be, and not especially radical. (I wonder what the same patrons would have thought of Paraguayan Hammock, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, The Last Dining Table or Syndromes and a Century.) I think the festival over the years has played its part in this process by gradually lessening the amount of truly challenging films in the main program, thereby possibly diluting regular patrons’ ability to deal with such films. It’s notable too that all five films mentioned above were screened at the Dendy, not the State, so pass-holders were not exposed to both some of the very best cinema at the festival and five of the most challenging works. I guess this is the narrowcasting, or “diversifying” that increasingly drives the thinking behind such events and the emphasis on program strands. While such an approach produces an effective consumer guide, making it clear to people the films they are most likely to enjoy according to their taste, how that impacts on another kind of responsibility implicit within the very idea of the festival, I think – that if you attend every year, you will be kept abreast of cutting edge feature film and documentary cinema – needs considering.
As I’ve said, SFF07 was overall rather good this year. (I also had good luck, I think, other people regaling me with various tales of woe concerning what turned out to be poor selections.) There is certainly room to grow the event: less in the attempt to attain “new patrons”, which the festival has been attempting to do for some years now, and more to rejuvenate the interest of those who increasingly look to the Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane festivals for a more “substantial” offering of contemporary cinema (or deepen further a reliance on internet-sourced international DVD releases to keep up with world cinema and film culture). I certainly look forward to next year’s event, when I hope we will see further development. It is also time for another really meaty retrospective. With the astonishingly timed dual deaths of European cinema giants Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni having just occurred, surely there’ll be a Bergman package (I confess, a long-held fantasy) available to license over the next few years. That would give Sydney audiences a real, and still vital, film history treat for embodied eyes and minds indeed.
Sydney Film Festival website: http://www.sydneyfilmfestival.org