The Hurt LockerIn the vast world of international film festivals, the Canberra International Film Festival is still in its infancy. It began in 1996, running for three days at the Electric Shadows cinema. The opening night film was Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Le hussard sur le toit (The Horsemen on the Roof, 1995), followed by a cocktail party at the School of Art. For three days short films were screened with 14 features, closing with the Australian feature, Children of the Revolution (1996). Thirteen years on and not only has the film festival grown and changed, but so too has this small bush city.

When I first moved here from Sydney, ten years ago, I could leave my house in Ainslie about ten minutes before a fantastic foreign film began at one of the two cinemas run by Andrew Pike’s Electric Shadows cinema. I’d park my car just outside, walk in, buy a cheap ticket and be seated in the cinema with enough time to listen to some jazz as I waited for the film to begin. No advertisements, a few trailers for other original, offbeat films from far away countries, and then the movie began. Sometimes there was just myself and another person there mid-week. Not really a sustainable venture for anyone.

At the festival this year, the documentary Into the Shadows thoughtfully explored this wonderful Canberra cinema icon. The film’s life began when local filmmaker, Andrew Scarano, wanted to document the closing of Pike’s cinema (which closed in 2006), but grew to explore the distribution and exhibition side of the Australian film industry. It should be compulsory viewing for all film students around the country: as Geoff Burton said in the post screening discussion panel, film schools and Australian filmmakers are obsessed with production, but no one seems to think about distribution.

Three years ago, the Dendy Cinema came to Canberra. With this arrival, out of the woodwork, people began to go to the cinema. Now, if I don’t book my ticket online to see a film, I probably won’t get in to the session I want, no matter what night of the week. Where did all these people come from, and why weren’t they coming to see films when Pike needed them to? From those early three days at Electric Shadows, the Canberra International Film Festival is now housed at Dendy Cinema and runs for eleven days, and this year I went to 24 films, exactly half the number on offer, from 23 countries.

Artistic Director Simon Weaving is a filmmaker and film critic – he took over this year from Michael Sergi who had been the artistic director of the festival since its beginning. The film critic in Weaving perhaps chose films that audiences would like, whereas the filmmaker in him may have chosen films that pushed stylistic or experimental boundaries. Weaving was conscious of his Canberra audience. Australia’s capital is not Sydney or Melbourne, Brisbane or even Dungog. It does not have the diversity or numbers that major cities have, or the quirkiness of a country town. Canberra is a city full of, mostly, employed, well-educated, well-travelled, multicultural people who have a wealth of art, theatre and performance at their doorstep. Although, the fact that they didn’t frequent the films of Pike’s choice but come out in droves for Dendy’s more middlebrow fare indicates their tastes. Weaving knew he had to program accessible arthouse films that Canberrans would be willing to pay their money to see, at least for his first year at the creative helm. With ticket sales up 40% this year, it indicates that Weaving’s choice was right. Now that he has the audience, it will be interesting to see if they can be encouraged to stay, even if the festival’s program challenges them more than they expected. Or will there be pressure from sponsors and a balance sheet to keep on increasing ticket sales, and at what cost to the festival?

The opening night film, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, follows a small group of American men who disarm bombs in Iraq. The sound design alone is reason to see it. The sound of bullet shells dropping to the ground is given precedence over more traditional moments of post-macho shootouts. A man’s intake of breath is heard after an incredibly long and stressful waiting game in the desert between American and British soldiers ambushed by Iraqi soldiers. The thirst, heat and strain are palpable in this scene. The sound directs the viewer more than the images or story, and I’ve not seen a film that has done that before. The only problem with the film, I felt, is that it doesn’t question any of the politics behind the war. War is a drug and there are men who can’t live without it, is the message.

Pachamama This year’s program was divided into seven strands, neatly packaging films into areas of interest and theme. As part of the Personal Journeys strand, the beautiful ethnographic Japanese-Bolivian film, Pachamama by Toshifumi Matsushita, follows 13 year-old Kunturi on what could be one of the last salt caravans in the Andes. With non-actors and stunning locations, a gentle pace and its message of a slower way of life, it was an admirable move to schedule this film at the beginning of the festival; it helped put the viewer’s mind into a receptive, reflective state, enabling the most favourable headspace to sit in the dark for four or five hours a day.

Ginny Galloway’s documentary The Music Lesson looks at a group of students from the Boston Youth Orchestra who go on a cultural exchange with a group of students from Laikipia, Kenya. The result is exactly as you can imagine it would be: awkward white kids with their string instruments trying to find the rhythm of naturally musical black kids who move and sing and play instruments made from goat’s skin. A better documentary, Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows by Irish filmmaker Anna Rodgers, was filmed over four years in Laos. It is a gentle film that follows two 11 year-old cousins and best friends as they leave their village for a better life. The options for these boys are either to be a farmer and struggle in life or to join a monastery in Luang Prabang and study. The sadness as the two boys say goodbye to each other and their village is powerful, and we long for their reunion. The monastery scenes are fascinating, and include an image of orange-robed monks watching television and playing Nintendo.

Whist not an Australian premiere Fredrik Edfeldt’s Flickan (The Girl) was a highlight in this strand of Personal Journeys. The casting of Blanca Engstrom as the nine year-old girl, left with her aunt as her parents and older brother go to Africa to help the poor, is spectacular. With her pale skin, long auburn hair and large brown eyes, she is a cinematographer’s dream, and in the landscape of a Swedish country summer, the film is beautiful to watch. This coming of age story, showing how the girl copes when her aunt leaves her alone for most of the summer is played out with minimal dialogue. It conjures up reminiscences of youth, of becoming aware of the adult world and what it means to soon be leaving behind both the innocence, and brutality, of childhood.

Triangles is a cleverly-conceived strand that looks at the “geometry of relationships … of cinematic threesomes” (1) and included first-time director Jan Fehse’s In jeder Sekunde (At Any Second), a multi-narrative melodrama that had little impact on me, and another first-time feature-directorial effort, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Vicious Kind. The latter film offers up an intriguing male protagonist, Peter, played by Adam Scott, who has moments of pure meanness bordering on misogyny, only to suddenly hear himself and beg those around him for forgiveness. The dysfunctional families drama genre is really transcended by this fascinating character, together with his father (played with a combination of comedy and drama by JK Simmons), and these two characters alone make the film worth seeing.

In the LoopIn Madness, Spin and Tricksters we find three of the strongest films of the festival. Tommy Wirkola’s Død Snø (Dead Snow) was so popular it screened three times, including once after the festival had finished, at midnight on Friday the 13th. It is a Nazi-zombie slash-fest made by graduates of Bond University and brought to the festival a new generation of viewers. Armando Iannuci’s In the Loop is fast, ferocious, and brilliantly clever: you feel you’ve been verbally abused in your seat. Park Chan-wook’s bizarre but brilliant Bakjwi (Thirst) drips with blood and depicts a priest-turned-vampire’s struggles with his very unholy thirst. Made in Hungária, a feel-good Hungarian musical romantic comedy in the style of Hairspray features an intriguing combination of political commentary and musical numbers. First-time director Álvaro Brechner’s Mal día pra pescar (Bad Day To Go Fishing) is set in 1960s Uruguay and features strong performances in its two leads, Gary Piquer as the con artist, Count Orsini, and Jouko Ahola as his prize, the one time champion Russian wrestler, Jacob Van Oppen.

Of the two of the films I saw in Edge of Frame, Kynodontas (Dogtooth) was the strongest. Yorgos Lanthimo’s Un Certain Regard award-winning work is a disturbing, yet fascinating, film that presents a family in which the parents keep their three grown children imprisoned, oblivious to the real world beyond their remote, walled estate. The effort the parents go to in order to keep the children totally afraid of the outside world is extreme but never explained, and this was for me the only frustrating part of the film.

Tales From The Backyard featured six Australian films, all of them documentaries. As my schedule for viewing films was planned so I could see as many Australian premieres as I could, I couldn’t fit in any of these films. However, when a digital copy of Lost Persons Area was so dark I couldn’t see the expression on the characters’ faces, I left and went into another cinema. Fortunately for me, it meant I could see the last two-thirds of Safina Uberoi’s film A Good Man. The cinema was almost full and the audience loved it (not surprisingly, it won Best Documentary by audience vote). What a find for a documentary filmmaker: a struggling farmer, his young wife a quadriplegic by stroke 13 years prior, decides to open a brothel. Add a miracle eight month old into the mix and it is fascinating viewing.

The Archive Connection. One of the benefits of hosting an international film festival in a city like Canberra is the resource of the National Film and Sound Archive. At the gorgeous new state of the art cinema ARC, the screening of the newly restored 35mm print of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) was a highlight. It won best Retrospective Film, and to see a favourite film on screen and in 35mm (when so many festival films are now on digibeta) was worth moving to Canberra for. Fran, the 1985 Australian movie staring Noni Hazlehurst and directed by Glenda Hambly, was also screened. Hazlehurst introduced the film and came back after for a discussion. It is a strong film that was deemed too bleak for Australian audiences at its release and was a treat to see it on the big screen.

The closing night film, Nowhere Boy, the first feature by acclaimed visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, screened just ten days after its world premiere in London. The film deals with the formative years of John Lennon in his last year of high school, through art school and beyond. There are two women in Lennon’s life, his aunt, who brought him up with her strict and traditional ways and tastes, and his mother, a volatile, sometimes flamboyant women who struggles with what appears to be a bi-polar disorder. Thomas Aaron plays the young Lennon masterfully. In the film, one keenly senses that we are witnessing the creation of the adult Lennon we know through his musical career, from this young, confused, but ambitious and talented boy. Kristin Scott Thomas plays his aunt and the final scene between them, just before Lennon heads off to Hamburg with his new band, is beautifully executed.


  1. Festival program notes.

Canberra International Film Festival
28 October – 8 November 2009
Festival website: http://www.canberrafilmfestival.com.au/