The past few years have been ones of ascendancy for Brisbane’s “screen culture”, the government anointed term for what used to be called cinema appreciation. The depressing closure of the Dendy on George Street – the city’s venerable arthouse twin – in 2008 was off-set by increasing instances of independent programmers screening classic, cult, horror and experimental films in left-of-centre venues. This trend came full circle when the old Dendy re-opened (something that seems to almost never happen to closed cinemas) as The Tribal Theatre, and became a more permanent space for this kind of alternative programming. Meanwhile, in more respectable quarters the opening of Brisbane’s multimillion dollar Gallery of Modern Art saw the advent of the Australian Cinémathèque. Its programs more interestingly-curated and less expensive (it’s almost always free) than Melbourne’s ACMI, its design more sophisticated than the Cinémathèque Française, the Australian Cinémathèque is a world class institution in a city that had long been regarded as culturally bereft.
It wasn’t, particularly a far as cinema was concerned. For nearly twenty years the Brisbane International Film Festival had been regarded as one of Australia’s big three film festivals along with Sydney’s and Melbourne’s. Its reputation under festival director Anne Demy-Geroe was for challenging and eclectic programming, and for attracting and hosting some of the world’s greatest filmmakers, critics, philosophers and stars. (1) Its home was The Regent, opened in 1929, one of the country’s few remaining golden age picture palaces. BIFF’s office sat in a garret above the theatres, which would, each year, host the festival’s red carpet opening nights and gala events. In 2009 both the festival and The Regent were marked for implosion, victims of state government malice and apathy respectively. To cut a long story short, BIFF was seen as a diseased limb of the troubled state film financing body, the Pacific Film and Television Commission. When the PFTC was purged, the blameless BIFF administration was also swept away. The day after the 2009 festival the head programmer and festival manager were informed that they were surplus to requirement, while Demy-Geroe’s position, in a Machiavellian stroke, was essentially made impotent (if not actually redundant) after being informed that she would report to a Head of Screen Culture to be appointed by the new state funding body, Screen Queensland. The Regent’s fate was more predictable. It was to be replaced by an office tower. (2) Brisbane’s “screen culture” ascendancy was in serious doubt.
Melbourne International Film Festival’s Richard Moore was installed as the promised Head of Screen Culture and had the unenviable task of simultaneously programming MIFF and BIFF in this transitional year. When I spoke to Moore in the time between the festival’s launch and opening night he portrayed a sense of simultaneous confidence and resignation. Asked if he felt he had a handle on the Brisbane audience, he suggested that all film festival audiences were demographically alike. White, middle-aged, middle-income, and fans of ABC radio make up the core constituency of any film festival audience, according to Moore. His ambition was less to appeal to a “Brisbane” audiences, but rather to attract the holy grail of media demography: 16-39 year olds. There is no shortage of evidence of attempts to do so in his maiden program. The one recognisable holdover from Anne Demy-Geroe’s programming is the Shock Corridor section of cult, trash, queer, grindhouse, horror and exploitation cinema.
True to his word, Moore produced a BIFF program that is structurally indistinguishable from his MIFF program. Moore claimed his Beatbox is an outreach to the “strong independent music scene” that he knows (or has been told) Brisbane possesses, but the cynical among us may observe that BIFF’s Beatbox bares an uncanny resemblance to MIFF’s Backbeat section. For that matter, MIFF’s Homegrown section seems reminiscent of BIFF’s Local Heroes and MIFF’s International Panorama sounds very similar to the “refocus(ed), re-evaluat(ed) and renew(ed)” (to quote Screen Queensland CEO Maureen Barron) BIFF’s Around the World in 40 Films section. I believe Moore means us to feel flattered that so little needed to be changed, but don’t rush to the conclusion that the peculiarities of the Brisbane audience haven’t been catered for. Moore thought that there “might be an animation audience” in Brisbane. It’s a hunch he feels strongly enough about to go all in on, with two features, an International Animation Showcase and two retrospectives. The retrospectives are curious given that Moore also offered that he’s “not sure that (Brisbane’s) really interested in retrospectives.” Perhaps animation gets a special dispensation for “sitting at the most creative end of the cinema arts,” as the catalogue claims. It was the opening night film, however, that offered the best insights into Moore’s attempt to reconcile his program with his new environment.
Moore made plain on the night that his selection of Mark Lewis’ Cane Toads: The Conquest was carefully calibrated to make a statement: “The first film of the festival is the key to unlocking the festival. It sets the tone, the mood,” he said. If the intended mood was one of bemusement, and the tone one of condescension, then this was an ideal choice. Lewis’ film is a remake of his warmly regarded 1988 documentary short Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. The original charted the introduction in 1935 of the South American amphibian into the sugar cane plantations of Queensland’s tropical north in an, as it turns out, completely ineffective attempt to control the pests ravaging crops. The toads became a pest in their own right, overrunning Queensland and becoming a reluctant piece of the state’s iconography. The rationale for 2010’s Cane Toads: The Conquest is really little more than a coda to the original, and so the new film justifies its existence through formal innovation. It is, according to the BIFF catalogue, the first Australian 3D movie. There are shots of primordial tropical forests and swamps that are genuinely arresting, but this owes more to conventional cinematography than the 3D effect. Teetering on edge of indefensible gimmickry, the film’s folly is confirmed by its heavy reliance on talking head interviews. We opening night attendees sat in the dark and donned our requisite headgear so as to achieve the sensation of almost being able to reach out and touch the scientist sitting behind a desk looking straight to camera and explaining the cane toad’s reproductive system(!).
The appeal of the 1988 original was its homespun quality. It was as much about the colourful personalities of the human stakeholders in the cane toad as it was about the toads themselves. Its slick visuals aside, the new film follows the same model. It is, in essence, a fairly one-dimensional exercise in laughing at northern rubes, crackpots, eccentrics and simpletons. So what then are we to make of this thin, formally overblown, overlong television movie as the opening night film of the 19th Brisbane International Film Festival? Programmed anywhere else in the festival (3) the film could be appreciated as a minor entertainment. However, as the first act of the southern imported Head of Screen Culture – the symbolic import of opening night avowed by the man himself – it would be overgenerous to feel anything but insulted. This poor first impression was compounded by the balance of the content of Moore’s awkward and misguided opening address. He fell into a common trap for new players, punning shamelessly off the BIFF acronym, as have so many ruddy-faced politicians and sponsors who have shuffled up to the same podium over the years. Moore, attempting to endear himself as an avid football supporter (and this from the man who knows film festival audiences) claimed that he was here tonight because the opportunity to “bring back the BIFF” (audible sighs in my row) was “too delicious to resist”. Populist sport puns deployed, Moore moved on to a lengthy and irrelevant discourse on the strange opening ceremony rituals of the festivals of the ancient world, with special emphasis, for reasons unknown, on the importance of phallic objects in such proceedings. “So it’s all football and phalluses this year” quipped a female companion. At the after party one wag suggested the title of this article should be “Film Festival Croaks”.
While Cane Toads was a poor opening gambit, it must be said that, despite Moore’s claims, it was unrepresentative of the fare on offer. However, for those accustomed to previous BIFF programs, Moore’s approach seems hardly to be a film festival at all, but rather “some good films that are on.” Demy Geroe’s programs were a Russian doll of sub-sections, digressions, riffs, fully fledged retrospectives, tributes and established areas of specialist interests which were artfully layered into a deeply satisfying whole. In Moore’s program films are categorised as broadly as possible. Around the World in 40 Films is a sampling of 40 international and a few national (non-Queensland affiliated) features. This section is the new home of Asia Pacific cinema, which is no longer the subject of individual focus. (4) Moore has no particular love for Asia Pacific cinema, particularly the brand of Asia Pacific cinema for which BIFF had made an international reputation for understanding and fostering. “There’s Asian cinema and Asian cinema,” Moore told me, pointing out that the John Woo co-directed martial arts farce Reign of Assassins was the closing night film. It is the “contemplative” tendency in Asia Pacific filmmaking that Moore dislikes, offering that contemplative is “just another word for boring.” Moore’s concession to the contemplative crowd was his programming of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which would certainly not have been programmed if not for its Cannes success. Moore’s films are not divided into historical, aesthetic, or thematic programs and are therefore more dependent on marketing hooks. To use the new parlance, then, I saw searing psychological-study-of loneliness-that shocked-even-jaded-Cannes-audience Leap Year, and a film-by-gay-21-year-old-French-Canadian-wunderkind-who-also-has-another-film-in-the-program, I Killed My Mother.
Leap Year recalled Enrique Rivero’s Parque Via, (5) another Mexican film that explored a lonely and monotonous life punctuated with sexual release. Leap Year is a more straightforward and less interesting film, its interwoven and constantly escalating violence banal compared to the dispassionate spasm of a punctuation mark at the end of Parque Via. It’s hard to know how much my enjoyment of it was hurt by the fact that we were shown what appeared to be a low grade DVD screener, which would have been deeply annoying had I paid $15 for the pleasure. The revelation of 40 Films was Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, with the heralded baby-faced auteur proving every bit as precociously talented as his publicity suggests. I have never seen a film that so accurately portrays the time in adolescence when a burgeoning consciousness makes an accumulation of small irritations into a festering wound and ultimately an unsurmountable schism between mother and son. What is most impressive about I Killed My Mother is that it is not the story of a sensitive boy driven to the edge by his oafish female parent, or a sainted mother dealing with the pompous arrogance of boy in man’s body, but rather it showed how both parties contribute more or less equally to making the relationship untenable. That Dolan could write so eloquently on behalf of both characters is a remarkable achievement.
Sharing the bulk of the program with Around the World in 40 Films is the Documentaries (6) section, and it is here that Moore, a former documentarian, seems most assured. I chose two New York stories from the program. Bill Cunningham, New York, chronicling the life of the octogenarian New York Times society and street fashion photographer, was a firm audience favourite. I was fortunate enough to have seen Cunningham weeks before in New York and Paris, darting like a magpie in his trademark blue smock as he snapped pictures. Even those who were unfamiliar with Cunningham walked away from the film with an instant appreciation of his integrity and stature, and moist-eyed at the thought that his vitality, will inevitably, at some point, wain. Upstate and a world away, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol is the story of Mark Hogancamp, who was an alcoholic and a prodigiously talented illustrator until he was bashed almost to death in a Kingston, NY bar. Left traumatised and with his fine motor skills and memory severely impaired, Hogancamp constructs an elaborate World War II fantasy narrative and begins making it material. Collecting 1/6th miniature dolls (one for him and one for everyone he knows) Marwencol becomes physical and emotional therapy for Hogancamp, with the fine detail of the models exercising his motor skills, and the narratives of honour, revenge and redemption providing a safe space to exorcise the trauma of his assault. For outsiders, Hogancamp’s elaborate creation is contemporary art; for Hogancamp, Marwencol is a very real parallel world in which he is in ultimate control. There’s an endless reflexivity in these worlds upon worlds that makes Marwencol the documentary companion piece to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008).
If the Documentaries section seems strong but somewhat non-confrontational, then this is because there is a second program of “issues” documentaries titled, more than a little condescendingly, Soapbox. (7) Pooling the documentaries that deal explicitly with politics, gender, race and globalisation is somewhat ghettoising. It creates, in effect, a two-tiered program: mainstream and alternative. Moore’s lack of confidence in an audience for retrospectives and special programs results in “self saucing” retrospectives. Those few that made it into the program are small scale and reflect a minimum of curatorial man-hours. It is simple enough to take the documentary on the recently deceased cinematographer and Technicolor pioneer Jack Cardiff and program this along with three of the films he worked on and call this a tribute. It is simpler still to take the new Monte Hellman film Road to Nowhere and pair this with the only other film for which he is renowned: Two Lane Blacktop (1971). The unwelcome effect of this two-tiered programming is that these “tributes” seem non-essential or extra-curricular. This is a great shame because Road to Nowhere was the film of the festival, and many (mainly French) people claim Two Lane Blacktop is the greatest American film . Road to Nowhere is an Inland Empire for those Lynch fans who felt alienated by that film’s incomprehensibility and grainy digital video photography. Also shot digitally, but with a different technology that creates visuals as sumptuous as celluloid, Road to Nowhere is non-linear rather than non-narrative. There’s a labyrinth; a film within a film, duplicity, multiple identities, but no reason not to think you won’t come out the other side. There are hilarious and, for the cinephile, unsettling insights into the propensity for extreme movie love to become a character liability, weakening our resolve and perhaps dulling rather than sharpening our emotional faculties. 40 years on from Two Lane Blacktop Hellman’s young obsessives now have square jobs (if filmmaking qualifies as such) but the film set proves as rife with opportunities for self destruction as did the road, and here the girls are all grown up and playing a longer game.
One of the program’s few attempts at a special section that wasn’t “self-saucing” was a collection of six shorts called Down the Rabbit Hole: Through the Eyes of Children. This soberly- and deliberately-curated program of films was obviously the source of some pride, with the festival’s general manager Elizabeth Symes and Moore both recommending it. I can’t for the life of me imagine why. A mixed bag of shorts of various interest and competency was made to seem like high and delicate art compared to what followed them, an exercise in American bombasticism that might be the worst film I’ve ever seen. Never Winter began with white titles on a black screen, the sort of thing you might expect to precede a trailer for a Roland Emmerich film: “Each year 1000000 children are abused in America… This is the story… of ONE.” The world “one” inevitably lingered on the screen for emphasis while the others faded into black. This enormous red flag proved an appropriate harbinger for the next 30 minutes (30 minutes!) of cinema hell as Never Winter turned out to be the story of a little girl’s journey from the hands of her abusive drug addict mother through a group home and back again. A sad story and true, but made utterly ridiculous through a combination of overwrought acting, dreadful dialogue and aesthetics that hover somewhere between “anti-drug/domestic violence public service announcement” and Amélie-esque magical realism that make it end up resembling a Pan’s Labyrinth made in a workshop for the terminally sentimental. I recommend it as an example of how good intentions make the worst cinema, but I don’t know where you would see it. Certainly no festival in its right mind would screen it.
The only other film that approached it in terms of sheer squirming horror, and for the very same reasons, was, unfortunately (but somewhat inevitably) in the Queensland Short Film Competition. A high school art teacher friend recently observed that a consistent trope of the 17 year-old artist is painting “a white hand shaking a black hand”. The cinematic equivalent of this painful misguidedness was the aptly-titled Futility, which opens with a whitebread Australian family sitting at the kitchen table delivering lines in the fashion of (for Australian readers of a certain age) The Late Show’s “Pissweak Kids”. “What did Grandad do in the war?” a small blond child asks of his mother while fondling a box full of photographs and medals. Mother stares off into the middle distance. She doesn’t know, but the audience has a terrible feeling that it’s about to find out, and probably learn some lessons along the way. Cut to Grandad as a young bloke in uniform alone in what is supposed to be the jungles of Papua New Guinea, but looks suspiciously like the Gold Coast hinterland. He spies a Japanese soldier whom he calls a “dumb nip” more times than would seem necessary in order to establish his garden variety racism. With the “nip” captured, and the rest of the war nowhere in sight, the two men get to know each other through the art of pantomime (I’ve got children, you’ve got children. I’m a farmer, you’re a builder. We’re both people, who knew!). It’s a uniquely Australian brand of “mateship”-based sentimental revisionism, and utter garbage to boot, understandable, if not forgivable, from a tussle-haired youngster fresh from film school. Imagine my surprise when on closing night a fully grown man strolled up to accept an Audience Favourite award for this riff on the interracial handshake genre. (8)
A far more deserving recipient was director Mairi Cameron, who won the Kinetone Award for her film Push Bike. Writer Tracey Walker produced the perfect premise for a short film, while Cameron’s direction was inventive, with many surprising and visually beautiful passages. It is, unlike much of the work in that competition, something that will win hearts on its own terms, at any festival. I’m pleased to say that there were also a couple of fine full-length local films on offer. Marty Moynihan’s documentary 6ft Hick: Notes From the Underground follows the hardworking Brisbane band 6ft Hick on their third European tour. Far from a tale of Rock’n’Roll excess, it is the band’s passion and indomitable work ethic that makes them seem genuinely heroic. Footage from their greasy, bacchanalian shows is complemented by talking head interviews with awestruck disciples and contrasted with the quiet and, after a week on the tour bus, slightly queasy men we meet offstage. A road trip of a very different kind is undertaken in Phoebe Hart’s very personal documentary Orchids: My Intersex Adventure, in which the filmmaker travels the continent interviewing intersexed people in an effort to be more open about her own, largely closeted, intersex condition. It’s a richly layered film. The film displays an acute awareness of the ethics of the documentary as they relate to such a personal story. Like it or not, family, friends and partners are narrative protagonists, and much of the tension revolves around whether or not Hart’s reluctant parents will submit to on camera questioning about their role in concealing her condition. Happily, these tensions seemingly conclude in catharsis rather than further strain and the resultant film proves to be more than a didactic or therapeutic exercise and becomes deeply satisfying entertainment.
The question and answer session following Orchids was an example of one of the major shifts in this year’s festival. Moore took the microphone and, rather than warmly congratulating the filmmakers and initiating a conversation about the film, abruptly stated that he thinks it should be up to the audience to ask questions and threw to a cold crowd. Moore and Barron’s disdain for speeches, dialogue and conversation was made apparent at every turn, their hasty public announcements always preceded by quips about how they’ll be “keeping it brief”. Far from an attempt to spare the audience from tedium, their position seems more a reflection of disdain for analysis, criticism and extended discourse of any kind. It’s an attitude that has seen the axing of award ceremonies, FIPRESCI juries of international film critics (or juries of any kind for that matter), the BIFF Cineclub discussions with visiting actors, producers and directors, seminars and panel discussions with critics and filmmakers, and programmers’ introductions at screenings. The result is a festival that occurs in a discursive vacuum. The critical function has also been thrown over to the audience, so long as the critical function could be “tweeted” in fewer than 140 characters. The one critic embraced by the festival was Des Partridge, newly retired film reviewer for Brisbane’s Murdoch-owned daily tabloid. Loathed by Brisbane cinephiles for his stultifying middlebrowness (and his newspaper held in even lower regard), Partridge’s elevation is an attempt at a drastic redefinition of the film festival audience.
So the direction of the festival seems well and truly charted. Popular films and popular personalities. Not too much contemplation, either in the films or around the films. Trim the fat. Every film has to earn its keep. More advertising, greater mainstream appeal. More new films, fewer old ones. It’s a model that makes sense in a kind of ruthless, anti-intellectual way, particularly in light of the fact the Australian Cinémathèque seems to have the market for old movies thoughtfully programmed and discussed pretty well covered. Only it didn’t work. The 18th BIFF in 2009, despite coming in the wake of the global financial crisis, was profitable and well attended, selling out nearly 30 sessions. The 19th BIFF, despite being mercilessly stripped of purportedly non-crowd pleasing elements, despite programming more films (30% more than last year), reputedly was down 10 % this year. (9) Only one of the sessions I attended had sold out. (10) Opening night’s Cane Toads was to screen simultaneously in two megaplex theatres, but failed to fill one. BIFF managed to sell only 50 opening night tickets to the general public, compared to 450 for the previous year.
People displeased with the direction the film festival has taken are delighted with these figures, assuming that the administration will read them as a symptomof their misguided approach and mismanagement of their first festival, and will come back next year with a program that resembles what had come before. This is a naive misconception. It’s far more likely that 2011 will see a further dismantling and paring back of the festival. Remember that there is no longer a director of the Brisbane International Film Festival, only a Head of Screen Culture. Moore told me he is not afraid to ask tough questions, like “what form a Brisbane film festival should take, and whether there needs to be one at all”. What would be truly courageous, though, would be to not concede literacy to the Cinémathèque, and not to concede the Asia Pacific to Sydney, but to compete with those institutions and build upon previously established strengths. Brisbane had never croaked before 2010, and there’s no reason it ever should again.
Brisbane International Film Festival
4-14 November, 2010
Festival website: http://www.stgeorgebiff.com.au/
- Read Anne’s highlights from 18 years of BIFF here http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=16861&s=news_files
- Though, thank goodness, the “historic foyer” is to be maintained.
- It was one of Moore’s Homegrown films at MIFF.
- Asia Pacific films represent less than a quarter of this section.
- Parque Via screened at BIFF 2009.
- Called Docos at MIFF, this is a rare case where the BIFF section title has been smartened up rather than dumbed down.
- This section was called States of Dissent at MIFF.
- The poll had obviously been manipulated. The audience that saw the film would have numbered fewer than 100, while over 9000 people overwhelmingly voted for Futility as their favourite short on the online poll. A concerted campaign of ballot stuffing, methinks.
- I have been unable to confirm whether this figure is in relation to overall profits compared to last year, or on profit projections. It’s safe to assume the worst given the eerie silence since the festival’s conclusion. There has been none of the normal e-newsletter or website triumphalism we’ve come to expect at a festival’s conclusion.
- Local favourite Orchids, though the sop to the contemplative crowd, Uncle Boonmee, came close.