The Revelation Perth International Film Festival, in its fifteenth year, sixth at the Astor Theatre, and fifth with a program selected by Jack Sargeant, returned to Perth with the familiarity of an old friend. Shifting from the crowd-pleasing, easily digestible documentaries that opened the previous two festivals, Lynne Shelton’s latest comedy-drama Your Sister’s Sister set Rev 15 off in surprisingly gentle fashion. While emotionally resonant and irresistibly warm (mainly due to the schlubby presence of huggable Mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass), Shelton’s film was an oddly light pick for opening night.
The unassuming air of Shelton’s film seemed to represent this year’s slim feature selection as a whole – weaker than in previous years, and without a striking, gutsy debut (2010’s festival, by comparison, saw debuts from Giorgos Lanthimos and Ben Wheatley, respectively). Danish TV crime-drama Den som dræber (Those Who Kill, Birger Larsen), echoed the wilder Scandinavian crime films of Rev’s past; Oren Moverman’s Rampart stapled together a meandering plot with a frightening Woody Harrelson performance in full THC-withdrawal mode; and the mawkish The Trouble With Bliss (Michael Knowles), contained enough smarmy East Village quips to fill a dozen similarly chatty American indies. The late night screening of Gallic vampire flick Livid (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) unevenly married a deliciously Gothic look and feel with a derivative plot desperately lacking in bloody thrills. Gokudô heiki (Yakuza Weapon, Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi), the latest from Nikkatsu’s low budget genre stable Sushi Typhoon, added to the current crop of fast, cheap and out-of-control Japanese body-weapon films like Kataude mashin gâru (The Machine Girl, Noboru Iguchi, 2008), RoboGeisha (Noboru Iguchi, 2009), and Nihon bundan: Heru doraibâ (Helldriver, Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2010). Yakuza Weapon offered little else than direct-to-video fun; wacky moments of lost-in-translation lunacy were few and far between on the film’s stretched-out road to its dynamic closing titles, which featured panels from Ken Ishikawa’s 1996 source manga.
Within the features selection there were still a number of honourable mentions. Paul Fraser’s My Brothers offered a sympathetic family portrait presented with touching, no-nonsense Irish honesty and standout child performances. William Eubank’s Love at first seemed to bear its Cosmic Film influences too visibly, yet as it unspooled the film revealed enough originality – bolstered by an intriguing, mysterious Civil War prologue – to set itself apart from its towering influences. Love’s neo-Tarkovskian ambience and experimental narrative was also explored more deeply in Slovenian filmmaker Jan Cvitkovic’s third feature, Arheo. An evocative tale about three nameless people – a man, a woman and a child – who drift toward one another in a desolate landscape, Cvitkovic builds a poetic, post-apocalyptic world with a primal, physical, Eastern European earthiness, crafting a singular and compelling filmgoing experience.
This year’s middling feature selection was far outweighed by the strongest documentary line-up that Rev has seen in years. Oscar-winning sports-doc Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin) told the story of an underdog high school football team’s rise to the top of the end of season’s playoffs, for the first time in 110 years. Like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994), Undefeated earned its ringing sentimentalism with tiny moments wielding extraordinary power, such as when one financially disadvantaged young hopeful is plucked from training warm-ups to be told that his college scholarship is to be paid for by a friendly benefactor. The emotion on the overwhelmed teen’s face is palpable. Speaking of James, Rev hosted his latest effort, The Interrupters, an observational documentary about a community program dedicated to ending gang hostility and the senseless bloodshed it causes on Chicago’s South Side. Like Hoop Dreams or Stevie (2002), The Interrupters captures James’ incisive ability to be drawn into powerful stories through equally powerful characters – here, the most fascinating being real-life superwoman Ameena Matthews, daughter of a former gang leader and now a tireless anti-violence crusader. Matthews would have been amongst good company in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, which used the titular superhero to reclaim and trace the history of “girl power”. Guevara-Flanagan was in attendance for a post-film Q&A presented by comedian/actress Judith Lucy, Rev’s first Festival Patron, who added a sharp, self-effacing humour to the event and was the perfect antidote to lurking film snobbery. While Surviving Progress (Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks) and bio-doc Eames: The Architect and the Painter (Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey) didn’t gain much from the transition to the big screen, Last Days of the Arctic (Magnus V. Sigurðsson), a lamenting study of Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson’s work in the rapidly thawing frozen north, lapped up every inch of the cinema canvas, leaving a sobering aftertaste. This polished string of documentaries was rounded out by Bart Layton’s The Imposter, which intrigued audiences so deeply with its stranger-than-fiction plot that it even garnered a rare encore screening.
The prevailing theme of this year’s outstanding documentary selection seemed to be self-examination of the artist through art itself. Two reflections of a life of rebellious, subversive creativity took markedly different approaches with varying results. Beauty is Embarrassing (Neil Berkeley), which examined the creative life of Wayne White, best known for designing the wacky sets for the TV series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, fell into a fawning, twee approach to its subject that often amounted to watching a middle-aged man prance about in public like an overgrown hippie tit. On the other hand, the candid approach taken to the artistic life of the performance artist in Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre) – filmed concurrently during Abramovic’s daring MoMA retrospective of the same name – gave its subject gravitas while preserving her mystique. Akers and Dupre’s film dares us to stare deeply into Abramovic, as she literally dares the general public to do in her retrospective centerpiece, and discover elements of ourselves in her bold eyes. The antithesis to White’s hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool creative method, Abramovic deals with the agony and the ecstasy of being an artist – whether through expressive self-mutilation, remaining still “as a mountain” as strangers emotionally crumble before you, or parting with a long-time lover atop China’s Great Wall. A number of documentaries, The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi), Buff (Gavin Bond and Ian Abercromby) and Le sommeil d’or (Golden Slumbers, Davy Chou), turned the lens on cinema itself. Walking into the screening for festival closer Buff, a Perth-made documentary about cinephilia, was like walking into a family-and-friends screening for a feature-length public access TV special. The cringe-worthy film reenactments (in leiu of expensive clips) and overly gushy interviewees made me shrink downward, awkwardly embarrassed; if this is cinephilia, I want out. Golden Slumbers, however, provided a compassionate and stirring treatise on the formative power of film to allow important regional tales to survive – even if those films are lost forever. Visibly excited about Chou’s film, Variety critic Richard Kuipers returned to Revelation to introduce its director and moderate an illuminating Q&A. Raw, homely, and all the more charming for it, Golden Slumbers shares stories from Cambodian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s through the eyes of its surviving actors and filmmakers. Since their films were almost totally destroyed, Chou’s quietly stoic subjects describe their films and own lives orally instead, in poignant detail.
This year’s selection of short films was where the most esoteric work of the festival could be found. In a move that will hopefully continue, the annual Animation Showcase was split into two: one large screening for general animation, and one smaller one highlighting experimental animation. Within the general showcase, I found the simplest, most personal shorts, chiefly Derek Winchester’s melancholy, graceful Jenefer Loved Swimming, and Marieka Walsh’s haunting The Hunter, to be the most rewarding. The experimental showcase was, as expected, gleefully subversive, opening with the creeping dread of Stacey Steers’ Night Hunter, a tribute to Lillian Gish that appropriates footage from her films, re-imagined as a Lovecraftian nightmare. The highlight had to be the hypnotic and trancelike HyperLightness ad absurdum (Margarida Sardinha), which lost quite a few shifting, sighing audience members to the bar upstairs or their torch-like smartphones well before the 25-minute film had finished its final colourful, swirling mantra. Also challenging to audiences was the selection of shorts from the Sydney Underground Film Festival, presented by festival directors Kath Berger and Stefan Popescu. Feeder (Joseph Ernst), a disgusting day in the life from the inside of a mouth, provided an entrée for the main course to follow: Hansel and Gretel (Emma Varker), a rough-as-guts fairytale reinterpretation filled with teacakes, fleshy cleavage, torn stockings, and vomit – lots of vomit (none followed, thankfully, from the unfortunate cinemagoers partway through a choc-bomb). Shorts supporting the main features and documentaries ranged from the peculiar to elegiac. The disjointed visual chaos of artist Bernie Roddy’s The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma positioned the audience suitably for the Abramovic documentary to follow, and the despondent Australian shorts Attach Boat to Motor (Nathan Lewis) and Scenes From a Farmhouse (Miska Mandic) provided fittingly eerie overtures to the films they supported (My Brothers and Arheo, respectively). These were only two of an impressive group of Australian shorts; Ten Quintillion (Romilly Spiers) brought to mind a homegrown Microcosmos: Le peuple de l’herbe (Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, 1996), while Crosshairs (Michael Hoath) and The Wilding (Grant Scicluna) presented tense, aggressive tales of young Australian masculinity in crisis.
Crispin Glover returned to Perth for the second time in five years with his widely-travelled slideshow and two features, What is It? (2005) and It is Fine! Everything is Fine (2007). It was a treat to see Glover’s baffling, intense, absurd and oddly affecting films again, and worth sitting through Glover’s raspy, hyper-unintelligible murmuring (he’d caught a cold on the flight over) to get to them. The 8mm fans that filled the house for Keith Smith’s annual Revel-8 festival were rewarded with the most eclectic collection yet. The George Méliès Project, a collective of four musicians led by American composer Phillip Johnson, provided this year’s live silent film accompaniment. Though pleasant and playful, the gap between the diversity of the score and the variety of tricks employed by Méliès onscreen grew wider, and eventually the films seemed to support the music, not the other way around. By comparison, Noko served up a beguiling, dreamlike collusion of experimental imagery and music. After drawing a circle on the floor, and against abstruse imagery mixed live by artists Barry William Hale and Michael Strumm, bearded, shaman-esque Scott Barnes slowly filled the large, balconied theatre with a stream of reverbed, nightmarish sounds, like a vocal smoke machine. Certainly the biggest treat of Rev 15 was the Jeff Keen retrospective presented by Keen’s daughter Stella Starr. Keen’s passing only weeks earlier gave the presentation and screening a bittersweet tone; as Starr spoke of “Dad”, you could sense overwhelming pride, love and respect for her father and his hyper-kinetic work. Too hyper-kinetic for this Keen newcomer: the machine-gun-like, visual onslaught of Keen’s technique, from the nostalgic (Flik Flak, 1964-65) to the militant (Artwar, 1994), so overfed my brain that I had to skip the next two screenings. Alongside this year’s RevCons (which featured talks on New Distribution Vectors, Special Effects on a Shoestring, and the annual State of the Independents panel), Rev 15 played host to the inaugural RevCon Academic, a two-day conference presented by academics, filmmakers and cinephiles from a variety of backgrounds, all sharing a wide berth of film-related topics. The conference was an excellent opportunity to hear – and share – current trends and viewpoints within film studies. I hope it remains a staple of the Rev calendar in future years.
This year, Revelation did not wrap up on closing night; for the first time, the festival was squeezed down, packed up and sent around regional Western Australia, where a slimmed-down (and “road-movie” focused) program was tailored specifically to each of the four towns visited. Rev on the Road is a prominent indication of Rev’s growth in stature. As Revelation matures in age, stature and profile, it seems at odds with its younger, punkish ethos maintained from its backroom beginnings, and that has helped define Revelation as one of the more enviously unique events on the national film calendar (or, as Judith Lucy puts it so succinctly in the program booklet, Revelation “encourages originality, creativity and new ideas without the wank”). For now, Sargeant, festival chairman/founder Richard Sowada and the Rev team select a line-up that, while attracting higher-profile guests, events and sponsors, remains subversive enough to allow cinema’s mutant outcasts to sneak through the backdoor. I hope it remains that way, and I look forward, as always, to the delights awaiting audiences in next year’s festival. Hail cinema.
Revelation Perth International Film Festival
5-12 July 2012
Festival website: http://www.revelationfilmfest.org/