It’s only natural for the film festival to get philosophical. This is not to accuse the long-running Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) of deliberate naval-gazing – it achieves this almost entirely through the mere feat of continuing to exist. The thickening fog of uncertainty surrounding the future of cinema – as a venue, an art form, and an experience – isn’t new, nor will it be old any time soon. Successful film festivals continue to achieve a degree of insularity from any such hang-wringing. Taken on its own, MIFF’s 63rd edition felt as towering and alive as ever, but its programming proved representative of film’ s growing insecurities.
2014 saw the festival launch its inaugural Critics Campus, a five-day intensive for a group of emerging film critics. I was fortunate enough to be selected alongside some very talented young writers, and together we were afforded a range of panels and talks, as well as the opportunity to have reviews and features published for a major audience. Perhaps most invaluable, though, was our time spent with the Campus mentors, the diversity and benefit of whose experience was a tremendous privilege to work under. Just as in cinema, criticism has its doomsayers, but the initiation – and continuation – of the Critics Campus is heartening. It serves as a healthy reminder that criticism, though increasingly dispersed, is still of value not just in cultural conversation but also to the film industry.
Stretching across three weeks, MIFF is expansive in a way that both daunts and thrills. In something of a year of change, this year’s festival saw the replacement of the at best semi-mourned Greater Union Russell Street multiplex with a clutch of smaller venues, encompassing the RMIT Capitol Theatre, Palace’s Kino Cinemas, and for an unlucky few, the Treasury Theatre. This more disparate arrangement was somewhat reflective of the broadness of the programming.
With a festival of this breadth it is only possible to cover a very small selection of the wealth of films on offer. I’ve decided to take a closer look at two particular areas in the program. The first is the Celluloid Dreams stream, in which contemporary films use celluloid as a means to carry the torch of a fading format, and provide insight into the nature of cinema and filmmaking itself. The second is a grab bag of documentaries from Australia and abroad; these contrasting films raise questions about audiences’ relationships to documentary narratives and the genre’s place within festivals and the contemporary film landscape. MIFF’s television commercial campaign this year enthused that attendees would “Be Transported,” which became true in a variety of senses.
Reinventing the Reel
Perhaps no transportation felt as dramatic as the rare sessions in which the whirr of a film projector could be heard behind your head. The very existence of the Celluloid Dreams: Films Shot on Film stream inspired more cognitive dissonance than any film actually shown at the festival. To have films shot on celluloid confined to one section of a film festival is proof of the remarkable format shift of the last decade. The stream focused on contemporary films shot through a 20th Century lens, replete with the irony of many of said films being projected from Digital Cinema Packages (DCP). The aims of the films programmed here went beyond a particular aesthetic or format – they each functioned as a plea for an expansion of what cinema can be, and an attempt to reconcile the medium’s past and present. Where the digital age has allowed for leaps and bounds in what can be put on screen, these films stake the claim that the paucity of celluloid only allows for new ways to do things. Whether by coincidence or not, these films were, with one or two exceptions, the best at the festival.
Perhaps the festival’s boldest and most thrilling acquisition in this strand — and, really, the whole program — was Alexei German’s long-gestating Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to Be a God). An overwhelming but completely mesmerising experience, German’s film is set on Arkanar, a distant planet which is trapped in Earth-like medieval dark ages. Scientists have been sent from Earth to attempt to drag the planet’s people into some kind of enlightenment. One of the terrestrials, Don Rumata, forms the epicentre of the film’s roiling, chaotic progression from start to finish without a great deal of sense being made in between. But to penalise Hard to Be a God for its inscrutable narrative would be reductive in the extreme.
German’s film, shot across six years and completed by his wife and son after his death in 2013, is somewhat akin to an exasperated tossing up of the hands. Don Rumata’s arcane conversations with Arkanar’s inhabitants and addresses to camera achieve a bizarre, rhythmic poetry. What his words are intended to mean are anyone’s guess, and reviews and interpretations since its premiere at the 2013 Rome Film Festival have dredged up myriad contradictory responses. It’s possible that Hard to Be a God is German’s equivalent to Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language); they are films most thrilling in their lack of digestibility. German’s vision of Arkanar is beautiful to every last detail, even the constant incursion of rain and mud and piss and shit into its swooping, swooning frame. Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin – who died the same year filming finished – and Yuriy Klimenko have created imagery which already feels branded into film history. The camera moves like a perpetual motion machine, restlessly stalking Don Rumata, ducking and weaving beneath filth and chains hanging from ceilings, unable to wrest itself away from eyes of Arkanar citizens who thrust their grimy faces in front of it. At one stage, Don Rumata beckons the camera with the words, “Angel, come here.” In the midst of this heaving, elliptical world, Don Rumata’s words take on a remarkably tender meaning, as though German knew the film wouldn’t see the light of day in his lifetime.
As much as it is possible to view Hard to Be a God as, at least partially, a critique of modern Russia, German’s film plays best as a sensory experience. On a visual and aural level, Hard to Be a God is as intricate and stunning as films – and film – can be. It’s hard to imagine another film like this – this length, with this scope, in this fashion, and in 35mm – being made ever again. The smoky texture of the film grain both succeeds in obscuring artifice and lending an otherworldliness that the crispness of digital could all too easily invalidate in the context of a distant, medieval planet, particularly in black and white. In the rare, breath-taking moments the camera comes to a standstill and affords the opportunity to drink in the sheer detail of its lush black-and-white compositions, everything about it feels, rightly or wrongly, like the last of its kind.
Mark Peranson and Raya Martin’s La última película, a film-within-a-film-on-film-about-film, takes celluloid’s impending doom and transposes it onto the world. For every time cinema has been declared dead, La última película is a handy rebuttal. The film follows Alex, played by director Alex Ross Perry, a filmmaker who has acquired the last of the world’s film stock and travelled to Yucatán to scout locations for his – the – final project. Early on, Alex declares that he thinks “film is an act of destruction, probably self-destruction,” while the film he is being shot on cuts back and forth between differing grades from alternating cameras, distorting his speech and image. Peranson and Martin’s film takes shape as a documentary of Alex’s hubristic exercise in devaluation, be it of art or culture or history.
Gabino, Alex’s guide, trudges laboriously alongside him as he obliviously fumbles his way around the area, draped in the mantle of the all-knowing tourist. Alex is extraordinarily quick to judge other travellers – in one hilarious sequence, he and Gabino walk past groups of Westerners celebrating their ritualistic appropriation of the culture represented by nearby ruins. Alex mocks and pities them, while failing to recognise that the only thing that separates his own pursuit from theirs is his bombastic mission in the name of self-proclaimed ‘art.’ La última película manages to be entirely unpredictable without sacrificing a depth of thought and concern for the art of filmmaking no less potent than its tongue-in-cheek mockery of cinema’s ideologies. Phil Coldiron’s Cinema Scope essay on the film correctly notes that Peranson and Martin’s work is a relentless attempt to wash away cinematic pretensions in search of a purity of image, a search encompassing nine cameras and seven shooting formats (including digital). The extent to which La última película is successful in its reflexivity depends on whether it can convince viewers that an embrace of pretension is equivalent to an erasure, or at least a dispelling, of it. In any case, the film’s heterogeneity, and projection on sumptuous 35mm, calls whole-heartedly for openness to cinema’s multitudinous possibilities.
Alex Ross Perry’s other presence at the festival was as director of Listen Up Philip, an attempt at destruction of a different kind. Between La última película and his previous film The Color Wheel, Perry has developed a reputation as a self-aware narcissist. In Listen Up Philip, his avatar is Philip Lewis Friedman, an author who flees his girlfriend and his responsibilities after he catches wind of a negative review of his second novel. With the film, Perry sets out to make a film about male self-obsession to end all male self-obsessions. Philip takes up residence with his idol Ike Zimmerman, whose retreat into his own ego functions as a cautionary reflection for Philip, who is too busy staring at himself to notice. But Listen Up Philip, as implied in the title, is not about him so much as an peroration to him.
Philip’s girlfriend Ashley Kane is a photographer who, fed up of existing in Philip’s shadow, finally sees her career blossom without Philip’s presence in her life while he sinks from hot-new-thing to writing teacher at a mid-range college. Ike’s daughter Melanie, who has been similarly affected by her father’s megalomania, struggles to find her way out from under his influence. The film’s portrayal of these two men is pitying more than sympathetic, their embodiment of classic male artist archetypes functioning as a satire of the very same. The extended sequences in which the film focuses on Ashley, and to a lesser extent Melanie, function as Perry’s suggestion that the old adage “behind every woman is a good man” would be best addressed by shoving the man out of the way.
L For Leisure and Când se lasă seara peste Bucureşti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism) are two films which embrace mundanity in order to achieve their aims, though through starkly different aesthetics. L For Leisure, the debut feature of Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman, is a sun-dappled mockery and embrace of the frequent aimlessness of the intellectual. Set in the early 1990s, the film jumps through a series of loosely connected episodes in which characters play basketball, discuss academic research into tree nymphs, endorse Snapple, and repeatedly declare that they are “so mellow.” Horn and Kalman manage to fit a trying-on-jeans montage alongside a character’s ‘research’ into climate change in Iceland, which mostly consists of sitting and looking at the landscape. The film is suffused with a deeply uncool strain of nostalgia; its 16mm footage feels like home movies made during Saved by the Bell: The College Years and later featured on Tumblr’s “#1990s” tag. It moves so artfully against the rhythms and cinematic trends that it feels fresh. In taking on everything popularly conceived as wrong about a certain generation and a certain kind of filmmaking, its argument becomes a simple request to its inevitable detractors: mellow out.
On the other hand, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism deliberately strips itself almost entirely of an aesthetic. Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s film was shot on 35mm, but the interiors are so deliberately drab – there are very few glimpses of the outdoors – that its use of the grade becomes reflexively purposeless. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is a film that doesn’t even want to be a film, and its pain-staking conversations bear this out, beginning with a conversation between Paul, a director, and Alina, his actress, about the confines of shooting on celluloid. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism’s dullness circles back around to being absurdly funny; in a film about making a film, we never see any filmmaking take place. In a scene where Paul and Alina are driving, a phone starts to ring in the car and no one answers it, but the endless vibration punctures the hermetically sealed scene. Porumboiu’s work decries the film industry’s obsession with details, while also critiquing the self-obsession of filmmaking’s inherent self-importance, but with the same outcome as L For Leisure (if aimed at a different target): mellow out.
Recalibrating the Real
Where the films of the Celluloid Dreams stream meditated on the nature of film itself, the array of documentaries presented at MIFF this year combined into a commentary on documentary’s place within the film festival context. Each year, film festivals program non-fiction from a vast number of countries, affording audiences fleeting insight into a community, country or issue. In Australia, however, the exhibition of documentary outside of festivals recedes, confined typically to probable and eventual Oscar nominees. While many will show on television, this almost never occurs before the ceremony itself. Where we will get to see the likes of Advanced Style in cinemas, something genuinely cinematic like E Agora? Lembra-Me (What Now? Remind Me) will reach only the tiny audience it garnered at MIFF, and perhaps small ones at dedicated queer film festivals. Joaquim Pinto’s post-Blue HIV memoir is far from an easy sell, but this trickiness should make it an ideal festival draw. However, it seems more and more common that films of its kind are drowned out by more brashly ideological “issue-based” documentaries that could just as easily be magazine articles. An abstract, meditative diary of illness and treatment, the three-hour running time of What Now? Remind Me allows it to become a film not just about the fleetingness of life, but of cinema too. Pinto’s film is about cinema as sustenance for the soul, and documentary as cinema. What Now? Remind Me is not terribly far removed from Melbourne audiences, particularly given this audience was likely predominantly queer. But its presentation of a rural life, one bent to the will of sickness, is still so different to our own. Pinto’s is an invitation of voyeurism; he knows an audience as far-flung as Australia will have something to learn from the love between him and his partner.
Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga throws up tricker questions of documentary ethics. The filmmaker, who describes himself as “an average guy from south London,” has made a fascinating documentary that is nevertheless unwieldy. A look at the dangerous political climate of Congo, Virunga splices in a French journalist’s investigation into official corruption there, while also attempting to be a nature documentary about the Virunga National Park’s gorilla habitat. Much of the former and latter works, but the investigative section feels like an add-on designed to create a sense of more tangible intrigue for Western audiences. While von Einsiedel’s ambition is admirable, it also feels calculated and engineered with its over-reliance on postcard-pretty filler shots and hyperactive editing. It’s packaged almost like a multiplex thriller. The film ensures as it ends that awareness of Virunga can lead to support by pointing viewers to the national park’s website (which prominently asks for donations) – but is the effect of a film like this measurable in awareness and charity, or just accolades?
In MIFF’s India in Flux: Living Resistance stream, My Name is Salt exists in less tricky territory. This incredibly quiet, observational documentary was directed by Farida Pacha, born in Mumbai but living in Switzerland. The film’s only concern is showing the extreme, futile hardships of Indian salt pan workers through exquisite cinematography and hypnotic editing rhythms. While the film makes no explicit requests of the audience, it’s difficult to imagine a viewer not being subliminally coerced into conservation of water when seeing just how precious it can be.
Lacklustre attendance for the Australian documentary Curtain Call, directed by Justin Olstein and Eleanor Sharpe, belied its significance at the festival, highlighting the Australian festival’s emphasis on the exotic. While Australian cinema was by no means underrepresented at MIFF, no film was more quintessentially Aussie. Olstein and Sharpe’s film documents a small but important slice of Australian cultural history: The Tivoli pantomime theatre in suburban Melbourne. Operating for years with Terry and Carole Ann Gill at the reigns, the theatre was an institution for multiple generations of children and parents alike. That the film would be so disappointingly under-attended speaks to how Australian audiences are inured to the idea of the Australian documentary as a televisual form rather than a cinematic one.
Alongside Curtain Call in the Australian Showcase stream was Amin Palangi’s Sydney Film Festival Audience Award-winning documentary Love Marriage in Kabul, a competent but somewhat messy film which focuses too intently on its subjects – a pair of teenagers kept apart by the cultural chicanery surrounding marriage in Afghanistan. But it’s the woman trying to help them, Mahboba Rawi, who is the real, underserved subject of the film. Rawi’s many non-profit organisations and orphanages in Afghanistan, which she runs from her home in Sydney, and her incredible life story, would make for a more conventional but also more compelling documentary. Love Marriage in Kabul is perhaps the film with the most to gain from its audiences – mine felt palpably ready to give, and Rawi’s charities are a more than worthy cause.
The status of the documentary at MIFF contrasted fascinatingly with that of celluloid. Both now share a shrinking commercial space in film culture, to the point where their sessions at festivals can feel distinctly like an echo chamber. The documentaries that revealed the most were the ones aware they need not preach to the converted – but they were also the most under-attended. The films at MIFF this year, broad and far-reaching as they were, collectively gesture towards how commercial strictures might change what these films look like – both in terms of subject and aesthetic – in just years’ time, when film stock will only decrease in availability and funding may be increasingly difficult to obtain. If documentaries become less viable projects, will documenting social and political issues become solely an online domain? And when film eventually vanishes from projection rooms, will this specific form of experimentalism – indebted to both the celluloid format and its rich historical legacy – be lost to obsolescence? MIFF, in its latitude, seems set to remain a compelling bellwether for these issues.
1. Phil Coldiron, “The End of Cinema: La última película,” Cinema Scope 56. http://cinema-scope.com/features/tiff-2013-preview-la-ultima-pelicula-raya-martin-mark-peranson-canadadenmarkmexicophilippines/
2. Indiewire, “Meet the 2014 Tribeca Filmmakers #43: Orlando Von Einsiedel Goes to Congo for Virunga,” Indiewire, 17 April 2014. http://www.indiewire.com/article/meet-the-2014-tribeca-filmmakers-43-orlando-von-einsiedel