The Sydney CBD, with its futuristic, functionalist architecture, chain restaurants and cafes, and army of corporate workers walking frenetically, can hardly be described as a hospitable part of the city, or even as a place that the local population can relate to. Yet every year in mid-June the Sydney Film Festival attracts crowds of cinéphiles with a different attitude to life and a different dress code from the army of corporate clones. The sight of crowds of arty looking people of all ages sipping coffee while waiting patiently in queues (!), not to see the latest tour of a septuagenarian rock band that suddenly decided that “it owed a few more gigs to its fans,” but to watch some films that are rarely distributed in Australia, makes one believe that after all there might be an (albeit temporary) alternative to the visual regimes of corporate colonisation.
Reporting on the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, Gerd Gemünden aptly described it as “the return of the political” (1) and this is precisely what we could say about the 62nd Sydney Film Festival. Especially in light of the fact that the Sydney Film Prize was awarded to Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (Mil e uma Noites), that has direct and indirect references to the social and financial woes of Portugal – one of the countries in the European periphery that had the “privilege” of experiencing the IMF and the European Union’s Pinochetean “medicine” to the financial crisis.
But we will talk in depth about Gomes’ six-hour epic later on. One of the most important films of the festival came from troubled Ukraine. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Plemya) is set in a boarding school for deaf and dumb children. It focuses on Sergey, a young man who joins the school and becomes part of a group of kids involved in criminal activities, including violent robberies and the procuring of girls, who also live in the boarding school. The film has no subtitles or auditory dialogue – Slaboshpytskiy justifies this stylistic choice on the grounds that to represent love and hatred one needs no translation.
While The Tribe is definitely not a silent film, it obviously draws on a performance style that we can identify with early cinema, in the sense that there is an emphasis on gesturality and postural behaviour. The lack of dialogue reinforces the expressive quality of the acting style, adding a very distressing tenor to all the human interactions. To this we should add the ingenious use of sound originating from the characters’ footsteps, violent beatings and cars. There are references to Fassbinder, especially his early period, partly because of the filmmaker’s interest in emphasising the lack of solidarity among those in the margins of society. The Fassbinderian aspect of the film is also demonstrated via its emphasis on episodic situations instead of dramatic linearity. Although there is a central character, at times it is hard to distinguish the main narrative agent due to the filmmakers’ tendency to present situations from the perspective of different dramatis personae.
The main conflict in the narrative takes place when Sergey falls in love with one of the girls that his gang is procuring. While the gang members have plans to relocate and expand their “business” to Italy, Sergey does his best to prevent Anya from selling her body and this puts him at loggerheads with the group. There are a number of powerful scenes that emblematise the film’s desire to show rather than tell, among them the scene in which Sergey gets involved with Anya. Initially planned as a simple financial transaction around sexual intercourse, we get to see the ways the characters adopt different attitudes towards each other and how Anya ends up being involved with Sergey.
Equally powerful is a ballet-style scene at the beginning of the film when Sergey officially becomes a member of the gang. He is forced to defend himself against other gang members who practice an initiation rite of aggressively attacking the people who have recently joined. Again, the ballet quality of the sequence is reminiscent of Fassbinder’s kinetic experiments in Katzelmacher (1969). Watching these sequences one recalls Rudolf Arnheim’s praising of early cinema’s ability to offer powerful visuals because “the absence of the spoken word concentrates the spectator’s attention more closely on the visible aspect of behaviour, and thus the whole event draws particular interest to itself.” (2) This is the major quality of the film’s formal innovation: its ability to produce monumental images and gestural performances that cannot leave the audience indifferent.
While Slaboshpytskiy emphatically denies that his film has anything to do with political developments in his country (3), one can take his argument with a grain of salt and identify The Tribe’s historical echoes. Emblematic in this respect are the scenes of the gang members and sex workers queuing outside the Italian embassy to receive fake passports obtained through bribery. “European integration” in these scenes does not look like a development that leads to more dignity and social welfare; the precariousness of criminal life and sex work will follow these people to the “developed” European West.
The burden of the European past and present also preoccupies (albeit indirectly) Ulrich Seidl’s mesmerising pseudo-documentary In the Basement (Im Keller). Employing an elliptical and minimalistic narrative style that appears more like a collection of independent tableaux that do not have diegetic continuity, Seidl focuses on the Austrian middle class’ fascination with the cellar as a space in which they unleash their most repressed impulses. This has particular topicality following the real-life case of Josef Fritzl. Again the political and historical woes of Europe occupy an important place in the narrative. Amongst the characters that the film focuses on are a number of male buddies releasing their worries by meeting at a cellar to shoot pistols at targets and engage in anti-Muslim charades; a middle-aged guy obsessed with fascist paraphernalia who invites his friends to his cellar to express their nostalgia for the Nazi past; a woman visiting her cellar to seek “theatricalised” affection in her lifelike reborn dolls; a young woman who has left her boring sales job to become an escort; a male masochist and his sadist wife; and a masochist woman. Seidl adopts his standardised clinical approach and despite the sombreness of the film’s subject-matter there are plenty of humorous moments that lighten the sharp and intentionally clinical colour of his digital images. Not unlike his previous films, Seidl explores the lives of individuals so as to communicate scepticism with respect to the broader socio-political reality in Europe.
In one of the first tableaux we see the encounter between a mouse and a pet snake. This hair-raising sequence provoked alarming hollers from the audience and culminates in the snake eating the unsuspecting mouse. One cannot avoid drawing analogies with the present historical conditions incubating the serpent’s egg in the continent.
Another master of the tableau-narrative is Roy Anderson, and Sydney audiences had the chance to see his new visually fascinating film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron). Drawing on mise en scéne tropes of frontal staging, Anderson’s film is almost impossible to summarise since there is no coherent storyline, but a series of episodes that blend reality and fiction, and historical past and present. At times, we follow a pair of impoverished travelling salesmen, while at another point we see the Swedish King Charles XII getting drunk on his way to battle, as well as visuals that draw on the horrors of European colonialism. Anderson’s modus operandi takes advantage of the dialectic between the stillness of the tableau and movement within the frame, and this dialectic is highlighted by means of the actors’ deadpan performative style. The film’s staging is reminiscent of what Jean Mitry calls “painterly theatricality,” which according to David Bordwell was a European tradition that privileged shot composition at the expense of narrative continuity. (4)
Following the first screening of the film, the audience had the chance to get a deeper insight into the technical aspect of Anderson’s work, since the film’s cinematographer István Borbás was a festival guest and eager to answer questions in his idiosyncratic way. Borbás explained that he and Anderson operate like “painters” when making a film, while he suggested that the formal abstraction in A Pigeon was in service of a narrative that wanted to touch – but not exhaust – a number of issues such as “hierarchy, humans’ relationship to death and abuse of power” (sic). He also explained that Anderson manipulates colours so as to create a sense of abstraction, and his chief approach is to stage trivial situations and examine them dispassionately, something that is also reminiscent of the work of the great Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth.
Speaking of abstraction, Christophe Honoré’s latest work Metamorphoses was another film that drew on the employment of visual stimulation rather than narrative unity. Loosely based on Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, the story follows Europa, a young girl approached by a boy who tells her stories about gods falling in love with humans. Once again, loose episodes, stories emanating from other stories, and a surplus of visual excess downplay diegetic coherence. The film’s formal complication retains the spirit of Ovid’s poem. While Metamorphoses is a visual tour de force, at times I wondered about its relevance to the present. Then again, as Rosalind Galt convincingly argues in her fascinating book Pretty, films that intentionally manipulate an aesthetics of visual superabundance – and Honoré’s film belongs to this category – can make us rethink the relationship between aesthetics and politics beyond the valorisation of the austere image (as it was the case in the aforementioned films by Seidl and Slaboshpytskiy that employed an ascetic aesthetic). (5)
Galt’s argument that films relying on “a pleasing visual style” can also communicate theoretical and epistemological anxieties is similarly applicable to Christian Petzold’s fascinating film Phoenix. The film tells the story of Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who undergoes surgery to reconstruct her face. Nelly wants to start putting the pieces of her life together and she tries to reconnect with her husband Johnny, who is probably the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. When they meet, Johnny does not recognise her, but he notices that she resembles his wife. He convinces her to pretend that she is his wife (whom he mistakenly considers to be dead) so as to be able to inherit her fortune. Nelly, who wants to claim her life back, acquiesces, and the film culminates in a monumental moment of Aristotelian anagnorisis.
Petzold’s film is fascinating and totally different from most contemporary post-1990s films drawing on the trauma of the Holocaust, since the point of the story is not the idealisation of survival or the desire to erase the past. Nelly desires the almost impossible: to bring back to her life a pre-1933 sense of stability. The film is in a way a homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, not only due to its visual excess (which is to be attributed to Hans Fromm’s captivating cinematography) and the melodramatic tropes, but also because Ronald Zehrfeld’s striking physical resemblance to the enfant terrible of New German Cinema. The film also includes echoes of Liliana Cavani’s masterpiece The Night Porter. Nina Hoss’ performance as Nelly is mesmerising.
Jafar Panahi’s Tehran Taxi was another safe choice for the cinéphile audiences. Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Panahi’s latest film was smuggled out of Iran. Here Panahi responds to the recurring and everlasting question of film’s relationship to reality by making images of everyday life from a taxi. Panahi wrote, produced and edited this film while also playing the lead role of a filmmaker (himself) who pretends to be a taxi driver. Using a camera hidden in his dashboard he captures moments of everyday debates in Iran. Perhaps the most striking occurs when he starts a debate with his own niece about reality and illusion in cinema. His niece wants to make a school film assignment and when she captures a young boy stealing some money found on the street, she begs him to return it so she can represent values of “selflessness” and “sacrifice” that will render her film “screenable.” The intriguing conversation between Panahi and his niece brings back to the surface Rudolf Arnheim’s notion of illusionism as representing what one already knows, not what one sees that might challenge one’s preconceptions. (6)
Since we have touched on the issue of illusionism, it is pertinent to discuss Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Mother (Madeo) that we had the chance to belatedly see in Sydney. The film follows a poor unnamed widow working precariously to raise her young son who has some sort of intellectual disability. When her son is accused of the murder of a young girl she tries to put the pieces together to prove his innocence. The film has some nods to Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and La Commare Secca (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962), and the ending is totally unanticipated, pointing out that to seek the truth behind an event one needs to look at broader structures instead of treating it as an isolated social phenomenon. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is astonishing and Kim Hye-ja added another captivating female performance to this year’s festival.
One of the biggest disappointments in the festival was Koreeda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary), a Japanese film focused on the story of three sisters who meet their young half-sister at their father’s funeral and ask her to relocate with them to Kamakura. Classical Hollywood has taught us that the prerequisite for a good family melodrama is a punchy story with clearly delineated dramatic conflict. This was not the case in this film, in which the narrative dragged and lost its hold on the audience after forty minutes of screen time.
Of course many of us anticipated Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, the companion piece to the much talked about The Act of Killing. The difference here is that the story of the anti-Communist genocide, as per Slavoj Žižek (7), is told from the point of view of a victim, Adi, whose brother was brutally killed by the thugs of the Indonesian dictatorship. Adi is an optician and this makes for an uncanny allegory when he goes to examine the eyes of people responsible for the death of his brother, as if forcing them to see again. The Look of Silence has more clear references to Western complicity in the violent dethroning of a (partly) democratic regime, since it includes US television clips showing how major networks covered the dictatorship as a popular revolution against communism. One of the key lessons (a word that I am using with no shame) of the film is that one cannot heal a historical trauma without scratching it. During the film it is mainly the perpetrators that ask Adi and Joshua Oppenheimer to stop excavating the past; a convenient solution for all the perpetrators. For the victims, the precondition of coming to terms with the past is not to bury the uncomfortable truths, but to force the perpetrators understand the horror they brought to their lives.
Another film drawing on historical traumas and contested territories was George Ovashvili’s Corn Island, which tells the story of a farmer and his granddaughter who move to a barren island in Enguri River and try to survive by cultivating corn. This is a contested territory between Georgia and the Republic of Abkhazia. The film has minimal dialogue and we see minute details of the farmer’s labour in the island. Peace is disrupted when a wounded soldier seeks refuge and the granddaughter falls in love. This is another visually stimulating film that reminded me of Kornél Mundruczó’s Delta (2008) and Yvette Biro’s preference for minimalistic scripts. It was certainly a film that – like the aforementioned ones – should appreciated on the big screen. The oft-claimed death of cinema will only take place when all films no longer require the big screen experience to be appreciated.
Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise was also best appreciated in the big screen. A film noir set in Mumbai, it follows a policeman named Joshi searching for his kidnapped daughter. As we are informed at the beginning, child trafficking is a big problem in India that Sunrise touches on by avoiding the pitfalls of facile sentimentalism. The narrative is from the point of view of the main character, a device designed to obfuscate the reality in Joshi’s brain with the reality he experiences in a seedy nightclub that makes money by training kidnapped girls to become dancers for sexually deprived punters. Partho Sen-Gupta’s influences include noir stylists like David Lynch, as well as Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda. While the result was visually fascinating, at times the narrative pattern was repetitive. Yet the film has an unanticipated ending that pushes further the character’s inability to distinguish between the reality in his brain and the everyday reality in which he operates.
Beyond doubt, one of the most important films of the festival was Gomes’ Arabian Nights (in three volumes). Particularly because this brave cinematic trilogy is again made for the big screen and its format and running time offer an experience that cannot be fully valued in the isolation of a living room. The film draws loosely on the tale of The Arabian Nights and, as Gomes explains, his intention is to examine the reality in Portugal following the troika’s (IMF, ECB, and EC) policies that impoverished Portugal like other countries in the European periphery. It is hard to describe the plot and I would encourage the reader to look at Blake Williams’ spot-on description of the film’s structure. (8) It is certainly one of the most daring and bold cinematic experiments of the last decade. Gomes merges Godard (especially in the first tale in the first part of the trilogy, The Restless One), with Pasolini (throughout the film), Aristophanes (especially in the first two tales in the second part of the trilogy, The Desolate One), and Straub-Huillet (in the third part of the trilogy, The Enchanted One). The connecting element is the examination of the struggles and hardship of the Portuguese working class. Definitely the first two parts are the most powerful, while in the last part Gomes plays a cinematic game that left many members of the audience nervous, with a short section titled “Hot Forest” recounting the struggles of a Chinese girl who came to Portugal. This small interlude creates dramatic expectations, only for Gomes to interrupt them and return to the (intentionally) flat and repetitive story of the Lisbon working-class bird trappers who are trying to teach their Chaffinches songs for birdsong competitions.
The trilogy’s narrative borrows many elements from Latin American literature, such as the heterogeneity of voices, the carnivalesque perspective, the stress on different viewpoints and perspectives that do not lead to a resolution. (9) It is one of those works that demands multiple viewings and definitely not all of Gomes’ experiments in the trilogy work, but still it is hopeful to see a filmmaker challenging all the easy clichés of contemporary cinema. As Gomes rightly comments in the first tale of the film, “You can’t make a militant film which soon forgets its militancy and soon escapes from reality.” We can give him credit for remaining militant till the end; he does not aim to aestheticize the horror produced by the “doctors” of the troika, who are more reminiscent of Grace’s behaviour in Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay.
The 62nd Sydney Film Festival was overall a successful and fascinating event. Along with the films discussed, there was an Igmar Bergman retrospective with numerous screenings and talks. The author of this article fails to understand the festival’s oversight in not including Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (Adieu Au Langage) – a film that made David Bordwell suggest that Godard is “the youngest filmmaker at work today.” (10) It was also disappointing to see volunteers shouting to queuing audiences as if they were shepherds flocking sheep and the inexplicably aggressive and rude staff at various theatres. Perhaps it could be explained to the managers of these venues that it should be an honour for them to host sold-out screenings as part of SFF, and not treat the audience as if they are doing us a favour.
1. Gerd Gemünden, “The 65th Berlin Film Festival: The Return of the Political,” Film Criticism, 137–145.
2. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press), p. 110.
3. Tom Seymour, “Silent Horror: the Director of The Tribe on His Brutal Film About Life is a Deaf School,” The Guardian, 14 May 2015, www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/13/the-tribe-deaf-school-drama-myroslav-slaboshpytskiy
4. David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 135.
5. Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 5.
6. Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley, Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1974), p. 97.
7. Slavoj Žižek, “Slavoj Žižek on The Act of Killing and the Modern Trend of ‘Privatising Public Space’,” New Statesman, 12 July 2013, www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/07/slavoj-zizek-act-killing-and-modern-trend-privatising-public-space
8. Blake Williams, “Arabian Nights Trilogy: 2015 Cannes Film Festival Review,” Ioncinema.com, 28 May 2015, www.ioncinema.com/reviews/arabian-nights-trilogy-review
9. Many thanks to my Sydney film festival companion, Eszter Katona, for drawing my attention to this influence.
10. David Bordwell, “Adieu au Language: 2+2x3D,” Observations on Film Art: David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, 7 September 2014, www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/09/07/adieu-au-langage-2-2-x-3d/