Print is dead, we’re told, though you wouldn’t know it at film festivals. We reach for paper programs by instinct and carry them from venue to venue, even as smartphones and barcode scanners come to dominate the process of buying entry. The easy rationale for this demand is a large turnout from an older crowd craving simpler solutions. The more optimistic reason is that such wide-reaching cinema in such wide amounts demands that patrons let their minds wander, and be curious about things they didn’t know to look for. While it’s quite possible that web and UI designers have channelled this phenomenon for arts programs before, patrons still want to have their curiosity fed via turned pages. The 65th Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was no different, and among the hundreds of films and events on offer, patrons eventually found themselves gazing over something called the “International Panorama” – a phrase that’s broad but familiar; a curatorial shorthand designed for people to overcome the hurdle of trepidation towards foreign fare, or “take a punt on something new” as director Michelle Carey so adroitly puts it in her introduction. It’s wide reaching and exotic, but carefully curated for your enjoyment. For those with wandering hands and an entry-level curiosity in cinema beyond the American studios, it’s an easy first stop, and the kind of simplification worth accepting so that the door can be opened to newcomers a little bit wider.
This year, the Panorama’s header image was a still from Brazilian drama Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016), with Sonia Braga tilting her head towards the sky as the film’s defiant lead. It’s a trite descriptor for a lead heroine, but defiance is nonetheless a vital part of this story, in that Clara won’t let her venerable beachside home in Cerife be mowed down by an ambitious local developer (Humberto Carrão). All manner of dirty tactics is unleashed to browbeat her into moving away, but she persists, powered by memories and sensations tied to a space in which she has made memories for decades.
In cherished dreams, flashbacks, friendships and music, the film takes up arms with her, but avers sentiment and refuses to give her a neat ending. This humanism, fraught with disillusionment but warm nonetheless, has been embraced at festivals, with Sydney Film Festival handing its prize to Filho just a month before Melbourne. Indeed, feel-good films have had real-world success for decades – almost as a second, complementary story, which combines with that of the film as one triumphant experience for those cheering as the credits roll.
Aquarius’ second story, however, is different from that of the usual feel good prize winner, because it runs counter to a volatile situation in the country it comes from. Brazil’s Ministry of Culture has been fatigued by a government seen by many as corrupt and self-serving, and has taken unprecedented and restrictive measures against institutions like the Brazilian Cinematheque. This approach to the arts became entangled with Aquarius when Filho, his cast and his crew protested the regime on the red carpet at Cannes. Soon after, the country’s classification body gave Aquarius an 18+ rating, already a rarity in general, but flat-out disingenuous considering the film’s relatively tame drug and sexual content lands squarely in the realm of 15+. Though later reversed, the bare fact is that this action limits the commercial appeal of the film – less people are legally able to see it, so the film makes less. We tie box office revenue and ticket sales to potential impact, and so MIFF patrons, like the film’s indomitable protagonist, had an extra fire lit under them to see what they wanted to see, and to receive what some would prefer to keep from them. Underscoring this also is the need to push at the barriers of our cultural experience, which is the very thing that leads to the International Panorama to begin with.
Unfortunately, when wandering is the best way to bring new audiences into the field, all the films find themselves jostling for attention. This affects foreign-language films especially – cinematic exchanges between our Western, English-speaking mould and states outside of it are a lopsided affair, where the latter is the one that must get our collective attention, and somehow break through the barrier of preconceptions. A premium is then placed on anything that might put a film like Aquarius in our minds, and the costliest of these is attempting to win prestigious awards, an endeavour that requires rigorous campaigning even by English-speaking recipients. The Brazilian Government’s second action against Aquarius chafes for that reason: the committee in charge of choosing a film to represent Brazil in the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film category elected Marcos Petrucelli, a critic fiercely opposed to Filho’s politics and to the very notion of using public funds to take the film to be seen at Cannes – or in his words, “to take a vacation in the French Riviera.” It was a practical certainty, then, that Aquarius wouldn’t be allowed the chance to broach the Kodak Theatre, and be given access to a captive worldwide audience of millions. This notion was so loaded that the directors of other nominated Brazilian films, Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro, 2015) and Don’t Call Me Son (Anna Muylaert, 2016), pulled their films from consideration out of protest. This doesn’t level the playing field significantly because, by design, neither film has a terrific shot at the statuette – Bull with its languorous pace and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul-approved cinematographer (Diego García), and Son with its brisk and unsentimental exploration of queer male youth. MIFF, however, had both films on offer as part of an impressive Brazilian selection.
With its selection experience for the Academy Awards, rife with personal agendas and the obligation to cater to Western whims, it’s no wonder that the principal feeling from a company like Filho’s is frustration. They clearly believed that representing a country within “presentable” boundaries, and ignoring political unrest until it is unlikely to ruffle feathers, is hardly representing it at all. They have stepped outside the ordinary bounds of reflecting their country, and without it being their specific aim, they have made it much more of an interest to the movie-going public, at home and at MIFF, than it otherwise may have been. This would be for nothing if the film itself was not an empathetic engagement with the country’s issues.
After a charming prologue where a twenty-something Clara plays a Queen tape for her friends on the beach, Aquarius jumps forward to the present day and paints a rich portrait of Clara’s twilight years, from her touchy interactions with her grandchildren to her warmer ones with people who are practically family, especially her long-serving maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). The social divisions and expectations of Brazilian society vivify these proceedings. The question of how to do so without predicating films on expensive yet arbitrary signifiers of quality will always remain, but with its considerable breadth and length as a festival, MIFF minimises this weight.
The economic impact of Oscar hype, nominations and wins is very easily observed for English-speaking fare, but across many examples from MIFF alone, Best Foreign is a different story. Much has been written, for example, of the Weinstein brothers’ eagerness to recut and dub foreign gems to suit Western audiences. This process, which Peter Biskind would call “McMiraxing” in his book on the brothers, Down and Dirty Pictures, diminishes the shine of the original gems, despite whatever nobility the Weinstein’s see in the gesture.1 Even winning the statuette doesn’t make a film immune to such butchering – the 1956 winner, La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954), celebrated its win and strong single-cinema run with the release of a “commercial” dubbed version, which promptly flopped. It’s born from a reasonable position, though – Tino Balio observes that, “Oscar recognition benefited those films that already contained proven commercial ingredients,” so the more recognisable and accessible an Oscar contender is, the likelier it is to get that visibility that defenders of a more specific, unfamiliar or, well, foreign work would wish for.2 This is hardly something to shrug at, but in the long term it gets away from those without the intimidating skill to speak to so many.
MIFF’s program allows us to use the Best Foreign Film lens to see how other countries are choosing to present themselves. Take Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015), Greece’s submission, which observes the rituals of male bravado as gamified by a competitive crew of affluent scuba divers. This becomes a series of dares and feats presented drily for our amusement – a somewhat laboured premise by the end, but its sharp humour nonetheless made it the easy recommendation. It follows Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) and Tsangari’s previous feature Attenberg (2010) as Greek New Wave stalwarts attempting to bridge overseas audiences – and these aren’t films with the kind of emotional appeal to allow them to succeed in the sense of garnering statuettes, although it would be fun to see Chevalier’s Makis Papadimitriou mount the stage as a victory lap for his Minnie Riperton lip-synch.
On a more general level, Chevalier doesn’t have the rebellious real-world cache as Aquarius, but it turns heads as a part of the Greek Wave, as a de-constructor of masculinity, and as a film directed by a woman. These descriptions are reductive but, like the concept of an “International Panorama,” necessary to bring in newcomers from the cold.
Considerable, also, are the narratives that regular festival attendees and film fans in general will be better attuned to – for instance, a former Hollywood director striking back after a decades-long ostracisation. This would explain France pushing Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016) as their entry, with Dutch-born Verhoeven channelling his dark satire into a French-language affair that appears a touch classier than Showgirls, a perennial trashy favourite in the bad-movie-infamy game. The titular businesswoman, played rivetingly by Isabella Huppert, wilfully plays into the hands of male lust and entitlement, but never do we doubt her resolve against its worst effects on her security and fraught family history. And even better, it’s hilarious – the Forum Theatre audience had a ball, thanks to the shrewd writing. Once again, MIFF is expansive enough for the country’s other contenders to be viewed for comparison – Elle edges out a crop of MIFF luminaries like Being 17 (André Téchiné, 2016), Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph, Eugène Green, 2016), and La mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra, 2016).
My favourite MIFF “competitor”, as it were, was L’avenir (Things to Come, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016), which also featured a performance by Huppert as an older woman confronting the pains and injustices that she has become immune to, though in a more grounded context where time is measured and personal philosophy is a didactic must. It’s rare that a single actor should headline two major instalments in the program, and thus, she could almost be as much of the poster woman for MIFF’s cross-cultural expeditions as Braga.
Another highlight was Germany’s candidate Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). Riding the wave of a rapturous Cannes response, it’s the point at which Ade cements herself in the hearts and minds of festival-goers as a director of enviable precision. MIFF seemed keen to make this point as well by showing her previous films on 35mm prints – Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009) and Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forest for the Trees, 2003). The contrast with Toni Erdmann is stark – both are less than two-hour affairs, one literally about an affair and the other about an idealist trapped in her own niche, while Erdmann is a three-hour comedy; a beast popularly the domain of male American traditionalists like Robert Altman or Judd Apatow, but with a deft pacing and tone that spurns any resultant preconceptions by the 15-minute mark. The tension between the central father and daughter duo, the former a retired music teacher turned prankster (Peter Simonischek) and the latter a desperately no-nonsense business consultant (Sandra Hüller), feels spun from a unique cultural perspective, with plot turns predicated on European corporate culture and the “lesser” strata of labour it leans on or leaves behind, as well as softly-delivered punchlines at its expense. When Elle and Erdmann made the submission list, it feels like a validation of the chatter had by festival attendees who would be just as quick to snub their nose at the Academy’s choices. It’s not so much the possibility of Verhoeven or Ade hoisting a statuette, but that she has ended her jump to world-stage praise with style, and that her country of origin, to which Erdmann so firmly belongs, has her back. Neither deal as explicitly, however, with issues plaguing their countries on a national level as Aquarius.
As it turned out, MIFF audiences picked Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette, Claude Barras, 2016), a stop-motion drama set in an orphanage and Switzerland’s Best Foreign entry, as their favourite of the festival. The treatment of animated films in this environment is yet another search for legitimacy. Courgette has the feel of former MIFF favourite Harvie Krumpet (Adam Elliot, 2003), in the way its animated clay visuals throw its very adult concerns – mental health and child abuse – into sharp relief rather than toning them down.
The easy awards-baiter in MIFF’s animation slate, though, was La tortue rouge (The Red Turtle, Michael Dudok de Wit, 2016), Studio Ghibli’s latest and their first with a non-Japanese director. It portrays one man’s cyclical discovery of purpose as a wordless, heteronormative fantasy on a deserted island. In the context of cinematically understanding foreign nations, Turtle is a particularly interesting case of animation being used specifically to circumvent cultural barriers. The protagonist, who never speaks and certainly doesn’t name himself, only wears white clothing, and his skin is a middle-ground tan that doesn’t indicate a particular background. It’s debatable whether we’re even on planet Earth. De Wit has remarked that he never once doubted this approach, and sought only to find specific emotional experiences during the years-long production. Ostensibly, then, it’s not a part of his creative process to tweak a story such that it’ll be more likely to win Oscars. Given the success of his previous animated shorts, it’s a safe thing to believe. Seeing it on a big screen at MIFF, with an Un Certain Regard prize and the Ghibli logo to build hype, will net fewer misconceptions than any re-release after its win. The prizes almost belie the minute detail of expression in these animations, as if to unify them under a single banner when they should all speak for themselves.
As a testament to this, we can turn back to the last of MIFF’s Brazilian selection, which was varied enough to include a feature and short that have zero hints of the Academy on their minds. Muito Romântico (Melissa Dullius and Gustavo Jahn, 2016), a 72-minute excursion into self-ostracisation, comes to us courtesy of married artists Dullius and Jahn (aka Distruktur). The two leads steal away from Brazil, as if to escape the turmoil Aquarius is beset by, on what looks like an industrial tanker clearly not designed to transport errant hipsters. My companion called the film filler for the Berlin forum, that is, extra material by which the German capital can stuff its cultural cache. The film’s arbitrary ordering of sequences makes this assessment easy for me to agree with. At the same time, its defiant insularity among films straining outwards was a little refreshing. For a film made for Berlin’s art scene to subsist on, it’s sure ambivalent about the place, and as sceptical of the city’s ongoing redevelopment and gentrification as Aquarius is about Recife. Further, it does ask (and, of course, doesn’t neatly answer) questions about Berlin’s traditional place as a haven for creative folk. Does art need a refuge to thrive? Should that refuge even be bound by geographical limitations? The time-and-space portal the protagonists open in their apartment suggests otherwise.
Almost lost in this shuffle was the short film before Muito Romântico, named Há terra! (There is Land!, Ana Vaz, 2016). The phrase can be read as a jubilant cry or a desperate self-delusion. As a “16mm cine-poem” mixing symbols of civility and wilderness in a cacophany, the ambiguity is welcome. Anything to set it apart in the festival shuffle – shorts are the perennial thorny proposition for any programmer, with the common solution being a heavily signposted feature prelude. MIFF continues to do a remarkable job on this front, placing some shorts before features and presenting several blocks as feature-length presentations.
It’s extremely important to consider short modes of cinematic expression, from the production and curatorial sides of things, when looking to represent less regarded countries – Estonia, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Chile, South Africa, Russia and Indonesia would not have appeared at the festival at all if not for the shorts.3
Vaz seems to care very little for how her meditative work will be seen, and it shows. An artist has only obligations to themselves, often out of practicality – affecting widespread social change is an organised effort that filmmaking is rarely the lynch-pin for. The mere act of creation is the most nourishing part of the deed. On the other hand, one of the more anticipated MIFF reiterations of this theme was an American film, Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016). There, art (poetry in this instance) is the sustained release for its small-town dweller/possible PTSD sufferer, played by Adam Driver in his usual genial terseness. This is middle America, so people can very easily afford such pleasures. Some – MIFF favourite Jafar Panahi, say – have a government body knocking down their door. Paterson’s greatest enemy turns out to be his pet dog.
Another solution lies in channelling artistic sensibilities outside of the economic demands of feature films. Enter Ben Rivers, a native of the art exhibition world, now straddling the two with The Sky Trembles and The Earth Is Afraid and The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, 2016). I’m wary of films that feel like adaptations before the original text is even named, but few, I think would guess that this is an adaptation of “A Distant Episode”, a short story by the American Tangiers expat Paul Bowles. The installations Rivers is known for thrive on experience alone, rather than the chances of being sold overseas. Their locations are inextricably tied to how the works are digested. His film is aware of the dislocation and takes it in its stride, by putting the intrepid filmmaker on-camera – perhaps a member of the crew on this very film, perhaps not – through a gauntlet of edifying, mythical punishment at the hands of those whose land he is treading on. It’s most potent to watch in a metropolitan, multi-modal space like ACMI, which aims “to be the leading global museum of the moving image,” since unifying goals can be easily warped into nullifying ones – a notable risk in representing an entire nation for the global film market.
Many of these films couch themselves in a scripted narrative where the lead tangoes with carefully chosen circumstances. They are a configured presentation of how their host countries might be viewed, and what their directors suppose is most fruitful. What might a truly authentic representation look like, where supposition and manufactured framing are absent? While the “Accent on Asia” section of MIFF offered films like Lu bian ye can (Kaili Blues, Bi Gan, 2015) and Where Are You Going (Zhengfan Yang, 2016), that cast this search for truth on the real world, the best that I can suggest is a Danish documentary called Les sauteurs (Those Who Jump, Abou Bakar Sidibé, Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, 2016), about African men who unite on Mount Gurugu to climb a fence separating them from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, and the European Union. The film is more Malian than Danish, since Mali is where the main subject, Sidibé, comes from, but that would not have struck it from eligibility – I would have thought as much of Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016), an Iran-set horror thriller also showing at MIFF, before it was announced as the British submission.
Those Who Jump featured in a section of the program designed to interest the newly interested: “Seeking Refuge”, which housed documentaries about displaced peoples. Another film in the section, Sonita (Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, 2016), does much to challenge rules of observation by having its director become involved in fixing their situation, but only Those Who Jump places the camera in the subject’s hands.4 Although edited professionally, having the main on-screen subject’s hands on the camcorder makes a staggering difference – an unvarnished glimpse at the state of an entire people.
Jump is keen to keep us within Sidibé’s handheld purview as much as possible. The only clinical third party is in chilling night-vision CCTV footage of the hills surrounding Melilla, in which the men group up and swarm the barrier in deafening silence. We measure their success in preparations and outcomes – often, some haven’t returned, and those left behind bristle at whoever is calling the shots. It’s entirely understandable, but the lengths the situation drives them to are horribly brutal, particularly when they figure out that one of their own is ratting on them to a border guard. To make matters worse, that guard makes good on the information and raids their encampment. Sidibé doesn’t have his camera handy at that time but the pain of both short-term loss of food and long-term loss of statehood is on clear display. A hidden stash of food, undiscovered by the border guards, is a piercing ray of light in these dark times. They play soccer and commentate their fictional careers. Minutes later, the hard decisions come home to roost again. Some leave overnight, sometimes forcibly, sometimes out of despair, and never truly of their own volition.
This, to my mind, comes the closest to making up the compromise that comes with compressing such experiences into a sellable feature form. The creators of Those Who Jump also worked on The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014), which received hundreds of public screenings in Indonesia and also appeared at MIFF 2015. They are no strangers to using attention for more than commercial profit. The recurring compromise in selling the world through feature films is to bring us real, or as “real” as fiction can be, stories and circumstances, but in the process, commodify and bullet-point them such that they don’t register. Even a documentary like National Bird (Sonia Kennebeck, 2016), which speaks to both North American drone operators and their Afghan victims, added the subtitle Drone Wars during a later theatrical run in Melbourne, to maximise its chances of getting people into the cinema to hear these people’s stories.
Preceding Jump was Kwassa Kwassa (Superflex and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, 2015), another short film anomaly like There is Land!, but with heavier undertones of people-smuggling and potent disenfranchisement, told to us in a piercing voiceover from a resident of the island of Anjouan. A boat is constructed, painted, and lacquered in angles so close you can practically smell the grease and sawdust. The sound is real and intoxicating. Seeing Jump and Kwassa back to back felt like an injection not of the foreign, but of awe in the face of an unfathomable foreign experience, whose gulf of despair is represented so viscerally. This is true formally as well – the B-reel approach employed by Jump is a powerful move towards authenticity. Meaning is shaped even when no-one does the shaping. One scene has nothing but Whitney Houston and a zoom slide. The lack of interpretation is a choice, so authenticity is as much an illusion as impartiality.
There is another film that hinges on finding construct in the unconstructed, worth mentioning despite the decidedly Western, Academy-friendly lens it was made through. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016) criss-crosses the globe through footage and “content” that would normally be discarded in the heat of the moment. Johnson, an American, is no stranger to the Academy and will likely circumvent the “foreign” altogether for the Best Documentary category. It is a film rightfully fixated on the trauma of those who have recorded trauma. She is keenly aware of the ambivalence – “maybe she should help you cut the tree,” comments a bystander in a scene of impoverished African woodchoppers – so her intentions are true, but she gets to go home, reflect, and sell her work to festivals afterwards, while Sidibé’s future in Jump is less certain.
History is a great teacher as well, by looking to periods where there were fewer links between countries and the ideals of seeking out foreign fare had much more utility. MIFF came to our aid yet again with “The Barcelona School”, a collection of fractured and hyper-specific trips from 1960s Spain, such as Fata Morgana (Left-Handed Fate, Vicente Aranda, 1965), that could not be a more remote from the search for festival kudos. The same goes for an old hand like Yasujirô Ozu, who I got an introduction to via Banshun (Late Spring, 1949) and Bakushû (Early Summer, 1951), as part of the festival’s tribute to the recently deceased, shining Japanese star Setsuko Hara. And there was the “Gaining Ground” section, where films like Sleepwalk (Sara Driver, 1986) demonstrated explicit cultural exchange as part of their surreal narratives.
MIFF wants only to concentrate the new and daring into a two-week injection. It may be a business, but it’s in the business of laying down track for the future, be that in new cross-country productions or new formats like Virtual Reality. The Academy, comparatively, will drag itself by inches only when commanded by a dwindling spectatorship.5 The idea of cajoling patrons feels small compared to these issues, and yet, whether in regards to our history or cultures unlike our own, it’s necessary. Being marketable is only as positive as the real change it enacts. Still, narratives exist in the first place because of something real we can grab onto, which makes our own comfort zones feel all the smaller, and our desire to wander through gateways like MIFF proportionally greater.
Melbourne International Film Festival
28 July–14 August 2016
- Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005). ↩
- Tino Balio, The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946–1973, (Madison, WI and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), p. 93. ↩
- These were, respectively: Linnugripp (Bird Flu, Priit Tender and Hefang Wei, 2016), Belladonna (Dubravka Turic, 2015), Seide (Elnura Osmonalieva, 2015), Les choses simples (The Simple Things, Álvaro Anguita, 2015), The Call (Zamo Mkhwanazi, 2015), Vozvrashenie Erkina (The Return of Erkin, Maria Guskova, 2015), Sendiri Diana Sendiri (Following Diana, Kamila Andini, 2015), and Prenjak (In the Year of Monkey, Wregas Bhanuteja, 2016). ↩
- Although the 2006 Chinese film Meishi Jie (Meishi Street, Ou Ning) precedes it in this regard. Read Luke Robinson’s take on the film here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/miff2012/alternative-archives-and-individual-subjectivities-ou-nings-meishi-street/ ↩
- Rick Kessell, “Oscars Ratings on ABC Down 6% Overall, But Up in Younger Viewers, Key Male Demos,” Variety, 29 February 2016: http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/oscars-ratings-down-2016-chris-rock-1201717431 ↩