On the fiftieth anniversary of the very first Brisbane Film Festival (BFF), and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF), the Queensland Film Festival has returned to both pay tribute to its origins and develop its own history. If it seems premature for a festival in its second year to be getting retrospective, it’s worth considering the significance of this milestone, not least because Brisbane’s film scene seems to be built on heavy bits of damp timber, lugged and deposited over the years by a dedicated few.
Maintaining any consistent film culture in Brisbane has a proven a fraught exercise. While the collapse of journalism and the humanities is a worldwide, rather than simply Australian issue, Queensland in particular is still recovering from the militantly anti-art and anti-intellectual stance of the recently departed Newman state government.1 Brisbane has an inferiority complex and it is hardly surprising: imagine Sydney or Melbourne casually accepting the cancelation of their major film festivals, and all the cultural and institutional knowledge-loss that would follow such a bureaucratic whim. Where BFF’s decline could be attributed to its own success, a growing interest in art cinema being catered to by industrial bodies in place of the traditional film society, the dissolution of BIFF was an altogether different catastrophe. It began with the 2010 ousting of the festival’s devoted director, Anne Démy-Geroe, and ended with the remnants of the festival being passed on to the marketing department of the Brisbane City Council, who then combined it with the Asia Pacific Screen Awards to produce the more industry friendly Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. These events combined with the skewed priorities of Screen Queensland – with its long history of opaqueness, internal strife and managerial mishandling – have meant Brisbane’s film culture has long been plagued by instability.
There are, however, some reasons for optimism. The Australian Cinémathèque at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, notably funded by Arts Queensland, is approaching its tenth anniversary and has become the core of Brisbane’s film scene. Its retrospectives and themed programmes have ranged from the complete works of David Lynch and Theo Angelopoulos, to its current “In Character” season, a response to the Gallery’s Cindy Sherman exhibition and a celebration of female performativity. And recently entered into the local film fold is a determined Queensland Film Festival (QFF). After the success of its three-day fledgling debut in 2015, the festival has returned, expanding into a ten-day program of carefully curated local and world cinema.
The event was again hosted at New Farm Cinemas, which itself has no small part to play in the historical trajectory of Brisbane’s film culture. Established in 1921 as the open-air Merthyr Picture Palace, and then rebranded as the single-screened Astor Theatre, this site was designed to cater to a suburban crowd hungry for entertainment. The Astor was also host to the inaugural Brisbane Film Festival in 1966, and so feelings of nostalgia are not misplaced. If anything, they are encouraged – the building, after a period of disrepair, has been lovingly restored to its 1970s glory (when it was the Village Twin), and expanded to host six screens. It keeps its heritage front of mind, with old film projectors, and vintage movie posters adorning the foyer.
This year feels like a new consolidated era for Brisbane film festivals, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Hoyts Regent, which was home to BIFF for several years before the building was sold in 2007. In a city that has always seemed too eager to dispose of its origins, the grandiose Regent established 1929, with its red carpet, marble staircase and cathedral ceilings, was for many a cultural and historical refuge in the heart of the CBD. Already having survived a proposal for demolition in the late 1970s, the iconic theatre’s fate was finally sealed. Locals will no doubt remember the public outrage that ensued upon hearing the site was planned for development into office space; the petitions and protests were to no avail.
Of course, it must be said that such developments turn a profit,2 something the Regent was struggling to do in its later years. Falling attendance and rising maintenance costs made the site untenable. For mainstream audiences, the loss of the Regent wasn’t a big deal; the Hoyts Myer multiplex was only a block away. But for the already tenuous film culture that Brisbane had at this time, it was a major blow. Suddenly attending BIFF meant not dashing down city blocks but dashing from public to private transport to get from the Tribal Theatre in the CBD to the Dendy Portside, way out of Brisbane on the way to the airport. Losing the Regent, and before that the festival’s director in a confounding change of management, marked the end of an era in Brisbane film culture. Where once Brisbane was the best place in Australia to follow film, these two quick sharp jolts left Brisbane film culture scattered. Those dedicated to Brisbane’s film culture worked with what they had to keep the fire stoked, but the timber was strewn and waterlogged.
QFF is a festival well aware of this rich, if often tenuous history, and evidently eager to learn from it while forging on to develop and renew that record. Indicative was this year’s panel “Remembering BFF” with festival co-director Huw Walmsley-Evans, and festival scholar Tess Van Hemert reflecting on the origins of BFF and its founders, the Brisbane Cinema Group. Anecdotal history garnered from interviews with key players charted the struggles faced by their predecessors to establish Brisbane’s reputation as a serious addition to Australian film culture. Combined with the projection of a series of 16mm experimental shorts and animations from the original BFF program, this proved a delightful insight into Brisbane’s history.
Indeed, histories (personal, national, political) were a theme that ran throughout the festival. Fresh from Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta (2016) served as opening night’s fare. Beautifully shot, with a bold showcasing of primary colours, Almodóvar’s latest offering is about the uncovering of familial trauma, when a mother’s chance encounter with a childhood friend of her daughter turns her life upside down. And yet, Julieta’s part playful Hitchcockian mystery, part harrowing familial drama is intriguing rather than great. Its backwards nods to Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999) are bittersweet, providing at once another entry in Almodóvar’s concern with family pasts and identities under pressure, but simultaneously a reminder that he has produced far better interrogations of this subject.
In a similar vein thematically, Margot Nash’s The Silences (2015) details the personal investigation of her own family history through documentary. The result is a compelling and heartbreaking story of trauma, absence, and mental illness. Nash turns detective to uncover the secrets of her childhood, recalling vivid memories of an often cold mother and increasingly unhinged father, filtered through her young imagination. These recollections have informed her filmmaking throughout her life, several excerpts from her prior work revealing just how great an impact these experiences have had on shaping her as an artist. Nash’s has always been a personal cinema, yet here it feels like a form of closure to the mysteries she’s been tracking since a child, and a fascinating, if at times difficult one at that.
Saturday was dedicated to focus on the work of Eugène Green, beginning with the picturesque architectural voyage La Sapienza (2014), and followed up with Le fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016), in which a young man plays detective to uncover the truth about his absent father. In both works, Green’s peculiar style is evident: frames are obsessively symmetrical, performances stilted, and punctuated with a wealth of uncomfortable looks down the lens. This wilful awkwardness is offset, however, by Green’s humanist narratives; both films tell redemptive tales in which the cultivation of family and community foster hope. Of the two, Joseph does a better job at balancing these impulses; Green’s style, which flirted with pretention in La Sapienza, is better suited to Joseph, with a level of temperance lending it echoes of Bresson.
Between these screenings, a presentation by architecture and art historian John Macarthur provided valuable insights into Green’s relationship to the baroque – both in terms of the film’s featured buildings and Green’s direction of performances. President of the Australian Screen Editor’s Guild, Fiona Strain, also delivered an illuminating reflection on Green’s affiliation with his long time editor, Valérie Loiseleux, and her role in shaping Green’s artistic vision.
One of the standout films in this year’s program was the bizarre and beautiful The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, 2015). Adapted from the 1947 Paul Bowles short story, “A Distant Episode”, The Sky Trembles is a slow burn mix of documentary and fiction, replete with sumptuous imagery of a blazing sun over a lunar desert landscape. Rivers’ film documents a clash of cultures in which the outsider’s attempts to infiltrate a society he does not understand has violent consequences. Prefaced by Girón and Delgado’s haunting short Sin Dios ni Santa María (Neither God Nor Santa Maria, 2015) and bearing clear links to QFF’s preview screenings in a separate experimental lineup that took place before the festival proper, it was here, in particular, that one could sense the curator’s hand at work. This preview, which took place at the Institute of Modern Art, included Rivers’ 2015 short, A Distant Episode (a behind-the-scenes abstract interpretation of Dawood’s Towards a Possible Film, 2014) screened alongside its source material. Both films, which deal with the inherent violence of colonialism, were then anchored by Abonnenc’s dark deliberation on ethnography and identity, Secteur IX B (Sector IX B, 2015).
Another highlight was a second experimental session featuring a bold compilation of thematically related short and medium-length films that explored sentient drones and representations of war. On Air (Laurent Grasso, 2009) saw falcons affixed with cameras sent into what appears to be restricted, militarised space. The Freestone Drone (George Barber, 2013) takes that most impersonal of killing machines and transforms it into “the little drone that could”. Childlike and free spirited, Barber’s drone drifts from speculating about acquiring target information to imagining itself outside of the parameters of war, ignoring orders, and instead documenting its travels in poetic images and reflections. Gabriel Abrantes’ politically incorrect Ennui Ennui (2013) is uproariously funny. It opens in the Oval Office, with Obama engaging in late-night tweets to Rhianna before being interrupted by another freestone drone (this time called “Baby, Obama is Daddy”). What follows is the berserk tale of a romantic wannabe warlord, his overbearing mother, and a French disarmament deal waged on the picturesque Afghanistan mountainside. Watching the turns of Abrantes’ imagination is an exciting and fresh experience (envisage the vulgar enfant terrible answer to Michel Gondry), and we can only to hope to see a great deal more from him. The final piece to this session was Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (Guy Maddin, Evan and Galen Johnson, 2015). Ostensibly a “making of” featurette for Paul Gross’ big budget war movie Hyena Road (2015), Tim Horton is Maddin’s Trojan horse in the realm of commercial cinema – truly a “how did this get made?” work that turns behind-the-scenes footage into a series of re-imagined war movies, as well as an idiosyncratic personal essay (the drone in this case appearing as a flying head that attempts to hypnotise Gross). The result is utterly out of line and outrageously funny for its audacity.
Other highpoints in this year’s program included the Australian premiere of Malgré la nuit (Despite the Night, Phillipe Grandrieux, 2015) introduced by Associate Professor Greg Hainge, author of the forthcoming book on the director’s oeuvre, Phillipe Grandrieux: Sonic Cinema. At the opposite end of the mood spectrum, Studio Ghibli’s latest offering, La tortue rogue (The Red Turtle, Michael Dudok de Wit, 2016) was unsurprisingly the festival blockbuster, while Athina Rachel Tsangari’s delightfully offbeat Chevalier (2015) sadly took a hit, with audiences seemingly put off by wet weather.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s long awaited second feature Evolution (2015) was the crowning moment this year, and well worth the delay in its production. A companion piece to Innocence (Hadzihalilovic, 2004) as night is to day, Evolution is a haunting fable about a young boy who begins to question his origins. Part science fiction, part coming of age tale, Hadzihalilovic’s film is equally mesmerising and troubling. The seaside setting is both beautiful and sinister; lingering shots immersed under the ocean’s surface reveal a luminous otherworld of vivid colours and pitch-black shadows. Hadzihalilovic’s images are always evocative of texture; water droplets on sundrenched flesh, the spongy alien frame of a starfish, the stinging nick of a coral cut pervade the senses along with the unsettling string compositions on the score. Hadzihalilovic’s affinity for tactile imagery was also showcased in her 2014 short, Nectar, which prefaced Evolution. In this film, the female body is deified with all the sticky resonance of the title as a circle of women harvest fresh honey from the exultant nude on their altar.
Evolution was paired with Mauro Herce’s experimental documentary Dead Slow Ahead (2015), that tracks an enormous freight ship’s passage from Odessa to New Orleans. The films certainly share an affinity with their eerie soundscapes, a sense of isolation amidst a sublime ocean setting (there is a wonderful visual echo between the final shot of Evolution and the opening shot of Dead Slow Ahead), but Evolution is a hard act to follow. Dead Slow Ahead has its moments of visual poetry; when we get a sense of scale, it’s hypnotic. The desolate, infinite ocean; the mammoth cargo-hold that dwarves its workers; a storm cloud opening in the distance. At other times, watching the drunk crew sing karaoke is comparatively dull. Of course, these men are the human element, but it’s only very late in the film that we are afforded a true sense of humanity and get to see them as more than cogs in the mechanisms that work around them. It is in the closing series of New Year’s phone calls to the world that has been left behind that we finally get a sense of what all of this means.
Newly restored classics were also on offer, including Agnes Varda’s New Wave reflection on femininity, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962). Most impressive, however, was František Vláčil’s medieval Czech epic, Marketa Lazarová (1967). QFF marks what is probably the first screening of this film in Australia, and its sheer magnitude on the big screen made it a remarkable experience. Arresting high contrast black and white images capture the brutal clash of Christians and Pagans against a snow laden wilderness. Zdeněk Liška’s choral-electronic score affords the already larger than life visuals an even greater weight.
Closing night was a crowd-pleasing hit, with a sold-out screening of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016), her follow up to the similarly minded spoof-homage Viva (2007). The film follows Elaine, a beautiful young witch who is hopelessly seeking a man to love her with the same sincere devotion that she has for herself. Biller’s latest passion project successfully captures the tone, colour, and style of the 1950s and 1960s Technicolor films it is sending up, as much a knowing wink to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas as it is to its B-horror roots. Refreshingly, The Love Witch manages to be warmly appreciative of its heritage, poking fun in good faith, while pointing out the hilarity to be found in its excesses. A mix of present and past, Biller’s film was the perfect nightcap to this year’s selection.
On the whole, QFF’s second year was a success. The festival seems to have found its stride with its scale and duration, offering a distinctive experience. If Brisbane has felt lost in the periphery of bigger festivals like those in Sydney and Melbourne, under John Edmond and Huw Walmsley-Evans QFF has found an answer that is attuned to its locale and limitations. Still a great deal smaller than its interstate counterparts, QFF appears to be playing its size as a strength. As a single-stream festival, QFF reveals the pleasures to be found in a tightly controlled curatorial logic; resonances and references between films lend a kind of artistry to their matching in a way that is difficult to achieve at a mass scale. That Ian Holme’s comical portrayal of Paul Bowles should show up in Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch (1991), which screened just prior to Rivers’ adaptation, The Sky Trembles… which itself leads into Oliver Laxe’s sacred Mimosas (whose filming was documented by Rivers in The Sky Trembles…) is part of the attentiveness that guides the festival.
This thoughtfulness finds its fullest expression in the festival’s emphasis on high-quality shorts. QFF seems dedicated to providing a platform for some of the most exciting contemporary filmmakers, regardless of their running time. I’ve already flagged many of these startling works, including Abrantes’ and Maddin’s, that due to their limited duration are unlikely to find wide audiences outside of a festival environment. I should also note that local filmmakers Hegedus and Kalifa’s heart-warming portrait Strudel Sisters (2016) was also a pleasure.
Here’s hoping that QFF will continue in this vein, carving a new groove in Brisbane’s resolute if troubled film appreciation history.
Queensland Film Festival
15–24 July 2016
- Campbell Newman’s notorious opening symbolic move when taking power was to cancel the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. ↩
- Well, with the exception of the Regent fiasco: the proposed office development was ultimately cancelled, and the beautiful foyer (all that remains) is now covered in cardboard as a temporary Brisbane tourism information site. History is cruel. ↩