Paying homage to the birth year of punk rock as well as the persistence of a rebellious sensibility in the contemporary, the Adelaide Film Festival styled itself as ‘punk’ this year. “Vive Le Punk!” was the festival tagline that was splashed across the front page of the program, festival posters and flyers. This catch-cry was accompanied by the stark black markings and graffiti-style lettering of local street artist KAB101 (an invited collaborator on the festival’s design). Even the 2017 festival trailer – created by Adelaide-based Closer productions – spelled out suitably ‘shouty’ slogans to audiences: “Demand the impossible!” “Boredom is counter-revolutionary!” (Someone at Closer clearly has a thing for the agitprop humour of Canadian queer provocateur Bruce La Bruce and The Raspberry Reich (2004), in particular.) While a young, leather jacket-clad model scowled and sneered into the camera, the festival proclaimed that a “cinema revolution” was coming…
Like the casting of Nicole Kidman as a Vivienne Westwood that time forgot, though, the festival’s emphasis on ‘punk’ yielded mixed results, especially in the international and world cinema selections. “What’s punk?” Elle Fanning asks as Zan in John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties. “Punk … it’s a way of life, it’s like anarchy, we do what we want”, her companion Enn (Alex Sharp) responds. The year is 1977 in the London suburb of Croydon. Enn and his other friends are all punk rock obsessed. After they crash a local house party, they discover different groups of men and women (alien colonies, in disguise), dressed up in bright shades of latex and enacting strange dance moves and rituals. It is here that Enn meets Zan, an alien visitor who has assumed the guise of a young teenage girl dressed in bright yellow latex. After playing the role of a maddening, other-world beauty in The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn 2016), Fanning may be the inheritor of Scarlett Johansson’s ‘alien’ femininity, though she has little to work with here1.
Having grown tired of her alien clan’s detached approach to space travel, Zan immediately responds to what Enn describes as the punk way of life. Having spent more time listening to punk and penning fanzines than he has talking to girls, Enn immediately responds Zan. Adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties was one of the festival’s much touted international (punk-themed) premieres. In principle, it all sounds amazing. Mitchell! Gaiman! Alien/punk rock love! Nicole Kidman cast as a peroxide blonde punk rocker! Unfortunately, the film is a well-intentioned mess. Most of the jokes fall flat, the imagery is visually uninspiring and the musical numbers are few and far between. (Earth Girls Are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988) has a remarkably similar premise and is much funnier). Overall, Mitchell’s latest effort lacks the anarchic energy that Mitchell himself had helped channel as the incomparable Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) or the sexual and comedic experimentation that marked features like Shortbus (2006).
Though the alien colonies are very obviously coded as queer and/or polymorphously perverse in counterpoint to the punk sub-culture, the film itself is surprisingly tame when it comes to sexuality (despite Mitchell’s inclusion of human/alien sex scenes with multiple players). Mitchell himself describes the meeting of punk and alien that informs the film as a “real romance” that brings different “tribes on the fringes” together2. There are two original songs that are worth mentioning on this front. Both are the result of Mitchell collaborating with Jamie Stewart (of Xiu Xiu). “Eat Me Alive” is performed at a local punk club, overseen by Queen Boadicea (Kidman). This sequence is about as spirited as the film gets with Nan and Enn rage against the status quo, then metaphysically coupling. “Between the Breaths” is a gentler, Cocteau Twins inspired song that plays out over the closing credits. As an inter-galactic love story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties plays out far more convincingly in the small, quiet scenes that are shared between Zan and Enn and in “Between the Breaths” than it does across the film as a whole. Mitchell’s cinema often contains such moments of tenderness—Hedwig was as much a plea for love across difference as it was a high-octane kick in the musical’s crotch. For all its romanticism and its faux punk raucousness, though, there is nothing in this film that comes even remotely close to Hedwig’s rendition of “The Origin of Love” or the “Angry Inch”.
Rather than an avant-garde rebellion, the strongest titles on offer were all about the struggle for basic human decency, tenderness and the need for inter-subjective understanding. Winner of the Best Documentary Award went to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement, a film about the plight of the Syrian refugees who help to construct skyscrapers in Beirut but are prevented from ever leaving the building site. Direct from Venice, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow about the global refugee crisis also screened. Winner of the Best International Feature Award went to Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch. Alongside Agnès Varda’s wonderfully life-affirming documentary Faces, Places (Visages, Villages), Nyoni’s debut feature was an absolute highlight for me, as both titles have been with other festival critics 3.
Faces, Places is the result of Varda working with French street artist and photographer, JR. JR’s art involves the unofficial posting of large black-and-white photographs in public spaces. As both are sensitive to the significance of capturing bodies in space, the pair decide to collaborate. They travel together throughout the French countryside in one of JR’s custom made vans (a van that is shaped like a camera, allowing for immediate photo-booth style snapping and printing). They take photographs of the different people that they visit, also recording their stories. JR and his crew then plaster large-scale portraits of the film’s subjects against the walls of buildings or whatever surface they can find. This process (as well as the filming of people’s reactions to seeing themselves transformed into a façade) makes for the loose structure of this remarkable film.
As Varda comments, JR’s work allows her to “meet new faces, and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory”. Varda’s presence in the film endows JR’s work with a larger narrative that is as much about the passing of time (indeed, Varda’s time) as it is about the duo talking and taking pictures in the present. Now 89, Varda cannot physically climb up the scaffold or the stairs that JR leaps up. She is a crucial part of the process nonetheless, helping to compose and frame the photographs of people and animals, as well as the flow of the film. She directs from the sidelines, piercing your heart with her memories, her quiet intelligence and her insight.
In true Varda fashion, Faces, Places is as much a self-portrait of the artist(s) as it is an extension of JR’s practice. An elegiac thread runs throughout the film, as Varda talks frankly about her age and the inevitability of death. The film itself is never maudlin, though. It is too much a paean to life and locality for that. Varda and JR’s sensitivity to the passage of time and to all that occurs between the breaths is illustrated, beautifully, upon the beaches of Normandy. Here, a young Varda had once photographed her friend, the late photographer Guy Bourdin. JR and the crew find the perfect place for a re-creation of Varda’s photograph. They plaster the young Guy across the side of a German bunker that has fallen from the cliffs onto the beach. When JR and Varda return the next day, they discover that the tide has washed their mural away. “Ephemeral art is my stock in trade,” JR comments. The pair are seated together on the beach. Soon, the winds pick up the sand that surrounds them. Varda muses that the wind may take them too … their film might not be completed. The winds die down. The tide moves out. JR and Varda move on.
Seeing the genuine rapport that exists between Varda and JT makes Faces, Places mandatory viewing, eclipsed only by the joy that comes of watching the grande dame of French cinema singing along to ‘Ring My Bell’. In retrospect, now, I am struck now by how sensitive both Faces, Places and Nyoni’s film are to the ways in which people inhabit or pass through particular locations: a windswept beach in France, a remote Zambian village. Some bodies dwell in particular locations for a long time such that those places become home. In this regard, I can still recollect the portrait of Jeanine, the last inhabitant of a row of miners’ cottages that have been scheduled for destruction. After she sees her own face externalized as the new façade of her home, Jeanine is visibly overcome at her face as a gesture of defiance. So many of the portraits that populate JR and Varda’s film (human, animal, architectural) resonate, politically as well as affectively. Varda has long had a knack for including moments of whimsy and imagination in her films, without at all undercutting the socio-economic realities of the people that she interacts with. Faces, Places is no exception.
In I Am Not a Witch, Nyoni adopts a similar approach. Her film combines an almost anthropological attention to bodies, gestures and the landscape with humour, flashes of audio-visual imagination and feminist commentary. Nyoni foregrounds faces and places as well, allowing these the time and space to ‘speak’ though not necessarily by way of dialogue. In fact, the film’s nine-year old protagonist, Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), rarely speaks. Early on in the film, she is brought before a local police officer and accused of being a witch. Different members of the village are keen to get a look at the child-witch, crowding about the room and its windows. One man is so intent on speaking that he climbs through the window from outside to testify to the child’s sorcery. He claims that she chopped his arm off with an axe (both arms are still clearly attached). Shula herself stays silent, refusing to confirm or deny. The loquacious Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), is called in. Banda, a self-serving town official, makes a tidy profit from the other female witches who are confined to a nearby ‘witch camp’.
Shula’s reputed powers as a witch make her dangerous. She must be restrained from the witch’s urge to flight by the use of a white ribbon that is attached to a large spindle. She is offered a choice: either cut the ribbon and be transformed into a goat (and possibly eaten) or keep the ribbon intact and join the camp. Shula opts for the path of the witch, a decision that brings the film’s symbolic use of the white ribbon into full, captivating effect. Each witch has her own spindle such that the length of her ribbon determines her freedom of movement. Shula is lucky, the women of the camp tell her, as she has a particularly long ribbon. Time and again however, Nyoni’s film shows us how Shula (and the other women) are physically curtailed and exploited. Shula must be locked up in Banda’s van before she is trotted out to instill superstition and fear in others. Though Banda is played more for comedic greed than for maliciousness, he knows that he has a real economic resource in a child-witch. “You are my little witch now, Shula”, he comments.
If witches have long been connected to the imagery of flight, then I Am Not a Witch tethers its witches to the ground. Choreographed to music, we see the Zambian witches being ferried from the witch camp to work in the fields, their ribbons fluttering in the breeze. For all its lightness, the ribbon is a chain that restrains and connects the women of the film, including Shula. The women of the camp are a source of capital, trotted out to the fields and for tourists taking photographs. Though I Am Not a Witch is very much Shula’s story, Nyoni resists telling us that story from Shula’s visual perspective. Instead, we see how lonely Shula is through her placement in the landscape or at the camp. We hear her desire to go to school through inventive combinations of sound and image. At one point in the film, Shula listens to the drifting sounds of children, their voices made audible by the wind and a make-shift device.
Some might find the film’s lack of a subjective perspective frustrating. Yet Ryoni carves out an entire world for Shula that is rich in gestural and situational details: the women of the camp, seen drinking, laughing and trading gin for bright wigs to Shula, dressed up in full witch make-up for the tourists but hiding out, alone. The moments of comedy that are included in the film (and there are many) help to make its feminist critique about the social and economic exploitation of women all the more powerful. Often, this critique occurs through abrupt affective shifts. When Shula is finally allowed to go to school, her happiness radiates. Later, she is brutally yanked from her school seat by an anonymous force. In a rare moment of the film adopting Shula’s visual perspective, the camera stays with Shula during this sequence as she is pulled backwards across the earth by her long white ribbon. As the local community needs rain, Shula must go back to fulfilling her primary ‘magical’ duties. In Nyoni’s film, one is not born rather one becomes a witch. For all its lyricism, I Am Not a Witch reveals the witch to be a still reviled as well as gendered entity as the film’s final, tragic sequence and its return to the imagery of the white ribbon makes clear.
In the world cinema selection, the festival included the Australian premiere of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project as well as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (the later film is phenomenal and now in general release). It also contained some unexpected misfires from well-established directors with Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck and Michael Haneke’s latest, Happy End. Based on the novel of the same title by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck is almost unbearably cute in its approach to telling the parallel stories of two children from two different ages (1927 and 1977). It drags and drags in its pacing as well (‘boredom’ is not a word that I thought I would never use in relation to a Todd Haynes film). In addition, Haynes’ re-working of a silent film sensibility is anything but wonderful, although I did like the final section of Wonderstruck where Haynes reverts to pure stop-motion. Happy End re-hashes much of the beige bourgeois territory that we have seen Haneke tread many times before: crystalline imagery, disturbing children, mediated footage, unexpected moments of violence and familial dysfunction. This time around, social media is thrown into the mix. While the film definitely has its moments (the prolonged car scene breakdown of the young Ève (Fantine Harduin) is one), it lacks Haneke’s usual bite. After the heights of Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Haneke’s Amour (2012) (Happy End is a loose follow-up), both of these titles fell below expectations for me4.
If some the male auteurs in the world cinema section faltered, then the Hungarian female writer/director Ildikó Enyedi more than made up for that loss. Previous winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film in Berlin as well as the Sydney Film Prize, On Body and Soul marks Enyedi’s return to filmmaking after her debut feature, My Twentieth Century (1989). On Body and Soul takes place in a Budapest abattoir and its opening sequence is fully confronting. Here, the camera holds on the mechanised butchery of the animals, shown in full, clinical detail. In the space of the abattoir, flesh is very much an abstraction. It is the basis of food production, with the animal providing the workers with flesh to be carved up, inspected and categorised. By contrast, in the film’s nature-based scenes, the flesh of the animal is presented in a very different light. Throughout the film, shots of a vast, snow-covered forest appear in which two deer roam about. The deer scenes form part of a shared dreamscape. Though a dreamscape, the nature-based imagery of the deer is at heart of Enydei’s subtle and slow-burn film (its soul).
While many workers move in and out of the abattoir, On Body and Soul focuses on two characters, in particular. Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the general manager of the slaughterhouse. He possesses a crippled left arm that he is at pains to hide. Endre is all too aware of his body, its age and his own physical limitations. Maria (Alexandra Borbély) is the new quality control inspector. She has a pathological fear of being touched, so much so that it controls all of her actions and gestures in the world, including how she eats and sleeps. Maria’s workplace precision and her general air of detachment annoy her co-workers. Endre is immediately captivated by Maria, watching her movements from afar. When he talks to Maria, she exhibits no interest in his attentions, however. Only after both discover that they have been having the same dream (a dream in which they both appear as deer in the forrest) does their romance begin. Make no mistake, Enyedi’s film is very much a romance and a thoroughly inventive one at that. Enyedi’s compositions exhibit a kind of molecular vulnerability, as if everything in the film is about to shatter like glass. The dreamscape world of the deer is quiet and idyllic, by way of contrast. When a romance between Endre and Maria occurs, it is awkward and stumbling (right down to the sex). Aside from an over-use of Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote” as its main love song, the romance that develops between Endre and Maria is also far from romanticized. Maria teaches herself how to touch the world, through sets of sprinklers and bed sheets. On Body and Soul is exquisite filmmaking, achieved by Enyedi’s attention to not only the awkwardness of bodies but to various compositional details, such as when a single red light fixture is suddenly brought to the fore.
Through her intertwining of the symbolism of body (Endre) and soul (Maria), the human and the animal, the abattoir and the frozen dreamscape, Enyedi gives us much more than a simple, shy love story. This is a deeply thoughtful, even ethical film: only by attempting to understand and inhabit the alterity of another (be they human or animal) can we breathe life into the abstractions of the body, transforming meat/flesh into a vital, enworlded pulse.
Closer to home, the Adelaide Film Investment Fund section showcased rich rewards, especially with the Australian premiere of Warwick Thornton’s justly celebrated western, Sweet Country (a film that was voted Best Feature Fiction by Adelaide audiences as well)5. Sweet Country will be released in cinemas in January 2018. On the local front, it was great to see Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays) return with a new six-part series, F*!#ing Adelaide, part of the Investment Fund program. Each episode of this series focuses on a different family member (some who are forced to return to Adelaide and some who never left). Hyde is a talented director with a keen visual eye. She does a lot within the small-scale spaces of the series, especially in terms of unfurling complex familial relationships and exhibiting some really clever sound design.
Despite its focus on the comedy/drama format, F*!#ing Adelaide ends up in a completely different (and I mean completely different) place to where I expected the series to go. I was okay with the boldness of Hyde’s black comedy, although it will be interesting to see how this series fares when it airs on ABC-TV and iView.
Given the fact that a number of titles are already out in or about to get a commercial release (in theatres, on Netflix or other sources), it was surprising and a little bit disappointing to not see some of the usual festival favourites appear as part of the programming. Where was Let the Sunshine In, the latest feature from established French director Claire Denis? Similarly, a film like Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (a musical based on the life of young Joan of Arc) would have complemented underlying punk/musical themes (perhaps even more so than some of the films selected as ‘punk’). While Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties was classed as an instance of ‘punk’ cinema, D.I.Y and experimental titles like Mike Retter’s Youth on The March (screened in the 16: 9 vertical format) were not. The looseness of the term ‘punk’ inevitably raised the question: what counts as a punk title? As even the festival’s push for VR was grouped under the “Vive le punk” tagline, the lack of a sustained focus on what might constitute ‘punk’ media (past or present) seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity6.
In this regard, the festival’s emphasis on ‘punk’ was at most coherent in the dedicated spotlight on ‘Music and Punk’, where Italian director Susana Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 featured, alongside classics such as Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) and Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilisation (1981). The punk/musical theme was also extended to the festival’s closing night selection, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Sophie Fiennes’ musical documentary about the towering inferno that is Grace Jones. As it brought together past and present, the analogue and the digital, “Vive le punk” proved to be more about the festival forging multi-generational appeals than a punk revolution. In 2017, not 1977, it may be that gestures of inclusivity are what is sorely needed right now.
- On the intersection between the alien, the feminine and Scarlet Johansson’s star branding see Amy Herzog, “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin”, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 57 (Fall 2016), as well as the other essays included in the Under the Skin Dossier < http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/index.html> (accessed 18.11. 17). ↩
- Mitchell quoted in How to Talk to Girls at Parties Press Kit, Mongrel Media (2016) ↩
- See this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival wrap-ups by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “What I’m Watching”, Meanjin online, September 7 2017, https://meanjin.com.au/blog/what-im-watching-alexandra-heller-nicholas and Joanna Di Matta, “Faces, Places: The 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, 84 (2017), http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/2017-melbourne-international-film-festival/ (accessed 18.11.17). ↩
- Happy End is also a loose companion piece to Amour ↩
- For instance, see Lucio Crispino, “Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country: A Tragic Investigation of Race on Australia’s Frontier”, The Conversation, October 10 2017, https://theconversation.com/warwick-thorntons-sweet-country-a-tragic-investigation-of-race-on-australias-frontier-84512 (accessed 18.11.17) ↩
- Punk cinema is a label that has been extended to not only historic punk titles such as Jarman’s canonic Jubliee but contemporary film/media movements that exhibit punk music’s “speed, frenetic energy, anger, anti-authoritarian, irony, style, anomie, disillusionment”. See Stacey Thompson, “Punk Cinema”, Cinema Journal, 43: 2 (2004), p.47 ↩