The last Adelaide Film Festival under the stewardship of Artistic Director Amanda Duthie proved to be a decidedly populist affair— a programming bent that was anticipated by the Festival’s own mid-year invitation to the public to vote for their top three favourite Australian films using the hashtag #youmustsee. The result was less #youmustsee than #howmanytimeshaveweseenthesefilmswith? special ‘one-off’ screenings of The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) and Muriel’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994) (replete with a sing-a-long). At least Warwick Thornton’s beautiful and beautifully heart-wrenching Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) featured. Public mandate was then matched with two nods to the South Australian industry through the return of Sarah Watt’s debut Look Both Ways (2005) (an early recipient of the ADL Film Fest FUND, also shot in Port Adelaide) and a newly restored print of Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1974) (the film that launched the South Australian Film Corporation at Cannes). In light of the latter, it would have been great to have seen more Australian New Wave classics return to the the big screen. While a number of key 1970s titles such as Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) featured in the public’s Top 10, just what constitutes the ‘Australian’ in film was not a question that was plumbed in depth in this section of the program.
At the same time, the ADL Film Fest FUND continues to go from strength to strength in helping to fund a new wave of ‘revisionism’ in contemporary Australian cinema. Following its world premiere in Venice, Jennifer Kent’s much anticipated follow-up to The Babadook (2014), The Nightingale, has already been touted as a “feminist companion” to Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017)1. In The Nightingale, Kent returns to the past in order to revive the horrors of Australia’s history. Her take on female-focused vengeance boasts its own discrete lineage in horror, however, as well as roots in the Australian Gothic2. Set in 1820s Tasmania, The Nightingale uses images and sounds of landscape to create an environment that lives and ‘breathes’ around its characters. This time around, Kent locates horror in the figure of the white colonialist. Following the death of her family, an Irish female convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), sets out to wreak bloody vengeance against the English officer responsible. She enlists the aid of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Both Clare and Billy are bonded together through their shared hatred as well as their mutually traumatic pasts. Like Thornton’s revisionism of the western in Sweet Country, Kent uses landscape and a period setting to foreground those who suffer within the wilderness at the hands of white men. Ultimately, her palette proves to be a much murkier one than Thornton’s (both formally and affectively).
Also affiliated with the ADL Film Fest FUND, Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai provided the Festival’s opening night selection. Based on the 2008 terrorist attacks that killed over 150 people in Mumbai (12 attacks in all), Maras’ film restricts its narrative focus to the siege at the Taj Majal Palace Hotel (the interior of which was re-constructed as a set at Adelaide Studios in Glenside). Hours of first-hand interviews with survivors and witnesses went into the film’s conceptualisation yet Maras offers little insight into the survival of trauma or the larger context surrounding the Mumbai attacks. Save for one scene in which one of the four gunmen calls home to his family, there is little psychological nuance given to the terrorists as they shoot their way through level after level of the Taj. Their scenes are either played for laughs (a joke about one Islamic brother eating pork) or as demonstrations of sheer brutality. As the closing credits featuring the survivors of the Taj suggest, Maras’ film is concerned with depicting the everyday ‘heroes’ who were caught up in the event (Dev Patel is incredibly well cast in this regard). While Maras’ first feature makes for a visceral experience, it feels more like a multi-levelled action film than it does a docu-drama. In restricting itself to the hotel and the ensemble cast within, Hotel Mumbai inevitably calls up associations with Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) (an intertextual association that the film itself seems willing to embrace through jokes about feet and footwear). As the film follows the hotel guests, the hotel staff and the terrorists moving through different rooms, an upscale ‘members’ bar, stairwells, bathrooms, the lobby, a closet and so on, the virtuoso orchestration of action, suspense and set design reigns over psychology. At the Festival, Hotel Mumbai was winner of Best Picture in the Rising Sun Pictures Audience Award, as voted by Festival audiences. With stars like Patel and Armie Hammer featuring, Maras’ film will no doubt prove similarly popular with audiences upon its larger theatrical release.
If a questioning of what constitutes ‘Australian-ness’ was missing in the My Top 3 programming, it came to the fore through the Festival’s inclusion of the video art duo Soda_Jerk. In their art practice, siblings Dominique and Dan Angeloro are known for forging their own queer punk icons through the re-combination and layering of pre-existing images and sounds. In Terror Nullius, the pair remix different film and media fragments to forge a revisionist take on Australian cinema that is at once “political satire, eco-horror and road movie”3. Earlier this year, when the Ian Potter Cultural Trust decided to pull out of its co-commissioning of Terror Nullius (subheading: “a political revenge fable in three acts”), it did so on the grounds that the piece was “un-Australian” and “a very controversial work of art” (removing its name from the final credits)4. In turn, they inadvertently secured the work’s popular circulation while raising far too much expectation in terms of its supposed ‘controversy’.
From Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) through to Guy Maddin’s latest love-song to San Francisco, The Green Fog (2017), found-footage makers have a history of finding inspiration (and raw materials) in their own cinephilia. In Terror Nullius, movement through the landscape is used to overtly figure ‘Australian-ness’, through clips taken from iconic Australian films like Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981), The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen or the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), amongst others. Well-known Australian content inter-mingles with shots from the French queer thriller Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013) and heavy excerpts from New Zealand’s Black Sheep (Jonathan King, 2006), its titular animals later attacking Dame Edna Everage.
Images of violence, on repeat, gesture towards the historic violence of colonisation and other, more recent forms of cultural and/or geo-political exclusion. Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott become part of Lord Humungus’ retinue, determined to take a hard line on immigration. In light of real-world tragedies, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo contests the national significance of four (fictional) white girls disappearing at Hanging Rock.
“It’s not your story … it’s my story” Indigenous actor David Gulpilil announces at the beginning of the work, his voice-over sampled from Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006). Soon after, a re-worked excerpt from Walkabout appears (a film also starring Gulpilil). Audio of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s speech following the Dismissal has been integrated into the scene. The young British boy from Walkabout then proceeds to paint an anarchist symbol onto his father’s car. Painting in the colours of the Australian Aboriginal flag, it is as if he were responding to Gulpilil’s voice-over rather than the events of Parliament (and by association, England). In Terror Nullius, Soda_Jerk’s cut-and-paste cinephilia becomes a kind of critical collage, held together by a re-writing of Australian (film) history and the duo’s questioning of national identity, past and present. In the Q/A session that accompanied the Adelaide screening, Soda_Jerk read out a statement proclaiming the intersectionality of the piece. Rather than terra nullius (nobody’s land), they wanted to give ‘Australia’ over to those who are forgotten or marginalised within such grand narratives: women, children, the Indigenous, minorities, refugees, queer. While fun, funny and politically necessary, some sections of Terror Nullius cohere better than others. Across the course of 55 minutes, the piece grows repetitive, failing to bring its many ideas together (that said, eclecticism and the refusal to create an overarching narrative may be the point). Soda_Jerk’s meme-like sensibility is not served well by cinematic projection either. Exhibiting the work within a screen gallery context may have been a better fit and more consistent with how Soda_Jerk’s work is usually shown. As an intersectional polemic, however, the piece continues the important tradition of found-footage makers (both analogue and digital) re-thinking and “unsettling the accepted meaning of particular images”5.
Within the International selection, there were a number of impressive films drawn from the festival circuit. Paweł Pawlikowski lush, gorgeously monochromatic Cold War, a tale of mad love and post-war Europe that shifts between rural fields and 1950s nightclubs; Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, a fine follow-up to her previous Winter’s Bone (2010), featuring yet another quiet, absorbing performance by a resilient young female lead and Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces (a memorial to his mentor Abbas Kiarostami), structured by the Iranian director’s journey into and out of a mountainous village. All three films crafted a hermetic sense of environment, landscape and texture (rural Poland, the forests of Oregon, the gravel roads and winding paths of an Iranian village), as crucial as any of the film’s characters. Since its screening at the Festival, the debut feature from Belgian director Lukas Dhont has since gone on to instigate considerable controversy regarding its depiction of transgender adolescence. Girl follows 15-year-old Lara as she struggles to become a ballerina while awaiting sexual re-assignment surgery. Close-ups on the body’s limbs and image of bleeding and/or bruised feet are a common iconographic feature of the dance film. It is for this reason, I believe, that Dhont’s film alternates between the disciplining and re-fashioning of the body that occurs in Lara’s ballet training with Lara’s own disciplining of her body through repeated scenes of her genital tucking and taping. Lara’s determination to become-ballerina and to become one with her own skin are intertwined in overtly painful ways. As is consistent with the dance film, also, so much is said through gesture and other kinds of non-verbal expressivity in Girl. At the same time, Dhont’s open ending refuses to give us moralising answers as to Lara’s decisions, leaving it up to the viewer to decide6.
Personally, the absolute highlights of the Festival consisted of two ‘art’ films that are not to be missed: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a sumptuous black-and-white recreation of Cuarón’s youth in Mexico City during the 1970s (filmed by the director with choreographic precision) and Julian Schnabel’s biography of the last years of painter Vincent Van Gough, At Eternity’s Gate, a film that is as sensitive to nature as it is to the textures of art and life. Both Cuarón and Schnabel prove themselves to be formidable directors with these films. Both wrest the sensuality of cinematic scale and soundscape back from its usual association with the Hollywood blockbuster. Be enveloped by both films on the big-screen if you can…
During the Festival, sold-out sessions of The Nightingale, Hotel Mumbai, Roma, I Am Mother (a science fiction work-in-progress directed by Grant Sputore, starring Hilary Swank) and She Who Must Be Loved (a documentary about Freda Glyn, co-founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, directed by her daughter Erica Glynn) served to indicate how Adelaide audiences have a strong appetite for (transnational) genre productions, local stories and the global art-house. How unfortunate, then, that news of Amanda Duthie’s departure for the South Australian Film Corporation brought with it the sly announcement that the Festival would be shifting back to its former biennial arrangement, not to be seen again until 2020. While other capital cities aside from Melbourne and Sydney seem able to maintain and nourish their annual international film festivals (Perth, Brisbane), the Adelaide Film Festival keeps hedging its bets. As others have made comment, it now “seems a matter of some urgency that the [F]estival should incorporate a debate on its own future”, especially in terms of opening up an annual versus biennial debate with local screen audiences7. That is a dialogue that remains to be seen.
Adelaide Film Festival
10–21 October 2018
Festival website: https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/
- Guy Lodge, “Venice Film Review: The Nightingale”, September 6 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/the-nightingale-review-1202929338/ (accessed 6.12.18) ↩
- In the rape-revenge tradition of horror, women turn the tables on their aggressors, moving from victimhood to vengeance. See Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2011. ↩
- See https://www.acmi.net.au/events/terror-nullius/ (last accessed 6.12.18) ↩
- Alexie Kantor-Glass, “Terror Nullius”, The Monthly, October 2018, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2018/october/1538316000/monthly-awards-2018/2018#8 (last accessed 6.12.18) ↩
- Adrian Danks, “The Global Art of Found Footage Cinema” in Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer and Steven Jay Schneider (eds), Traditions in World Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2006), p.244 ↩
- For an alternate reading see Oliver Whitney, “Belgium’s Foreign-Language Oscar Submission ‘Girl’ is a danger to the Transgender Community”, The Hollywood Reporter, December 4 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/belgiums-oscar-submission-girl-is-a-danger-transgender-community-1166505 (last accessed 7.12.18) ↩
- Mike Walsh, “A Dry Spring in Adelaide”, Pure Shit: Australian Cinema, http://www.pureshitauscinema.com/features/dry_spring.html (last accessed 7.12.18). Walsh also provides a historic contextualisation of the Festival. ↩