There is no festival in my home, only lockdown. But, there is a familiar and comforting Tiger that graces my television screen. It reminds me that the opportunity to dream remains untouched by the pandemic; something lives and breathes outside of my four walls.
Right now, I want to go home – to Australia. Yet, I am more than many miles from its hot, sandy shores. I watch endless rain and mounting cases of COVID-19 in England. James Vaughan’s Australian dramedy, Friends and Strangers (2021), brings more than just the country’s spaciousness back into my heart and mind. There’s a certain Australian sensibility that is impossible to describe to the English (owing to the lies of the Empire, still alive and kicking over here), and it’s not that “calls a spade a spade” cliché. No, it’s a quality that permeates all strata’s of Australian society. It’s a casualness that cinema rarely allows, because screenwriting is so often the labour of structure and dramatic affectation. Vaughan, however, writes his Australians as casually conversational; whether the characters are uncertain or asserting, there is an earnestness in the ease with which they speak. Its closest cine-cousin is Eric Rohmer’s L’ami de mon amie (Boyfriends and Girlfriends, 1987), where friends and lovers swap places in a new housing development in the outer-Parisian suburbs.
The similarity to Rohmer is not just about awkward conversations – though Friends has its fair share. Instead, it’s in the social and spatial anxieties that the resonance abounds. The relationship that kickstarts Friends – between Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) – especially as the pair walk around a city, their intentions and words dwarfed by the concrete structures and sounds of traffic around them, could easily be lifted straight out of L’ami de mon amie.
Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) are haplessly travelling together, between cities, stopping to camp in an environment that doesn’t suit their uncertain and undefined relationship. Flirting with physical intimacy, the pair quickly discover that they aren’t on the same page. The naturalism in their unrefined interaction is stark, perhaps confronting for some, but earnest in a way that romance and sexual desire (or lack thereof) is so rarely shown in capital C cinema. Their crossed wires, all the more potent for taking place in a “natural environment” and not one of the country’s built-up business centres, could easily be mistaken, for a moment, for the starting point of a romantic comedy but, gratefully, Vaughan is more interested in exploring the wider effects on this couple’s failed attempt at romance somewhere along the great roads of Australian stories.
Alice could easily be Rohmer’s carefree Leá (Sophie Renoir) as she moves from one relationship into maybe another, searching for what fits between city and country life. Ray, however, is the film’s Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet), awkwardly trying to embody the spaces he is ill equipped to navigate. It’s beautiful to see; the story spirals instead of arcs, revealing deeper, more layered characterisations that Vaughan paints with kindness, almost as if he set out with a duty of care to these fictional people, even when they epitomise the often-ugly juxtapositions of contemporary Australia.
And, like Rohmer, Vaughan uses colour and artwork in his mise-en-scene to enhance or echo the dynamics between characters. A sublime example of this in Rohmer is Amos Levin’s video essay series for MUBI: Like Watching Paint Dry, the first of which is L’ami de mon amie. In Friends, art is literally in the frame so often – and from the very start, under the title credits – that it is impossible not to notice how art history has etched and coloured the contemporary Australian psyche. From “First Fleet” paintings to depictions of the land’s “flora and fauna”, the paintings set up a stark contrast between stories told and lives lived. Art students and scholars will revel in a later scene where Ray, a gasping fish out of water, sits in the gallery-like living room of a wealthy family, interviewing for the job of filming a wedding video. Ray is surrounded by images that tell a thousand stories, none of which resonate with his own artistic aspirations. The history includes Ned Kelly, Phar Lap, and the Queen – and what is the film’s cleverest double-take moment as Vaughan plays cattily with his audience, toying to see if they are truly paying attention to the details.
Ultimately, though, it is the pacing of Vaughan’s quietly excellent feature debut that gives these potent images so much necessary room to breathe. Amidst a climate of ideologically endorsed productivity and post-colonialism on capitalist speed, today’s young and aspiring need slow and deliberate, considerate and sincere. Friends captures that specifically casual manner in which Australians negotiate the paradoxically complex humdrum social graces of romantic, platonic, professional, and familial relationships with aplomb, but it also asks us to slow down and think about the weight and persistence of history on our younger generations. It’s today’s proverbial Love and Other Catastrophes, only set to slo-mo. Carrying the country’s rich and muddled history in tow, Friends and Strangers sees the paradoxes at play and speaks to them without standing on a soapbox.
Australia’s other entry into the festival, Lone Wolf, in the Big Screen Competition, was less successful. High concept, Lone Wolf is filmmaker Jonathan Ogilvie’s PhD case study, serving his thesis, The Cinematics of Surveillance. It’s also a sneak preview of one of this year’s MIFF Premiere Fund films. The story follows a couple of eco-activists in a near future Melbourne, who are the subject of political entrapment. And while the cinematography contrasts diegetic (mobile phone and CCTV footage) and non-diegetic (purely narrative) images in an intentionally seamless yet still critically distanced way, the long, drawn-out, predictable storytelling is equal parts frustrating and underwhelming. Tilda Cobham-Hervey carries the film as best she can, and Aussie favourites Hugo Weaving and Stephen Curry give enjoyable performances within their written stereotypes, but not enough to save the film from its all too basic thesis: analogue good, digital baa’ad.
Also in Big Screen Competition was Jun Li’s Drifting (2021), a film I hoped would carry the torch from last year’s deeply affecting programme, ‘Ordinary Heroes: Made in Hong Kong’ – a programme that not only deserves follow-up but demands it, given that on June 30th last year a new security law was passed that gave China the authority to criminalise acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces, punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Add to this the recent arrests of key figures in the documentaries We Have Boots (Evans Chan, 2020) and If We Burn (James Leong and Lynn Lee, 2020), the latter of which was also said at the time to be a “work in progress”, and even a pared back programme demands some sort of update on this very live issue – especially as the pandemic has enabled Carrie Lam’s administration to carry out injustices away from the usual umbrellas of international intervention. So, while thematically Drifting kept the flame going, it also let melodrama overshadow the issue. The real-life events from which the film takes its inspiration – of nineteen homeless people who, in 2012, fought for the right to their street dwellings and belongings – are undeniably sad and poignant, but the execution lacks nuance. The film overstays it welcome and then some, labouring the point with clunky exposition, hammy acting, and hair and make-up choices that look like what they are – attempts to age and grub-up a cast of otherwise well-groomed actors.
After two strikes, I came close to ditching the Big Screen Competition altogether. Aside from not being something I could watch on a titular big screen, navigating the selection was like treading water, its roll call a seemingly random gathering of moving images, my clarity on its intention fast sinking. According to the festival’s website, it’s, “A diverse competition bridging the gap between popular, classic and art house cinema.” I didn’t find the bridge, but I did find a film worth the wading.
Les Sorcières de l’Orient (Witches of the Orient, Julien Faraut, 2021) is a dynamic documentary about the titular Japanese women’s volleyball group who won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. What I especially loved about this doc was that it completely wrongfooted me before it swept me up in its intentionally disorienting style. It would be too easy to tell the story chronologically, or with the sort of talking heads we – perhaps lazily, perhaps cynically – expect to take up most of our time in a doc these days. Instead, Faraut, who’d already won my heart in 2018 with his brilliant philosophical musings on both tennis and filmmaking with John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, has, here, created a formal structure for his film that recreates the sensibility at the heart of the story he is trying to tell.
Yutaka Yamazaki’s camera circles a group of the now older women, eating lunch and reminiscing about their former lives, working in a textile factory and playing volleyball. The circular movement is mildly dizzying, but Faraut starts as he means to go on; gently disorienting the viewer, inviting us into a sort of whirlpool that will, soon and covertly if aggressively, refuse to release us until victory is not just achieved but understood. There is footage of the women now, casually chatting about what was, despite an abusive relationship with their coach who made them practice and play well past the point of bleeding fingertips and full-bodied exhaustion. Intercut with archive anime clips inspired by the real-life team’s success and archive footage of their practice and performance, the doc refuses linear narrative progression. Instead of sports commentary style narration (there is some sparing commentary between visual and aural spells) and in place of a ‘testimonial’ style presentation of historicity, Faraut pairs these tonally and temporally disparate yet energetically similar images with persistent electronic music. Composed by Jason Lytle and with a little Portishead thrown in the mix, the score further spirals the viewer into a low-key frenzy in an attempt to sensorially communicate the alchemical experience these so-called witches had in playing this 1964 Olympic debuting sport.
The refusal of a linear progression is also a sort of internal protest against the heavily structured industrial presence that underlines the story. Faraut’s archive footage includes images of the textile factory – but not really of the women working. Instead, we get glimpses that give enough of an impression that industry is a well-oiled machine, with every cog working together to succeed as a whole. In some ways, these images feel almost socialist in ideology. Certainly, the message is clear: natural resources can be dominated by (hu)man ingenuity and results can be expected. This is the beat to which the women must drum. Hirofumi Daimatsu, their coach, would apparently use sleep deprivation in their training, and then take them to the cinema once a month as a treat.
Where the witches – not so much hunted but certainly burned – reflect both critically and affectionately on their oppressor, the women in Karen Cinorre’s feature debut, Mayday (2021), are culturally, generationally, and imaginatively taking the fight direct to their enemy: men.
Ana (Grace Van Patten) works in menial hospitality at a hotel and sleeps in her car. At work, a wedding is about to take place and the bride is terrified. Ana tries to help her; not to escape, but to get through what’s coming, because patriarchal oppression, and female pain and suffering, these are a given in Ana’s world. After a power outage, Ana finds herself crawling through an oven and into an alternate reality. The reference to Sylvia Plath hangs heavily in this moment, as Ana joins a young troupe of women who are at literal war with young men. Ana has entered a fantasy realm that could be an interpretation of the afterlife but is more likely an animated bell jar.
The battle of the sexes, however, is surface level stuff. Cinorre is far more interested in where young women will take the feminist movement when they have no experience of collective action. Clashing perhaps a little too predictably with the self-appointed leader who inducts her into their troupe, Marsha (also The Bride from the film’s earlier hotel scene, Mia Goth), Ana must decide if violent retribution is too hardcore. Perhaps binary positions are too black and white, Cinorre proffers. And even more literally, espouses, through her characters who say pointed things like, “I don’t think we’re seeing the whole picture.” The response? “No one sees all that.”
Mayday is at its best when it indulges in its fantasy world, but Cinorre can’t help but caution us against militant feminism. Cinematically disappointing, but ideologically fair enough.
El perro que no calla (The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, Ana Katz, 2021), which starts as a story about a man whose dog barks all day, upsetting his neighbours, quickly becomes a cautionary tale about how anyone could become poor, unemployed, and disadvantaged in a society that is not willing to bend to individual needs. For the most part, this black and white, stylistically art house story is verisimilitude on an electric walkway: no action/active viewing from the audience required. But when it ventures into the absurd – a future whereby a toxic gas caused by a meteorite means everyone must either stay low to the ground (under four feet, to be precise) or wear a protective helmet and oxygen tank to stand and live above the earth’s now limited atmosphere – is when it is at its most enjoyable and poignant. But hope for how we might adapt to our newly restricted lifestyles feels both distant and all too real.
Wading through these films, and others, IFFR at home is a sometimes-hopeful affair, offering glimpses of a wider and less rigid world. But for all the fantasy and absurdity, it is the casual, everyday conversations of an almost mumblecore that made the most piercing social observations.