In a year marked by apocalyptic imagery and an eerie sense of the science-fictional, the Adelaide Film Festival’s decision to open its socially distanced festival with the world premiere of Seth Larney’s sci-fi-thriller, 2067, felt more than a little apposite. Dubbed a “cautionary environmental story”, 2067 seemed filled with promise: a locally-made, -produced and -funded take on the “cli-fi” mode of science-fiction (filmed at Adelaide Studios), helmed by a director with a dedicated history in visual effects.
Set in the year 2067 on an Earth in which all plant life is now extinct, Larney’s climate-ravaged future is an ambient, beautifully lit one. The last cityscape is filled with glowing red industrial tunnels, looming billboard screens, glassy corporate headquarters and worker apartments that could double as a low-key art installation. In 2067, humanity is kept alive through the artificial oxygen supply that is manufactured by a corporation called Chronicorp. Their air is tainted, however, leading to a fatal illness called the Sickness. A local power plant worker, Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee) (whose wife also suffers the Sickness), is called in to visit Chronicorp by its chief technical officer, Regina Jackson (played, valiantly, by a wig-clad Deborah Mailman, who does what she can).
As Jackson relays, they have received a message from the future. That message – “Send Ethan Whyte” – is spelled out in red lettering over a neon timeclock marking years, days and months. If all this Chrono-related signaling did not telescope it enough, Chronicorp happens to have a time machine (a phosphorescent device known as the Chronicle) and Ethan is the man destined to go through it. So begins the film’s incredibly convoluted time-travel plot, interwoven with a predictable narrative about corporate greed versus sacrifice (Chronicorp’s Jackson plans to jump ahead to a better future), lots of shouting (cue: Ryan Kwanten) and ponderous declarations about how “we’re all connected through time”.
In “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965), the American cultural critic Susan Sontag once described the essence of science fiction as delighting in images of destruction. At the time, Sontag was referring to 1950s-60s American and Japanese cinema: science run amuck; nuclear testing and inadvertent radioactive contagion; aliens invading or Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. Sontag’s gloss on the speculative power of science fiction – as a genre that allows us to “participate in the fantasy of living through one’s death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself”, often to ethical ends, is something that holds true today, never more so than in the face of real-to-life environmental extinction.1
No doubt Larney’s imagination of a disastrous future is well-intentioned. Oftentimes, though, 2067 feels too much like a pale imitation of material drawn from other sci-fi classics: from the socio-economically divided cityscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – replete with urban fire and rolling smokestacks – to the capitalistic control of oxygen in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). Even the infamous “Star Gate” sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gets a turn via the Chronicle. The film’s strongest moments are those in which it adopts a less-is-more approach: by letting shots of the cityscape or the landscape speak, for example. Unburdened by melodrama, ham-fisted dialogue and overly complicated plotting, the ecological underpinnings of 2067 might have made for something more substantial – like the haunting space gardens of the future that date back to films such as Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1973). As Sontag ably reminds us, sometimes, the “collective nightmares” of science-fiction film are already far “too close to our reality”.2 Time travel may not be necessary.
Children, Cinema and War
Mediating war and other kinds of trauma through art and film was a key theme that emerged throughout the Festival. It was brought to the fore with particular force by two female directors. Made by Tehran-born director Granaz Moussavi (My Tehran for Sale, 2009), with post-production completed in Adelaide, the poetically-inflected When Pomegranates Howl was one of the strongest features affiliated with the Adelaide Film Investment Fund programming (see also: High Ground). Based on real-to-life events, Moussavi made the film on the streets of Kabul, working with non-professional actors. Exquisitely shot by Behrouz Badrouj, When Pomegranates Howl tells the story of 9 year-old Hewad (Arafat Faiz, who gives a luminous performance). Hewad wants to be an actor or a model or director: a “star” like in the western world. After his brother and father were “martyred”, he now serves as his family’s only provider. Every day, Hewad works well into the night, pushing a hired wooden cart along Kabul’s uneven streets, hawking amulets, fresh pomegranate juice and ripe pomegranates. One day, he meets an Australian war photographer (Andrew Quilty, playing himself) who photographs Hewad and his friends, later gifting him a camera.
Early on in the film, a bootleg DVD of one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘90s action films can be glimpsed on a cart – a stark reminder of the differences between fabricated Hollywood action and war-torn Afghanistan. With a keen eye for detail, Moussavi structures When Pomegranates Howl around our being with Hewad. Across the film, she amasses a collection of vivid moments that speak to Hewad’s life and to the life of women in the region: Hewad’s mother and grandmother, waiting for his nightly return; the decorated hand and arm of a woman buying his wares from behind a closed door; the young girl who wants to play outside on the cobbled streets with the male children but is pulled back indoors. Iranian cinema has long relied on children as allegorical figures of innocence and Moussavi adopts a similar strategy.3 Throughout, the film’s considered use of photographic imagery and its nods to photography and to cinema create restrained yet powerful effects. Hewad, for example, auditions and “directs” his cast of local children through an old can. When the film’s explosive finale featuring fallen pomegranates finally came, it left many of us in the audience stunned, affirming the importance of the Investment fund for politically-engaged directors such as Moussavi.4
While the 2020 Documentary Award as well as the Festival’s inaugural Change Award went to Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra, The Earth is Blue as an Orange from the Ukraine was another standout international selection. Previously seen at Sundance (where it won the Director Award for World Cinema Documentary), the film focuses on single-mother, Hanna (Hanna Gladka), her four children and the family’s many cats in war-torn Donbas. Daughter, Myroslava (Myroslava Trofymchuk), is an aspiring cinematographer who wants to go to film school. All of the family share in a love of cinema, however. Against the recurring sound of bomb blasts and gunfire, they turn their small apartment into a make-shift studio, all pitching in to make a short film called “2014”.
Written and directed by Iryna Tsilyk (herself a poet), the documentary’s evocative title refers to a line of by the surrealist poet Paul Eluard about bringing seemingly contradictory elements together. In her intimate yet reflexive re-working of the war documentary, Tsiyk captures familial and creative joy in a time of war. She follows the close-knit family “crew” as they move about their apartment; sit around the kitchen table, prepare food, play musical instruments, discuss scripting and shot compositions. Time and again, we also watch the family having to literally climb down into their bunker where their rehearsals continue against candlelight, surrounded by shelves of preserves and empty glass jars.
Like so many of this year’s festival filmmakers, unable to travel, director Tsilyk provided a short video message before the screening. During that message, she spoke, touchingly, about being able to bring her film to audiences on the other side of the world. Likewise, in The Earth is Blue as an Orange, cinema brings those differently affected by the war together. In this regard, The Earth is Blue as an Orange features a number of extraordinary, truly humanist moments: the phone call made by Hanna, announcing Myroslava’s acceptance into film school or the “talking-head” interviews that feature the family, each discussing what war means to them. Most telling, however, is the finale in which the family screen their completed short to a local audience. We never get to see that as such (we have been seeing pieces of the film, already). Instead, Tsilyk takes her cues from directors like Kiarostami and Godard. She films the faces of the audience members watching, laughing and crying. As it screens, the sounds of “2014” intermingle with the audience’s reaction and exterior sounds of distant shellfire. It is a wonderfully-layered, fitting conclusion, one that interweaves war and its survival with the healing and hope that cinema can provide.5
Drinking, Dancing, Forgetting
The AFF Feature Film Competition was small but impressive, showcasing a number of features that matched deep (often: unspoken) feeling with formal beauty and inventiveness. The award for Best Feature Film went to Beginning by the Georgian director Déa Kulumbegashvili (a film praised by the AFF jury for its stylistic originality). My standout of the Festival (perhaps, this entire year) was Druk (Another Round) made by the Danish director and Dogme 95 co-founder, Thomas Vinterberg, re-uniting with Mads Mikkelsen, following The Hunt (2013). In Another Round, Mikkelsen plays a world-weary high school teacher, Martin. The Danish superstar is perfectly cast here – his often sculptural presence on film conveying deep reserves of emotion, without saying a word.
According to Vinterberg, Another Round is imagined as “a tribute to life” through its casting aside “of all anxious common sense” which can have deadly consequences.6 Tellingly, the film opens with a group of drunken teenagers, having a riotous night out (pay attention to the Danish pop soundtrack – it will feature again). This sequence is followed by one that inverts and echoes the opening. Martin and three co-workers celebrate a 50th-birthday in a fine-dining restaurant. They sample expensive champagne and wine. At first, Martin refuses a drink. When he does, it is with some sense of abandon. He then starts to cry; he talks about his estrangement from his wife and his life, more generally. The other men empathise and they all keep drinking. Nikolaj (Magnus Milling) shares the Norwegian theory that a small amount of alcohol (a 0.5 blood alcohol register, to be exact) might actually be a good thing as it makes one more creative and “open”. By the end of the night, Martin and the other men are completely, utterly totaled. Like the previously seen teenagers, they laugh, play and fall about. Even the film’s loose camerawork seems joyously drunk here, as it does in other key sequences.
The next day, Martin tests out this theory. In drinking, he becomes better at everything: he even starts to move differently (Mikkelsen’s’ little nuances are fantastic on this front). All the men participate in the experiment – becoming more enlivened to the world and engaging to their students. Liberation (of a kind) occurs through drinking, taking the visible form of loosened movement, speech and dancing. It’s all great and entirely workable… until it isn’t. Vinterberg’s formalism and his Dogme 95 origins lend a strong sense of shape, precision and structure to Another Round: the use of intertitles, for example, displays the characters’ varying blood alcohol levels. The men set rules (no drinking after 8pm, no drinking on weekends) only to break them. For all its moments of comedy, though, Vinterberg’s film speaks, profoundly, to the weight of what lies beneath the surface – to what we want to say to others (or to ourselves) but for various reasons cannot. After winning praise at Toronto and taking out multiple European Film Awards, Another Round is touted as a hot contender for Best International Film at the Academy Awards. The film’s constant alternation between the forces of control and order versus energy and abandon make it a must-see film. Without spoilers, I will say that Mikkelsen’s final “performance”, alone, is leap-out-of-your-seat incredible…
Much more restrained highlights from the Feature Film selection included 2000 Songs of Farida (d. Yolqin Tuychiev) and Apples (d. Christos Nikou). Set in a remote region of Turkistan, 2000 Songs of Farida centres on the four wives of Kamil (Bahrom Matchanov). Through its languid pacing and its attentiveness to the routines and gestures of the women, Tuychiev’s film does a great job of fleshing out the wives’ different personalities as well as their mutually limited options under Kamil’s patriarchal rule. The nightly dinner ritual, for example, sees the women’s hands, in unison, reaching to take their individual portions of food after each one of Kamil’s mouthfuls. Dancing features in this film, also, but it is of a very different kind: feisty Robiya (nicknamed “Ginger”) has a tumultuous relationship with her husband and she despises the new wife. Her fireside dance is one of pure anger, rebellion and defiance. With its artfully-constructed longshots, its beautifully-detailed costuming and its careful staging of the women against the landscape, 2000 Songs of Farida creates a highly distinctive and insular world. Set just before the arrival of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, the film’s tumultuous conclusion hints at historic change for not only the region but, potentially, its women.
Hailed as the latest addition to the Greek “Weird Wave” movement, Apples is an incredibly strong effort from Nikou, Yorgos Lanthimos’ former AD who had worked on Dogtooth (2009). Nikou’s aesthetic is much quieter, more heartfelt and more subdued than Lanthimos’, especially in terms of his sparseness of dialogue and performance style. What both directors share in common is their ability to create an imaginary film-world that feels fully-believable, similar to science-fiction filmmaking.7 In Athens, a pandemic of amnesia is taking hold. Some of the affected are reclaimed by family members while others are admitted to hospital (the “Disturbed Memory Department”). After Aris (played by a taciturn but magnetic Aris Servetalis) wakes up on a bus, he’s entered into the hospital’s “New Identity” program. Working through the program, participants complete a number of set tasks: ride a bike, get into a car accident, see a re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) … The latter task hints at a nostalgia for the past that reverberates with the film’s larger narrative concerns about memory and forgetting, its use of the 4:3 aspect ratio and its foregrounding of the Polaroid camera (participants take a photograph of themselves completing each task). Much of the originality and the absurdism of Nikou’s film arises from Aris crossing paths with other mnemonically-challenged people, as they work through the exact same tasks across the city, re-learning a personality. Aris’ only mark of individuality is his predilection for apples. The heart-wrenching reveal as to why Aris’ loves apples Nikou withholds until the very conclusion. Is it better to remember or to choose to forget?
Previous winner of the Grand Jury and the Audience Award at Sundance, Minari (d. Lee Isaac Chung) provided the closing night selection. Introducing the film, AFF Creative Director Mat Kesting extolled to audiences what an achievement – a gift – having a “live” film festival had been over the previous 11 days. Having one socially-distanced “handbag seat” between us had, in fact, become the new normal. Rather than distancing, though, Minari speaks to the need for closeness, tolerance and togetherness in “uncertain” times – not to mention the fact that, as Kesting suggested, so many of us still remember the times we might have spent with a beloved grandmother.
Named after a peppery herb commonly used in Korean cuisine, Minari centres on the social and personal struggles of a Korean-American family. During the 1980s, father Jacob Yi (Steven Yuen) re-locates wife Monica (Yeri Han), youngest son David (Alan S. Kim) and daughter, Anne (Noel Cho) to rural Arkansas. He hopes to start a farm growing Korean fruit and vegetables, escaping the factory labour of chicken farming. Much of the film is told from the perspective of young son David, who has a heart murmur and a penchant for drinking Mountain Dew. When the family’s Korean grandmother, Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung) arrives to live with them, David is not at all impressed. She makes him drink strange herbal remedies; she gambles, she crouches on the floor and wears male underwear. “Why can’t you be like other grandmothers?” he cries out in anger. While Minari is marked by terrific performances from all its cast, it’s the slowly developing rapport between David and Soonja that constitutes this film’s heart and soul. No surprises that its Soonja who brings the seeds of the Korean plant to America, which she and David then sow near a local river (the plant can grow anywhere, she tells him). No surprises, either, that its Soonja who convinces young David of his inner strength. Similarly, there are no real surprises in Chung’s gentle, semi-autobiographical, familial love-song. As indicated by the critical acclaim and the rave reviews that this A24 release is now generating, “no surprises” may be just the film tonic that the world needs right now. That, or Mads Mikkelsen drinking and dancing.
Adelaide Film Festival
14-25 October, 2020
Festival website: https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/
- Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, Octagon Books, New York, 1964, pp. 209–225. ↩
- Ibid., p.225. ↩
- When Pomegranates Howl is dedicated to the Iranian director Amir Naderi, a director also known for working with children. ↩
- Interviewed on Radio National, Moussavi commented that its “extremely difficult in Australia to get funding for a film that is beyond entertainment… it’s getting more and more difficult to make arthouse films in Australia and films that are engaged”. Moussavi on Patricia Karvelas, “When Pomegranates Howl”, The Drawing Room, radio program, ABC Radio National, 12th October 2020. ↩
- On hope and the cinema see Davina Quinlivan, Filming the Body in Crisis: Trauma, Healing and Hopefulness, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015. ↩
- See Vinterberg in the Another Round entry of the European Film Awards, 2020, accessed: 21st December 2020. ↩
- Rosalind Galt, “The Animal Logic of Contemporary Greek Cinema”, Framework, 58, 1-2, 2017, pp. 20-21. ↩