It was rather poetic that my first IRL interaction with the festival, on the Sunday of the first weekend, was a much-anticipated, rarest-of-rare screening of The Afterlight (2021). Charlie Shackleton’s film was described in the program as something ephemeral, whose very existence as a single 35mm print only, is entwined with its deterioration. Introducing the film before its first screening, guest of the festival Shackleton noted that the film’s Australian distributors, Conor Bateman and Felix Hubble of Static Vision, had not even yet seen it. Starting with something that explicitly engaged with the ephemerality of cinema, and the cinematic experience, was apt. The Melbourne International Film Festival had been stalled by Covid restrictions not once but twice, thanks to Australia (in particular the festival’s home state, Victoria) having some of the most extensive periods of lockdown across the globe. This was impacted, particularly, by a snap lockdown in August 2021 that led to the cancellation of the entire in-person festival and its replacement in the lacklustre form of an online slate, made severely disappointing, at least for me, by an inadequate and often broken digital viewing platform that had not improved since 2020. With this being MIFF’s first return to an in-person festival with screenings, talks, events, and all other accoutrements since August 2019, my varied experience of it was, as with any other year, enriched by a memorable web of thematic connections between films and to life. 

A key strength of The Afterlight is its evocation of cinematic ghosts, across narrative and theme. Composed of hundreds of clips from films, all black and white and from the 1960s or before, Shackleton connects the spectral entities of actors on screen in a web of conversations and silences. In general, I adore this kind of postproduction, found footage film, and in this case it has a style and rhythm that manages to evoke some of the atmosphere of its reference points. The work is special in its connections to these other works, and through these connections, it gains some sense of narrative throughout. That power becomes a little lost as the film goes on; after generating momentum the final act pivots in a way I didn’t quite understand, perhaps because there wasn’t enough to set it up. At 82 minutes, The Afterlight struggles to sustain its fun rhythms present earlier in the piece; films like this should either be shorter, or really long, like that other postproduction work The Clock (Christian Marclay, 2010). Still, while watching this in the darkness of a full cinema space I became completely absorbed in the spirit of the composition, the visual flickers and aural cracks in the already-degrading print, and the privileged presence of the ephemeral experience. And in such good company, with all those ghosts of the past. 

I found such evocations everywhere at the festival. I had already seen Dreaming Walls via an online screener, to review the film on Triple R’s film show Primal Screen. A documentary by Belgian filmmakers Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, Dreaming Walls apparently searches for the ghosts and stories within the walls of the famous Chelsea Hotel. In attempting to conjure up remnants of another time in New York, it doesn’t quite succeed, only hinting at the great histories held within the hotel and known by those who transited through them. No doubt the walls of the Chelsea hold great potential for ghost stories, but the spectres are left sadly undisturbed.

The Lost City of Melbourne

A similar search for ghosts occurred much closer to home, in Gus Berger’s The Lost City of Melbourne (2022). I missed out on seeing the film, a documentary made by the proprietor of Thornbury Picture House (a modest but lively single-screen cinema housed in an old drive-through car garage), but it sounds right up my alley. Tracing the history of Melbourne’s landscape of cinemas across the city and its suburbs, Berger breathes some life into some still-standing buildings that used to house screens, and some cinemas that no longer exist at all. I was raised in Melbourne and even from the first moments that I began to realise my potential interest in a life dedicated to cinema, I have been constantly reminded of its decay, from far and wide. I can’t say anything profound that hasn’t already been said about trying to move forward with an artform constantly dying around us, but I feel like this documentary may be able to evoke some of these notions. Although I missed it, The Lost City of Melbourne belongs to the history of its city’s festival.

Instead, I was privy to some real ghosts of Melbourne thanks to the festival’s Melbourne on Film strand. Amongst this programming focus were a range of films I know very well, including Ana Kokkinos’ Head On (1997), Emma-Kate Croughan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (1996), Death in Brunswick (John Ruane, 1990), and Noise (Matthew Saville, 2007). Others I would have adored seeing again, like The Home Song Stories (Tony Ayres, 2007), Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986), and Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat, 1988) whose richness would have glowed from a 35mm print. It would have been great, too, to attend the very rare screening of Homosexuality: A Film for Discussion (Barbara Creed, 1975), which I’d seen shown at the Melbourne Cinémathèque a while ago, but there simply was not enough time to make it to everything.

My first foray into this strand occurred in the middle of the festival’s two week run. I took the train into the city to see a film that is otherwise very difficult to access, and one important to the Australian industry’s history, Tim Burstall’s Two Thousand Weeks (1969). Screened as a noticeably degraded 35mm print from the NFSA, I loved the print quality; the cracks, bloops, and graininess all added to the sense that this was a very strange and quite unique experience. That vibe, and the experience of finally witnessing this important film, was the best part. With all the anticipation that comes from finally getting to see a treasure like this, I found it to be really quite dull. The protagonist Will Gardiner (Mark McManus) is an insufferable cad, feeling sorry for himself that he has to choose between a beautiful wife and a beautiful mistress. He’s untalented, self-pitying, and also an astounding bore. While this is probably the point, Two Thousand Weeks is not clever or critical enough to make this valuable to watch, and Burstall seems entirely uninterested in such a framing. All fragmented storytelling and surface ennui, it lacks the passion of films from the European arthouse style it is in awe of. In those elements there is a clear expression of the Australian mood, a nation and film industry feeling so helplessly isolated from the rest of the world. It is valuable, too, for its glimpse into an almost unrecognisable Melbourne; the bare airport, the brutalist cages in the zoo, the docks, the city.

Its lack of passion and uninterest in human emotions came into view with particular starkness when contrasted with a short film that preceded it. An Ordinary Woman (Sue Brooks, 1989) was stylistically connected to the feature by fragmented storytelling and a focus on life and love, but An Ordinary Woman stood out for its actual and intimate interest in emotional landscapes. Made 20 years later than Two Thousand Weeks, and not so distracted by affecting a European style, this is a much richer film. Assembled as a mockumentary to reflect the life of its protagonist, played utterly note-perfect by Denise Scott, talking heads share personal reflections, short memories, stories of friendship and bitter criticism. With a unique sense of rhythm, Brooks allows characters and audience time to dwell on the unspoken secrets buried in photographs, where details are hidden within or missing from the frame. In this film of fragments, we get a vivid portrait of complexity, appreciation, and regret. These are the kinds of screenings that make film festivals memorable; or at least, memorable to me, especially those I attend in my home town. (Festivals attended in other cities also come with the unique glow of a holiday.) Screening from a beautiful 16mm print and introduced by Brooks and writer Alison Tilson, I will long remember this MIFF screening. 

Jane by Charlotte

I spaced out the rest of my festival with a mix of known headliners and stranger discoveries. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s directorial debut Jane by Charlotte was always going to be interesting, because of the subject and the author. In composing a portrait of her mother, Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg seems to be gathering her own and her mother’s memories, so as to prevent losing them. As it began, though, I had trouble with it, feeling it was a very loose and almost careless assemblage of thoughts and reflections. Structurally, it’s a little too messy to allow for a portrait of either woman. It’s possible that the portrait was not the point, and that the layering of rear-screen images with video footage instead provides an allegorical insight into the complexities of knowing and containing memories of a person. However, this layering seemed more like a lack of clarity, and I wanted more focus. It isn’t until the final third that the film gathers momentum, and that its distance finally gives way to its intended intimacy. Birkin is reliving her memories in her mind, beginning to lose faith in their veracity. After tragedies you rewrite history, “you invent different versions, even if there’s no point” says Birkin, whose daughter Kate died in 2013. As someone who has recently had to bear witness to my mother losing a child, I found these final moments touching and almost profound. These are certainly memories and reflections worth preserving.

Stars at Noon

Another big film of the festival, from my point of view, was Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon. It came with rumblings of strong dislike, but there is nothing quite like a divisive Denis, and nothing else so necessary amongst a slate of otherwise expectantly crowd-pleasing headliners. Watching this on a Saturday afternoon, I quickly felt locked out of the story and the characters, and even the premise. Some way through, I thought to myself that I would sit through this but likely not return to it in thought. I should know, however, that Denis deserves more credit; she is often loathe to make things easy for an audience. People are complex and so are her characters, who try to make connections but are often so alienated from each other. Denis alienates the audience too, and for me this is what ultimately makes this film work. Despite my initial concerns, Stars at Noon is an almost-instantly intriguing and engaging film buoyed by Denis’ interest in those very things that initially alienated me. Characters motives are often held out at a distance. The film moves at a pace both urgent and languorous. Astounding, as well, is Margaret Qualley’s magnetic performance; from the moment she rushed onto the screen she gazed and spoke and hustled with insatiable kinetic energy. It’s unclear why she is drawn to her love interest, the attractively dull Joe Alwyn. While this frustrated me at first, I think I see the point; it’s none of my business. There are other things to worry about. I also found the consistent visibility and use of masks fascinating, particularly as so much recent media chooses to ignore their omnipresence in this new world. While the pandemic is mentioned in dialogue only once, and another time characters move through a Covid testing station, our new way of life is treated with varying levels of effort, something that feels immediate and very accurate.

I was lucky, too, to embrace a day away from teaching commitments to see City of Pirates (Raúl Ruiz, 1983), in a surprisingly quiet session on a Monday afternoon. I had no idea why this film was included – without a full print program, there was no proper way to navigate the festival’s offerings – and was surprised when Lucile Hadžihalilović beamed up on the screen in a pre-recorded introduction. The festival screened a number of her films and, evidently, some curated by her as well. I saw this film back in my undergraduate years, when I was doing a subject on surrealism in cinema and read about Ruiz, on a VHS tape I borrowed from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image lending collection (more ghosts, and yet another of Melbourne’s lost treasures; I learned so much about history through that service, which sent films to any library of my choice through the post each week). I remembered so little of City of Pirates – its strange characters and oneiric pleasures washed over me but were completely gone from my memory. I’m pretty sure that once again I will only remember the film in fragments, like a dream I might have had, but I know that this experience of being absorbed in a 35mm print is another I will not forget easily. 

There was, throughout the festival, also a very cinematic fascination with death. Dual (Riley Stearns, 2022) depicts a world where citizens who know they are dying are offered the chance to invest in a clone who will resume their life after death. In this unpleasant dystopian fantasy, clones only look the same; they have to be trained in preferences and personality to mimic their original. It doesn’t work out well for the protagonist; not for the film, either, where the artificially stilted dialogue falls flat and the world feels incomplete. Plan 75 (Chie Hayakawa, 2022) takes things in a different direction, eschewing satire for genuine dramatised emotion. Only I wish there was more satire to make this criticism of late-stage capitalism really pop. It opens like a horror film, haunting the darkened spaces of a seemingly empty retirement home. Soon, upturned wheelchairs and scattered canes betray something sinister, until eventually we see a young man with a powerful firearm who has massacred the place. An overlaid radio report tells us that a “Plan 75” program has just been implemented, giving citizens the option to voluntarily euthanise in response to growing civilian anger towards an aging population who demand many of society’s resources. Unfortunately Plan 75 quickly becomes a fairly straight drama that mines basic emotional investment and not much else. It was the bigger, brasher films that impressed me this year. Piggy (Carlota Pereda, 2022) overcomes its fascination with pink when it turns to soft gore, and in Crimes of the Future (2022) David Cronenberg eschews gore but is no less interested in the artistic (and squelching) potential of internal organs. 


With a combination of screeners provided by distributors, and tickets to the online festival offerings via MIFF Play, I watched a number of films at home. Some of these experiences were better than others, and disappointingly, some left me wanting for an in-cinema experience. The first of these was Nature (2020), Artavazd Pelechian’s latest montage experiment that is an elegy for the beauty of the earth, rather than a celebration of it. Watching this on my (admittedly quite large) television screen at home, black-and-white images almost washed out by the daylight streaming in through my windows, did not allow for the grandeur of the film to astound me as I’d hoped. I worried, too, that the poor quality of some of the images was due to a dodgy internet connection at either end. But much of Pelechian’s found footage was sourced from the internet and, I assume, amateur thus not of the highest quality. Turns out this was embedded in the film, not marred by my experience of it. In a “distance montage” of images of nature threatened to the point of disaster, Pelechian’s poetic intensity builds and his urgency comes through even on the small screen.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, 2021) would have benefited from the cinema experience, however, and despite its poetry and passion of resistance it left me cold. A quiet assemblage of black and white footage, blending protest with political commentary, resonances of romantic love with cinephilia, that I couldn’t get into. If a film is engaging enough, I can feel immersed even without the intimate surrounds of a dark cinema; that was not to be here. Flux Gourmet (2022) turned out to be another inventive sonic experience from Peter Strickland that transcended my home screen. My last in-cinema experience with Strickland was at MIFF in 2019, with In Fabric on the giant (and uncomfortable) screen at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. I’ve seen it again, at home, via the Artificial Eye bluray. I can imagine that Flux Gourmet would have been quite something in a big cinema with an immersive sound system but I loved watching this at home, the sound design vivid enough and Fatma Mohamed’s voice enthralling enough to keep me immersed in my own makeshift sensory capsule. 

A Ticket in Tatts

I was led to more of the Melbourne on Film strand with A Ticket in Tatts (F. W. Thring, 1934). If I had paid money to access this at home via the festival’s official platform, I would have felt properly ripped off. The digitised version looked blurry and sounded strained, like an old VHS tape; it was almost unwatchable, although being familiar with the quality of unrestored Hollywood B-pictures I could bear it. Although the in-cinema format was not listed online (the cataloguing information was very inconsistent), a tweet from a fellow festivalgoer reported that a 16mm print was screened. Wouldn’t that have been nice! Even so, I was able to settle into it and enjoy it as a rare example of Australian cinema from the 1930s, with great insight into the nation’s sense of pride and sense of humour. It’s not a vibrant film – an extended sequence filmed inside Her Majesty’s Theatre (then His Majesty’s; I wonder if this will soon see another name change) basically stops the plot to showcase some mild vaudeville, and the horse race, without editing to speed it up, is painfully slow. But George Wallace puts in his all, and it was special to see some location photography around the Flemington Racecourse.

Speaking of slow, James Benning’s “documentary” The United States of America (2022) was another film that I would have loved being trapped in a cinema for, because it’s so easy to divert attention from the stillness of slow cinema like this. Composed of a still tableau of a location from each state of the USA, one of the ironies of this is that, in these united states, Benning is dislocating them from each other. All of the spaces contain threads of man’s intervention in nature, from industrial settlements to predominantly natural areas speared by roads. In a spread of locations, wind blows through grass, a truck turns on asphalt, bodies of water show gentle signs of life, clouds float across skies, oil derricks sway. In all these images, sounds offscreen suggest movement out of sight. The final image, of Wyoming, depicts a locked gate blocking entry to “private property”. Seeing this I was struck by its poetry; a bitter indictment of the land of the free. But Benning had one even better than that. A final credit slide reveals that every image was filmed in Benning’s home state of California, and this so-called United States of America is just a construct, a mirage. I almost feel like I should have known. In an interview, Benning describes his process of finding a field of sunflowers to represent Maine. The Californian sunflowers he recorded picked up the sound of a nearby train; to ensure authenticity (whatever that means in this case, I am impressed that the soundtrack had a concrete presence), Benning researched to make sure a similar location near a train line existed somewhere in Maine. In my notes about this moment, I had written that while the sunflowers possessed a natural beauty, they also seemed slightly drained of colour and life. Clearly, I sensed something was off. 

Senses of Cinema

A documentary that gave a sense of a rich and wonderful film community closer to home was Senses of Cinema (2022), made by treasures of the Australian film industry, John Hughes and Tom Zubrycki. A portrait of filmmakers’ cooperatives in Sydney and Melbourne, from their beginnings in the 1960s and ‘70s and their impacts on later cinema, Senses of Cinema is told through found footage and newly arranged interviews. Early on, in an excerpt from an advertisement, a broad Australian accent announces proudly that a type of cinema takes us “down into a new world, a world of experiments and experiences.” “Underground,” the voice says, “means operating outside the commercial industry. Actually it’s something more than that these days”. Recalling his early days as a filmmaker, Philip Noyce states that although he had no clue what it was inviting him to, the word “underground” was enough to tempt him to attend a film screening. A slew of iconic members of the industry gave their thoughts on past and present environments, with some fragments of early works included and some valuable reflections offered. Also interviewed, Jan Chapman remembers, “the idea that you could express yourself in such different forms became truly fascinating”. Martha Ansara, a key figure of the Sydney landscape, offered many great insights. Of particular interest was the way she spoke of the appalling representation of women, claiming that, “these supposed free thinkers certainly didn’t think freely about women – how could they? The ideas weren’t around.” It was a time of revolution, protest, and activism, and Hughes and Zubrycki weave these narratives into the rise and fall of the Australian film cooperatives who had to dissolve following loss of funding. (A long and much too common tale in the Australian film industry, where even this film almost couldn’t get made.) At a svelte and energetic 89 minutes, this could have been much longer. Evidently, the title of the film was chosen with some sense of homage to this very journal; a telling connection between several very important, even indispensable, elements of Australian screen culture. 

In all this, and with Senses of Cinema as a fitting farewell, I conclude my report with the hope that the festival returns to something like it used to be. I can’t say I have anywhere near the longest history with MIFF; I have only been attending since 2005, after I turned 18 and embarked on a cinema studies major. But that’s long enough to say that the atmosphere has entirely changed, and there is little of the warmth of community and space for discussion that made the festival such a joy in the past. This is not entirely the fault of restrictions and adjustments to a Covid world. Boasting a slate of something like 300 features and short films (I can’t find the exact number on their website, and with no paper guide to refer to as an archive), industry talks, plus VR and XR experiences, the festival can’t give appropriate space to all its featured art and coveted audience. One way to frame that is that there was something for everyone, but one clear downside was that there was so much that got lost in the swell. I also felt a distinct lack of communal celebration, although I did notice some from a distance through social media. In 2019, the official Festival Lounge at the Forum, in the once-grand theatre’s downstairs space, was not opened and its absence was felt. I have so many wonderful memories of enlightening post-film conversations linked with the Lounge, and I thank MIFF for that. In one sense it is the films that matter, but for a festival whose programming is becoming increasingly decentralised from a key set of venues, the atmosphere generated by a central gathering space is greatly missed. The cynic in me suspects it won’t return; that there are other priorities, distant from those of art and community, that have won out. In the spirit of reviving some ghosts from Melbourne’s film culture, I hope that I am wrong.

Melbourne International Film Festival
4-28 August 2022