Palace Barracks – film festival dreaming
New Zealand, France, Iran, USA, Romania, Hungary, Australia, India, Russia etc etc. – a transnational, multi-cultural feast for all filmies. Just as ‘foodies’ relish particular kinds of exotic foods, avid ‘filmies’ such as myself also enjoy savouring a tasty array of special film treats. I have actually recoined/reclaimed this word here and given it a positive spin – ‘filmie’ means for me a film buff, a devoted film lover, and I reject the rather silly definition that it describes someone who only sees the film and never reads the book…
CONTEMPLATION OF A REVIVAL
It is very heartening for film culture lovers/filmies in the Queensland capital that the Brisbane International Film Festival has been revived this August/September. BIFF Mark 1 had the amazing Anne Demy-Geroe at the helm for many golden, film-bathed years; Mark 2 was briefly run by Richard Moore. This was abandoned a few years ago for the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, which under complex circumstances, was a real gem that should have been treasured more, as it was always beautifully programmed and crafted by the much revered Kiki Fung.
BIFF Mark 3, quickly rebooted and very capably co-directed by Maxine Williamson and Richard Sowada, offered sixty films in 2017, a relatively small but pleasing range. People I spoke to at various events were mostly happy that BIFF has restarted, as we all fondly remember hanging out at the Regent cinema in the Mall, at the old buzzy BIFF Mark 1. No other Festival venue has sadly come close to those heady days. One cinema at each of the Palace Cinemas just doesn’t cut it, especially as they are an inconvenient distance from each other, and there are many people in each foyer not attending the Festival.
Nevertheless, it is great that we have this Festival again, and I trust that it will be bigger and better next year. While it would seem that BIFF Mark 3 has started on a different, more commercial journey, I tend to prefer the more curatorial festival approach of BIFF Mark 1, SFF and MIFF. I trust that there will be more guests and industry panels next year, as promised, as well as more indepth academic rigour. I would also like a resurgence somehow of that aforementioned old Regent buzz – neither of the Palace Cinema locations can really give that, regrettably. This year I also missed GOMA cinemas in the mix, as well as New Farm cinemas.
Quite a few of the 2017 offerings also screened at the recent Sydney Film Festival (see earlier blog). Consequently I had already seen some films, and I was able to steer other filmies to my recommendations. I was also lucky to be able to catch Haneke’s latest film Happy End again, as I had experienced a rather uncomfortable, restricted view of this film in Sydney; I’m also not sure it will get a general release. More on that film later in this blogisode.
Not about me – about the other Helen
DOCUMENTARY FILM FEVER
On the whole, the documentaries I attended at this festival were excellent. I often find this to be the case at Festivals – the documentaries can be absolute stand-outs. For three of these docos, I took full advantage of the relatively cheap daytime screenings at Palace Centro. Happily, for all five, I was accompanied by other filmies, experiencing each one with appropriate soul mates – one of the fundamental delights of a film festival.
For example, awesome Alicia who researches comparative international studies was a perfect companion for My Year with Helen, directed by renowned NZ filmmaker, Gaylene Preston. This is an intimate, revealing New Zealand film about Helen Clarke’s year at the United Nations, building up to her courageous bid to be head of the Security Council. The inner workings of this massive, labyrinthine organisation, as well as the complex, highly political voting procedure were extraordinary to behold. Despite the misogyny, backroom machinations and injustice of the final decision against her by a handful of super powers, Helen, the remarkably talented former PM of New Zealand, held her own, and was very well supported across the whole United Nations organisation – except for those few at the very top. The addition in the film of the touching, personal times she managed to spend with her ageing father back home, delivered further very engaging insights into Helen’s life and character.
A delightfully documented creative adventure
For the next documentary, Faces Places, I was with another ‘filmie’, glorious Genevieve, a highly creative person. Yet again I had hit the jackpot with my special companion. Faces Places is a captivating award-winning film, made by the extraordinary 88-year-old French director, Agnes Varda. In this beautiful, eccentric piece, she travels around France with her co-creator, the fascinating, mysterious young photographer JR, constructing astonishing, inventive art works on walls, silos and other old buildings. I loved her earlier work in the French New Wave, and her more recent autobiographical documentaries, The Gleaners and I, and The Beaches of Agnes.
By the way, if anyone reading this still has my treasured copy of The Gleaners and I, please return it!
Overall, Faces Places was a total treat. As Genevieve is also a visionary artist, often using recycled materials as well as creating unusual murals, she felt very much at home with Agnes and JR.
An inspirational groundbreaker
The third stirring doco was entitled Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. I went along with my filmie mate, savvy Sam who is an academic colleague and documentary filmmaker; he is also writing a book on film and the city. When he noticed that this particular film about Jane Jacobs, a superb fearless writer and New York community activist against the ravages caused by big city developers, was screening at BIFF, Sam just had to leave his writing for half a day to come along with me. Afterwards, we happily discussed the film at Happy Boy Restaurant just down the road, a foodie mecca for filmies such as us.
A French feast made by Australians
Life is a Very Strange Thing was an interesting, entertaining documentary crafted by two Australians, about an eccentric, larger-than-life Frenchman who has lived and worked in many places around the world – although most of the film was set in Paris and rural Bordeaux. They shot over 70 hours of footage to make this 80-minute film. Quite a feat.
Following this World Premiere screening (a veritable coup by the organisers) my friend Joaquim was on a lively Q & A panel with the filmmakers. My other fabulous filmie friends Anastasia and Sebastian are also dedicated Francophiles – hence they were my perfect companions for this film. I’m glad I didn’t stay on with them to see another doco, Last Men in Aleppo, that evening – far too depressing for me I’m afraid.
DOCUMENTARY FAN FEAST
Kriv Stenders, originally from Brisbane, directed the well-chosen closing night film, The Go-Betweens: Right Here.
Nostalgia for a popular local band
My elegant companion for this event, the charming Carolina was beautifully decked out in a pretty 80s frock, very suitable for this gala occasion. Neither of us is a particular fan of this Brisbane band, although we were both curious to see the film. I also wanted to support a mate John Willsteed, a former Go- Betweens band member who featured in the film, and who was present on the night.
Certainly there were many keen fans and friends of the band at the sold-out screening, along with two former members of the band as well as the director. Indeed we sat next to two very noisy women (maybe former groupies?) obviously ‘pre-loaded’, who snorted, chatted and chortled knowingly non-stop throughout the screening – quite tedious and annoying.
I also had a few issues with some of the precious artistic choices by the filmmakers, especially the overdone setting for the rather staged interviews in a large rural Queenslander. I heard later that this was considered to be an ideal location, chosen because it was so remote; the people, some of whom can’t stand each other these days, could come along and do their solo interview, without fear of bumping into a mortal enemy from the bad old band days. That aside, the film very astutely peeled back the surface and found the heartbeat of the band, documenting the highs and lows of their wild ride from Brisbane in the Seventies and beyond. But, contrary to some of my friends, I don’t admire the central figure Robert Forster – my impression of him (not just gleaned from this film) is that he is too self-absorbed. On the other hand, he is a good writer.
AND NOW THE FIVE FEATURES
Five seems to be the magic number for me this year at BIFF. Again I chose well, although of course I’m sure I missed some great feature films along the way.
Winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, The Square was a great choice for the Festival’s Opening Night.
Me and another filmie fiend on Opening night with donuts –
Dr R. from the famous wolf pack
Directed by talented Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, this confronting, no-holds-barred film was very absorbing and darkly funny. However I sensed it was not universally popular with the audience – just as this film was a controversial winning choice in Cannes. Set behind the scenes in a prestigious, contemporary art museum, The Square unflinchingly shows the personal and professional dilemmas and ultimate downfall of the Museum’s poster boy curator, Christian. Along with savvy filmie Sam, I didn’t want it to end, which is always a good sign.
A suitably wild Opening Night film.
Graduation, by the Romanian master, Cristian Mugui, was also about the intricate juggling of personal and professional standards and morality, but on a smaller human scale than The Square. As explored here, the fateful, ‘slippery slope’ consequences of a father’s wrongheaded choices made out of love for his daughter, were painful to behold. No wonder the film won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2016.
A tense Romanian family drama
By contrast, the Australian family drama Ali’s Wedding is a portrait of muddled choices writ large, escalating out of control for Ali, the endearing central protagonist, who frantically seeks love and family approval, but screws up at every turn.
A pleasant Oz comedy
While this could perhaps be called My Big Muslim Wedding, in the tradition of tacky ‘big fat wedding’ pictures, this film slips beyond those forbears, giving us a touching sense of authenticity and humour.
A not so happy ending
Even though I reviewed Happy End in a previous post, I want to add some more thoughts here. This is not an easy, breezy film, and the ‘happy end’ is certainly ironic. As with several of Haneke’s films, this film certainly divides audiences. While Happy End is, arguably, not as brilliant as his masterpieces such as The White Ribbon, Amour and even Hidden, I did relish the film, and the more times I see it, the more there is to savour.
This film has his familiar clipped, clean, demanding style, with not a moment wasted. Each carefully constructed scene forms part of an elusive, evocative puzzle. The film explores a dysfunctional upper middle class family in decline, clinging to privilege by dodgy, hypocritical means, and under threat by the social and racial upheavals in Calais. There is also great casting here: the sociopaths – child and grandfather – are mesmerising. The grandfather, played by Jean-Paul Trintignant is very famous of course, having been in many classic films, including two of my all-time favourites – The Conformist and Three Colours: Red. Also he was in Haneke’s beautiful, multi-award-winning film, Amour.
And of course, the superb Isabelle Huppert as the cruel, self-serving mother is brilliant in the film. I was very pleased to be watching Happy End this time with Joachim and Michel – we always try to go to any Isabelle film together. Sadly, we were missing other Isabelle fans, Savannah and Pedro, who are in Europe, while Bella also couldn’t make it that night.
Another source of pleasure for me in Happy End is the casting of Matthieu Kassovitz as Thomas, the weak brother. He is a famous filmmaker ( e.g. La Haine/Hate), as well as an actor.
A Russian masterpiece
Last but not least, I went to see the stunning film Loveless by the towering Russian auteur, Andrey Zvyagintsev, who is following in the revered footsteps of Tarkovsky. The Festival offered a wonderful retrospective of his earlier films. In the past, I have already seen Elena and Leviathan, but I would have liked to have immersed myself in all of them. In any case I am glad I could see his latest film Loveless. This undoubted masterpiece won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2017. A tragic, deeply critical tale of a neglected missing child, a family breakdown, a society adrift, this film affected me so much that I felt I had held my breath throughout. Naturally enough, his uncompromising, searing vision is not approved of by Putin and the Russian establishment, and he has trouble obtaining any film funding in Russia.
Loveless should really be Russia’s entry for the 2018 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, for which it would certainly be a contender. However, politics may well get in the way of this much deserved nomination. On the other hand, his dark film Leviathan was Russia’s nomination that year, so there may well be hope after all for the mesmerising Loveless.
That’s BIFF for this year, from my point of view. Onward and upward for 2018. Meanwhile, the Italian film festival is almost upon us here in Brisvegas. It is hard to catch my filmie breath between Festivals at this rate. I’m happy to also report that the trouble I wrote about in my last blog has passed.