Over the past few months since my last posting, I have been very lucky to attend three film festivals across three cities: the Sydney Film Festival in June, the Queensland Film Festival in July, and the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. I thought I should wait until I had attended all three before I returned to blogging – hence the delay since the last posting.
In all, I viewed around 20 festival films, along with about 12 shorts – a mere drop in the ocean really, considering the amazing scope of SFF and MIFF. My relatively low hit rate was because I only managed to be at SFF for three film-packed days and MIFF for five. While at MIFF, I also went along to see the exciting ACMI exhibition of Scorcese’s life and work – an absolute thrill.
QFF, which is being run in the very special tradition of the now defunct Brisbane International Film Festival, is a more modest enterprise that is slowly expanding. In this, the second year of its operation, the festival has grown from one film-packed weekend to operating over two weekends, as well as on the nights of the adjoining week. Due to other engagements at the same time this year, I was unable to attend much of QFF, which was a shame, as this little gem of a festival is held, not only in my home town of Brisbane, but also at the cinema situated just a hop and a step from where I live.
Highlights of my film smorgasbord: a documentary feast
Looking back, I realise, with some surprise, that the personal highlights of all three festivals turned out to be documentaries. While I also saw some great features, and some disappointing ones, I found the best docos took me to more moving, unexpected spaces than did any of the fiction films.
In Sydney, one exceptional film for me and my companions was Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s beautiful documentary about her dear little terrier, but also about much else as well. It was an innovative, groundbreaking memoir: happy, sad, profound and inspirational. I also saw this entrancing film again at QFF – this was irresistible – and the very positive audience reaction in Brisbane was much the same as in Sydney. I do hope that this special gem has a general release, although I doubt that this will happen, as documentaries such as this one rarely are exhibited outside of festivals. I gather that ACMI in Melbourne may be screening it in the future, so watch that space – 5 stars.
At QFF I also saw the engrossing documentary by Australian/NZ filmmaker Margot Nash, called The Silences. This was another memoir, interlaced with archival footage, reflections on a complex, difficult family situation, interviews and excerpts from earlier creative films made by Margot. It was enlightening to hear her speak after the film about the process. Ronin has picked up the distribution of this film, and it is well worth catching if you can – 4 stars.
At MIFF, the best film from my point of view was the five star documentary, In Jackson Heights, by the revered Frederick Wiseman. This, his 40th film, reveals a diverse community in Queens, New York under stress – greedy developers are moving into this community and bland, middle-class gentrification, with all its inherently destructive consequences, is looming.
This warm, astute film was a triumph of observational filmmaking with no overt authorial interference such as voiceover or the filmmaker intruding into the frame. Of course, the choice of people and venues was thoughtfully and adeptly done, and the camerawork and editing were spot-on. A riveting cinematic delight – five stars.
Another very interesting documentary that I caught on my last day at MIFF was Cameraperson. This award-winning film made by revered woman DOP, Kirsten Johnson, revealed her (mostly behind the camera) revisiting scenes and places such as Bosnia during the civil war. She shot private footage as well on these larger project, filmmaking journeys. Linking these snippets together in a fragmented narrative, she largely lets the visuals tell the story, thereby capturing a fascinating mosaic of reflections on the significance of her life’s work. Four stars.
Fiction delights…and some not so delightful ones
One significant event for me, on both a personal and professional level at MIFF, was the screening of a restored version of the Australian 1998 classic, The Boys.
I taught this brilliant, unnerving film evey year for over ten years in my Australian Film unit. This film has therefore inspired many a young filmmaker and educator. Particularly interesting about this event at MIFF was the discussion that ensued – for instance Robert Connolly who was the first-time producer pointed out that everyone on the crew was a first-timer – the director Rowan Woods, the DOP, the sound designer, the production designer etc etc. This had apparently been the rule decreed by John Maynard, Robert’s mentor and co-producer. Maynard produced Sweetie when everyone such as director Jane Campion was a first-timer, and he wanted that same raw freshness to be present in The Boys.
Meanwhile I also enjoyed the Venezualan/Mexican film, Desde Alla, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015. This was a gripping tale of homophobia, repressed desire and complex sexual yearning in a violent, macho culture. Another highlight was the rather crazy, wildly energetic Polish film 11 Minutes, reminiscent of Run Lola Run. Both of these little films were perfect festival fare – 4 stars for each of these.
Not so exciting, for me at least, were two much anticipated films at MIFF – Toni Erdmann and Elle. Both of these had been feted at Cannes Festival this year, and I was very pleased that I had nabbed tickets for them – it pays to become a MIFF member. With the father-daughter film Toni Erdmann, I liked the first quarter and the last quarter, but not the slab in the middle, if that makes sense. This overly long film certainly sagged for me, and I found the father’s antics quite exasperating and not very endearing. Three stars.
Elle, with the amazingly gifted Isabelle Huppert, turned out to be a complicated film with a plot that could actually have been more subtle and more clever. It was also a difficult film to watch, with repeated rape scenes, or rather the same ghastly rape scene repeated and extended, and then the same rapist came back — whatever, it was deeply disturbing on many levels (even her back story was horrific). My companion was nearly physically ill. We had to grab a taxi home afterwards, as we weren’t going to be walking the streets at midnight after this film. Not sure – maybe 2 stars.
Female filmmakers score good films at SFF, QFF and MIFF
Two films by exciting female European filmmakers popped up at all three film festivals this year. I managed to see them both in Sydney. Chevalier was directed by the emerging Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari. This film showed men isolated on board a hired yacht, vying for some form of mythical masculine supremacy which ultimately became more and more nonsensical. While I liked the premise of the film, and enjoyed some moments, I found that Chevalier tended to become a one-note film that disappointed. I know I am probably in a minority about this film, as it was very popular at the London Film Festival, and also popular at the three Oz festivals I am dealing with here. Three stars from me.
On the other hand, I went along with very few expectations to see the haunting film Evolution by French filmmaker, Lucile Hadzihalilovic. As it turned out, I loved its ‘slow burn’ and unexpected, creepy twists and turns. I am not a scifi/horror fan, but this one had me enthralled. Four stars.
Festival trivia – or are these issues actually trivial?
As a finale here, I need to vent several frustrations that tend to make me a less patient festival attendee than perhaps I should be. I have to confess also that I am even becoming one of those bothersome, grumpy people who likes to put her stuff on the seat beside her, hoping that no one will claim that seat. So mea culpa. There is even a funny story that I will reserve for a chat over a wine or coffee…
Among other usual annoyances are people talking when the film is on – yes, this still happens, even at Festivals these days. The long held, unspoken rule that a hush must descend at the very beginning of every film, no longer seems to apply, even amongst supposed film buffs. Of course, the old guard (such as myself) are always on the alert, ready to shush any such transgressors.
I may be repeating myself, but I also can’t abide the hordes rising up instantaneously in the dark at the end while the credits are rolling, scrambling in their mad rush for the door, inevitably blocking the screen and afflicting damage on those in the same row. I have had handbags, coats and feet trampled on very unceremoniously. Some of us like to remain and pay respect to the listed creative crew and associates, and some even enjoy watching the credits roll. Usually the music list is interesting, and the list of locations used etc. Such revelations always come at the end. Also of course I like to gather my things in a brightly lit cinema, as, especially in winter, it is easy to leave some item of clothing on the floor.
On hats and limbs
The next on this list of audience-related exasperations are those people who wear their hats into the cinema and don’t remove them. I became especially upset in Sydney by a girl in a beanie with a huge pom-pom wiggling around, intermittently blocking my view of the screen. Similarly, people with sunglasses on their heads or high topknot hair-dos (or both) inhibit a clear view, and can cause frustration. Of course, on the other hand, it is hard to pat someone with a naturally large head on the back and request that they somehow slink down in their seat or pull their head in, but sometimes one is tempted to do so.
For me, with ageing, creaky limbs looming as an issue I would like to forget, I do find stairs in cinemas sometimes difficult and even scary to negotiate, especially in the dark and half light, without anything to hold on to as I descend. I can’t quite recall now which cinemas have been the worst and the best in this department; I just try to seat myself so that I don’t have to stress too much about this increasing physical wariness and timidity of mine. However, on second thoughts, I did note that ACMI Cinema 2 had a handy railing running down the side walls of the steps on both sides of the cinema. Hence, ACMI gets first prize for health and safety.
The seating is rarely designed to be ideal across so many cinemas, and, in itself, such discomfort can become in a source of irritation and distress. Sydney’s famous State Theatre may well be a romantic, historical picture palace, but if you are positioned near the back in the stalls, you are lucky if you can see half the screen. Also of course the seats are pretty hard, and not at all made for comfort.
Speaking of extreme discomfort, I overheard people telling horror stories about the set-up at the Comedy Theatre, one of the screening venues at MIFF. One woman claimed that the only seats from which you could actually see the screen in full were in the third row of the dress circle – otherwise vision was blocked from every angle, everywhere else. There were so many bad stories circulating that I became daunted, giving two films a miss that I had booked at that theatre. I did feel a bit miffed, MIFF.
Overall, the prize for the most comfortable seats I encountered in my trifecta Festival quest goes to those at my local New Farm cinema, while ACMI Cinema 2 in Melbourne also receives another big tick for comfort.
Looking to the Future…
Some more film festivals are looming – including the Italian, the Iranian and the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. I am also starting to work on a little film I am making with an amazing young filmmaker friend who has inspired me to be creative again. So I am not sure what the future holds for the next blog, but hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.