52nd Sydney Film Festival - 2005

(These reviews are copyright. You must not use any part of them without my permission.)

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Opening Night Film - Fri 10 June

My Summer of Love – UK – Dir Pawel Pawlikowski – 3/5
A small film to open the SFF. Hasn't this been done better in Heavenly Creatures? Nathalie Press impresses as Mona, but the jury is out on Emily Blunt. Neither is a Samantha Morton or Emily Watson, & the film isn't Morvern Callar.
It could have gone in any one of several directions, but doesn't. It hasn't got a strong narrative, but is content to dwell on the girls (and their clothes, and their bodies). Probably this film would mean more to the English - last rose of summer & all that.
Still, it is visually stunning, with fabulous framing but with some distracting handheld camerawork. For me, the most interesting aspect of the film was its treatment of Born-again Christians - critical but sympathetic. Here Paddy Constantine gives very strong support. The ending will keep you thinking for quite a while.

Saturday 11 June

Story Undone – Iran – Dir Hassan Yektapanah – 4.5/5
This is a film about 2 seemingly incompetent filmmakers (who look like Francis Coppola & Paul Byrnes!). But the film is not what it seems at first. There's a bus full of people with masks. The script is very funny and the landscape is amazing (scene with black sheep going across terraces).  The landscape is very much a character in the film, and a vital part of the narrative, particularly in the last sequence – very Anthony Mann.

Refugees with video cameras - now everyone's a filmmaker! Great use of slow motion in contrast (the stunt sequence & the ending). We've seen plenty of films about filmmaking, but rarely has the line between filmmaking & reality so well explored.  Perfectly judged humour and tragedy. 3 interesting references to 'actors' in docos too.  Marvellous!  Don’t forget – never take out your contact lenses!

Little Terrorist (short film) – 4.5/5
A gem, and a marvellous introduction to the festival.  Said volumes about borders and families and customs and what makes us different and what makes us the same - in 15 minutes!

Ryan/ Alter Egos (double bill)
Ryan - Canada - Dir: Chris Landreth – 4.5/5
An ‘animated documentary’.  Brilliant animation - like nothing I've seen.  A work of art.

Asks the question: when you make a documentary, what's in it for the subject?  In this a case the subject is a forgotten genius, and it is clear this film will change his life. We will see just how much in the next film…
Alter Egos – Canada – Dir: Laurence Green – 4/5
This is the companion film to the animation, and it explores Chris Landreth's making of ‘Ryan’ and gives us a look at the real people behind the animation.  We also see (most? all?) of the Landreth film here, which is a shame since it is a video and we've just seen the pristine film itself.
‘I always imagined animation as some form of sculpting’ – Ryan Larkin.
‘Is he cognisant of the effect of him being on film?’ asks a filmmaker. Good question, as the next film and the film after that will show.
‘Oh Jeez!’ Says Ryan when confronted with some of his past.  It says volumes, and it is used in different ways in (in both films). He says he's inarticulate but he says some great stuff:  ‘Maybe I’m just a fucked-up person... For this I have to apologise?’  And: ‘I'm still enjoying & acquiring human behaviour & putting it back into my work.’
Another interesting use of language:  at the end of the excruciating pause after Chris shows Ryan his film and Ryan speaks, Ryan at last says, ‘I'm still...’ and Chris finishes the sentence by saying ‘processing it’ and Ryan chooses, at the same time ‘digesting it’.  A world of difference.

The Girl Can’t Help It  (retrospective) – USA – 1956 – Dir: Frank Tashlin – 4/5
Frank Tashlin was an animator for Max Fleischer & can't you tell?  All his jokes are cartoony - in the best kind of way.  Very funny and fresh still.  Jayne Mansfield doing a great Marilyn Monroe, and wonderful comedy, and Tom Ewell as the everyman who gets the goddess.
'I'm a little confused’, says Ewell. ‘Who isn't?’ replies Jayne!
Abby Lincoln's performance is shot discreetly – so it could be cut in the US South.  She's as gorgeous as Jayne!  Julie London as a cartoon ghost (singing 'Cry Me a River').  All the acts well handled, so you get almost a full performance from each.
A hoot!

Sunday 12 June

In the Battlefields – Lebanon/ France/ Belgium – Dir: Danielle Arbid – 4.5/5

‘3 Coins in Fountain’ starts soundtrack. Sets the scene for romance.  We see a man's hairy body on a bed, watching the TV, which is where the song comes from.  We see 2 girls watching him. Then it is over to domestic duties - for the elder girl, not the younger.  She is the daughter of the house and the older girl is the maid. A man on a balcony shows himself off to the tune of 'Daddy Cool' by Boney M!

This film is about what happens in a family in time of civil war.  What happens when a militia rules.  What happens when you can’t live a useful ‘normal’ life.  When the men in the family feel impotent. There’s gossip, gambling, fighting and hurt. It counterpoints the breakdown of society with that of the family. The little girl seems to understand that if you commit suicide they can't hurt you.  I feared she’d end up like the little boy in Germany Year Zero.

The performances are flawless.  This is a real extended family in all its glory and in all its shame.

The war is always there, rarely seen but often heard. Magnificent close-ups with blurred militia in background. In the background we sometimes see, through a window, the ruined and deserted apartments across the road.

Very nice camera work - especially in the car ride to Blondie’s 'Heart of Glass'. Some of the framing – decapitated bodies, or segments of bodies – particularly the young girls’ bodies, shown sensuously and yet slightly sinisterly - like Deborah Paawe’s photographs.  Hair is very important – especially when the little girl puts her head in the sink.  It’s a very sensual film, and also heart-wrenching.  That a little girl grows up like this!

The use of buildings throughout recalls Antonioni, and his influence is invoked forcefully in the closing sequence, when at last we get a full picture of the architecture of war that surrounds the family.  A great picture!

A Day without a Mexican – USA/ Mexico/ Spain – Dir: Sergio Arau – 2.5/5
A difficult type of film to pull off.  A satire on racism.  It seems to have a big budget but has a slightly amateurish feel about it.  Much of it is very funny, and a lot of it strikes home, but it falls into the trap it is criticising – it stereotypes Asians (scientists geeks) and gays.

The White Diamond – Germany – Dir: Werner Herzog – 3/5
Trust Werner Herzog to find Graham Dorrington, a man obsessed with achieving a dream – to build a silent airship that glides over rainforests, observing wildlife.
Dorrington is an obsessed, almost manic man with wild eyes and a maimed hand from a rocket accident when he was a child.

He wants to fly – he had wanted to be an astronaut, but more than that he is searching for lightness. He calls it ‘levity’.  Turns out he feels guilty for an accident in Sumatra which caused the death of a cinematographer he was working with – Dieter Plage – who had also worked with Herzog.

‘If I had wings I would fly down,’ says Mark Anthony (the local miner who is quite the philosopher) of the swifts flying under the magnificent waterfall in Guyana.  Herzog is not afraid to follow up all sorts of diversions, and they are all woven together by the end.

Dorrington and Herzog fight for control. Herzog wins – he lies to Dorrington to get the camera on board.  But Dorrington is careless again: they didn't follow the whole checklist for the equipment & they needed a test pilot. Dorrington thinks if you have a dream it is enough (the modern disease).  Didn’t test the radios before the Sumatra accident.  But somehow he comes through, and the results are pure poetry.

After it is all over, Dorrington says: 'This is levity. Now'.  Then he cries.

But does flying over a rainforest, seeing the unseen, demystify it?  Herzog decides not to show the domain of the swifts under the waterfall (the subject of local legends).  A local man tells him: ‘I don't think it should be published. What you see is yours, but it should not be published.’

A beautiful cello score adds to the soaring feeling.  It sounds South American, but was composer was German.

Giuliani Time – USA – Dir: Kevin Keating – 3/5
This is a very scary film about Rudolph Giuliani.  We think we know him as a tough-on-crime mayor who cleaned up the streets of NYC, who pulled out of the Senate race against Hilary Clinton because of prostate cancer, and who later became a hero of 9/11.

That’s not the half of it. He was a real…

He seems to have grown up in a world strangely similar to Scorsese’s!

Giuliani begins a pattern of drawing the long bow. Making one statement, linking it to something else and then asserting the connection as fact... eg: beware the crucial difference between 'crime' & 'signs of crime' in the subway. Police chief Bill Bratton 'cleaned up' the subway for the subway authority, so Giuliani asked him to do it for city. But in fact crime wasn't a problem in the subway. Serious crime was going down before Giuliani, but predecessor Mayor Dinkins never got credit for it.

Bratton himself said it was the things people associated with crime that he had decreased. That was 'Quality of Life policing'.  There were only 74 squeegee-men in whole city! He got rid of them.  Big deal.  How did that get translated into fixing the crime problem? That was what was gotten rid of - 'aggressive panhandling'. There is no evidence for a connection with actual crime. There's no real evidence for 'broken windows' policing either. What was merely a public nuisance becomes translated in the minds of the public into positive crime.

Giuliani also claimed credit for the economic turnaround. That was happening across the whole US, and that in turn was lowering the crime rate, but somehow Giuliani got credit for both achievements.  But what he hasn’t got sufficient credit for is tuning 60,000 people off welfare and setting up work for welfare, which is just a form of indentured labour.
I’d forgotten the disgraceful manner in which he announced his divorce at a press conference (without informing his wife) and his appalling attempt to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Art institute when it wanted to show ‘Sensation’ the Saatchi art collection show.  I’m pleased he had no success in his 17 court cases based on infringing 1st amendment rights (including those of artists displaying art on the street).

I haven’t even got to the police brutality that flourished under his regime.  A scary man.  What’s he up to next?

Monday 13 June

Brothers – Denmark – Dir: Suzanne Bier – 5/5
So beautifully set up. In the first 15 minutes we know everything we need to know these characters and understand them.  This is an incredibly ambitious film.  Again, like In the Battlefields, it is showing us the effect of a war ‘out there’ on a family ‘in here’.  There’s such a worldly sweep about this film, and yet the intimate is dealt with flawlessly.  In fact, the film is almost flawless.  All the performances are exceptional, and everyone is real. The older brother has hardest role, but he makes us believe in his changes. And at last a woman in crisis who behaves sensibly!

The music score is hauntingly lovely (if a bit reminiscent of the theme to HBO’s series Deadwood).  And the old movie scenario (often done for comedy) of the dead coming back to life again is made fresh and real.

‘We knew he could die,’ says Sarah, the wife.  But they didn't know he'd be forced to kill.  A devastating masterpiece of emotion.

Green Bush – Australia – Dir: Warwick Thornton (CAAMA) – 3/5
A terrific little film that says a lot on a lot of topics, seemingly effortlessly achieving the aim of making us think about lots of those topics.  A great sense of place, with the great unknown ‘outside’. Is this the first Aboriginal made film to deal directly with the subject of domestic violence men on women?

'Why do you come here every night? Are you afraid of what's out there?’ And what’s out there? Maybe the dark, the cold, and maybe violence.

‘Someone's gotta do something,' says Kenny
'Sometimes its better doing nothing,’ says the old man.
A dilemma indeed.

5 Seasons – Australia – Dir: Steven McGregor (CAAMA) – 3/5
Every season has its own song.
1. May to July - Cold weather time.
2. Aug to Oct - hot dry winds. Turtle egg time.
3. Oct to Dec- Barra time - Rains coming.
4. Jan - Feb - flood plains underwater. Some heavy rains.
5. March – April - flood plains slowly drying up. Cold weather coming.

A beautifully accomplished film that shows us the amazing people and country of South East Arnhemland, and its seasons. Moses Numamurdirdi is the main man of this area.  He is our guide.  And what a man!  Custodian and caretaker of the land, hunter-gatherer, champion fisherman, driver and dancer. He also has 4 kids – and 2 are albino - Monica & Murphy.

Shot over 18 months by 2 DPs, on digital Beta-cam & DV-cam.

Tuesday 14 June

A State of Mind – UK – Dir: Daniel Gordon – 4/5
I missed the beginning of the film, but was instantly hooked, if slightly confused about who was whom.  The story concerns two girls in North Korea preparing for the ‘Mass Games’, which is basically a big party from Kim Jong Il. (Of course Kim will never be the same for me after I saw ‘Team America: World Police’).

The way the film builds is amazing.  I’ll never forget seeing the girls (particularly the older one) in ecstasy during their performance. How long can it last? Perhaps forever if you are brainwashed.
Sarah MacLachlan's song 'Believe' was very emotionally effective at end when they had to edit hours of performance. An astounding achievement, even if its content may be compromised or sanitised by selectivity.  Surprisingly truthful-sounding.

New Police Story – Hong Kong – Dir: Benny Chan – 4/5
This is an exciting and stylish policier starring Jackie Chan, whom I love.  And another film in which (like many of the films in this year’s festival) a man is forced to use a weapon in violence or someone will be killed.

This film has everything. There’s a bus chase scene that’s way more exciting than the whole of Speed. There’s a bus chase and 2 time bombs.  It’s as if the director is saying ‘Hollywood, we can pack more action into one scene than you can in a whole thriller.’
Jackie gets to act – he’s drunk, he’s in a state of remorse & he’s in love. He gets to do both comedy & drama. His sidekick is very good: I think the franchise is secured.

Lots of English is peppered through the dialogue (which is often mistranslated). The cops talk black jive talk.  There’s a shocking scene where 9 Police officers are strung up – it reminded me of Alien.

There’s some nice-looking bleached camerawork in the aftermath of a bomb scene. Jackie Chan is covered in white dust – like a ghost. And there’s a fun drinking montage. Jackie's more like a clown when he’s drunk.

All in all it’s violent but satisfying & fun!

Bombon (El Perro) – Argentina/ Spain – Dir: Carlos Sorin – 3/5
This film begins with much promise, but is ultimately unsatisfying & a bit disappointing. The guys’ faces are gorgeous – particularly the lead actor (an amateur). He is so open that I was scared for him all the way through. However, a film in which the dog is the best actor is a bit of a worry.

I’m being a bit harsh – the film is really a sensitive exploration of what happens to an older man whom nobody needs. The only thing he has plenty of is time. However, the film is somewhat hijacked by the charismatic dog.  There are many different strands, and they are not all going anywhere. Too many interesting issues are raised but then not explored. Can our hero read? What happened to the little girl who couldn't talk? Etc.

Still, Bombon is lovely to look at, and explores a part of the world that is fascinating and little filmed.

Wednesday 15 June

Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room – USA – Dir: Alex Gibney – 4.5/5

[Note: this review is one of mine from the NSW Law Society Journal, Oct 2005 issue]

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the best-selling book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Fortune magazine journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. The story of the rise and fall of energy producer turned energy trader has played itself out in the news over the past few years. Two of its directors (Chairman Kenneth Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling) still await trial on fraud and conspiracy charges. The story is not yet over, but the facts are quite familiar. Enron was one of the largest corporations in the USA (it was the 7th largest). Its bankruptcy was America’s largest, until Worldcom took away that particular honour. And when Enron went down it took the venerable name of Arthur Andersen with it (even though in May 2005 the US Supreme Court overturned the obstruction of justice conviction).

With this film the director, Alex Gibney (who also produced and wrote The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)), has wrapped up all the details into a neat package. He has a wealth of material to draw on. He has used video- and audio-tapes, some of which (especially the in-house videos) are breathtakingly frank. He has plenty of good interview material, too, some from whistle-blowers and ex-employees, and some from politicians (mostly Democrats), financial journalists and authors (including Bethany McLean). All of this is put together cogently, with just enough financial detail to tell the complicated story of fraud, deception, and creative accounting, but without too much fiscal mumbo-jumbo. “It’s not a story about numbers; it’s a story about people,” says Gibney, “…about people, like Icarus, who flew too high and too close to the sun.”

Gibney enlists the comforting and slightly sardonic voice of Peter Coyote as narrator. Music is used effectively and humorously, to underline points and keep things interesting. Kenneth Lay is “The Son of a Preacher Man,” and “That Old Black Magic” illustrates how two Enron executives fiddled the accounts to hide massive losses. Only once does the director resort to using a re-enactment: the film begins with a suicide, and re-staging that is one of the few misjudgements in the film.

Although there is a definite agenda here, critical of corporate greed, there are more than just the usual accusations. Gibney points the finger directly at Lay and Skilling: they must bear ultimate responsibility for the company’s failure. They not only presided over the company, but also encouraged the sort of behaviour that eventually brought the company down.

Unlike the film The Corporation (Abbot & Achbar, 2003, reviewed in the August 2004 issue of the Law Society Journal), this film does not blame the corporation alone, but sheets home personal responsibility as well. We see how Lay, Skilling and other executives of Enron fostered an atmosphere that encouraged the pursuit of profit at all costs, and hired young people (mostly young macho men) who would stop at nothing to make more money, then rewarded them when they did so, no matter how.

One riveting section of the film shows how Enron energy traders manipulated the market in California, inflating power prices, and supposedly precipitating the rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001, costing the State 30 billion dollars (California is suing). “Let 'em use [expletive] candles,’’ chortles one trader, drunk with power. The film also alleges that this helped to bring down Governor Gray Davis and install Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place – though the evidence for that allegation is a bit thin, and Davis seems absolved of all responsibility.

According to the film, the blame for Enron lies not only with the directors and the traders, but also with Enron’s advisors: the accountants, lawyers and bankers who checked their books, gave them advice, and lent them money. Why, the film asks, didn’t anyone see that what was happening was wrong? Or was everyone just making too much money to care? At the end of the film we learn that Skilling’s lawyers had been paid $23 million dollars for his defence. At the same time the Enron employees’ retirement accounts were frozen and lost most of their value.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a chilling examination of the people behind a corporation that wrote its own rules, cooked its own books, set its own stock price – and thought it could go on forever.

[What follows are my random review notes taken during the screening]

‘God bless the Child’? (Cliff) John C. Baxter suicide (& note).
US's biggest bankruptcy. Nation's 7th largest corporation. $17 billion worth
Ken Lay & Jeffrey Skilling Directors
Document shredding 20 thousand employees lost jobs.
‘Son of a Preacher Man’ (Ken Lay Baptist). PhD in Economics pro deregulation.
'That old black magic' -
False books - 2 particular Enron executives diverting funds to their own fictitious accounts. They changed nothing because it was the most profitable arm of business. Oil trading 'Valhalla'.)
Peter Coyote voice of authority.
Earnings put before scruples - Lay.
Jeff Skilling came up with the idea of securitizing gas. Largest gas & oil trader in US.
'Mark to market' accounting. Booking profits as soon as deal made - subjective. You make a profit when you say you do!
Skilling masqueraded as a safe person but actually gambled a fortune by time he was 20. Macho culture - dangerous trips involving extreme sports.
Quite a lot of quoting of 'Enron legends'
On the rising stock market - Pump & Dump. Execs would push stock prices up, then sell.
Investing in India but India couldn't afford to pay for the energy they wanted to sell. Lost billions.  Facilities now a ruin.
Analysts relied on certified Enron reports but if in doubt called Jeff Skilling up & believed what he told them. Nearly all said 'Buy'. John Olson fired from Merrill Lynch for dissent about this.
Motto 'ask Why?' – Indeed.
Joint project for Video on demand with Blockbuster. Technology just didn't work but they booked the projected profit. Didn't make a cent.
'The perception is the reality' (cf 'Giuliani Time' & 'State of Mind'.
Came up with the idea that they could trade weather futures.
Bethany McLean - reporter with Fortune Magazine. 1st one to question Enron's profits
Andy Farstow?? - CFO said to be the one who led them into fraud - via 'Structured Finance'. To keep stock price up & hide slump in profits.
Stashed debt in small companies. Debts & losses hidden. Someone says there's a 'Body Heat' element  - Jeff is Turner & Lay is Hurt. Bethany is also co-author of book - 'Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room'.
Banks were 'Useful Idiots' (to use Lenin' term). None of the advisors (lawyers, bankers, accountants) said anything.
Merrill Lynch bought 3 Nigerian barges & warehoused them for Enron.
Skilling is COO.
Arbitrage defined in Enron as making abnormal profits. Exporting power out of California.
Incredible phone call from Enron trader to power station suggesting they shut off power!
'You can't treat electricity like you can oranges.' The horrid consequences of deregulation.
The Milgram experiment (Stanford?). If behaving incorrectly is 0K you continue.
50% of subjects were prepared to Shock people to death - so long as authority came from a legitimate source.
California energy crisis cost 30 billion dollars.  Skilling can't resist telling a joke about Titanic & California. What's the difference between California & Titanic? Titanic went down with lights on.
Schwarzenegger – ‘Californication’.
By the end the traders ran Enron. The inmates had taken over the asylum says Amanda. She told Skilling they'd eat him alive.
Skilling steps down - rat leaving sinking ship. He was CEO. Then Ken Lay became CEO.
Mimi Schwartz co-author of the book ‘Power Failure’.
Wall St Journal breaks story of Andy Fastow's (CFO) companies’ hidden losses
Arthur Andersen shredding starts.
Questions at public meeting - 'Are you on crack?' Vincent. & Elkins were their lawyers
30 thousand employees. Simpsons TV episode: 'Ride of Broken Dreams’.
Run on the bank (from 'Its a Wonderful Life').
Bankruptcy. Employees Retirement accounts frozen. Lost most of value.
Fastow got 10 years after a plea bargain to inform.
Skilling pled innocent to insider trading & other charges. Arthur Anderson convicted of obstructing justice.
Ken Lay indicted for conspiracy to commit fraud.
‘I didn't ask myself why enough’.
Deep throats credited.
Quite easy to follow to understand detail
There should be a follow up in 2007 when the trials of Lay & Skilling have taken place. Skilling literally remade himself.
Amanda says, wisely, that sometimes you realise you've seen your shadow.

Paradise Now – The Netherlands/ Germany/ France – Dir: Hany Abu-Assad – 4/5
Unfortunately this film was shown at the festival without subtitles.  I stayed.  It was a fascinating experience.  I’m dying to see the film again, with subtitles.  The festival has since screened it again twice for free, but I could make neither date.

The English words I could make out were: (ironically) cinema, Israel, Allah, Salam, Tel Aviv, Israeli, 'In case you are lost, use this phone. Just press here,' etc, then ‘I want to go back’.

I was afraid the film would end in conversation and I’d never know what happened, but it didn’t.  It ended in pure cinema – a Sergio Leone shot - Said's eyes – absolute close-up!

Without subtitles, the film was quite hard to pick up until the guys began their preparations.  They argue and talk with a mother and girlfriend (?) – and this bit was hard going.  But then they make their last statements on video (with a New England backdrop – more irony!). They bathe, clean teeth, shave, dress in black suits, have a Last Supper (under a fluoro light) & arm themselves. They are utterly transformed into Clive Owen- & Sir Clive Woodward-look-alikes (Sir Clive Woodward was the coach of the UK rugby team). They toss a coin to decide who goes 1st. Then there’s a terrible mistake that leaves Said still strapped up & all alone – it’s horrific.

It was a fascinating experience to see a film like this without subtitles.  I have since seen it with the subtitles, and it is even more fabulous.  Much is explained.  But it is still the same film.  It made me realise just how much can be conveyed without language.

Life is a Miracle – Serbia and Montenegro/ France – Dir: Emir Kusturica – 2.5/5
Guns, guns, guns! It’s all too much! There’s even a dove on a cannon. This film was very disappointing.  It’s a shame to say that the animals are the best things about it.

The main character, Luka, is horribly unpredictable – if the idea behind this film is to make the Serbs more sympathetic, why would you react that way on the basis if the evidence here? A girl wouldn't enjoy being kidnapped.  That’s an awful premise.  She wouldn’t fall in love with her captor in the way shown here.  It’s just too far-fetched. ‘Death doesn't hurt - it's life that hurts,’ says Luka (I think).  Maybe that’s why everyone is crazy.’

The Q&A revealed that:

Thursday 16 June

Sisters in Law – UK – Dirs: Kim Longinotto, Florence Ayisi – 4.5/5
Set in Cameroon. It’s such a patriarchal society, and yet here are powerful women in positions of authority! We focus on some women lawyers.  There’s a dichotomy here: men group together to put enormous pressure on women to go back to their husbands. And yet the respect the female Prosector & Judge get is amazing.

This is a tale of fairly rough justice – it seems there are no defence attorneys at arraignments. Things can change rapidly: one of the male defendants appears in court. He pleads not guilty.  The 'Prosecutrix' (that’s what she’s called) manages to get the Guilty verdict.  The defendant immediately recants & pleads for mercy. No good – he gets 9 years with hard labour.

There’s no commentary, no opinion, rather like a Frederick Wiseman film in style.

The women are not portrayed as saints.  One directs her righteous anger at the woman who beats a little child called Manka. 'Don't you 'sister' me,’ she roars.

One courtroom scene conveys the magnificent power and confidence of these women.  First, there’s a lovely low moan when the judge enters Court. Is it the word 'Coooouurt'?  Next, the male lawyer giggles – it seems he doesn’t know how to deal with the female judge and prosecutor.  First he’s embarrassed, then he’s very aggressive in court. The female prosecutor makes a brilliant cross-examination.
The male attorney just doesn't get it. He fails miserably.  These are strong women helping others to be strong.  It is amazingly inspiring.

The woman who beats Manka is a psychopath.  After denying her actions fort ages, at trial she finally pleads guilty. I think the prosecutor has convinced her that things will be better for her that way.  In African culture beating to correct is accepted - but only to punish, not to maim.

The Muslim court tries to assert its authority over the woman (Amina) who has left her husband. When she says that the Women Lawyers Association helped her, they react badly, and suggest she go back for 2 weeks as a trial.  Then they joke about her husband being likely to split her open!  It is horrific.

One particularly troubling thing about this film is how much the filming may have affected the cases shown.  We hear that for 17 years they had no convictions for spousal abuse – and then suddenly there are 2 at once - and they are Muslims! What role did the camera play?  Have things really changed?

A fascinating film for that, and many other reasons. Inspirational filmmaking!

Tell Them Who You Are – USA – Dir: Mark Wexler – 4/5
This is a biography of sorts by director Mark Haskell of his famous cinematographer father, Haskell. But Haskell is injecting himself into the film. Haskell wants his son to make a different kind of biographical film – one about feelings.  Mark wants to make a film about Haskell, the father (who was married 3 times).

Haskell's father, Simon Wexler, made a fortune in electronics during the Depression.  Haskell was a rebel.  He published paper called 'Against Everything'. He liked being there but not being there – being the observer. He was a pioneer of cinema verite or  'direct cinema'.  He says that you need to like the people you are filming - so they trust you (so says Albert Mayles). He distrusts videotape.  He says: ‘The magician is part of the chemistry & the chemistry is lost when you get into video.'

In many ways this is a similar film to My Architect. It is different from other biographical films because it foregrounds the relationship of father and son. Haskell won't do stuff for his son that he'd probably do for others. Basically Haskell is a Bastard – he calls his son 'messed up'.

Haskell was fired from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'. Michael Douglas talks about that and about how his father intimidated him as well. Jane Fonda had problems too: 'intimacy was not their gift,’ she says.

The best part (and most disturbing) part of the film is the section dealing with the relationship between Haskell and his wife (Mark’s mother).  Haskell says that what split him & his wife was not just one thing. It was: ‘Those subtle human things that we seldom understand'.

She has Alzheimer’s and is in a home. There’s a reunion scene that’s both very touching and maybe too intrusive. Haskell asks himself if the camera intruded and then says: 'So what? It didn't stop the real thing'. I felt privileged to see this moment of extreme intimacy. As someone else says: ‘There's nothing more important than making peace before it's too late’.  I think that’s what the film is all about.

36 Quai des Orfèvres – France – Dir: Olivier Marchal – 4/5
This is a very stylish and fast-moving policier from France, obviously paying homage to the 1947 Henri-Georges Clouzot film Quai des Orfevres (which is the address of police detective headquarters in Paris).  In that film, the thriller plot seems just to be an excuse for an atmospheric portrait of post-war Paris.  Here, also, the style of the film threatens to engulf the narrative, which is quite convoluted, and sometimes hard to follow.  But the style does extend to the music, which is very good.

Two police agencies are pitted against each other (‘OCU’ vs ‘BRI’).   The first half of the film is very cool & fast moving. However, the film tips over into melodrama at the wife’s funeral, and it begins to fall apart at that point.  There are too many loose ends. The character of the wife is too conventional. The character of the blonde female police officer goes nowhere.  I’d have liked to know more of her story.

Still, I enjoyed the ride, I loved seeing location shots of Paris, and I can imagine this turning into a weekly TV police drama of some merit.

Girl in a Mirror – Australia – Dir: Kathy Drayton – 4/5
This is a great subject for a doco.  There’s very good use of music & perceptive use of archival material. But I have a quibble.  I had heard of Carol Jerrums - why does the film paint her as being so obscure? She photographed Daddy Cool & Skyhooks – maybe that's why I've heard of her.

It is absolutely amazing that the filmmakers got two of the skinheads from her photos for interviews years later. My only real criticism is this: why show her death so early in the film? The dramatic arc is lost.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt – USA – Dir: Margaret Brown 2.5/5
This was a real disappointment of a doco.  It is all over the place in time, and although quite a lot of his music is featured (as it should – indeed must be), it is used too repetitively.  

There is a surprising amount of footage that featured Townes either talking or singing, but I left confused, and with questions.  Wives were wheeled on and off without much explanation as to the break-ups.  Why were his business affairs so badly bungled?  Why did a smart man like that allow it? We know he was on drugs and drink, but still… why? Even the songs were not well explained or even well analysed. A blown opportunity.

Friday 17 June

Up and Down – Czech Republic – Dir: Jan Hrebejk – 3.5/5
This film is by the director of Divided We Fall (Sydney Film Festival 2001), a film that I loved to death, and Cosy Dens (Sydney Film Festival 2000), which was really funny in an off-the-wall kind of way.

In this film we have people-smugglers who themselves want to travel – to Asia!  We have a family that collects kitsch items.  We have funny set-ups and funny dialogue: eg, ‘The law gives them the right to tea with lemon – but there are limits’.

Director Hrebejk has the tendency (and ability) to set things up so that they seem inevitable. Often his films seem to be about childless women.  This is almost like a Czech Raising Arizona.

Here, he poses the question (among others):  should refugees have a right to a baby even though they can't give it a life?

The story just runs right away, and we stick with it, no matter how unlikely it seems.  These people are just so loveable, even if they aren’t always nice.

Somehow we end up with 2 black Czechs - one living in Australia - in a Sparta jersey.  It looks like the land of equal opportunity. What a pity Australia isn’t quite that colour-blind.

Yesterday – South Africa – Dir: Darrell James Roodt – 3/5
The film opens with the child’s question: ‘What if I was a bird?’  It’s a lovely question, but a fairly superficial film. Yesterday is beautifully photographed & there are beautiful people all through it. The women all have beautiful smiles. Yesterday’s child is even called ‘Beauty’. But because all the men are absent, away working (the only ones around are the taxi driver and the doctor’s orderly) we don’t get to explore their relationships with their women.  We just get the one brutal scene and the flashbacks to a happier ‘Yesterday’.

Yesterday made me angry.  I was angry with the doctor.  Not only was she actually a bad communicator (despite her facility with the Zulu language), I was angry about the waiting in line, with no triage. I was angry that one doctor just did an endless job and no one took control. This attitude was exemplified by Yesterday’s statement: 'I'm not brave. It’s just the way things are.'  I wanted things to change!

So it was disappointing. Where was the anger? Where was humour? A film like Sisters in Law (Sydney Film Festival 2005) had all that, and was inspirational.  Here the dialogue seemed a bit declamatory. There was too much acceptance.  That’s part of the problem, of course. And the film seems to end on the note that education may be the salvation.  But that will take a long time.  Too long.  I think we needed an angrier film.

PS – USA – Dir: Dylan Kidd – 2/5
Another disappointing film.  And over-written. It gets off to a very clunky start. The set-up is far too talky. And Laura Linney’s character (Louise) is just unbelievable as far as I’m concerned. She gets dressed into a ridiculously girlish outfit to go to the interview with student applicant ‘F. Scott’ (what a crazy name! – no one would adopt it, unless they were 12). So she’s in a pretty girly party dress at work – and why didn’t she take it off when they made love? She had the time!

That’s a practical quibble, but so many things Louise did didn’t ring true to me.  For example, a woman like Louise would never play the pretend game on their 1st date. It was so cruel! She acts like a bitch and she would lose the guy – except that he never would have stuck around in the first place. F Scott is also too good to be true, but the character is played well by Topher Grace, making F Scott as believable as possible. Also (contrary to other critics) I found a Marcia Gay Harden a breath of fresh air.  She tried hard to breathe life into her character, ‘Missy’ (where do they get these names?? ‘Oiusie’ for ‘Louise’ was just nauseating).  She says what I was thinking all along: ‘You have a perfect snowflake who’s just dying to get to know you better & what are you doing? Sitting here arguing with me’.  Hear hear!

I lost patience with the film, but I blame the script and the director, not the actors.

Saturday 18 June

Buffalo Boy – France/ Belgium/ Vietnam – Dir: Minh Nguyen-Vo– 4.5/5
What an interesting and lyrical film!  Probably it is of special interest to me since I have cycled through Vietnam, through and between paddy fields and seen buffaloes and buffalo boys at work.  The difference is, of course, that this film is set in Vietnam (then ‘Indochina’) in the 1950s, when the French still held sway. It is the rainy season, and the buffaloes do not have enough grass to eat, so they have to be taken away by our 15-year-old hero, Kim, joining a gang of buffalo herders. The rough buffalo herders are contrasted with the gentle family, and we witness Kim's transformation from a young boy to a hard man, just like the other herders. It is almost a Vietnamese Red River! But at times it feels like the Asian Waterworld.

The film is never predictable: the gangs extort each other. Kim’s
mother leaves his dad. The well-fed (Vietnamese) customs men collect money for the French regime and make things even harder for their own people.  The gangs extort both them and the lowly people.  Clearly reform is needed.

This film is gorgeous visually, lyrical & poetic.  There’s a great shot of the prow of a boat drifting through different lights. A house is washed away & becomes a boat. The film is also about the civilising effect of music, women and religion.

Then there’s the irony of all that rain.  But water is the same everywhere. And war is always there – but in the background.
In the end, though, the Japanese, the French & the Chinese came & went, the water will always return (and so do the buffaloes & the men)…

Silma’s School – Australia – Dir: Jane Jeffes – 3.5/5

This is an ABC doco, which should turn up on TV soon.  It is an interesting topic, and well executed on the whole, but I think the filmmakers could have cast a more critical eye over Silma.

There are 50 or so students in the Noor al Houda Islamic school run by Silma Ihram, an Australian woman who has converted to Islam. Silma is the image of Lorraine Bayley.  Her school is on land leased from Bankstown Airport – and that land is toxic.  The school is locked in litigation about it.

The school took a 30-year lease from the Airport – without council approval. Silma seems at times (judging only by the film) to put her own fulfilment ahead of that of her own kids. She was thinking that she would get 'justice' from mediation. Was she told that she would be unlikely to get ‘justice’ in the civil courts?  She doesn’t seem to realise that it is not the Airport's responsibility that their debts don't get paid.  Her husband rightly says you can't fight on 2 or 3 battlefields at once.  He’s an oasis of sense in this sea of passion.

I think the film illustrates the question: is having a dream enough? 'Maybe I'm stupid but I'm determined,’ says Silma, ‘People are inspired by that'.

Silma is on surer ground when she is dealing with the kids.  This part of the film is pretty funny.  One boy is punished for ‘Excessive hair gel!’

The new assistant principal is a breath of fresh air when the tension is getting too much.  She says ' I will never get tired of improving you'. It’s a great moment. But the boys are just over-excited & revved – probably for the camera.

Schwaab & Associates take on the case as lawyers after Silma has to move on from PriceWaterhouseCoopers Lawyers for non-payment of their fees.

Where did the figure of 14 million dollars come from? 'The figures are largely irrelevant. You've got to find the reasons,’ says Silma’s husband, again the voice of reason). Now there's an appeal.

In the end, these religious people are remarkably similar to born-again Christians:  give all your troubles to God and he will take them and provide.

Only time will tell.

Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues – USA – Dir: Morgan Neville – 4/5
This is quite a conventional biography, but it is told chronologically, with an intelligent and straightforward use of Hank’s music.  The filmmakers went to a great deal of trouble to interview many of the people he knew and many of the musicians and others he worked with, and the material is intelligently edited to tell the Hank Williams story. Lacking the wealth of visual material that other documentaries sometimes have, director Neville uses shots of a blue Cadillac convertible (like Hank had) and skies and telegraph wires and countryside, plus, memorably, road maps of the south, to fill in the visual gaps. Result:  I came away with a strong feeling for the man and his music, and was very moved by the problems he had to deal with in his life.  A much better film than Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt.

Sunday 19 June

Accused – Denmark – Dir: Jacob Thuesen – 3.5/5
The clue is given right at the beginning of the film that all is not right with the world.  Henrick lies to wife about talking to his daughter Stine about the party.
‘Why are we whispering?’
‘I don't know but it feels right’ – secrets & lies are the order of the day.

Next we move to an adult swimming lesson.  'You won't be forced to do anything you don't want to do’.

This is a portrait of a family dealing with accusations of incest but does it do anything more than portray it? Do we get any insights, or is it just shown?  Is it a plea for forgiveness? Or should we never forgive?  It is troubling.

But there is no doubt that it is stylish. When the arrest happens it is a beautiful shot. The face is half-dark half-light.

I’m puzzled about the arrest and the process of charging. Why did he go straight to gaol? At trial, the 1st question to Stine is leading. The wife lies about suspecting Henrick.  These technical things bothered me.

The film begins with the story of the 'Troll Who Won't Say His Name'.
So there is the text & the meta text: eg, 'It takes 2’ is said twice: once when the awful prison guard tries to get his kicks, and once when Henrick says it.  And then, later, 'You have to be able to forgive.' And another half-face in the car.

When Henrick whispers in Stine’s ear when she's asleep: does he whisper the Name of the Troll?

Two Great Sheep – China – Dir: Liu Hao – 2.5/5
2 hours of sheep husbandry. Tedious. Badly edited.  Horrible hand-held camera.  Lots of 4-Wheel Drive cars. No sense of place. Terrible print. The villagers are treated as stereotypes, idiots. The sheep pen is terribly built. Flimsy.

The relationship between the couple was promising but not developed.  Didn’t they have children?

The reporters come. Suddenly it is all handheld camera. And the smoking! Gaah! The village head takes money but then gives it back. No cigar. No baby.

So was an honest man turned dishonest?

Filmed in southwest Yunan Province.

Here’s the Q & A with one of the Producers (inordinately proud of her film! But with good intentions):
Q&A: The sheep in this film are not actually sheep at all, but goats. The city people (film makers) didn't know they were goats! This was obvious to country people.  (When you write ‘sheep’ in Chinese it is the same as goat, except that you put ‘mountain’ before it). The country folk didn't know why city folk were interested in coming there. Were they looking for treasure?  The filmmakers say they want to bring an awareness of the poverty & needs of the country people to city people.
Q: Were the writers form the city or country?
A: The story was written by a person who lives near the local village. The lead character is a Chinese opera singer from Yunan province. All the rest are local amateurs.
Q: Goat training?
A: They lived with the goats but one died so they had to replace it. They had to put petrol in the goats’ food so they wouldn't eat it. (This was said as if it was hilarious!) The crew stayed for 2-3 months.  They are hoping to promote the area because of the film. They hope there’ll be more government awareness of the poor of the area & the need for education for the locals when they show the film.  It will be free admission & they'll ask for donations for the locals.

Age of Consent – Australia – Dir: Michael Powell – 2.5/5
A peculiar film, but great to see it restored – at least visually, and with the original Peter Sculthorpe score, even if not restored audibly.  The first few scenes are dreadfully clunky, and then when it moves to Dunk Isle it is often lyrical and sometimes clunky.  The problem is often the script, and sometimes in the portrayals. I hate all the supporting characters – cartoonish in the extreme – but Helen Mirren is superb and James Mason is believable as a jaded artist. The sense of place is magical.

Columbia cut the first scene & the titles & Sculthorpe's score for its commercial release.  We saw it all restored.

Projectionists used to cut frames of Helen Mirren nude. Underwater photography is by Ron Taylor. Dreadful accents. Cane toads on bed.

Thelma Schoonmaker says the film is about the restorative power of art.
There was no double for Helen Mirren. Those are Helen Mirren's breasts you can see through her dress at every opportunity.

The sun-saw decoration is now at 6 Undine Street, Port Douglas
Alan Dean sang & wrote lyrics & was in the SFF audience.

We saw the film taken from a new negative, though there was some crackle on soundtrack. It needs more work. They want to do a restoration of original soundtrack.

Monday 20 June

Kindergarten – China – Dir: Zhang Yiquing – 3.5/5
How can a film like this not capture your heart?  A documentary about little kindergarten kids in Wuhan, China.  There’s little commentary – apart from a few questions that are asked, and a few inter-titles. (They are interviewed about 9/11, SARS, Iraq, love marriage, being a mom or dad – and the Japanese ‘Devils’).

What will these children become?  You can begin to see already.
They are mostly gorgeous – but some are very naughty & even violent.

Charming, and thoughtful.

5 x 2 – France – Dir: Francois Ozon – 3/5
A clinical look at love, marriage & divorce. It is interesting to see the technicality of a divorce that seemed amicable & equal. Also the text of thee civil wedding vows is quite significant (but alas I cannot recall them now).

After a couple divorce they go to hotel to go straight to bed together. I was surprised, but I’m told this is not unusual. Part way through the ex-wife changes her mind & doesn't want to have sex. It turns into quite brutal rape! This is very disturbing, and makes me realise that people’s sexuality is often very complicated.

There’s a scene where Gilles talks about infidelity, and suddenly the film turns into Big Brother!

Great unusual music.

Whenever she has sex it is forced or he’s absent or asleep.  They get the key to room 213 (which is the same as the clause of wedding code).

I guess the film is telling us that sex & marriage are 2 different things. Then there is the fact that we see the film backwards.  This has been criticised by some who feel that the film would not have been interesting if it had been shown in correct chronological order.  But I don’t agree.  By showing it in the wrong order we notice different things.  So the film is about all things that people don't notice in a relationship. So we can see that the husband stayed a cipher. He was absent during all the key phases. Even the divorce.

There’s an incredibly beautiful last scene with the setting sun: 'Shall we take a swim?’ And they lived happily ever before. Suddenly the poignancy rushes over you, and you get it!

Shake Hands with the Devil – Canada – Dir: Peter Rayment – 4/5
A very important documentary – people need to see it so they never forget what happened in Rwanda.

It was 7 years before Romeo Dallaire could write his book about the massacres in Rwanda and the failure of the vastly-under-funded United Nations forces under his command.  The book took him 3 years to write (he wrote the book with Brent Beardsley).
He takes pills now to function – but he has a good attitude about it.  He says it’s 'like diabetes'.

The film tells us that Hutus grew up going to Christian schools – they thought Tutsis were alien. These ideas were fostered by the colonial power – the Belgians --– with their weird ethnic theories.
(cf 'Japanese devils' from Kindergarten).

We see in the film how there were so many lost chances to stop the massacre. Why was there this 'incredible moral default'? Could the Catholic Church have stopped it? What is it in human behaviour that allows this?  Dallaire used media to get the story to the world (including Mark Doyle of the BBC). And yet he was a good soldier who would not disobey orders.

'Every Life Counts. The soldier. The bystander. The belligerent,' he says.  This film again addresses the issue that for me kept coming up during this year’s festival: Would you commit an act of brutality & how long would it take for you to debate it?  He also takes the view that this sort of evil is a fact of humanity.

Tuesday 21 June

Je t'aime moi non plus – France – Dir: Maria de Madeiros – 4/5
Sub-titled: 'Artists & critics - a non-relation.'
This is a very unusual film, which looks at film critics and their relationship (or non-relationship) with filmmakers. It is good in that the filmmaker herself is a film actress, and thus an insider – she can get good access to all sorts of people.  This results in lots of good quotes, some of which are below.  But de Madeiros is a little too much in the thrall of a psychotherapist, and we hear too much from him.  To my mind he is the least interesting and least relevant interviewee.  In fact my notes say ‘The psychoanalyst is mad & wrong’! But de Madeiros is intent on looking at the religious, metaphysical and spiritual.

At one point de Madeiros makes a statement about seeing a film and the surprise it is.  But critics are different. They already know what they're going to see - they read the programs.

Here are some of the more memorable quotes:
‘Directors are hypnotists.’
D'Olivera says audiences finish the film, just as readers enrich a book.
Critics have the power. That's why there aren't more female critics.
Again a critic remakes the film.
Criticism is fiction - an emotional thing.
What does a director risk making film? 'His life' says Hany Abbu-Assad (director of Paradise Now).
Pedro Almodovar says that as a director you are naked.
‘Film is risk,’ D'Olivera says, '‘A stab is deeper than a caress.’
In the US film is business. In France, it is the 7th art.

One thing that really annoyed me was that all the critics referred to directors as Him, him, him - except the Israeli director, who actually allowed for the possibility of a woman director.

One critic actually makes fun of Wenders' accent.  That was quite outrageous.  De Madeiros does not comment.

My relatively high mark is for the interest of the topic, rather than the execution, but it is a very good 1st effort from the director.

A Way of Life – UK – Dir: Amma Assante – 3/5?
This is an amazing debut from 1st time feature director Amma Assante (who attended the festival).  It also features an assured performance from newcomer Stephanie James, aged 17.

From just about the 1st scene we see how dreadful things are in this town in Wales. A young girl pimps her even younger girlfriend.  The young girl is a virgin at 14 – the older one is 17!

The terrible poverty in this town leads to jealousy. In one frightening scene an Indian man is asked: ‘'Ow long you bin ere?’ He replies, ‘I bin here 30 years.’  As a reward for this great comeback, the kids say: ‘He's taking the piss. You shoulda smashed him.’  

However, the inexperience of the writer/director shows: the characters say everything they are thinking – everything is spelt out.  It’s like a soap opera a lot of the time. However, there’s a very good sense of place. In a way the film is like a film by Robert Gediguian.  The writer knows her characters, and has a kind of fondness for them. The scene in car, with the various characters singing was a gorgeous scene, and probably the truest thing in the film.  Brenda Blethyn appeared real in her 1st scene, but not after.
In the end, I felt the characters were being manipulated by the writer/director to get the effect she wanted.

But who could dislike a film with its major showdown in a library! And a library from the 50s! Not like the ones we really have today.

I think the message of the film is that love is not enough.

The music was standout, including songs by David Gray, and
Stereophonic’s ‘1000 Trees'.

Q&A Amma Assante (who wrote and directed the film and was keen to make it clear she didn’t go to film school)

Her feature debut! Was a child actress. Tried to give safety to young actors.
The film was received well in Wales. They saw it as universal. The film is about lost potential. The kids are like radio stations not tuned in. Have a lot to offer but just missing it.  They used 5 babies - one set of twins & 3 doubles.  She relied on a lot of advice from her producer, especially this: In the specific you get the
Q.  How were the actors affected?
A.  We all were. Stephanie Got sick & exhausted by the scene where the baby is taken away. The baby was taken away in the harshest of circumstances because her actions were harsh. The scene of going to chip shop after the bashing is based on a case study. Also there’s a case where a couple snog after murdering a couple.

Inside Deep Throat – USA – Dir: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato – 3/5
This documentary is more of a fun item than a very serious look at the subject, and yet it does have some edge, and at least one serious deficiency.

The film begins with Eric Burdon’s song 'Spill the Wine'. Why was the soundtrack off-synch? Was it just the one print that we saw?  There are nice ‘tearing’ titles.  Music is vital for setting the scene, and there’s a very juicy 70s soundtrack, including Melanie’s  'Brand New Key', Gary Glitter, Alice Cooper’s 'Elected' & ‘Draggin’ the Line’ 'Superfly'.  Sometimes there are very suggestive titles like  'Love is Strange', 'How Do You Like it?' & ‘Keep it Comin’ Love.’  All these songs give us an emotional memory of the times and the context of the film.

The narrator - Dennis Hopper  --– is not introduced. Why? We hear from Wes Craven & John Waters too.

The theme of the movie is stated early on, I think by the ‘Deep Throat’ Director Gerard Damiano: ‘Young people today are in it for the money. Then we were in it for the rebellion.’ But of course organised crime ultimately controlled the porn industry. The filmmakers don’t pursue this as well as they could, but it is there at the fringes.

1700 people a day saw ‘Deep Throat’! The NY Times legitimised it by writing about it, calling the phenomenon  ‘Porno Chic’.  But eventually the film had to be censored (by NYC Judge Tyler), resulting in the fabulous headline - 'Judge Cuts Throat - World Mourns'.

It was then banned in 23 States.  In June 1973 the US Supreme Court gave local officials the right to decide what is pornographic.

The 1975 obscenity trial was actually a conspiracy trial, notable for the fact that for the first time the state prosecuted the star of a film over its content (as opposed to the producer, director or writer). That star was Harry Reams. Alan Dershowitz said: 'Prosecutors should not be creative.' The Supreme Court overturned the decision.  It turned out that the famous ‘Meese Report’ about the effects of pornography was not based on any scientific studies.

The filmmakers then contract those quaint old times with what’s happening now: in 2002 400-odd mainstream films were made, but 1100-odd porn films. Today porno is mostly private - at home. Now kids don’t consider oral sex to be sex (relying no doubt on the precedent of Bill Clinton). However, the laws used to prosecute ‘Deep Throat’ remain unchanged.

The film is not just analytical, though.  The subject is sex, and there is plenty shown – and most especially quite a bit of the famous ‘money shots’.  But they had to show it. It’s what the film’s about.

The filmmakers make some pretty big claims about the significance of this film in US social, history.  Since we didn’t see the film at all in Australia on release (it was banned, of course), we are well placed to judge that significance.  We didn’t see it, and we still went through the sexual revolution.  It is as well to take much of the film’s assertions about social history with a grain of salt.

The film ends with some disturbing revelations about Linda Lovelace and the question of whether she was forced to act in ‘Deep Throat’.  There is no doubt she was in an abusive relationship, and, for me, the film is deeply unsatisfactory in its treatment of this aspect, treating it almost perfunctorily (compared to the other, more fun, aspects of the film).  So I was ultimately upset and disturbed by the film (see Q&A response below).

Notes from the Q&A
The director of ‘Inside Deep Throat’ said they had discovered how sex & politics are so interconnected especially in USA. We haven't come far since the 70s in terms of censorship. All it succeeds in doing is to camera the very thing it seeks to prevent.
Q. Who owns ‘Deep Throat’?
A. Not the mob. But a guy who bought it off the mob.  
NC17 rating. Can't advertise it in newspapers.
He doesn't think Linda was forced to act in the film, but she was also in an abusive relationship with her husband.

Little Peace of Mine – Israel – Dir: Eyal Avneri – 2.5/5
This film is about the efforts of one young boy (and some of his friends) to bring about a dialogue about peace in Israel and Palestine.

Young Nadav is aggressive. He talks but doesn't always listen. He may be a good organiser, but you also need patience and understanding to have dialogue. And he’s not really good in a group.  Most of them aren’t.  So one-on-one discussions seem to work better.

It is clear that his father is behind him, supporting him in this, but that aspect is ignored.

In the end, Mai, the Palestinian girl looks like she might be the way to break through.  She’s persistent, but won’t let him bully her.  However, she is of an age where she can no longer be left alone with a youth, no matter how important the discussion, so disappointingly, everything collapses.

It is heartening, though to hear Mai ask such a marvellous question as this:  'Nadav, do you want to be the good terrorist or the bad terrorist?’

Wednesday 22 June

Our Own – Russia – Dir: Dmitry Meskhiev – 4/5
Wow! This film really grabs you from the first moment: stylish washed-out visuals, great slow-mo devastating action. Terrific music & sound generally.

There’s a brutal stabbing of the village policeman, like killing a pig. Again the question (of the festival) comes up: What would you do?  A young one goes hysterical & brutal. Then he cries & the older one comforts him. Is this the Russian ‘Band of Brothers’?

The dialogue is often terrific.  Eg:
‘Germans are killing gypsies, Jews & cripples.’
‘Why cripples? Gypsies steal horses.’
‘ And Russians don't?’

‘For that sort the German regime is no different from the Soviet Regime.’  

‘Got any ideas?’
‘No, but I've got 2 gold coins’.

I liked it.  It surprised me.  Another accomplished bit of Russian drama.

Me & You & Everyone We Know – USA – Dir: Miranda July – 5/5
I loved this film.  It was my favourite at the Festival.  It is so original, and the humour is so deadpan.  In a way it resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful film ‘Punch Drunk Love’, and yet it is more experimental than that.  Its director’s background as a performance artist is obvious, and informs the film wonderfully.  In fact the feel of the film is a little like that of a Robert Lepage play or film.  And yet this is different again.  It will take you to the very edge of what is acceptable in some scenes, and yet it is done so earnestly, and with such good will, that you go with it.

One of the characters, Richard, is played by John Hawkes, one of my favourite actors from the TV series ‘from Deadwood’.
A few notes taken at random of things that I liked:
Could this film have been made in any era or only now? What does it tell us about the digital culture?  There’s a very disturbing thread in the film involving young children (of varying ages) & sex. But somehow, July presents it in such a way, and in small ‘bites’, taking us by the hand and telling us not to be scared. Because we trust her as a director, we go with her.  And eventually we can laugh, but we will also think.

There’s also a strong theme of communication in today’s world.  It’s all different now.  There are messages on a window.  You send email messages that you don’t mean. Someone says that we wouldn't have email without aids (!).  The un-bandaged hand is extra-sensitive.

The film begins & almost ends with a bird – one is real & one is a picture. Then there’s a coin & a rising sun.  It’s optimistic about people.  It makes you feel good.  It makes you think.  It makes you wonder.  It’s a wonderful work of art!

Innocence – France – Dir: Lucile Hadzihalilovic – 2/5
This film is made by people a lot cleverer than I am.  I could see that there was so much underpinning it:  psychotherapeutically, subconsciously, philosophically, symbolically, etc.  The film reeks of cleverness.  I could admire it – to a point – but I couldn’t enjoy it.

There’s lots of water, tunnels - female imagery.  There is a
Maypole & phallic lights – male imagery.

‘Obedience is the only path to happiness’, says the ballet teacher (as she would). There’s butterfly collecting. They go through a grandfather clock to a ballet performance.
The girls are told: ‘You must take care of your legs’.  Is this feminism?  I’m confused. Someone throws away a glove & rose. What doers this mean?

They then get on a train (after going through endless passages) and they get out at what looks like Wynyard Station in Sydney!!  The train sequence is a bit Harry Potter. A spiral staircase. A fountain. A boy. The end.  The mysterious ending disappoints & it takes too long to get there.  Stylishly strange, but too obscure.

A Perfect Fake – Canada – Dir: Marc de Guerre – 2/5
This is a confused film in a way. It purports to explore digital sex and virtual sex, but soon resorts to the old life-size sex doll.  It seems to argue that soon virtual sex will be normal, but then it shows us the human need for touching & having a companion – even if it is a doll.

Issues raised involve the quest for perfection. Pygmalion. The Dybbuk.  The long-standing human fantasy to create. We see ‘Idoloid’ Magazine.

Someone says: ‘Japan is a character nation. We are No 1 that way. Characters fill in gap in a world where communication is diminishing.’  There’s also the question of the possession of the female body by the male mind.

Apparently there’s a lot of alienation & intense loneliness in the world. The film is sad, but strangely un-moving.

People on Sunday – Germany – Dir: Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G Ulmer – 3.5/5
This silent film from 1930 seemed surprisingly fresh and modern. The live musical ensemble was large (unlike previous years) but excellent, with a soprano too.  A great match to an exuberant film.

Thursday 23 June

3-Iron – South Korea – Dir: Kim Ki-duk – 4/5
Another stunning film from Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk
The main character is like the guys from The Edukators – he enters houses. He's clever – he finds out if people are living there by putting an advertising flyer on their door, and then comes back and if it hasn't been taken off the door, he moves in and lives there for a while. But he does the washing!

Why is he homeless? He drives a big BMW bike.  He is very detached.  Even his attack on the businessman is remote – via golf ball. He photographs (on his own camera) himself inside the apartments. She – when he finds her - gets in picture too.

She’s remote too: she sees the police violence from behind a 2-way mirror. No sound.

The most wonderful scenes are inside prison. There the film crosses over into fantasy.  Now we suddenly understand why things have been taking on an air of unreality. (The boy's severe beatings don't leave a mark. She sees him in a mirror & they kiss behind husband's back.) It reminded me of that lovely melodrama from the 1940s, ‘The Enchanted Cottage’.

Now she has strength to get out of her home – and doesn’t she go overboard!

End quote: 'It is hard to tell if the world we live in is reality or a dream.'  Lovely.

Ushpizin – Israel – Dir: Gidi Dar – 4/5
This is a very moving film, and the subject is extremely unusual.  Normally it could not be filmed, but the filmmaker has been able to pull it off with the co-operation of some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem.

The wife talks to God as if He is a husband.  Both their relationships with God and with each other are very touching. Especially touching is a scene where the husband and wife both pray together & their prayer is answered.

Nice colloquial subtitles. Often funny: ‘So they aren't the Holy Ushpizin.’  Often profound:

 ‘Don't get angry,’ says the Rabbi. ‘God save us from anger. You are nothing. I am nothing.’

‘There is only God.’

Beautifully & eloquently simple.

Forgiveness – South Africa – Dir: Ian Gabriel – 3/5
The film opens with a question: 'Where do I find the cemetery?’ 'You go back the way you came,’ is the answer.  This is the key to the film.  To get forgiveness you have to go back over the painful events, and it can have fall-out.

It’s a bleached-out-looking film. (Similar to the feel of ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence).  Somehow this adds to the emotion of the film, as does its setting against the harsh coastline of sea, sand, and salt.

Like Romeo Dallaire in ‘Shake hands with the devil’ (SFF2005), our ‘hero’ needs pills to sleep.  The mother of the family watches soaps to avoid pain. (Her character is a bit John Fordish, and sometimes the film feels a bit stagy).

Violence begets violence. ‘You have to understand. We were fighting a war’.  Again the question of this years’ festival is raised: in the matter of violence and torture -– what would you do?

Washing fish. Washing hands. Washing self.

At one stage it turns into road movie and there’s some effective suspense.  But the theme is very definitely forgiveness:

'If you believe in God you must also believe in forgiveness.'

The couple dance to the song 'Tell it like it is'

'You don't want forgiveness - you just want to be punished.' 'Not any more.'
In the end, the bird got out of the cage.

An interesting, if sometimes overly earnest, look at an important phase in South Africa’s history.  Would be good in a double with ‘Political Football” (SFF 2005).

Half-Price – France – Dir: Isild Le Besco – 1/5
I did not like this film at all.

I did not like the handheld amateurish camerawork.

I ask why there were no subtitles for what the kids say? Is this not important?

There are so many manipulated things about this film – even though it purports to be based on a true story:
More importantly, what are the ethics of showing the kids nude?

I felt most uncomfortable about this film, and kept asking: Why?  What is it for?

Hardcore Logo – Canada – Dir: Bruce McDonald – 3.5/5
A very funny and quite rare mockumentary, much like ‘This is Spinal Tap’, but dealing with a punk band.  The difference is that the filmmaker doesn’t find his subjects to be ridiculous.  This could be a real band!

Favourite quote (concerning a man – Bucky Haight – who had been allegedly maimed by losing a limb): ‘We were there. We touched his stump.’

Friday 24 June

Duck Season – Mexico – Dir: Fernando Eimbcke – 4/5
It’s not just the fact that this film is shot in black & white that makes it seem like a Mexican Jim Jarmusch. There’s something about the wry, observational humour, and the way that things just happen, and not always the way you think they will.

The electricity is off and the boys have nothing to do. Things happen – or don’t happen.  The characters often speak in aphorisms:

The characters are charming.  The film is too.  It is also quite anarchic.

By the end, we have learned why ducks fly in a V-formation: they support each other. If one tires, 2 go to fly with it. The Pizza guy goes to a duck pond & takes a significant duck picture.  He’s been supported by ducks.

Moolaadé – Senegal/France – Dir: Ousmane Sembene – 4.5/5
Here’s another amazing film from Africa about strong women – see my review of Sisters-in-Law (Sydney Film Festival, 2005).  It is made by one of Africa’s elder statesmen of film, and it is gorgeous to look at.  But it is about a tough issue:  female genital mutilation, or ‘female castration’. This is referred to throughout the film as ‘Cutting’ or ‘Purification’ – depending on who’s talking about it.

The men call it a ‘minor domestic issue’.  The women – actually, one woman in particular – know it is a huge issue.  Brilliantly, she uses one of the village’s traditions (or superstitions?) to protect the girls who are due for the mutilation/ purification.  She invokes ‘Moolaadé’, putting up a thin rope as a barrier that the men (and other hostile people) cannot pass.  But this is not a magical barrier.  It depends on belief and obedience, much like the tradition of ‘Purification’ itself. Goats, dogs & chickens all hop over the barrier. It even looks like a female goat escapes a mounting male by coming inside the barrier!

In fact, ‘Purification’ is not an ancient tradition, as Moolaadé itself is.  It is more recent in origin.  That point is made eloquently

The leading actress, our heroine, is scarred.  Not only has she been ‘cut’, she has had a Caesarean – and we see those scars.  We can only imagine the others.

The women rely on their radios for connection with the outside world (the film is set in rural Burkina Faso).  The men confiscate the women’s radios as punishment for their rebellion.  The piled-up radios form the end of a great image as the camera pans from the Mosque, to the anthill, to the pile of radios.  And the radios are all playing different music.  

Only one man stands up for the women – and it is not the man expected.  He’s run him out of town (and killed off camera).  It is all rather abrupt, but all the more shocking for it.

Surprisingly, here’s a film that positions TV & radio as a force for good!  For education. For communication.  The films ends on a shot of a TV aerial.  There’s hope still for these people.  Stunningly unusual.

Based on a True Story – The Netherlands – Dir: Walter Stokman – 2.5/5
What a strange end to the Festival!  It’s a documentary about the real story behind the 1975 Sidney Lumet film, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’.

The Chase Manhattan Bank that was the location of the robbery in the film is now a Medical Imaging Centre. Doesn’t that tell a tale?  

Sidney Lumet says this was huge for Al Pacino at his peak - playing a gay man.  The last gay film was ‘Boys in the Band’.

Frank Pierson, Lumet’s screenwriter, was attracted to the story by the Aristotelian unities of time & place (& the sexual aspect?) & by the fact that the police were inexperienced in such matters.

The real life character played by Pacino was John Wojtowicz, who is a conundrum, to say the very least.  He did time for the crime, released a single 'Lollypops & Shotguns', which is truly awful, got little money for his story & feels ripped off. He maintains he did the crime for love & to save his lover's life.  His lover is not so sure.

The director is forced to enter his own film when John’s antics become more than he can handle.  This makes the film seem disorganised, but film buffs will still enjoy it.

Not really a life affirming note to end on, but a more sombre one, perhaps even along the lines of “Whaaa?”

Saturday 25 June – Dendy Awards for Australian short films

Change of Heart – Dir: Sascha Ettinger-Epstein – 3/5
This film is about heart transplants.  Lots of quotes scattered about, making it seem a bit like a high school essay, in which the writer was unsure of the direction to take.  Eg: ‘The seat of the soul is to be found in the heart’- Aristotle.

However, there’s good interspersal of the 2 stories of heart transplant participants, and doctor interviews.

Gareth's mother believes that organs retain memory, and it is true that the genetic memory is there. 'It's supposed to be an unencumbered gift.' Authorities are not keen on meetings between donor families and heart recipients.

All in all a moving & important film that has the potential to change behaviour.

The Men Who Would Conquer China – Dir: Nick Torrens, Jane St Vincent Welch – 3.5/5
This film won the audience award for best doco at the festival.  I’m not so sure about it.  It is superficially appealing, but…

I’m not sure about the accuracy of the opening titles.  They make assumptions:  
  Is it set in Hong Kong? Doesn't say.

One of the characters is Mart Balat, a Winnipeg barrister. He’s thought to be a hotshot who can help our hero, Vincent Lee (who has been the subject of a previous doco by this team that played at a previous SFF.

Mark is causing problems. He is trying to move too fast. He is condescending. He talks like he is the professor and they are his students. He needs to be modest.  The filmmakers seem to view him as some sort of genius who must be obeyed.  I pegged him right away for an “urger”.

'What I want is not important.'
'That is a very Western attitude.'

Mart is so naive. He's amazed at the modern dairy company.
'What an education this has been,' he admits. But he still hasn't actually done anything.

Vincent Lee eventually gets control of the company from his father. He has gained wisdom, but is still dealing with Mart. It turns out I was right: Mart had no real idea about China. Knowing about a centrally planned economy is not enough.

An amusing film, which might be wise to see before investing in China or taking advice from Western “experts”.

Political Football – Dir: James Middleton – 4/5
This fascinating film is about the 1969 Wallaby Tour of South Africa.  Among those interviewed – critical to the outcome are young Rugby players: Barry McDonald, Jim Roxburgh (then an arts/law student), Ballesty, Bruce Tate, Terry Foreman, Anthony Abrahams (Lock), Bruce Taafe, McGill, Paul Darvenisa.

Early on, an interviewee (I think it was the South African opposition leader) says that Rugby was the Nationalist party at play, and the Dutch Reform Church at play. South African rugby players were seen as the uber-race.

When they toured South Africa, the Australian rugby team was taken to Sharpville to see the home of a family that had lost several members in the 1960 Sharpville massacre. This was seen by South African rugby officials as normal!  This lifted the veil for several Aussie players.

John Taylor, a Welsh member of the British Lions refused to play against the Springboks. He was lucky.  He got support from the Welsh miners’ union.

Geoffrey Robertson did an interview of the Aussie rugby players for ‘Blackacre’ - Sydney Uni Law magazine.

Charles Blunt - President of ARU – comes out looking like a dinosaur.  But then that only shows that not much has changed at the ARU.
Rupert Rosenblum says in an interview that he's more concerned with what's going on in Australia. And although that sounds like a cop-out, it coincided with the stance many radical Aboriginal leaders took at the time.

So for the 1971 tour, 7 Wallabies refused to play against the racially segregated South African team.  And it was also a condition of the tour that the opponents could not field a rascally mixed team!
Brian Palmer, an old Wallaby, came out against tour.

Russell Fairfax still thinks it was just sport.
Jim Roxburgh looks at it this way: ‘I thought I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to do something to help someone.’

This was my pick for the best doco of this years’ festival.  An inspiring film about something that is receding into the dark recesses of our memories too quickly.

My Sister – Dir: Chi Yen Ooi – 3/5
This is an unusual film about a Chinese family living in the Australian countryside some time ago. A little girl doesn't like Chinese offal.  It has dreadful consequences.  A lyrical film with a good use of music.

62 Sleeps – Dir: Erin White – 3/5
A simple film, well executed, with nice natural child performances.

Clara – Dir: Van Sowerwine) – 4/5
A fabulous & strange stop-motion film by an excellent contemporary artist. A great test of her animation is that when the doll burns her hand in the animated oil, I jumped in fright!

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello  – Dir: Anthony Lucas – 4/5
Beautiful & huge - a bit like a mix of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Alien’, ‘Forbidden Planet’ & ‘Captain Pugwash’. (And I’m almost sure the Gogomobile man is in it!).  There’s something wrong with the story though.  The animation overwhelms it.