If you arrived here after a search, either scroll down to the film you were looking for, or search the text for the name of the film.
notes of all Q&As are just notes - they are not
complete transcripts, but they should be representative
This year I was only able to be in Sydney from Wednesdays to Saturdays, so I am only reviewing the films I was able to see on those days.
My top 5 films, in accordance with the rating I gave them, are:
Asteroid City 10/10
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood 9/10
Snow and the Bear
This year I have detected a clear connecting theme in many of the films: CONSENT. Sometimes it affects a character, sometimes the filmmakers themselves. It appears most notably in Joan Baez: I am a Noise, The Burdened, Scrapper, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, The Eternal Memory, No Bears, The Mother of All Lies, On the Adamant, Snow and the Bear, Blue Jean, and Subject.
Wednesday 7 June
Joan Baez: I am a Noise
USA, Dir: Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle 7/10
This is an eye-opening documentary. The filmmakers had very free access to Joan, as one is an old friend. So the rapport is apparent from the start, as is the unparalleled access to archival materials, including photos, films, and, memorably, diaries and drawings. What is revealed is a Joan that I don’t think too many fans are aware of: one who spent 11 years on quaaludes, for example.
The film begins with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Life: “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” And so we do see all three, including the secret of the alleged molestation by her father of her sister, Mimi and herself. This comes from the dubious technique of “recovered memory.” Here is where the closeness of the filmmakers is a disadvantage: they do not challenge Joan about her allegations. These allegations caused a horrific rift between Joan and her father, which was never fully reconciled before her father became too frail to challenge Joan. Joan’s mother sided with her husband, which is another matter not gone into by the filmmakers, who just leave it at Joan’s word. At one point, Joan’s father wisely notes: “We remember what we want to remember.” This thought is left hanging. The point is made by Joan that her father resented her talent and her meteoric rise to stardom, on the basis that he always had to work for his money. That seems to be the origin of the conflict between the two.
Apart from these deficiencies, this is a very good documentary, in which the myriad of available archival material and contemporary interviews are lucidly presented to paint a comprehensive picture of the complex figure that is Joan Baez. This cannot have been an easy task, with so much to choose from in the extensive array of map-drawers, and carefully-labelled boxes in the archive. Joan couldn’t have done it while on the quaaludes!
Thursday 8 June
Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Dir: Amr Gamal 8/10
This film is based on a true story. At the outset, we know the family is under financial stress, but we soon learn that Isra’a is pregnant with a fourth child, and an abortion is proposed by the father. The doctor they initially consult won't help. For her, every baby is “a gift from God.” Visits to the hospital and to other doctors are interspersed with the vicissitudes of everyday life. The father, Ahmed, drives a “bus” (people-mover) with paying passengers, but he doesn't own the bus and when it is hit by an army truck he is so shocked he doesn't take any details or make any objection. So he has to pay for the repairs himself. The family also can’t afford a rent increase, and so has to move to a derelict apartment next to a graveyard, which appals the children.
What is striking about this film is the amount of rubble in the streets which is not even remarked on. Clearly this is a war zone, with all the police and soldiers everywhere, blackouts without warning, even in the hospital. There are the normal domestic difficulties such as not being able to pay school fees. Finally, a family friend who is a doctor relents and an abortion is set up clandestinely, under the guise of a “dilation and curettage.” However, the date of an ultrasound gives the game away and the abortion is aborted. Finally, with more bribery, the abortion goes ahead and after, a very sick-looking Isra’a goes home rather too early.
The final scene is a killer: the family takes the kids to their new (public) school, and they prattle in the back about various things that may occur on their first day. But the scene is shot from behind the front windscreen, so what we see before we look through to the speaking children are the blank and devastated faces of the parents.
This really frank feature film from the Middle East is another eye-opener. The two parents have their beliefs and principles: he will not work for certain TV stations he disapproves of, and so is on strike, and she does not believe abortion accords with her religious principles. She also declares that she would “never” send her children to a public school. The film thus makes a powerful statement about the role of closely-held personal principles in a war-torn state where nothing is as it should be, and some don’t have the luxury of choice.
While We Watched
UK, Dir: Vinay Shukla 8/10
This excellent documentary follows Ravish Kumar, a TV journalist working in India for a TV station (NDTV). He is erudite and asks incisive (rhetorical) questions, but he is not really an intellectual himself – rather a working journo. He has a program where he is able to editorialise, rather like Larry King used to. He’s married to an intellectual though. His wife is a university professor whom he uses as a sounding board, and she offers her opinions willingly to help him form his views. It’s a fruitful partnership.
In a way, Kumar reminds me of some of the intellectuals portrayed in the some of the films of Satyajit Ray. But this film indicates that those days of intellectualism and independent journalism are coming to an end, sadly. The Indian TV news scene seems to have become populated by FOX News-type channels with demagogic talking heads shouting their views at the audience and brooking no opposition. Anyone with contrary views to theirs is branded ad]s “anti-nationalist” (whatever that means). And once that happens, you are likely to be attacked by individuals or an angry mob.
Faced with staff layoffs, Kumar suggests they get members of the public to be their correspondents. And in one case, at least, this results in police re-opening an investigation, so it was very successful. But then, mysteriously, their TV transmission signal drops out. Why?
In the run up to the 2019 election (which Modi won in a landslide), more people leave the NDTV. Each time this is signalled by the cutting of a cake. A producer says to Kumar “There is no leader who can look Modi in the eye.” I thought of Albo, who was quite happy to parade around at the cricket in a Modi-mobile, and welcome him like a “rock star” to Australia!
After the election, more cake signals another staff departure. Then NDTV 's founders are arrested and threatening phone calls plague Kumar. In the midst of the turmoil, a young journalist calls asking Kumar if he should go on in the profession. This seems to galvanise Kumar. However, the office is then downsized. Finally, Kumar gets the Ramon Magsaysay award for outstanding contributions to Asian journalism, and everyone is re energised for now.
This is a really great story about India, its government, its media and the state of its political discourse. It’s a depressing picture of a country that was once replete with intellectual capital, but is now being dumbed-down. Though depressing, it’s a story that needed to be told. And another eye-opener! Are eye-opening documentaries the theme of this year’s SFF?
Canada, Dir: Anthony Shim 7/10
A semi-autobiographical drama of the Korean diaspora, with a luminous performance by Choi Seung-yoon as the widowed mother (So-young) of a young boy. They move to Canada, and face various problems which appear clichéd, but only because they are so truthful and so common. Problems fitting in at work and at school are gradually (and bravely) overcome, though sometimes things go wrong. So-young’s advice to her son to hit teasers as if he knew tae kwan do (“and nobody will know the difference” backfires when he hits a girl. Her other advice is “never show any signs of weakness.” But this will come back to bite her when a dire illness strikes.
There’s a scene of great significance to me (for many reasons) when So-young is in the Doctor’s surgery getting a diagnosis, and she has trouble understanding the concept of “cancer,” let alone “terminal.” Finally he’s forced to say, in plain language: “Miss Kim. You will die from this.”
Back in Korea, we see some beautiful landscapes, but they seem fuzzy, indistinct. I later find that the film (16mm) has gone to widescreen (the earlier scenes were in Academy ratio). This, to me backfires: it is meant to expand out our vision, but it just blurs it. (See the Q&A below for what the director says about this).
But the ending is sweet, as So-young’s son carries her to the top of a mountain, just as described in a parable he had described earlier in the film. We know she won’t come down.
Q&A with Director Anthony Shim
Q (Nishen Moodley, SFF Director): this is a personal story. I want to ask about the casting. How much does the character of the son resemble you?
A: Once I was casting, I realised this is not really a film about “me” or “my mother” but about their own characters. Also, it is hard to get actors to convey emotions plus who speak Korean and Canadian-accented Korean and English. But this was the lead actress’s first film! She wishes to continue as an actor. She's a dancer, not an actor.
Q (audience): how many drafts in the writing process?
A: I didn't want it to be an egomaniacal self-serving attempt at catharsis. Rather, I wanted to pay respect to all Korean immigrants I knew, especially women, and to thank my mother for bringing me and my sister up. So I just tried to make it as personal as possible.
Q: I noticed a change in the aspect radio ratio for the picture. More wide-screen for Korean scenes and more boxed-in for Canadian scenes.
A: There were two different aspect ratios. The characters had two different inner lives. I wanted viewing the film to be like flipping through childhood photo albums. Also the boxed-in section feels very disturbing and irritating and then you get a big release.
Q: Was it shot on film?
A: Yes on 16-millimetre film. I had three rules:
1. cast all Koreans as Korean
2. all Korean seems to be shot in Korea.
3. shoot on 16-millimetre film.
With 16 millimetres, there's no playback I had to just pray it was OK.
Q: What was your career pathway to this film?
A: A long one: 20 years! I started as an actor. For many years I had no hope or success. So I created a community of creative people doing what they like. I had a long time in theatre – doing anything anytime – in obscurity. I got to make mistakes. I learned so much. But I made it all happen. I never went to film school. This is my second feature – my first one wasn't very good!
USA, Dir: Wes Anderson 10/10.
I found this to be a fabulous, idiosyncratic, beautiful and funny film. There were so many magical touches. The casting, the animation (the road-runner!), the whole art direction of the film, looking like a faded postcard from 1950s America. Scarlett Johansson was channelling Elizabeth Taylor through her hairstyle which was harking back to Father of the Bride (1950, Minnelli) and A Place in the Sun (1951, Stevens).
The whole effect of the film was Thornton Wilder-esque. There must be many Academy Awards coming.
A thoroughly rewarding experience.
Friday 9 June
UK, Dir: Charlotte Regan 7/10
My score is somewhat generous for this film, which had quite a bit to admire about it, particularly the central performance by Lola Campbell as “Georgie,” who is 12 and living alone in London. However, there was so much that was derivative about this film that I felt claims of its inventiveness are overstated.
In the beginning there is a very mobile camera – really too much in the opening credits sequence. I was not impressed by the lazy “interview” segments, which were just clichéed methods of getting the narrative out of the way. I was annoyed by some of the jokey aspects of the film: it doesn't make sense to call your carer “Winston Churchill,” which would only invite suspicion. I was annoyed when the spiders began to talk in text messages to each other about what Ali and Georgie were talking about. I couldn't understand about half the dialogue, particularly when the soundtrack music is mixed up loud. Ironically, the most intelligible voice in the film is that of Lola Campbell, who wears hearing aids and must have a degree of deafness.
Other details about the film that annoyed me were: where the money was coming from? Surely stealing a few bikes would not be enough to pay the rent and the food and yet there never seemed to be shortages. I thought Georgie was too old to be losing teeth and getting money from the tooth fairy. But that scene between Georgie and her father (Harris Dickinson) was very sweet. When the phone is lost, I wondered to myself: why is no one ringing the phone? And I also wondered why Georgie wouldn't simply ask “Where have you been?”
I did not understand at first about the pile of junk in the locked room, but this became movingly obvious later in the film, when we see that it is a tower to the sky, which is where Georgie's mother said she went. Some of the scenes – particularly the flashes sideways –seem to be very influenced by Guy Ritchie 's films.
However, the relationship between Georgie and her father seemed genuine in the end and I loved the line: “Now that I know you I can't really not know you.” Then Georgie begins to nag him.
I notice that an executive producer was Michael Fassbinder, who is always keen to uncover and help new talent.
The Winter Within
India, France Qatar, Dir: Aamir Bashir 8/10
Director Aamir Bashir was a guest of the Festival, and he introduced the film with Nishen Moodley. He said his film had no audience in India: there was complete media silence on it. “This is part of what is happening in India. People are silenced and there is fear. This all began in Kashmir.” He was saying that Kashmir is like a rehearsal for what is happening in the greater whole of India.
The film begins with a quote: “I am waiting for a greater madness: to declare my self to the hangman.” (from The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali).
This complex and frightening(but also beautiful) film centres on Nargis (Zoya Hussain), the wife of a man who has disappeared. Everyone thinks he is dead, but Nargis does not believe it. It transpires that she has bribed the police to let her know if any prisoner arrives that fits his description. She is very poor and works as a cleaner for a wealthy family who seemingly abuse her, but the film is quite even-handed here, in that it shows the price that they would have to pay if she were to be discovered as the wife of a “terrorist” – whom others would call a “freedom fighter.” Even her lawyer tells her “This is Kashmir. Your husband took up arms against the state.” And: “you have no rights.”
Nargis is dogged in her attempts to find her husband. But Nargis also has another talent: she is an expert Weaver And seamstress, which is how she makes extra money for her bribes. She is part-way through making her Magnus Opus: a magnificently complex woven shawl. It seems to me that this shawl would take years to make, given the detail and its handmade nature.
Many twists and turns follow in this fascinating film and the shawl takes centre-stage at the end of the film, against a frigid but beautiful wintry backdrop. It left me gasping.
This is another “eye-opening” film which shows in microcosm the problems that beset Kashmir, as they now begin to spread to India as a whole. This is why we go to the Film Festival.
Q&A with Director Aamir Bashir
Q (Nishen Moodley): the film was shot in Kashmir at a difficult time and communication would have been difficult and complex.
A: Living in Kashmir is complex! During the winter of 2019 there was shooting and the biggest suicide bombing till then. 40 soldiers were killed. Everything went to a standstill. There was no Internet. Our driver was beaten up. The camera crew was scared and left with their cameras. It was complicated! We pretended to be a documentary crew filming handicrafts. We needed police permission to shoot in public places.
Q (audience): Is it true the Indian authorities have killed 200,000 Kashmiris?
A: No. 70 to 80,000 have been killed in the conflict but the data is being systematically erased by the state. Lawyers are charged under terror laws. If there is no data, the government says that equals no deaths. It is the most militarised zone in the world: there are 750,000 soldiers in Kashmir. But the state denies it. 8 to 10,000 cases of disappearance. 6000 unmarked graves.
Q: in the 1980s tension was palpable. What events set off the current events.?
A: In 1987 the elections were rigged. This was a political problem. Delhi decided the elections. The Nehru family is ethnically Kashmiri; It is very complicated. Then the armed insurgency happened. The latest events in 2019 and the deletion of article 370 from the Constitution, laid down the conditions for Kashmir to join India. That, along with the Kashmiri Constitution being thrown in the dustbin. It's all been happening since 1947.
Q: You said silence met the film. Were there more serious responses?
A: I am waiting for the consequences. Young writers, journalists, photographers cannot tell their stories anymore. These people can't even fly out for jobs, appointments, even the Pulitzer Prize! They call it “Narrative Terrorism.” In 2019 all the political class has been put under arrest: 4000 people. The Supreme Court wouldn't even hear a “habeas corpus” action. Newspapers are only printed after being cleared by the government officers.
Q: Recent films in India have had tax-free status and promotion. How do you feel about this for your film? How difficult is it in future to tell such stories?
A: It is highly unusual for a head of state to promote a fictional film as history [as was done recently]! A film with an alternative narrative, nobody is willing to touch! Not even Netflix or Mubi. I am from Kashmir.
Q: The Congress one some seats in a recent election locally. Is the mood changing?
A: Not at the national level. The BJP is entrenched. It has ten times the money of the combined opposition and is close to the two biggest companies.
Q: A lot of university staff are leaving Kashmir. Shouldn't they bring the issue to the UNHCR to bring awareness?
A: There are groups in Europe, UK and US that have been working to bring it to people’s attention, but profit trumps all. In 2019 it was in the news – the revocation of article 370 and the shutdown of the internet.
Q (Nishen): When we first spoke, we spoke of a trilogy. Do you have plans for a third film?
A: It took me 10 years to make this one. It is very difficult.
A Storm Foretold
Denmark, Dir: Christoffer Guldbrandsen 8/10
Director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen, introduced his own film. He started making the film in 2016, which he sees as the end of an era and the beginning of another. Democracies are under threat everywhere. The undermining of the election system is extremely dangerous. The director also noted that the Sydney Film Festival audience was seeing the first final version of the film for the first time anywhere outside Denmark. (This might explain why we were seeing it in English with English subtitles: a glitch?)
The first week of the Festival has featured a number of “eye-opening” films. This one is not so much eye-opening as astonishing. It is astonishing in the boldness of its subject, by which I mean Roger Stone. We thought we knew quite a bit about him, but now we get to meet him in person and our worst fears are confirmed.
The first thing to say about this film is that the story of its making is almost as compelling as the story it is telling. During the filming, the director had a cardiac arrest and almost died, this episode being captured on film by the security cameras of the gym he was attending. For me, this recalled our famous journalist Neil Davis who filmed his own death (as described in Tim Bowden’s book, One Crowded Hour).
The next thing to say is that the director, who is a journalist himself, managed to continue a relationship with a most difficult man on the most difficult terms and even when this project seemed doomed, he continued to pursue his subject with great tenacity. For that he deserves great accolades. And the last thing to say about the making of the film is that the director has a great ability to know when to stay silent and when to probe. He allowed Roger Stone to hoist himself on his own petard.
I have great admiration for the director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen, but I also have a criticism: Guldbrandsen injects his views into the film rather more than he needed to, in my opinion. Roger Stone's words and actions speak for themselves. They don't need any additional liberal commentary.
As the film begins, we see Stone saying (to an audience) that Trump is not controlled by him – but then he explains that he controlled him for 30 years! We also hear that Trump is obsessed with the film Sunset Boulevard (1950, Wilder), which he watches over and over again. Stone reveals himself to be a difficult but clever man with a very obvious (but probably expensive) partial wig (or is it hair replacement?), which he is so vain that he doesn't even bother to conceal. He has the Proud Boys as his security (Enrique Terrio is their leader). Stone developed, he says, the idea of “Stop the Steal” in 2016, but it was not needed, and it hadn't been “activated” until now.
In a very telling scene towards the end, when Trump fails to give Roger Stone a second pardon (in advance of being charged), Stone seems to turn on him and the director gets him on the phone (to whom? It is not revealed) saying that Trump should now be impeached. Stone seems demented with rage.
The director tries to explain his relationship with Stone by saying: “It's complicated.” So is Stone, and this film goes a long way towards exposing, and partially explaining, this modern Machiavelli (a description he would no doubt love).
Q&A with Director Christoffer Guldbrandsen:
Q (Jenny Neighbour, Curator of documentaries): How did you get permission to film? Were there any filters?
A: I sent an email to Kristin Davis (Roger Stone's assistant and Director of Communications). Originally he just wanted to do interviews and not quote scenes unquote. He forbade filming in certain circumstances. It was very adversarial. We had a written contract.
Q: At which stage did you fear for your life?
A: Only two of us made the film – Frederich, my cameraman, and me. Only once was I uncomfortable – when on January 6 on Cabot's Lawn they started attacking the press. There was a lot of talk of violence but no...
Q: Can you show the film in the US?
A: We can (but I hope … [inaudible].
Q: 1. Is Roger bad or mad?
2. What did the January 6 committee talk to you about?
A: 2. Yes, but it is specific and difficult to talk about.
1. Roger is both bad and mad dash like all of us. I just had to hang on to the humanity of all of us. It is very important to see the humanity in all (even those we disagree with).
Q: He's such a great character for a documentary. Did you know you wanted to make a film about him? Or others?
A: We started out doing a film to explain the Russian investigation and the death of truth. We had three characters and cut a film to be shown at a festival. We pulled it at the last minute and now we are here.
Q: How many days of actual filming and did your ideas change?
A: 124 days – spread across seven years. It was a nightmare to edit because of the time span and we had to protect the cinematic integrity of the film – to keep the pace going – and we had to cut out lots of good scenes. We struggled with whether to use my cardiac arrest. It was necessary to have it in the film because of his [Stone’s] compassion. It cracks his cynicism and a little bit of sunshine creeps in.
Q: He's a manipulative character. How, as a filmmaker, did you negotiate it?
A: You know he's manipulative. I hate interviewing, I'm not good at it. We did a lot of master interviews (which he stage-managed), but we used none of them. He's no worse than other politicians.
Q: Was your footage sent to the January 6 committee?
A: I started out in journalism. We began appearing on the Internet as a Proud Boys film crew. Then the Washington Post sent out an investigative “fire brigade” and one reporter tracked us down. They helped us organise our material and did a front page on the Washington Post. The FBI and the January 6 committee used it. The FBI came to Copenhagen and it was very David Lynch-style – the FBI man tried to bond!
We wouldn't collaborate on the criminal charges, but the January 6 committee was different – they were really trying to put the evidence together. I couldn't find a reason not to hand over the material. Six lawyers came to Copenhagen.
Q: The absences in your film: no Steve Bannon. None of the other co-conspirators .
A: An important question! Roger Stone hates Steve Bannon and testified against him. We got stranded in Detroit. He wanted to get us to film him heckling Steve Bannon. We chose to cut some of that material for reasons of filming our story. He was very careful when speaking about the Trump team. They're all groupies [of each other]. It would have made the film too complicated. Alex Jones and Roger Stone were coordinating the big donors. Katrina [missed surname] took Stone off the speakers’ list because she didn't want both Jones and Stone on stage together. Stone is back loyal to Trump now, but they are both very disloyal.
Q: Your coverage: with only two people. How do you do the [big scenes like the] fundraisers with only two people?
A: We often had two cameras but mostly used just one. We weren't that concerned about shooting the rallies – “I'm going for ‘backstage’ not front stage.” In the editing it wasn't a problem just having two cameras. Our focus was getting good scenes and extracting the psychology and in the end we had too much material.
Q: When did you know “a storm” was “foretold”?
A: After we had stopped shooting. The attack on the Capitol is not the storm – it is what's happening now. When voters believe elections can be rigged, then how do you turn the clock back? You can't. The attack on the Capitol was a clumsy incompetent coup attempt. It doesn't have to go in that direction. We must stop thinking about the “platform” and have proper discussion and good-mannered debate.
Red, White and Brass
New Zealand, Dir: Damon Fepulea’i 7/10
I always know when I've enjoyed a film, when I have very few notes in my notebook about it. I have only four lines of notes for this film. They are these:
“Set in Wellington, which seems to be a little melting pot of the rugby world.
Would an idea have “gone viral” in 2011, when the film is set?”
That’s it. The rest of the time, I was watching and laughing.
This was a very enjoyable film, effortlessly funny, simply told, avoiding most of the clichés, and informing us about various fascinating aspects of Tongan culture and family relationships. The ensemble cast was an absolute standout, both in the film and in the Q&A that followed. They're all hilarious and absolutely charming.
It is hard to make a charming comedy, probably the hardest of all things to do in cinema, and this team has done it. For Tonga.
Q&A with Director Damon Fepulea’i, and many of the cast members:
Q (Nishen Moodley): The Tongan concept of “Mafana” is central to the film. Tell us about that.
A (Damon Fepulea’i: I am probably not the right person to ask this question of, because I am Samoan! But it is about heart, emotion, feeling.
Q (Nishen): How did you go about casting?
A: (Damon): They are very talented people. But there are not many options for them. There's not a long history of Tongan film actors. This is the next generation (gesturing to his cast). There are no specific Tongan stories written, so not there are not many roles for them. So these (gesturing again) are almost “born for the role” and they became a family during the film. Also Tongans are really intelligent people!
Q (audience): Have any of the performers taken up a brass instrument?
A (each member of the cast in turn answered this question):
1. I'm happy just marching at the front.
2. I'm happy just acting.
3. It's really hard!
4. After filming we were sick of our brass instruments.
5. I'm actually a member of the real band. A lot of the extras in the movie are also now part of the band.
6. (Father Peter): I was one of the original organisers of the band. One of the gang members joined the band and says that it is the band that that saved him. He became a building apprentice and now owns a building company. Another – from Tonga College – is now the band director of the best brass band in Tonga.
Q: 1. What was it like to be out on the field?
2. It shows there's a lot of type talent in that island community. What's next?
A: 1. It was a great honour. It was a real dream to play at the Rugby World Cup. This was the next best thing.
2. There is a lot of talent in Tonga, and in the Pacific community in general. We have our own stories and, given the resources, we could tell them.
Q: I heard you were cast because you weren't very strong on the Tongan side. What are you doing to redress this?
A: (The actor who played the “straight” guy.) This question came from my friend in the audience. Growing up, I was ashamed that I felt I didn't belong. I'm still trying to learn the language, but that's who I am: Tongan. Being around the Tongan people, you just embrace it and find you can do anything.
Q: What's your favourite film scene of the film?
A (These questions were answered in turn by each cast member on stage):
1. (“Maka”) Being on the roof.
2. The hymn
3. For me, when Maka has a go at me. We just kept cracking up.
4. Rehearsing the comeback flash mob.
When we walk into the classroom.
5. Just before they go to perform: “Son I'm so proud of you” I'll never get sick of hearing that in the film.
6. (Mother) My favourite scene is when I get revenge on the gangsters. And whenever respect for the mother is shown. We mothers, we call the shots. A simple look can change an opinion.
7. (Father Peter) My favourite scene, the killer look that that wives give their husbands.
Saturday 10 June
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Estonia, France, Iceland, Dir: Anna Hints 9/10
Introduction by Jenny Neighbour and Director, Anna Hints.
This is her first feature film.
Hints: Sauna is a safe space where you can be healed and heard. It is very deep part of our culture. Estonians like to sing, so sing with me.
We all sang something in Estonian with Anna Hints! It seemed to be a song grateful for very many listed things. This is the first time I have ever sung at a Sydney Film Festival.
The film begins with a series of images:
1. A woman suckling a baby – but just her torso and the baby. We do not see who she is.
2. A powerful woman breaking through the ice.
3. A woman making fire and smoke.
4. A sauna and women's legs.
The women in the sauna start talking about how they looked as girls and what their mothers and others thought of them. Then we see their bodies in longshot as they rush to a hole in the ice to bathe. They have a snow fight!
Later there is a revelation about breast cancer and surgeries but, says one of them: “The soul cannot be cut away.”
Now they are smoking meat, and the smoke is almost coming through the screen. Then the Estonian women sing.
It is interesting, though, through all the confessions and discussions so sensitively had by the women in the sauna, that they also talk about “outside” women being cruel to them.
One of the women takes talks about coming out as gay to her parents. It is a story both funny and poignant.
With Estonian parents caring must not be shown. It is a weakness.
These women all seem to speak fluently, beautifully and it is almost like poetry.
Two revealed that they had an abortion. One reveals that her mother had several abortions: “She is so ashamed. I also am ashamed.
On wife beating: “Grandmother had made her choice in favour of this man. And it was such a final choice.
On divorce: “It was frowned on, round here.”
On death, they talk about the need to wash the dead in cold water. Then it is 40 days before the soul passes.
Throughout the film, and during that discussion, we see images of an old grandmother almost totally obscured by smoke.
On having your first period: “Oh my child, nothing’s wrong. You're becoming a woman: now that your illness has started.” The film actually shows menstrual blood flowing. And: “I was only a little girl. Where does such embarrassment come from?”
On losing virginity, a woman tells the story of losing her virginity to a rape by an old disgusting man. After the assault he says “Maybe we'll meet again.” Escaping him, she is then raped again by her rescuer. Then, finally, when she got home, her mother did not believe her story. So she asks the poignant question: “I want to protect my daughter from all that. But how do I do it?”
This extremely frank film is also exquisitely poignant, but, in addition, it is very stylishly filmed, all of which adds to a singular overall effect which I found quite stunning.
Q&A with Jenny Neighbour and Anna Hints:
Q (Jenny Neighbour): Where did this film come from?
A: I come from there, and my granny. When I was 14, Grandfather had died and it was the first time I got an idea of the power of smoke sauna. Granny had found that Grandpa had cheated on her, and she let it all out in a four-hour sauna session. And then there was peace. This has a huge power.
Q: How did you get the women to agree to the filming?
A: I do not believe in persuading anyone. Only those who were enthusiastic and really wanted to participate and tell stories did participate. It is wrong to merely ask permission and then, after, saying “That's it, over to the artist.” The film was made over seven years and many women were [originally] afraid to show their faces in the film. Now that the film is known about, they point out their backs on Facebook!
Q (audience): How did the camera function in this environment?
A: Smoke sauna goes for six hours. So we used one lens inside, putting it on the floor then lifting it up every two hours to a higher plane. The other lens was outside. We lost only two lenses and the camera survived. Also we all had to hydrate, and the cinematographer had to use a wet cloth to avoid being burned by the camera.
Q: I noticed the intimate shots of hands and feet. Even acrylic nails are shown.
A: The manicure – lots of Estonian women have their nails done. It is wrong to say that they should be different to themselves. That's life. How to show the bodies? I took a lot of time. One of my degrees is in photography. I didn't want to objectify the women or give them a male gaze. Then I also trusted the cinematographer. I had already found a visual language.
Q: This film is part of a refreshing new wave of documentary. How is Estonian filmmaking evolving?
A (Anna Hints): Estonians are proud of that now. We are a small nation of only three million people. The film has been in cinemas for three months in Estonia now. We have an inferiority complex from the Soviet era and then the walls coming down. Now they're talking of a new Estonian wave. But to get money for the film? It was horrible. No one thought it was a good subject. But then it won an important award – awarded for the very things they thought was a problem!
USA, Dir: Celine Song 6/10
The film begins with one group of people being observed by a couple whom we don't see, and who commentate on who they might be and what they are saying. This is very similar to a scene we saw in Scrapper.
Cut to 24 years earlier. A little boy is friendly with a little girl, but the little girl’s family immigrates. Someone says: “If you leave something behind, you also gain something.” The immigration is to Canada. There are the usual clichéd scenes of difficulty learning language, being alone at school and so on.
12 years pass. Soldiers drill and eat a meal. It looks as if the little boy has become a soldier, doing national service. The boy’s name is Hae-sun, and the girl is Na-young. Going on Facebook, the girl finds it hard to type in Korean. Na-young is now a playwright. She replies to Hae-Sun, who has apparently been searching for her for 12 years on Facebook and otherwise. They FaceTime and Na-young says she used to cry a lot when she immigrated and “then I realised that nobody cared.” Hae-sun says: “You wanted to win the Nobel Prize,” to which Na-young replies: “Now I'm only interested in the Pulitzer.”
Na-Young goes to stay in Montauk, which she says is referenced in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Gondry). And when she gets there, it does look like it. The (out-of-place) “white guy” from the very first scene appears at Montauk. His name is Arthur. We learn that “In-ya”is a connexion made in past lives – a kind of fate. If you get married, there are 8000 layers of In-ya over 8000 Lifetimes. But it is so romantic at Montauk, and Na-young falls in love with Arthur.
12 years pass and the two writers marry. Hae-son has broken up with his girlfriend and he's going to NYC, even though he knows Na-young is married. They meet in a park by a sculpture (an echo of a childhood scene). The director just has to do a flashback! She can’t let us find out by ourselves. They've made Na-young look very tired and dishevelled as her older self. Hae-son looks really great and is a sensitive actor. Unfair!
Arthur says, rather obviously: “It's like there's this whole place inside of you I can't go,” telling her that she talks in her sleep. Well, that is the case with everyone – all couples!
Hae-son asks Na-young: “What prize do you want to win these days?”
“I haven't thought about that lately… A Tony.”
“You are still exactly the same as I remembered you.”
The Statue of Liberty equals immigration. (Who would have guessed?)
After dinner they are all now in the bar that began the film. They are the ones being observed. “You are someone who leaves,” Hae-son tells Na-young. “And I am not the person here I was in Korea.”
“To Arthur, you're someone who stays. There must be 8000 layers of In-Yun together.
Na-Young is apparently still a cry-baby.
I was not moved.
The film should have ended when Hae-son left in the Uber. Or with Na-young crying.
(I thought I noticed we saw Hae-son in a cab, not an Uber in the end).
This was a very long melodrama, predictable and without much to recommend it, other than featuring a personable, watchable young man in Hae-Son.
Jane Campion, the Cinema Woman
France, Dir: Julie Bertuccelli 7/10
This documentary appears to consist of a pastiche of other people’s interviews, rather than any interviews by Bertuccelli or any done particularly for the movie. However, it may be that the interviews of Campion on the balcony with glass balustrades above the ocean were conducted by Bertuccelli – it is never revealed. This gives the film a rather “choppy” feel.
We begin with Peel. Such a brilliant film! But it was trashed by Campion’s teachers at AFTRS. Campion says she learned from that: “You have to help people to see what you're doing. You have to take everything else away.”
Genevieve Lemon: “With all those women on Sweetie, there were all these women that you could confide in or run to if you needed to.”
On to The Piano
Campion: “Women weren't going to have power in the world – but they could have secrets. That's female culture. That's why it is a feminist statement that Ada is mute in The Piano. I was very taken with Emily Bronte. The Piano is my Wuthering Heights – very much a story of control: control of her sensuality, of her body, of her mind.
There's a very revealing sequence when we are reminded that Campion was pregnant during the presentation of the Palme d’or she won for The Piano (in a tie) and so had to do a lot of PR before and after, and then lost the baby 10 days later.
On In the Cut: Campion: “As soon as you try to make something erotic – it's not!
In summary, says Campion: “People help you – and finally you get down that road.”
In Conversation: Jane Campion with David Stratton
At the Hub.
David Stratton: We have to find something else to talk about, other than all the questions asked in the documentary.
Q: How influential, when you started, were films like My Brilliant Career?
A: I'm incredibly grateful to Gillian [Armstrong] because she did an awesome job and to Margaret Fink for producing.
Q: What films influenced you at that [later] stage?
A: Our careers were in parallel [ie David Stratton and Jane Campion] and yet we never exchanged phone numbers. My mum took me to see Belle de Jour when I was about 13. It really resonated with me because it showed the perversity of humans. He [Bunuel] saw the world as I see it – quite surreal. A real eye-opener for me! And with my dad, I saw Performance by Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel. A really grown-up film – images in it which have stayed with me. I was just 16.
Q: You are involved in Wellington in a pop-up film school?
A: When travelling the world with The Power of the Dog I reflected on my life and how privileged I was to have a life in film and thanks to the enlightened atmosphere of Australia and Gough Whitlam with free education and free film school. Netflix asked me what I wanted to do next, and I said a pop-up film school. They spent $2,000,000 on it. Doing it with Philippa Campbell (producer, Top of the Lake). It's run on a series of briefs. Eg to make a short piece, 10 minutes, visual image and voiceover. Work until you find something that feels true to you.
Q: Some say you can't teach film and you need something more.
A: It's a fascinating thing to try and do and they're all film lovers. We don't want more Jane Campions. Just to give them the opportunity to do something (rather than to teach). They influence and help and support each other.
Q: Short films at AF TRS. Peel won the Palm d’or at Cannes. Pierre Rissient was a good friend of mine. You talk about him in the doco. At Cannes after the official screening of Sweetie you were distraught as people booed. “But the right people liked it,” said Pierre Rissient.
A: Sweetie was a film that you make when you don't know what you're doing. It was about Gerard’s [Lee, writer and boyfriend] and my families and our relationship too.
Q: We showed An Angel at my Table at Sydney Film Festival.
A: The film broke down twice in the first section. But it didn't break down again. It has the most extraordinary audience response and that's why it had a commercial release. At the screening there was an elegant “signorina” sitting next to me. I thought: what was she doing there? At a moving point of the film she gripped my hand and cried out! Janet Frame was so able to express vulnerability.
Q: The Piano is a remarkable film which holds up wonderfully well. Sam Neill, Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel. Why cast him?
A: Jan [Chapman, producer] and I were in a good place. We had funding from CB2000 with no restriction on casting. Harvey Keitel was not a “movie star” but he was a really good actor. He brings strength, commitment. He taught me so much about how to rehearse with actors. I called other actors after interviewing Harvey Keitel and I called one of them “Harvey” by accident! He was so passionate about wanting the part. We've become really close friends. We opened up to each other deeply.
Q: How did you find Anna Paquin?
A: The casting agent Di Reeve found her. She did a call out to schools. Anna Paquin came with her sister, 11, and Anna did an audition too. I thought that the plot was too complex for a little girl. But when I saw Anna Paquin's audition – it is the performance you see in the film. Q: The Portrait of a Lady has an amazing cast: John Malkovich, John Gielgud, Barbara Hershey, Viggo Mortensen, etc. How was working with Shelley Winters?
A: She was elderly, and she brought her Oscars with her! “Marlon Brando's been in here!” she said, pointing under her skirt. She had really had actors’ anxiety.
Q: It was filmed in England and Italy, but would this be out of your comfort zone?
A: I don't know where my comfort zone is actually. I'd been at art school in London and I spoke a bit of Italian. I love the places we were. Janet Patterson, costume designer, was instrumental in getting us going – with location scouting, among other things.
Q: Nicole Kidman was to be in In the Cut.
A: [Producer] Laura Jones read the book and brought it to me. A female dark detective story. Nicole read it and found that the rights were available, and she was getting them. “Do you want to do it?” I thought “This is going to be hell.” I got Laurie Parker [producer] to help me work it out. But then Nicole couldn't do it because of breaking up with Tom [Cruise]. Then I was told Meg Ryan could do it. Problem: she was America's sweetheart.
Q: Was that a problem?
Q: it's unlike any other film you've done. But it has a number of your themes.
A: I was trying to be faithful to the book, which is even more poignant in the ending. Susanna Moore, the novelist, and I became friends and she took the research a long way (she had an affair with one of the detectives. The book finishes differently from how I was allowed to do it. Pathé etc didn't want Amy to die in the end of the film.
Q: Holy Smoke – where did the idea come from?
A: I've always been a bit of a Buddhist. How the mind works, how it believes. Love is a kind of belief system. She follows a guru and they want to deprogram her back to their preferred behaviour. Trying to find [a signal?] to guide you. And sexual politics.
Q: Working with Harvey Keitel again.
A: He was worried about the red dress. But he did it brilliantly.
Q: On Two Friends for the ABC you had problems with the assigned cinematographer. You worked three times with Stuart Dryburgh, once with Sally Bongers, once with Greig Fraser, twice with Dion Beebe, once with Ari Wagner. How important is it to get on with your cinematographer?
A: Very! I also worked with Adam Arkapaw. That part has to work. You have to have an easy sharing of ideas, and complete commitment to the film. I didn't know Stuart Dryburgh at all but he has the most beautiful lighting design because of his experience as a gaffer.
Q: We must talk about Bright Star. But what is the relationship between critic and filmmaker?
A: Our relationship? He's like an Ingmar Bergman character to me.
A: I always wanted my “priest” to approach appreciate what I'd made, like a dog bringing a bird to its master. I was afraid to become friends with David Stratton because I would have hated it if he didn't like my film. David knows everything and more than I did.
Q: Over lunch today, we had an issue over Top of the Lake. [Jane loved it and David thought it was a bit “bloated.”]
Q: Bright Star, which I really do love. I found it in an incredibly moving film. What drew you to that subject?
A: When I was doing In the Cut I thought I'd better read a book about a poet. At the end of the book I just sobbed and sobbed.
Q: I love westerns and I love The Power of the Dog. What drew you to it?
A: I just loved the book. The characters are mapped out and then there's a twist that you don't see coming. At the end you have to go back (domino effect) and have to re-examine the whole film again. The character of Phil is very sad.
Q: How do you feel about people seeing the film on Netflix rather than at the cinema.
A: Film is more powerful on screen, but as the film came out during Covid, we were lucky in a way.
Q: Sam Elliott thought a woman – a foreign woman – was incapable of directing a western.
A: We all say stupid things. Thomas Savage really was a cowboy, a gay cowboy, and he really grew up in Montana – and Sam Elliott didn't!
Q (audience): I go to AFTRS and I was in the front row and locked eyes with you. Thank you! My favourite thing is your decomposition of whatever you are approaching (he gave numerous examples). How do you do find a topic?
A: It sounds like you already know. Your energy will draw you to it.
Q: Re Sweetie: When you were demoralised by the booing. How was your experience as President at Cannes?
A: Much better! Being vulnerable is tough work. I'm not good at it. It is important to recognise the importance of the moment for filmmakers. Cannes is very clean of influence. There are no backroom strong arms, no brokering deals. All the jury members watched all of films and so they deserve a say. There were not a lot of shifting views. Sofia Coppola noticed I didn’t have much to wear, and got me a wardrobe of Celine shirts! A lot of times, the very best films don't win anything. The Prize, on the other side, doesn't mean a lot.
Q: Your collaboration with Cate Blanchett. Do you often make a film with a particular actress in mind?
A: It often happens. It is a beautiful thing.
Q: Any advice for standing your ground as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
A: Make it the biggest thing in your life and don't bother with the rest. Your job is to be here with your films. It is hard, but try the lens of “I really want to do it.”
Q: I'm from Wellington and saw your talk to the Katherine Mansfield Society about how important literature is to you. How do you stay true to an author when you have your own views?
A: You really want someone with a fire to bring something to your work, not just be totally accurate. For example, The Power of the Dog. I went to Montana, I saw the dog, I talked to Tom Savage’s relatives and Annie Proulx about his literature. The fact that I liked the book helped. Actually, I probably did love everything about the book. We may have done things to the book to make the stories tighter. Get some skills together to bring something to it!
Wednesday 14 June
The Eternal Memory
Chile, Dir: Maite Alberdi 8/10
A woman wakes a man in bed, telling him that she is there to help him remember who he was. At first we think the woman is some kind of nurse, but it transpires that this is Pauli, who is married to Augusto. Both are quite eminent Chileans: Pauli is an actress who was once Minister of Culture under Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Augusto was a prominent journalist during very troubled times in Chile.
The title cards are very evocative, in that no sooner do we read them than they fade away.
Although Pauli seems very attentive and kind and endlessly patient, she also occasionally tends to patronise Augusto, and this worried me. Did she have any proper training? But on the whole she seems to be extremely caring and beneficial and there is no doubt that they are deeply in love with each other. Clearly this is a second marriage and there are hints of difficulties between the first wife and the two children and Pauli. However the film does not pursue this aspect of the story.
The other thing that the film does not make clear, is who is doing the filming. It is clear that sometimes Pauli and even Augusto are filming. However, in the more professional sequences, it must be the film crew. This raises questions of consent. Had Augusto consented to the filming, and did he have capacity to consent at that time? Does that consent now cover later sequences?
Augusto says he loves life and is mostly upbeat. We sometimes see flashbacks of Augusto doing interviews and appearing on television. We also see him participating in Pauli’s rehearsals – which must have caused occasional problems, but we do not see any of these. Pauli often asks “Do you remember...?” and Augusto occasionally replies, without irony: “Yes, how could I not?” But this is extremely poignant for we who know that he does not remember everything.
It is both interesting and worrying when we see the trouble that Augusto sometimes has with his reflection, either in a window or in a mirror. It seems to upset him, and he gets occasionally “anguished.” “No, you are not you,” he tells Pauli. At this point she tries to argue or use logic on him, and it is not useful. However, later, he's seen dancing, so this anguished feeling has obviously passed.
What is quite remarkable is the amount of wisdom he speaks when he is obviously having an episode of dementia. He accuses her of being the imposter and asks “Why did this happen to me? But they [my friends] love me.” He’s asking why they have left him alone.
The importance of books is also dealt with: “My books are me, and my friends,” says Augusto. And when we finally find that the title of the book he co-wrote is “Chile: The Forbidden Memory,” we realise, with irony, how important memory was to him and how important it was for this film to be made. In the book it says: “Without memory, there is no identity – and there will be no reconciliation.”
The end titles fade away as did the opening ones.
This film is both moving and disturbing. But there is no doubt about the intimacy of the access involved and the willingness of at least one the participants to bear both of their souls for the greater good. I only hope Augusto Gongora would agree. He died on 19 May 2023 at the age of 71.
Iran, Dir: Jafar Panahi 8/10
The cleverness and style of this film is evident from the very first scene. A scene plays out involving two people in a small-town street and cafe and, just as we are getting engaged, a director calls “cut.” We realise that we are watching a film within a film. This director films almost anything he sees and if he does not have a film camera he photographs it. If he is not at an event he sends someone with a camera to film it. It seems that director Panahi is quite self-critical about his camera obsession.
In addition, there is an assistant director who is the one filming the fictional film. He does location scouting but he is not confident enough to decide for himself, so he asks Panahi to come with him to the border to look at a proposed town just over the border in Turkey. We know that the director is not permitted to leave Iran to enter Turkey (just as in real life Panahi may not leave Iran). At this point we're beginning to wonder whether the filming in Turkey is real or part of the story.
The plot thickens when village elders get involved in a forbidden romance between a young couple in the town, whom Panahi may or may not have photographed. The escalation of this dispute is both hilarious and dangerous. Panahi maintains his equanimity throughout. Absurdities abound including when he shows the elders that he has no photo, but he is still required to take an oath to prove it. Then he's told “Even lying under oath is acceptable, as long as it leads to peacemaking.” Clever Panahi asks the villagers if he can film his oath, rather than swearing on the Quran. But now they want him to speak in Azari. He says he can't do it well enough. Will they ever be satisfied?
One aspect of this story is similar to that in Snow and the Bear (notes follow below). The villagers tell Panahi that he should not go out into the countryside because there are bears. Later someone says “There are no bears. These are stories made up to make us afraid.” A similar thing is said in Snow and the Bear.
In the meantime, the fictional story of the romance of the other couple in Turkey continues, but even this spills over into reality, resulting in insoluble problems for the director, and a tragedy for the couple. There's a nice use of a car’s reversing camera to watch a motorbike go off into the distance. I have never seen this in a film before. There's also a moving scene in which someone's body is found, and that person's partner reacts emotionally. The assistant director is filming this scene and just at the moment of emotion he yells “cut.” Another issue of consent.
This film is so “meta,” one could get very confused, but Panahi is too adroit a director to allow that to happen. All in all, satisfying experience.
The Mother of All Lies
Morocco, Dir: Asmae El Moudir 8/10
Introduction by Jenny Neighbour and the Director:
Asmae El Moudir said that though she did not work every day on the film, shoot you up she grew up with the project and she wants to stay and watch it with the audience.
This film won the Golden Eye prize for best documentary at Cannes Film Festival and the award for best director (in Un Certain Regard). I could tell from almost the first scene that this was a real contender for the Sydney Film Prize, because the way the camera moved up and down and across the unusual background, which turned out to be a handmade miniature village populated by “dolls,” told me that there was a real eye behind that camera. It turned out that I was right, and the film did win the Sydney Film Prize.
This is a most unusual film. I have not seen anything like it since Joshua Oppenheimer 's The Act of Killing (2012) (where the director had the perpetrators of Indonesian atrocities play out their roles in those events in a staged performance, and observed their reactions).
The director presumably made this film because her grandmother forbade any pictures to be kept in the house. She said it was a sin. It seems that she did not consider the “dolls” to be realistic enough representations of their avatars to qualify for that prohibition. In 1990s Morocco, apparently, “Anyone without a photograph with Hawaii in the background couldn't claim to have any memories.” This would enable everything everyone to forget the events of 1981 which are re-enacted in this film. (In fact the grandmother only allowed one photo in the house, that of a politician she admired brackets whose name I missed).
This is another film that raises the issue of consent, in that the director has enticed people to re-enact terrible times in their past. Can she be held responsible for the consequences of those re-enactments? Are people able to consent when they are unaware of what their reactions might be?
There's an amazing scene in which granny does agree to have her portrait painted (I'm not sure why she relented. Perhaps vanity.) But the result is disastrous: she doesn't like the portrait and she smashes with her cane the glass on which it is painted.
Various re-enactments take place and a story of the bread riots from 1981 and the police, army and government atrocities is told in piece-meal form, but very effectively. At the end of the film the family is moving out of the space in which all the re-enactments take place and it looks as if the grandmother is staying. The film ends with the director saying “Don't tell my grandmother I am the filmmaker.” She will know now (and in fact went to Cannes!).
This is a film unlike any that I have seen, though there is another film, a Cambodian film from 2013 called “The Missing Picture,” in which doll-like figures are also used. I haven’t seen it.
Q&A with the director and Sandy George:
Q (Sandy George): Did you exaggerate your grandmother?
A: Dad loved her. She cried, she was hard, she's like my country. It was how she could love her family. Talking about grandmother is like talking about Morocco. And it is important to respect her. She never really cries.
Q: Why did she cry?
A: it was like therapy (I don't like the term). Someone with no memory cannot talk about the future. I discovered things. I started with the intimate story. When I was 16, I found that this event took place in this neighbourhood. There are links between the intimate and the national story.
Q (audience): Your father, the artist figure. He was practising art therapy/ Jungian psychotherapy. Then other relatives joined, and it became family therapy. Then it became group therapy. A lot of healing came out of it.
A: Thank you.
Q: The space where the models were made and the people congregated. Were you living in that building?
A: I started filming in 2013. I created my own. I wasn't aware that I was creating an archive. I started to film with parents and neighbours and relatives til 2017. Then in 2018, I started to look for money. I like to work with objects, making objects talk. The film was made in what I call the “laboratory”. I couldn't accept money from someone who would put me on a timetable. It was not easy, but we finally did it. The process of the film is part of the film. Q: Did you all live together?
A: We used to live together but not anymore.
Q: The pain from the past. Is it being dealt with?
A: Yes, because we have a new King who wants reconciliation with the past. The young generation can talk about these things. I hope it (the film) will be shown in Marrakesh.
Q: Has your grandmother seen it?
A: Yes. In Cannes. It was sold out. I didn't know what her reaction would be. I was happy because it was the first time she saw any film and it was her film – she was in it, at Cannes.
The facts are real, but how I tell it is my way. So it is a documentary.
Q: Given the family attitude to trauma, how did you get them to make the film?
A: The characters were not aware we were making a film. In 2013 they were just talking. They became gradually aware of my (small) camera. Grandmother wouldn't be in the film, but then I said I'd get an actress to play her in that film. It worked! She travelled to Cannes. It was only the second trip she'd made in her life. It was very nice to have the reconciliation in the family, but also to have this confrontation.
Q: I love your direction. How did you get her [grandmother] to participate? Does she now call you “filmmaker.”
A: At some stage she just began to play herself. Once she accepted to be in it, I didn't ask her anything else about what to do because I knew she'd refuse. I was there, I was provoking things. She would only nod to me and not speak.
Thursday 15 June
Sri Lanka, Dir: Visakesa Chanrasekaram 8/10
Introduction by Nishen Moodley and Visakesa Chanrasekaram
Nishen: This film looks at the lingering aftermath of civil war: it is a delicate and powerful film.
Director: more than 40,000 civilians were massacred in the final part of the civil war [in Sri Lanka]. Many thousands were taken by the military and never came back stop we will have a Q&A afterwards.
The film begins on a beach: two people are lying there, both presumably wounded. Later we see that this is a Tamil Tiger rebel, Rudran, who later appears in court, having been stranded. He has suffered a bad wound in his right leg from which he has not recovered, and so his lawyers are able to secure him bail, which is an unusual thing to be granted to Tamil Tigers. It is only because of his wound and the fact that he is released to his mother's care that this happens.
On the way home he wears a picture of a girl around his neck, given to him by his mother. There's a beautiful long shot of landscape and sky while mother and son ride bike across the landscape discussing events, and the possibility of Rudran receiving a prosthetic leg. We will soon learn that the picture he has round his neck is of his intended wife. However there are obstacles.
A physio at hospital helps him with a prosthetic leg but also helps him to trace his girlfriend. There are fascinating scenes when he returns to court in which various languages are used and no real evidence is presented of his guilt other than mere allegations. His lawyer, who does not have much confidence in him, at least requires that evidence be provided or she will have to prove that he was tortured, which can only be done by a medical report. She succeeds in this, and the medical report will eventually prove, poignantly, the extent of his tortures. (The director later explained that this is a real medical report that had been read out verbatim in real court).
Many of Rudran’s friends want to take a boat to Australia. They convince, Rudran, who is a stubborn man, that they must all do an arduous climb in order to purify themselves to be worthy of this trip to Australia. In the meantime, Rudran’s intended wife, Vaalia, is leaving for overseas: either to the UK, Canada, or Australia, we don't know which. The village guard asks her father if he is exporting brides. On the way back from the climb, Rudran sees that Vaalia has gone. He burns his box of mementoes of her and also tries to burn his prosthetic leg, but his mother saves it.
Rudran's mother is a “seer” and conduct religious rituals, in which she will predict what the Mother Goddess's attitude is to various requests from villagers. There is a fascinating aspect to this film involving the interplay of religious devotion – which is real, sincere and palpable – and superstition. This recurs in the final flashback of the film.
The Sri Lankan boys talk about the boats to Australia being blocked. His mother falls over in the garden and Rudran is forced to get his prosthetic leg back and do for her what she has always done for him. In a memorable scene the plastic bag that they have used to get their shopping is used to protect the mother's leg while bathing. But Rudran explains how you can use a plastic bag to kill someone. This is simply matter-of-fact, and we know that Rudran knows much more about killing than he lets on.
In a final flashback to the film’s beginning scenes, we see Rudran’s mother, guarded by the Mother Goddess, saving Rudran by building a sledge/boat and pulling him over the sand and out to sea.
Q&A with Nishen Moodley and director Visakesa Chanrasekaram
Q (Nishen): On the casting: It's an extraordinarily haunting performance by Rudran. I know it is his first role. What was the process of casting him?
A: He wanted to be a superstar. He had a social media site called “Only superstar.” It was quite a journey for him. This was not Bollywood, as he intended. Now, it is a very serious role. It is changing the tone of his career. He went through the war and didn't want to talk about it. One uncle of his had two legs amputated – the crutches he uses in the film are his uncles. He wanted to forget the war, but this film reminded him of it. We workshopped with him for a month.
Q: You were a human rights worker in Sri Lanka?
A: Yes, I worked there after I went to law school, then came to Australia for a long time. The medical report in the film is real. Justice in Sri Lanka is very polarised. It is very hard to reconcile between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. I don't have faith in the old generation to find justice and reconciliation, but I have faith in the youth.
Q: You have both Sinhalese and Tamil background. How do you negotiate that?
A: I have mixed heritage. I am blessed to have a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father. I speak both languages. I try to see both sides, be objective, rather than taking sides. I try my best to work with local people. The film was made by the cast and crew who were locals we trained up. It is a homegrown Tamil film.
Q (audience): How did you make the film at a difficult time?
A: it was 100% self-financed; people contributed their talents for free – unless we make a profit. Galle Face was an event where thousands of young people occupied buildings and demanded the resignation of the government. This was called “the occupied moment.” and is referred to in the film. I was involved in that, in the south. Shortly afterwards we were filming in the north. Everything became very expensive. I wondered, should we continue? It was just like the civil war again. Should we film again tomorrow? We got food, diesel and petrol illegally, to have a backup. The South was burning but the north was relatively quiet. So we went north.
Q: The use of silence: indicating what was beneath. Between the couple, of the mother, what couldn't be conveyed. The boy asked the girl to “please talk to me.”?
A: It is exactly the trauma, and the difficulty of showing the events because of the shame associated with the community. The struggle went on for 30 years and they fought the government and then lost. This created shame, plus there was torture and sexual abuse which is also shameful. There was a self-imposed silence code.
Q: What is the significance of “sand”?
A: The term is significant in both Sinhalese and Tamil. It means that you are so low that people walk over you. Also it refers to the nature of that land. It is very dry with little water (unlike the rest of Sri Lanka). It signifies the harsh conditions of the place. There was a “no fire” zone nearby where the government said you wouldn't be attacked. But that was not true and there was a massacre. That was a sandy area.
Germany, Dir: Christian Petzold 9/10
Two boys in a car. The car breaks down and there's no mobile phone signal. One boy is overweight, pale and weak-looking. He is German. The other one is a wiry resourceful person of African extraction. This looks like cliché. But we don't know when this is taking place because the house to which the boys eventually go contains a turntable and LP records. But we know there are mobile phones. It turns out that the African fellow, Felix, has the connexion with the house – his father built it. What is meant to be a weekend of work for the two boys is turned on its head when it transpires that a young woman is also staying at the house, having been authorised by Felix's mother. The German fellow, Leon, is overly perturbed about this: he's worried he will not get any work done. He whinges about everything.
Over the period of a few days many things happen in this film, as the relationships of the three central characters, plus another two interlopers: the lifesaver boyfriend of the girl and the publisher of Leon’s books arrive. Throughout it all, Leon is anxious, unable to work efficiently, unable to sleep at night, and increasingly worried. He even ignores (or pushes away) the approaches of the girl, Nadja, who is kind to him and seems to invite more attention from him. Felix is relaxed and embraces the beautiful location. He doesn’t appear to work, but he is thinking.
What all the characters miss is the growing signs of fire. As an Australian, living in the Bush, this was anathema to me. The scene where ash descends on the house was enough to make my hair stand on end and I called out “ash!” I knew that they should be leaving instantly. However none of them does, and tragedy ensues.
Some of the Festival-goers remarked to me that they thought the character of Leon was unbelievably unobservant for a writer. But I didn't see it that way. I saw a writer who was completely paralysed by fear of failure and aware of impending doom as regards the fate of his book. But then, all the characters were deluded and unobservant about the fire. The only observant person really was the publisher who was extremely wise and perceptive, even about the photographic portfolio of Felix. I think this film is ultimately about comfortable people ignoring impending disaster, perhaps due to climate change (including all the other tourists in the area, who all seem blissfully ignorant).
After a long, but fascinating, lead-up, the film ends suddenly in tragedy. However Leon is able to write a new book and that book uses the girl, Nadja's, image as its conclusion (which I found rather odd) but accepted.
A coda with Leon observing Nadja in a wheelchair left me a bit confused. However, the overall effect of this film was a slow build-up towards impending doom and poignant tragedy, resulting in overwhelming emotion.
Snow and the Bear
Turkey, Germany, Serbia, Dir: Selcen Ergun 9/10
Introduction by Nishen Moodley and director Selcen Ergun:
The director remarked on her long flight from Istanbul (don't they ever realise that all our flights are long?). She hoped that we would feel the cold in her film as much as they felt when they were shooting it.
The film begins with a quote: “To all that is waiting with hope for an endless winter to cease.”
A nurse arrives through the dangerous snow in a little car, to preside over a clinic in a tiny town where the doctor has not yet arrived. She is very competent, but the patients are feisty. On the radio, there’s a story about a bear who may have dug up a grave. A bat bites a soldier. Soldiers seem to run this town.
Bears are important in this film. Are there really bears (see the earlier film, No Bears) or aren’t there? Hasan, the husband of a pregnant woman who attends the clinic had apparently shot a bear that was already caught in a trap, and was dobbed in by a loner character, Samet. Samet goes out into the forest and feeds the bears and other animals. He is their champion.
The nurse tries to be independent and is very strong, but she clashes with Hasan when, drunk, he follows her home one night. She lashes out at him, and he falls over and disappears. The disappearance is a problem and suspicion falls on Samet. Samet tells the nurse a story about his father confronting a bear which put its arms out seemingly begging for mercy. The father thought “I have a rifle. I should use it.” So he killed the bear. The bear then lashed out and attacked him. Samet tells the nurse “My father said: ‘I used to blame the bear but now I realise I was at fault.’”
The nurse suspects Samet was wanting to hurt (or get revenge on) her attacker, Hasan, and confronts Samet. But the story is more complicated than that. Samet tells her “It's all right, I've taken care of it.” Eventually Hasan's body is found. They all assume he fell down drunk and was taken by a bear (“It must be the brother of the bear he killed.”) The search party kills a nearby bear and we realise that that bear died in the place of the nurse and Samet, taking on their guilt.
This is an extremely atmospheric, stylish and thoughtful film with an extraordinary setting and a nice blend of suspicion, myth and reality, combined with a mystery and a power struggle waged by a modern young woman who wants to take control of her life, fighting against patriarchy and tradition.
Q&A with Nishen and director Selcen Ergun:
Q (Nishen): This film is about not feeling safe – insecurity. Maybe they are afraid of the bears, maybe not.
A: I started to write it from two sources in 2018. Feeling not safe for young women in Turkey, you can also feel pressure in the air. Also, how we treat nature and all creatures. You don't choose a subject, that subject chooses you. I wanted it in a small microcosm, small town, isolated.
Q (audience): Where was it shot?
A: In a distant part of Turkey, close to Georgia, a high mountain town. Snow. I liked the texture of the town – it was out of place, like a dark fairy tale.
Q: I've been paying attention to film music. There was not much music in it.
A: I wanted the sounds of nature as a soundscape and then I wanted the music to dissolve into the soundscape. The sound designer made music out of the wind and animal sounds. I wanted the sounds of nature in an open environment.
Q: 1. The insecurity of women in most parts of the world.
2. How city people treat the world / bears. At one point someone says how townspeople don't want to take the blame. We blame the odd man out.
A: There's like a male team. The bear: your enemy or a relation or another person. We tend to put the blame on the outsider. The nurse, and Samet. We don't blame ourselves.
Q: Are there bears in Turkey?
A: I speak their language! Yes, especially in this region. The story of the father of Samet is a true story and so is the story of the grave-robbing bear. We didn't kill any bears of course.
Q: The cinematography and focus-pulling was fantastic. How did you do this?
A: The hardest part was shooting under the harsh conditions. Nature, climate change all affected us. In Turkey there is less and less snow, so we had to go to a mountainous region, because the temperatures have increased elsewhere. Often we couldn't shoot until noon because we couldn't get out of the hotel. There was a struggle with nature for our team. The cinematographer had shot commercials before this.
Q: Thanks for two things:
1. A story from Turkey (I grew up there).
2. I felt like it wasn't a story. It was actually happening before me. Writing a story, having an idea, not fully-formed. What was your process to realise it?
A colon: From the beginning I knew the atmosphere I wanted. A small space, both open and claustrophobic. A young woman coming to a place. Other things come step by step. I experience things and I write them into the story – all the metaphoric layers.
Q: The killing of the bear is like a suicidal act in the face of the madness around. The bear is a spiritual creature...
A: In Turkish culture, the bear is represented as a spirit of the forest / nature. It is also like the killing of innocents.
Q: What were the biggest challenges, e.g. 2019; and the biggest highlights?
A: It’s like waves coming at you. From the beginning it was a challenge, even becoming a filmmaker in Turkey, finding funding and getting an international release are all the challenge. There was a long process of financing. Shooting the film in the conditions: it was craziness for a first film. But (as I said) the film chose me. In post-production [because of Covid] we didn't know if the film could be shown in public or on a big screen (or just on TV).
Q: 1. All the male actors look very authentic. Are they local or professional?
2. Have you a new project?
A: 1. Some actors were local, from the village: the search party, the woman in the coffee cup scene, they were all non-professional. They brought the feeling of the village to the film.
2. A new project, yes, I have developed something…
Pictures of Ghosts
Brazil, Dir: Kleber Mendonça Filho 7/10
Beautiful old footage of Brazil from the 1920s and then still pictures from the following years. The film is about the history of the various neighbourhoods of Recife, the fourth largest city in Brazil with an old town centre dating back to the 16th century. The film is in three parts.
Part 1: the Steubal apartments where the director’s family lived. The director's mother is a historian, ahead of her time, talking years ago about oral history. The director mines his films for scenes picturing his apartment and the area in general.
Part 2: the cinemas of downtown.
Part 3: the churches and holy ghosts.
The film Is impressionistic rather than narrative, and gives a great overall feel of this lost history as captured by the director over the years. Probably Part 3 was otiose as it did not add much to an appreciation of the history of Recife, but just added a few details worth noting. The film has a great finish with an actor playing the part of an Uber driver who disappears (like the history and the buildings) as the Herb Alpert tune “Rise” memorably plays in the car.
Friday 16 June
United Kingdom, Dir: Georgia Oakley 8/10
Preceded by a short film: Love Forever, Director: Clare Young
This was a stylish- looking film, which was vaguely reminiscent of Jane Campion in fact. In fact, Jane Campion executive produced this film. However, the film was marred by a dull narration by the leading character.
Blue Jean was presented by BBC and BFI films. It concerns lesbian characters in the Margaret Thatcher era in Britain, when “clause 28” was introduced in Britain to prohibit “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools.
The film stars Rosy McEwen, who is absolutely pristine, while all the other (adult) lesbian characters are heavily tattooed, pierced, eccentric, or otherwise exaggerated. It's a particularly marked contrast and I don't know why. It seemed to me that there were too many tattoos altogether for the 1980s, but I could be wrong. I missed a lot of the dialogue because of the accents but also because of the recording of the sound. On the television in the background, the programme “Blind Date” is usually playing, reminding us of the heterosexual status quo in dating at the time. The film is suffused with tints of blue. I doubt that the expression “What does that even mean?” was used in the 1980s. Also, the school PE department is enormous. How big must the school itself be?
More seriously, I worry about consent issues in this film. The film seems to be saying that older lesbians must set the example for younger lesbians by coming out and being confident in their sexuality. However, in the final scenes, the young lesbian girl, Lois, is taken to a party and given alcohol and left to her own devices at a party with older women. We do not know whether she will return to school, be accepted by her family and so on. Many things are left unsaid. How can they resolve the problem of Lois’s suspension? Will Viv come back to Jean? Should she? What about Siobhan (the other young lesbian girl at school)? The filmmakers seem to think we only care about Jean. That all that is needed is for Jean to come out and the rest would follow.
I also want to note that the end-credits of the film were dreadful and unreadable because they were both left and right justified which breaks all the rules of design for comprehension.
Despite all my criticism of details, on the whole I enjoyed Blue Jean. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the film that I began to quibble.
India, Dir: Devashish Makhija 7/10
Introduction by director Makhija and Rajshri Deshpande, the actor who played Mukta, the villain’s (Karma’s) offsider
The indigenous population in India is constantly being displaced by development. This film is an attempt to bring that before the public, and to create a difficult discussion.
The film opens with a song, and girl on a swing. Is this a nod to Satyajit Ray?
The next scene contains one of the greatest surprises of the Film Festival: on a work site where various people are working under very difficult and arduous conditions, a woman emerges from a pit with a parcel on her back. The parcel turns out to be a baby! This is Joram.
This is a complicated but gripping tale of the displacement of a little family whose claim to their native land is lost in the mists of time. Much luck the indigenous Australians, they belong to their land and it belongs to them, but others claim they do not own it. The story tells both of the greedy and amoral types who push the development of this tribal land, contrary to the claims of the indigenous peoples and to the detriment of the environment. It also tells of and those indigenous peoples who betray their own peoples and collaborate with the developers.
Once again my notes of this film are fairly sparse because it was so exciting. Once the chase begins, which does not take long, the film plunges headlong into a series of setbacks for Joram's father, Dasru. They are pursued by the put-upon Mumbai policeman Ratnakar (a wonderful performance by Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub) who is barely allowed to sleep in pursuit of Dasru.
The fill takes a bit too long to get to the denouement, but it never drags. The denouement is fast and furious with a shootout set in a mine where blasting is taking place. The ending is equivocal: although the (female) villain, Karma, is caught up with and meets a grisly fate, there's a stunning moment where a tear rolls down her face, most unexpectedly, and we see her humanity as a mother who has lost her son. The film ends with Dasra carrying Joram off into the jungle. Will they survive? Will the jungle shelter them? Or will the indigenous people be forever displaced?
This engaging and intriguing film is probably a tad too long. The points were made and did not need to be laboured. Otherwise I would have scored it higher.
Q&A with Nishan Moodley, director Makhija and Rajshri Deshpande
Q (Nishen): I know you wanted to bring to the mainstream these stories of the dispossessed, but you had to work with a major studio. How was that?
A: I wrote the story in 2014. I tried to set it up in 2016, 2017, 2019. I finally got lucky when a studio was trying to change its game. I got a quick greenlight. For a film like this, specifically in Bombay, they don't want to feel bad about the world. If one political film gets made, it is a miracle each time.
Q: Did you always envisage it so big? Or was it just the big studio?
A: It was mostly me, but big studios also result in a bit of recalibration. I won't discourage that because it gives my story a much wider reach. This time the studio allowed the heart to come through. Earlier, you were talking about “mainstream” and “marginal” (I shouldn't have used the word “marginal”). It really only refers to people who don't get heard by the “mainstream.”
Q (audience): I've come across this sort of corruption in India over many years. Today Arundathi Roy is talking about the troubles and I hope your story gets out because it takes lots of courage.
A: Thank you.
Q: The role of women in the film. The women are strong but it is also misogynistic, because they get killed on screen.
A: The bad guy was a man when I first wrote it. When the studio came on board the bad guy was still a man. But I rewrote it to bring in a lot more female energy. Karma [the villainess] comes across with a certain amount of misogyny, but she has come out of the patriarchy and she would have trouble getting out of the patriarchy. I worked a lot with the actors.
A: (Mukta, the aide to Karma): when we were brought in we actors began to jam on every aspect of our characters, even the costumes. We wanted to build a world. It [the tribal lifestyle] had become obsolete in the area I went to, and I could hardly find anything [of the tribal ways]. For example, the face jewellery – the tribal people left there mocked me for wearing it. They said it was so old fashioned!
Q: It is amazing to see a non-Bollywood depiction of India (I am Indian). What sort of films did you get inspired by to make this?
A: I'm not a big fan of watching movies! I like art, poetry, music. India is so huge but the states don't share anything cultural. So I had to undertake this journey and I chose early on not to get too much involved with realism. So I can be the bridge between people who don't know about these things.
Q: Please talk about the music.
A: The music was a huge challenge. When you watch the rushes, you know you want music. For example, Eyes Wide Shut is a relationship film with spooky music. The music subverts the story. I wanted it to be different – to make the audience feel scared, on edge. I was trying to find that haunting, borderline-supernatural film music.
Q: Was there an event that triggered the script?
A: Too many to count! Especially when travelling in the area. You can read news items, but if you experience it, it is different. Now English, Hindi and [individual] state languages are official languages in each state, but the tribals don't understand the state language so they don't get their rights. I acted as language-mediator in various cases to help the tribals. 70 to 75 people went missing in one village and the police didn't say where they went. At one police station, all the complaints (paperwork) about these cases went missing. I intervened.
Q (Nishen): the Indian programme this year is very strong. Joram, Kennedy and The Winter Within paint a picture of India that goes against the “India shines” campaign and the economic machine.
A: Cinema is one of the many arts I've dabbled in. Cinema leaches out to people the way other media can't. The fact that the system is quote “f***ed” – cinema can get the message out. Cinema moves and cinema is eternal. I want to create a “people’s history” of events, which the government or the media won't do.
USA, Dir: Jennifer Tiexiera, Camilla Hall 6/10
This film investigates the “subjects” of various well-known documentaries from the last few years and asks them (and some of the film makers, plus a few “talking heads”) about their experiences and what being in a film about their lives had meant for them. It begins with The Staircase (2004, Lestrade) and continues on to deal with The Square (2013, Noujaim), Hoop Dreams (1994, James) The Wolf Pack (2015, Moselle), Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Jarecki) and Minding the Gap (2018, Liu). I have seen many of these documentaries, so I was very keen to hear what the subjects had to say. Other documentary films are also referenced throughout.
Unfortunately, though interesting, as a documentary it is not a patch on any of its “subjects.” There are lots of facts and lots of assertions, and we do find out what happened to many of the subjects in terms of the simple facts about their lives. But, apart perhaps from Margie Ratliff from The Staircase, the film does not go much deeper. And even in her case there are still questions unanswered.
Even the talking heads and so-called experts are not much help. They are only allowed to speak in short grabs, in which it is very difficult to get any depth of analysis. All of the “subjects” were co-producers on the film, which came up in the Q&A (see below). One of the talking heads was Patricia Aufderheide, who said she had been profoundly disturbed by Capturing the Friedmans which she found very voyeuristic. Aufderheide features in my PhD thesis, as an expert on social change through documentary filmmaking.
In fact, the most conflicted of all the “subjects” is Jesse Friedman from that film, who simultaneously says that taking part in the film was the best thing that ever happened to him, but he wonders about his participation because he didn't have any say. Jesse's ex-girlfriend says that he has been a subject all of his life. We are also reminded, during the discussion of that film, that director Andrew jarecki initially told his subjects he was making a film about clowning. Once again the issue of consent raises its head.
The very watchable and engaging Mukunder Angulo (from The Wolf Pack) says that he wants to be a filmmaker – but he wouldn't make a documentary! Enough said!
Q&A with Jenny Neighbour and co-producer and subject, Margie Ratliff
Q (Jenny Neighbour): When did you know that this was a film you wanted to do?
A: Definitely, there was a moment when I knew it was what I didn't want to do!
Q: You take an interesting perspective on films we've loved over the years.
1. Please talk about the line you walk and not crossing the line.
2. Did you compensate the subjects in any way?
A: 1. At first it was like – this is so interesting, we’ll just shoot and bring on the participants. Jesse [Friedman] had watched The Staircase and wanted to meet Margie and it was so emotional to meet people who been through what you'd been through. Then there was the constant blur of being in front of and behind the camera.
2. Compensation: not every film is the same. For example, a documentary about a corrupt leader. Here, if Subject makes money, the co-producers all get some points on the back end – the same points as the directors. We are also working with distributors to change their policy on compensation too.
Q (audience): Reality TV brings trauma for the contestants. Do audiences need to be more conservative in what they watch?
A: You hit the nail on the head. It's about consumption! The algorithms are constantly fed to us. Victims of crimes beg that stories aren't made about them. Participants are starting to speak up.
Q: The word “truth.” How often is the truth revealed? The truth of participants is always different to that for filmmakers.
A: That's again about journalism. The line between journalism and entertainment: the camera brings power with it. Camilla [Hall, director/producer] was a reporter for the Financial Times. When she came to LA she went: “whaa?” Jennifer [Tiexiera, director/producer] was a newspper editor for 20 years. This film is a love letter to the industry.
Q: You'll fight for your control of your image? Please update us. Was there a legal process?
A: Consent, duration of time, and implied consent are all involved. I am putting efforts into helping participants who need help. Mental health resources and counselling, etc. That organisation started as an organisation based in the US. But we want to form alliances to work with other organisations elsewhere.
Saturday 17 June
Japan, Dir: Kore-eda Hirakazu 10/10
This was my favourite film of the festival. It stood out from the others because of its cleverness, the intricacy and clarity of its storytelling, and the great humanity it showed.
Some reviews describe this as the same story being filmed from three different perspectives. I disagree. More correctly, it is the same story told three times with different emphases. In other words, the story is told selectively each time, but the basic facts never change. That makes it different from something like Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa), where the different perspectives colour the facts, which means that quite different scenarios are shown as the events in question are explored multiple times. Here, none of the details of the scenarios change at all, but additional facts are thrown into the mix. It's as if the events were viewed from an ascending drone which eventually shows us much more than we could see in close focus.
I was very glad that I came into this film fresh. That enabled me to pay attention to every detail and then pick up when those details were re-examined in another section of the film. But Hirokazu is too clever a filmmaker to tie up every loose end. In fact he makes an effort not to do so, so that the film could continue forever, showing the myriad of details that make up daily life for most people. Everyone is both a hero and a villain at times, Hirokazu seems to be saying. To judge whether someone is “good” or “bad,” you need to examine multiple scenarios and take multiple factors into account.
Being a lawyer, this really appeals to me, as we know that witnesses view the same series of events in very different ways. In addition, this film deals very significantly with consent, my theme of this year’s Film Festival. For example, Minato’s little friend (previously one of his enemies) lets Minato's mother into his house without an adult present and Minato's mother comes in. One can imagine a scenario in which this fact is extremely important. The other important thing this film seems to be saying is that we can never know what is in the mind of other people, particularly children. We cannot impute our values to them. This brings me to the title of the film: monster unquote. Who is the monster? At the end of the film, perhaps we know, perhaps we don't. And the name of the central character, Minato? Is this a reference to the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur, who was trapped in a labyrinth? Here it is a labyrinth of facts and points-of-view.
I should also mention the superb musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (his last). Vale Sakamoto! You went out at the height of your powers. And the complex web-like script was written, not by Hirokazu as is his usual practise, but by another Sakamoto: Yuji Sakamoto. Hirokazu edited, doing an incredible job of keeping plates spinning for his audience, and bringing them to rest at the right time.
For me, the filmmaker that Hirokazu most closely resembles is Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu. There was another filmmaker with tremendous empathy for human frailty. But (apart from twist on the whole premise of the film) there is another nod to Japan's most famous film director, Akira Kurosawa, in the scene where Minato’s little friend imitates the sound of a railway carriage running over the tracks. Kurosawa made a film called Dodes’ka-den (1970) whose name describes exactly that.
All the elements I've mentioned above come together to make a really superlative film – above all, a film of great humanity. And one that would repay multiple viewings.
Italy, France, Dir: Emanuele Crialese 8/10
The setting for this film in mid 1970s Rome really permeates every moment of it. It is so authentic, it doesn't appear at all art-directed. And it is really amusing, helping to make this film a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The film begins with an adolescent kid of androgynous appearance waiting for a signal from the skies. This kid makes a pentangle or star-shaped symbol in red string. Next we see doll body parts and shots of the disembodied parts of a woman. Later, we see a transcendent scene of a family setting a table to the tune of Italian pop music – choreography and all. It's Penelope Cruz is the mother, and she is completely superb. A “Supermarionation”-type kids’ show is on the TV (Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Supercar perhaps?).
The androgynous kid is “Adriana” or “Adri” who in fact introduces herself as “Andrea” (Andrew). She commits the possibly-sacrilegious act of stealing communion hosts and consuming them, in a vain attempt to conjure up a miracle. “You and dad made me wrong,”says Andrea to his mother
Andrea meets a young girl and connect with her. The girl says “I know you're a weird boy,” and Andrea kisses her. These sweet scenes unfold against a darker background: the family's father is unfaithful and has impregnated his secretary. He bullies his wife, his children and has fits of wild temper, hitting his wife. This pushes her to the edge and she has a breakdown, so dad brings in his mother to look after the family. Granny hasn't got a clue: “What a long lovely young woman you've become,” she says to Andrea, who replies “Not yet, thankfully.” There are interspersed scenes where Andrea watches pop musical shows on TV and fantasises that he takes part in them with his mother. The spectacular 1970s pop music, choreography and art direction is simply exhilarating.
A very stylish coming of age film, suffused with authenticity and sweetness.
USA, Dir: Tina Satter 4/10
An under-graduate film, perhaps. Certainly a naive one. There are some funny moments, to be sure, and some great insights into methods of interrogation. The central performance has been highly-praised, but as a practical matter it was often difficult to hear what she was saying. The film naively seems to consider all whistle-blowers to be heroes, and the script never probes below the transcript, assuming that the transcript is all that is necessary to prove the film’s case. This is emphasised by the film’s closing quote, which I did not note down verbatim, but which is along the lines of: “I took an oath to protect classified material, but I also pledged service to the American people.” Clearly, she thought she knew better than US intelligence and the US Government, and was prepared to risk the lives of servicepeople in disclosing classified information, in order to become an American hero. Clearly the filmmakers also believe that Reality made the right decision and was somehow above the law. But others might say: “Guilty as charged.”