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With this his second (and last) Festival, Artistic Director Lynden Barber has again shown an astute ability to mix the provocative with the seductive, the challenging with the entertaining, giving patrons a snapshot of the concerns and amusements of filmmakers from around the world. Andrew L. Urban samples the menu.

In a world troubled by violence, defeated by poverty, racked by intolerance and engulfed in conflict, it’s appropriate that a major film festival such as Sydney’s should gather films in which issues – ranging from climate change to terrorism and socio-political friction – get a good airing. Nowhere was this more evident than with An Inconvenient Truth (climate change), United 93 (terrorism) and Beyond Hatred (gay bashing). The first two are exemplary works; Al Gore’s slide show presents a convincing argument, but director Davis Guggenheim goes further and manages to make this slide show a decent doco, peppered with intimate personal insights about the man once known as the “next President”. The film won this year’s Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Documentary – World Cinema. (See separate story on all the winners of the Urban Cinefile Audience Awards.)

An Inconvenient Truth so stirred up the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the US, it launched a TV ad campaign to counter the film’s message about the imminent dangers of global warming, with a message to suggest that carbon dioxide is good, promoting the benefits of greenhouse gas-producing fuels. “I think it’s a good sign,” says Gore with confidence. “These commercials are unintentionally funny. They’re financed by Exxon Mobil and I hope that over time [the campaign] will be seen as one of their last gasps, but I can’t take that for granted. The role of these naysayers that receive funding from the biggest polluters on the planet has been a shameful one. Rather similar to what the tobacco companies did in trying to confuse people for years into thinking that doctors were still having a debate about whether smoking cigarettes causes lung disease…”

United 93, while not a documentary, is a dramatised re-enactment, if that’s not tautology, of the events on the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001. It hardly needs to be dramatised, after all. Director Paul Greengrass – an Englishman – has a track record of making films about political violence (Bloody Sunday, Omagh). Greengrass says his film is actually about “two hijackings that took place that day: the one we know, the other is the hijacking of a religion, through the selective quotes and omissions from the Koran. It’s a call to sleeping Muslims … the purpose of these attacks is to radicalise all Muslims.”

Both these films will be released nationally later in 2006.

"cinematic context"

These films connect us to the global concerns of filmmakers and put their work into cinematic context. Beyond Hatred, which does the same thing, is a disappointing film precisely because the subject matter is so important. Extremist right wing youth in Europe who are terrorising Arabs, gays and anyone else that is different, are a symptom of a larger malaise, and while Olivier Meyrou touches on those aspects, his film is often flabby, self indulgent and undisciplined. It’s the story of a single case, a nasty killing in Reims a few years ago, but it is still highly relevant. If only it were as effective as the subject demands. (On the other hand, several people have expressed their admiration for it…)

I am perhaps in the minority again with my reservations about Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood, which tackles the equally serious issue of teenage alienation, this time in England. It’s as tough and relevant film, superbly performed and directed with the fresh energy of An exciting new talent. My reservation is just about the fact that I find much of the strongly accented and jargon-filled dialogue incomprehensible, which is ironic because that’s exactly what young British test audiences have responded to most.

Similarly with Rian Johnson’s Brick, which explores a related and also contemporarily relevant topic: Johnson takes the film noir approach to highschool drug dealing. Having won over the Sundance jury for Originality of Vision, it arrives with high expectations. The film is certainly inventive and well paced as a noir thriller should be. But Brick loses its grip as a result of its impenetrable plot, although if I had heard more of the dialogue I may be closer to loving it.

But no film festival program can please everyone 100%; this year’s theme was ‘Go Deeper’ – an invitation to audiences to explore the program and extend their search for films that stretch their cinematic palates. And what better way to begin such a program than with Ten Canoes (in cinemas June 29, 2006), a film set in ancient Arnhem Land yet eschewing an earnest, anthropological approach, for a humane and comedic look at the human condition through the eyes of the mob who have called the place their local swamp for thousands of years. Not only does the film take us deeper into the Aboriginal culture of the Ramingining people, it does so in a surprisingly lighthearted, entertaining and accessible manner.

Lynden Barber has book-ended the Festival with a sublime contrast: the Closing Night film, Thank You For Smoking, while also funny, is a fast, furious and unfiltered satire about spin doctors in general, and a tobacco lobbyist in particular. Not only are the cultures diametrically opposed, the two films are obviously set at opposite physical extremes. Thank You For Smoking follows Jason Reitman’s multi award winning short films, Consent and In God We Trust. His writing is acerbic and he likes to score surprise goals in any direction, not just for one editorial team.

"the Festival started and ended in laughter"

So the Festival started and ended in laughter, but the laughs sandwiched a world full of pain and sorrow, not to mention love, betrayal and even period kung fu – with Ronny Yu’s Fearless, starring Jet Li as a 19th century martial arts legend, which received the Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Feature – Sidebar Program.

With the Urban Cinefile Audience Award for Best Feature – World Cinema going to Little Miss Sunshine, it’s tempting to speculate that festival audiences like to be challenged, but they do prefer to be entertained, perhaps as a respite from the troubled world. Little Miss Sunshine, a first feature from music video making husband and wife team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a road trip with a dysfunctional family – but unlike the corny work you might expect from such a scenario, this trip turns its American cultural propositions on their head. Winning isn’t everything.

Published June 29, 2006

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Thank You For Smoking





Lynden Barber

Ten Canoes

An Inconvenient Truth

United 93


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