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MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL 2007 – PREVIEW

EXPLORATORY, EDGY AND ENERGETIC
Between Sicko and This Is England, incoming director Richard Moore has built a festival program with some elements that are exploratory, edgy and energetic, reports Andrew L. Urban.


With some 300 long and short films to screen in 19 days, the Melbourne film festival program is not short on choice for patrons; but what value volume and diversity alone? For my money, a film festival needs to be exploratory, edgy and energetic. Or at least to have those elements within its program, even if for sensible reasons there has to be a range of films that have had or will have a commercial release, marking them as accessible.

As you run your eye over this year’s program, put together by incoming director Richard Moore (he of the eclectic theatre/tv/arts background), you will see examples of all these elements. First thing that caught my eye was Brand Upon the Brain! The title was an eye-catcher, of course, but Richard egged me on with this description: “Equal parts childhood reminiscence, expressionist horror movie, teen detective serial and Grand Guignol reverie, Brand Upon the Brain! is a majestic silent-style movie.

“The fictionalised story sees house painter Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) arrive by rowboat at the island that was his childhood home. As he readies himself to repaint the family lighthouse at the request of his dying mother, he is overwhelmed with the memories of a turbulent childhood.

“Shot in grainy black & white, this thought-provoking exercise in stretching film vocabulary to its limits represents Maddin’s work at its paradoxically most sophisticated and incautious. Another Maddin masterstroke that joins previous screenings at MIFF (The Saddest Music in the World, Cowards Bends the Knee) as something audiences are unlikely to forget.”

Now, if it is as memorable as The Saddest Music in the World, and as eccentric, it’s just what the festival doctor ordered! The film is part of Richard’s Forbidden Pleasures sidebar, which also includes Exterminating Angels, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s 2006 Directors Fortnight entry at Cannes, which is where I saw it. I wrote at the time: “…[it] raised eyebrows, not only for its explicit female-female sex scenes, but for the real life court case involving the filmmaker and alleged sexual indiscretions. (Life suing art? – Ed.) Beautifully photographed and voyeuristic, the film looks at a filmmaker who is screen testing actresses for his upcoming film in which he is exploring sexual taboos. There’s an unforgettable scene set in a restaurant in which one of the filmmaker’s protégées masturbates in full view of the waitress, before a second protégée discreetly removes her black underwear. But the film is strangely unerotic, and while it engages initially, eventually dissolves into pretentiousness.” But I still champion its inclusion in MIFF 2007.

Indeed, this section is one of the festival’s most intriguing. Here’s another film from Forbidden Pleasures: The Workshop (UK): People enter a workshop that takes place over 10 days somewhere outside San Francisco. Run by a life-coach-with-a-difference, this workshop challenges the rules of society by pushing the boundaries of normal convention, especially sexual ones. On day one, they are told to greet everyone naked. Where it goes from there represents kookiness on the grandest of scales. Jamie Morgan entered the workshop alone, armed with a solitary HD camera, to create this hyper-real documentary.

Then there is Zoo (US): In 2005, a 45 year-old executive was anonymously delivered to hospital with a perforated colon. Following his subsequent death, videotapes found at his home showed him having sex with an Arabian stallion.

"taboo realms of behaviour"

The ensuing media coverage and public outcry over this incident uncovered a secret community of zoophiles – or ‘zoos’ – which prompted filmmaker Robinson Devor to investigate further. His expressionistic rendering of how apparently upstanding citizens banded together into the most taboo realms of behaviour reveals the enormous gulf between what we appear to be and who we really are. (Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.)

But for a film with real bite, try Teeth (US) – the film about Dawn (Jess Weixler), a high school student who discovers she is a living example of vagina dentata …

“The title, Forbidden Pleasure, happened organically after seeing a film at Berlin, I think it was,” says Moore. “It might have been Exterminating Angles … and we (Moore and fellow festival programmer Nick Feik) thought that we could curate a sidebar, fitting into it several films that deal with taboo subjects.”

There is very little in Australian cinema that tackles such subjects, Moore notes. “And it’s also important to organise films into accessible sections – both from a curatorial and marketing point of view.”

Moore’s first objectives as incoming director were to put more emphasis on retrospectives, “to celebrate some cinematic glories of the past”, hence the Hirokazu Kore-eda program of half a dozen films and the tribute to Shohei Imamura; to identify new cinema, hence the African sidebar, to rationalise the program so it’s more managable for audiences, especially in the presentation aspects. “I wanted to include session times, for instance, in the program guide, tighten the synopses and in general present the films in a very accessible and informative way.”

In the freshly minted Euro Debuts section, we can explore the darkness of the Belgians; like their dark chocolate, their films are often a mix of the bitter and the sweet, as they explore life in meltdown.

Take Cages, from Olivier Masset-Depasse, an erotic thriller that would never come out of Hollywood. Eve and Damien are passionately in-love. Together, they run an unusual café called The Zoo where they host an annual contest for the best animal noise. After an accident, a gulf of silence slowly comes between them. Eve communicates in gestures but no longer speaks. Damien can’t express his desires anymore. When their relationship is on the verge of suffocation, Eve takes drastic action.

Desperate to hang onto Damien, Eve makes him her prisoner, caged – like her – against his will. From here unfolds a story in which suspense (and desire) are driven by physical compulsions.

"concentrated"

More Belgian darkness in Koen Mortier’s Ex Drummer, described as “grubby, violent and propulsively energetic…”

In the longer term, Moore aims to reduce the size of the program, but increase the number of programmers from the current two, with the addition of some specialists. Future festivals may well be smaller in volume, but more concentrated. As he points out, the sidebars like Forbidden Pleasures have to balanced with “commercial considerations.”

In the latter category, we might put two vastly different films produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen of Zentropa, the company set up by Lars von Trier. They are ‘commercial’ only in the festival context, as distinct from being suitable for multiplex roll-out. Red Road, named after a bleak housing estate in Glasgow, is Andrea Arnold’s audacious debut; the film sent shockwaves through Cannes (2006), and won the Jury Prize. Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) is a surveillance camera operator in Glasgow, observing a bleak public housing cluster. When she recognizes the ex-con Clyde Henderson (Tony Curran), she is compelled to confront him, despite never wanting to have seen him again. The film is a UK/Denmark coproduction.

After the Wedding, Denmark’s 2007 Foreign Language Oscar nominated drama, made by director Susan Bier and her collaborator, writer Thomas Anders Jensen (they made Open Hearts and Brothers), had such a huge response at its Sydney Film Festival screening (Sunday, June 17) that an extra screening was scheduled for the last day of the festival. And no wonder; the film is a moving, gripping drama of human weakness, devotion, family relationships and the adroit interference of fate. It’s a story about Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) who runs a faltering Bombay orphanage and when a wealthy Danish benefactor, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) who could save the place insists on meeting him, Jacob reluctantly leaves Bombay for, he hopes, a brief trip. After a perfunctory meeting, Jorgen invites Jacob to the weekend wedding of his daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) to Christian (Christian Tafdrup). At the reception, Anna’s impromptu speech inadvertently reveals a family secret that implicates her mother Helene (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and shocks Jacob. It’s the beginning of a chain of changes to all their lives.

On a partly personal note, Moore has curated a selection of Israeli films (Stars of David): Stars of David will provide a measured glimpse at the multitude of experiences and opinions resonating within Israel. I've had a long personal connection to the State of Israel - I still have a twenty something son there … Over the years I've noticed the remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the Israeli cinema, both in terms of its domestic box office success and its representation in major film festivals all over the world. This year really delivered an incredibly strong and very diverse selection of cinema.”

There are several other films in this Festival that avoid mainstream sensibilities and the safety of filmmaking by numbers; seek them out.

Published 4.30pm, June 20, 2007
 

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Exterminating Angels

OPENING & CLOSING
July 25 – August 12, 2007
Opening Night film:

Sicko, dir. Michael Moore*
* No relation to Festival director Richard Moore
Closing Night film:

This Is England, dir. Shane Meadows


Brand Upon the Brain


Zoo


After the Wedding


Red Road


Dry Season
AFRICA AFRICA!
With Asian cinema dominant in recent festivals around Australia, it’s refreshing to look at African films. This sidebar includes wildly diverse works, from the multi award winning Venice Film Festival entry, Dry Season, to Return to Goree. The former is about a 16 year old boy’s intended revenge for his father’s killing, set in the aftermath of Chad’s 40 year civil war. The latter is a musical road movie that documents African singer Youssou N’Dour’s epic journey in the footsteps of the black slaves and the jazz they invented.


Behind the Veil
MAGNUM IN MOTION
“Contrary to popular belief, there is very little in common between filmmaking a
and photography … the only thing that is similar is composition,” says Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt in the DVD that forms part of the Magnum in Motion (limited edition) catalogue. But by jingo, composition means a lot … Festival sidebar Magnum in Motion celebrates the 60th anniversary of the world’s most prestigious photo agency, with 10 films by the agency’s great photographers, including Anne Makepeace’s evocative film about iconic Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa. Also included is a doco on Magnum doyenne Eve Arnold, focusing on her relationship with Marilyn Monroe. This program comes direct from the Berlin Film Festival. The catalogue and DVD offer remarkable insights, stunning images and – with material such as Paul Fosco’s shattering, haunting photo essay, Chernobyl Legacy - much food for thought … not to mention the films in the program!








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