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MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, 1998 – A PREVIEW

In her preview of this year’s festival, Jan Epstein flicks through an impressive line up.

AUSTRALIAN SHOWCASE
This year’s Festival looks very attractive indeed, with a good balance between commercially viable art house films that have done well overseas at festivals and the box office, and genuinely provocative, interesting new films which take risks and have edge. Best of all, this year’s Festival begins and ends with Australian films, and includes an Australian Showcase that demonstrates that Oz films are still on a roll.

The Opening Night film is Craig Monahan’s debut feature The Interview, a stylish, well-made film with a great deal of depth beneath its minimalist exterior. This is due to the integrity and skill of the script, written by Monahan with Gordon Davie, and the actors Hugo Weaving and Tony Martin.

Radiance, which is the Closing Night film at the Melbourne Festival, was one of the first films to command attention in the Cannes marketplace. Directed by Aboriginal filmmaker Rachel Perkins, the screenplay was written by Louis Nowra, and tells the story of three young indigenous women – an opera singer, a nurse, and a good time girl who reunite for their mother’s funeral. In the space of 24 hours, they begin to uncover family secrets.

Head On, the first feature of Ana Kokkinos (Only the Brave), is another Australian film where the action is concentrated within 24 hours. Adapted by Kokkinos from Christos Tsiolka’s novel Loaded, Head On premiered in Directors Fortnight at Cannes, where it caused controversy.

In a dynamic Brandoesque performance, Alex Dimitriades plays Ari, a young Greek man in revolt against the homophobia of Melbourne’s Greek community. Kokkinos is courageous in her choice of theme: sex, drugs, and the unwillingness of the Greek community to tolerate deviations from the norm. These generate power, and make the film interesting. Kokkinos is fast emerging as our boldest talent, capable of giving Australian cinema what it has so far lacked, a critique of the human condition, seen through distinctly Australian eyes.

Similarly brave is Rolf de Heer’s powerful Dance Me to My Song, the story of a young woman’s unstoppable desire to engage with the world. Heather Rose, who is severely handicapped, co-wrote the script with de Heer, and acts the part of Julia, a cerebral palsy sufferer who competes with her neurotic, abusive carer (Joey Kennedy), for the love of a good man (John Brumpton).

The acting is first rate in this extraordinary film. Rose and de Heer force the audience to confront their own prejudices and squeamishness about crippled bodies, and the way we turn our eyes from handicapped people, denying them humanity. Dance Me to My Song allows the audience to transcend prejudice, celebrate moral courage, and see the person within. Only de Heer, perhaps, has the talent and courage to make such a sensitive subject work.

Other Australian features screening include Nadia Tess’s Amy, starring Rachel Griffiths and Ben Mendelsohn, John Ruane’s Dead Letter Office, with Miranda Otto, James Bogle’s In the Winter Dark, starring Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies) and Ray Barratt, the Director’s Cut of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the world premiere of Jon Hewitt’s fast and furious ‘underground’ movie Redball.

WORLD FILMS
On the international front, one of the Festival’s most interesting films is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. The story takes place in a country house where the 60th birthday of patriarch Helge Klingenfelt (Henning Moritzen) is about to be celebrated by a large gathering of family and friends. As the three children arrive, it soon becomes apparent that this is to be no ordinary celebration, but the occasion for an emotional bloodletting, that uncovers a not altogether surprising family secret.

Vinterberg made the film according to the rules of Dogme 95, a collective of four young Danish directors that includes Lars von Trier in 1995, who came together with the intention of ‘purging’ cinema and liberating it through the imposition of constraints. Their manifesto (‘Vow of Chastity’) includes the promise to only use hand held cameras, to shoot only on location, to film only in colour, not to use incidental music, use no special effects or extra lighting, avoid genres, and not import murder or guns into the film. The issuing of certificates to this effect is only partly tongue in cheek. The real intention is to push forward the frontiers for filmmaking by strictures that can release their creativity.

The result is not as startling in The Celebration as it is in von Trier’s The Idiots (not available for the Festival), but it is powerful and distinctive nonetheless.

From Austria comes Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a deeply unsettling film that asks why we are so passive in the face of rising violence in films and in society. Haneke confronts his audience with the reality of violence, by making his art so psychologically real and emotionally chilling that his audience is unable to escape. By the sudden intrusion of a technical trick, the director makes it clear that the spectator of violence, like the victim of violence (they are one and the same in Haneke’s collapsed universe), can reverse the action and strike back.

PALME D'OR WINNERS
Fest-goers will also have the chance to see the two films that jointly won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 1997. In these days of shrinking audiences for foreign language ‘product’, many films that are perceived as not having ‘crossover’ potential fail to be granted even short seasons in the cinema. Hence the importance of festivals.

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has a dedicated following in Australia, and his earlier films And Life Goes On… and Through the Olive Trees have been shown on SBS. His Taste of Cherry follows the desperate search of a man to find someone to bury him after he has committed suicide (prohibited in Islam). A deceptively simple story, Taste of Cherry unspools slowly, and asks the viewer to surrender to its many levels of meaning. It is a masterpiece of understated beauty, which shows a profound understanding of the value of life, and needs of the human soul.

Equally profound and affecting is Shohei Imamura’s The Eel (Unagai), the story of a man released from prison for murdering his wife, who is freed from loneliness through his sympathy for an eel, and love of a woman. The seriousness of Imamura’s theme is leavened by the veteran Japanese director’s wry humour and charm.

Postman Blues is the second film of Sabu, one of an impressive new generation of Japanese directors. The story centres around Sawaki, a young post-man living a dull and monotonous existence, whose life changes dramatically when he runs into an old friend who has just joined the Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia), and falls in love with a young woman dying of cancer. Sabu’s entertaining farce, which careers wildly through a variety of spoofs and genres, is also a biting critique of social alientation in post-modern Japan.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Other features highly recommended are Roberta Torre’s Tano di Morire, a hugely amusing, inventive musical about the Mafia, performed entirely by amateur actors; Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, his best film since Trust, which has a tremendous script and cast; and Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, a sophisticated, sexy tale of photography and lesbian love, which boasts stunning performances from Ally Sheedy and Australia’s Radha Mitchell (Love and Other Catastrophes).

As always, the Festival is strong on feature length documentaries. Simcha Jacobovici’s Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, is a fascinating and skilled translation to the screen of Neal Gabler’s thesis (outlined in An Empire of Their Own), that the Jews created not just Hollywood but the American Dream.

Another revelatory documentary is Niek Koppen’s The Hunt, which takes an inside look at fox hunting in England. This Dutch film contains several scenes which will sicken animal-lovers, but it has the advantage of laying bare the mysteries that have surrounded this sport since it was begun in the mid-eighteenth century.

IN BRIEF
The Melbourne Film Festival is screening more than 200 films this year, culled from 38 countries and numerous festivals. About half that number are features, the rest documentaries and short films. There are some tantalising segments this year: Kiss Me Deadly, a retrospective of five American film noirs, Pump Up the Volume, a spin-off from last year’s successful jazz spotlight, Animagic, which showcases animated features and shorts, Sushi and Switchblade, a selection of Hong Kong gangster movies, and East of Broadway, films which reflect the revival of the musical.

There are forums and discussions too. Of great interest to movie buffs will be the Third Annual Ivan Hutchinson Lecture, presented by MIFF in association with the Melbourne Film Critics Forum. The lecture this year will be given by David Stratton, author, critic, and broadcaster, best known by many as co-presenter of The Movie Show on SBS. His wide-ranging talk will be a walk through a life dedicated to communicating the pleasure of film.

This article also appears in The Melburnian

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47th Melbourne Film Festival

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Australian Showcase
The Interview - opening night

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World Films
Funny Games

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Palme D'Or Winners
The Eel

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Highly Recommended
High Art

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