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MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL 1998

WORLD CINEMA IN GOOD HEALTH
Funny, thrilling, extraordinary - and puzzling . . . but in good shape, reports JAKE WILSON on the festival that showcased films from around the world.

To provide a comprehensive report on the Melbourne Film Festival is impossible: there was just too much to see. I caught around one third of the 140 features that screened, but missed many of the high-profile items, including all the Australian features and most of the documentaries. Still, from what I saw, world cinema seems to be in pretty good shape. The program was the usual mix of semi-commercial fare, curiosities, and really interesting work, but looking back I have a couple of extraordinary memories, as well as many funny, thrilling, or puzzling ones.

My main problem with the programming was that (in a trend continuing from last year) serious, full-blown retrospectives were mainly abandoned in favour of too many undernourished small-scale sidebars. If the best you can do as a centenary tribute to Eisenstein is a single screening of Ivan The Terrible – Part 1 only – plus a couple of documentaries, then why bother at all? Is this strategy a marketing decision? Does it stem from problems accessing prints? This still doesn’t explain why Alexandr Sokurov has been directing films for almost two decades (according to the catalogue) yet the supposed retrospective of his work had nothing made before 1993. (In fairness, the Sokurov films – and the sharp B-thrillers selected by Paul Harris for the misleadingly billed ‘film noir’ program – were all terrific.)

Wavering between camp mirth, amazed delight and shocked embarrassment, most viewers giggled uneasily throughout.

The one really solidly done retrospective was the blaxploitation season (‘Funky! Freaky! Foxy!’) expertly put together by curator Philip Brophy. Seldom can the festival’s brief to deliver ‘the finest in world cinema’ (or whatever) have been honoured in more gleefully perverse fashion. Films like Foxy Brown and Truck Turner were a magic combination of lurid fantasy and gritty realism, with swaggering, over-the-top caricatures and scenes of extreme violence played out in downbeat, evocative locations: grimy streets, low-rent apartments, seedy bars. Brophy’s brilliant catalogue notes plunge with relish into the morass of pain, hilarity and paralysis these films provoke. For the overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience a quarter-century after the fact, the trouble spots were gender-based as much as racial. Pam Grier is ‘a whole lot of woman’ and an icon of empowerment in Foxy Brown, but elsewhere the genre’s exuberant misogyny runs rampant, in endless jive about bitches and ho’s – something which perhaps shook up Melbourne punters still more than the gleeful revenge plots and torrents of racial abuse. Wavering between camp mirth, amazed delight and shocked embarrassment, most viewers giggled uneasily throughout.

Waiting for the cops to come in and bust our asses, we sensed a displacement effect that became increasingly surreal

No wonder, perhaps, that many of the freakier inclusions were shunted to the sidelines of the festival, to be shown at awkward hours on a video projector at the International Lounge Bar. A young, well-dressed crowd drank cocktails while watching assorted black pimps, hookers and thugs curse and cavort off faded pan-and-scan tapes apparently culled from the local video store. ‘This program for home use only,’ warned the standard legal proviso at the start of each feature, ‘not licensed for public exhibition.’ Waiting for the cops to come in and bust our asses, we sensed a displacement effect that became increasingly surreal as we sat in the International at midnight watching Black Gestapo, an incredibly cheap and sleazy action flick where a self-serving black militia group does gruesome battle with a bunch of redneck gangsters. Breasts bobbed. Bullets and obscenities flew. Ugly white men bled to death in sadistic closeup. It might be ‘the real face of blaxploitation,’ as the catalogue claimed, but could we survive these movies? Were they more than the Melbourne International Film Festival could take?

The alienation effect of movies stripped of their original context is something you experience all the time at a film festival like this, which showcases a disorientating variety of films, made with a wide range of different audiences in mind. One major reason for attending this kind of event is simply to get the news, a quick fix on what life is currently like among different groups and cultures, whether this means Hong Kong youth gang members, the New York art scene, or a tribe of salt-harvesting nomads in Tibet.

Zapping about from one milieu to the next without really knowing how ‘authentic’ these briefings are, the Festival patron inevitably winds up feeling like a tourist, though the problems this creates aren’t always unproductive.

Another theme that turned up in film after film was the troubled relationships, or lack of them, between parents and children

If there was any characteristic that united many of the films I saw, it was a tendency to deliberately blur the lines between documentary and fiction, making it especially difficult for viewers to know how to respond. Filmmakers as different as Abbas Kiarostami and Harmony Korine employed amateur actors whose performances seemed to grow out of aspects of their actual lives. Masuto Haruda’s Bounce, about Japanese teens on the fringes of the sex trade, combined an upbeat youth movie with elements of an old-fashioned journalistic exposé. Full-blown ‘non-fiction features’ like Unmade Beds made it downright impossible to figure out how much of what we were looking at was ‘real’ and how much faked for the cameras.

Related to this was a spate of films about masquerades and phony identities (Sunday, Buffalo 66). Another theme that turned up in film after film was the troubled relationships, or lack of them, between parents and children; often this was tied to a familiar kind of romantic rootlessness, a sense of knowing only one story among many in a big city, ‘alone in a crowd.’ Films like Memory And Desire, Hold Me Tight, and Secret Defense stressed the melancholy, precarious nature of technological connection via answering machines, video diaries, or mobile phones. (There was no new film this year from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, but his spirit seemed nearby throughout.)

The feeling of loss that comes with information overload is something a film festival addict can certainly identify with. Plodding up and down Swanston St from one venue to the next, we felt ourselves travelling too far, too fast, memories of individual films often lost in the endless flow of images. Were we simply viewing too much? In The Voice Of Bergman, , , a solemn feature-length interview with an incontestable cinematic legend, the aged Ingmar Bergman spoke of his dislike for film festivals in general, terming them ‘a kind of gluttony.’ Since Bergman’s contract for this film stipulates it be screened at festivals only, there’s a double-edged quality to this remark – especially as Bergman then admits to watching one and sometimes two films at his personal theatre each day.

HERE are my brief notes on a few films – striking, often extreme experiences – that did leave permanent traces on my mind.

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Buffalo 66

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