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The 18 year old Brisbane International Film Festival came of age years ago, but it’s still appropriate that this year’s Opening Film, An Education, is a poignant story about a 16 year old English girl in the 60s, made by one of Denmark’s finest directors, Lone Scherfig, her first English language feature – and symbolic of the blossoming and broadening of all concerned, writes Andrew L. Urban.*

An Education was an appropriate opener for this year’s BIFF, as Executive Director Anne Démy-Geroe put together a program that could well be seen as an education in cinema – although that sounds far too structured and ominous than the reality of this 11 day festival. Yes, just 11 days, shrunk in advance when the GFC (you know, the global crunch) hit, but ultimately a Good Thing since it concentrated the program – without loss of diversity and depth.

"examples of the diversity"

Opening and Closing films are examples of the diversity: An Education and Balibo. Lone Scherfig’s An Education knocked the audience for six with its absolute honesty, its crazy charm and its simple (but true and effective) story set in 1961 London. Coming of age may be the label, but it doesn’t do justice to this profoundly satisfying film that observes human nature with a wry smile. Its young starlet, Carey Mulligan, made a great impression on screen and also tuened up in person as a special festival guest – looking totally different with pageboy haircut and mountains of mascara. By contrast, Robert Connolly’s historical drama, Balibo, took us back to 1975 and the Australian journalists killed by Indonesian forces to blind the world to their invasion of East Timor.

L-R: Blessed, Balibo, Last Lear

Indeed, Australian films featured strongly with Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed, Khoa Do’s Missing Water and Jonathan auf der Heide’s superbly photographed but dark convict horror story, Van Diemen’s Land in the Australian sidebar, plus the world premiere of Queensland-made, Subdivision – not one of my favourites in the program, an unremarkable film.

Another Australian film having its world premiere was Ivan Sen’s Dreamland, the centrepiece of the Demy-Geroe’s much loved Asterisks* section which explores (“reappreciates”) the physical properties of film. Sen makes use of his innate cinematic sense to tell a story as much by visual as by oral language, turning the story of a man searching the sky at famous UFO sighting spots in the Nevada desert into a contemplation of nothing less than our entire universe. It’s flawed but at least it’s unique.

"highly entertaining"

David Caesar’s muscly Prime Mover screened in Showcase, as well as two of the five films in Shock Corridor: Steven Kastrissios’ shocking revenge horror flick, The Horseman (yes, of the Apocalypse) and Michael Craft’s excellent debut with Storage. Craft’s film was one of several Queensland works marking the celebrations of Queensland’s 150th Anniversary. Congrats to the Festival for programming both the latter films, giving audiences an opportunity to see them. Storage made its debut at Dungog in May 2009 and is in limited release from this week [August 13, 2009.]

Also pre-empting its commercial release, Steven Soderbergh’s two part bio-epic, Che, was given a back to back screening (total over 4 hours). The film opens nationally in October. Straight docos (as distinct from dramatisations) offer a wonderful menu of education about the world: The September Issue goes inside Vogue US and Editor Anna Wintour’s fashion publishing routine, which was previewed in stylish form in The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep as the Wintour figure and Anne Hathaway as her put-upon PA. This is the undiluted truth and it’s far from simple – and most instructive as well as highly entertaining.

"guaranteed to shock"

Even more educational is The Cove - guaranteed to shock and outrage you. Produced by a team led by Louie Psihoyos, this secretly made film (with state of art HD gear) takes us to a small cove in Japan where fishermen herd together in traumatising fashion, thousands of dolphins each year before brutally slaughtering them. The meat is sold as whale meat, despite it being toxic with extremely high levels of mercury. The Japanese themselves have been kept in the dark about these issues ... and the Tokyo Film Festival (September 17 - 25) has declined – at the time of writing – to screen the film. (The Cove releases in Australia next week – August 20, 2009.)

Discovering secret erotic collections in private and public galleries in Secret Museums or learning about hair as currency in India provides the sort of ‘armchair travel’ and education that good docos give us: something we didn’t know, or at least something we didn’t know about something we did, if you get my meaning.

Hair India, while a tad undisciplined and less satisfying in information terms than hoped for, is the sort of doco you are unlikely see in cinemas outside a festival – exactly the sort of programming that underlines the very purpose of film festivals. Two Italian filmmakers traipse around India exploring the ancient religious tradition of shaving heads and offering the hair to repay the gods via the temples which sell the hair to western entrepreneurs (these based in Rome) who make a fortune re-selling them as expensive hair extensions to glamour pusses – as well as thousands of aspirational middle class women in India. Abounding in exotica and irony, the film is upbeat and an eye opener with a delicious surprise factor.

"another little festival gem"

In the same vein but with a totally different subject, Secret Museums takes us behind the covers of the world’s most sought after books held in collections of erotica, items of antiquity and scarcity that fetch enormous sums at (rare) public auction. Fascinating and thought provoking, the film reveals that the British Museum of all places, still forbids public access (including the filmmakers) to its Secretum, the collection of erotica behind closed tightly doors. This outdated, paternalistic censorship is a matter that deserves airing, but the filmmakers don’t dwell on it too long, having several other sources to follow up. Thankfully, the glimpses of erotic art are enough to illustrate but not so as to titillate… Another little festival gem.

From a logistical point of view, too, BIFF deserves to be congratulated; its scheduling, media relations, helpful staff and volunteers and punctuality are seamless and pleasant, and the Emporium Hotel (where all guests are accommodated) is a stylish and efficient base, with delightful staff (and a lively bar).

Published August 13, 2009


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Hair India

*Andrew L. Urban was a guest of the Festival.

Armin Miladi, Executive Director Anne Démy-Geroe and Ivan Sen, director of Dreamland

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Secret Museums

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