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MELBOURNE UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2009 -WRAP

MUFF ATTACKS!!
The Melbourne International Film Festival has become one of the top drawer cinematic events for film lovers in this city. If MIFF is the well respected older sibling, then the MUFF is its rebellious, black sheep younger brother, reports Ernesto Zelaya*.


Filmmaker and founder Richard Wolstencroft is outspoken about his views on current Australian cinema, and for over ten years, he’s struggled to give low-budget, underground directors the chance to show their work to a mass audience, in a market where distributors give very little chance to local product.

It makes sense that Into the Shadows would be its opening film. A scathing and informative documentary from Andrew Scarano, it charts the heyday of Aussie cinema in the 70s – when alternative movie houses like the Valhalla and Electric Shadows gave rise to filmmakers like Bruce Beresford and Philip Noyce – to its decline in the current era of the multiplex. Scarano’s view is affectionate and nostalgic (footage from Shadows’ closing is capable of bringing a tear to the eye), but also doesn’t pull any punches – the blame is laid squarely on distributors giving preference to the Hollywood blockbuster and local filmmakers unwilling to embrace genre cinema as a way to reach their audience. Fun and insightful, the film can speak to anyone, regardless of where they’re from – the distribution problem seems to be common anywhere in the world.

From the Heart
Many of the filmmakers at MUFF are passionate about their projects, films made on low budgets and on very personal levels. And they don’t get more personal than The Marina Experiment. Made up entirely of photos and home movies, the film documents the unhealthy obsession of Abbot Lutz with his daughter, director Marina Lutz. For 16 years, she endured psychological abuse from her father, and the wounds apparently have yet to heal; her emotional response during the post-screening Q&A was every bit as harrowing as the film itself.

Marina Lutz can be considered brave for putting up on screen something this personal, when she clearly still has trouble coping – if 30 plus years of therapy are any indication. This isn’t merely a film: it’s a form of catharsis for Marina, a way to make peace with her past. Despite its short running time, this documentary is powerful; a disturbing view of child abuse, a situation that, sadly, happens more than anyone would like to admit.

Shock Value
Most of the films at MUFF are far from being lighthearted: one look at the programming reveals a series of low-budget horror and suspense films, as well as some experimental works, all designed to shock the viewer, get us thinking and give more to chew on than your typical multiplex fare.

Daniel Scheinkraudt's Seeking Wellness, however, is in a class all its own.
Subtitled Suffering in Four Movements, the film isn't precisely fiction. It's a series of short vignettes, shot on video, all on the topic of human suffering. It's a harsh and nightmarish view of human nature, from its most unpredictable – two masked thugs massacre the patients of a burn ward through the view of security cameras – to its most pathetic: a traumatized father shares his dark past with his children, and a suicidal man does everything possible to give himself cancer and die. This uncompromising film appeals to the voyeur in all of us. Being shot with video cameras gives it a terrifying air of naturalism, and, like a car crash, no matter how gruesome, we can't turn away. Seeking Wellness's images are disturbing and at times uncomfortable to watch, but one thing's for sure: love it or hate it, you can't stay indifferent to a project like this.

Tributes
This year, MUFF paid tribute to some figures in the underground and cult movie circles, and it was quite a diverse bunch. Famed over-actor Wings Hauser made a career of chewing scenery in trashy B movies like Vice Squad (1982), an over-the-top sleazy look at the seedy streets of Hollywood, filled with prostitutes with hearts of gold, incompetent cops, and flashy pimps. Hauser has a ball as the psychotic honky Ramrod, who enjoys mutilating his girls with coat hangers, and the cheesy, dated nature of the film is a neverending source of laughs.

Horror novelist Jack Ketchum also got his due at MUFF with four adaptations of his novels, from Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee's Red to Andrew van der Houten's borderline unwatchable Offspring, about a Maine town terrorized by a tribe of cannibals. The uninitiated to Ketchum's work can be forgiven for pegging him as nothing but a writer of trashy potboilers after watching this low-budget, badly acted and unintentionally hilarious dreck, which intends to shock audiences by slinging plenty of gore - and via its cavalier scenes of children getting killed without a second thought. It's a treat for lovers of bad movies, everyone else is advised to stay far away.

The third retrospective was saved for German filmmaker Arnold Fanck and his leading lady, Leni Riefenstahl. He popularized the genre of “German mountain movies” during the 20s and 30s, and she, of course, later went on to film the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, becoming Hitler's filmmaker du jour.
Only at MUFF could three tributes be so vastly different; we have the festival's commitment to diversity to thank for that.

Mini MUFF
Rounding out this year's program was Mini MUFF, a wide array of short films covering all genres, from comedy to horror to the downright weird and bizarre. Anything can be found here: Melbournians' passion for football, even in a third-rate neighbourhood game where no one can kick a ball properly (The Community Cup), a tour through Europe with Ramones tribute band The Ramonettes (Ramones are not Dead), a ridiculous horror mix of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Hostel movies (The Decayed), and the Trainspotting-like adventures of three drugged out youths on their way to a convenience store (Vulture Culture). It's a grab bag of films, and most of them serve as a view of what many up and coming directors have up their sleeves.

Controversy came in the form of Matinee, a short that includes uncensored, explicit sex scenes. Even though they are between two consenting adults, without a hint of exploitation and naturally shot, the OFLC deemed the film too risqué and banned the session. Richard Wolstencroft and director Jennifer Lyons Bell protested against what they deemed an unfair call that negated the film's true artistic merits; while other, more explicit and shocking works, like Lars von Trier's Antichrist (with its scenes of genital mutilation) get a free pass to screen at festivals like MIFF. The decision ultimately remains, however, and the short has apparently stayed in the vault.

Situations like this are not news to Wolstencroft, whose controversial views of current Aussie cinema and his efforts to change it are well documented. MUFF is certainly not for all tastes, but those willing to take the chance will find an interesting, diverse and downright entertaining mix of genre cinema which can be safely said will not be found anywhere else.

* Ernesto Zelaya is journalist from Lima, Peru, who recently moved to Melbourne to study for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing.

Published September 3, 2009
 

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Into the Shadows


Seeking Wellness


Deadly Force (Wings Hauser tribute)


The Marina Experiment


Ramonettes Tribute Band







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