Itís that time of year again. Pull on a coat, wrap a
woolly scarf around your neck, and catch a tram, train or bus to
the City which is now the new home of the Melbourne International
Film Festival. MIFF-goers with long memories will think fondly of
grey days in June at the Palais, St Kilda, and later at the
Astor. Now itís July in the centre of town, at the stately
Forum, Capitol, and State Film Theatres. For good measure,
thereís the Festival Club across the road from the Capitol
in the Lower Melbourne Town Hall, where Fest-goers are invited to
snack, drink and rest between sessions. Itís very civilised.
But what does it all mean for film-culture in Melbourne?
Is cinema as we know it
At the Cannes Film Festival this year, a two hour symposium
was held, attended by some of cinemaís best known filmmakers
and critics: Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda,
Jane Campion, John Boorman, Dennis Hopper, Theo Angelopoulos,
Derek Malcolm, and Annette Insdorf, amongst others. The forum was
intended as a colloquium between filmmakers and critics - often
seen as adversaries. The occasion was a chance to air differences
and concerns, but from the beginning it was clear that the
overriding preoccupation of both filmmakers and critics was the
commercialisation of cinema. This led to the same questions being
asked repeatedly: Is cinema as we know it dead? What can be done
to protect independent films and national cinemas, in the face of
Hollywoodís increasing dominance of world box office (85-90%
in Europe and elsewhere)?
Australia has a thriving
film culture, but it needs protecting and supporting.
Australia has a thriving film culture, but it needs protecting
and supporting. Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide have witnessed a
boom in the construction of boutique cinemas, yet this
doesnít necessarily mean that we have more choice. Many of
these cinemas screen the same films as the multiplexes. And with
a surfeit of both art-house and mainstream Ďproductí
queuing for theatrical release like planes waiting on the tarmac
at Heathrow, good films that fail to attract crowds in the first
few days are often pulled before word of mouth can save them.
(David Caesarís Idiot Box is a case in point, as is Nadia
Tassís Mr Reliable.)
Without this window into
world cinema, ... our own national cinema would be greatly
This is where the Melbourne Film Festival has an important
role to play. For 45 years, MIFF has showcased features,
documentaries, shorts, animations and experimental films that
Melburnians might have otherwise never seen. These have proved
formative, ensuring that the local film culture flourishes, while
paving the way for new filmmakers to emerge. Without this window
into world cinema, and with Hollywood as the only external
influence, our own national cinema would be greatly diminished.
The program has broad
appeal, as it must in times of budgetary constraint.
Sandra Sdraulig, the Executive Director of the 1997 Melbourne
Film Festival, has assembled an impressive program this year
designed to stimulate a wide spectrum of cinema tastes.
Particularly welcome is the full slate of six Australian
features, a retrospective of four films by Greek director Theo
Angelopoulos, the focus on young Asian cinema, four films
ĎMade in Spainí, and a spotlight on Jazz. The program
has broad appeal, as it must in times of budgetary constraint.
Itís to be hoped, though, that the Melbourne Festival will
continue to expose audiences and emerging filmmakers to leading
edge cinema, wherever it is found, even if this carries with it
the risk of not having wide audience appeal.
One of the Festivalís most powerful films is Augustin
Diaz Yanesí Nobody Will Speak of Us When We Are Dead.
Victoria Abril stars as Gloria, a prostitute on the run from her
past, who becomes entangled with the Mexican mafia when a dying
gangster gives her a notebook containing the address of a money
laundering business in Madrid. This is no tired, Tarantinoesque
reworking of the gangster genre. Yanesí passionate
well-written script has finely etched characters, and there are
charismatic performances from the cast, including Pilar Bardem as
Gloriaís estimable mother-in-law, once imprisoned as a
Communist under Franco, and Federico Luppi as a Mafia hitman
stricken by conscience when his daughter contracts cancer. Abril
(Lovers, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) is tremendous as a woman
battling to gain dignity.
looks every bit as luscious as her husbandís freshly
Filmgoers familiar with Claire Denisí Chocolat will want
to catch Nenette et Boni, a finely nuanced film about a young
pizza chef, Boni (Gregoire Colin), prone to indulge in sexual
fantasies about the bakerís wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi),
whose dull, safe existence is thrown into turmoil by the sudden
appearance of his estranged fifteen year old sister Nenette
(Alice Houri), followed by his father. Using a mixture of styles,
from dreamy close-ups to objective long shots, Denis transforms a
commonplace tale about family dysfunction and unwanted pregnancy
into something magical and deeply touching. Colin (Olivier,
Olivier, Before the Rain) is excellent as the moody Boni, while
sensuous Bruni-Tedeschi looks every bit as luscious as her
husbandís freshly baked cakes.
Two Australian documentaries that shouldnít be missed are
Tahis Cambisí Exile in Sarajevo and Trevor Grahamís
Mabo: The Life of an Island Man.
In 1992, Melbourne actor Tahis Cambis was shot in the leg
attempting to reach his motherís home town of Sarajevo.
Three years later he returned with a video camera, was reunited
in Sarajevo with family that he had never met before, and spent
six months filming the effects of the siege on civilian life,
until the city was liberated. The result is Exile in Sarajevo, a
documentary with the rough immediacy of a home movie, that speaks
passionately about the outrage of genocide, the culpability of
the West in allowing it to happen, and the people of
Sarajevoís refusal to surrender their dream of racial and
Bosniaís tragedy is encapsulated by eight
year old Amira reading from her diary, relating the murder of
family and friends, and the death by sniper fire of a beautiful
young girl, Nirvana, caught by the camera dancing in a
competition the night before she died.
Grahamís intimate and
moving portrait of Mabo at last puts a face to the name that
continues to rouse heated debate throughout Australia
Just as powerful is Mabo: The Life of an Island Man. Trevor
Grahamís friendship with Eddie Koiki Mabo began during the
filming of his 1989 documentary Land Bilong Islaners, which was a
record of the Mabo proceedings. Eddie Mabo died in 1992, five
months before the High Court upheld his claim that Murray
Islanders held native title to three islands in the Torres
Strait, and Grahamís intimate and moving portrait of Mabo at
last puts a face to the name that continues to rouse heated
debate throughout Australia. Mabo the man is presented through
interviews with his wife and family, colleagues in his legal
battles, and through footage of Eddie on both his island of Mer,
and in Townsville, where he lived in exile for most of his life.
Mabo concludes on a sombre, emotional note. Eddie Maboís
grave was desecrated the day after a monument was erected to
celebrate his life, a reminder that racism is
part of the fabric of Australian history.
The Greek director Theo Angelopoulos is a major director with
a distinctive vision whose work is little known outside Europe.
Four films will screen during the Festival, Reconstruction
(1970), Voyage to Cythera (1984), Landscapes in the Mist (1988),
and Ulyssesí Gaze (1996).
Using Homer as a starting point, Ulysses Gaze is magisterial
and bleak, a magnificent film in many ways, with grand images and
a haunting theme. Harvey Keitel stars as ĎAí, a Greek
filmmaker exiled to America, who returns to Athens for the
screening of a new controversial film, but sets his mind to other
things, namely the pursuit of three reels of underdeveloped film,
shot at the beginning of the century by the legendary Manakia
brothers. ĎAí pursues his Holy Grail across the Balkans
through Albania, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, until he arrives
finally in Sarajevo, encountering along the way his own past,
hoping to find in the midst of war a glimpse of a more innocent
... it is a tribute to
Keitelís forebearance and ability that he makes a fist
Ulyssesí Gaze is nearly three hours long, and there is
much in it that is deeply affecting. Some scenes, shot in
characteristically long sequences, are majestic, the most
commanding being a dismantled statue of Lenin being transported
on a barge through a mist shrouded landscape. But there are times
when Angelopoulosí ponderousness grates. His conceit is to
conflate himself not simply with Ulysses but Homer. The notion of
artist as hero has a reputable pedigree, but for it to work
completely the director should have reconsidered using Harvey
Keitel as his alter ego, or recommissioned the script.
Keitelís speech rhythms are entirely inappropriate to the
stilted poeticisms he is forced to utter, and it is a tribute to
Keitelís forebearance and ability that he makes a fist of
it. It is only possible to have empathy with his character, when
he begins to settle into his role.
Ulyssesí Gaze works best when the directorsí gaze
turns outwards and is less self-consciously ĎHomericí.
There is warmth to be found in Sarajevo through Erland
Josephsonís performance, and genuine pathos in the people of
Sarajevo emerging from bunkers to walk in thick mist. Essential
to the grandeur of Angelopoulosí theme, is Eleni
Karaindrouís haunting, hypnotic music score, which runs like
a heartbeat throughout the film.