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46TH MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL

A window to world cinema, says JAN EPSTEIN, the Melbourne Film Festival is a vital outlet for cinema culture. Itís damn good entertainment, to boot. Read all about it.

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 dead?

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 diminished.

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.

...sensuous Bruni-Tedeschi looks every bit as luscious as her husbandís freshly baked cakes.

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 religious harmony.

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 age.

... it is a tribute to Keitelís forebearance and ability that he makes a fist of it.

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.

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46th Melbourne Film Festival's poster image: A good film is a great journey


See Jan Epstein's run down on Aussie films at the MFF in FEATURES



"Ulyssesí Gaze is nearly three hours long, and there is much in it that is deeply affecting."


"...powerful is Mabo: The Life of an Island Man"


"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 - pictured above - is a case in point, as is Nadia Tassís Mr Reliable - pictured below.)"


Australian Films to be seen:
Kiss Or Kill


Thank God He Met Lizzie


Other films at the Melbourne Film Festival include:

Mouth to Mouth


Fire


Killer Condom


The Funeral







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