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His first innings as director of Australia’s oldest film festival is marked by the explosion of A class Asian films, incoming director James Hewison tells Andrew L. Urban, as MIFF celebrates 50 years of movie loving.

As soon as James Hewison took up his new job as Executive Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, he went to London. The London Film Festival, that is, where hundreds of world movies gave him access to a menu of exotic delights. “It became very clear to me immediately that there was a very strong and growing cinema in Asia,” he says. “We already have a regional focus in the festival, so I wanted to expand that and also to integrate Asian films into the entire program. The last thing I wanted was to create little ghettos around certain areas. . . “

The result is a regional focus this year that offers 17 films from China, Taiwan, Korea (N & S), Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam, including the Cannes competition entry, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, by veteran Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura. But there are also shorts from the region, animation – and Electric Angels, an entire section of six films devoted to Japanese filmmaker Ishii Sogo.

"a “tribute to the past”"

But Latin American and British cinema are not forgotten, each with a dedicated sidebar (seven films each) nor is German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose perverse and black sense of humour is legendary, nor is New Media.

Not surprisingly, the mandatory Australian Showcase is a “tribute to the past” says Hewison, as well as a celebration of new films: opening with The Bank and closing with He Died With A Felafel in His Hand, the festival is also showcasing new films from edgy director Rolf de Heer (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories) and from first timer Steve Jacobs (La Spagnola).

Other contemporary Australian films in the program are Lantana (much acclaimed Sydney Film festival opener directed by Ray Lawrence), One Night the Moon from Rachel Perkins, and Silent partner directed by Alkino Tsilimidios. For a reminder of past glories, MIFF is screening films by Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, Paul Cox and John Ruane, including restored versions of They’re A Weird Mob and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

"transcends kitsch and curiosity"

The International Panorama includes Hewison’s one of personal favourites, Trent Harris’ The Beaver Trilogy, which parlays a vaguely eccentric mimic and cross dresser into a film that “transcends kitsch and curiosity” – and stars Sean Penn plus Crispin Glover. Harris is one of the special guests of the festival, together with US director Jesse Peretz (with The Chateau), the UK’s Kirstin Sheridan (with Disco Pigs), Korea’s Tae Yong Kim (with Memento Mori) and animator Bill Plympton (with Mutant Aliens). Michael Caine, Michael Winterbottom and Richard Dreyfuss will be interviewed by satellite in The Age Meet The Makers program.

Hewison’s other personal favourites include Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts (Ishii Sogo, Japan), Rain (Christine Jeffs, NZ), Platform (Jia Zhang-Ke, HK), The Gleaners & I (Agnes Varda, France), and Lantana (Ray Lawrence, Australia).

“And of course, The Bank…it’s the perfect film for Opening Night, not just because it’s very accomplished, but it works like a modern fable about the big corporation versus the little guy …something deep from within the Australian psyche.” Hewison is nonplussed by one criticism someone made about the film, “that it’s the sort of film the Americans do very well…and it was said like a derogatory remark, or damning with faint praise. I think it’s a great example of a genre film, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be making them. “ (Ed: especially – or only – if they’re made well.)

"the hottest films to screen at Cannes"

Cannes has also alerted Hewison to films like Sean Penn’s The Pledge and of course the Grand Prix and best acting awards winner, The Piano Teacher, plus Camera d’Or winner Atanarjuat The Fast Runner.

The animation gallery (in two compilations) trawls USA, UK, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Japan – and Estonia; and doco maker Erroll Morris is showcased with nearly a dozen examples of his “many obsessions”. Music on Film Shorts also come from a range of countries (mostly Europe and the US).

In all, 350 films from 40 countries will screen, including one of the hottest films to screen at Cannes (as judged by sales to international buyers), Christine Jeffs’ Rain; the New Zealand filmmaker was ‘discovered’ and called the country’s next Jane Campion.

In terms of expanding the potential audience, Hewison has overseen the introduction of ‘mach 1’, an initiative aimed at attracting young audiences, by offering a pre-selected sampling of seven movies over a single weekend, ranging from Inugami (Japan) to Haxan: Withcraft Through the Ages (Sweden).

Published July 5, 2001

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50th MIFF
July 18 - August 5, 2001

The Bank

MIFF Preview
The Bank
He Died with a Felafel in his Hand
The Tale of the Floating World
Electric Dragon
The Piano Teacher

The Bank

See our FEATURE on the Melbourne Underground Film Festival

Electric Dragon

Nurse Betty


Disco Pigs

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