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Ten years after its first edition, the Brisbane International Film Festival wrapped its latest incarnation at the weekend to widespread acclaim, reports David Edwards. Critics and the film going public have all applauded the festival as the best ever. While such Samaranch-like statements are often bandied about after events like this, at least in this instance there was substance to the praise.

While the event has matured over the years, the Cellular One 10th Brisbane International Film Festival marked 2001 as the year when it rose to the next level. Up till now, BIFF has been regarded as a well-run, sociable event; but one which had little impact on the international film festival scene. This year, three factors converged to move BIFF beyond purely local horizons. These were the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award, given for the first time; the involvement of the British Council in presenting a season of the best in new British cinema; and an overall leap in the quality of the films presented.

NETPAC awards prizes at a variety of festivals, including serious events like Rotterdam and Berlin. The prize is the first of its kind in Australia and marks international recognition of BIFF’s key Asia-Pacific focus. Brisbane’s NETPAC jury consisted of Film Critics’ Circle of Australia executive officer Adrienne McKibbons, Singapore International Film Festival director Philip Cheah and noted Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho.

“Its minimalist style is challenging, but it’s ultimately a very rewarding work”

The inaugural BIFF NETPAC award went to What Time is it There? a Taiwan/France co-production from director Ming-liang Tsai. The film was part of the official selection at Cannes this year. The contemplative film taps into deep themes of hopelessness, loneliness and post-modern angst. Its minimalist style is challenging, but it’s ultimately a very rewarding work. The jury also made special mention of the Indian film The Wrestlers (director Buddahdev Dasgupta).

BIFF’s other main award, the Chauvel Award for distinguished contribution to Australian feature filmmaking, went to renowned documentary-makers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. At the presentation ceremony, Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley commented on the popularity of so-called “reality” TV shows; pointed highlighting the very unreality those shows depict. Connolly and Anderson however captured the true reality of life in Australia, he said. For his part Bob Connolly (who accepted the award for himself and Anderson, as she was unable to attend) remarked that the award was not merely an award for them; but rather a recognition of documentary as a legitimate art form in Australian filmmaking.

The festival screened the pair’s latest work Facing the Music, which received overwhelming approval from the large audience – who rated it the most popular film at the festival.

“the season highlighted the impact of restructuring and new funding arrangements”

The festival’s British focus, supported by the British Council and titled A New Britannia, showcased a remarkable collection of new work from the UK and Ireland. From the big budget, big name movies like The Claim (Michael Winterbottom) and Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer) to more modest but no less innovative productions like The Lowdown (Jamie Thraves) and Last Resort (Pawel Pavlikovsky), the season highlighted the impact of restructuring and new funding arrangements on the British industry.

While it was certainly the case that A New Britannia picked the eyes out of the best in recent productions and there are undoubtedly many less worthy films being made, it served to underscore the resurgence of British film. There are salient lessons here for Australian politicians and funding authorities. The season also highlighted the fact that Britain has a far more open cultural outlook; with films set in Spain (Sexy Beast), California (The Claim) and Japan (Gaea Girls) being embraced as British. This should provide another lesson for Australian decision-makers – and some critics.

For the 10th presentation of the festival, it’s clear artistic director Anne Demy-Geroe (who has been with BIFF from day one) made a special effort to present to strongest program she could; and her efforts did not let the audience down. From “name” directors to the smallest independent productions, the line up reached a new level in 2001. The quality was enhanced immeasurably by two remarkable retrospectives – on the legendary Roman Polanski and on Budd Boetticher, pioneer of the “grown up” Western whose work was largely forgotten until the recent rediscovery and restoration of his Seven Men From Now by the UCLA. The pristine print of Seven Men From Now was a joy to behold, as was the hugely underrated Randolph Scott who out-Duked the Duke as an ex-sheriff on the trail of a band of killers.

“In the main section, several brilliant films stood out from a generally strong card”

The Polanski retrospective centred around his seminal Chinatown (a great film to revisit on the big screen); but included such gems as Repulsion, A Knife in the Water and Frantic.

In the main section, several brilliant films stood out from a generally strong card. Joel Schumacher’s ferocious Tigerland (described as the closest thing to a Dogme film Hollywood’s ever likely to make) was probably the best war movie since The Thin Red Line. And despite a marked “love it or hate it” reaction from the audience, Michael Winterbottom’s beautiful and compelling The Claim was probably the best Western since Unforgiven. Australian cinema was well-served with the festival opener La Spagnola, Ray Lawrence’s powerful and popular Lantana, Alkinos Tsmilidos’ Silent Partner, Rolf de Heer’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories and The Bank, the new thriller by Robert Connolly (not to be confused with Bob Connolly). Apart from What Time is it There? Asian cinema was marked by Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Devils on the Doorstep (China), Beat Takeshi’s Brother (Japan) and noted Chinese director Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu.

The festival’s audiences vote for their choice of best film from the program. As mentioned, Facing the Music was the most popular film overall; also (naturally) taking out the audience vote for most popular documentary. In terms of fictional features, the top 10 audience selections were The Closet (France), Jalla Jalla (Sweden), Lantana (Australia), Nurse Betty (USA), The Truth About Tully (USA), Everybody Famous! (Belgium), Divided We Fall (Czech Republic), Like Father (UK), Lan Yu (China) and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Australia).

“Welcome to the next level”

My personal pick for film of the festival though was The Truth About Tully. This remarkable work by director Hilary Birmingham resonated with the same spirit and truth that marked films like The Last Picture Show and Hud. Set in a rural community (it was shot around Omaha, Nebraska), it examines issues of personal responsibility, family and relationships with a quiet yet powerful energy. Sadly the film has distribution problems due to a corporate bankruptcy in the US; but hopefully an insightful distributor will pick it up.

After making a huge jump in public acceptance a few years ago, it was important for BIFF to keep developing; and 2001 is the year they did so. The steps taken have positioned BIFF squarely as a festival with enormous potential – a potential that will hopefully be realised in full in coming years. That task will present a tremendous challenge for organisers in future years; but for now, the festival has grown and transcended. Welcome to the next level.

Published August 9, 2001

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Facing the Music was the most popular film overall; also taking out the audience vote for most popular documentary


Festival Opener - La Spagnola

Lantana - selected in the top 10 audience picks for fictional features

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