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A snapshot of Iran today with master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and uncompromising new French films are some of the highlights of this year’s extensive and eclectic Melbourne International Film Festival, says director James Hewison. But the bookends of the festival are Australian films, reports Andrew L. Urban.

The guest appearance of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami at the 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival to present a program of his works is “at the heart of this Festival,” says fest director James Hewison, “not just because he’s going through another stage in his filmmaking (having picked up a digital camera) but because both culturally and in the broader political context, it helps us to understand what’s happening now in Iran – and to understand that they are just like us.”

Kiarostami is a coup for Melbourne, no doubt, and his docos and doco-like films will be on display, including Ten, which Hewison describes as “close to a masterpiece”. The film comprises ten conversations recorded with a camera mounted on the dashboard of a car. “..remarkable for its strenuous technical simplicity, for its superbly intelligent acting and for the extraordinary, almost unmediated access it appears to give to the lives and thoughts of real, modern women in Iran,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

But if Kiarostami is at the heart of the festival, the Frissons program from French filmmakers is at its soul. Motivated by Hewison’s profound personal fascination with French cinema, Frissons is a program of films that explore sexual expression and transgression. “It is eclectic, exciting and eccentric,” he says, but warns that “it’s not a saucy, sexy French program. It’s darker and not always aesthetic or even erotic, but it is uncompromising. It irks me to think that people have a narrow view of French cinema and one role of a festival is to expand that view.”

These films have not “crept out of the gutter; all or most of the filmmakers are well established, including the three women, and the films are coming from a theoretical or militant point of view.”

Hewison speculates that the films in the Frissons program may represent a challenge to established French filmmakers. “There’s something very unsettling going on in these films that may represent a sort of crisis going in French society as a whole.” Hewison’s trigger for the program was Phillipe Grandieux’s disturbing, sensual, angry drama, La vie nouvelle, “an apocalyptic, extraordinary mind f**k of a film.”

The Festival program continues to showcase Australian films, and is opening and closing with local productions: Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story opens the festival on July 23, and Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers is closing night film on August 10. Both will be accompanied by award winning Australian shorts. Opening night with Harvey Krumpet and closing night with Crackerbag.

Japanese Story was on Hewison’s radar as far back as two and a half years ago, when, on his second day in the job, he attended a function at the Japanese Embassy, where he ran into the film’s producer, Sue Maslin. Japanese Story was in development, but “we started talking about the film [coming to the Festival] back then,” he says.

The special martial arts collection, under the Fu Fighters heading, “is a deliberately eclectic collection, largely inspired by the restored 40 year old classic, Come Drink With Me,” says Hewison. Made in 1966 by Chinese master filmmaker King Hu, the film boasts some of the most extraordinary kung fu battle scenes ever filmed.

The Asia/Pacific in general continues to fascinate Hewison and this year’s program covers every genre from hard boiled action to poignant coming of age, as well as every country, from China to Thailand – and New Zealand.

The extensive International Panorama includes several films sourced at Cannes this year, such as Swimming Pool, A Story That Begins At The End, American Splendor and Oasis, giving this section a real edge.

Of course there is much more, including a New Russian Cinema section, a great animation schedule that includes Aardman’s new Wallace & Gromit, lots of documentaries, shorts and a selection of new Indian Cinema, Beyond Bollywood, with examples of smaller, independent films.

Well over 200 films will be screened in 19 days, but, says Hewison, “it’s all come together very nicely…”

For full program and ticketing details, see melbournefilmfestival.com.au 

Published June 26, 2003

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Abbas Kiarostami

Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story - opening night film

Phillipe Grandieux’s La Vie Nouvelle

Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool

Travelling Light

The Rage in Placid Lake

American Splendor

James Hewison - festival director

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