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For creative and political reasons, the 2004 Melbourne International Film Festival (July 21 – August 8) is highlighting films from the Middle East; not only are the films fascinating and/or confronting says the festival’s executive director, James Hewison, the region is the world’s socio-political hot spot. This is perhaps a chance to build bridges to compassion and understanding through cinema, writes Andrew L. Urban.

Among the films on the festival program in Melbourne this year is Joy of Madness, a debut feature from 15 year old Hana Makhmalbaf (of the famed Makhmalbaf filmmaking family from Iran) which festival executive director James Hewison describes as “remarkable”. It is one of the films curated by last year’s special festival guest, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and the program includes some films that will never be seen outside Iran – and others that probably won’t be seen even IN Iran. 

Under the sidebar title of Homelands: The Middle East in Focus, Hewison has chosen films such as Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, the film that two years ago stunned Cannes critics (winning the Jury Prize) and has since turned up on World Movies. And last year at Cannes, it was At 5 In The Afternoon that won the Jury prize. These films, along with Walk on Water from Israel’s Eytan Fox, deliver to Australian audiences films with politically charged backdrops. “These films make you realise that for all the different settings, we all share the same blood in our veins,” says Hewison. “So it’s not a matter of a political stance as much as a humanist one.”

"the social and political winds"

Barricaded as Australia is by oceans, the social and political winds that drive the world’s history can pass through with barely a rustle of awareness leaves. It seems entirely fitting in this age of communication and the just-completed century of cinema that a film festival offer its patrons a chance to feel those winds. The humanist issues to which Hewison refers are perhaps the most important elements that global cinema can give us, leading us, one hopes, to understanding and compassion.

Among the Iranian films suggested by Abbas Kiarostami are several confronting feature documentaries, including The Ladies, shot on Digital Video and set entirely in an Iranian female public toilet which is used – and even inhabited in some cases - by outcasts such as prostitutes and junkies. “This would be an extraordinary film whether made in Iran or anywhere else,” says Hewison. “It was a clandestine shoot and yet many of the women address the camera directly. It’s very rough in production values, of course, and like some of the others, it would be classified as underground filmmaking. Another documentary talks to artists who lived under the Shah – and in the end they face the same problems as any struggling artist down the road from my office in Melbourne.”

Hewison says he was inspired and motivated to select films such as these by Australian Chinese filmmaker Clara Law, who took up a camera to follow an asylum seeker across Australia in Letter to Ali. “It’s a personal essay, and I have enormous admiration for how Clara responded to this political situation, doing something more than writing letters to the editor.”

Well let’s hope there will be those too, after this festival, preferably by the thousands, urging compassion and understanding on our elected politicians, the bureaucrats who serve them & us, and the media. But the Melbourne International Film Festival is not a political platform - at least, not any more than all films are. MIFF’s promotional tagline this year is “need to know?” but perhaps “need to understand” may have been a more apt slogan.

"Films are curated into various sections"

Films are curated into various sections, from the FedEx International Panorama, through Australian Showcase, Asia Pacific Regional Focus, as well as several Spotlights, like New Crime Cinema, Northern Lights, Thai Breakers and MOOKS Backbeat.

Several films direct from the Cannes film festival are included, notably the controversial Fahrneheit 9/11 from Michael Moore, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers starring Geoffrey Rush, the wild and intense revenge movie from South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, Old Boy, and Wall, Simone Britton’s striking doco about the wall dividing parts of Israel and Palestine, which screens in the Middle East Focus.

From Official Selection at Cannes comes the elegiac snapshot of young Koreans forging a friendship in contemporary Seoul in Hong Sang-soo’s Woman is the Future of Man; the latest hard-boiled, Breaking News, by acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To. Also direct from Official Selection comes MIFF 2003 guest Abbas Kiarostami’s Five, an utterly compelling and meditative abstract work and from Un Certain Regard, his 10 on Ten. 

There are some 400 films screening over the two and a half weeks, and about 180,000 tickets will be sold, with unimaginable cups of coffee consumed in the wake of screenings in half a dozen venues.

Somersault, the Australian film that was selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year will open the Festival on July 21; directed by Cate Shortland and starring Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington. Closing Night Film will be Ong Bak, a Thai kung fu flick from promising newcomer Prachya Pinkaew.

See you at the opening party, at The Grand Hyatt.

Published Wednesday June 17, 2004

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Joy of Madness

Somersault - opening night film

Ong Bak - closing night film

Divine Intervention

Walk on Water

Control Room

The Life And Death of Peter Sellers

Fahrenheit 911

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