Blindman's Bluff

The following is a collection of capsule reviews and general discussion of films that screened in Competition Sessions 1-2, 6-8, 12-13 and 20 of the Australian Short Film Competition, the Tropfest Showcase and the Big Bay Out.

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Out of the 20 Competition Sessions screening in the St. Kilda Film Festival this year, I attended 8. There were three major discernible influences on the majority of short films I saw. A Hitchcockian formal structure – where films hook their audiences through a play with narrative knowledge between the audience and the character, and create suspense and surprise from this play (Wednesdays, The Director, Oops!). Strongly tied to this genre, though less subtle, was the punch line structure – the revelation towards the end of the film of that all-important detail that sheds light on all that has happened before and throws it into a new understanding. This detail is built up even further by being an “unexpected twist”; something that completely throws the audience and forces them to re-consider all that they have seen. Another key emphasis was the mocking, sarcastic tone on suburban life (Whatever Happened To The Sex Dwarves?, The Raw Prawn, Billy Boy Phat, The Case of Evan Fothergill – A Fairytale, Spazz).

These structures are easily amenable to the comedy genre, which explains why the majority of the short films were comedy-based. Their ever presence throughout the Festival only highlighted, for this reviewer, the lack of short films that took their subject-matter seriously and that developed characters and story with any depth without relying on the use of a clever formal trick of narrative expectation. I felt myself yearning for more challenging, confrontational and emotional films. Generally, these were found in the animations (for example, Like Drowning) and short fictions based on indigenous stories (e.g. Dust), though there were occasional highlights in the remaining short films (Flowergirl, Gravity).

Opening Night

Crowds packed the glorious Palais Theatre on Opening Night, Tuesday May 30. Among the crowds were artists, intellectuals, film enthusiasts, stars, entertainers and so on. There was without a doubt a “buzz” emanating from the Theatre that was practically palpable, a sense of spirit and energy that stamped the Festival as an “event”. Opening night is of course one of the highlights of the St. Kilda Film Festival; it kicks off the event in great style and glamour. Host Franklyn Ajaye maintained the level of style with his gorgeous sax playing and relaxed comedy. Then there were the customary Opening Night speeches given by the mayor of the City of Port Phillip, the two major festival partners – Cinemedia and the Australian Film Commission – and, finally, Festival Director, Paul Harris.

A key point made by Harris was that there were a great number of short films worthy of being selected and programmed if not for the limited time span in which the Festival runs. His intention therefore is to make next year’s Festival bigger and better, extending it to one week’s worth of screenings.

It’s only logical that the films selected for Opening Night would be somehow representative of the flavour of the Festival and current short filmmaking in Australia. The majority of the films screened were essentially “crowd-pleasers”. Noticeably lacking were any films that engaged in any experimental or creative way with the medium itself; that were not caught up in “the-most-original-story-ever-told” scenario (which usually equates to quirkiness). The films screened on Opening Night were overly concerned with the detail of story (the narrative, the character) rather than engaging with the medium itself to create and reflect on general states of feeling or being. The films resembled a mad rush to be the most original, the most witty, and so on. This was a frustrating experience that the Festival sustained throughout. On a positive note, however, the animations screened both on Opening Night and throughout the Festival were extraordinary. It is here that one finds real storytelling vision and a willingness and daringness to tell stories with soul and depth about human experience.

Competition Session # 1

The Island (d. Kieran Darcy-Smith, 2000)
Of course the biggest selling point and attraction for this film was that it was executive produced by Kylie Minogue. Otherwise, it was a very confused short film. It began promisingly, setting up a strong sense of mood through controlled pacing and good performances. This was instantly lost as soon as the “unexpected twist” happened, which fell flat. The filmmakers involved here are well-known for their high-energy, award-winning short film Bloodlock (1999).

The Book Keeper (d. Michael Cusack, 1999) Animation
A fascinating and visionary short animation about an eccentric book keeper and the very weird and surreal events that occur within his home and among his book collection. An almost palpable sense of mood and atmosphere was created through the level of detail in the visuals and a truly haunting soundtrack. The offbeat, mystic and magical qualities of this animation reminded me instantly of the work of Tim Burton. Excellent.

Trapped (d. Trudy Hellier, 2000)
An ultimately “quirky” film about a pair of women living next door to a prison and the unconventional forms of communication and relationships that they form with a pair of prison inmates. One woman performs for them; the other – who doesn’t get out much – develops a relationship with one of them and becomes practically obsessed by him. Despite great performances, the story was generally flat and any of its interesting themes were ultimately undermined by the ineffectual, trivial “punch line”.

Local Dive (d. Sarah Watt, 1999) Animation
A wonderful and lyrical short film about exposing yourself. This film had a real delicate feel as it moved from inner states of emotion to dreamscapes. Moving and affecting.

The Director (d. Patrick Hughes, 1999)
The film that is now being made into a feature film, The Director is a well-conceived and realised re-working of the “film within a film” genre. It builds a good sense of suspense balanced with doses of humour and culminates in the final scenes with an “unexpected twist” that makes the audience re-interpret the entire 15 minutes they just viewed. Probably the best of the “punch-line” films. One only hopes though that the central motivation driving the central character – that filmmaking is all about money-making – is not a premonition for the future reality of the state of filmmaking in Australia.

Noise (d. Chris Benz, 2000)
A genuine crowd-pleaser and a good story told effectively through juxtaposing two narratives: a bunch of annoying “mainstream” types with the local neighbourhood who, in the attempt to get some sleep, destroy the former’s car and its ever-annoying car alarm. A great class revenge drama tied in with the horrors of inner city living.

It is interesting to note the tone of these films. Only one animation (Local Dive) portrayed human experience with any sensitivity, seriousness and depth. All the fictions were essentially comedy-based, crowd-pleasers. Although there is nothing wrong with this genre, the lack of range in short filmmaking suggested by the Opening Night (and to a certain degree the Festival itself) pointed to not only a lack of serious and innovative short filmmaking in Australia but a disturbing absence of reflection on matters of social, historical, existential or humanist concerns.

The two major themes that became evident across the films I saw were (a) the use of the mockumentary genre (both in documentaries and fiction) and (b) celebrity appearances (The Director, Whatever Happened To The Sex Dwarves?, Life in a Volkswagon).

Competition Session # 2

One of the only films that dealt with childhood alienation and isolation in a minimalist, subtle and effective way was Bradley McMillan’s Gravity (1999). This film was about a young boy, John, who finds no peace at home, where the “adults” constantly argue, and is the victim of abuse by the local street kids. The only tenderness in his life comes from a young dog he finds lost in the street. But even the dog soon disappears, after the male adult apparently lets him go. The film is evocatively shot and draws on the child’s surroundings (trains, bridges, home) in poetic and expressive ways. Gravity is a plaintive drama, that although at times proceeds in stereotyped, overly bleak terms, has good intentions and ends with a euphoric shot of the boy running toward a path of hope or a new future. Highlight of the festival.

A Classroom in Theresienstadt (Sandra Lepore, 1998) is a short and evocative documentary that pays tribute to the millions of children that died at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia between 1941-45. The film tells its story through an interview with a former teacher at Theresienstadt and re-created scenes, and focuses on the artwork of the children as their vestiges of expression.

If there was one dominant theme, genre or tone that became evident throughout the Festival, it was the use of the mockumentary in both fiction and documentary. Whatever Happened To The Sex Dwarves? (Greg Appel & Josh Reed, 2000) is overall an hilarious package held together by high sarcasm. A parody on the harsh rationalist-economic times that we live in and the latest developments in manufactured pop, Whatever Happened To The Sex Dwarves? traces a set of parents who turn their bubs into performers with attitude and market them extensively so that they become the latest sensation, topping the charts and conquering the music world. At times hilarious, at others its momentum underminded by poor footage and lack of clarity, Whatever Happened To The Sex Dwares? is overall a very funny film. The kids are especially cute.

Quill (Jo Kennedy, 1997) stands as a very short, short – only 1.33 minutes. It works well within this short time frame, setting up a scenario, a degree of suspense, and then climaxing in the punch line. However, its mise en scène is very flat: uninspiring and unevocative.

The animations in this section were, as consistent across the Festival, true treasures. They ranged from the funny and witty (The Hammer, Matthew Saville, 2000) to the experimental and visionary (Shadowplay, Susan Kim, 1999) to the sombre and tender (The Long Yard, Sharon Parker) to the truly evocative and sublime (Like Drowning, Cath Murphy, 2000). The latter won the Award for Best Animation. This animation in particular proved how through minimal attention to figural movement, voice-over intonation and music, a profound sense of emotion and affect can be produced. It is a pity these techniques were not as equally experimented with in the short films. Like Drowning focused on the repercussions of death, in particular, on those individuals close to the deceased, and their relationships in turn with their remaining family. It painted a tender and haunting picture of human experience in this regard.

Chris Begley’s Naked Intent (1998) is a bold, playful and uplifting “crowd-pleaser”. A stylish film, it takes its cue from the world of noir, and is populated by bad guys, even worse guys, the customary femme fatale, and.a male stripper! The film works wonderfully in the way it skillfully plays with intersecting story-lines and narrative. The male stripper as an unlikely noir icon enables the filmmaker to throw comic light on the icon of the private dick. The film’s greatest moment occurs at the precise point of intersection of the two narratives (a mob gathering and a male stripper on duty) where it explodes into high-energy comedy. An excellent genre hybrid.

A Telephone Call For Genevieve Snow (Peter Long, 2000) is somewhere between the “quirky” genre and a Lynch film. Slightly surreal and beautifully shot in creamy black and white, this film is about two lonely, slightly odd characters, Genevieve and Nigel. By accident Nigel stumbles across Genevieve and decides to call her. They continue a series of elliptical conversations on the phone, before finally meeting. A little play with audience expectations at the end only emphasises this film’s warm and life-affirming ending. Provocative and amusing.

Tropfest Showcase

Maybe the only reason to justify screening these films was to give Melbourne audiences the opportunity to sample the kind of work that gets screened at the extraordinarily successfully Sydney-based short film festival, Tropfest.

The films on offer were a mixed bunch ranging from the disappointing (superficial and trivial subject-matter; boyish humour) to more exciting dramas, which reflected social issues. Overall, however, there was little creative engagement with the medium. Most of the films were based in the comedy-genre, and reduced the short film to a quick laugh. This easily translated into that brand of Australian humour – very sarcastic, mocking. Examples included the mockumentary How Far Can You Wear Your Underpants From The Beach? (John Biggins), The Raw Prawn (Trent O’Donnell), parodies The Baaa Flock Project, (Darryl Thoms & Zenon Kohler) and Life In A Volkswagon (Bryan Moses, 2000) and the cute comic short Old Man (Robin Feiner & Jesse Gibson). Only mildly humourous and generally unoriginal was The Watermark (Lisa Dombroski, 1999). However, there were some very engaging fictions, in particular, 1 Day, 2 Tracks (Shalom Almond & Tamsin Sharp, 1999) about a very intimate relationship between a brother and sister. Meeting Misty Rain (Justin Kurzel, 2000) looked at moments of connection in two very lonely lives; while The Bathroom (Richard Lindsell) was a strange and slightly haunting film about a man who sees religious murals in his bath tub. Desy (Heather-Jean Moyes) was an interesting look at issues of cultural dislocation and immigration; while Brother (Angus Strachan, 2000) was a fast-paced view of the harsh, dark and unattractive lives lead by two brothers in Kings Cross.

Competition Session # 6

This session provided more great animation (Colleen Spencer, Annette Trevitt, 1999) and some highlights in fiction. Confessions of a Headhunter (Sally Riley, 2000) was an intriguing film, which was both amusing (in a lightly comic way) and moving. The film is about a man who discovers his indigenous roots and finds his relatives. His growing sense of who he is, which is intimately tied to his indigenous roots, leads him to become a contemporary headhunter. His primary objects are heads of national statues. This film plays skillfully with genre expectations, particularly, through the use of flashback. It illustrates the theme of the legacy of the past and a sense of justice with subtlety and light comic edge. The very last shot, though, is highly poetic and moving and says depths about the rights owing to indigenous culture. An instant crowd-mover.

Kids In America (Misty Fox, 1999) is a high-energy parody about the violence in American high-schools. It is a curious one: why would an Australian filmmaker choose to re-create stock American teenage characters being ruthlessly murdered by their peers? Good performances and a really raw sense of energy give this film its edge. In particular, the unnerving use of Kim Wilde’s euphoric “Kids In America”.

A filmmaker whose work appeared more than a few times throughout the Festival was director and screenwriter Greg Williams. His film Buggers (1999) is a farcical, quirky slapstick about a pair of human-size bugs driving a Volkswagen across the countryside and their various adventures. While Threaded (Mark Forstmann, 1999) – very different in tone – was a peculiar drama-black comedy about workplace harassment and uneven levels of power in the relationship between boss and employee. In this case, Donna (played magisterially by Arianthe Galani), an “ethnic” seamstress, is chosen by her boss (Brian Meegan) to sew his wedding suit. Different cultures and forms of communication lead to potentially disastrous consequences in this film. Though the performances, the score and the pacing are excellent, framing is flat and uninteresting.

Competition Session # 7

Unfinished Business (Pamela Donnellan, 1999) is another affecting and moving film about the issue of race and race relations in Australia. Two present day officers investigate the case of an adult, born from an indigenous father and Anglo-Saxon mother, who was given away as a child and is now seeking to reunite with his parents. The film traces not only the troubled area of race-relations but the effects of the past on the present and on those involved in investigating and uncovering the past. The final shot – from a driver’s point of view – of a highway stretched and winding ahead is richly evocative and poetic.

Billy Boy Phat (Darcy Maine, 2000) is another short comedy of the mockumentary kind. At times, hilarious, this film parodies the unemployed, dole-dependent life-style. It is essentially driven by the comic genius of Hung Le – in particular, his zany facial expressions, malleable body and, of course, inability to sing.

An interesting take on the predictability of “ordinary” life The Details of Daily Living (Steven Savvas, 1999) is a wry and effective short film. Following a main character in a routine day, it marks the predictability of events by having the statistics of its likelihood occurring on the screen. The short proceeds with droll, black humour that culminates wonderfully toward the end. A simple yet delightful and clever short comedy.

An Australian Film, Television & Radio School production, Tea for Three (Anthony Johnsen, 1999) is a visually evocative and rich short satire based on a trio of gangsters set off against each other in high tension over a cup of tea. A comic play with genre expectations.

Another stunning animation, Satellite (Jonathan Hairman, 1999) is a wonderful tale about a young boy’s growing appreciation of nature and people in contrast to the “pollution” of television.

Though a definite crowd-pleaser, Oops! (Mark Bellamy, 1999) is another clever comedy about the mistakes made in the haste of feeling fearful and shocked.

Like a single voice in the wilderness, People Reading (Robin Plunkett, 1999) was one of the very few experimental films that this reviewer saw. A refreshing change to the quick laughs and clever comedy crowd-pleasers, People Reading is a quiet film somewhere between fiction and documentary that telescopes on individuals whilst reading. Though nothing in the conventional sense happens, the film is fascinating for its studied observation of the exterior of individuals undergoing an interior activity. Small moments of physical detail become paramount during this strangely suspended moment of reality, which takes place in many diverse situations and locales. A fascinating short film, in which everything is slowed right down to the material presence of people on screen.

Competition Session # 8

There were some definite highlights in this session. It included another daring delight of the Festival, Ilana Shulman’s Paradise (1999) – a Cronenberg-inspired film about the body and the connection between fish and flesh. The story is based on a family and in particular the mother. Heightened and surreal; however, at times slightly cluttered and lacking full narrative clarity and force.

Flowergirl

Cate Shortland’s Flowergirl (1999) is a multi-award winning short film that continued this record at St. Kilda, winning the two prestigious awards – Best Short Film and Best Achievement in Direction. Flowergirl is a wonderfully loose film about three young Japanese living in a grungy apartment in Bondi Beach. The entire film is spoken in Japanese with English subtitles. One of the characters, Daisuke, must return home after a brief holiday in Australia. He uses a hand-held camera to record everyday moments and events – and the film mixes freely from its “objective” recording to the character’s. The use of his voice-over becomes a distinctive feature in revealing Daisuke’s thoughts and feelings. He falls in love with his housemate, the bold Hana, who apparently has a boyfriend, and so they are only good friends.

The beauty of this film lies in is its subtlety, its everyday focus and the way it reveals the characters and their feelings effectively through gestures and actions. Daisuke finally leaves Australia and when in Japan viewing what he recorded, he is surprised to see Hana has privately recorded herself undressing. This becomes an ambiguous and tender statement: Daisuke can only have Hana as a recorded image, which she has allowed. The performances are wonderful. In its tortured and introverted characters and their potent relationships and its overall sense of fluidity and looseness in style, Flowergirl recalls the films of Wong Kar-Wai. A highlight of the Festival.

Other films in this section included the pretentious Desire Lines (Annie Beauchamp, 1999); an amusing film about a young private-school girl’s yearning to become a ballerina and not a nun, The Calling (Lisa Chambers, 1998); and two comedy-based shorts, Bare (Deborah Strutt, 2000) and Special Guest Star (Geoff Hitchins, 1999).

Big Bay Out

A traditional feature of the Festival, Big Bay Out was this year’s national retrospective programme presented in association with ScreenSound Australia. This year’s theme was the Bay and its surrounding area. The beauty of this programme was that it opened up the Festival to earlier work – going back as far as 1970 – and introducing audiences to earlier talented filmmakers like Ann Turner (Bathing Boxes, 1995) and Maggie Fooke (Pleasure Domes, 1987). It also revealed some gems: The Hot Centre of The World (Tim Burstall, 1971) and Headlock (Amanda Brotchie, 1996). Overall these films not only revealed the Bay to be a common locale for films but also enabled audiences to engage more thoughtfully with current short filmmaking represented in the Festival by viewing them in light of past short films screened in this programme.

Competition Session # 12

Quality ran thin in this section, with the majority of films once again firmly in the territory of the mocking, comically wry look at suburban existence: The Case of Evan Fothergill – A Fairytale (Stephen Bates, 2000) and Spazz (Colin Mowbray, 2000). Other rather unfulfilling films included Howard’s End (Justin Case, 2000) and Wednesdays (Jeremy Stanford, 1999). Comedy was sustained in this section with the crowd-pleasing Imperfect Match (Greg Williams, 1998) and two wonderfully witty animations The Bag Lady (Leonard Ward, 2000) and Humbert (David Williams, 1999). A very clever and witty film that worked effectively within a very short time frame (1.5 mins) was Bird in the Wire (Phillip Donnellon, 1999). A strange short in this section was Primal Soup (Terry Moore, 2000) – a film that attempted to be a serious drama but fell quite short. The highlight was Brendan Fletcher’s Kulli Foot (1999), a sensitive and tender film about an Aboriginal football player who leaves his hometown temporarily for the big city.

Competition Session # 13

Dust

This session began with one of the Festival’s highlights: Ivan Sen’s most recent short film Dust (2000). A director noticeable for his careful attention to the formal properties of the medium combined with a minimal though emotionally affective narrative, Dust is a gem. In less than 25 mins, Sen develops characters with great depth and a complex and tense story. Dust is about a pair of young Aboriginal men who spend a day at a cotton field. They travel with their grandmother, a knowledgeable though silent figure. At the cotton field are other workers, in particular, a brother and sister (white) with whom they cross paths. There is racial conflict between the brother and one of the Aboriginal men while the sister and the other Aboriginal show affection toward each other.

Sen’s direction is outstanding: the performances are brilliant, no character is a stereotype; the use of landscape and the environment interweaved with the story is excellent; the sound-scape is haunting; and the pacing is impeccable. Dust culminates in a dust storm that reveals in its aftermath the bones of Aboriginal ancestors buried just beneath the surface, and related to the story the grandmother was just recounting. Charged with the presence of history before their eyes, the young people acknowledge each other from new and different perspectives. An amazingly poetic and haunting short film. A Festival highlight.

Another highlight of the Festival, though very different in tone to Dust, was Rachel Ward’s Blindman’s Bluff (1999), a very charming short film. A light drama-comedy with humanist concerns, Blindman’s Bluff follows a lonely young woman Anne (played by Kate Agnew), cynical about relationships (attributed to an obvious facial scar and sign of difference), and her encounter with a jovial and life-affirming blind man (played by Tony Martin). As the title suggests, though, his handicap is a fake, an intrigue to allure women. However, over the time that they spend together, Anne and the blind man form a wonderful connection based on a soulful exchange of thoughts and experiences. Though there is an “unexpected turn of events” at the film’s end, it only confirms the particular emphases and qualities of the story, and in a truly charming way.

Another highlight in this session was The Coat (Sarah Burrell-Davis, 1999), a film about woman’s support of her brother, a drug addict. A beautiful and lyrical film.

Also in this session: another mockmumentary Beef Off (Susan Jones, 1999); an underdeveloped fiction When Clouds Collide (Nassiem Valamanesh, 1999) and more witty animation The e-TAG Saga (Michael Nicholson, 1999).

Competition Session # 20

This final session of short films offered a mixed bunch. A highlight was Phillip Crawford’s Rule of Thumb (1999) – an intense drama flashing between various moments in time (past and present) and space, tracing the effects of child abuse in the present day adult’s relationships and the circular, repetitive nature of abuse. Daring and edgy. Another intriguing “serious” film was Before 9.30 (Brigid Kitchin, 1998), about a young boy, immobilised and made aggressive by depression and a fear of failing at school. Excellent performances.

Busting (Simon Price, 2000) is a tribute to the wonderful world of Buster Keaton, and was made by those well affiliated with his films, the band that often accompany his screenings in Australia, The Blue Grassy Knoll.

Gaijin – TV (Tim Patterson, 1999) and White Dragons (Chris Richards-Scully, 1999) were both about Asian influences and presence in Australia. The former was slightly frustrating for its refusal to take its characters seriously and its constant oscillation between exposition and mockumentary. Quirky indeed. The latter was an interesting exploration into Australians seeking or harbouring Asian identities.

Another Ivan Sen film, Wind (1999) gave audiences the chance to soak in the visual, formal and narrative splendour of Sen’s filmmaking. Inferior to Dust, Wind is at times too drawn out in its pacing. An apt closing film, I Was Robert Mitchum (Kylie du Fresne) is a tribute to the power of cinema to move its audience.