The following is a collection of capsule reviews of select films that screened in Competition Sessions 9-11 and 17-19 of the Australian Short Film Competition.

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Even in these six sessions of short films alone, there was such an incredibly wide range of films that generalisations are very hard to make. Nevertheless, those with indigenous characters and stories were without a doubt the best of the narrative films. They were confronting and unafraid, with scripting worthy of feature length cinema. Australian animation, according to these sessions of the Festival, is also outstanding. These films, I felt, generally had the most inventive and experimental soundscapes that stood in direct opposition to the narrative voice-overs of some of the standard fictional shorts.

Competition Session # 9

The first session of the weekend’s screenings began with Jelly Beans For Breakfast (1999), by Marion Lee. 11.30am on Saturday was perhaps a touch too early for Melbourne’s film lovers. But to ease in the early birds was this wistful film, which had such intimate photography that it almost had us smelling the jellybeans, one of the many smells that frame Rachel’s memories. Rachel is a young girl, lost in the question of how to remember smells, and family and relationships. Rachel’s love, a young and less reflective boy, just wants to know if he might sleep in the same bed as her. There is a darkness to this film, both in the ambiguous relationship between Rachel and the boy – is he a friend, or a member of her extended family? – and in Rachel’s attitude to Hazel, which is protective and loving, almost as if she is trying to shelter her from the world of memory.

Next came the major production, The Unique Oneness of Christian Savage (Jennifer Ussi, 1999), shot in South Africa, with a credit sequence that listed film students from schools across the world and sponsorship including the likes of Bryce Courtenay. Digby Young’s cinematography was definitely crucial, and coupled with the two boys’ performances Nyadze and Christian (Sipho Ngwenya and Byron Taylor) made this film quite blissful to watch. The boys joyfully at home in the windswept African steppe: skipping, cart wheeling, and throwing their shirts recklessly into the air. Theirs is a perfect world, Nyadze and Christian cross the boundaries that have the country around them plunged into civil war. They have a beautiful relationship and together discuss religion, friendship, freedom, and reincarnation. Christian wishes to return as a lion; Nyadze first wishes to be an eagle, yet changes his mind to return as a dog, to be Christian’s best friend. Humble, Christian replies, “you are my best friend”. However, the implications of Ussi’s film are disturbing, to say the least. With not unsubtle iconography, we have ‘Christian Savage’, the young white boy developing a cynicism toward the practices of his church and his people. Is it that Christian contains within him oppositional worlds, Christian/African, civilised/savage. Or is the message that it’s the church whose practices are brutal and savage? Or is it that Christian, by taking so naturally to the African world, is perceived by his church and his preacher to have ‘savage’ elements in him. No matter, it still happens that it is the young African, Nyadze, who dies, and returns not as an eagle but as a dog, licking the toes of his white human friend. This is an image of insidious white paternalism; a film with good motives but disquieting connotations.

Wednesday’s Pullout (1999) is a comic and compassionate short about an unemployed man driven to exhaustion by the impossibility of the job market. His initial focus and effort dissipate with each subsequent rejection into abstracted musings as to why he can’t, indeed shouldn’t, be given a job. There is never a hint of blame in his ramblings, and Brad Lanyon’s script is surprisingly, refreshingly believable. By the twists of fate, the man lands a job as a greeting-card writer, comforting the sick in hospital with messages that are a far cry from the recycled and floral trash of most mass-produced cards.

Pencildick (2000) is short and sharp and does not muck around with complicated storylines to make its point. Joe Villanti subverts one of Australia’s favourite kids entertainers, also confirming our worst fears – Mr Squiggle’s nose is and always has been evidently phallic. The best thing about Pencildick is the excellent visual punchline, we realise it’s Mr Squiggle who has bought an erotic join-the-dot magazine, leaving the audience chuckling.

The only documentary in this session, Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee’s Secret Women’s Business (1999), was a lovely respite from fiction. Evocative, intimate, very relaxed and very un-Australian, Lee captures the foreignness of sitting down to bathe and of bathing publicly. It is shot on SP Betacam, but the picture is never flat and conveys a sense of the heat and the layers of use this Korean bathhouse provides. It is about women taking off their masks, including those of class, occupation and race, but first of all it is a film about female bonding. These layers are visually represented with half-submerged cameras, letting us see women conducting easy conversation, with their bodies comfortable under the water. The idea of bonding is perhaps a little heavily pressed – at least for these women, bathing is never just about bathing. Importantly, Kyu-Jung Lee lets us see these women re-masking themselves, dressing and applying make-up – the bathhouse is an oasis that cannot be brought into the outside world. I enjoyed this film, but was left wondering if the Korean bathhouse is secret women’s business anymore.

The Thief (Chi Yen Ooi, 2000) was quite a long film, with an invasive narrative voice-over that needed refining. The woman spends a lot of time describing what love is, what it makes us do, how it makes us blind, and how we all make pretences towards love in order to survive. But the characters and plot were unconvincing and didn’t demonstrate the above statements particularly well. The film made interesting use of colour, many of the scenes cast in blocks of pop-art red and blue.

In contrast, Tide (1999) was an intensely short one-minute film, which washed across me exactly as a surprise wave. Leigh Craven, (whose name appeared in conjunction with many of the VCA animated films), created a haunting figure with animation that was somehow reminiscent of Ralph Steadman’s heightened realities. Tide shows the unreal situation of a figure sitting below a dam wall that opens and releases its tonne of water before quickly subsiding, leaving the figure and the audience quite empty. An excellent soundscape also lent the film power.

Competition Session # 10

Dysposia (1999) is a fantastic and unique experimental film by Dean Francis, with improvised acting that make the unlikely storyline entirely plausible. All of these characters are dysfunctional, but there is something, perhaps a shared compassion, that holds the family together. Dysposia is a rhapsody on a city which is watched over by a strangely archetypal earth-angel in his undies, wandering around the outskirts of town looking for sex. There are some brilliant one-liners, like when Bonnie yells to her transsexual father Josephine: “You’ll never be fucking Shirley Bassey”, and the soundtrack written predominantly by Francis includes titles such as “Fucke” (reprise) and “Song for Dad” (Why is Everything So Fucked Up). This film exhibits a vision that is brought forth with maturity and irreverence.

Specially for Me (Kim Bessant, 2000) is about those very important differences, the trivialities that make us who we are. Humans who wash their soap before washing themselves, or a woman who leaves her car boot open overnight in order to air the car. Bessant gives us various moments of humanity, that might be mistaken for neuroses or pathological (read obsessive-compulsive) habits, from the most typical and regular of people. Perhaps a little long, but otherwise an absurd and hysterical glimpse into everyone’s secrets.

Definitely a highlight of the session was the fictional film Masseur (1998) by John O’Brien. His script was so subtle, and not afraid of silence to convey the developing relationship between masseur and client. The cinematography lingers across the body of this client, a man in his 70s, allowing us to appreciate his immense age and experience. Certain unexpected angles make him seem almost the hulk of a huge sea mammal, his skin mottled a thousand different tones. The confidence that develops quickly between the two men is real, this is a film about touch and the power of touch, as the older man remembers how his wife used to touch him “soft like that”, a memory he has held inside for fifteen years. The change to colour at the end of the film is invigorating, and by placing it at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, this change also gives the film a documentary-style edge. A simply beautiful, modest film.

Saturday night, Sunday morning (1999) by Rima Tamou and Archie Weller is a powerful, entirely realist film, developed not in lieu of any punchline, and neither just a snapshot on life. It is a story, about a young white girl, Melanie, taken hostage by a white kid and two Aboriginal boys (Wolf and EP) who have stolen a car and robbed a service station owned by the girls’ father. Brilliant direction and excellent acting combine to show us who are the ghettoised of Australia – sometimes the slang between Wolf and EP (who undertook language coaching by co-writer Archie Weller) was so thick I couldn’t understand. The film is a highly understated love story, between Wolf and Melanie, and also the story of two best friends trying to figure out how to get out of their predicament, how to treat the white girl, just as she tries to figure them out. Melanie is brave, first for running from the car when it gets bogged, then later turning the rifle on the two boys, although she is unable to live up to her promise to shoot them. But the two boys are brave as well; Wolf overpowers the white boy who is threatening to rape Melanie; and there is a sense that although the two would like to be treating her badly they are unable to. They tie her up, but Wolf unties her almost immediately. The relationship between the two boys is profound, and EP is quick to recognise, “stop thinking with your dick.she’s comin’ between us”. A struggle between the two results in Wolf’s death, with EP yelling for Melanie to help, but she does not move. We know that EP loses a cousin, a brother, a best friend. But what does Melanie lose? Her innocence? Her first love? That question is left unanswered. This film is so open, and the characters, although we only know them for such a short time, have depth and strength lacking in so many other short films.

Competition session # 11

Proximity (Scott Millwood,1999), which follows the filmmaker’s physical and philosophical wanderings across greater Asia, is a very long film at 52 minutes. It includes some powerful and shocking footage, mainly revolving around images of the horrific treatment of animals. The film’s intention, however, was stated to be an exploration of identity, a personal search to discover what a man is or should be. The narration is a kind of prose-poem, linking disordered thoughts to haphazard images. Millwood crosses borders, politics, civil and international fighting; he interviews victims of torture and subjects of oppression. Sometimes the issues he discusses are gender related but often they are not. This film is interesting, kind of like watching a cross-section of Asia under the microscope, but one wonders whether the filmmaker undermines the seriousness of these images by constantly relating them to his own search for identity.

Kin (Emma Freeman, 1999) is a film about a repressed librarian, who is searching for her father in the faces of various men around her. She imagines having sex with these men, in order to forge some sort of connection with her unknown father. The film drifted a little, and its purpose seemed ambiguous, but Lucy Taylor as the woman gives a great performance.

Julian Savage’s experimental animation, Conversations in Space (1999) is a witty and universal film, following cut-outs of well-groomed figures from the ’60s, communicating with each other and the audience through sign. At first these figures seem manic and incomprehensible, their efforts at speech in various social situations never collide. Yet as the film develops, culminating in a scene at an airport, the figures have taken on real personalities. At the airport they are placed against a backdrop of photos from cheesy ’80s travel brochure propaganda, and the energetic, animated people seem to have more life than the photos of the real thing. The relaxed and effective lounge-soundtrack contributes a further element to the film’s peculiarity.

Competition Session # 17

Connections (1999) by Carlo Petraccaro is a sweet short, but again involved vaguely stereotypical characters and a plot driven entirely towards the punchline. The highlight was the diffusing final scene, in which the two halves of a blind date equalise their relationship, burying themselves in sand below a pier as they face the incoming tide.

Hush (1999) by Katherine Fry is a moving film, which benefits greatly from the acting of the two female characters. They are sisters, and Jess, the youngest, although lost in adolescence and in admiration of her older sister, has an effervescence that is contagious, ensuring that neither the film nor her character ever sways into angst. The title Hush refers to an assault on her sister, that by Jo’s request must not be discussed. The assault, presumably a rape, is not central, but provides a backboard to the film enabling various tensions, and also hidden sisterly affinities to come to the surface. The film is about a right of passage for both girls. In the final scene Jo is leaving for London, escaping from her life that doesn’t have the action that she craves. Departing, she also leaves behind Jess, who will now be alone, but perhaps, finally able to come out of her sister’s shadow and into her own. Cinematography of the Victorian southern coastline is memorable, as are certain moments of quiet and silence that together present a different version of semi-rural Australia to that which audiences might expect.

Yet another brilliant and quirky animation is Anita Beckman’s Off Ya Trolley (1999). Created with layers of rough ink sketches on canvass, gauze, and other strange materials, the film is striking and different. Beckman presents a montage of fantasy: sets of bosoms on a washing line, dripping milk into the open mouth of a giggling baby; or a man single-mindedly sculpting his hedge into the figure of a more-than-man like man. The soundscape by Christopher Danta and Adam Starr help drive this film to its chaotic climax. Both film and sound involve repetition, slowly revealing more and more until we understand how the whole fits together, and at that point, everything collapses.

Glass Box (Dominika Ferenz, 2000) is also an incredibly artistic film, which works more like an installation than a strict narrative. Migrants from all parts of the world speak about their experiences, predominantly of feelings of displacement, and of being stuck between worlds. Ferenz’ images – butterflies in clear plastic cubes, landscapes and portraits – are removed from the sound, ensuring we can never match face to voice, race to story. Watching the film unfold was like watching an artist paint, even the credit sequence is presented like the pages of an antique book. Truly a wonder to behold, Glass Box is clearly a vision that Ferenz worked hard to achieve.

It’s a strange notion what we would do if war broke in Australia. But War Story (1998), although set in this country, is a film imagining a situation universal to war – the destruction and breakup of family. The film focuses on a young girl, who uses her imagination and her doll to stave off the fear she is feeling. The film seems to be a little scattered – we see glimpses of the parents’ story and glimpses of the child’s story. And the final image – bringing the dead child out of the bunker into an untouched Australian landscape is too harsh, too incongruous, and detracts from the film’s overall meaning.

Competition Session # 18

Jane Cole’s documentary of the renowned Australian photographer, Tracey Moffat, shows a formidable woman taking the international art-world by storm. Up In The Sky: Tracey Moffat In New York (1999), however, focuses too much on the highlife of New York’s art scene, and perhaps not enough on the incredible images which have inspired the said crowd to such passion. It was wonderful to be given the opportunity to see some of Moffat’s films. She says that her photographs operate more as slow-moving films, and her films work similarly, as speed-up still photography. Moffat clearly makes this documentary: speaking to the camera, the artist proves her position with a sense of humour to diffuse even the most pretentious of art critics. The documentary shows numerous, influential figures lending their praise and credentials in support of Moffat, when in fact her works speak for, and justify, themselves.

My Mother, My Son (1999) by Erica Glynn was another confronting film, centred around an Aboriginal grandmother, mother and son, revealing the medium of film to be at the forefront of criticism and activism for indigenous issues. We are never given more than the minimum of information, although we learn that the mother was at one stage an addict, who had her child taken from her into foster care. The quest for her child is suffused with information we slowly glean about the relationship she has to her own mother. She was brought up in poverty; the grandmother comments that she only stole when it was absolutely necessary, a last resort. The film, which never illustrates a definite right or wrong, nevertheless asks us to recognise that the Stolen Generation continues to happen. The narrative, centred on a road trip, develops by way of recurring collisions with a yuppie couple in their Range Rover, and these collisions are pushed to the point of incredibility. My Mother, My Son is a realistic film that uses this as a narrative device for unnecessary reasons. Perhaps to add humour, or tension, but in my opinion it only reduces the reality and lengthens an otherwise intense film.

Competition Session # 19

Adam Febire’s Cuantos Colores? (2000) is an elegant film, made in collaboration with the Film and Television School in Havana, Cuba. A short documentary, it depicts just a slice of Cuban life, allowing us to see the grace and dignity of a country ripe with contradiction and attention from the outside world. Febire takes an interesting angle: noting just how many colours of cigar, politics, and race that one small country manages to fit within its shores. The film was an easy, relaxed film, not interested in pushing any particular ideological position. As such, I felt the film needed a bit more of the location, it needed to step back from the particular and allow the viewer to gain an idea of the whole.

From filmmaker Kyu-Jung Lee, maker of Secret Women’s Business, which was also screened at the Festival, comes Soshin: In Your Dreams (1999). A measured, non-judgemental documentary, Lee explores her own history, through focussing on the family of her parents’ best friends. She explores the concept of ‘filial loyalty’, pressures placed by Korean parents on their children in relation to external pressures placed on those same families. There is a beauty in the way that Lee explores her own personal history by deflecting the spotlight onto others. And in the process of making this documentary, Lee involves her parents at every stage: they are interviewed, they conduct interviews and are placed also within the action. This film is really a journey, but functions also as an historical documentary in which history means past, present and future. Using photographs and old recordings we are taken back to war time Korea, yet we also follow the dreams of the youngest performer in this group of people – a grandson who is truly a remarkable and talented dancer. Lee discovers a love of performance within her own family, discovering that in fact her father wanted to be a singer, just as she aspires to be a filmmaker. Although Soshin: In Your Dreams sometimes loses its focus, it is otherwise a wonderful, professional documentary that explores the subtleties and motivations that operate behind the mask of every family.