The Birds

(July 25-August 5 2001)

The Brisbane International Film Festival turned 10 this year, and with that landmark came the first naming rights sponsor which meant that every time the Festival was reported on, it had to be referred to as the Cellular One 10th Brisbane International Film Festival. Some might bemoan the encroachment of corporate sponsorship such as this, but one can understand the need in these harsh economic times, especially with the Australian dollar performing so miserably, thus pushing up the prices of international films and freightage etc. – all of which proved to be a bit of a headache for the Festival organisers this year.

Another challenge the relatively youthful BIFF faces is that it occurs so soon after the Sydney Film Festival and basically coincides with Melbourne, which means that acquiring the Opening Night film of choice, especially if an Australian project is desired, can be frustrating. This year, Sydney led with Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) and Melbourne with The Bank (Robert Connolly, 2001) – both excellent Australian films which would enhance any Opening Night. Both films did screen during BIFF but the Opening Night choice by Artistic Director, Anne Démy-Geroe, was La Spagnola (Steve Jacobs, 2001), which received a mixed reaction. While most people I spoke to could appreciate the quality of acting by leads Lola Marceli and Alice Ansara, the direction by Steve Jacobs, and the significance of it being the first predominantly subtitled Australian film, many just didn’t find the story or its difficult central character of much appeal. A cynical colleague even suggested the film was chosen merely to set a Spanish musical and culinary theme for the night.

La Spagnola is also quite confronting and sexually bawdy, which raises the question of the criteria for choosing a film at these events where film buffs and critics, commercial sponsors and politicians gather for socialisation as much as to view the film. When I interviewed BIFF special guest, Tippi Hedren, who introduced a special screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), I casually asked what she thought of La Spagnola the previous night. Her vocal distaste for the above elements no doubt would have summed up some of the more conservative audience members’ feelings. Likewise with the Closing Night film, the much lauded British crime thriller, Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000), with an uncharacteristically scary Ben Kingsley spewing out obscenities at a rate of knots. There were a few walkouts during the film, but I’m sure many would emphasise that anyone with delicate sensibilities should probably steer clear of film festivals in general and stick with more predictable multiplex product.

The Festival organisers had to deal with another potential glitch this year after the main venue, the Hoyts Regent Cinema Complex in the Queen Street Mall, was taken over by Birch, Carroll and Coyle. Although the Regent was still used, it needed to be supplemented with other venues, they being the Hoyts IMAX complex at Southbank and the newly built Palace Centro in New Farm. Although there was a small rise of approximately 2% in overall revenue, the two alternative venues were not patronised as well as had been hoped, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The Festival brings together film-lovers in a type of community – within a psychological as well as a physical space – and part of the experience is meeting at the nearby cafes and restaurants, making the central venue a hub. Other festivals have had to deal with multi-venues, and Brisbane people will probably adapt over time, but there’s a world of difference between heading into the city and attending several films at the same venue, as opposed to rushing over the river to the soulless Southbank complex or driving out to the Palace Centro. It might be an unavoidable development in the Festival’s history, but not a welcome one.

As for the actual content of the Festival, this year was considered the strongest by many observers with a very impressive clutch of documentaries on offer, and retrospectives of 1950s-1960s American director Budd Boetticher (The Bullfighter and the Lady, Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station) and Roman Polanski, with features including Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, and Frantic. With Adrian Martin in town as the Polanski expert, audiences were also treated to the filmmakers’ early shorts, Two Men and a Wardrobe, and The Fat and the Lean.

Horror lovers were satiated with a retrospective which saw the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Shivers (1975). To put the films into some sort of perspective, the documentary The American Nightmare (2000) directed by Adam Simon was an insightful examination of 1960s and ’70s U.S.A. and the real life horrors that informed directors such as Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Many of the documentary’s images of Vietnam War victims, police officers shooting and beating protest marchers on university campuses, and political assassinations were indeed more disturbing than footage from the horror films themselves.

Each year, the Chauvel Award is presented to an outstanding practitioner in the Australian film industry, and for the first time it went to documentary makers. Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, critically acclaimed for such works as Bitter Harvest (1992) and Rats in the Ranks (1996), were presented with the award by David Stratton at a screening of their compelling documentary, Facing The Music (2001) – a piece of documentary making which builds suspense and drama as skilfully as any fiction.

Unfortunately, another of the Festival’s documentaries – Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2000) – directed by his brother-in-law Jan Harlan, saw many disappointed people turned away. In one of a few puzzling scheduling choices, it screened in the tiny State Library Metway Theatrette, and was an unreserved session on the Festival’s final day.

BIFF takes pride in a strong Asia-Pacific component, and to celebrate the 10th anniversary, there was an Asian Decade retrospective featuring some of the most popular Asian films from the Festival’s history. These included Tian Zhuang Zhuang’s 1993 The Blue Kite, originally banned from completion by the Chinese authorities because of its depiction of the conditions under the communist government, and Clara Law’s Temptation of a Monk, also from 1993 – a towering historical epic set in Tang Dynasty China in which Law, now making Australian films (Floating Life, The Goddess of 1967), created an evocative and powerful vision of an ancient, imposing civilisation.

This year also saw BIFF’s inaugural NetPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) for Best Asian film. The jury consisted of Indonesian film director, Garin Nugroho, whose film, Unconcealed Poetry, won the NetPAC Award at the Singapore International Film Festival, Philip Cheah who is artistic director of the Singapore festival, and Adrienne McKibbons, Executive Officer of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia. The award went to Taiwanese film, What Time Is It There? (2001), directed by Tsai Ming Liang, “for its unique use of time, space and traditional culture in expressing loneliness and separation in modern Asia.” The Special Jury Prize was awarded to the Bengali film, The Wrestlers (2000), directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

Facing the Music was voted top film overall by audiences. In terms of fictional films only, the audience Top 10 comprised:

1. The Closet (France, François Veber)
2. Jalla! Jalla! (Sweden, Josef Fares)
3. Lantana (Australia, Ray Lawrence)
4. Nurse Betty (USA, Neil LaBute)
5. The Truth About Tully (USA, Hilary Birmingham)
6. Everybody Famous (Belgium, Dominique Deruddere)
7. Divided We Fall (Czech Republic, Jan Hrebejk)
8. Like Father (UK, Amber Collective Film Workshop Production Team)
9. Lan Yu (China, Stanley Kwan)
10. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Australia, Rolf de Heer).

It’s encouraging to see two Australian films make it into the favourites list – Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, and Rolf de Heer’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001) – and overall there was a decent-sized contingent from this country including the self-financed, low-budget Desire (1999) by Bill Mousoulis, Rachel Perkins’s One Night the Moon (2001) featuring songwriter Paul Kelly, Robert Connolly’s The Bank, and the theatrically-originated Silent Partner (2001) from director Alkinos Tsilimidos.

My personal favourite of the Australian entries, and possibly of the whole Festival was Lantana, the first feature from Ray Lawrence since Bliss (1985). A brilliant cast led by Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Barbara Hershey, Geoffrey Rush and Rachael Blake, it’s a superb, mature film based on Andrew Bovell’s AWGIE award-winning play, Speaking In Tongues. Having seen the play, I was extremely impressed by Bovell’s screen adaptation, as he hasn’t fallen into the trap that some writers do when adapting their own works of remaining too faithful to the original at the expense of the new medium. Lantana weaves several different narratives, which gradually and increasingly interlink as events unfold, and the issues surrounding contemporary male emotions and trust between couples are handled with sophisticated delicacy. It’s releasing in cinemas in October.

The Bank is also a worthy accomplice to Lantana in terms of its status as a modern Australian film free of cringe-inducing stereotypes and wacky Outback exploits. Dealing with ethics, principles, and morality – and the lack of them in the world of corporate banking – the film by Robert Connolly is a slick piece with a hi-tech storyline rarely seen in Australian films. Already doing the rounds in cinemas, it again stars the charismatic Anthony LaPaglia and the accomplished David Wenham.

Everybody Famous (2000), another comedy in the audience’s Top 10, is a heart-warming film from Belgium about a father’s faith in his daughter’s singing talent and the lengths he will go to give her an opportunity to prove herself. It had the audience laughing out loud several times. The plotline of the father kidnapping a pop singer and making demands in order to give his own daughter a chance to be heard wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was executed with a freshness that made the journey enjoyable – not to mention its rarity as a film spoken in Flemish. It’s also getting an Australian release in October.

Each year, BIFF has a special screening exclusively for Friends of Film, and the entry this time was Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000), set in 1867 in the town of Kingdom Come perched high in snowy Sierra Nevada, California. It’s the gold rush era and the men there work hard and then play hard at the local brothel run by the town’s owner, Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan). When the frail Elena (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley) arrive in town and reveal their identity to Dillon, his world is suddenly transformed and we learn of his long held, shameful secret. Winterbottom has never shied away from bleakness, and this loose interpretation by Frank Cottrell Boyce of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge certainly looks bleak. But the constantly howling winds and unforgiving frozen landscape are balanced with beautifully hued, warm interiors. There are some arresting images too, most notably that of a two-storey house being dragged by men and horses through the trees. A distinctive yet restrained soundtrack by Michael Nyman underscores it with a sense of the profound, with the French title, Redemption, possibly best summing up what is an affecting morality tale in the guise of an unconventional Western.

Another affecting film was Under the Sand (2000) from French director François Ozon and starring the ethereal Charlotte Rampling. Rampling plays a comfortably married woman named Marie who goes on a beach holiday with her husband only to experience the trauma of him disappearing while he’s swimming in the sea. His body isn’t found and Marie returns to the city in a state of denial, speaking about her husband as if he’s still alive and having conversations with him at home. As the realities of life – such as unpaid bills – start to have an impact on Marie, the film becomes heartbreakingly poignant without resorting to sentimentalism as one woman struggles to deal with her unacceptable loss. Rampling hasn’t been seen much in recent years but she carries the film with poise and assurance.

BIFF also had a section called A New Britannia this year, with several films resulting from the British film renaissance screening. Other notable entries in the ‘World Cinema’ section included Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2000), a gay-themed love story which was formerly an e-novel and a widely read work within the underground subculture in China; Jafar Panahi’s award-winning Iranian film, The Circle (2000); Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000); and waydowntown (2000), a low-budget, claustrophobic, and amusing Canadian work from Gary Burns set entirely in an enclosed office building and mall area.

So it seems that with its first decade behind it, BIFF is certainly coming of age and holding its own against the southern festivals which have much longer histories and considerably more prestige attached to them. The Sunshine State festival has often come under criticism for screening too many mainstream films which eventually receive cinema releases, but the unavoidable fact is that when the films are chosen months in advance they often don’t have a sale in Australia. BIFF audiences certainly appear to be appreciative of the 10 days in July-August each year in which they get to experience something a little different, and it looks like the Festival is going to be a permanent part of Brisbane’s arts landscape.

About The Author

Vicki Englund is a film and TV reviewer, and also writes screenplays, for which she has received two AWGIE nominations. She has a degree in Media Studies from the University of Queensland.