My Name is Rocky

June 7-21, 2002

For a list of the Festival’s award winners, click here.

Curiously, the Sydney Film Festival has not spliced the word ‘International’ into its official designation, as have other Australian and overseas festivals in the last 15 years. For all intents and purposes, however, the Festival very much conforms to an international festival template, and, as such, is a delight to attend.

A few critiques are still in order, however. Compared to its Melbourne counterpart, Sydney is modest and unassuming; to Brisbane, safe and easy. It has been somewhat redeemed in recent years by its retrospectives (Rossellini, Cassavetes, Clarke, and this year Eustache), which are more extensive and richer than Melbourne’s. Also, Sydney has stuck with the traditional book-bound catalogue, shaming Melbourne’s street-press concoction even further. (Brisbane has an adequate mid-quality catalogue, but also sparkling daily newsletters.) There are fewer intros and Q & As in Sydney compared to Melbourne, and the ticketing is still problematic (in Melbourne one can see everything for $240, in Sydney that is impossible). In fact, the ticketing structure discourages patrons from attending screenings at the secondary venue (the Dendy Opera Quays, where the more alternative films play) where only single-session tickets are available.

One thing at least makes Sydney unique: its hosting of the Dendy Awards for Australian short films. Each year the Festival kicks off with a full day’s screenings of the nominated shorts. But it could also be argued that, in the face of the glitz of Tropfest and the St. Kilda Film Festival, these Dendy Awards are now stale. Perhaps they need to be reconfigured in some way. As the opening attraction each year, and in the same form, they are symptomatic of a stultifying sense of “tradition” permeating the Festival (and having the monolithic State Theatre as the primary venue doesn’t help here).

Clearly, the Sydney Film Festival feels a pressure to please its large subscriber base of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-range-cinephile patrons. The rhythm of the Festival is slow and even. To the more hardcore cinephiles and critics living in Sydney, the festival has little to offer. Maybe a change is on the way. Then again, maybe not. In this increasingly commercialised and streamlined world, however, I, for one, am happy to gobble up whatever interesting cinematic morsels are thrown my way. (All I can do is dream of the feasts not on the table: Garrel’s Sauvage Innocence [2001], Noe’s Irreversible [2002], Park’s Camel(s) [2001], Nam’s Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine [2000], Kiarostami’s Ten [2002], etc.)

I arrived at the Festival on its second day, and was ushered to my unusual media seat in the State Theatre: way at the back of the mezzanine section, where I could hear the various workings of the staff (in the kitchen, toilets) clearer than the soundtrack emanating from the film (needless to say, I made my way to the front of the stalls for subsequent screenings, thanks to understanding door attendants). But this distanced position from the holy screen afforded me an intriguing experience: as the first film began, I was conscious of being part of a large, attentive audience looking at a lengthy (20-second) shot of a large, attentive audience looking at … well, not a film actually, but a play that works as an allegorical adjunct to the drama unfolding behind the scenes (confused yet?).

Je rentre à la maison

Like Rivette’s Va Savoir! (2001), Manoel de Oliveira’s Je rentre à la maison (I’m Going Home, 2001) incorporates lengthy sections of what might be termed “intra-diegetic” performance (i.e. of the characters, who are actors, at work) into the overall narrative structure. But whilst Rivette in his film collapses reality and theatre into each other, Oliveira delineates them in a spiritual movement from play to rest, life to death. There can be no more ‘performance’ by the ageing actor Gilbert Valance (a haunting Michel Piccoli), only reflection. Previous Oliveira efforts such as Party (1996) and Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo (1997) are creaky, pompous, over-cooked. Je rentre à la maison, in contrast, is a simple, elegant and moving film (in spite of the various ellipses which would make it more so) – it has the cleanest lines and steadiest shots I’ve seen in awhile. A truly beautiful film. A swansong? Maybe not. At 93 and Fassbinder-prolific, Oliveira could become the first filmmaker ever to direct a film at 100.

Not too many other French films made it to the programme, actually. There were two with an African slant, L’Afrance (Alain Gomis, 2001) and Frontièrs (Borders, Mostéfa Djadjam, 2001), both of which I didn’t see, and one with a Gypsy slant, Swing (Tony Gatlif, 2001), which is a welcome but hardly essential addition to the director’s growing oeuvre. As its title suggests, it’s a film about transference, especially cultural and romantic transference. Like one of his best films, Gadjo Dilo (1998), the film charts a straight white boy’s journey into Gypsy music and community. Not as fully realised as the earlier film, Swing nonetheless swings Gatlif back to a purer, simpler mode (as in Mondo [1996]), away from the heat and bustle of Vengo (2000).

A half-dozen or so other European films were scattered throughout the “Contemporary World Cinema” section, but the only one I caught was the Austrian Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, 2001). In an impassioned introduction, SBS Movie Show co-host Margaret Pomeranz urged us to be “disturbed and excited” by the film. Oh well, if only. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily a bad film. It just doesn’t seem to nail anything, either thematically or formally. Revolving around an assortment of fractured characters, most of whom live in a block of Mon Oncle-like modern houses, Dog Days bravely punctures into its reality (serving up some refreshingly abrasive images) but doesn’t know what to do with this penetration. Siedl wavers between absurdism and horror, and is simply happy to let the film run its course, offering no redemption or transformation to the proceedings. Which isn’t a bad strategy in itself, but coupled with the lack of any acute philosophical grounding, it makes for an ultimately flat film.

To the Festival’s credit, hardly any commercial American films were programmed apart from Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001), Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) and The Slaughter Rule (Alex and Andrew Smith, 2002). I saw two other American films, in the “New Directors” section. Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001) is a conventional family study, with a pleasingly light touch and some fine performances by the various cast members. Ultimately, however, despite the admirable focus on female characters, it lacks any real charge. Paradox Lake (Przemyslaw Reut, 2001) is a more interesting proposition. Like Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy (1999), the film cleverly utilises the poor technology of video (with its propensity to diffuse or abstract the reality it is filming) to create a world where alternate states rule. It starts off prosaically enough, in Dogme vérité fashion, with the aimless Matt Wolf (Matt Wolff) joining a camp for autistic children as a counsellor, but it ends in a mystical way to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Reut fragments the story in several interesting ways, perhaps also losing sight of it. But that is a creative license one wishes more filmmakers would take.

A “National Spotlight” on Iranian cinema was one of the Festival’s highlights, even though by now we’re familiar with this unique national cinema. Five features and seven shorts were presented in this spotlight. Of the features, I liked Under the Skin of the City (Rakhshan Bani Etemad, 2001) the best. This is a handsome, thoughtful inner-city family drama (with over-arching social themes), and quite clearly the most “Western” Iranian film I’ve seen – far from the abstraction of Makhmalbaf or the self-reflexivity of Kiarostami, Etemad constructs her film in a clipped and intelligent manner reminiscent of French character studies. Majid Majidi’s Baran (2001) is the first film from this director that I’ve been able to stomach. In fact, this is quite a solid and engaging film about an Iranian youth on a building site and his burgeoning relationship with a young Afghan refugee illegally employed by the construction company. Beautifully textured, and without any sentimentality, Baran interestingly aligns compulsive action with humanist intention. Also humanist is Under the Moonlight (Reza Mir-Karimi, 2001), but it just trudges along in a bland fashion (definitely the down side of any “normalisation” of formal and narrative construction in Iranian cinema that may be occurring in these reformist times). The two features I didn’t see were Secret Ballot (Babak Payami, 2001) and Delbaran (Abolfazi Jalili, 2001).

The shorts from Iran proved as interesting as the features, if not more so. A number of them took up the theme of the plight of women, obviously a hot topic at the moment. The most exciting one was My Name is Rocky (2001) by 24-year-old Bahman Moshar, who, aptly enough, fled Iran a number of years back. The film is a mockumentary (but with a serious tone) about young women running away from their harsh homes. Formally interesting (though derivative of early Makhmalbaf), it sizzles with defiance. Also blurring the line between doco and fiction, The Wives of Haj Abbas (Mohsen Abdolvahab, 2001) is a measured, playful account of the relationship between two old widows (of the same man). Also about women, but more lyrical and resigned, and in the abstract register of Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001), were two shorts by Mahvash Sheikholeslami, Silk (1998) and Charsho (1999). Finally, Bahman Kiarostami’s Tabaki (2001) is a fascinating (straight) doco about professional mourners.

Speaking of documentaries, the Festival programmed quite a number of them, of which I managed to catch several, ones about the cinema itself. (Although I also saw Frederick Wiseman’s Domestic Violence [2001], a typically disciplined 3-hour-plus documentation of the workings of a domestic violence shelter.) In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Martina Kudlácek, 2001) is an eloquent, expressive portrait of the famous American avant-garde filmmaker, with wonderful footage in it. Bellaria – As Long as We Live! (Douglas Wolfsperger, 2001) is, from a cinephile’s perspective, a disappointing look at a band of old film-lovers who attend the Bellaria cinema in Vienna, re-watching films from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. Disappointing because these people are just ‘base’ fans, with no critical faculties, and Wolfsperger panders to this.

The same kind of lack of scholarly precision, but at a more sophisticated level, mars Martin Scorsese’s 4-hour documentary Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (2001). As admirable as the aim of Scorsese’s project is – to make people aware of Italian cinema – I can’t help feeling it will actually discourage viewers from checking out the referenced films for themselves. Throughout the documentary, Scorsese chooses excerpts which are so extensive and redolent of the films in toto (key scenes, endings, etc.) that the viewer experiences a full, emotionally satisfying, sense of the films without having to see them in their totality. To return to my initial point, Scorsese makes any number of problematic statements, for example, that realism didn’t exist in the cinema before Rossellini; even Rossellini’s fans don’t like the director’s later films; Antonioni was influenced by Rossellini’s Bergman films. There are some highlights, however: documentary footage of Italians in New York in the ’40s; some great photos of the Italian directors in question; and an illuminating breakdown of Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) in relation to Scorsese’s own Mean Streets (1973).

From Asia, I caught four of the eight or so titles on offer. Beijing Rocks (Mabel Cheung, 2001) is a trashy tale of a Hong Kong singer meeting a Chinese band – not even the music could pique my enthusiasm for this film. The Happiness of the Katakuris (Miiki Takashi, 2001) is also trashy, but so packed with ingenuity, that one has to love it. It’s a black comedy cum musical (with cheeky glazed over cinematography to boot) that lurches in all directions, happily, crazily. At the sober end of the spectrum, One Fine Spring Day (Hur Jin-ho, 2001) is a quiet, but protracted, love story – proving that deliberate pacing is no guarantee that depth of characterisation and feeling will be created!

Bad Guy

The highlight of the Asian films, and probably the Festival, was Bad Guy (Kim Ki-duk, 2002). From the bold opening sequence to the three-ending last act, this film is charged with pain and love. Not as beautiful pictorially as the director’s The Isle (2000), Bad Guy nonetheless shows Kim’s command of cinematic materials and difficult subject matter. I was especially excited by the use of sweet, sad music to accompany some of the dark and/or violent scenes. Violence in this film can just as easily be an index of love as it can of hate. Indeed, ultimately, this is one hell of a love story (the emphasis equally on “hell” and “love”).

After one of the screenings of Bad Guy, there was a forum held in the Dress Circle foyer of the State Theatre entitled “Everyone’s a Critic”. The concept here was: invite several people from the audience to sit on a panel alongside some recognised critics, and let everyone talk about the film. Julie Rigg (Radio National) chaired as Jane Mills (RealTime), Erin Free (FilmInk), N.T. Binh (Positif), Philip Cheah (Cinemaya), and three audience members gave their impressions of the film. (Also, further comments from the audience were actively encouraged.) Of course, if any film can generate polar opinions, Bad Guy is it. The session actually proved productive, as Mills, Binh and Cheah were forced to defend the film against negative comments by Free and people from the audience. Erin Free in particular embarrassed himself dreadfully (but he didn’t notice) with comments such as “I’ve got no idea what this film is about” and “Don’t get me wrong – I like violence in the cinema”. Everyone’s a critic, yes, but some are better at it than others. (Also, the audience were incredulous that the Melbourne Film Festival would be devoting a full retrospective to the director of the film.)

A series of other forums, under the banner of “Filmspeak”, were held at the Sydney Town Hall. A variety of topics were covered: ethics in documentary filmmaking, the politics involved in casting, the art of the trailer, censorship, the political in films. I could attend only one of these Filmspeak forums, the one devoted to the “Unseen Cinema” package of films that screened at the Festival. Despite the small turn out (20 or so), this was a full and interesting forum. Jane Mills chaired as filmmaker Janet Merewether and teacher Helen Grace ranged over various issues to do with avant-garde cinema, and writer/historian Barrett Hodsdon expressed concerns over how the “Unseen Cinema” package had collapsed early cinema (up to teens) and avant-garde cinema (late ’20s/’30s) into each other. The “Unseen Cinema” curator Bruce Posner participated in this discussion with typical generosity and breadth. And his introductions to each screening were indeed bonuses. (See also the interview with Bruce Posner elsewhere in this issue.)

The four programs (from an impressive total of 20 in the full series) of “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1893-1941” contained numerous delights. Some of the montages (dream and other sequences) excerpted from various Hollywood films were of interest but the highlights were the pieces that are, or can stand up to be, autonomous films. There were only a few items from early twentieth century, my favourite being the rigorous train-track follow Interior N.Y. Subway (G. W. Bitzer, 1905). Most of the films were mid-’20s and later. Twenty-Four Dollar Island (Robert Flaherty, 1925-27) and A Bronx Morning (Jay Leyda, 1931) are New York city montages, elegant and dynamic respectively. Pie in the Sky (various, 1935) is a hilarious realist fantasy with a communist agenda. The Tell-Tale Heart (Charles Klein & Leroy Shamroy, 1928) is a well-executed (pardon the pun) Poe adaptation. Poem 8 (Emlen Etting, 1933) and La Cartomancienne (Jerome Hill, 1932) are clear precursors to Maya Deren and her ilk: poetic, lyrical, mythical. And Sredni Vashtar by Saki (David Bradley, 1940) is a zany, Gothic tale of a mysterious boy and his strange powers.

The other major retrospective of the Festival, “Jean Eustache: Cinéaste”, was also a highlight. With introductions by Richard Smith, the retrospective included almost every single Eustache film , with even subtitles or spoken translations provided for the prints that were French-only. My only criticism is that the films weren’t screened chronologically. Otherwise, this was an excellent opportunity to experience the particular vision of an interesting figure who undoubtedly didn’t realise his full potential (he died young, in his early 40s).

La Maman et la putain

Eustache made both fiction films and documentaries, with ideas of story telling and performance crucial to both. The neutral tone and dispassionate gaze in the Nouvelle Vague shorts Les Mauvaises fréquentations (Bad Company, 1964) and Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, 1966) work extremely well when serviced for the ritual-documentations La Rosière de Pessac (The Virgin of Pessac, 1969) and Le Cochon (The Pig, 1970). This neutrality disappears, however, for his celebrated debut feature La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973). (Here’s a question: has any other filmmaker debuted with a near 4-hour film?) This film was a destiny, for both Eustache and the cinema, the serendipitous product of post-Nouvelle Vague (and May ’68) disillusionment and Eustache’s own deep desires (personal and vocational). It’s a startlingly original and powerful love-triangle study, an intense melodrama that builds and climaxes with a kind of slow-burn resolve, Eustache guiding proceedings with intuition and conviction. The follow-up feature, Mes Petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, 1974), is also an extraordinary film, but a remarkably different one – stylised, Bressonian-clipped, and muted emotionally. Sadly, Eustache wouldn’t make another feature, leaving us with just the two – one more than Vigo, but dozens less than Fassbinder. Before his death he completed several more documentaries, including the sophisticated and essay-like Une Sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977) and Les Photos d’Alix (The Photos of Alix, 1980).

As part of this Eustache retrospective, the Festival also programmed two documentaries about the filmmaker, Le Peine perdue de Jean Eustache (The Lost Sorrows of Jean Eustache, Angel Diaz, 1997) and Les Ministères de l’art (The Ministers of Art, Philippe Garrel, 1988). The latter is a beautiful tribute to Eustache by a fellow cinéaste, as well as a testament to independent, creative filmmaking. In it, the charismatic Garrel literally meets up with various film directors such as Jacques Doillon, André Téchiné, Werner Schroeter, and they discuss Eustache and the cinema in quiet, thoughtful tones. This was actually the last film I saw at the Festival, and as such it seemed the perfect conclusion to 12 days of watching various kinds and qualities of films. I began on the “outer”, waiting with the expectant, attentive audience in Oliveira’s Je rentre à la maison for something to happen, and by the end I was in the inner sanctum of Garrel and his associates whispering troubled secrets to each other (and to me). These are the most haunting images of filmmakers I’ve seen. Cinema is a curse, but also a blessing. Je vous salue, Philippe.

See also

Unseen Cinema: An Interview with Bruce Posner by John Conomos and Bill Mousoulis

Awards given at the 49th Sydney Film Festival

DENDY AWARDS for Australian short films:

· DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY

Troubled Waters (Ruth Balint, 2002, 54 mins, video)

· GENERAL CATEGORY

Beginnings (Husein, 2002, 8 mins, 35mm.)

· FICTION OVER 15 MINUTES CATEGORY

New Skin (Anthony Hayes, 2002, 56 mins, video)

· FICTION UNDER 15 MINUTES CATEGORY

Living With Happiness (Sarah Watt, 2002, 6 mins, 35mm.)

· THE 2002 YORAM GROSS ANIMATION AWARD

Dad’s Clock (Dik Jarman, 2002, 7 mins, video)

· THE 2002 CRC (Community Relations) AWARD

My Mother India (Safina Uberoi, 2002, 52 mins, video)

· THE ROUBEN MAMOULIAN AWARD

Safina Uberoi

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FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) Award for the documentary that best promotes the art of documentary making:

The Jury, comprised of N.T. Binh (France), Philip Cheah (Singapore) and Susie Eisenhuth (Australia), awarded the Prize to

War and Peace (India, Anand Patwardhan, 2002, 180 mins, 35mm.)

“for its blending of crusading passion and intellectual rigour, which turns the exploration of a particular conflict into a universal antiwar statement”.

* * *

PRIX UIP Award for best European film in “Contemporary World Cinema” program at State Theatre, as voted by the audience:

Bend it Like Beckham (UK/USA/Germany, Gurinder Chadha, 2001)

* * *

AUDIENCE AWARDS:

Most popular Feature Film at the State Theatre:
Bend It Like Beckham (UK/USA/Germany) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Most popular Feature Film at Dendy Opera Quays:
Bloody Sunday (UK) directed by Paul Greengrass

Most popular Documentary at the State Theatre
Georgie Girl (New Zealand) directed by Annie Goldson and Peter Wells

Most popular Documentary at Dendy Opera Quays
Recording the Producers (USA) directed by Susan Froemke

Most popular Short Film at the State Theatre
Sweetnightgoodheart (UK) directed by Dan Zeff

Most popular Short Film at Dendy Opera Quays
Inferno (UK) directed by Paul Kousoulides