The Cuckoo

Considering the South Australian government’s continual recycling of the promotional dictum that we are “the festival state”, it is ironic – and yet perhaps indicative of local screen culture’s historically marginal status – that spectators in the goofy land of the pie floater have been deprived a major and sustained film festival for over a decade. For me, film spectatorship in Adelaide is often a game of waiting, hoping and gambling. When the closest I get to seeing a certain film is watching the print bypass overhead at 30,000 feet, my compulsion is to preserve the rest of my dignity and make a safe long-term investment in World Movies. So in mid-2002 I was duly excited when I heard that Mike Rann, the Labour party’s recently elected Premier of South Australia and self-appointed Minister for the Arts, had decided to inaugurate the Adelaide International Film Festival (AIFF, February 28 – March 7, 2003) and appoint Katrina Sedgwick as its artistic director.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Adelaide previously hosted an independently financed international film festival. The new publicly funded AIFF shares few similarities with its forebear. Gone is the previous format stretched across several weeks of leisurely viewing. The revamped AIFF will cram over a hundred screenings, forums and live performances into an intense eight-day programme. Acknowledging the distinctions of larger entrenched festivals such as Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, the AIFF situates itself not so much as a competitor but rather as a younger partner, eager to learn and develop. However, while the AIFF’s screening window places it near the tail end of the supposed Cannes cycle, myriad Australian premieres of highly regarded international films, as well as national and local works, are confirmed for the inaugural event. If you throw in the 30th anniversary of the South Australian Film Corporation, the simultaneous programming of Mario Andreacchio and David Lightfoot’s first SHORTS film festival (February 19 – March 4), the ZOOM! SA ShortsFest screenings (February 22) and the post-festival WOMADelaide weekend (March 7 – 9), then late summer/early autumn in Adelaide might be just the season and place to commence what appears a promising year on the national and international festival circuit.

Sedgwick’s appointment engenders optimism. She brings to the AIFF a history of accomplishment. Her talent for producing immensely popular events at various performing arts festivals was most recently realised during her tenure as director of the 2002 Adelaide Fringe Festival. Audiences jaded by the overspending of the concurrent Adelaide Festival and the hullabaloo surrounding the resignation of its artistic director, Peter Sellars, weighed up their available options and turned toward Sedgwick’s cost-effective and perhaps more culturally appealing alternative. (Amazingly, the final revenue of the Fringe doubled that of its ten times more costly parent festival.)

I spoke with Sedgwick about the questions concerning many spectators in Adelaide. What kind of festival should we expect? Will it generate sufficient economic and artistic participation in order to sustain itself beyond Sedgwick’s 2003 and 2005 appointments? (At this stage the AIFF is planned as a bi-annual event.) How might the continuous existence of a successful film festival positively affect screen culture in South Australia? Which films that we have missed are we finally likely to see?

“I don’t bring a purist film approach, I bring a broad festival approach within a specific aesthetic that I like. The AIFF’s core spine is that of a classic film festival, it has an in-cinema programme of features, documentaries, shorts and animations. But around that I wanted to create a series of other areas to explore and contextualise contemporary screen practice … to celebrate how cinema has inspired the arts.”

Sedgwick is an extremely keen advocate of creative works that combine filmmaking and film viewing with other diverse media and modes of participation. Aside from its feature-film base, the AIFF will contain several “New Screens” strands that emphasise the scope of digital and on-line content, broadband Internet technology, computer gaming, music videos, outdoor installations, gallery exhibitions, and live performances integrated with the screen. Stressing the importance of creative dialogue, Sedgwick envisages a social environment where “guests, artists and audiences, many of whom are practitioners, keep bumping into each other … I think that that is really exciting because it leads to a whole lot of discussion amongst a whole range of people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet.”

An important aspect of this assemblage is the broadness of opportunities for audience interactivity. “A festival, to me, is an opportunity to have a critical mass of creative art, whatever kind of form it is, and have that critical mass then attract a broader cross-section of the public to interact and explore those kinds of art forms.” Sedgwick compels members of the public to get involved and attend a host of special events. “We run masterclasses. We have artists talk. We have a comprehensive forum programme and a whole ‘Meet the Filmmaker’ programme. We have a full day seminar looking at areas of digital production. A half-day seminar looking at areas of where technology is going in terms of its accessibility for marginalised and indigenous people in Australia and beyond, and looking at models for that and the fantastic work coming out of that area … I want audiences not only to have the passive experience of seeing work and going home, but to have an extended experience where they get to talk about it. They’re encouraged to engage with the work, to have an opinion about it, to engage with the artists who create that work, to meet the artists and to be able to feel an ownership and an invitation into the work that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Further assisting this kind of proximity is the city itself. “This kind of model for a festival works extremely well in Adelaide because of the intimacy of the city. Our approach is to try to make a festival that is distinctly Adelaide in its nature. I’ve addressed that in terms of having a programme that has multiple entry points, a substantial amount of interesting things for most people, and that contextualises screen culture in quite a broad way.”

An issue worrying some critical observers here is whether or not an audience exists for the AIFF to succeed its aims and what will happen to screen culture in Adelaide if it falls short. The basic situation is (a) recognition that Adelaide is often overlooked by distributors, (b) various degrees of empathy and contempt for distribution decision-makers, and (c) concern that a less than successful film festival will further detriment these already precarious conditions. Forecasting is extremely difficult, but Sedgwick is not one to dwell on a gloomy outlook. She hopes that the loyal core audience grown from the previous AIFF will return, speculating that potential spectators have been waiting for a similar kind of event to resurface. If this sounds intuitively accurate to me, it might have something to do with the occasionally enormous attendances for well-publicised, one-time screenings of special Cinematheque, Heroic Cinema, and Media Resource Centre events. For instance, a lesson recently learnt is that if Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952) is packaged with Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967) as a bloodletting double-bill, both films can attract irregular viewers. Nobody seems to know from where they come.

To satisfy my curiosity, I asked Sedgwick about the reactions of the distribution community to the AIFFs re-establishment. “Distributors were excited about the fact that we were initiating an event here. Adelaide already has quite a soft arthouse audience. It’s not a big audience at all and hence we do miss a lot of really fantastic films. What I hope is that distributors will be excited and start taking more risks in Adelaide. They have been very supportive of us putting together our programme and are keen to have their films being screened in our event if the dates are right. Everyone’s feeling fairly confident about it, which may be over-optimistic, I don’t know. We’ll see.”

The stakes in the waiting and hoping game may have dramatically increased, but to me at least it seems that we have little to lose.

From a slightly different political perspective, one of the important directives of the Premier was the inclusion in the AIFF of world premieres for films produced in Australia. Given that Sedgwick has had just eight months to devise and prepare the initial programme, I wondered how her choices were limited in the local and national framework. “It’s been the biggest challenge. Everyone’s aligned towards Cannes in May. So a lot of post-production is geared to finish late-April. Many of the films that we wanted are simply not finished. A lot of films hold-off to get a premiere in Sydney or Melbourne and then do a release a month or so later. And many of the Australian cinema releases are focused around August/September. If they get their premiere and their press coverage in Adelaide in February/March … it’s all over. There’s no word of mouth, there’s no carry-on, it’s really difficult.” The solution? “Hopefully we’ll become such a prestigious boutique event that people will schedule more around our programme. We’ll have to wait and see. If Adelaide can’t be a showcase for new Australian cinema, Sydney and Melbourne already are … having said that we have quite a lot of Australian premieres, but they tend to be films made for television or shorter features. We’re premiering the national indigenous documentary series that SBS commissions every year, and we have quite a lot of Australian shorts. But feature films are the trick.” Local director Andreacchio’s Paradise Found (2002), which follows the history of Paul (Kiefer Sutherland) and Mette Gauguin (Nastassja Kinski), is a notable exception. Its AIFF premiere may be a rare opportunity to see it, since thus far it has yet to gain a national distributor.

Blue Gate Crossing

Politics aside, apart from several films that “we’re showing that have been in Sydney and Melbourne because they haven’t been in Adelaide and they won’t come otherwise,” among others the AIFF programme contains Australian premieres of Yee Chih-yen’s Blue Gate Crossing (2002), Christopher Roth’s Baader (2002), Dominic Savage’s Out of Control (2002), Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts (2002), Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq (2002) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto (2002). Each representing a significant contemporary generation from their respective national cinemas of Taiwan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, (Kurdish) Iran and Spain, the six are confirmed guests of the Festival. Recalls Sedgwick, “We found Blue Gate Crossing because Tony Ayres, who directed Walking on Water (2002) and is coming over to do the screenplay reading with the writer’s guild, went off to Vancouver with Walking and e-mailed me and said, “I’ve just seen the best, the most charming film about teenage sexuality that I’ve seen ever and you should have a look it.” And on the basis of that we did and we loved it, and now Yee Chih-yen’s coming out. There’s nice confluences like that that have led to a lot of the programming.”

The scheduled opening night film is Russian director Alexander Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2002), which Sedgwick first saw at Telluride. “The story of The Cuckoo is that the programmers from Telluride were at Cannes. They have a sort of Russian informant who rings them and tells them the films that they should see from Russia. He rang them, said look, “There’s a film, it’s not in Cannes, it’s being screened in a shed about ten miles out of the city. It’s got one screening. Go and see it.” So they drove out there and there were about four people in the screening. And they loved it. It was the first thing they selected for Telluride, which is a very tight programme. On the basis of them programming it, Sony Classics said “Well can we look at the tape?” and they’ve now bought it to distribute internationally. It’s just a beautiful film. A perfect opening night film, I think. Set during World War II in Lapland, it brings three people together. A Lapp woman who is a widow has just been hanging out by herself with the reindeer for four years and she happens upon two soldiers. A Finnish man left for dead and a heavily injured Russian. She takes the two of them in … basically she just wants to have sex; she’s just going crazy. The two men are having their own conflict because they’re from opposing sides. The three of them speak different languages; none of them understands each other. The audience can see what they’re all saying to each other and see the misunderstandings that are going on. It’s really charming, it’s really funny, but it’s also really really sad and poignant. Essentially an anti-war film, it’s about these three people whose lives have just been thrown into complete chaos.”

In terms of world cinema, other prominent feature film highlights include Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot walk-through-history of the Hermitage museum, Russian Ark (2002), controversial Venice Golden Lion winner, The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002), Academy Award nominees City of God (Katia Lund / Fernando Meirelles, 2002) and Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link, 2001), Spanish thriller Intacto (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2001), Aki Kaurismäki’s pokerfaced winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Man Without a Past (2002), Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002), Hukkle [pronounced Hoo-kleh] (György Pálfi, 2002), a murder-mystery from Hungary constructed with an absence of dialogue, Lynne Ramsay’s exquisite sight and sound scape second feature, Morvern Callar (2002), and Ten (2002), Abbas Kiarostami’s absorbing initial foray into digital production.

An extensive music programme has also been prepared, featuring such diversity as the Latin jazz of Calle 54 (Fernando Trueba, 2000), the ’70s black funk of the re-released Wattstax (Mel Stuart, 1973), the documented life of Willie Nelson and a contemporary orchestral score performed live for Tal Ordell’s silent Australian classic The Kid Stakes (1927). Breath Control: The History of the Human Beatbox (Joey Garfield, 2002) might be the hippest underground insight at the Festival and shapes up as a definite crowd-pleaser for AIFF guest Garfield.

Retrospectives have been fairly rare in recent times, but the AIFF has brought together some other attractive historical works in the form of two ‘novelty items.’ Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) comprise a highly anticipated widescreen double that additionally rewards attendees with a complimentary bowl of pasta and the live music of The Ennio Morricone Experience. “The Sex, Death and Greed” strand includes a Dario Argento horror sleepover (‘bring-your-own sleeping bag and hot chocolate’) and the programming of three Seijun Suzuki features: Tokyo Drifter (1966), Story of a Prostitute (1965) and the tumultuous mayhem of the more recent Pistol Opera (2001).

While the AIFF is not yet in a position to match the depth of programming of other Australian film festivals, the range of events on offer, their cultural, thematic and stylistic diversities, indicates a desire to establish a firm and evolving base for much larger events in the future. Sedgwick notes that “budget and time has been the limit in terms of the programme, so it’s [AIFF 2003] very much a pilot programme for 2005. But I’m really excited by the shape that we’ve put together.” It may take some time to judge the success of the AIFF, but just at the moment it is a remote concern. There’s finally a plenitude of amazing things to watch and do in Adelaide, and none of them have anything to do with Wayne Carey.

About The Author

James Brown is a post-graduate Screen Studies student at Flinders University in South Australia currently finishing a thesis on the popularisation and regionalisation of recent South Korean cinema. He writes reviews for Heroic Cinema and was print co-ordinator for the 2003 and 2005 Adelaide Film Festivals.