Social Engagement: The 21st St Kilda Film FestivalKyle Weise July 2004 Festival Reports Issue 32 Most immediately apparent in the selection of short films that I attended at this year’s St Kilda Film Festival was the sombre, and even tragic, tone. This gave a sense of the form’s connection to the broader social and political climate as well as with more personal concerns, exploring in particular intolerance, tragedy and alienation. My attendance at the festival was by no means exhaustive: I viewed the international program and eight of the 22 competitive sessions. However, if my experience is indicative, this year’s festival has made an important contribution towards the promotion and development of a conception of the short film beyond the “gag” oriented programming that characterises other high-profile Australian short film festivals, such as Tropfest, and which has defined the form in the mainstream imagination. “Confrontations: Films Against Violence and Intolerance”, the international program, was the only session driven by an overt curatorial vision, yet it was one whose concerns were reflected throughout the festival. A standout film was the moving and effective Between the Wars (Emily Woof, 2002) (United Kingdom), which takes a simple idea but executes this flawlessly. The film follows the story of two ex-soldiers, a young asylum seeker tortured by the loss of his family in the Balkans and an elderly English World War Two veteran. The pair form an unlikely bond as they find consolation in each other’s company whilst they attempt to deal with their devastating and life-defining experiences of war. Ngay Gio (The Anniversary) (Ham Tran, 2003) (Vietnam/USA), similarly, introduces a character reflecting on the loss of his family in a war driven, in part, by religious intolerance. Here, a more complicated story is told in flashback as a man reflects on his childhood with his brother, their separation, and their tragic reunion as they meet as enemies in battle, with deadly consequences as each is initially unaware of the identity of the other. The Chinese Wall (Sytske Kok, 2002) (The Netherlands) is set outside of the explicit context of war and has a less powerfully moving outcome, but builds on the consideration of communication and tolerance crucial to the films just discussed. Here, the simple, kind gesture of the operators of a Chinese restaurant (the offering of a birthday cake) awakens a lone-dining woman from her regrets about her own life and her assumptions, and invented stories, about the other diners in the restaurant. As the diners join together in this spontaneous act of celebration, the woman discovers the pleasure and value of communication as the errors of her assumptions and judgements become apparent. Einspruch III (Protestation III) (Rolando Colla, 2002) (Switzerland), a layered, though not entirely successful, film, explores the plight of refugees and the ensuing problems of communication. Aesthetically, the film is of interest for its experimentation with style and form (all too rare in the festival): there is a real attempt to integrate the film’s thematic and narrative concerns with its formal structure and design. On a narrative level, the film tells the story of a group of asylum seekers who are caught at a border crossing and arrested, one of whom has his artificial leg left behind. The difficulty of communication inherent in the man’s predicament (as he tries to tell the police what has happened) is also articulated by the film itself, as characters speak in a variety of languages including, briefly and without explanation, English, and which presents the audience with subtitles that, when they do appear, also alternate between various languages, thus rendering the dialogue almost entirely incomprehensible to English-only speakers (1). Furthermore, a track of canned laughter is played at various and mostly inappropriate moments, mimicking the attitude of the uncaring police bureaucracy. The canned laughter provides the only non-diegetic sound, initially giving the sense that the represented events are humorous and producing laughter as an almost automatic reaction. Only as the film continues, and sections are presented in English, does the tragic dimension of the film become apparent. In this way Einspruch III provides a general comment on the way that our understanding of mediated events can be defined by conventions of representation. This is particularly relevant in the context of asylum seekers, where the media can be so crucial in defining public perception. Whilst the Australian films are the focus of the festival, it is the concerns that many of the local films share with the international selection that defined much of my experience of the festival. While only a handful of the Australian films explicitly explored the effect of war, other elements that characterised the international films pervaded the Australian selection, where themes of regret and sorrow, as found in Between the Wars and Ngay Gio, and of the value of communication and tolerance, featured in all of the international films mentioned above, were common. While most of the competitive sessions at the festival were not guided by a single theme, documentary was sectioned off into its own group of sessions. Unsurprisingly, these sessions contained the most explicit exploration within the Australian selection of contemporary manifestations of intolerance and violence. Portrait of Sakhi (Karenza Bowen, 2003) allows the rarely heard voice of an asylum speaker to be heard as Sakhi recounts directly to camera the horrors of the situation in Afghanistan, of his journey to Australia, and of his incarceration here. Central to the film, and Sakhi’s narration, is the discussion and display of a variety of paintings that he has produced during his time in Australia, and the film’s strength lies with the paintings’ communication of the devastating psychological effects of the experience of Afghan asylum seekers, fulfilling Sakhi’s goal for the work. Amanda and Ali (Karen Hodgkins, 2003), similarly concerned with Afghan asylum seekers in Australia, utilises a narrative structure as it tells the story of the development of a relationship between Amanda, a young Australian woman, and a detainee, Ali, who faces an uncertain future. Amanda narrates the story; Ali’s voice is heard mainly through letters and phone conversations. This structure effectively emphasises the isolation of asylum seekers, the difficulty of getting their voices heard, as well as the importance of this communication and of the wider community’s understanding and recognising their situation in the desert. Dinkum (Eh-Hua Chua, 2003) takes on a related subject: composed mainly of interviews and archival documentation, the film shows the genealogical quest of several dedicated Bendigo residents to uncover the importance and extent of the town’s Chinese heritage in the face of past and present intolerance. Unfortunately, the documentary loses some of its impact by the constant intertitles, accompanied by a repetitive animation. The intertitles divide the documentary into chapters and give a theme to each section, yet they are unnecessary and interrupt the momentum of the film. The effectiveness of allowing the audience to their own interpretation of the documented subject is particularly apparent in Moving (Brodie Higgs, 2003), one of the festival’s standout documentaries. Moving introduces the audience to several characters who have found themselves on the margins of Melbourne: the long-term unemployed, the outcast, the destitute; those often seen but rarely heard. The lengthy interviews central to the film give insight into the histories, philosophies and ways of thinking that have left these characters separated from the mainstream. Without an overt polemic or narrator (as with most of the documentaries at the festival the documenter is invisible for the most part) (2), the documentary risks personalising these stories of social exclusion and poverty in a way that erases the role (or lack thereof) of social, institutional and governmental structures. However, while the film might not overtly give space to these considerations, it does give voice to these figures, humanising them, and promoting tolerance for perspectives on reality that are incompatible with mainstream and hegemonic definitions of “normality”. This style of documentary, combining observation and interviews, was also found in Twenty Minutes with Twentyman (Anna Wooley, 2003), which focuses on Les Twentyman, a high profile youth worker. Twentyman’s promotional work, raising money and awareness, now occupies a significant proportion of his time and in a way this diminished the engagement of the documentary as his actual work with individual kids seemed left to the margins of the film. Though, my disappointment with the marginalisation of this aspect of Twentyman’s life perhaps parallels his own regrets, apparent in the film, of his movement away from his working directly with young people. Just as Twentyman’s relationships with these kids has been tinged with both tragedy and hope, Father (Clayton Jacobson, 2004) presents a man reflecting on the happiness and tragedy which has accompanied the births of his children. Another stylistically minimalist film – consisting entirely of the father speaking to the camera – the film succeeds in developing an emotional connection through his earnest, occasionally humorous, and unusual monologue, with the defining moment of the film being his discussion of the death of his unborn son. The simple style of these films, fitting for their subjects, was not shared by all of the documentaries. Musictown (Daniel Fermer, 2003) addresses the negative effect of residential developments on live music in Melbourne (3), and intersperses footage of such live music with a wide variety of interviews with bands, venue operators, residents, government spokespeople and representatives of the music industry. The success of the film is a result of the interviewees and their intelligent connecting of the issue to broader question of class, youth culture and Melbourne’s current geographical transformations. The documentaries with “lighter” subject matter were, unsurprisingly more open to stylistic embellishment. Think Big (Dan Nicholas, 2003), set in the unusual world of competitive bodybuilding, constructs a terrific narrative from its exploration of masculinity, mateship and competition, complete with an orchestral score. Of the documentaries that I viewed, the most formally interesting were Cut Outs (Cassandra Bakic, 2003) and, in particular, Bloodline (Ben West, 2003). Cut Outs explores the culture of stencil graffiti (or stencil art) in Melbourne. Predictably perhaps, though also effectively, the film itself mimics stencilling in its visual style; the low detail of this also achieving the practical end of protecting the identities of those interviewed. As with Musictown, the real strength of the documentary is the interviewees and the connection of this topic to the function of context (stencilling on the street versus stencilling in art galleries), the political possibilities of graffiti, and the corporate appropriation and aestheticisation of the subversive and oppositional. Bloodline, one of my favourite films of the festival, is a very short documentary that introduces us to the operators, a father and son, of the Illustrated Man tattoo parlour in Sydney. The film is mainly black and white, and combines amusing interviews with the tattooists with still shots of tattoos and their associated iconography and paraphernalia from around the parlour. The still shots and the predominance of black and white invokes the aesthetic of tattoos themselves, as does the final time-lapse shot of the exterior of the store and its image of a tiger (already seen in tattoo form), which stares unblinking as the city races by. Recurring throughout the festival’s fiction films, as well as in documentaries like Father, were themes of death and tragedy. In Rendezvous (Aaron Wilson, 2003) a woman is run over by her lover’s wife leaving an orphaned son. Similar in tone and style to Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001), this is a well-made film, though the subject matter lacked originality. Victim (Corrie Jones, 2003) also covers well-trodden ground, the killing of a woman by a man we presume to be a serial killer, though presenting this entirely from the point-of-view of the victim gives impact to the final flash of the killer’s shotgun as the film ends. Narrated by the victim, the film combines traditionally shot flashbacks and fantasies of her family’s reaction, with footage of the present (her kidnapping and murder) in high-contrast “gritty” tones that recall the contemporary aesthetic of crime that television shows like CSI have made popular. The film also relies on that great fear of the bush, and the terrible secrets that it protects, that appears in so many Australian films. Similarly dark in tone and subject matter, though in a more traditionally dramatic way, is All the King’s Horses (Matt Norman, 2004). This film presents a well-acted, though perhaps overly melodramatic, story of suicide, family secrets and a father struggling to cope with the impending death of his son, and the long-past death of his wife and other son. In Two Soldiers (Erin White, 2004) a war veteran and his daughter, who is about to go to Iraq as a soldier, embark on a journey to visit a dying friend. The film brings together these themes of violence, regret and death in the context of war, past and present. Though its elements are familiar, and it is perhaps too episodic in structure, Two Soldiers resonates due to its obviously timely social and political concerns. The tragedy evident in these films was pervasive throughout the festival, in both the foreground and background of films, though in several this was combined with stories of hope, communication and new beginnings. In the touching and well-scripted A Wonderful Day (Robbie Baldwin, 2003), a young gay man rushes to a hospital to see his dying mother in the last minutes of her life. He is able to tell his mother of his sexuality before she dies and while her death is obviously painful we are given the sense that her acceptance also lifts a weight off her son, offering a new beginning of sorts. Doubling this message of communication and tolerance in the film is the development of an unlikely connection between the son and a cab driver. The excellent A Simple Song (Adrian Wills, 2003) is a film similarly concerned with the acceptance of gay identity, though here the theme is broached in the context of a musical, that genre so rare in contemporary Australian cinema; by having a drag queen as the main character the film incorporates the theatricality usual to the genre. In the film a young gay man is visited for the first time in many years by his destitute father (a man deeply affected by the long-past death of his wife), who is initially angered and confused by his son’s sexuality. A Simple Song is a simple story, as suites the short film form, though it manages to convey great emotional effect within this limitation. Not sharing the sombre context of these films, but also concerned with gay identity and sexuality, is Oranges (Kristian Pithie, 2003). This film was considered by Paul Andrew to be one of the standout shorts of this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival (4), and similarly this was an outstanding film at the St Kilda Film Festival. It is a great realisation of the unique possibilities of short fiction films, and was my favourite of the festival. Set on an average day in the suburbs, the film tells the story of a first kiss and, setting its own pace, effectively and engagingly evokes the awkwardness of adolescence, of friendship and sexuality, and the fortuitous connections that can define crucial moments in our lives. Memorably though, the film also subtly invokes the isolation and the fear that can accompany this. The threat of the potential violence and prejudice of the schoolyard, only implied in Oranges, is the focus of the short, though effective, Too Little Justice (Dean Francis, 2004) in its vignette of racial intolerance, cruelty and isolation. Films concerned with social and personal alienation provided some of the better moments of the festival, among these Spoon Man (Heath Davis and Daniel Dimarco, 2003), Redskin (Melanie Horkan, 2003), Shadow in the Wood (Luhsan Tan, 2003) and, in particular, Samseng (Chris Richards-Scully, 2004). The amusing premise and occasional humour of Spoon Man, in which the title character makes a living by being paid to “spoon” with women after sex in place of their partners, belies the film’s darker portrayal of a cold impersonal world (reflected in its sombre colour palette), of paid affection, and of emotional numbing. Redskin follows a young woman who has recently moved to a small coastal town with her alcoholic mother. The sparsity of this excellent film effectively captures the isolation of this young woman, who embraces this cold, windy and desolate environment, as she emerges herself in myths of the sea. The film itself is entangled in these myths, and the fate of the girl is uncertain and ambiguous as the two worlds subtly merge. Moving this isolation to an urban context, and in an even more abstract mode, is Shadow in the Wood, an animated film that combines several techniques, producing a unique aesthetic and, in the context of animation, a relatively original topic. Set in a Melbourne housing commission block, the film presents this space as a site of social control and surveillance, constantly monitored by the remote gaze of an uncaring bureaucracy, which is ever-present, yet also unconcerned about the isolation and loneliness that its structures create. For the central character death acts as a release from this suffocating architecture. Set in another archetypical space of urban isolation and surveillance, the multi-storey carpark, is the live-action Samseng. Telling the story of a young boy involved in several violent confrontations, the film evokes the boredom and alienation of the characters, and is particularly noteworthy for its split screens and mixing of imagery for both stylistic effect and for conveying narrative and spatial information; a style which both mimics and perfectly accompanies the “mixing” of the film’s soundtrack. While produced by the Deaf Association of South Australia, and with the concerns of that organisation as its priority, Making Sense (Liv Spiers, 2003), with its promotion of communication across borders, seemed to achieve an added impact and relevance in the context of these themes of isolation evident in so many of the films at the festival. Of course, comedy was not absent from the festival and though the quality here was more variable, some highlights are worth mentioning. Crushed (Martin Sacks, 2004), a comedy not dissimilar in style and content to a sitcom, though substantially more amusing than most, was well-paced and drew an enthusiastic audience reaction. Confessions of an Animation (Steve Baker, 2004) is a great self-reflexive, very short animated film (both traits not uncommon to animation, of course) which includes some funny observations as the various animated characters ruminate on the pros and cons of living an animated existence. The highlight of the comedies though was The Magician (Scott Ryan, 2003), an entrant in the well-trodden genre of the mockumentary but a terrific example of this. The Magician is a Tarantino-like consideration of the banality of the criminal underworld, complete with conversations about the colour of blueberries and the salaries of Hollywood actors, which follows a hired killer on a “job” and the complications that arise. Again, this comedy managed to produce an interesting variation on a well-established form. The festival’s sessions were apparently randomly organised, producing some unusual juxtapositions. The juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic is one familiar from an average night of television viewing; however, unlike television, these films were not based on familiarity, predictability and insularity, and the lack of organisation seemed suited to many of the films’ own challenges to comfortable modes of viewing and its expectations. The Recluse, that most ubiquitous film at a festival – the festival’s own promotional film – seemed to depict a man entranced by film, isolated, insular and unmoving in his cave with his projector. Yet if there is one thing that this year’s St Kilda Film Festival demonstrates, it is the socially invested attitude of Australia’s vibrant short film producers and the outward looking responses that they have the capacity to provoke. Endnotes While these features would obviously have a different effect on their initial European audiences, the effect on English speakers discussed here remains. Out of the documentaries that I saw, Moving, Bloodline, Twenty Minutes with Twentyman, Portrait of Sakhi, Father, Dinkum, Think Big, Cut-Outs and Musictown all avoid, for the most part, the inscription of the documenter and instead rely primarily on observation and interviews where the subjects speak directly to camera. In some ways this was quite surprising given the success of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002); perhaps this journalistic approach, which television exposes us to constantly, is suited to more overtly polemical documentaries, though the potential reflexivity of such an approach was missed at times. This is not a problem limited to Melbourne: residential developments in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, for example, and in other Australian cities, are having a similar effect to that considered in Musictown. Paul Andrew, “Is Queer the New Black?”, Metro no. 140, 2004, pp. 146–9.