Heartbeat Detector

4–22 June 2008

The 2008 Sydney Film Festival was a bigger event – longer, and with more films – than previously, and the first year the festival has included work “in competition”. I managed to see around 50 features, the more notable ­–­ in one way or another – of which I’ll discuss here.

One of only three films from Italy in the festival this year, Caos calmo (Quiet Chaos), gives local audiences the surely imprecise impression that contemporary Italian cinema is as mediocre (or moribund) as the nation’s politics. Nanni Moretti is a reassuringly familiar figure on screen (here he co-writes too), surely one reason for the film’s inclusion. But director Antonello Grimaldi’s film is decidedly middlebrow, predictable Euro drama in its story of a father attempting to deal with his wife’s death by staging an obsessive vigil outside his young daughter’s school, during which he attains some “perspective” on the corporate media culture in which he works.

The standout French film this year – and possibly of the festival per se – was La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector), despite its naff English-language title. The film starts off as a ‘70s-style conspiracy/suspense genre piece featuring a yuppie psychologist employed as hirer and downsizer at a German company’s French headquarters, who is then given a mysterious task to “study” the CEO. But rather than charting an expected, general ethical road to Damascus, director Nicolas Klotz develops a slowly-building expose of a European business’ origins and links with the Third Reich. Developing from long shots of inky, almost Lynchian office interiors into a slow-burn study of the increasingly persona-threatened central figure, the film ends with minutes of a black screen while he reads unearthed documents detailing the then new company’s economic and logistical role in mass murder over a literal and figurative void.

En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia), from Spanish writer-director José Luis Guerin, has been much praised. But our view of the film is centrally influenced by how much we see it as playing out-and-with clichéd and romantic (hetero) male fantasies of European – particularly French – cinema as primarily concerned with women, especially at the height of summer dress and comportment; or, whether this familiar gaze is simply figured as a (hardly unfamiliar) reflexive meditation on cinema itself. (In which case surely cinema is therefore essentialised both phenomenologically and in terms of gender, only most obviously re the roles of watcher and watched, thereby “proving” ­Laura Mulvey’s endlessly debated ‘70s feminist polemic that this film’s admirers claim it transcends.) The film is beautifully contrived and “staged”, utilising its Strasbourg locations to perfection in a highly nostalgic rendering of the European city defined by manageable, tram-enabled public space. But I don’t quite find the kind of originality or richness that others do in its ultimate playing out and dénouement – an apparent liberation/abandoning of the protagonist’s/camera’s sexual or narrative search.

Terror’s Advocate

Barbet Schroeder’s truly labyrinthine documentary about definitively controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès, L’Avocat de la terreur (Terror’s Advocate), almost becomes a shaggy dog story were it not dealing with such serious moral material. Whether you have slim or fair knowledge of Cold War and colonial-resistance history and politics, the film is bamboozling. (This reaches a comedic peak during the section in which no-one, including the man himself, can confirm Vergès’ whereabouts n the 1970s). What results is a challenging portrait of a figure determined to reveal the moral hypocrisy of Western government policies and his visceral hatred of colonialism, as he defends unquestionably appalling figures (Klaus Barbie, Pol Pot) and argues that their crimes are exactly those of the West itself or comparably lesser. Genuinely incendiary and argument-generating stuff.

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export is a truly bleak, though at times also funny, portrait of “the new Europe”, with Austria and the Ukraine as mirrored locales for two thematically connected tales. Rather than any potential trans-linguistic solidarity, the borderless EU’s socio-economic “have-nots” are shown as often psychologically and morally retarded by desultory competition for work, here strongly coloured by Austrian racism and lack of recognition for former Eastern bloc characters’ qualifications and experience. We are also shown a lower and grimmer rung still, when an Austrian step-father and son on a morally perturbing “business trip”/bender visit an apocalyptically run-down communist-era Ukrainian apartment complex filled with presumably stateless Roma – the film’s centrepiece moment, rendering the real and symbolic environmental-human ruination beneath European unification.

Charting inequality of a more global nature, the Austrian documentary Über Wasser: Menschen und gelbe Kanister (About Water) shows the different experiences of three different parts of the world to an increasing lack or dangerous over-abundance of water (we assume in large part due to global warming). Udo Maurer’s film exemplifies the subtle but devastating effect that mainstream documentary form can have when shorn of polemical and voice-over narration conventions. A more famous Germanic documentarist, Werner Herzog, was back in familiar form after last year’s horrible Rescue Dawn, with Encounters at the End of the World. Shot in Antarctica, the film is full of the director’s trademark humour and playful nihilism (the apogee being a sequence ruminating on a penguin’s apparent fatalistic-existential “revolt” by walking inland away from the herd to certain death) and contains amazing under-ice footage of A-grade alien life. Yet Herzog’s questions and stated interest in Antarctica are simply not as “weird” as offered, and the narration and interviews often make for a self-satisfied and indulgent tone.

Despite also skirting clichés of here Nordic fatalist humour and bleak Romanticism, sporadic Swedish director Roy Andersson’s latest, Du levande (You the Living), is somehow still affective and fresh in its pursuit of limit-point “miserablism”. Rejecting linear narrative (though not necessarily thematic) development but with recurring characters and set-ups, the film piles up one bleak moment/scenario/tableau after another, peopled by white make-up-clad figures who act out the rituals of work and family life with acute attention to both rules and absolutely hopeless dreams of rebellion. Maybe outliving its premise by the end, this is nonetheless genuine prime tragicomedy.

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Based on a series of his video installations, Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski’s Blood of a Poet (or Glass Lips) was familiar in a very different way. Invoking purist Eastern European art-cinema whereby the grave sublime and some dark humour are never far apart, the film is sometimes compelling through an apparently very “interior” and almost wordless account of a young artist’s angst, from remarkable first images as a screaming baby perched precariously on a desolate rock facing primordial Wagnerian mountains through to his adult life in a psychiatric ward. Yet its images and thematic thrust often become tiresome, particularly the treatment of (inevitably topless) female figures suggestive of both mother and “sexual other”; ditto an excessively reverberant, too overtly “expressionist” soundscape.

Much more realist, especially compared with his previous work, was Aleksandr Sokurov’s Aleksandra (Alexandra), a subtly political account of a grandmother’s visit to her soldier grandson stationed in Chechnya. While the connection between her and the local women she meets at the local market beyond the Army camp serves to address hardly surprising anti-war humanist sentiments, the film is at its most powerful as a critical gaze upon the Russian Army’s very purpose here. Rendered through the old woman’s being so out-of-place in this young masculine space, “Mother Russia” here seems unimpressed by what her sons (really the political Mandarins in Moscow) are up to. While this central personification/metaphor is perhaps too overt, Sokurov mounts an effective rearguard nationalist critique of present-day Russia less politically and historically problematic than Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002).

A very different Russia was presented at the festival as part of a miscellaneous Revived and Restored strand. Entirely comprised of carefully edited inter- and post-war Soviet propaganda, Sergei Loznitsa’s Predestavilenie (Revue) is not as compelling as his previous Blokada (Blockade, 2006). Lacking the earlier film’s elaborate sound mix of would-be “diegetic” and more overtly poetic elements combined with amazing World War II newsreel footage, this latest archival project nonetheless powerfully evokes how superficially “convincing” expert, and quite explicit, propaganda (as opposed to propagandistic “art”) can be – especially in the form of immaculately restored images that seem now like they’re from another, seemingly magical, world.

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Of Time and the City

A less ideal “past” drives the inbuilt recollections of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), which I was able to finally catch up with via restored festival re-release. The recurring “memory recall” motif that binds together the non-linear patchwork of this much-admired autobiographical meditation on growing up in post-war Liverpool is certainly of a conceptual-aesthetic piece. But for me the film’s well-executed compositional and editing techniques, rendering a combination of dark echoes of the past (usually connected to a violent patriarch) and more joyous pre-TV intra-family entertainment/solace in the form of pub sing-a-longs, becomes tiresome in its repetition. Perhaps one’s own history and cultural context are key here, but to me the film wallows in a certain kind of nostalgia to no particular end, the more disturbing familial and socio-economic aspects notwithstanding. I actually preferred Davies’ latest work, the essay/memoir Of Time and the City. While viewers were easily put off by its gravitas-straining voice-over, the film’s pomposity is at least partly mitigated by a self-conscious humour, and fragments of political, (anti-)religous, sexual and existential material gesture towards a quasi-belligerent toughness, even if often nestled alongside fireside bathos and sentiment.

Much more “contemporary” in every way was Sandra Nettelbeck’s Helen, which emanates a very distinct, delicate and softly-spoken mood built up through a re-enactment/documentary style that is never fully clarified (the project was a result of community-based UK theatre work but the film comes across as epistemologically elusive). The reticent narrative concerns a mimetic acting out of a persona and itinerary – ­a teenager, herself in search of a lost personal history after having been brought up by the State, helps the police by acting out the last known movements of a missing girl she is convinced was “like her”. An interesting yet also sometimes frustrating work, it perhaps overdoes a delicately performed melancholia.

Though operating in more conventionally non-fiction terrain, Derek offers a difference kind of meditative modesty while also assuming the inherent value of its subject, the late gay English filmmaker Derek Jarman. Directed by Isaac Julien and written by Tilda Swinton – whose quasi-hagiographic, and certainly nostalgic, narration we hear as she walks through the mise en scène of what we are supposed to see as a “sterile” present-day London – the film can be forgiven for its historiographic romanticism. As usual for these types of projects, for those already onside with Jarman’s films and the various eras and vague London counter-culture their production (as much as final outcome) represents, Derek is an affecting love letter.

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Back in the confronting near-present of material history, the Lebanese/French Sous les bombes (Under the Bombs) dramatically renders the devastation of Israel’s 2006 bombing of Southern Lebanon. Though sticking closely to a familiar melodramatic story about a glamorous expat Lebanese woman searching for her son, director Philippe Aractingi utilises the inevitably compelling mise en scène of entire villages reduced to rubble. Semi-scripted or improvised dialogue gives the film its energy beyond the generic melodramatic script, with a clearly traumatised civilian population a key presence. While no doubt more accessible for playing down politics and religion, an ultimately more revealing and spectatorially demanding presentation of complex local history would have emerged from further exploration of the deep differences represented by the central Shi’ite and Christian characters.

Much more reticent in tone, the Turkish/Greek production Yumurta (Egg) features a seemingly urbane, bookish man from the big smoke forced to confront the variously less “modern” elements of his hometown and past upon returning after his mother’s death. While suggestive enough for the first half in its archetypal set-up, director Semih Kaplanoglu spends a lot of time wallowing in pregnant silence to little thematic end. A scene where the central character is left to sleep in a grassy field for fear of a prowling dog is the apogee of an increasingly frustrating film.

There were only two Iranian films at the festival; both were very solid and from familiar names, or surnames. Though I am not as much a fan of Majid Majidi’s work as some, Avaze gonjeshk-ha (Song of the Sparrows) seems tougher while maintaining the sentimental streak. The country/city divide is effectively presented as a “problem” when it comes to the protagonist patriarch’s utilising of Tehran for financial opportunity only to find his moral universe threatened not only by his experiences as a motorbike taxi but also by the subtly changing dynamic at home. All of this comes to a narrative and symbolic head when father’s endlessly hoarded bric-a-brac crashes down on top of him, enforcing a humiliating period as a truly fallen provider. Suggestive imagery of the lost ostrich that caused his initial unemployment on a farm beautifully seals a very delicately rendered, at times very funny, film.

While almost completely featuring Afghan children, Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buda as sharm foru rikht (Buddha Collapsed out of Shame) is certainly tough, despite what reads as a sentimentalised central character. This film, in which we watch a young girl negotiate the protean violent misogyny of a gang of boys who play strikingly familiar “war games”, is simple and penetrating in both its specific and broader context. The politically confused violence of Afghanistan is played out through the boys’ threats to first stone the girl to death as a woman, then kill her as an American spy, and later hunt her down as a terrorist once they start to play US soldiers. Irrespective, their “game” and the film resona te with the darkest elements of very real life in rehearsal.

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Help me Eros

Two Chinese-language films from Taiwan and Hong Kong featured contrasting treatments of sex. Seemingly locked into a very stylised private world drawn from the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang, Bang bang wo ai shen (Help me Eros) is Lee Kang-sheng’s second directorial effort (following Bu jian [The Missing, 2003]) after a career starring in Tsai’s films. Here he plays an extension of his usual screen persona in films like Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud, 2005) exhibiting the familiar world-weariness and stasis crossed with quiet, lingering romanticism. The film quite beautifully stages the multiple connections Lee’s perpetually stoned character, an unemployed former stock market player, has with a series of women from the local cigarette (come-quasi-prostitution) outlet beneath his apartment building and a phone counselling service. The concluding shot – as with so many of Tsai’s (if not as thematically layered as the best of them) – offers evocative melancholic/elegiac imagery you either embrace or reject. Compared to such finely observed, at times superficial but always at least elegant treatment of sexual ennui and negotiated desire, Po Si Yi (Trivial Matters) was often offensive junk. At times mildly entertaining, this collection of seven short pieces based on director Pang Ho-Cheung’s short stories culminates in a sequence that seems to present as funny the sex-obsessed protagonist’s inadvertent choking to death of his sex-disinterested girlfriend when he coaxes her into fellatio for the umpteenth time.

The health of contemporary mainland Chinese cinema was apparent in what seemed like a well-chosen sidebar program. While sometimes wallowing in the central characters’ repressed family issues, Cai Shangjun’s Hongse Kangbaiyin (The Red Awn) is an ultimately complex, subtle vision of the “other China” outside Beijing and Shanghai, living on in the face of the urban centres’ fabled wealth and skyrocketing modernity (shown to penetrate regional areas in all sorts of complex ways). In contrast to the turgid English film And When did you Last See Your Father (Anand Tucker), which also screened at the festival, this father-son drama is subtle and properly “cinematic”. It relies upon images, editing and juxtaposed compositions rather than endlessly scripted dialogue, and builds to an interesting climax that skirts around “difficult reconciliation” rather than dramatically enforcing it.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and now released with the moniker of first Australia-China (though also German) co-production, The Children of Huang Shi (or Children of the Silk Road) was mainly interesting for its extra-textual qualities (such as how both present-day Chinese and Western producers choose to present the role of the CCP before 1949). Unfortunately, such is the hagiographic portrayal of English Journalist, then teacher/foster father George Hogg, that all the other characters (including the initially heroic Communist figure played by Chow Yun-fat) are deemed morally inferior to a historically and politically untenable or absurd British moral purism. This combined with the very old-fashioned dramatic arc of the film means that the earlier scenes, such as a rare Western-directed portrayal of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Rape of Nanking, are a dim memory.

At the other extreme, Ye Wei Yang (Endless Night) is a very morally confronting and complex experiment. Its innovation is to pepper the seemingly rather self-conscious (but no less affecting) narration by a young woman of her multiple experiences of sexual domination by different men with various commentaries by both men and women seemingly outside her story. What develops is both a fascinating formal shift in the documentary register as the quick-to-judge others build layers of interpretation, and a confronting essay on (especially male) attitudes to sex, including issues of consent. This culminates with the final scene, which extends the film’s already reflexive address to also include/implicate the film’s writer-director, Pan Jianlin, in the story. With this final move cementing an already edgy complicitous relationship, the audience is left feeling they have decidedly dirty hands.

Less starkly innovative and morally difficult was Wuyong (Useless), Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary about the Chinese fashion industry. Taking on both the domestic and trans-national elements of yet another chain in China’s economic and cultural “rise”, formally Jia’s film is an extension of his masterly fictional features (if not as thematically penetrating). With eductive single-take tracking shots gracefully taking in the various milieux from unglamorous workspaces and cavernous lunch rooms to a bourgeois shop space and glamorous Paris exhibit full of fashionistas, the heavily saturated high-definition DV images suggest real pro-filmic and “filmic” materiality.

The festival also presented two Chinese-USA “cross-culture” films from 2007 directed by Wayne Wang. A slow-moving meditation on the disconnect when a former PRC Revolutionary and father visits his seemingly “Americanised” daughter, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers has its nice moments but relies on fairly stereotyped cultural differences and iconography (including the inevitable cooking), while formally seems a rather effortful attempt to get back to Wang’s earlier low-budget “indie” filmmaking. Princess of Nebraska is a more complex and affective take on a roughly similar theme explored with higher voltage. A scene in which the angsty and none too likeable young Chinese protagonist interrupts a dinner party conversation featuring lots of earnest anecdote-studded debate about “the new China”, declaring they’re talking generalising and patronising shit, might strike a contemporary chord.

Tôkyô Sonata

China’s rapid global rise is posited as a causal problem in one of the Japanese features at the festival, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Tôkyô Sonata. This well received in-competition film presents a stark picture of the situation facing present-day Japan – be it the phenomenon of mass unemployment for former (male) middle-managers who we are told are losing their jobs due to Japanese companies saving on wages by outsourcing to China, sons failing to see their elders as providing impressive role models (joining the US Army and having piano lessons evoke patriarchal rage), or the seemingly pre-feminist situation of wives and mothers. The film comes across as both thematically rich and nakedly schematic, very clearly contrived in its character and narrative arc.

Bam gua nat (Night and Day), written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, starts as a fresh kind of stranger-in-Paris tale. In the film’s first half, with the fabled metropolis presented beyond recognisable sites, artistic and personality “theft”/responsibility (plus the articulation, and de-naturalising, of tensions around a divided Korea) are effectively explored through the story of an artist who left South Korea in fear of being jailed for marijuana consumption, and develops flirtatious relations with two younger art students in an ex-pat community evoked in all its inwardness. But the film becomes very tedious by its final act, when we fully imbibe at unnecessary length the duplicitous and ultimately uninteresting nature of the protagonist when reunited with his wife in Seoul.

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Dipping into the Iraq war-themed Apocalypse Again program of US films, none of which have been successful at the box office (possibly giving the appearance of bravery, despite only emerging once the war became totally unpopular), was more revealing about “liberal Hollywood” than anything else. Though intriguingly offered as stitched-together “found footage” of varying source and texture, Brian De Palma’s Redacted doesn’t offer any serious representational comment per se. And the concentration on one particular atrocity committed by a US unit in Iraq, even if read as staging the moral debasement of the occupation per se, has nothing to say about the a priori fact of the invasion itself. At the quietest end of the scale, James Strouse’s Grace is Gone sees John Cusack as a conservative ex-military man who delays telling his young daughters of their mother’s death in Iraq. Presented as a metaphor for the need for the US to overcome denial and face reality (the niggling political and moral awakening of the eldest girl as she guesses something is wrong is the film’s enabling “adult” gesture), and well done for what it is, this attempt at an apolitical film about the war “at home” still plays as textbook Hollywood liberalism after the fact. CSNY: Déjà vu, Bernard Shakey’s (aka Neil Young) documentary about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Freedom of Speech” tour in support of his Living with War album, features the cantankerous intervention of seemingly uncorrupted late-‘60s peacenik warriors from the “last war”. Young’s own political ambiguity goes unmentioned (his early support for Reagan and more recently the Patriot Act), but the images of southern fans storming out of the concert in disgust when the band play “Let’s Impeach the President” is hilarious – and Neil’s guitar playing is as raucously Jackson-Pollock as ever.

Further south, small program strands were devoted to recent films from Brazil and Mexico. Mutum (Sandra Kogut) is an effective coming-of-age tale set amongst poor remote Brazilian communities familiar with death and features compelling central child and adult performances, though without the thematic density of The Red Awn. Similarly quiet, though with much more whimsical quiet-desperation humour, was the Mexican Párpados azules (Blue Eyelids). The most interesting thing about Ernesto Contreras’ film is the way it portrays the sad attempts of two people trying to develop a relationship with little in common (they went to the same school, though only one of them remembers the other) besides leading similarly passionless, disinterested lives. An insidious portrayal, the film is well staged if also skating very close to indie clichés in its implied humour and narrative arc.

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A Page of Madness

Following Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s British classic Black Narcissus (1947), screened as part of a Deborah Kerr retrospective, the festival’s final day brought a less canonical piece of cultural apocalyptica in which, rather than colonial/Anglican British India, the entire human race is at risk from alien nature. Directed in 1974 by legendary titles-designer (Vertigo et. al.) Saul Bass, Phase IV is as interested in close-up documentary-like and saturated footage featuring enormous ants of various colour as it is by the humanism/science opposition argued out by the central characters as they sweat it out in their giant analogue computer-filled research pod, battling adaptation and intelligence with alien-directed ants outside. The final image, showing Michael Murphy walking into the horizon complete with voiceover asking what his new purpose might be now has acquiesced to the new regime, clinches a compellingly straight and ambitious/pulp hybrid ‘70s beast.

On the same afternoon pulp was replaced by protean Japanese avant gardism, with a rare screening of Kurutta ippêji (A Page of Madness, 1926). Kinugasa Teinosuke’s unprecedented expressionism is indeed historically startling (there was supposedly nothing like it in Japan prior to this, and the director was unfamiliar with the German cinema of the time). But more than the now familiar exaggerations of architecture and perspective, this tale of a man who becomes a janitor at an insane asylum so as to be near his wife (who has attempted to kill herself and their child) is full of amazingly fresh high modernist multi-plane, fragmentary and hybrid perspectives. As if the history of Japanese cinema wasn’t glorious enough without yet another layer in the story.

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Despite its larger size this year, the program needs bolder choices. No greater in number than last time, the relatively “non-narrative” fare in attendance like Glass Lips, You, the Living, and James Benning’s Casting a Glance (featuring over three decades of footage showing the enormous changes in the natural home of artist Robert Simthson’s Spiral Jetty) were corralled in an Art Films strand. Meanwhile attempts to make the event less threatening and more connected to the world of commercial releases continue apace, with the inclusion of films such as Kung fu Panda and simply unremarkable middlebrow fare like Quiet Chaos. And the festival presence of much worse titles like And When Did You Last See Your Father seems to essentially provide would-be “highbrow” openings for theatrical release. Overall, and again considering a greater number of films to choose from (and I saw more of them than is healthy), there were no really huge films for me this year. Nevertheless, I am hopeful Claire Stewart can continue to develop the festival so that Sydney audiences can be treated and challenged to seeing world cinema at its peak of difficult pleasure.

Sydney Film Festival website: http://www.sydneyfilmfestival.org