20-26 August 2008

Sydney

The obvious coups for the programmers of this year’s Canadian Film Festival were L’Âge des Ténèbres (Days of Darkness), Denys Arcand’s new film, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg – the former an Australian premiere, the latter piggybacking of the relative success of Maddin and his film at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2008. However there were less obvious treats in this year’s selection, the prime among them being Shake Hands With the Devil, Roger Spottiswoode’s unexpectedly excellent film based on UN General Romeo Dallaire’s Rwandan memoires, and the debut feature from Actor/Actress team Simon Reynolds and Ingrid Veninger, Only, which was the audience favourite.

There was a slight increase from last year’s fourteen films to sixteen this year, with a similar ratio of documentary to narrative films. It is good to see more Quebecoise content, with two of the films featuring one of Quebec’s biggest stars, Roy Dupuis: Emotional Arithmetic, set in Quebec, and in French. Unfortunately the festival was not able to pull international guests for more than a few of films; however, they did round out the festival with two live shows, a photography exhibition, and pre/post-film discussions for a few films. This maintains festival organisers The Festivalists’ commitment to creative programming and interactive festival experiences.

Since each film played only once this year (perhaps due to the less flexible scheduling of the Dendy Opera Quays, as opposed to the Chauvel in 2006 and 2007), it was sad to see some of the better films’ attendance hit by Sydney’s sublime weather. For example Spottiswoode’s Shake Hands With the Devil, which admittedly struggles with a grim topic, had no more than a handful of people; The Wild Horse Redemption was an amazing documentary, shown in resplendent high definition, that also deserved more numbers.

The festival opening night pulled out the big guns, showing Arcand’s Days of Darkness and Maddin’s My Winnipeg back-to-back. This may have been a programming error, since it placed the festival’s two drawcards in competition for people working the next day – but who knows? Mind-reading is not the highest form of journalism. Nevertheless, this review of the PWFF will examine the festival chronologically, to facilitate an examination of its scheduling choices.

After the critical and popular success of Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003), it really is a coup for the Festivalists to get Arcand’s next film. Although L’Âge des Ténèbres is less cohesive than its predecessor, it is a very enjoyable dark comedy and thematically it follows on from Le Déclin de l’empire américain (Decline of the American Empire) and Barbarian Invasions. This third film is more dystopian. Our hero – or in this case anti-hero – has ever-more expansive fantasies and delusions of grandeur, to offset the barrenness of his day-to-day life; the barbarians are not at the gate anymore, they have taken over. Jean-Marc Leblanc is a middle-aged civil servant whose egomaniacal wife is a real estate agent, and whose son and daughter barely acknowledge, let alone talk to him. At work, in the post-industrial cement bunker of the Ministry, he is belittled by his young female boss, and forced to follow meaningless rules and procedures.

Days of Darkness

His vivid fantasies feature Rufus Wainwright as a suave, operatic alter-ego, and a bevy of fantasy women, played with relish by Diane Kruger, Emma de Caunes and Caroline Néron. In his mind’s eye, Jean-Marc fancies himself as a famous author, a film star, a Roman general, a samurai – a lover, warrior and poet rolled into one. In real life, when his wife goes to Toronto for a conference, Jean-Marc begins a short-lived affair with a woman arguably more deluded than himself, who has a medieval “second life”, shared by many other Quebecians, centring around outdated chivalries, tournaments, crusades and romances. But at least Béatrice is happy. Finally our hero, abandoning the city, his job and his family for what makes him happy, retires to his father’s countryside house. We see him say goodbye to his fantasies one-by-one, in order to make room for a new life. Arcand seems more biting, more cantankerous in his age. But Jean-Marc is an anti-hero you can really feel for, and the myriad ways in which modernity chafes him are all recognisable and therefore the funnier.

My Winnipeg is probably Guy Maddin’s most accessible film to date, a playful mix of documentary, personal history and drama, filtered through his characteristic grainy black and white aesthetic, poetic narrative, frenetic editing, and intertitles. It’s more obviously humorous than his previous films – perhaps because Maddin was in the relaxed position of being commissioned to make this piece of local history. Maddin takes us on a journey through and away from Winnipeg. As we traverse the city, we traverse its history, his memory, and his psychological makeup. There are familiar Maddin themes: the supernatural, overbearing mother; the magnetic pull of home and family; psychosexual fantasies and adolescent transgressions. There are also fun little factoids, real or imagined: Winnipeg has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world; the city’s Masonic history. Who knows how much of this history is true – the film works as a confabulation by its narrator. This is a guilty pleasure, suggesting that more of his works could benefit from more humour to match the histrionics.

In March 2007, the Canadian government’s film-funding body, Telefilm Canada, released a list of the top 12 most commercially successful Canadian features since 2001. All were from Quebec. Therefore it was appropriate that this year’s PWFF tipped its hat to the recent commercial hits. They presented the Australian premiere of Nitro, the Canadian box-office hit that took 1.2 million in just three days, and opened at number 1 in Quebec against Hollywood films.

Directed by Alain DesRochers, Nitro is an action film with some cheesy melodrama, leather and cleavage thrown in for good measure. An ex-drag racer with a dark past, Max finds himself dragged back into the underground when he tries to save the life of his current lover, the sweetly innocent Alice, who has a congenital heart disease. He promises their son Theo that he won’t let Alice die – so he must find a replacement heart for Alice before hers gives out. Stopping at nothing, Max finds himself dragged to ever more profound depths, and ultimately has to rely on help from his ex-lover Morgane. The action is enjoyable, and what really holds the film together is the animal ferocity and magnetism of leading man Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge. His fluid fence-jumping moves are – no hyperbole – amazing; and the snarling rage with which he smashes into his opponents, swinging metal nitro canisters in a flurry of arm movement, is very satisfying.

Young People Fucking

Another youth-oriented film, which played back-to-back against Nitro, was Martin Gero’s Young People Fucking. A lot less engaging than the title suggests, this was nevertheless a crowd-pleaser – and a sell-out session. Five love/sex stories unfolding with their myriad pleasures and disappointments: the friends, the exes, the couple, the first date, the threesome. There are some unexpected twists, and plenty of laughs, but unfortunately the film is idea-lite. There is nothing new in Gero’s box of clichés – his idea of modern sexuality is about as exciting and provocative as a muesli bar. With nothing new to say, no new ways to say it, and no full frontal nudity, Young People Fucking is a total anticlimax.

Nevertheless, the Festivalists capitalised on the theme by hosting the screening at Bobbi’s Poledancing Studio, incorporating live performance, drinks, DJs and short films into the event. Add-on experiences are something that the Festivalists do well, and once again it is gratifying to see a genuinely interactive cinema experience – the cinema as social. They also made good use of a yellowtail sponsorship this year, including a free glass of wine or bubbly with the price of each evening ticket. This simple touch immediately gave a gala vibe to even the most modest sessions this year.

Emotional Arithmetic is another largely paint-by-numbers affair – with a vital difference: good actors! Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and a sadly unexploited Roy Dupuis. Although Emotional Arithmetic doesn’t really have much new to say about memory, history and the holocaust, it says it with feeling. The message, that sometimes remembering is less important than living, is beautifully executed – despite a visual set up that looks more like a Canadian Tourism Board advertisement for Quebec, and some heavy-handed establishing dialogue.

Melanie and David have a bad marriage, partly because David is a womaniser, and partly because Melanie has some emotional issues from her time in the Drancy Nazi interment camp as a child. One day, she gets a letter from her old friend Jakob. He is alive and well, after living in a Gulag for 35 years. She invites him to visit, and shortly afterwards he arrives – bringing Melanie’s childhood love Christopher (also from Drancy), who still carries a torch for Melanie. She needs to reconcile her past with her present, which involves letting go of some of those troubling memories and grasping a hold of her experiences in the present. The faults in this film are probably mostly the script, then the direction. The actors make up for it. It was smart putting this on a Saturday afternoon, to hit its target demographic.

Probably the most disappointing film of the festival was the compilation Toronto Stories. Interesting, entertaining compilations have been made around the cities of New York, Paris and Tokyo within the last few years, featuring master directors from around the globe. This is not that. Toronto Stories, featuring four interlinked shorts by Canadian directors, plays more like an exercise in student filmmaking. The exception to this is the segment “The Brazilian” written and directed by Canadian musician, TV personality and actress Sook-Yin Lee (previously seen getting sexy in Shortbus). Lee stars alongside Tygh Runyan, as a lonely eccentric girl who tries to crack through the bullshit and connect with Boris, who has never been in love, and potentially suffers from Aspergers, or some other social disorder. It’s nice to see a relationship play out so unusually on screen – besides being funny.

While Toronto Stories played in the Dendy Opera Quays, Utopia Records hosted a screening event for Global Metal, Sam Dunn’s follow-up documentary to Metal: a Headbanger’s Journey. The film, which has already released on dvd through Hopscotch, had its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Dunn is an anthropologist and lifelong metal fan, and examines the intersection of metal with local culture around the globe, starting in Brazil, where the flowering of metal coincided in time with the transition from a dictatorship to democracy. Dunn tries to make sense of the rebellious Metal persona and the society of manners and control. He examines metal subgenres particular to Japan, India and China, Indonesia, Israel, and the Middle East. You definitely did not have to be a fan of the genre to enjoy this one, although holding the screening and party within a heavy metal music store perhaps suggested to many people that you did.

Shake Hands with the Devil

Arguably the surprise – though perhaps not the standout – of the festival was Shake Hands with the Devil. Spottiswoode has a schizophrenic if patchy history spanning films as diverse as Under Fire (1983), Turner and Hooch (1989), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). His most recent film, The Children of Huang Shi, was uninspiring despite the story material. What that film lacked in performance and dramatic momentum, his previous, Shake Hands with the Devil, has in spades. It is a moving portrait of a man and a country caught between a rock and a hard place. Roy Dupuis’ performance projects immense emotional pain and frustration through a stoical exterior. There is a powerful, climactic scene where he snaps, and shoots at the dogs inside his compound, because they are threatening the goats he rescued on one of his drives through war-torn Kigali. The goats are all he can protect, and the dogs are the only things he is allowed to shoot. The score, by talented Australian composer David Hirschfelder, evokes the sense of urgency and inevitability with which events unfold.

Sunday night’s programming was cops, sleaze and gore. The Quebec police mystery/family drama Mon Fille Mon Ange (My Daughter My Angel, Alexis Durand-Brault) follows a politician embroiled in a seedy underworld as he tries to track down his daughter, who is all set to become an internet porn star. Stuart Gordon’s Stuck is eye candy of another sort, for horror fans. Gordon, who had a patchy career after the cult classic Re-animator (1985), brings us a suburban horror fable based on the true story of an American woman who hit a pedestrian on the way home one night, and left him stuck through her windshield to die, locked in her garage, rather than calling 911.

Gordon creates a moral universe where bad acts are punished, but he tweaks with our expectations a little along the way. Our “heroine” Brandi (Mena Suvari) first appears to us as a kind-hearted nursing-home carer, who makes time for fragile old men. But even good people can do bad things, if the circumstances arise. After hitting a homeless man (Stephen Rea) on the way home from a night of booze and pills, Brandi is so concerned about losing her job, her license and her liberty, that she prefers to let the man die. She locks him in her garage, still stuck in her windshield, and goes to work.

Gordon is able to exercise the situation for both horror clichés and humour. Our victim is almost discovered by passers-by on several occasions, but not quite. The only people who find him, after hearing his groans, turn out to be illegal immigrants, unwilling to call the police. He almost reaches Brandi’s phone, left on the seat of the car, but then the battery dies half way through talking to a 911 operator. Stephen Rea is great as the stoical unemployed white-collar worker, looking down the barrel of life on the streets. Mena Suvari handles a complex character shift from sweet young Brandi, on the verge of a promotion, to selfish and increasingly hysterical white trash. The film is not complex: there is gore, and there is a moral. But it’s actually quite funny, in a dark nasty way. At one point, returning to the garage to check on her victim’s progress, and finding him still alive and kicking, Brandi exclaims indignantly “Why are you doing this to me!?” It seems that evil really is banal after all.

The Museum, which was screened at Sydney’s Australian Museum, is a fascinating documentary about a very specific subject: the rejuvenation of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, under the direction of William Thorsell. The film starts off with a remarkable challenge – Thorsell must revive the stodgy old museum to a sparkling, innovate cultural institution. His plan will cost $200 million to implement. He and his team must raise this money through fundraising – a sum never before raised by a Canadian cultural institution. Thorsell is in interesting character, renowned for reviving Canada’s oldest newspaper, The Globe and Mail. He comes into the ROM and wins over the board, but has trouble convincing the staff and the Toronto public that his vision will work. He brings on famous Polish-born New York architect Daniel Libeskind, who was appointed to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre after September 11, 2001. Libeskind designs a daring, modernist building supposedly inspired by the ROM’s crystal collections. Director Kenton Vaughan, who attended PWFF and talked at the screening, followed the ROM team for three years, capturing the highs and lows, the tests of faith. It’s partly the music, but mostly the narrative, that keeps you on tenterhooks, certain that something disastrous is imminent. A project of such hubris, and about which so many people are sceptical, seems to invite punishment.

The Wild Horse Redemption

There are some people who go to a film festival only for the documentaries – there are more of them that you might think, try talking to the crowds at any documentary session during the Sydney Film Festival. At PWFF 2008 people had to choose between two documentaries competing in one time slot. Between The Museum and The Wild Horse Redemption, I hope that people saw the latter – simply because it was a more enjoyable film – and also a film that benefitted particularly from being scene cinematically, rather than on the small screen. Set in the foothills of the Rockies, Academy-award winning director John Zaristky’s doco pits hardened criminals against wild mustangs. The filmmaker follows three convicts taking part in a voluntary rehabilitation program, where they train the wild horses for sale. There is enormous satisfaction seeing these men benefit from the inculcation of skills such as patience and respect. It makes one reflect on why some people rather than others get caught up in the crime cycle – but this doco manages to stay humanistic rather than moralistic.

Sébastien Rose’s featureThe Banquet paints a bleak picture of nepotistic campus politics, the corruption of idealism, the apathy of most students and – what’s worse – the apathy of professors, and the smugness that comes with tenure. Set on a Quebec campus it shows a personal tragedy unfolding against the backdrop of a student protest that goes horribly wrong, and the political wrangling happening in the back-corridors of campus power. As the violence on the streets escalates, so too does the personal violence, between a professor and his student, come to a head.

The issue at hand is tuition fees: the administration and the Dean want to raise them, the students protest. It’s a familiar scenario for anyone who has attended university recently, and this film suggests that the baby-boomers who were university students in the 1960s, and benefitted from the atmosphere of liberalism, appear to have betrayed those ideals, or at least twisted them, in their administration of current campus life. While they bask in the glow of yesteryear, they are deaf to the needs of a new generation of students. The film pushes the idea to its extreme: if you insist on treating students as no more than consumers, and education as essentially a product, what happens when you get a pissed off customer?

Against this normative vacuum, we see a story play out straight from today’s headlines – here it happens in Quebec, but it has already happened at Columbine high school and Virginia Tech in the USA, and more specifically at a community college campus in South Texas last year, where a student threatened to blow the back out of a teacher’s head after he gave her a B grade and ridiculed her in class. Without religion, class, political ideology or liberal ideals to ground him, handsome young student Gilbert (Benoît McGinnis) searches for his own system for understanding the world. University, according to its own rhetoric and marketing, is a place where the individual can question, interrogate, develop their ideas. However when Gilbert attempts this, he is ignored at best, ridiculed at worst, and generally dismissed and treated as a nuisance, by students and faculty alike.

Representing the boomer generation is Professor Girard – who canonises ‘60s cinema and loves Godard; in examining films from the past, he theorises about the benefits of looking to the past to learn lessons for modern social crises. Ironically, a social crisis is unfolding around him, literally, as students face-off against police during a sit-in protest outside the dean’s office. A personal crisis is also unfolding as Girard begins to doubt the tenets of his teaching practice – and himself – under Gilbert’s malign influence.

The film follows a familiar structure: it begins before the climax, jumps to the aftermath, and then right back to the beginning to show how we arrived at the event itself – like a striptease, it leaves the shocking event to the end. The film is effective but perhaps not mind-blowing; it is ultimately more thriller than thoughtful, and in the end Gilbert is a mad man – tragic, but two-dimensional.

The last day of the festival limped out the gate with a TV documentary Afghanistan: Beyond Hope and Fear. Without wanting to be too dismissive, there is no reason why we would not watch this on television – which was its intention and therefore its style. All that really set it apart was the post-film discussion panel, and the photographic exhibition – the former mitigated by the Tuesday morning time-slot, and the latter by the inability of the Dendy to compellingly showcase photography exhibitions.

On the other hand, the last two films of the day were worth the wait. Two films about young people, both indies, but stylistically different and one each from Quebec and English-speaking Canada. Only, which won the Audience Choice award, is almost an exercise in realism, but it does interesting things with music – making the soundtrack diegetic to the characters’ headphones. The film is an honest, heartfelt look at being young and slightly spaced out. Daniel is 12 years old, and lives with his parents in their family-run hotel business. Daniel helps around the hotel, takes out the trash, steals the occasional bottle of wine to impress the local kids, but mostly just hangs out on his own listening to music, shooting the odd hoop. While doing the linen rounds, he walks past a domestic row between husband and wife, and shortly after meets their daughter Vera – his age, and kinda cool too. True to their age, they aren’t romantic – they are just walking around, sussing each other out, each trying to impress the other without seeming to, and each just as glad for the company.

Only is funny without trying to be, it’s poignant without ever being maudlin, or self-conscious. It has a cool soundtrack, without actually being cool. Actors-slash-writers-slash-directors Simon Reynolds and Ingrid Veninger definitely got lucky with their casting, the kids have you watching them intently for what will happen next, for the slightest facial inflection – while knowing that nothing is really going to “happen”. I am not remotely surprised this feel-good film won the audience choice, and it was great to see an example that Australian indies could emulate, in terms of budget and content.

The last film of the night was surprisingly grim for a closing night offering, but a great partner to Only. Both films look at the unique male perspective of youth; both make music a strong character. In Yves Christian Fournier’s debut feature Tout est Parfait (Everything is Fine), the pre-titles scene shoes a young man catch a bus to a graveside, where he salutes a dead friend with a can of beer, then moves on to a grassy knoll, matter-of-factly places the barrel of a handgun in his mouth and shoots himself through the head. This scene pulls no punches, setting the tone for the film – one of shock, disbelief, and an anxiousness to understand why. However, the script backgrounds the dead men, focussing instead on the plight of the living.

Everything is Fine

Our main character Josh has survived four of his best friends in a suicide pact. The narrative skips back and forth in time: the aftermath in which Josh reacts with an unsettling stoicism, the past as Josh relives memories of his friends, and the scattered glimpses of a “present”, in which Josh is unconscious in hospital. This narrative structure, the narrative preoccupation with youth and the camera’s preoccupation with young bodies, could lead to comparisons with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) or Last Days (2005). If you want to make that comparison, you can certainly find further stylistic similarities. The film is great in its own right however – the standout being the performance of 19 year-old Maxime Dumontier as Josh – who seems to have not an ounce of self-consciousness. Everything rests on his ability to visibly withhold his mother lode of guilt, anger and grief. Like Daniel, he wears his headphones like armour – and the film’s super-cool soundtrack includes Quebecoise hip-hop, Gillian Welch’s blues-and-rootsy killing song Caleb Meyer, old Calexico, Blonde Redhead, and Montreal art rockers Set Fire to Flames.

I was so happy to see the PWFF up its ante program-wise this year. It is hard to program sixteen good films from any country for any given year – let alone Canada. This may be why the festival drew more this year on the comparatively dynamic film-industry of Quebec, in a stark contrast to last year’s program, which had only one French-speaking film. Regardless, there were a greater number of good films here this year – enough to make up for the absence of Bruce McDonald’s zombie bonanza Pontypool (which Australian festival has snapped that I wonder?). Despite running single screenings at the arguably less intimate venue of the Dendy Opera Quays, this year’s PWFF felt richer, more balanced, with perhaps the exception of panel discussions, which add context to the films – but are probably harder to schedule in a cinema like the Opera Quays. We miss the days when the Chauvel hosted Sydney’s independent film festivals, but thank god the Festivalists are adapting with the times.

Possible Worlds Canadian Film Festival website: http://www.possibleworlds.net.au