Renewal, when generational change finally occurs, may well unleash an explosion of energy that will burst the log jam and permit the nation to resume its interrupted progress toward the vision of a tolerant, fair-minded and decent society for all its citizens. – Francis Gordon Clarke (1)
It’s quixotic, but naive, to expect a film festival to achieve the goals that politicians, philosophers and policy-makers spend their days contemplating. In fact, it is an idea steeped in romanticism, an old concept bursting with revolutionary ideals as a reaction against reason. However, it seems that as the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) entered its sixtieth year, it did so with a sense of romanticism that fused the nostalgia of its past with the anticipation of its future to create a diamond jubilee of hybridity: of its own past and future, of old and new media, for the innocent to the senescent, in a way that was, to borrow from Roland Robertson, befittingly glocal.
Partly, the composite space occupied by MIFF this year could be due to a type of generational syncretisation that saw the new artistic director, Michelle Carey, landed with the celebrations of a festival almost twice her age. This seemed fitting, however, as it produced a festival experience that was able to successfully map MIFF’s history without perpetuating the fear, pessimism or outright disregard that can accompany such nostalgic celebrations. Rather, the festival seemed to use the anniversary to confidently announce its future, ready to embrace new technologies and ideas for generations to come.
Europe as Never-Never-land: The Fairy and beyond
As MIFF’s new artistic director, Carey entered the scene without inhibitions towards redesign, perhaps the result of her already completing four years as both Accelerator Coordinator and then as Head of Programming, under former festival director Richard Moore. One of her first acts was the removal of a long-held tradition of opening the festival with an Australian film. A self-proclaimed Europhile, Carey’s choice instead was the Belgium/French co-production The Fairy (2011), a slapstick comedic drama co-directed by the Australian-born dancer Fiona Gordon with Dominique Abel and Bruno Romy.
This shift of perspective towards Europe was also noticeable in the heightened focus on European cinema. The International Panorama section of the festival, which showcases international films from Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and South America screened a mixture of prize-winners from major A-list festivals, particularly Berlin and Cannes. This included Europe’s art-cinema enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s latest addition, Melancholia (2011), the Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (2011), and the winner of Berlin’s Silver Bear, The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011).
If Carey, as new artistic director, can also be considered as representative of the voice of a new generation, it seemed apt that the International Panorama program included several coming-of-age stories (Submarine, Richard Ayoade, 2010; LiTTLE ROCK, Mike Ott, 2010; The Giants, Bouli Lanners, 2011; Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz, 2011; The Kid with a Bike), all dealing with the difficult transition to adulthood. In many ways, these stories were repeated in films such as Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 2010) and At Ellen’s Age (Pia Marais, 2010), which refashioned the coming-of-age sub-genre for “the lost generation” – that is, the increasing amount of twenty- to thirty-somethings still trying to find themselves. Tiny Furniture tells the droll, slightly depressing story of Aura (Lena Dunham), an eager-to-please, film graduate looking for love in New York City, whilst At Ellen’s Age follows the emotionally-stunted Ellen (Jeanne Balibar), whose failed relationship and mental breakdown conveniently coincide with the chance meeting of some animal rights activists ten-years her junior, allowing her to reconsider the merits of her own life-choices as an airline hostess. Although very different in style, both films seemed to be exploring the relatively recent phenomenon of peterpandemonioum in a world paralysed by too much choice, little substance and no cultural affirmation of adulthood.
In addition to the 60 films selected for International Panorama, 12 more European films made up the Telescope program, a selection of films defined as “New Talent” from the European Union, and all were in competition for the TeleScope Award, to be decided by a jury comprising six Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA) members. The award was given to the first feature film of Markus Schleinzer, Michael (2011), a film about the ordinary life of a paedophile with a ten-year-old boy trapped in the basement. An honourable mention was given to Saverio Costanzo’s third feature, The Solitude of Prime Numbers (2010).
Considering the size of the International Panorama program, the Australian Showcase seemed rather small, but consisted of a strong combination of high-profile directors with up-and-comers. Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm (2011) – starring the ubiquitous Geoffrey Rush and based on the Patrick White novel of the same name – was a sell-out and received The Age Critics’ Award for best Australian feature at MIFF 2011. Less predictable was the overwhelming response to Melbourne journalist/documentary film-maker Genevieve Bailey’s I Am Eleven (2011), which sold out both sessions. The film documents the thoughts and feelings of eleven-year-olds in 15 countries and 12 different languages, exploring the differences and similarities experienced at this age on the precipice of becoming a teenager. Other hits included the much-anticipated Red Dog (Kriv Stenders, 2011), based on Louis de Bernières’ best-selling novel, and Ivan Sen’s harrowing Toomelah (2011), an exploration of the life of Daniel (Daniel Conners), a ten-year-old indigenous boy living in a remote Aboriginal community.
The Accent on Asia program also seemed rather small considering the size of the potential audience in Melbourne, the geographic proximity to our Asian neighbours and the quality and quantity of cinema coming out of the region. However, audiences were offered a chance to view Eternity (Sivaroj Kongsakul, 2010), which won best picture at the Rotterdam film festival, and, in an acknowledgement of the ever-increasing popularity of contemporary Korean cinema, South Korea was an important component of this program, including two films from Hong Sang-soo, Oki’s Movie (2010) and The Day He Arrives (2011), as well as the Korean box-office sensation The Yellow Sea (Na Hong-jin, 2010). Japanese features included the latest film from Takeshi Kitano, Outrage (2010), and the anticipated adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel, Norwegian Wood (2010). The absence of China was noticeable, with only two films in this section, Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, 2010), which won the Locarno film festival’s grand prize, the Golden Leopard, and Zhang Meng’s The Piano in a Factory (2010).
The dominance of European cinema was in part moderated by Crime Scene, an especially creative and popular program, incorporating recent award-winners such as Polisse (Maïwenn, 2011) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011) with the Brazilian hit Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (José Padilha, 2010) and the Congolese gangster film Viva Riva! (Djo Munga, 2010), which swept away the bulk of the prizes at this year’s African Movie Academy Awards (putting host country Nigeria to shame). Another interesting program was Our Space, a fascinating exploration of the city-as-protagonist, whereby a swimming pool in Brooklyn (Pool Party, Beth Aala, 2010) disbanded car yards (Foreign Parts, Véréna Paravel, 2010) and Melbourne’s own controversial Triangle Project (The Triangle Wars, Rosie Jones, 2011) were all sites for interrogating the politics of urban gentrification, economic inequity and community empowerment in the new millennium. Included in this program was Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary I Wish I Knew (2010), made for Shanghai’s World Fair, a reworking of the challenging themes of his previous films, particularly The World (2004), which explore China’s rapid transformation into a global superpower and the effects on both the landscape and those who dwell within it.
Networked and the New Media Revolution
It seems that you cannot see a film these days without the phrase “he’s kind of big on YouTube” (Tiny Furniture and Miranda July’s The Future  instantly come to mind), whilst the interrogation of the ethics of social media and the democratisation of class divide in Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010) struck a chord with viewers to become a surprise sensation of the festival circuit last year. Therefore, the inclusion of Networked in this year’s program, which screened a combination of films thematically aligned by their connection to digital change and the effects on everyday life, seemed apt, particularly when considered as an antidote to the large amount of retrospection initiated by the festival’s anniversary.
Films in the Networked program focused on online relationships (Life 2.0, Jason Spingarn-Koff, 2010; Medianeras, Alexis Dos Santos, 2011), the use of social media as a political tool (Fleurs du Mal, David Dusa, 2010), and the effects of the digital revolution on the way in which creativity is unleashed and consumed (PressPausePlay, David Dworsky, Victor Köhler, 2011). PressPausePlay, in particular, documents the conflicting attitudes of writers, artists and musicians towards the proliferation of the “prosumer”, a fascinating and pertinent question that ties into broader concerns relating to film and music piracy, internet freedom and trans-governmental regulation, addressed in earlier documentaries such as Good Copy, Bad Copy (Andreas Johnsen, Ralf Christensen and Henrik Moltke, 2007) and RiP!: A Remix Manifesto (Brett Gaylor, 2008).
Another film that could equally have been included in this program as a complement to PressPausePlay (but programmed as part of the documentary program instead) was Page One: Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, 2011). Debuting at Sundance, the film explores the potential future of print media in an age of declining advertising sales, online readership and decreasing accountability. Whilst the film was given open access to the Times’ newsroom, where it also explored particularly localised issues – including the questioned validity of the New York Times itself since Judith Miller’s reporting of WMDs in Iraq – the currency of other issues, including the role of Twitter and Wikipedia in the changing face of news media, made the film an interesting contribution to the debate around the future of journalism, and by default, the future of the information age itself.
Considering the increasingly cinematic expectations of television (such as Martin Scorsese’s $18-million pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire [HBO, 2010]), the festival logically rebuffed the traditional television/film divide to incorporate a program called Prime Time, a selection of television shows from around the world. As Carey herself explained, “TV is no longer seen as the poor cousin of film and we wanted to acknowledge that” (2). The anticipation for Melbourne audiences was the first two episodes of The Slap (Jessica Hobbs, 2011), based on Christos Tsiolkas’ best-selling novel of the same name. Set around a group of families living in inner-city Melbourne, Tsiolkas’ novel has been described as “divisive” and one that “bring[s] out the worst in the middle class” (3), so it is with a sense of irony that the screening of these two episodes was so greatly anticipated by MIFF patrons, despite the series airing on ABC television in a few months’ time. The involvement of Tony Ayres (The Home Song Stories, 2007) as series producer as well as guest director and a star-studded Australian cast suggest that the series may be an Australian attempt to finally take our television as seriously as they do elsewhere. The inclusion in this program of the four-part television series This is England ’86 (Shane Meadows, 2010), a follow up to the film This is England (Meadows, 2006), which closed MIFF in 2007, seemed to cement the relationship between the screens.
Just as the presence of new media in the festival program emphasised how the digital and online revolution has shaped our art and entertainment landscape, innovative uses of new media were also cleverly incorporated into new forms of festival publicity. Particularly fascinating was MIFF’s Blog-a-thon, whereby bloggers were expected to write about 60 films in 17 days (which became controversial when the bloggers started demanding recognition and compensation). Elsewhere, a new initiative – Talking Pictures Express – provided free talks at the Festival Lounge, which have since been made accessible on MIFF’s YouTube channel, alongside the short film competition to celebrate the festival’s anniversary.
Celebrating 60 Years of MIFF
One of the most interesting components of the festival this year was the striking contrast between the new international cinema and the retrospective of MIFF’s diamond jubilee, which acknowledged the festival’s growth from its humble origins as a small gathering of cinephiles in Olinda to an event of 329 films over 17 days. The festival celebrated the anniversary in a variety of ways completely external to cinema itself. There was an exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), MIFF 60: The Graphic Art of The Melbourne International Film Festival (which is also available in book form), as well as an online history of the festival by year, titled The Archive: 60 Years of MIFF. In addition, a section of this year’s program was the MIFF 60th Retrospective, a selection of ten films that had screened at the festival during the past 60 years. These included Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997). Whilst it was not exactly clear why these particular films were chosen, a crossover audience was perhaps intended. For certain cinephiles, the chance to see these films in their original print on the big screen would have been a drawcard, whilst for others, it was perhaps the opportunity to discover some canons.
A sub-category within the Our Space program featured another tribute to Melbourne’s own cinematic history, simply titled Melbourne on Film. Melbourne on Film consisted of two short film programs, spanning four decades of shorts that featured the city space as protagonist. In addition, Melbourne on Film screened three remastered films (two medium-length and one feature) from Melbourne director Giorgio Mangiamele. These included Clay (1965), Ninety-Nine Percent (1963) and The Spag (1962). Described as “an ethnic minority cinema in the days before multicultural festivals, the teaching of community languages, and the once-dreaded ‘mixed’ couple” (4), Mangiamele’s obsession with the migrant experience seemed a fitting choice to sum up the characterisation of Melbourne itself, with the combination of art and cinema perhaps working as a reminder of the important contribution of migrant communities to the wealth and creativity of the city. Celebrating the National Film and Sound Archive’s restoration of the prints, Mangiamele’s films have just become available in a DVD box-set, which was launched with a panel discussion at ACMI.
MIFF closed with Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), which received the Best Director award at Cannes. But perhaps it was the six award-winning films in MIFF’s 50th Shorts Awards that most fittingly captured the hybrid nature of MIFF 2011, a selection of old and new forms of filmmaking, from a myriad of countries on a range of issues: A Fine Young Man (Kevan Funk, 2010) from Canada, winner of Best Short Film; Best Australian Short, The Palace (Anthony Maras, 2011); Andrew Kavanagh, winner of the Emerging Australian Filmmaker Award for At the Formal (2010); Green Crayons, (Kazik Radwanski, 2010) from Canada, winner of Best Fiction Short Film; Nullabor (Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, 2011) from Australia, the Best Animation Short Film; Leonids Story (Rainer Ludwigs, 2011) from Russia, the Best Documentary Short; and A History of Mutual Respect (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, 2010) from Portugal, winner of Best Experimental Short Film. Overall, MIFF 2011 provided a tribute to its past without failing to signal that Australia’s largest film festival will keep looking forward and remain relevant to future generations.
This festival report was commissioned and edited by Fincina Hopgood, Australian Cinema Co-Editor.
- Francis Gordon Clarke, The History of Australia, Greenwood Press, Westport, 2002, p. 211.
- Michelle Carey in Michel Bodey, “Fairy story opens Melbourne International Film Festival big on black comedies”, The Australian, 6 July, 2011.
- William Skidelsky, “The Slap, a novel that is bringing out the worst in the middle class”, The Observer, Sunday 22 August, 2010.
- Alex Castro, “A Profile of Giorgio Mangiamele”, Senses of Cinema, 4, 2000.