Unlike older and more established Australian international film festivals (the Melbournes, the Sydneys, even the Brisbanes) the still very young Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival (BAFF) has, as yet, by no means earned an unquestionable right to exist as part of the city’s cultural landscape. Despite its dynamic and very notable successes – its innovative programming, its branching out into film investment, its incorporation of major visual art exhibitions into the programme – the future of the eight-year-old festival still remains in doubt.

Making this all the more difficult a situation is the prevailing apathy of the South Australian population. To survive as a film festival in Adelaide is a tough gig, not least when you schedule it during the established and more popular Fringe and WOMADelaide festivals. There’s no notable “year round” film culture here, certainly nothing like Melbourne’s. A quick visit to the Adelaide Cinémathèque during mid-winter will show you that the population of citizens truly committed to viewing art cinema masterpieces in the freezing cold is disproportionately small. Why this is the case I don’t quite know. But whatever the reason for it, when the biennial festival does eventually roll around (and boy it does seem to take its time!) an otherwise dormant portion of the community needs to be prodded and reacquainted, as it were, with the very idea that Adelaide does indeed have a film festival of its own.

This is not to imply that the festival is poorly run. On the contrary, at the helm of the Adelaide Film Festival are some undeniably intelligent and creatively driven people who have grappled with the problem of tapping into the Adelaide population since the festival’s inception. There is indeed a strong sense of an informal and very attractive dynamism that pervades the eleven day event. By differentiating the BAFF from other international festivals in Australia and by integrating a diversity of “entranceways” for different audience demographics into the festival, the organisers have over a relatively short time designed an innovative and in many respects successful model. Nevertheless, the question of whether it is successful enough is one that I shall return to.

Australian cinema

For the more established festivals in this country the biggest eyebrow-raiser initiated by the BAFF is undoubtedly the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund (AFFIF). Having done very well with its early investments like Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, 2006) and Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005), and then hitting the jackpot last festival with Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), the AFFIF has earned a reputation as a felicitous supporter of pioneering Australian filmmaking. This year saw seven features produced with festival support: three of them fictional or “factional” narrative films (Here I Am, Hail and Snowtown) and the other four documentaries (Shut up Little Man!, The Tall Man, Life in Movement, Mrs Carey’s Concert) (1). This unusual imbalance in favour of documentaries was indeed typical of the programme at large. With two documentaries entered into the “Ten Evening News Best Feature” competition and no less than 31 feature documentaries included throughout other parts of the programme, this was very much a festival of the documentary. The festival even opened with a documentary, Connolly and Raymond’s surprisingly “feel good” Mrs Carey’s Concert (2011).

What this documentary favouritism means for Australian cinema warrants a serious degree of consideration. As well as making simple frugal sense, it would seem that the preference for documentary filmmaking in this country has something to do with a prevailing sensibility. Indeed, even the Australian films designated as “narrative fiction” at the festival were, for the most part, only more-or-less fiction. At the closest edge to documentary, Hail (Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2011) offered a most fascinating example of mixing documented life and narrative storytelling, basing its story around the very troubled life of its lead actor Daniel P. Jones. Courtin-Wilson and Jones worked hand-in-hand for many years in order to attain a balance of “observational” realism and intense subjectivity, and for the most part it works very well. There’s little doubt that it’s the real deal you’re watching here, especially in the earlier scenes featuring Jones and his real life partner Leanne Letch (who, like Jones, gives an extraordinary performance). Significantly, at the end, when a more fictitious line is introduced, the narrative begins to fray.

Another narrative film that edged up to life (not too comfortably) was the much-anticipated Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011), which has recently been selected for the Camera d’Or section at Cannes. Kurzel’s film earned a lot of flack before its completion. Not too many South Australians wanted a taxpayer-funded film made about the most appalling serial killing spree in the nation’s history. Based on the idiotic manner with which many recent Australian films have treated cases of real-life homicide, it was easy to understand the apprehension felt in Adelaide, especially in the northern suburb of Elizabeth (where the murders occurred) and the in rural town of Snowtown (where the bodies were discovered). Thankfully there is nothing too sensationalist about Snowtown – a quality perhaps partly due to the director coming from Gawler, which is just north of Elizabeth. Where Kurzel’s extremely well-made film manages to tread, if not lightly, then seriously, is in its commitment to a form of observational drama populated by largely by unknown actors and non-professionals from the northern outskirts of Adelaide. Horrible and dreadful to sit through (which it cannot avoid being), Snowtown is nevertheless serious and not easily dismissed. It made for an unusual gala premiere, with the audience of families and friends left largely silent at the conclusion.

The Australia depicted in Snowtown, Hail and a selection of other confronting Australian films made over the past two years is a consistently savage place – a desert of unemployment, of petty and sometimes heinous crimes, of no community services, no education, and no future for those who cannot pay for it. John Howard’s dream, in other words. Beck Cole’s first feature, Here I Am (2011), is likewise set in a socio-economically deprived area (here it is Port Adelaide) but the world it evokes is quite different. Where Snowtown portrays the world of lower class white Australia as a cul-de-sac of human existence, Cole’s film follows the path of a marginalised individual (an Aboriginal woman fresh out of prison) to explore the possibilities that are open to her. In a time when seriousness and social consciousness seem to be synonymous with an aesthetic of grimness and despair, Cole’s film is about making a fist of it. It’s nothing like the directorial debut of its cinematographer (Warwick Thornton) and it’s not trying to be. Rather, what Cole is aiming at is a warm and often very funny film about an extremely hard life, where people are shown to be a lot stronger than we often perceive them to be.

There isn’t a star to be found in this year’s Australian spread. What we have instead are frequently extraordinary performances by unknowns, in films made on low budgets by very serious young directors. And that’s exactly what’s required at the moment. It makes perfect sense that the values of realism should inform the new Australian cinema.

World cinema

The influence of documentary or, rather, realist aesthetics on the contemporary narrative fiction film was also very evident in a great number of the international films selected this year. Indeed, such is the prominence of realist filmmaking worldwide at the moment that one might almost see it as having become the universal standard for artistically credible cinema. There are, however, many different kinds of realism in the cinema, and this variety was strongly represented in the programme.

Many of the most prestigious international releases this year clearly belonged to what can be called a “poetic realist” category (2). This is certainly true of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or –winning Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010) and its companion short film/“installation” A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, both of which featured at the festival. Surely the strangest film to win the grand prize in many years – with its talking spirit monkeys and catfish – Apichatpong’s latest feature differs notably from his earlier works. Though it contains many of his trademark peculiarities (strange couplings of the fantastic and the incidental, unusual discontinuity, moments both silly and enchanting), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives nevertheless retains the narrative sensibility of a simple regional folktale. It’s a hard film to discuss, but nevertheless a great film. Indeed, what I most admire about Apichatpong is his ability to convey a profound, visionary idea through cinema that cannot be adequately expressed in words.

The most impressive directorial debut of the festival was Women Without Men (Neshat, 2009), directed by accomplished Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat won the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. She is a cinematic stylist of the highest poetic calibre. What is truly revelatory about Women Without Men is the way its deeply poetic style is fuelled with a strong feminist politics. An adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s magic realist novel, the film uses poetry to lift its political statement on the suffering of Iranian women to a higher, more human level. Poetry is a way of remaining human in a callous political world. I left the cinema floating.

Kurdish director Shahram Alidi’s extraordinarily eclectic Sirta la gal ba (Whisper with the Wind, 2010) offered a very different coupling of the forces of poetry and politics. The film explores the Kurdish genocides carried out by Saddam Hussein’s forces in northern Iraq during the late 1980s (known as “ANFAL”). Alidi chooses to approach his subject matter with an inventiveness of style that contrasts unusually with the gravity of the story.

Other interesting examples of poetic realism in the festival could be found in Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui’s Year Without a Summer (2010), Nicolás Pereda’s minor Mexican gem Verano de Goliat (Summer of Goliath, 2010) and one of the real surprises of the festival, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (The Four Times, 2010), a strong contender for the festival award for Best Feature. Like many international films in the festival, Le quattro volte not so much subverts classical narrative dramaturgy as simply ignores it, in favour of a more intuitive and subtler form of storytelling. It is a wordless film, told with an apparently effortless simplicity, based around Pythagoras’ unusually precise beliefs in reincarnation. With no flash-in-the-pan stylistics, this film was for my money (if I had any) far more interesting, original and beautiful than the eventual winner of the Best Feature award, Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), a strong but hardly revelatory film that has since been distributed nationally. What is, however, genuinely noteworthy about Incendies is the way Villeneuve weaves a very complex and troubling story into the form of a gripping detective narrative. With all the hallmarks of a classical construction – the set up, the quest, the shock denouement – Incendies explores a harrowing conceptual terrain more typically associated with narratologically obtuse art cinema films. Another foreign-language film in Australian national release this year, but not included in the festival, Kak ya provyol etim letom (How I Ended This Summer, Alexei Popogrebsky, 2010) pulls off a similar balancing act. This merging of narrative efficiency with mature conceptual complexity (and no, don’t bring up Christopher Nolan here) may well present an opening for Australian and other mainstream audiences to become reacquainted with international cinema beyond Europuddings and kung fu flicks.

In contrast to these poetic excursions and gripping psychodramas, Romanian director Radu Muntean’s Marti, dupa craciun (Tuesday, After Christmas, 2010) is a domestic realist masterpiece of the most mature kind. Employing a deceptively virtuosic style, Tuesday, After Christmas is, before anything else, a film for adults about adults (and specifically about marriage, parenthood, maturity and sexual control). It’s neither shocking nor contrived. There’s no murder here, no genital mutilation, nothing at all like those films about “ordinary people” that we have come to expect from European “art” cinema. Instead Muntean’s film keeps to its mundane materials (the life of a man, his wife, his daughter, his lover) and builds a story of deep emotion and suspense. For me this was an almost perfect example of a cinematic treatment of life, and further proof that Romania is the place to go for the most interesting films in Europe today.

Three other excellent films at the festival chose a very powerful realist device: the child. Semih Kaplanoğlu’s wonderful Bal (Honey, 2010), the final entry in the director’s “Yusuf Trilogy”, was eagerly anticipated by a few at the festival, it having won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2010. Following the reverse chronology of Yusuf’s life laid out in Yumurta (Egg, 2007) and Süt (Milk, 2008), Honey takes us back to the character’s early childhood in northern Turkey, a place of dense forests where his parents live a stoic but happy life beekeeping and working in terraced fields. Quiet, gentle, dignified, Honey is an extremely rare kind of film, one that not only shows the child in the world but also the world in the child. Only great poets can do this.

Though not of the same calibre, the Colombian/Panamanian production Los colores de la montaña (The Colours of the Mountain, Carlos César Arbeláez, 2010) similarly presents the world from a child’s viewpoint. In this case, it is an extremely disturbing world indeed. In the highlands of Colombia, FARC guerrillas wreak terror on local village inhabitants who simply wish to continue living normally, rather than joining the civil war. For nine-year-old Manuel this means an increasingly stern set of restrictions on his playtime, imposed by his father. What he most wants to do is retrieve his football, a cherished birthday gift, from a field littered with landmines. As the guerrillas close in Manuel does what he can to retrieve the football while his father does his best to hide without actually giving up his home and livelihood. Admirably simple, The Colours of the Mountain won its director the New Directors Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival last year.

Another highly anticipated film at this year’s festival was Jutro bedzie lepiej (Tomorrow will be Better, 2010), Darota Kędzierzawska’s follow up to the much-lauded Jestem (I Am, 2005) which played to large audiences at the 2007 festival. Returning to a world of children (and why wouldn’t she?), Kędzierzawska follows the path of three homeless Russian orphans as they attempt escape to the “Land of Milk and Honey” that is Poland. They’re tough these kids. But they’re also kids. What makes Kędzierzawska such a brilliant director of children is her understanding of them. She is like Vittorio De Sica in this sense. She treats children as people – little people – whose innate talent for imitation is such that it is very easy to forget that they are all but babies.

Conclusion

These works represent but a small selection of the large array of international films presented at this year’s festival. Of the festival’s many other films, special events and guest presentations, other standouts included the strong indigenous focus: Tony Krawitz’s documentary adaptation of Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (2011); Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham’s film about Archie Roach and company’s “Black-Arm Band” Murundak: Songs of Freedom (2011); and the exhibition of international indigenous video art Stop [the] Gap held at the Samstag Museum. Also causing a ripple were the American independent films: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me (2009). And finally, as mentioned, there was the large and extraordinarily strong international documentary section. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010), Armadillo (Janus Metz-Pedersen, 2010), Over Your Cities Grass will Grow (Sophie Fiennes, 2010), Pink Saris (Kim Longinotto, 2010), Stand van de Sterren (Position Among the Stars, Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2010), Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, 2010) and Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010) were all extremely different and extremely good, and it is only for lack of space that I do not discuss them in any detail here. Perhaps best of all the documentaries was Benda Bilili (Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, 2010), a film documenting the rise to fame of Staff Benda Bilili!, a Congolese music group made up of homeless and handicapped men who live on the streets of Kinshasa and practice together in the Kinshasa Zoo. An amazing example of “long term” documentary filmmaking, the film offers an extraordinary degree of observation – of the men’s lives, of street-life in Kinshasa (which at night is nothing short of hellish) and, ultimately, of the group’s rise from homelessness to European success. Watching the years unfold and the men edge closer (through sheer bloody talent and optimism) to their goal, I dare you not to cry.

So that’s it for another year (or two years I should say). But will there be another BAFF? Word on the street says that there will be at least one more festival – next year even – to be scheduled in October rather than late February/early March. It would seem that the organisers have finally conceded to the fact that competing with the Fringe and WOMADelaide festivals (during what is known as “Mad March” in Adelaide) is not the best strategy for getting bums on seats, an opinion that has been circulating since the festival’s inception. Going it alone, during an otherwise empty period on the city’s cultural calendar, could well be a more productive and confident way of asserting the vitality and significance of a festival that, as I have said, has yet to establish deep roots in the city’s cultural consciousness.

There are also political implications that would arise from the decision to move the festival to the latter half of 2012. Without wanting to sound defeatist, a change in the state government could well mean a great deal for the future of the BAFF. Given the enormous support it has received from Labor Premier Mike Rann over the past eight years the festival has, not surprisingly, become synonymous with the cinema loving, arts friendly Premier. The festival makes no bones about its Labor affiliations – it even has a “Don Dunstan Award”, for example – which until now have worked in its favour. But with Rann and his government’s time almost certainly up at the next election (unless some remarkable change of leadership takes place), the Adelaide Film Festival has one last shot to aim high and true in order to prove its indispensability to a potential Liberal government far less receptive to its charms.

Endnotes

  1. Shut up Little Man! (Matthew Bate, 2011); The Tall Man (Tony Krawitz, 2011); Life in Movement (Sophie Hyde and Bryan Mason, 2011); Mrs Carey’s Concert (Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond).
  2. “Poetic realism” generally describes a film that articulates an inner or subjective experience of reality, often characterised by the introduction of surrealistic or expressionist devices into an otherwise realistic mise en scène.