Unless you’ve worked inside the machine, it’s impossible to be aware of, let alone understand, the politics of the modern film festival. But it’s impossible not to wonder a little bit about what goes on, when one notices that B-festivals like the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) peppered with straight-to-TV/on-demand titles and previews of forthcoming cinema releases. An increasingly proportion of what you see at a film festival – unless it’s an “A-festival” like Berlin, Cannes, Venice or Toronto – is stuff that you can watch elsewhere.

It’s “progress”, and it’s inevitable – the consequence of developing technology, mostly. But it also makes B festivals less exclusive in their content, and less essential for cinephiles who might be hunting the latest film by Kim Ki-Duk, Cristian Mungiu or Tobias Lindholm (all featured in Sydney). If they wait a week or a month, or two, they’ll get it for half the price or free, without travelling, and without listening to rustlers, coughers, munchers, talkers and heavy breathers. (The Official Competition and the swag of straight-from-Cannes picks are obvious exceptions). At this year’s festival, I counted roughly 70 features and international documentaries with Australian distributors.

Sydney audiences don’t seem to mind – ticket sales and attendances are up for the festival (22% and 17% respectively), screenings are mostly packed, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that people are rushing to buy tickets for the latest Asghar Farhadi, Park Chan-Wook, Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh film. Swings and roundabouts.

Or is it? There’s something important to be said about the comparison between what is now programmed at SFF compared to previous eras, and also how we imbibe it. Reading through the ebook published to commemorate SFF’s 60th anniversary, major shifts are revealed to a more recent festivalgoer like myself (whose first festival was 2001) – shifts that relate to changes in the way audience members experience festivals.

The Tyranny of the Single-ticket

The first major shift across the generations is from a subscription-based model to single ticket sales or flexi-passes (read Paul Byrnes and Gayle Lake’s essays for more on this and other changes in the industry between 1989-2004) (1).

As Byrnes notes, subscribers meant a guaranteed audience (or at least ticket sales!) for even the most un-commercial proposition: “filling a 2000-seat theatre with a film from Poland, Burkina Faso or Taiwan at 10am on a Sunday morning. We did that all the time.” This allowed previous festival directors a freedom to program adventurously. Just as important is the implicit contract of the subscription between the audience member and the festival: I trust you; show me what you will – lead me; take me on an adventure.

These days – and this is purely subjective and based on anecdotal evidence largely from my own generation – the single ticket buyer moves with blinkered purpose towards specific films, guided by their taste, interests and top-line marketing info – “Starring X”, “Directed by Y”. (Is it a coincidence that the festival has shifted from the longer program notes of the past – which ranged from republished reviews from trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to program notes from other festivals’ catalogues (!) to Clare Stewart’s lyrical, occasionally gushing notes, to shorter, more pragmatic notes that read more like plot summaries and marketing copy?).

Even the Flexi-pass options – ten, 20 or 30 – circumscribe the viewer’s taste to a rounded, arbitrary number. Can you contain your festival experience to ten tickets? There’s a financial imperative to do so – any extra tickets, less than ten, will be considerably more expensive. It’s nobody’s fault but this fact remains: audiences today are infinitely more pragmatic.

The Fatigue of Instant Gratification

The second major shift, and the most obvious, is the increasing availability of pretty much everything, which inevitably devalues almost everything. Where retrospective programs used to be a key, coveted part of the annual festival program (giving cinephiles an unmissable opportunity to see masterworks by Yasujiro Ozu, Max Ophuls and Preston Sturges, or explore the oeuvre of Alan Clarke, for example), in 2013, when the majority of the Brit Noir: Rainy Days, Stormy Mondays retrospective is available on DVD/Blu-ray, you might prioritise going to clashing screenings. A voracious cinephile might choose to direct their dollars/time exclusively towards screenings of films that will not go to cinemas or DVD.

These two things do much to take the edge off the festival fever. It’s still a romantic experience (and surely nowhere more so than at the festival’s main venue, the State Theatre, with its red velvet, gold accents and Art Deco architecture – though god help the day subscribers who now find themselves in the seat-stained squalor of Event Cinemas’ bronze-class theatrettes), but there’s not the same “do-or-die” imperative even for cinephiles. Inaugural festival director David Donaldson’s account of the SFF’s first program has an irresistible rosy tint:

Now the [National Library of Australia] was tapping into the holdings of the British Film Institute to import a trickle of what were termed “the classics”, such as the fabled Battleship Potemkin and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. With all the wealth of world film at our present-day fingertips, it is hard to imagine the deep longings of film lovers for such legendary works. Hence in the program The Passion of Joan of Arc, The General, and sweet little Colour Box from Len Lye. A special pleasure for the ubiquitous Professor Stout [President of the NSW Film Council] was the long-unseen Sous les toits de Paris of his personal idol, René Clair. (2)

The Magic Pill: The Official Competition

The official wisdom is that the Sydney Film Prize (SFP) and the Official Competition were designed as a way of bringing high profile guests to Sydney. (NB – One thing you’ll notice, if you look through the essays by previous directors, is the incredible guests we’ve had over the decades: Josef von Sternberg, Satyajit Ray, Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Bertrand Tavernier, Andrew Sarris, Michel Ciment, Kenneth Anger, Paul Schrader, Conrad Hall…).

More importantly, the Official Competition – if undertaken “on faith”, as an entire viewing program – represents a hermetically sealed time capsule of “golden era” film festival experience. Imbibed as a whole by the festival-goer, this selection of 12 films represents all the best things about festivals: variety, unpredictability, the curatorial vision – a cinematic adventure.

The SFP sets its sights on “films that have emotional power and resonance, are audacious, cutting edge and courageous, and go beyond the usual treatment of a subject matter” (3). Even when the selected films fail to live up to this mantra (as they often do – see below), by surrendering yourself to the entire program, you’re already part of something audacious or courageous, in a sense. You’re going on a journey, with no idea what you’re about to experience – but knowing it’s important, or at least knowing that someone (someone who sees in the realm of 500-or-more of films per year) thinks this film is important.

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives

Also, competitions have the tendency to produce debate, and that’s a rare, wonderful thing in modern mainstream cinema culture. Whatever you think of the jury’s decision to award this year’s SFP to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, you should appreciate the rigorous discussion that controversial decision provoked. Rarely are films so hotly debated outside the industry cliques. In fact, most SFP winners have provoked controversy – Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) because it went to a British director rather than a local one (!?), Bronson (Refn, 2008) because many people saw it as a flawed film, Alpeis (Alps, Giorgos Lanthimos, 2011) because it was an extremely acquired taste, and Only God Forgives because it was hated and loved in equal extremes among those who saw it.

For all these reasons, this festival report will focus on the Official Competition.

Wheat From the Chaff

As with any competition program, this year’s selection contained gems and films which, if not “duds”, seemed to have wandered in by mistake (I’m looking at you, Monsoon Shootout [Amit Kumar] and Grigris [Mahamet-Saleh Haroun]).

Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell

The high profile films were Sarah Polley’s genre-busting personal odyssey Stories We Tell (which premiered at the Venice Film Festival more than six months earlier, and thus came with well developed – and deserved – hype), Only God Forgives (booed at Cannes, generally hated by the critics), and to a lesser extent, the Berlinale Golden Bear winner Pozitia copilului (Child’s Pose), by Romanian director Călin Peter Netzer.

For the first time, the competition featured permutations of the documentary form: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, and the aforementioned Stories We Tell (which I had the pleasure of seeing at Venice in 2012, with no pre-knowledge; since that’s the only way to really appreciate this film’s artistry, I won’t discuss it here).

The Official Competition might well have included another docu-drama hybrid: Danis Tanović’s lo-fi, low-budget Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), which re-enacts a day-or-two in the lives of a family of Bosnian Romanis (or “gypsies”) persisting in the face of poverty and immense, systemic indifference to get the urgent medical treatment they need.

Based on a real incident, starring the family as themselves, and rendered without a shred of artifice (beyond some stunning framing sequences comprising static shots of the barren, icy wasteland in which these people scratch out an existence), it is the antithesis of SFP winner Only God Forgives, or the equally emotionally abstract and visually stylish competition contender, Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam). It is an incredible feat of filmmaking and a superb piece of cinema. As much as its vision of social ostracism, poverty and bureaucracy-gone-mad is grim, it’s also a film about the warmth that community affords: the helping hand lent by neighbours in hard times is something few, if any, Sydneysiders will identify with. But Tanović’s film flew under the radar at the festival, programmed at 6pm on opening night at Event Cinemas, and midday a week later at the same venue.

The Act of Killing, on the other hand, was one of the most talked about films of the festival – and the popular choice for the SFP. A sprawling mix of documentary and re-enactment, it suffers from a lack of discipline and coherent vision that slightly undercuts – or overcooks – its naturally potent scenario.

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

The scenario, however, is incredible: Oppenheimer (who has a history working with militias and their victims across different countries) not only locates a cell of charismatic war criminals and mass murderers from Indonesia’s hyper-violent ’60s, but reveals that these monsters are living large amongst their former victims, guilt-free. Moreover, they’re cinema-nuts – and they’re super keen to re-enact their crimes in garish pastiches of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s American cinema (Anwar Congo, the key subject of the film and former ringleader of the death squad, worships Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Al Pacino).

The result is a series of surreal scenes and hallucinatory tableaux – dramatic “re-enactments” – that intercut with the documentary proper. In form and content, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect specimen for a festival audience.

The Act of Killing sometimes feels like a cautionary tale about a nation without free media or the separation of powers. It also provides evidence that the racism, discrimination and mob-rule of the ’60s are simmering just below the veneer of a Hague-era society, begging the question: what would it take to boil over?

Beyond its historical and sociological value, the film is also about memory and history, nationalism and myth building, celebrity culture, and the effect of TV and cinema on politics.

SFF showed the structurally unwieldy original 159-minute cut of the film (quite rightly) – a glut of different characters, topics, content and tones that careens from one subplot to another, and from buffoonery to realism to horror all too quickly. Many will feel that Oppenheimer in this longer version (the film has been shortened to 115 minutes for theatrical release) errs in giving his subjects so much scope to unburden themselves on screen. In an especially repugnant episode, one thug talks fondly to another about raping 14-year-old virgins; elsewhere, the leader of the Pancasila Youth militia tells of shoving wood in the anuses of victims until they died; and Anwar Congo muses that “for massacres, I usually wore jeans”. The extremely long leash given to this kind of stuff risks being both exploitative and affirmative.

Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s intense focus on and candid relationship with his subjects (the latter of which in fact bleeds into the onscreen drama) results in scenes that don’t just humanise but sentimentalise them, which is morally fraught territory.

The Rocket

The Rocket

The Rocket, the only Australian film in competition this year, is a curious counterpoint to The Act of Killing, another example of an established documentary filmmaker who, like Oppenheimer, tackles a long-held area of “expertise” or knowledge – but as straight narrative fiction.

Kim Mordaunt, who was previously at SFF in 2007 with his documentary Bomb Harvest – filmed in Laos – returned there to tell this story of a young boy in extremis (his family are forced to relocate due to the damming of the area in which they live; during the relocation his mother dies; he’s left in the care of a grieving father and a surly grandmother who tried to kill him at birth) who triumphs against the odds. The remarkable success of this film is that it creates an incredibly rich, tangible, sticky sense of place and character, highlights pressing local issues without ever being pedagogic, and is sweet without ever being saccharine.

Technically the package is also top-notch – beautiful editing (and snappy, in a climactic chase scene that is soundtracked by – and intercut with clips of – James Brown) and understated but stylish cinematography. Mordaunt is no tourist: this is the real deal.

WadjdaWadjda, billed in the program as “the first feature film shot entirely in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are not permitted”, also makes a precocious child the focus of its narrative – but crucially for a story set in an Islamic state, it’s a girl child. Director Haifaa Al Mansour is, apparently, the first female film director from her country, and she makes females the focus in this tale about a ten-year-old who wants a bike and a dad, and her mother, who wants a red dress and a husband. Through their parallel yearnings we get a sense of the circumscribed life that women in Saudi Arabia lead – but Al Mansour’s strong evocation of place, sense of comedy and wonderfully spunky lead character resist the pull of politics and keep things firmly in the realm of the personal.

It would have been wonderful, in a way, to see first-time feature director Paul Wright win the SFP for his genuinely audacious, though flawed, For Those in Peril. It’s too long and too overwrought in parts, but when you get to the final sequence and realise what he’s constructed, it hits you in the gut and the mind in a way that no other film in the competition quite manages. It’s a pure cinema vision that packs an emotional wallop.

Set in a remote Scottish fishing village, Wright’s film intercuts super 8, cell phone, and VHS footage, and segues between narrative realism and fantastical sequences to tell the story of Aaron: a young man struggling to accept the death of his older brother during a routine trawler trip gone wrong. The audience enters the story with only a fragmentary understanding of the circumstances, and it is gradually revealed that Aaron’s relationship with his brother was more complex than it initially appeared from the outside, and that he was been involved somehow in his brother’s death. Meanwhile his mother (played by the formidable, effortlessly charismatic Kate Dickie) struggles to deal with the death of one son and the unravelling of the other. As it progresses, the film’s tone becomes darker, less lucid and more subjective, taking on a nightmarish quality.

Wright leaves his film open to interpretation – is it madness? Is it magic? – and it’s almost a shame to try and pin it down. But For Those in Peril resounds as a demonstration of not just the power but the necessity of storytelling on a personal and community level; of how our beliefs are a crucial mechanism for our survival. The last shot, when the final piece of the puzzle falls into place, is devastating.

Two films in the Official Competition stood out as riding on the back of superb, complex and courageous performances, rather than necessarily audacious material, choices or “unique” approaches: Child’s Pose, and Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown. (And as a viewer, the danger of SFF’s Official Competition brief is that it clutters your perspective with expectations – you’re not necessarily able to take each film at face value).

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a musical drama about love, loss, birth, death and bluegrass, adapted from a popular Belgian stage production written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh. The film tracks the formation and dissolution of a seven-year relationship between Didier, the charismatic leader of a bluegrass outfit, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist and singer, across a non-linear narrative peppered with live numbers. At 110 minutes, one of the most remarkable things about this film is that it manages to feel so rich and expansive. Part of the magic is in the editing, which segues back and forth in time, from high moments to low, in much the same way as Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010) – and achieves the same intensity of feeling by the juxtaposition.

This intensity is also the result of a thoroughly organic integration of the music and the drama: this isn’t a play with songs, but a story completely infused with the spirit, lyrics and values of bluegrass – and however you feel about the genre, it has an unaffected soulfulness that’s hard to resist.

The main asset of this film, however, is its perfectly cast lead actors; even when the text becomes heavy-handed and the drama overwrought, Heldenbergh and Baetens (both singing and playing their own musical parts) sell their predicament with gale-force performances. This is a film that absolutely belonged in the festival – if not in the Official Competition berth.

Child’s Pose is harder to fault as a film, but certainly the slow-combustion force of the drama comes from Luminita Gheorghiu, whose nuanced performance as Cornelia navigates between manipulative matriarch, proudly protective lioness, and an aging woman afraid of encroaching obsolescence. Audiences expecting to see a typical “monster mother” will be pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the character and portrayal.

The filmmakers are less sympathetic towards Cornelia’s social echelon, taking every opportunity to lampoon and lacerate Romania’s nouveau riche; and Cornelia’s coddled son Barbu, beyond being harangued by her, has no claim on our sympathy either. The plot, in which Barbu’s DUI arrest provides a means for Cornelia to move back into his life and reassert control, seems more like a vehicle to explore her psychology and modus operandi than anything else.

Neither character nor performance are enough to elevate this year’s two weakest Official Competition entries: Grigris and Monsoon Shootout, which feature insufficiently charismatic leads in insufficiently edifying genre knock-offs. If you’re going to make a crime pic with all the trimmings (the hooker with the heart of gold, the car chase, the mug-headed villain) you better make the stakes count – but both these films fizzle when it matters.

Grigris

Grigris

Grigris at least pitches its tent in interesting territory: the vibrant and often violent slums of Chad, and the everyday life of a 25-year-old cripple and dancer who dreams of a way upwards and out through dance. The film starts strong with the set-up, including an electric dance floor demo by Souleymane Démé, for whom Haroun wrote the title role. Things start to feel forced when Grigris gets involved with wannabe-model sex worker Mimi, his uncle becomes sick, and he volunteers for a get-rich-quick crime spree that, predictably, goes wrong. As the script throws plausibility to the wind, Démé’s performance becomes just too opaque to hold our attention – and it all sort of devolves slowly downwards from there.

Monsoon Shootout makes a play for momentum with its taut triptych structure, which sees us repeat the same scenario in three different ways. The basic set-up involves a rookie cop, Adi (Vijay Verma), on his first beat in corrupt Mumbai, and the moral quandaries he is presented with.

In comparison with Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) as an example of how to maintain a cracking pace in the face of potentially maddening repetition, Monsoon Shootout ends up looking positively lackadaisical; imperfectly conceived and executed, it feels more like a high-concept graduate script and first feature than the gritty cop thriller it wants to be. The characters are clichéd, the dialogue is ham-fisted, and the action sequences lack the basic principles of a build up and climax, and are represented via a clusterfuck of confusing cuts. Verma’s Adi is doe-eyed to the point of being insipid. Both his boss, veteran cop Khan (Neeraj Kabi – also in Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus), and his nemesis, the gangster Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui – from last year’s epic competition contender Gangs of Wasseypur) are in danger of stealing the limelight – character and performance wise.

Monsoon Shootout was co-produced by Asif Kapadia (Senna), Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga (Gangs of Wasseypur). You’d expect better – but more importantly, you’d expect better from an Official Competition contender.

BorgmanThe other disappointment in the Official Competition programme – though more from an expectations point-of-view than anything else – was Borgman, which calls to mind Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kynodontas (Dogtooth, 2009). Pitching its camp in blandest bourgeois suburbia, it marries a cool, even clinical delivery with a loopy, surreal scenario, and veers from sinister implication to graphic violence to laugh-out-loud comedy and back again. It’s similarly suspicious of middle-class mores, and determined to up-end class comforts.

The anti-hero of the title enters the picture on the run from religious types; he fronts up at the architecturally progressive house of a well-to-do couple, and sets about insinuating himself into their lives with the methodical determination of a psychopath.

The front half of Borgman is thrilling – van Warmerdam lays a trail of unsettling breadcrumbs that you breathlessly follow, from one ominous detail or inexplicable incident to the next. He has a canny sense for building horror through the details (including some left-field surgical body-horror) – as methodically and coolly, in fact, as his protagonist.

Where the film derails – besides being a little too like the films cited above – is when you start to see the inevitable end-point (in this case, it has to do with the completion of some rather radical landscaping), and feel like you’re just ticking off incident after incident to get there. Ultimately, Borgman lacks the emotional and ideological underpinnings that made Dogtooth and Funny Games so substantial and satisfying. Van Warmerdam, like Borgman, seems more interested in pulling things apart than proposing anything new.

Oh Boy

Oh Boy

For pure pleasure the gong goes to Jan Ole Gerster’s Berlin hipster odyssey Oh Boy, one of the four debut features in this year’s Official Competition. Like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, it shamelessly plunders Woody Allen’s back-catalogue for visual cues, soundtrack and subject. But both films pull this off with immense style, comic timing, and a keen sense of observation of their generation’s foibles. As a 32-year-old, watching Oh Boy feels like arriving at a house party full of friends and friends-of-friends: the scrounging in the pockets for change, the false bravado, the self-involvement, insecurity, attempts to fob off the parents, excruciating job interviews, wankers with more money and better clothes, off-putting neighbours and old school friends, awkward mornings-after, and the perennial search for a good coffee…

And all this isn’t just a string of self-indulgent scenarios with comic potential: there’s a strong through line for our hero (played by newcomer Tom Schilling, with lashings of charm), who spends the entire film shirking his responsibilities before finally stepping up to the plate, in an unexpectedly tender finale. It’s not a new vision of cinema, except inasmuch as it’s literally a new “voice”. Madman Entertainment have the distribution rights; hopefully, among their 25 titles in the program this year, they see fit to give this one a cinema release – it’s a cult hit in the making.

The guilty pleasure gong at this year’s festival, finally, goes to Refn’s Only God Forgives. We should definitely expect more from this director: more character, à la the Pusher Trilogy; more restraint, à la Drive. His follow up to that 2011 hit might well have been a perfect marriage of content and his overdeveloped audiovisual sensibility – but instead, we got Only God Forgives: a high camp, OTT triumph of style at the expense of everything else.

But the vision is engrossing enough in its fine calibration of symbolism, choreographed action, primal urges and atmosphere. There’s a deep, primitive satisfaction to the moral universe of this film, in which the exploitative white Euro-gangster trash get their bloody desserts at the hand of super-cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). And it’s a fascinating (arguably courageous?) choice by Refn to make his hero so literally and figuratively impotent – and in the process, subvert Ryan Gosling’s sex-symbol brand.

A persuasive argument has been made by Thai cinema critic Kong Rithdee about the Orientalist reductionism at work in Refn’s vision of Bangkok (4); whether or not this aspect of the film is immediately apparent to a less culturally cognizant viewer, it’s a point-of-view worth considering.

When the Lights Come Up

It’s hard to tell whether the Sydney Film Prize and Official Competition program are still finding their groove, miscommunicating their mission, or perhaps even misconceiving it. Maybe it’s too much to ask in any given year to find 12 films – that are also available for screening – that have “emotional power and resonance, are audacious, cutting edge and courageous, and go beyond the usual treatment of a subject matter”. But it’s frustrating that so many of the competition entries bear so little apparent relation to the criteria. It’s also distracts from the merits of otherwise excellent or interesting films.

That aside, it’s nice to see some left-of-field choices in this section, beyond the predictable award-winners from A-festivals like Cannes, the Berlinale and Venice, as well as the stretch of distributors (three films in this year’s Official Competition had, at time of screening, no Australian distributor).

As the Sydney Film Festival, like all B-Festivals, becomes increasingly less exclusive and more mainstream, it remains the purview of the Competition to inform cinemagoers and lead them on that journey of discovery that audiences in previous decades surrendered to – and to do that, it must continue to throw surprises in our path.

Commissioned and edited by Adrian Danks.

Endnotes

  1. Sydney Film Festival: 1954 to Now: http://online.sffarchive.org.au/#folio=2.
  2. David Donaldson, “Films of the First Festival”, Sydney Film Festival: 1954 to Now: http://online.sffarchive.org.au/#folio=8.
  3. “FAQ”, Sydney Film Festival: http://sff.org.au/public/about/faq/.
  4. Kong Rithdee, “Cannes 2013/Only God Forgives”, Cinemascope no. 55, 2013: http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/only-god-forgives-nicolas-winding-refn-denmark-by-kong-rithdee/.