Every June, Sydney’s winter streets come alive with two festivals of light. For one of these festivals, the promenades around Circular Quay are backed up with pedestrians, partitioned off and carefully patrolled by police. Thousands swarm around “pretty” light displays and the CBD becomes a spectacle to entrance (mostly) local tourists. I am thinking, of course, of Vivid, an event that always strikes me as disappointingly banal.

The other festival sees thousands crowding into a select group of rooms across Sydney – temples, really – and huddling around a screen miraculously reflecting light directly onto our retinas, filling us with communal euphoria in the process. Entry into these churches of light is, unlike Vivid, for a fee. But once inside, we become blissfully subject to other peoples’ dreams. This festival is the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), 2016 marking its sixty-third iteration.

As usual, most of the 40 or so films I caught at the SFF ranged from good to excellent. For hard core cinephiles and frequenters of the art-house, the SFF would probably be disappointing – the selection is distinctly “middlebrow” and most of the films that screen are commercial affairs, and thus follow fairly conventional narrative patterns and structures. My highlights this year included: Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos), a black comedy about a depressed middle-aged physician on a Greek island who becomes obsessed with a group of vital young tourists; The Commune (Thomas Vinterberg), a devastating study of the often violent negotiation of the relationship between the individual and the collective in the context of 1970s Denmark; and Wild (Nicolette Krebitz), a masterful metaphysical examination of a solitary German woman who befriends a wolf from the woods at the edge of her suburb.

War on Everyone and Swiss Army Man were the only films that had me regretting the price of admission. I had high expectations for War on Everyone. Directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose previous two films (Calvary and The Guard) were excellent, it turned out to be obnoxiously “anti-PC” – as though this in itself constitutes humour – and was alternately dull and stupid. Swiss Army Man (Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert) was a far stranger film, but its single (and not particularly funny) joke about a farting corpse quickly wore thin. It starred Daniel Radcliffe, whose choices since Harry Potter have tended to be strong – Horns, for example, is one of the better horror films of recent years – but Radcliffe (or his agent) clearly missed the mark in signing on for this uninspiring nonsense.

There were a handful of banal films besides these two, including the pretentious horror fable The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce), the aesthetically and politically conservative Peruvian thriller Magallanes (Salvador del Solar), and A War (Tobias Lindholm), a courtroom drama celebrating masculine heroism in Afghanistan. Though worth seeing, High-Rise and The Devil’s Candy (Sean Byrne) weren’t nearly as good as anticipated. High-Rise, adapted by writer-director Ben Wheatley (whose previous Kill List is one of the great films of the last decade), missed the tone of the brilliant J.G. Ballard novel on which it was based. And The Devil’s Candy failed to fully realise its excellent premise: a man has to play extremely loud metal guitar in order to drown out the voice of Satan (!).

Sydney Film Festival

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015)

The SFF always presents an array of films from diverse cultural backgrounds. But I was particularly struck, this year, by the large number of multinational productions. 

Apprentice and Free in Deed: Multinational Cinema at the 63rd SFF

Some of these transnational collaborations (or “partnerships,” to use the popular weasel word) were to be expected, either because of geographical and economic proximity, or because the narrative of the film itself involved transnationality. It was no surprise, for example, that The Commune, like much Scandinavian film and television, was funded by the three major players in the Scandinavian bloc, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – even if it was listed under “Denmark” in the festival guide. Similarly, Patchwork (Tyler MacIntyre), a brilliant post-self-help take on the Frankenstein myth and the best of this year’s “Freak Me Out” section of the programme, is a Canadian-US co-production. Morris from America (Chad Hartigan), a sweet coming of age story about a black American kid trying to adjust to his new life in Germany, is a German-US co-production. Likewise, Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet), a devastating drama about ex-Nazi soldiers being used as minesweepers to clear Danish beaches following World War Two, is a Danish-German co-production. Some of the other combinations, however, were less expected.

Apprentice (Boo Junfeng) was one of the standouts at this year’s festival. It’s set in Singapore, and follows the crisis of a young man, Aiman (Fir Rahman), as he is apprenticed to the hangman in a Singapore gaol. Aiman’s father, we discover as the film unfolds, was himself executed at the same gallows, and at first we suspect Aiman has entered the profession as a saboteur. However, as the story develops, we realise there’s much more at stake for Aiman. He seems drawn to and fascinated by the gallows – despite his family’s history with it – and there is the suggestion that perhaps he has taken up this profession as a kind of post-mortem punishment of his father. The film culminates when Aiman is called to the scaffold – the apprentice appointed to his first charge – with the screen going black before we learn of his decision on whether or not he will pull the lever.

Sydney Film Festival

Apprentice (Boo Junfeng, 2016)

Apprentice is an extremely well made film, economically presented without any reduction in complexity. Fir Rahman gives an extraordinarily compelling lead performance. The film is punctuated with lingering images of a brooding Rahman, and the camera, recalling the camera vis-à-vis Ryan Gosling in Drive, seems to fall in love with Rahman’s face. Wan Hanafi Su is similarly strong as the charismatic executioner-master Rahim. The film doesn’t assume a polemical position regarding the death penalty – either for or against – though in the context of Singaporean authoritarianism it probably would have been banned, with writer-director Boo Junfeng imprisoned, had it taken an explicitly abolitionist stance. That being said, the mere problematisation of the death penalty – and the film certainly presents execution as an at best ambiguous event – in itself encodes a political stance. It was thus no surprise when Junfeng said in a post-screening Q and A session that he was an abolitionist. Apprentice explicitly ambiguates capital punishment, and this kind of critical reflection always troubles the status quo.

Although set in Singapore, directed by a Singaporean, and starring Singaporean actors, Apprentice can hardly be said to be from Singapore (as asserted in the festival guide). It involves, in fact, funding from five nation-states: Singapore, Germany, France, China, and Qatar – and was, furthermore, filmed on location in Australia. How do we determine the “nationality” of such a film – and, in any case, does it matter?

Free in Deed (Jake Mahaffy), another highlight of the festival, similarly involved an unexpected transnational connection. It follows faith healer Abe (David Harewood), and his burgeoning relationship with single mother Melva (Edwina Findley) and her autistic son Benny (RaJay Chandler). The film, set in a depressingly bleak Memphis in which the only solace and sense of community comes through religious congregation, avoids the easy path of painting religion as something cheaply cynical and self-interested. It instead focuses on the genuine comfort Abe offers Melva and her family in the context of a savagely dilapidated America. Writer-director Jake Mahaffy’s refusal to condemn religion – his insistence on drawing attention to the socio-economic conditions necessitating the advent of figures like Abe (who, the film, shows, serve a necessary pharmacological function, even if this ultimately leads to tragedy) – is refreshing in the context of a public discourse that tends to look at politics as a kind of moralisation regarding individual choices, rather than as an engagement with and analysis of the broader conditions and factors in the struggle for power.

Sydney Film Festival

Free in Deed (Jake Mahaffy, 2015)

Free in Deed is based on a true story that occurred in Ohio. Mahaffy, however, set the film in Memphis because of the production benefits (in terms of tax credits) offered by Tennessee, though the destitution of much of Tennessee did nothing to harm the aesthetic integrity of the film. The film is, furthermore, a US-New Zealand co-production. New Zealand has been an attractive zone for film production for a number of years; in this case, the choice is probably more personal than anything else. Mahaffy, though born and raised in the US, is now a permanent resident of New Zealand and lectures at the University of Auckland.

There are many more examples of multinational productions about which I could write, including the meditative, off-key period drama The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet), which emerged from the UK, France and Hungary, or Suburra (Stefano Sollima), a sleek, ultra-violent Mafioso thriller that is an Italian-French co-production.

Commodification and Art

Fifty-eight different countries of origin are noted in the festival guide’s “index by country” this year. On close examination of the 175 feature films that screened, 75 were multinational productions. Though this is less than half, it more than doubles the number of films from the most represented single country of origin, the United States, with 35 films (see fig. below).

National Origin of Films at the 63rd Sydney Film Festival. Source: imdb.com

Single Country of Origin Number Single Country of Origin Number Single Country of Origin Number
Multinational 75 Germany 2 The Philippines 1
US 35 Spain 2 Portugal 1
Australia 17 Mexico 2 Poland 1
South Korea 6 Denmark 2 Israel 1
France 6 Saudi Arabia 1 Ireland 1
China 4 Greece 1 Austria 1
New Zealand 3 Canada 1 Japan 1
UK 3 Indonesia 1 Iran 1
India 2 South Africa 1
The Netherlands 2 Sri Lanka 1

In the age of accelerated global capitalism, dependent on and supported by networks that enable instantaneous global communications, this is, of course, unsurprising. Filmmakers are able to seek funding much more easily thanks to the Internet – they can use crowd-funding, pitch a film over Skype, secure a distribution deal before the final edit without worrying about transportation of film stock, and so on – and this is further enabled by the increasing economic fluidity of nation-state borders. There are also obvious economic reasons for the growth of multinational film production. Producers develop multinational funding and transnational production programmes based around tax breaks, cheaper employment and looser conditions – that is, based around the same neoliberal policies that promote offshore production and cross-border tax “planning” for multinational corporations in general.

Furthermore, films from smaller national cinemas often need to look beyond their borders to secure sufficient funding in the first place. Making feature films is expensive, and a lot of investment is (usually) needed for a film to be commercially viable. Marketing tells people what films they want to see, and without a significant marketing budget films have little chance of commercial success. Hollywood films, for example, often spend up to 95 per cent of their budget on marketing. And this is certainly one of the functions of the international film festival circuit – it offers marketing opportunities for (some) films that have not yet picked up distribution deals.

In this context, it is unsurprising that films emerging from the bigger national industries – Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood – tend towards mono-national production in terms of investment, even if they often source cheaper labour offshore.

So why is any of this significant?

From a business perspective, it’s not. And one of the first things people teach in practical filmmaking and screenwriting courses is that filmmaking is a business. This trend, therefore, merely reflects broader economic trends, and, if we take film production as significant only as a part of the “entertainment industry”, then the realities of global competition and profit maximisation are barely worth mentioning.

However, this isn’t all that cinema is or offers us. Films – often of the commercial kind screened at major international film festivals – shape our dreams and desires, they offer us solace and reprieve from the brutal exigencies of the day to day, the misery and exploitation that constitute the lives of the majority of the population across the globe.

It is thus critical to know who is behind this production of these dreams, and why they are producing them. As I have written elsewhere, commercial “films (and television) […] exert considerable influence on the way we think about and construct our worlds. Popular films both reveal society’s dreams and self-envisionings and shape individual perceptions of the world. […] We haunt spaces that are filtered through perceptions controlled, modified, expanded or restricted through our cinematic and televisual imaginings. The spaces of the screen, thus, in turn haunt our worlds.”1

It is, furthermore, “important to challenge the dreams corporations feed us about ourselves, and that we in turn demand to be fed – especially in an age in which most culture exercises a ‘self-help’ function – because entertainment conglomerates continue to make a lot of money from these interactions. Understanding how films watch and use us is key.” Culture as “entertainment” is the product of commodification, as sociologist Theodor Adorno was fond of demonstrating, and, under capitalism, competition for the provision of entertainment becomes fierce. This is enabled and extended by the conditions of the global economy, and by the fluidity of capital moving in and out of the once fortified borders of the nation-state.

This generates and sustains an on-going tension between the ostensible political positions of many of the films that screen at festivals – which, it could be argued, tend towards broadly “progressive” political configurations – and the necessities of finance in a competitive global market. Apprentice and Free in Deed are cases in point.

Both films – Apprentice through its abolitionist position, and Free in Deed through its analysis of intense poverty as defining social conditions in the US – could be seen as politically “progressive”. The material conditions of their production, however – the need to secure “investment” wherever possible and the promotion of neoliberalism extended through active competition in the global “growth” economy – exists in an essential tension with this political configuration at the level of narrative. Art – and cinema is, whatever else it may be, also a kind of art – is always an end in itself. The aesthetic, by definition, exists apart from the utilitarian. This excludes, by default, the “for profit”. But most cinema – and the cinema we are most exposed to – is commercial. French philosopher Alain Badiou thus describes cinema as the art that hovers precariously on the verge of “non-art”. Cinema is the art form that encompasses all other arts – architecture, painting, music, theatre, photography, design – but that is, at the same time, through the dominance of its commercial imperative, also not-art. And this relationship between culture as commodity and art as non-commodifiable generates productive problematics for cultural thinkers like Badiou. “Art as creation,” Badiou writes, “whatever its epoch and nationality, is superior to culture as consumption, no matter how contemporary.” This marks an unresolvable tension, and, I imagine, a tension that any filmmaker who imagines themselves as “anti-capitalist” or “anti-globalisation” would be forced to negotiate.

This double bind inevitably undergirds any commercial art form. By definition, the profit motive entails a certain political configuration that privileges capitalism – thus the inherent contradiction in the notion that there can be a “left” film emerging from Hollywood. Even the most “left” films in content are commercial operations, commodifying vision in order to generate profit and reinvest/expand. In the case of most of the multinational productions at the Sydney Film Festival, it is a matter of securing large enough base funding to compete internationally. The idea of “competition” is, of course, anathema to art – so we should never be under the illusion that, when we discuss contemporary commercial cinema – that is, the Hollywood cinema screened at multiplexes as well as the cinema that appears across the screens of major film festivals – we are only discussing art.

Visual Tourism and the Spectacle of Place

The climax of George Roy Hill’s Funny Farm – the great 1980s Chevy Chase vehicle – beautifully dramatises the commodification of place as spectacle at a local level. Chase plays Andy Farmer, a city sports writer who, with his wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), moves to the country so he can write the “great American novel”. Once there, Andy and Elizabeth’s idyllic dream rapidly disintegrates. The Farmers discover that the country locals are hicks, either menacing or moronic, and that none of the luxuries they took for granted (like the telephone) function properly in a rural context. They discover a corpse buried in their garden, and buy an Irish Setter who makes the most of the large country space by immediately running away into the distance, reappearing every now and then chasing something. The Farmers’ rapid disillusionment with the country parallels the disintegration of their marriage. By the end of the film, they are looking to divorce, sell their country house and move back to the city. In order to guarantee a quick and profitable sale, the Farmers agrees to pay the townspeople $50 for every act of small town spirit made in the presence of prospective buyers, with a bonus in the thousands for the town as a whole if they enable a speedy sale. Andy presents the locals with examples of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations as model images. The result is miraculous – as soon as the prospective couple arrive, “good, simple” country folk are turning up at the Farmers’ doorstep in droves carrying pies, singing Christmas carols, cordially wishing the world well.

The brilliance of Funny Farm lies in its revelation of the fundamental truth that such fantasies of “otherness” – be they in the comforting past or in an exotic location – are only producible through cynical means and are underpinned by vapid nostalgia and hollow, spectacular sentiment. A similar kind of exotic, spectacular tourism seems to be one of the key affective elements that attract people to international film festivals like the SFF, the armchair tourism of watching a “story” involving an alien locale, or told in an “exotic” cultural register. Indeed, the films seem to be arranged in the SFF program with this at the front of the organisers’ minds, the index of films by country preceding the index by title. This kind of spectacular tourism constitutes a large part of the festival’s appeal, and this kind of promotion of spectacular tourism is, as geographer David Harvey suggests in Rebel Cities, one of the fundamental elements of the “production of space” under global capitalism.

Hand in hand with the proliferation of global cultural tourism is the resurgence of rampant nationalism. These are, indeed, two sides of the same coin, both emerging as products of accelerated global capitalism. The key question to ask in this context doesn’t concern the national origin of a cultural artefact, but, rather, the strategic value of this recourse to nation in the first place. Why are people referring to nation? Who is benefitting from this categorisation, and who is being excluded?

It has become something of a cliché to discuss our “multicultural” world and the multiculturalism enabled by contemporary communications technologies. “Multiculturalism” (and its economic form, globalisation) are often seen as promoting a more cosmopolitan civilisation – this “slackening of cultural borders” is, some would argue, one of the prime benefits of global capitalism and globalisation. However, as political theorist Wendy Brown demonstrates in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, this apparent “freeing” of commerce, culture, and information is in fact accompanied by and marked through a proportionate increase in the securitization of borders, and an increase in stridently nationalistic movements. This is the paradox of globalisation – as capital moves more freely, senses of national identity become both more segregated and more entrenched. The modern nation-state is, after all, largely a product of the printing press and its solidification of common linguistic-cultural groupings, as Benedict Anderson shows in Imagined Communities. In other words, the “nation” develops in the first place as a direct outcome of communications technologies that would seem to tend towards the cosmopolitan but in fact simultaneously produce the opposite, by establishing and entrenching national borders.

Perhaps this simply demonstrates Friedrich Nietzsche’s brilliant insight into classical Greek culture in The Birth of Tragedy: “And what if […] it were precisely at the moment of their dissolution and weakness that the Greeks became increasingly optimistic, superficial, theatrical, increasingly fervent in their logic and in making the world logical, and so at the same time more ‘serene’ and more ‘scientific’?” In other words, the worse something becomes, the more we talk about how good it is. It seems that, in the neoliberal age, there is a greater need for Spectacles of Place to help us assert (either positively or negatively) a sense of identity that is (economically at least) less certain.

The more dissolute and decadent Greece becomes, the harder it strives to appear ordered and rational, and the more it harps on about its own greatness. The more nationalistic we become, perhaps, the greater the need for the consumption of “exotic” culture – thus the increasing popularity of the Sydney Film Festival, and its commodification of place.

Sydney Film Festival
7–18 June 2016
http://www.sff.org.au

 

Endnotes

  1. Ari Mattes, “Thinking through (popular) film”, The Conversation, 4 November 2015, http://theconversation.com/thinking-through-popular-film-50206