In Very Good Shape

in 50th Sydney Film Festival

by B. Ruby Rich

The Sydney Film Festival’s 50 edition showed the festival to be in a state of considerable health, with audiences packing its two venues and press coverage that was overwhelmingly supportive. The grandiose State Theatre must be one of the finest movie palaces anywhere in the world and lends an excitement and luster to everything shown there, while the smaller venue, the Dendy Opera Quays, compensates for its multiplex anonymity with its location – right on Sydney Harbor, a better view even than the one from the fishbowl in “Finding Nemo.” Crowds lined up at both sites despite the unseasonably gorgeous weather that had international visitors pinching themselves at the designation of “winter” applied by the Aussies.

A governement decision prevented the festival to screen Larry Clark’s Ken Park. The screening was replaced by an open forum on censorship.

Unexpectedly, the festivals’ careful mix of documentaries (twenty of which were eligible for consideration for the FIPRESCI award), regional premieres of international films, and retrospective programs of classics, was upstaged by a censorship controversy. Larry Clark’s “Ken Park” was banned for screening by the local government. It was a throwback to earlier years when the festival had battled censorship. And it reminded Sydney audiences of the importance of festivals such as this: international festivals have always served as a sort of cinematic “free port” where films can be freely shown whatever the constraints that normally attend theatrical releases in the host country. This time, the increasingly conservative Australian government abandoned the protocol that had mandated festival immunity for many years — and created an uproar. In place of the first “Ken Park” screening, the festival staged an open forum on censorship featuring local notables, including FIPRESCI’s own Julie Rigg. The second screening of “Ken Park’ was replaced by the brilliant U.S. film American Splendor, which is another one of the new HBO success stories and had its world premiere at Sundance and will open theatrically before long. The censorship scene was reminiscent of the situation in the 80s at the Toronto Film Festival, when the Ontario censorship board routinely sought to block films from playing. In the current climate, however, it’s a rarity. The festival fought back with a clever ad campaign showing a still from the movie festooned with strategically placed black-out bars that read Censored, Banned, Indecent, and advertised the forum.

It was an odd distraction for a festival that was more concerned, if audience reaction is any gauge, with aesthetic accomplishment and political principles than with sexual innuendo. When local cineastes delivered documentaries that addressed pressing sociopolitical issues, for example, the appreciation was obvious. “Wildness,” an Australian “doco” (as they say) on two photographers’ fight to the death to save Tasmanian wilderness from development, was wildly applauded, especially when the widows took the stage, and not surprisingly won the audience award for favorite doc over such strong contenders as “Spellbound” and “Stevie.” Its portrait of the renowned Tasmanian wilderness photographers, both of them immigrants, both pioneers, and both destined to die in the midst of photographing the wilderness that they fought to save from the dam-crazy hydroelectric authority, touched a chord with a public concerned about the Australian identity and legacy regarding its landscape.

“Molly and Mobarak” put a human face on the refugee crisis and the Australian government’s inhumane handling of it by tracking the story of one Afghan youth and his attempts to adjust to Australian society. Mobarak was one of ninety Afghan refugees recruited to work in a slaughterhouse in a small town, where they encountered both goodness and racism. Only twenty-two, handsome, and lonely, he falls for a local girl who ultimately rejects him, precipitating a crisis. All the subjects were once again there in person, and the screening quickly turned from film appreciation into a rally for refugee rights, especially when it was announced that Mobarak’s own temporary visa had expired the day before and he risked deportation back to Afghanistan (where he’d be unlikely to fit in, with his hair died blonde, dressed in hip urban style with his aboriginal girlfriend on his arm). “Molly and Mobarak” humanizes the refugee crisis, putting a face on the headlines and a human story on government policy; if it seems to end too soon in terms of its political narrative, that failing was turned to advantage by the filmmaker’s announcement of his intent to continue filming the story. Both documentaries are a good indication of the strengths that Australian cinema continues to show in that genre. The level of public interest ought to aid the documentary sector in retaining finance support.

Also politically charged was the screening for a new New Zealand documentary, “Coffee Tea or Me,” about the history of flight attendants – from glamour to struggle, and from Dior uniforms to equal-opportunity law suits. Alternately campy and serious, the documentary gave screen time to a spirited cast of women, all pioneers, happy to reflect on the good years and reluctantly able to recall the bad. In the event of the film’s screening, the passions of years ago erupted once again. Male stewards in the audience stormed out, slamming the theatre doors. And women rose to testify, including a current Quantas flight attendant who vowed little had changed over the years in terms of harassment directed at women.

While all the above were contenders, along with such already-well-known titles on the festival circuit as the brilliant Latin American/Spanish docs “Balseros” and “Bus 174,” the FIPRESCI jury awards ultimately went to “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony” as the main award and, for an honorable mention, “Don’t You Worry, It Will Probably Pass,” two very different documentaries that shared the distinction of according pride of place to music as a cinematic element and force in social movements, entirely distinct from the all too common illustrative and derivative use of music in so much documentary work.

“Amandla!” is a masterfully conceived and edited look at how the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was shaped and sustained by music. Interestingly, filmmaker Lee Hirsch stages conversations in radio studios and homes without struggling to impose unconvincing naturalness upon them, leading to the viewer’s easy acceptance of testimonial as a route to the truth. Since those testifying are some of the struggle’s foremost singers, musicians, and activists, their memories carry great weight. Throughout, the music saves the historical examination from heaviness and repeatedly drives home the point to audiences that music was the great catalyzer, bond of unity, and even weapon (scaring the authorities in the streets, spreading the message around the globe). Interestingly, the film also analyzes the changes in the music as the struggle escalated from nonviolence to violence and as leaders were transformed into prisoners and martyrs. The scene of Nelson Mandela dancing on stage at his election celebration, in a dance style we’ve just seen mimicked affectionately by a veteran woman singer from the early days of the movement, is a particularly touching one.

“Don’t You Worry, It Will Probably Pass” is a delicate and wonderfully sympathetic film from Sweden that chronicles the lives of teenage girls in small towns, coping with emergent lesbian identities and isolated from their families. Contacted by filmmaker Cecilia Neant-Falk via the internet, the three protagonists contribute to their own stories with footage they shot with digital cameras at home and with friends, under the guise of school projects. In this case, the soundtrack contributes to the film’s meaning in a strongly subcultural sense, as the casual viewer might be unaware of the lesbian bands and lesbian-favored musicians that comprise its selections (Le Tigre, Ani DeFranco, etc). Heartfelt and upbeat, with editing rhythms rescued from MTV-dom by the documentary’s emotional punch and subtitles that frequently pepper the screen like so many text messages, “Don’t You Worry” is an endearingly contemporary take on an age-old problem that remains much the same despite the updated technology used to investigate it.

The FIPRESCI jury, charged with seeing twenty-plus documentaries in the festival, didn’t have a lot of time to view other offerings. Still, enough was seen to confirm festival director Gayle Lake’s good taste. A particular strength of the festival is its Asian and South Asian programming, with “Road Movie” a great case in point. South Korean filmmaker Kim In-Sik’s debut feature is a stylish exploration of nonconformity and economic distress in a society constructed on homogeny and security. It sketches a tale of two men who fall through its safety net and form a special bond as they travel from subway tunnel to cheap hotels, working odd jobs and acquiring a lovelorn woman companion, until tragedy and betrayal put an end to the tortured idyll. Its depiction of the homoerotic bonds between men is reminiscent of some of the best of the stylized Hong Kong cop movies (from John Woo to Andrew Lau) except that it goes much further in teasing the subtext out into the open.

The issue of support for Australian film was raised repeatedly throughout the festival, from opening night to a reception hosted in the botanical gardens (home, by the way, to thousands of bats that fly around day and night) by the Australian Film Commission. At that reception, which boasted a turnout of local film figures, actor Rachel Ward delivered a manifesto calling for the government to support film culture, which she compared to the church, family, and schools as a powerful force in people’s lives. She was an impassioned orator, and the excitement in the crowd proved what a powerful issue this is at the moment in Australia, in the run-up to renewed trade talks with the U.S. and the very contentious question of whether protections for culture will be included.

With attentive audiences, an attention to history (including a special academic symposium for its fiftieth year) that indicates a broad public sense of ownership of the event, and an excellent representation of quality cinema from around the world, the Sydney International Film Festival appears to be in very good shape. Now that it’s been demonstrated that winter in Sydney can mean blue skies and sunny days, there’s really no reason for any filmmaker or critic to avoid the event. With a clear calendar berth, fine hospitality, and an audience that responds generously to films, Sydney could easily be poised to take off the way that Toronto did in the 80s. All it needs is a government willing to support it and corporate sponsors willing to pony up for the branding opportunities. The films, happy to say, are in place.