So Much Trouble in the World Genocides, Borders and Refugees

in 51th Sydney Film Festival

by Julian Wood

The 51st Sydney film festival has just finished, show casing nearly 200 films from all around the world. The festival was the last one for retiring director Gayle Lake and she made sure she went out on a good note. There were many crowd-pleasing films ranging from a biopic of the great English comedian Peter Sellers, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (brilliantly impersonated by Australian star Geoffrey Rush) to Jim Jarmusch’s ultra-cool Coffee and Cigarettes.

Perhaps the most attended commercial film of the festival was Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a look at the ‘monstrous’ heavy metal band which outdoes This Is Spinal Tap by being real. The film which got the audience’s vote was Born Into Brothels a searing portrait of the slum brothels of Mumbai in which street kids are taught how to be photographers.

Another hugely popular event was the screening of the restored print of the 1919 early Australian film The Sentimental Bloke. This much-loved tale of an ordinary bloke and the woman he woos was accompanied on the night by live music from a sensationally versatile trio led by composer Jen Anderson.

In amongst the fiction films were over 25 great documentaries, and some of these brought the bigger issues into focus. In some ways, the first part of the 21st century could be known as the era of the refugee, and this trend looks set to grow and continue. All over the world whole populations are being forced to move or simply exterminated where they are. There were many strong films which could be grouped under this theme.

First of all there was the case of Tibet. The long-term repercussions of the Chinese annexation of the mountain region were made clear in Tom Peosay’s Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion. This documentary is very much a campaigning piece employing a ‘free Tibet’ perspective and featuring well know supporters such as Martin Sheen who narrates. The film touches on the direct repression of some Buddhist monks and nuns but that is not its resting place. More problematic in some ways for the filmmaker is the long-term resettlement of mainland Chinese into Tibet which inexorably changes the country and has the effect of marginalising the ethnic Tibetans.

Another clash of cultures, again involving a hugely populated Eastern nation is Rakesh Sharma’s film Final Solution about India and the tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Unlikely as it may seem, in recent years Hinduism has thrown up a virulent form of nationalism which has revived age-old tensions between the Hindu and Muslim population. Final Solution with its chilling (and not accidental) Aryan associations points at the extermination of the Muslim minority. Either that, or a further mass migration of peoples to neighbouring Pakistan. Sharma’s long film painstakingly unpicks the issues around the various flashpoints and massacres but, in the end, one is left wearied by the hatred and made dizzy by the sheer numbers of pointless deaths that came in the wake of inter-Indian ethnic violence.

Another film to deal with reality of refugees on the move is Tahir Cambis’ and Helen Newman’s Anthem. This short but ambitious Australian documentary somewhat divided audiences. Some found it too loosely structured. Others were also unsure about the documentary makers putting themselves in front of the story they were filming. However, against that, the film has a very powerful message and it marshals evidence about Australia’s treatment of refugees to make a pretty damning case. There is real passion in the film and it will resonate in particular within Australia. Australia is a country which thinks of itself as easy-going and tolerant but which is increasingly slipping in international eyes because of the present government’s ruthless ‘Pacific Island’ solution. Without much debate the government has instigated a policy whereby legitimate refugees are intercepted at sea and directed to island prisons off shore. The film will get a commercial release in Australia and it will be interesting to see what the strength of the reaction will be.