Variety of Themes

in 18th St George Bank Brisbane International Film Festival

by Kenichi Okubo

The St George Bank Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) 2009 has once more featured many interesting programs with a variety of themes. Reputed not only for new and daring films from many countries the world over, the festival screened a number of retrospectives, including a focus on one of the pioneers of Australian film, Charles Chauvel, a look at “Queensland films 1930-1960 from Talkies to Television”, a series of seminars encouraging local filmmakers, and on a particularly unique theme for BIFF, a panel titled “Indonesia Calling” echoing the film of same name directed by Joris Ivens (1898-1989) in 1946. Three directors participated in the seminar: John Hughes, an Australian with a new documentary, Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia; fellow Australian, Robert Connolly speaking about his new film, Balibo; and Indonesian academic and filmmaker, Gotot Prakosa and his film, Kantata Takwa.

Kantata Takwa (directed by Eros Djarot and Gotot Prakosa) is named after a legendary Indonesian rock group that takes centre stage in a film that is a mixture of music with a strong political message, and stage plays performed by a theater group led by poet W.S. Rendra. Rendra’s poetry plays a very significant role in the film and it, in turn, features strong performances of his work. The film integrates an interesting variety of music, theater, and visual images in protest against the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia is a historical survey featuring close research on the work of Ivens and the circumstances in which it unfolded. From right before Japan’s withdrawal from then Dutch Indies in the Second World War, to the independence of Indonesia, Hughes traces Ivens’s documenting of the birth of a new country against the will of Dutch authorities. Ivens worked closely with Australian film industry, and mentored many of the pioneers of documentary in the region.

Ivens’s Indonesia Calling and Connolly’s Balibo not only tell of Australia’s strong connections with its neighboring Indonesia, but also with other Asian countries, including Japan. Together the films plot invisible but clear lines of politics along the Pacific Rim.

For the festival’s FIPRESCI award, jurors Tina Kaufman, Tim Milfull and I took time to discuss the themes and techniques of the films. Among the topics, we had to determine the use of authentic and universals themes, and the ways in which these were depicted and portrayed, whether good or bad, along with whether or not various traditions of filmmaking had been successfully employed. In particular, one popular archetype in films from this festival has been the “mother figure.”

Still Walking from Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, painted a very delicate portrait of familial emotions, especially from the mother and through her interactions with her family as it showed the daily life of a household using a very subtly rendered sound-scape. We can sharpen our senses to hear the sound as it permeates even from outside of the frame. Of course, all of these sounds offered a distinct emotional connection with the characters.

In Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda offers a nice study of the work of Japanese master Mikio Naruse, while there are echoes of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story in Pandora’s Box (Pandora’nin kuntusu) by the Turkish director, Yesim Ystaoglu. Here, an ageing mother is diagnosed with dementia, and relocated from her mountain home to the big city. There, the puzzled woman sees her three busy children ignore her and each other, while her most effective carer is the least likely in the form of a delinquent grandson, who is also a true pain in the neck for his mother. The grandmother, played by French actress Tsilla Chelton, is a true wonder for the eye.

Treeless Mountain from Korean director, Kim So-yong, also has a ‘Mother’ theme, telling a story of two young sisters abandoned by their mother to live with their aunt and their grandparents, featuring so many fine expressions including some heartbreaking close-ups after the departure of their mother, whose absence is the driving force of the drama. Thus we can see how the history and geography of cinema are nicely interconnected, and at the same time have been used innovatively within this theme.

The late Japanese director Makoto Sato (1957-2007)—a significant figure in Japanese documentary film history after Noriaki Tsuchimoto, Shinsuke Ogawa and Kazuo Hara—made the bold and clear statement that, “”Documentary is fiction.” His films—from Living on the River Agano (1992) to his final work, Edward Said: Out of Place (2005)—always sought the ‘Real’ in film.

And in BIFF’s retrospective featuring Dennis Tupicoff’s eleven works, there was a nice quest for the ‘real’ in films covering the scope of Animation, Live Action, Fiction and Documentary. Tupicoff has been well regarded since his animated films from the ’70s, with titles such as Please Don’t Bury Me (1976) and My Big Chance (1977), examining death and memory. His latest films address the same concerns in bolder strokes, with techniques and ideas transgressing the boundaries of the genre. Chainsaw (2007) is a speculation on eroticism and death; with cartoon images of a couple’s relationship, the work of a chainsaw in the bush, rodeo, bull-fights, and images of movie stars, Eva Gardener and Frank Sinatra, wrought through the Rotoscope technique. Silly and Serious: William Robinson and Self-portraits (2008) examines an Australian painter outlining his artistic process. At the same time, sometimes Robinson himself and his works – his self-portraits or pictures of people on the beach – become nice figures side-by-side in a frame or through editing to tell the truth or principle of the cinema, “All the pictures, from live action or from cartoons are equal in a cinema.” A true affirmation of Japanese animation director Mamoru Oshii’s statement, “All the films are animation films”.

Edited by Tara Judah