What, American independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock asked himself, could be the greatest threat to my soon-to-be-born child? And, consistent with his government’s “war on terror”, Spurlock headed out of town with his camera to make the world a safer place. His travels took him to the Middle East. And he asked everyone who crossed his path — from customers in a mall in Saudi Arabia to ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem — the naive question: “Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?” And that’s the title of his film, the opener of the 17th Brisbane International Film Festival in Queensland, Australia.
Morgan Spurlock, acclaimed for his anti-fast-food-hamburger documentary Super Size Me (2004), uses ironic detachment to create a kaleidoscope of surprising reactions and attitudes to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially for US audiences, his indie production provides a far more differentiated look at the Islamic world than what the average TV consumer is used to.
In part consciously programmed, but also simply the result of what new productions from around the world are preoccupied with, the subject of terrorism was a prevalent one in the more than 100 films presented at the Brisbane Festival by its experimentally friendly director Anne Demy-Geroe (the festival’s patron is Mad Max director George Miller). Brisbane is a metropolis with two and a half million residents on the northeast coast of the continent and is Australia’s most rapidly growing city. The audience, predominantly young and multi-cultural, was given a taste of the subjects of terror and resistance in a retrospective that came as a surprise to many visiting Europeans. It included Volker Schlöndorff’s Böll adaptation The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, 1975), Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst by Kluge, Fassbinder and others, 1978) Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte, 2003) about the kidnapping and murder of former Italian premier Aldo Moro. The retrospective went as far back as the late sixties and early seventies and dealt with student protest and so-called city guerillas, the RAF, the Red Brigades, the ETA and the IRA (Yoyes and In the Name of the Father). It also included Claude Chabrol’s black comedy The Nada Gang (Nada), the fictitious story of a politically motivated kidnapping and the counter-terror of the government in 1974. Chabrol’s sole blatantly political film is still convincing today.
In addition to this look back into Europe’s recent past, Brisbane offered a broad spectrum of films ranging from experimental to exploitation. Of course, the perspective from Down Under is a different one from Europe’s East-West focus. Asia is close, as sections such as those on young Asian-Pacific cinema and Thai cinema show. Most impressive was Good Cats (Hao mao), Chinese director Ying Liang’s low-budget, independently produced picture shot with a digital camera. The film tells the story of a young man from the countryside who tries to make fast money in the office of a real estate shark — unsuccessfully. It uses a heavy metal rock band like a Greek chorus to comment on the goings-on, as irritating McDonald’s radio commercial with cheerful children’s interrupting the Olympic games. Good Cats won the FIPRESCI Award in Brisbane. In China, the film will probably never reach movie screens, but it will continue to avoid government control when it is released on DVD.
Salma feels the effects of a different kind of terror — that of governments. She is a Palestinian widow who lives directly on the Israeli border and lovingly cultivates the lemon orchard she inherited from her father. Her new neighbor on the other side of the border is the Israeli Defense Minister whose bodyguards suspect terrorists behind every tree, and therefore want to raze Salma’s orchard. A hard-bitten struggle ensues, which goes all the way to the highest court in Israel. The Palestinian woman taking on the mighty Israel government is reminiscent of David and Goliath in this struggle for justice. Hiam Abbass (The Syrian Bride) is first-rate as Salma, who has to put up with politics dominated by men on both sides of the border and who finally gains an ally in the form of the Defense Minister’s wife. The Israeli-French co-production Lemon Tree (directed by Eran Riklis), made with German financial participation — and in which the ugly concrete wall at the end has certain affinities with the Berlin Wall — will be released in Germany soon. Riklis’ absurd, satirical story relies on its imagery. When, at the end, the Defense Minister stands in front of his protective wall, it seems more like a prison wall in which he is captured. The film is an allegory about the walls in our heads. The films in an intelligently programmed festival such as Brisbane can be very helpful in allowing us look over such walls.