Sydney Film Festival 2014

June 14, 2014
Ellar Coltrane in 'Boyhood' (2014)
Ellar Coltrane in 'Boyhood' (2014)

Sydney’s passion for cinema is beyond dispute, but the annual Sydney Film Festival is as close as this hedonistic city gets to a religious experience. For two weeks diehards will submit themselves to four, possibly five films a day. It’s a luxury for those who don’t have to turn up at the office on Monday morning. For the less committed it sounds like a refined form of torture. What exactly can you remember about the 28 films you saw last week?

I confess to being one of those film zealots in my student days. I’d probably still be doing it now if I wasn’t so terminally over-committed. And it’s amazing what one does remember. The first Mike Leigh film I ever saw was Meantime, which sounded like rubbish in the 1984 festival program, but turned out to be a small masterpiece.

There haven’t been any major revelations this year, although this may be because of the reviewer rather than the festival. This is the 61st Sydney Film Festival, and the third put together by South African-born, Nashen Moodley, who often appears onstage to introduce guests and spruik the presentations.

A festival director is partly constrained by the quality of films on offer, but the main requirement is that he or she provides a program with something for every taste. This entails a strong mix of features, shorts and documentaries, along with a dip into the past and a focus on one or two key areas. This year there was a section on the films of Robert Altman and one devoted to new Chinese cinema, but the full bill of fare was impressively broad-ranging.

Among those few ‘eagerly-awaited’ films, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood did not disappoint. This fictionalised chronicle of a boy’s life, filmed over a twelve-year period, is a unique cinematic experiment. Unlike most experiments, it also manages to be an engrossing narrative.

Boyhood has a distant relationship with Michael Apted’s ongoing project that began with the Seven Up! (1964), and has charted the lives of the same group of children at seven year intervals. But although we watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing and maturing from year to year, nothing else about the story is real. Perhaps “real” is not necessary when a film is so convincing.

Despite a running time of almost three hours, Boyhood will probably get a theatrical release this year. A number of other festival offerings are viewable in local cinemas within the month. The major Australian feature, The Rover, is already out there; soon to be joined by Frank, Two Faces of January, Gabrielle, Words and Pictures and The Lunchbox. More will follow as deals with distributors are finalised.

I’ll write in depth about some of these films at a later date. The Lunchbox deserves a special mention as it is an object lesson in how to build an absorbing story from the simplest plot device – a daily lunchbox being delivered to the wrong person. It is a gentle, melancholy comedy in which two strangers find solace from their disappointments in life. Unusually for an Indian film there is not a single song and dance routine.

Irrfan Khan in 'the Lunchbox'  (2013)

Irrfan Khan in ‘the Lunchbox’ (2013)

The Rover, on the other hand, is shaping up as the year’s most over-hyped feature. After the international success of his debut, Animal Kingdom (2010), director David Michod was hailed as the new Wunderkind of Australian cinema. As Michod himself has joked, this raised the spectre of ‘second album syndrome’, as he was put under pressure to produce an equally arresting follow-up. Against all expectations he decided to make this film in Australia, which lends a degree of patriotic lustre to the project.

So many people have wanted The Rover to be a great movie they have immunised themselves against a more negative response. Anyone who goes along with no particular expectations may have a very different experience: of a minor film with a flimsy plot wrapped around a host of post-apocalyptic clichés. The ghost of Mad Max is never far away, but there is no real drama in Michod’s attempt at a blood-spattered outback road movie. I’ll save any further comment for next weekend’s column.

As a festival opener, 20,000 Days on Earth, by British directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, was an unorthodox choice. It is reputedly the first time in over 20 years that a documentary has been selected to open the festival, but this was not the standard compilation of talking heads, voiceovers and archival footage.

Forsyth and Pollard emerged from Goldsmiths College as “conceptual artists”, a term to send shivers down the spine of most cinema buffs. Yet this portrait of Australian singer, Nick Cave, manages to be both innovative and reasonably entertaining. This is largely due to Cave himself, who is smart enough to recognise his own penchant for self-dramatisation and pretence, and able to reflect coolly on life and creativity.

20,000 Days on Earth is a better, more imaginative documentary than Autoluminescent (2011), the film about Cave’s former colleague in The Birthday Party, the late Rowland S. Howard. Although both men were poseurs and heroin addicts, one can see that Cave had the self-possession to come through to the other side. He no longer lives in a squalid room in Berlin, but in Brighton, U.K. with his wife and sons. The family home and car are hardly different from those of any middle-class businessman. All the extremity and craziness goes into the music, which is contained within the live performances and recordings. One could hardly imagine a better example of a creative personality able to compartmentalise the different aspects of his life.

An appealing aspect of the SFF is the opportunity to see films from smaller national cinemas. These movies are distinguished by tight budgets, strong narrative skills, and mordant reflections on provincial life. The Iranians have been producing this kind of cinema for decades, but many other regions are joining the party. One of the best examples this year was Levan Koguashvili’s Blind Dates – a rare film from Georgia to get an international release.

'Blind Dates'

‘Blind Dates’ (2013)

It’s surprising to learn there has been a longstanding tradition of Georgian cinema, described by Federico Fellini as “a completely unique phenomenon, vivid, philosophically inspiring, very wise, childlike.” Almost none of this has been seen in Australia or other English-speaking countries.

Blind Dates is the story of Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze), a sad-faced school teacher in Tblisi, who lives at home with his parents. Still single at the age of 40, Sandro is under pressure to find a wife, but the woman he loves is married to a criminal who is being released from prison. The humour is relentlessly deadpan and steeped in bathos. On a trip to the sea shore, Sandro and his friends sit at a table perched on a block of concrete, drinking vodka. They protect themselves from wind and rain by holding a plastic sheet over their heads. Such are the simple pleasures of life in this part of the world.

China presents a very different prospect, as a superpower with ambitions to be a leading force in the international movie industry. Now the second-biggest film market in the world, after the United States, China is also one of the largest film-producing countries, after India, Nigeria and the USA. What makes the Chinese film industry so different is the role of government, as both sponsor and censor.

In a country that only recently viewed all films as exercises in propaganda, there is still a paternalistic view that movies should be used to promote the right kind of cultural values in the populace. Films that do the right thing will be rewarded with funds and local releases. Those that fail to measure up may not even be screened in China. Filmmakers are required to submit a draft of the script in advance, and a final cut upon completion. Any deviations from the original plan are closely scrutinised.

It’s a system that requires extraordinary ingenuity to anticipate the objections of the censors and find a way around the problems. These manoeuvres were on display in a special bracket of festival films called China: Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics, selected by Shelly Kraicer.

The most notable instance of a film striving to meet the demands of the censor was Dancing in the Room, by independent filmmaker and musician, Peng Lei. It tells the tale of Huabian (Jiang Yuchen) a girl from the provinces who relocates to Beijing to follow her passion for art and culture. In time-honoured style, she endures crushing poverty, the alienation of a big city, and encounters with a procession of weirdos. It’s a story that could go on for hours in this fashion, but Peng Lei brings matters to a bizarre climax when Huabian decides she simply can’t stand it any more.

'Dancing in the Room'

‘Dancing in the Room’

What follows is ‘The Return of the Hollywood Ending’, courtesy of the Chinese censors’ office. After Peng Lei has brought the film to a black, surreal conclusion, there is a second ending that is so sweet and happy (the heroine sings a song), that it seems more like a commercial break. It’s possibly the most blatantly phoney ending since Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), the tragic tale of a German doorman who falls in love with his uniform. In response to the Hollywood studio’s demand for an upbeat conclusion, the great Expressionist gave them a postscript of teeth-clenching cheerfulness. How strange it is has taken only 90 years for Chinese communism to arrive at the same position as gung-ho American capitalism.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14 June, 2014.