Sydney Film Festival 2015

June 13, 2015
The Tribe (2014)
The Tribe (2014)

A first glance the program for the annual Sydney Film Festival is like dipping into a voluminous menu written in a foreign language. You know there are lots of good things in there but it’s not easy to identify them. Experience dictates that films which sound like non-events may turn out to be masterpieces, and vice versa.

After a week-and-a-half I’m almost unable to tell the difference between my life and a movie, although the absence of car chases is one indicator. With more than 250 films on the program it’s not possible to see everything, but having got through more than 20, I can give a highly favourable report card for Nashen Moodley’s fourth outing as director.

Only two films have made me look longingly towards the exit. The first was Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, and here I’ve no excuses. For more than two decades Greenaway’s movies have been an abject mixture of poo, vomit, buggery and intellectual posturing. Nowadays they rarely get beyond the film festival circuit, where people who enjoyed The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982 turn up for old times’ sake.

Although I should have known better, the attraction was the portrayal of Sergei Eisenstein’s trip to Mexico at the end of 1930, where he shot more than two kilometres of footage he would never make into a film. There are at least two hypothetical versions of Que Viva Mexico!, neither assembled by Eisenstein.

The director spent a whole year shooting, but not in Greenaway’s film, in which Finnish actor, Elmer Bäck, (looking like he was late for the casting of Eraserhead), spends two hours strolling around, getting drunk, taking long showers, and discovering his not-so-latent homosexuality. It gives the misleading impression that Eisenstein was anchored in Guanajuato. Despite all the biographical information flashed up on the screen, this is not history but fantasy. The Russians are apparently furious at the idea of a gay Eisenstein but they should be more concerned that he is made to look such a consummate nitwit.

The other film that gave me a sinking feeling was A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, by veteran Swedish director, Roy Andersson. A series of deadpan, comic vignettes joined together by recurrent characters and rooms, the project allegedly occupied Andersson for 15 years. This is alarming confirmation for the oft-repeated slur that Sweden is one of the most boring places on earth.

The movie begins in an amusing way but gradually settles into a routine of plodding, absurdist scenarios linked by the characters of two maudlin travelling salesmen who go through the same spiel again and again. “We want to help people have fun,” they say in funereal tones. The running gag – apparently a meditation on the human condition – is the palpable absence of fun.

Speaking of movies that confirm one’s worst prejudices, Ulrich Seidl’s unconventional documentary, In the Basement, sends out a reminder of the abiding weirdness of the Austrians. It’s not as if the rest of the world needed much convincing. We’ve already had the Viennese Aktionismus artists, Thomas Bernhard’s coruscating novels, and finally, Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years.

Seidl, who is not much liked in his native land, suggests there is still more grotesquerie going on in the basements of Austria, including a would-be opera singer who teaches middle-aged bigots how to use guns; a freakish collection of S & M devotees; a collector of Nazi memorabilia; and middle-aged couples with peculiar ideas about what constitutes that quality known as Gemütlichkeit.

Seidl’s method is thoroughly deadpan. His subjects talk about their hobbies as if there could be nothing more natural. Even the camera is non-judgemental, taking up a fixed position and remaining rooted to the spot, with interviewees held in the centre of the frame. It’s like watching a slow descent into a parallel universe.

Among the more conventional documentaries at this year’s SFF the most sought-after tickets were for Amy, Asif Kapadia’s film about the late Amy Winehouse. As you might expect this is a slow motion trainwreck of a life, beginning brilliantly, reaching dazzling heights, then nose-diving into the abyss. The movie will be released locally on 2 July, so I’ll save any discussion for a later date.

I’ll also hold fire on Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, to be released on 18 June. This was one of three documentaries by this prolific filmmaker screened at the Festival, and arguably the most courageous project of his career. I’ve yet to watch Mr. Dynamite, Gibney’s portrait of megastar, James Brown; but I did catch Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which takes a new look at the late Apple boss, revealing a personality full of contradictions. As with his profile of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, in We Steal Secrets (2013), Gibney uncovers a ruthless, narcissistic side to Jobs that sits awkwardly with the popular image of a countercultural folk hero. It’s the story of a man – and a company – that metamorphosed from David into Goliath, while continuing to project values that no longer had any place in their corporate business practises.

Among other films that should get a local release there are three excellent indies from the United States: Grandma, Dope and 99 Homes. The first features Lily Tomlin as an unconventional, tough-as-nails matriarch, who has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend, and now must help her granddaughter raise funds for an abortion. In the course of a single day numerous permutations of the ‘modern family’ are explored, along with many styles of guilt, bitterness, recrimination and forgiveness.

Dope is a coming-of-age movie about a highschool nerd called Malcolm growing up in a bad neighbourhood. What are the chances for a smart young black guy to get to Harvard rather than become a drug dealer? This fast-moving tale, which gives equal space to several different meanings of the word “dope”, shows how the road to ruin can be diverted to one’s own advantage. If this were an Australian film it would be a pit of misery, but director Rick Famuyiwa, has produced a quick-witted comedy that took me by surprise.

You should also be hearing more about 99 Homes, by Ramin Bahrani, who was singled out by the legendary film critic, Roger Ebert, in 2009, as “the great new American director.” It’s a good credential but Bahrani’s movies have rarely made an impression on the mainstream. This may change with 99 Homes, a devastating drama that looks at the damage wrought in middle America by the financial meltdown of 2009. Andrew Garfield, devoid of his Spiderman outfit, is an average guy who begins as a victim of the housing and loan crisis but soon sees the advantages in switching to the devil’s side.

Another American indie that should get a run locally is The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an impressive directorial debut by actress, Marielle Heller. Bel Powley stars in a career-launching role, as Minnie, a teenage girl coming to terms with her own insecurities and sexual desires in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a confronting story but with a strong sense of realism, even allowing for the animated sequences that periodically creep across the screen like a quick-growing vine.

One of the abiding pleasures of the SFF is the opportunity to see the films from countries that rarely get a chance in the commercial cinemas. It reminds us there are powerful, innovative movies being made all over the world.

South Africa was the featured country in this year’s program but I’ve had no luck squeezing in any of those films. I did, however, see an excellent, low-key drama from Guatemala. The Volcano is the story of Maria, a girl born into a poor Indian family in the countryside. She dreams of escaping but her parents have already arranged a marriage and a future. The only way out may be through surrendering herself to Pepe, a plantation worker who says he is travelling to America. It’s a film that oozes fatalism, made in the shadow of a volcano that also acts as a symbol for Maria’s pent-up frustrations. There is a mesmerising quality to this tale, which shows us an existence that is also a life sentence.

Nothing this year may be more original than The Tribe, a first feature by Ukrainian director, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. Set in a home for deaf children that acts as a breeding ground for delinquency and prostitution, the most startling part of the film is that it is conducted entirely in sign language. One sits in silence, watching the characters gesture furiously at one another. After a while the signing becomes normalised, as we are drawn into a violent, sexually explicit portrait of group misbehaviour. No matter how dark it gets there is a tissue of metaphors that keeps one thinking and wondering.

A good place to end this brief selection is with Jafar Panahi’s Tehran Taxi, the third film made by the Iranian director since he was banned from making films. The apparent contradiction says a lot about the state of cinema in Iran, a country whose best movies are rarely screened within its own borders. Panahi shows us a microcosm of contemporary Iranian society from the front seat of a taxi. It may be real or fictional, scripted or spontaneous, but this subtle, teasing play for the camera cannot be identified as a film.

Sydney Film Festival
3-14 June
www.sff.org.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th June, 2015.