Sydney Film Festival 2016

June 10, 2016
The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Whoever puts together the official program for the Sydney Film Festival should be given responsibility for the city’s urban redevelopment. The minds behind such a masterpiece of cross-referencing, indexing and organisation might have thought twice about the over-expansion of Green Square, the stealthy growth of Barangaroo, the tree massacre on Anzac Parade, and the ludicrous plan to move the Powerhouse museum to Parramatta. Instead, we have a showcase film festival and a looming urban disaster.

For twelve days per year Sydneysiders can seek solace in the cinema. Diehards bury themselves in the historic State Theatre from morning to night, making occasional side trips to venues such as Event Cinemas, Dendy Opera Quays, and the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne. This is exactly what I’d be doing if I only had the time. By any standards, the SFF is one of the city’s great cultural events.

Of the 254 movies in this year’s festival the main drawcards are the competition films, for which viewers can cast votes. There are numerous other features, of no lesser quality, from all over the world. There are Australian and international documentaries, a section devoted to European female filmmakers, shorts, restorations, films about music, horror movies, family films, and a special focus on South Korea and Ireland. David Stratton is curating a Martin Scorsese season as a warm-up for the director’s exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (until 18 Sept).

In addition there is a suite of four virtual reality films called Down the Rabbit Hole, at the Hub, in Sydney’s Lower Town Hall. Hossein Valamanesh has a four-channel video installation at Carriageworks, and the University of NSW galleries are showing two experimental interactive films by Dennis Del Favero and various collaborators.

For most people it will be all too much, but one can only admire the energy and ambition of festival director, Nashen Moodley, and his team. Gene Youngblood, who published the book, Expanded Cinema in 1970, would feel that his dreams have finally come true.

The marathon traditionally begins with a new Australian production, and the 2016 candidate was Ivan Sen’s Goldstone. As this column has to be filed before the screening, I’ll leave any comments for a later date, and discuss what I’ve been able to preview.

Most of the films I’ve seen so far have been documentaries. The exceptions are two competition pieces, Land of Mine and Childhood of a Leader. The former is an powerful story about real events that took place in the aftermath of the Second World War when German prisoners-of-war were forced to defuse the thousands of land mines their troops had buried along the Danish coast. The Danes have an understandable hatred of the Germans, who had occupied their country, but the soldiers expected to do this dangerous job are little more than boys.

Danish director, Martin Zandvliet, has made a tense, compact drama about the way war undermines our sense of common humanity. We know of the crimes committed by the Nazis, but it’s painful to see the way the Danish officers take revenge on these raw recruits who were the smallest cogs in the wheel. The characters are skilfully delineated and the acting is first-class.

Childhood of a Leader is a different proposition: a gloomy, arty, debut feature by American actor-turned-director, Brady Corbet. In three chapters, each identified with a different “tantrum”, it tells the story of a small boy named Prescott, whose father is an attaché with Woodrow Wilson’s mission to Paris at the end of World War One. The family has settled in a village on the outskirts of the city, where Prescott is learning French and testing his will against any form of parental discipline.

This is one of those movies that was more interesting in theory than in practice. It’s actually spoiled by theory, and by a horribly pedestrian script. We know Prescott will grow up to be a leader with fascist tendencies. It’s all spelled out with impeccable Freudian logic, but neither his parents’ coldness nor the circumstances of his life justify his repellent, egocentric personality. We could be watching a parody of a European arthouse film, with one curiosity being a soundtrack by Scott Walker, sixties pop star turned avatar of the avant-garde. The music is so loud, grating and discordant it drops sudden bursts of drama into a narrative that moves at a snail’s pace.

Of an excellent series of documentaries the most jaw-dropping may be Under the Sun by Russian director, Vitaly Mansky, who was given permission to make a film about a family in North Korea. There were, however, certain conditions attached: the authorities would write the script, choose the settings, and have a couple of minders supervising every aspect of the shoot. Mansky agreed to these strictures but left the camera running between takes. The results are devastating, as it reveals a system completely caught up in its own radical dishonesty.

The North Korea seen in this film is a Potemkin state in which the constant invocations of happiness and pride do nothing to mask the misery etched on the faces of its citizens. We follow a little girl called Zin-Mi through her day at school which is one long propaganda session on the heroic virtues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. As we watch Zin-Mi’s entry into the Children’s Union, and the ordeals she and her friends have to endure as they are lectured by a veteran dripping with medals, we realise this is a regime that allows no room for childhood. Every boy and girl is putty to be moulded into the correct shape.

We also follow Zin-Mi’s parents to their jobs in two “exemplary” factories, although Mansky tells us that both have been assigned completely different jobs by the film’s minders. Everything is phoney, every person looks terrified of putting a foot wrong and suffering some unspoken punishment. The minders keep exhorting people to look “more joyful” as they mouth the banal dialogue they have been assigned, but they remain resolutely blank-faced.

The film caused a diplomatic uproar when it was shown in Russia, with Mansky being accused of lying to his North Korean hosts – which seems a trifle hypocritical when the hosts were peddling a gigantic lie about the daily life of a nation. Nevertheless, one can’t help wondering if Zin-Mi and her family may have suffered in some way. The worst consequences would certainly be reserved for the minders who allowed Mansky to keep so much footage, never imagining it would make the final cut. The documentary would be comical if it wasn’t so desperately sad.

To turn from Under the Sun to Weiner takes us from complete fabrication to complete exposure. Unlike the North Koreans, who tried to control every aspect of the process, Anthony Weiner (pronounced “weener”) allowed Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg to fully document his 2013 campaign to be Mayor of New York City. The idea was to make a film about a great political comeback, instead they have made the definitive portrait of public humiliation.

Weiner’s problems began in 2011 when his career as a crusading Democrat congressman was undone by a sexting scandal. In sending a photograph of his erection bulging in his underpants to a 21-year old student in Seattle, he appears to have relayed the image on his Twitter account to more than 40,000 people. Weiner began by denying he was responsible, but eventually had to come clean and resign from office. The fact that his name echoes the American slang for penis, gave rise (sorry!) to dozens of suggestive headlines.

To make matters worse, Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is Hillary Clinton’s leading aide. She seems to be a stand-by-your-man type because she forgave her husband’s blunder, and even encouraged him to return to politics.

Weiner’s 2013 campaign begins brilliantly, only to be derailed by yet another sexting scandal. This time he had been sending obscene images to a range of women, including a would-be sex starlet named Sydney Leathers. Weiner’s choice of a nom-de-plume for this exercise was “Carlos Danger”. Although the images went out in 2011 they were sent after Weiner had resigned from Congress.

As the embarrassment becomes more acute we watch Weiner’s campaign unravelling in agonising detail. In the full glare of electioneering there is nowhere to hide, but he pushes on stubbornly, getting deeper and deeper into the mire.

Two other documentaries to be recommended in passing are Jheronimus Bosch - Touched by the Devil, in which a team of Dutch art investigators examine every known painting by the great Flemish master of the grotesque, in preparation for a show celebrating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. There’s nothing like an X-ray or two to reveal what a painter was really thinking.

Bosch was devoted to fire and damnation but he could never have imagined anything as infernal as the ordeal of two Finnish backpackers who come to work as barmaids in a remote town in Western Australia. Pete Gleeson’s Hotel Coolgardie is an 83-minute cringeathon that should have been included in the Horror section of the program. It reminds us of all those aspects of Australian life we never want to think about. What’s most remarkable is the completely natural way Gleeson’s subjects behave in front of the lens – like animals in the wild. It hardly bears contemplating that the presence of the camera may have had an inhibiting effect on their behaviour.

Sydney Film Festival 2016
8 – June
www.sff.org.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th June, 2016.