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50th Melbourne International Film Festival,
July-Aug 2001

A wonderful festival, slightly left-field of Sandra Sdraulig's (read: less American commercial films), with perhaps only the Ishii retrospective misfiring (his films are interesting, but not really worth spotlighting). I attended around 40 sessions, and whilst there was no masterpiece like last year's The Wind Will Carry Us or a stunner like '99's Sombre, there was still much to love and get excited by. In great cinema, there's always a moment when your heart jumps, or when a subtle mood pervades you. These are the eight titles (in preferential order) that created such for me:

1. The Piano Teacher     (Michael Haneke, 2001)     A surprise from Huppert, who's been on cruise control lately. She brims with fire and ice, and elevates the film above any kind of "exercise in violence" that one could accuse Haneke of.

2. A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake     (Jeroen Berkvens, 2000)     I'm a fan of Nick Drake, but this absolutely floored me. Inventive cinematography serves up the spaces Nick passed through, these images then complementing the music in an extraordinary way, radically challenging any notions that his music was "abstract" or "other-worldly". His sister's testimony, his mother's song and poem, the home movie footage – this is a glorious and essential document. I couldn't stop crying.

3. Gasherbrum: The Dark Glow of the Mountains     (Werner Herzog, 1984)     I genuinely prefer this to Lessons of Darkness, which I find over-determined and over-beautiful. Herzog's madness pays full dividends in Gasherbrum: we see crazy human endeavour, stunning natural light, and breathtaking snowy mountains.

4. The Circle     (Jafar Panahi, 2000)     In context, these images of harried and desperate women on the streets of Tehran are shocking in their urgency. Even more of a shock is the way Panahi breaks his style in favor of Kiarostami-like narrative elision.

5. Platform     (Jia Zhangke, 2000)     Ambitious, exciting, but somewhat muted overall, due to the over-dominance of long shots (we berate films that are full of close-ups, but the same criticism can be levelled the other way). This was the swiftest 155 minutes I've ever experienced – I was salivating for the original cut (193 mins).

6. Werckmeister Harmonies     (Béla Tarr, 2000)     A wise-child Everyman, who can make the Earth revolve around the Sun, is sacrificed to mankind. The allegorising seems to backfire at times (the Prince?), but the form remains brilliant throughout. Ironically, it was the walking sequences that had the audience members also walking.

7. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors     (Hong San-soo, 2000)     This works even better on a subsequent viewing. I wonder if the title suggests we should read the film in a feminist way. I love the way the director works very subtly – nothing is stressed, and, importantly, nothing concluded (the last sequence is nicely ambiguous).

8. The Isle     (Kim Ki-duk, 2000)     The most beautiful images I saw at MIFF this year, many of them having the poise, depth and resonance of compositions normally found in paintings. A film of terror, and the loss of the soul, but also of tenderness and understanding.

Of the other films I saw, I would group them roughly like this:

Good films, but nothing special: Eyeball to Eyeball programs, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?, La Soufriere, Lessons of Darkness, Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts, Labyrinth of Dreams, August in the Water, Crazy Family, Too Young, Birdland, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Smell of Camphor Fragrance of Jasmine, Little Otik, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, The Gleaners and I, 'R Xmas.

Mildly disappointing films from great directors: ABC Africa, Totally Flaky, Martha…Martha, Vengo.

Poor films: Lantana, Gojoe, Angel Dust, Crazy Thunder Road, Secret Tears, Soft for Digging, Face, The Beaver Trilogy, God's Angry Man, Huie's Sermon, Paperboys, The Low Down, Pretty Things.

Horrible films: Fuckland, The Chateau.

Finally, a humorous (for me, anyway) example of the "reality" status of films. Audience etiquette always fascinates me, and I like to keep a lookout for odd things. Anyway, it never ceases to amaze me how if one person coughs it sets off a chain reaction of three or four other people letting loose also. The amazing thing is that this may happen only once or twice during a film – the rest of the time everyone manages to hold it in! And so I had to chuckle when during one film (it may have been Martha…Martha), this chain reaction was set off at one point by a character on screen! Like, hello – you may have permission to cough if another audience member lets go, but not if it's done by a screen personage!

And a P.S. – congrats to all the staff of MIFF this year. Box office / ushers were terrific, especially with getting huge numbers quickly seated. And I was pleased with the projectionists too – the festival has been marred by bad focusing and sound problems in recent years, but all 40 sessions I attended went smoothly (mistakes being spotted and corrected quickly).

© Bill Mousoulis August 2001