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St.Kilda Film Festival, 2004

Ice-Cream Hands

An impression by Bill Mousoulis

For me personally, the St.Kilda Film Festival was an important cultural event in the late ‘80s, when I was most actively making short films and seeking festival screenings for them. In the last 10 years or so, my attendance at the festival has flagged, coinciding with a certain change in short filmmaking in Australia, two c-words best summing that up – "comedy", "competition". There is no doubt we live in a de-valued film world currently, where films and filmmakers are less about art and more about a kind of card-carrying, gun-slinging success. The old days were indeed golden.

I’ve kept making short films in the intervening years mind you, just that my focus has been on features. Last year, I delved into video production for the first time, decking myself out with some DV gear, and I made several shorts, two of which were programmed in this year’s St.Kilda Film Festival. Thus this reflection.

Firstly, it was quite instructive seeing my work alongside other films, and understanding yet again how different my work is to anyone else’s. But I don’t want to discuss that here – I simply want to have a quick look at the festival, and the films I saw, for, indeed, this year I attended a number of sessions, not just the Opening Night session as in other years.

I saw 52 films for the first time, and had seen 18 others beforehand, making me familiar now with 70 of the titles on show. I always thought that with such a beast as the St.Kilda Film Festival, that if one sees enough films, one will actually see some pretty good ones in that lot. Well, der!

I wonder about the rejected films, though. Approx. 150 films were programmed, from approx. 650 submissions. I guess a few hundred of those rejected ones were Tropfest entries – one shudders at the abominable sea of trashy/amateur DV works that would be out there. And yet I know of two fine films that were in this lot of rejectees (Dirty Work by Jason Turley and The Object of My Affection by Natalie Vella), so I do indeed wonder about the works that missed out. I wonder if Paul Harris and his programming committee are over-generous when it comes to choosing the VCA and AFTRS films especially – if there’s some pressure to select most of those films, simply because the poor buggers need to be given this space at least (facts show that half of them will never direct another film, and only 10% will go on to have anything resembling a long-term career).

So, a quick summation of my feelings regarding the films I saw:

The worst films for me were those of a particular genre, and a quite dominant genre in the festival at that: the well-crafted family drama. These were polished, smooth films, but lacking anything significant in their conceptual design or formal sensibility. Rendezvous was the chief offender here, with its lazy stylistics, but other films such as Ash Wednesday, The Birthday Party, Kindling, Two Soldiers and And One Step Back weren’t too far behind, saved from total mediocrity only by an interesting element or two thrown into their naturally-conservative mix. And I must mention All the King’s Horses here, the much-anticipated film from Matt Norman. Much-anticipated because the director has been a refreshingly outspoken presence in the media recently, criticising the way the industry works. Unfortunately his film is simply a conventional family drama, with nothing special about it (apart from a solid performance from John Flaus). The family dramas that worked better were Alice and Collier Brothers Syndrome, which had an edge to them sorely missing from the aforementioned titles, and also Clutch and ALASKA, which possessed a levity and grace which are qualities always welcome in such stories.

Another genre to strike me during the festival, though there weren’t that many examples of it (that I myself happened to catch), was the mockumentary. Kenny was at the forefront here, but Pity 24 wasn’t too far behind. As enjoyable as these films were, I kept asking myself: isn’t this all a little too easy? And: when will the mockumentary veer away from comedy and towards a poignant, even spiritual, drama? Or does it attract only "smart-alec" sensibilities? In this regard, Bright Lights and Father perhaps point the way forward. A genre to watch.

Animation was also interesting to watch during the festival. Shadow in the Wood and Footnote were the highlights here, with their elaborate designs which didn’t neglect the emotions they were expressing (but only just!). Also of quality were The Projectionist and Liquidambar, despite both of them employing very known styles.

The absolute highlight of the festival for me was Ice-Cream Hands, a film about paedophilia. And it is an important film in that regard, asking brave questions such as "Is paedophilia per se, without any abuse, a bad thing?", but it’s mainly a stunning film due to its form, style and sense of aesthetics. It gets far away from the dreaded naturalism that seems to dominate Australian cinema, and goes for an eclectic, excited combination of various stylised elements.

It is one of three truly great films that the festival played (of the 70 I’ve seen – there could be others), the other two being films I saw last year, judging the Dendy Awards: Press Any Button and Fugue. These three films are great because they are what I would call "highly individuated" films – they don’t lazily copy other films, they find a very particular style that actually suits their subject matters, and they have, ultimately, a transcendental effect, being both intellectually and emotionally moving.

What else to mention? Well, maybe some superfluous programming – I’m not sure if The Forest and Roy Hollsdotter Live deserved a spot, after having been theatrically released earlier this year. And, a message to Scott Ryan – what were you thinking in creating a 30 min excerpt from your very fine feature The Magician? It adds nothing new to the project, and in fact detracts from it.

Finally, it was great to see Sue Brooks’ short films again, in the special session designed for this. It was wonderful to see Sue and Alison Tilson looking at their work and commenting – longingly! – on how experimental and feminist it was. And I can only concur. Their first feature Road to Nhill is a beautiful work, but I found Japanese Story implausible and overworked. That, perhaps, is the beauty of short films – they can show us a way forward, a way of bringing an edge and an intelligence to the features we make. God knows Australian features need such.

Best 10 films in the festival:

  1. Press Any Button
  2. Ice-Cream Hands
  3. Fugue
  4. Car Park
  5. Victim
  6. Bright Lights
  7. Alice
  8. Footnote
  9. Green Eyes
  10. Collier Brothers Syndrome

Worst 10 films in the festival:

  1. The Forest
  2. Rendezvous
  3. Sweetheart
  4. Yellow Brick Dreams
  5. All the King’s Horses
  6. Ash Wednesday
  7. Two Soldiers
  8. And One Step Back
  9. Kindling
  10. The Birthday Party