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Relative, But Also Absolute:
The 53rd Sydney Film Festival, June 9-25, 2006

Mutual Appreciation

Whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, let us be thankful that we can still drink.  But let us also prod the barkeep to serve it up better next time.  As a Melbournite, I cannot help but constantly compare the Sydney film festival to the Melbourne one.  And it practically is “half” a festival compared to Melbourne: 14 days as opposed to 18 (1), three venues compared to five, approximately 250 separate sessions to 400, and around 120,000 admissions to 180,000. (2)  But, as the Brisbane festival has proven, it is not size alone which determines quality.  A festival needs a vision, a positive spirit, a subtle but clear edge, as it tries to present important and/or creative cinema alongside the more conventional titles (which it necessarily has to show, to ensure some kind of financial viability).  Under the direction of Anne Démy-Geroe and James Hewison, the Brisbane and Melbourne film festivals respectively have had that edge, bringing us some exciting new cinema in a programmed, conscious way.  Whatever great new films have played in Sydney in recent years (and I have attended four of the past seven festivals), they seem to have been there almost accidentally, the directors (Lynden Barber recently and Gayle Lake in previous years) lacking any programming edge, and even personal presence.  Under Gayle Lake especially, the festival presented some wonderful, extensive retrospectives (Eustache, Clarke, Antonioni), but its programming of new material was hodge-podge, all manner of films thrown together in the one big brew, providing little guidance for the audience member.  This year, the programming was clearly split into distinct categories, providing more of a focus for the viewer.  But I was surprised to hear, as soon as I got to the festival, that Lynden Barber was actually stepping down as Artistic Director, after just two years at the helm.  It is clear that the Sydney festival is in the process of change (to expand its audience, to have sharper programming) and Lynden Barber has contributed to that.  I would suggest that the appointed director for 2007, Clare Stewart, who is both a passionate cinephile and solid administrator, will clearly be trying to push the festival into a new era.  And, wouldn’t you know it, Stewart is … from Melbourne.


But we perhaps shouldn’t be saying that Sydney wants to be more like Melbourne – it really just needs to become a more modern and successful festival in its own right.  There are good signs: the ticketing options are increasing, and the festival is getting bigger (even just four years ago, there were only around 170 sessions, as opposed to the 250 this year).  This year, for the first time, I got the impression that more younger people (20-40) were attending.  The older crowd are still there, mainly at the State Theatre venue, and that’s fine.  Any large festival these days has to be a festival for everyone, and I believe that (within the context of a conservative Australia) the larger and more successful a festival is, the more chance it will have of featuring some of the more interesting works that world cinema has to offer.  (On the big screen that is – it is incontrovertible that most of the world’s best films are seen mainly on DVD, bought from niche distributors, or accessed through networks of collectors/cinephiles/filmmakers.)


So, all these issues aside, what was the festival like this year, what did I enjoy?  Firstly, one thing I didn’t enjoy was the ticketing system for the media.  Now, this matter may not interest you in the slightest, dear reader, but it is something I need to obviously report in this review of mine.  Several days into the festival, the system in place for media tickets, which was a problematic system in itself, was completely scrapped for an even more problematic system: the media couldn’t book any sessions in advance, they had to line up before each screening, and only a maximum of 10 media people were allowed into any session.  Well, there went any peace of mind.  And lo and behold, the obvious problem happened: I was refused entry into one session even though it was far from sold out.  It was all Ticketmaster’s fault – according to the festival publicists.  But where does the buck stop?


The films.  It’s what it’s all about.  No Opening Night shenanigans for me (this year it was Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr’s Ten Canoes [2006], a bold, imaginative film, and a great choice for an Opening) or any of the Gala Event screenings on offer.  This was a curious move on the part of the festival – highlighting six films (mainly Australian ones, such as The Bet [Mark Lee, 2006]) as “gala event”s, giving each of them half a page in the program guide.  A way of attracting excitement and generating an audience?  Yes, and why not?  Actually, I did see one of these events, the presentation of the Harold Lloyd film Girl Shy (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1924) in the State Theatre, with live musical accompaniment, indeed creating an event, one of nostalgia, as the crowd whooped it up at the comedic antics of the silent film star.  (The film itself, a modest love/action piece, seemed to get lost in the show of it all.)


In its quest to split its program into distinctive categories and sidebars, the festival ended up with only 13 titles in its normally full and varied Contemporary World Cinema section.  All of these were screened at the State Theatre, in prime-time slots, and consisted mainly of commercial releases such as United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) and Friends With Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006), but also one oddity in La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, 2005), an apparently surrealist concoction which I didn’t see, but which certainly had specatators’ tongues wagging.  The two films from within this section that I did see were Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006), an enjoyable but inconsequential crowd-pleasing quirky American indie flick, and Stestí (Something Like Happiness) (Bohdan Sláma, 2005), a typically safe middlebrow Czech arthouse film (which certainly had the elderly gent next to me sleeping soundly).


Next up in the program guide was Australian Made, consisting of 12 sessions, but not including the aforementioned The Bet or Ten Canoes, nor other Australian titles in other sections, making this business of splitting films into categories a touch confusing.  Consisting mainly of documentaries such as Mohammad Hossain’s Intensive Care (Geoff Burton, 2006) and John Hughes’ fine document of the Realist Film Unit in Victoria in the ‘40s/’50s, The Archive Project (2006), this section featured one fictional feature, the exquisite Call Me Mum (Margot Nash, 2006).  The story of an indigenous boy’s separation from his mother and upbringing by a white woman, this is a highly stylised, but also emotionally charged, tale of abuse, love, reconciliation, bigotry.  The theatrical monologues are offset by the beauty of the design and overall direction, creating a genuinely cinematic work.  More importantly, there is nothing tentative or sentimental about the film: it clearly details the realities of stolen kids, and it aches along with its characters.


I only saw a few films from the following three sections: Digital Media Strand (five sessions), Latin Horizons (nine features), and Red Hot Docs (19 features).  From within the Danish Spotlight, I saw all three films of what’s been labelled “The Pusher Trilogy”, from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  The first film, Pusher, which hails from 1996, is a highly entertaining, punky romp through the grimy lives of several street crims.  Derivative of Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) and Tarantino, it nevertheless has its own personality, as evinced by the subsequent two films in the series, Pusher II (With Blood On My Hands) (2004) and Pusher 3 (I’m the Angel of Death) (2005), which are glorious, evocative films, drawing great poignancy and depth from the lives of the now aged, embattled protagonists.  Also in the Danish Spotlight, Adams æbler (Adam’s Apples) (Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005) boldly collides a neo-Nazi figure with that of a priest, and doesn’t shy away from the inherent violence in both mind-sets, but the film is a black comedy, with touches of whimsy and sentimentality, so the themes of good and evil are not explored rigorously at all.  Still, it is an eye-catching work, and a sign that Danish cinema is individual and vital (with or without someone like Lars von Trier as Godfather).


Next in the program guide (I’m going through these in order, to give you a sense of the presentation) was World in Focus, containing eight titles.  Clearly, the programmers split the films into too many categories, as this section is no different from the Contemporary World Cinema one at the head of proceedings.  The one difference being that these films played at the secondary venues, the Dendy Opera Quays and George Street Cinemas.  Again, an eclectic lot, from the minimalist Mang zhong (Grain in Ear) (Zhang Lu, 2005) to the grand River Queen (Vincent Ward, 2005), I saw just the one title on offer here: Police Beat (Robinson Devor, 2005).  A good example of a kind of American independent cinema that has always existed (Jost, Nunez, Sayles) but often overshadowed by flashier models (Jarmusch, Hartley, Van Sant), this is a modest and beautiful film about a young African man as he negotiates his way through his connection to his girlfriend and the broader world (the harsh things he encounters in his rounds as a policeman).  The tone of the film is too gentle perhaps, but as a portrait of humility and grace, it is a satisfying and welcome work.


Hot Spot was a section for “the new films getting the chat rooms, fan sites and word of mouth networks excited”.  That may be so, but two of the five films on offer (Brick [Rian Johnson, 2005] and Hard Candy [David Slade, 2005]) got a theatrical release subsequently, so they may not exactly be that cutting-edge or controversial (I didn’t see them).  The one title I saw here was Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006), an English film about troubled teens.  The film is a bundle of energy, teeming with great portraits of the kids, their language, their culture (e.g. grime music), but as it goes along, the film constantly builds its dramatic effect, to the extent that it concludes with a Shakespearean tragic ending that is quite weak, robbing the film of the power it initially had as social commentary.


The next section in the program guide (and we’re now clearly into the second half, where the best sections have been relegated to) was Visionaries, comprising seven strong titles (including Aleksandr Sokurov’s Solntse [The Sun] [2005], which I didn’t see).  This is where we find the highlight of the festival for me: Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven) (2005), the second feature film from the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas (whose debut was the striking Japón [2002]).  A simple story (though with a complicated, unclear back-story) about a belittled man lashing out at the world around him, the film is marred by its bookend scenes (of explicit fellatio, designed to startle the viewer), stopping it just short of masterpiece status.  Different to the loose, long quality of his debut, Reygadas utilises a compact, powerful mise-en-scene this time around, as he charts the strange, and ultimately redemptive, journey of his portly, timid chauffeur (and his wife, who figures significantly in the latter stages).  This is an “existential horror” film, in the vein of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003) or Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), films that take their protagonists into primal, ultimate places, often involving violent murder. Batalla en el cielo isn’t as extreme (or as narrow) as those films, but it’s clearly daring its viewers into the same realm.  And because of their extreme subject matter, these films can actually risk looking ridiculous (or comic). (3) 


Also in Visionaries: the universally-loved Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times) (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2005), a film of great beauty and lyricism, starring the increasingly iconic Chang Chen;  Workingman’s Death (Michael Glawogger, 2005), a powerful but overlong documentary on working men (and women) in different parts of the world, featuring a bold (some reckon gratuitous) section in an open-air African abattoir-cum-market;  and Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004), an inventive Japanese anime that revels in jumping its style and story about in all sorts of colourful ways.


From Shifting Sands: The Changing Face of the Middle East and North Africa, I saw one title (of eight on offer): Ahlaam (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2005), an Iraqi fictional film actually shot on the war-torn streets of Baghdad, in Rossellini-like neo-realist style.  Obviously a film of urgency, as it details the damage done to ordinary people by the warring parties, the film has some moving, powerful passages, but just as many clunky, melodramatic ones.


Also near the back of the program, the Celluloid Soccer section (three titles), and Hong Kong Express (four titles), of which I saw two films: Sup chuk sui dik ha tin (A Side, B Side, Sea Side) (Chan Wing-chiu, 2005), a film about teens growing up, which I wanted to like, because of its modest and charming nature, but which I found overall to be flat and uninteresting; and McDull, the Alumni (Leung Chun ‘Samson’ Chiu, 2006), a pleasant but forgettable anime/live action film.


As in previous years, one of the main highlights of this year’s Sydney Film Festival was the main retrospective program: A Band of Outsiders – The Cinematic Underworld of Jean-Pierre Melville.  Perfectly presented (with neat introductions) by Melbourne Cinémathèque co-curator Adrian Danks, the retrospective screened seven of Melville’s features, together with a documentary on him.  Film buffs have long been familiar with the late-period cool gangster films Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), and the extraordinary, expansive Resistance film L’Armée des ombres (1969), but it was good to see these works again, together with earlier incarnations of the gangster work in Bob le flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1963).  Melville’s universe in these films is cold, hard, painful, but also full of camaraderie, exhilaration, hope – but only fleetingly, as the characters (men mainly) must die.  It’s a noir world, thoroughly.  Which is what makes Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) even more astonishing.  A film I’d never seen before, this took me by surprise, and absolutely thrilled me.  Atypically for Melville, the main protagonist is a woman (a superb Emmanuelle Riva), though a male features in a significant role (Jean-Paul Belmondo as a priest).  Stylistically also, the meticulous building up of details into lengthy sequences is gone, replaced by a clipped, epiphanic form.  The woman, a fiercely intelligent and emotionally rich being, grapples with the physical and philosophical presence of the priest in her life.  It’s both a literate and heart-rending work.  Could Melville have made more of these types of films, rather than the gangster films?  He died youngish, in his 50s, making only 13 features.


And finally, right at the end of the program guide, Indie Screen, with six titles.  Two of them by the young American indie director Andrew Bujalski, who has garnered critical acclaim and festival attention for these low-budget works of his, and indeed he himself was at the festival, to enthusiastically speak about (and also defend) his work.  Not having read anything on the films, I didn’t know what to expect.  His debut Funny Ha Ha (2002) hit the screen and I felt like I’d been transported back to the ‘80s, with the Academy Ratio 16mm. beaming out.  As the film rolled on, I kept thinking: why are people so excited by this modest, undistinguished film about an awkward girl and her friends?  Are they so mired in post-modern excess that the slightest hint of passion and sincerity is a revelation?  I am skeptical about any kind of hype, and the danger is that someone like Bujalski gets championed at the expense of other, similar, filmmakers.  Mind you, I saw Funny Ha Ha for a second time, and I started warming to it, and I then saw Mutual Appreciation (2005) and was blown away.  A quantum leap from the self-conscious fumblings (by both the director and the characters) in Funny Ha Ha, this film is a cracking, complex study of manners and relations between a musician and his circle of friends and acquaintances.  Everything feels fresh and invigorated here: the natural acting, the sprightly camera moves, the empathy between the characters.  An élan (for both life and the cinema) bursts from the screen, in a clearly Nouvelle Vague fashion – or post-Nouvelle Vague, as the film reminds one of La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore) (Jean Eustache, 1973).  Or maybe we’re just in Linklater/slacker mode, and Bujalski will drift off to Hollywood.  Who knows?


Speaking of slackers, the micro-budget Australian film Burke and Wills (Matthew Zeremes & Oliver Torr, 2005), also in Indie Screen, had its first major Australian screening, after a surprise selection in Tribeca.  A low-key tale about two 20-something guys (played by the directors) living together, it’s an interesting work in the way it swings from comedy to drama to tragedy.  I was impressed by the highly formal style (many scenes played out in the single shot), but this was devalued by the checkerboard editing (designed to jazz proceedings up) and the directors’ admission that the style was actually determined by the budget.  Ra Choi (Michael Frank, 2005) was another micro-budget Australian film in the program, about (mainly Asian) street kids.  At the session I attended, the festival director Lynden Barber was calling it “tough and uncompromising”, with “a sense of authenticity”.  Well, maybe from some sheltered, middle-class perspective, but from where I stand, the film is, despite some good scenes and the overall energy of the cast, cliché-ridden and conventional.


The Indie Screen section also had an Israeli film, Yamim Kfuim (Frozen Days) (Danny Lerner, 2005), a taut thriller-cum-narrative puzzle, and an American film, Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006), which I didn’t see.


Apart from all the film screenings, I also attended several of the Filmspeak: Forums and Lectures.  Most of these were held in the Festival Lounge, situated underneath the State Theatre.  Unlike the festival lounge area at the Melbourne film festival, with is a large space in the Forum Theatre, the Sydney festival lounge is of compact size, which is actually conducive to the activity of talk.  The several forums I witnessed (one on Melville, one on digital aesthetics, one on low-budget filmmaking) were all well-attended (around 100 people, on weekday early afternoons) with the audience attentive and informed and informative.  And the speakers were interesting to listen to, for example Adrian Danks elaborating on Melville and questions of cinema away from the strictures of the intros he gave to the films, Ray Argall discussing the merits of various digital production modes as compared to film ones, and Michael Frank and Margot Nash openly expressing their frustrations as low-budget filmmakers in a difficult climate.  Sometimes the audience were even better: the questions thrown up by filmmaker Michael Thornhill, or the details divulged by historian Barrett Hodsdon.  Never in Melbourne.  Congratulations to Tina Kaufman and the rest of the crew for making the forums a successful part of the festival.


I didn’t attend the Dendy Awards for short films, or the Closing Night session – Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2005).


The Sydney Film Festival is obviously trying to expand, and keep attracting more of an audience.  It is on the right track, and it will certainly be interesting to see how it changes shape under the direction of Clare Stewart in the coming years.




2006 Dendy Awards for Australian Short Film



Winner: Girl in a Mirror

Directed by Kathy Drayton



Winner: Girl in a Mirror

Directed by Kathy Drayton



Winner: Looking Back

Directed and Produced by Mark Tsukasov



Winner: Stranded

Directed by Stuart McDonald



Winner: The Eye Inside

Directed by Cordelia Beresford



Winner: The Safe House

Directed and animated by Lee Whitmore



Winner: Switch on the Night

Directed by Alejandra Canales


FIPRESCI Award for Best Documentary
Winner: Favela Rising

Directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary




1. Of full programming: Melbourne has an extra day for Opening Night, whilst Sydney has an extra three days, for Opening Night, the Dendy Awards / Closing Night, and some extra screenings (to show some unprogrammed Cannes titles).  Counting these days, Sydney spans 17 days in total, Melbourne 19.  Melbourne, however, has been at the 19-day mark for some years now, whilst Sydney was at the 15-day level in recent years.


2. According to figures released by the festivals.  This actually equates to an average-attendance-per-session of 480 for Sydney, 450 for Melbourne.  Feeling the “buzz” levels at each festival, it is hard to believe that the Melbourne average could be less than the Sydney one, but this is probably explained by the high levels of older people who attend Sydney, quietly sitting within the grandness of the State Theatre.


3. Maybe this is why James Hewison refused to program the film for the Melbourne International Film Festival?  Whatever the reason, the film was denied any debate it may have generated among cinephiles in Melbourne, and I was denied the chance to see it again.

© Bill Mousoulis July 2006
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.41, November 2006..