Scandinavian Film Festival 2016

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 July 2016



© by Jane Freebury  land of mine poster

Arriving with the mid-winter chill, the Scandinavian Film Festival is back on cue this July. By turns bold and beautiful, Scandinavian cinema can be outrageous, funny and frank, and can deliver a jolt, like a shot of vodka, straight to the solar plexus.

As a catch-all for countries of the Nordic tradition, the festival captures the latest cinema from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as Finland and Iceland. It is now in its third year.

In recent times, Scandinavian film has been acquiring a bit of a name for itself. As It Is in Heaven was a uniquely stirring, endorphin releasing film from the region that was a soaring hit here in Australia around 12 years ago. With Michael Nyqvist as an ailing conductor who rediscovers joy with a choir in his remote hometown, this film ran continuously at the Hayden Orpheum cinema in Cremorne, Sydney, for more than two years.

A special event at the Scandinavian festival this year will be its sequel. As It Is in Heaven 2: Heaven on Earth, made by the same director, Kay Pollak, picks up where the original left off, after Nyqvist’s character passes away. The young Norwegian actor, Jakob Oftebro, who appears in it, is this year’s festival guest.

Oftebro was recently recognized as one of the top ten best young European actors in 2014. He also appears in the lead in the historical drama, Gold Coast, as a rebellious, anti-colonialist idealist who is sent to a Danish colony in Africa in the 19th century. The film was a recent nominee for the top film prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Idealism is also explored in another Danish film due to screen. It concerns the actions of a journalist who exposes an international cover-up following a nuclear accident in Greenland in 1968. The Idealist has won several awards, and indeed, nearly all of the films screening at the festival have been either film festival nominees or awards winners.

Land of Mine, the winner of the best film award this year at Gothenburg, the Nordic film awards, is also screening at Scandi.  For the Gothenburg jury it is ‘a film which shows the tragic cycles of war, when the winners adopt the brutal techniques of the losers’. It was in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival.

the fencer poster Another intimate human drama in the aftermath of WWII is The Fencer, Finland’s official Oscar contender. Based on real events, it is about a fencing master and former reluctant recruit to the German armed forces, who settles in a remote village in Estonia in an attempt to leave his past behind.

Welcome to Norway!, selected for opening night of the festival, promises to throw political correctness to the winds with comedy about a struggling entrepreneur who turns his rundown hotel into a state-funded refugee asylum to stay financially afloat. Welcome to Norway! won the audience award earlier this year at the Nordic awards at Gothenburg.

welcome to norway posterWhen one of the big news stories emanating from Europe now is immigration, the Swedish documentary, Nice People, seems particularly topical. It reveals how rural Swedes and Somali refugees find common language as they form a team to play ‘bandy’, a cross between ice hockey and soccer, apparently. Clearly a crowd pleaser, it won the audience award at the 2015 Hamburg Film Festival.

nice people poster  Around a quarter of the films screening at the Scandi festival are billed as comedies, or variants of. Some memorable comedies have emerged from Scandinavia in recent years. The Swedish absurdist comedy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, featured at the inaugural Scandinavian festival in 2014. Robert Gustafsson played the part of the centenarian whose life odyssey was revealed in the vein of Forrest Gump. The actor, a king of comedy in Sweden, turned out to be a sprightly 50-year-old. If you caught Headhunters from Norway, another Scandinavian festival film that went into release here in 2014, it was also a riot of hilarity, though of a more grisly and twisted kind.

Last year, Rams from Iceland appeared on the festival program. I suppose you might call it comedy, in spite of itself, but it is more memorable for the extraordinary landscapes and the dogged and perverse resilience of the Icelanders that it introduced us to.

Many of us have become addicts of the morally complex crime fiction that’s become known as ‘Nordic noir’, in TV series like The Bridge and Borgen. This is distinct from the ‘Nordic gloom’ that Scandinavian cinema has been known for, fairly or unfairly. That grand old man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman, long gone now, who left us with unforgettable movie experiences like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, can’t be held entirely responsible for this reputation.

Not when there are striking dark journeys into the soul in the terrific films of the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier like Open Hearts and Brothers.  The new enfant terrible of Danish cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn has brushed aside his aging predecessor, Lars Von Trier, for the time being at least with work that is visually arresting, propulsive and harrowing like Drive and Only God Forgives.

A sidebar of the festival is Winding Refn’s Pusher gangland trilogy. Don’t be fooled by this director’s bland image of the corporate clone. His work typically has style to burn but is not for the faint-hearted. The trilogy features early performances by the remarkable Mads Mikkelsen, who has shown his sensitive side to international audiences since in dramas like The Hunt and After the Wedding.

The Scandi cinema has built quite a profile in recent years, and its actors, like ours, are flying high. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Sweden was huge, so huge that it had to be remade it in English with Daniel Craig. The Millennium series’ original star, Noomi Rapace, has joined the international film industry, as has Mads Mikkelsen, playing opposite James Bond in Casino Royale, and Alicia Vikander, in Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl.

It’s quite a record for a group of countries spread across vast arctic spaces with a combined population that adds up to just 26 million people.

The Scandinavian Film Festival screens between 12 – 27 July at the Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, ACT.


Scorsese by Stratton

   raging bull

© Jane Freebury

When he notched up 18 years as director of the Sydney Film Festival, David Stratton became a founding father of movie culture in this country. He needs no introduction. While he was a TV film critic opposite Margaret Pomeranz for the next three decades, their opinions mattered to people across the generations and it is likely they are still missed.

Over the years, Stratton would have seen countless filmmakers, actors and movie trends come and go, and re-invent themselves. So a season of the work of Martin Scorsese, one of the best filmmakers of the last 50 or so years, curated by Stratton, is an especially happy coincidence of film buff critic and film buff director. It would be great to see them go head to head, but we have instead, during July, a season of 17 films from the oeuvre of Scorsese. ‘Scorsese by Stratton’ is on at Arc cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive during July.

Stratton’s views and opinions are probably better known in this country than the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese. It is something of a paradox.

The name Scorsese stands as a shorthand for the violent, masculine drama that lets rip in Casino and Goodfellas, yet the diminutive and softly spoken Italian-American is a far more versatile filmmaker than he is generally thought to be. We may think we are pretty familiar with movies. Who hasn’t heard of his infamous protagonists, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street? We certainly know the Scorsese name and that his films are about what it means to be a man in the modern world, but when it comes down to it, how well do we know his body of work?

It’s not so much that his films have pulled in massive crowds, either. It’s that he happens to make the landmark movie, a sort of summary statement, or first telling observation or last word. And everyone recognizes the quality of his work, the thought that has gone behind it, the knowledge of cinema that supports it, and the skill and sensitivity that has gone into his images, choice of music and use of sound, or silence, as in Raging Bull. Scorsese is the filmmakers’ filmmaker. He has received the most Academy Award nominations for best director of anyone else alive, and has won once, for The Departed in 2007.

Two films by Scorsese, Kundun a drama about the Dalai Lama and The Last Temptation of Christ, deal directly with religion. Not exclusively, as religion comes up in his films again and again. The former altar boy and trainee priest still seems to be working things through. You can’t miss the crucifixes and other religious iconography in films from Raging Bull (one of his best ever), to Cape Fear (not included in the program), but you can expect to find recurring allusions to religion scattered everywhere throughout in his work. And Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, due for release this year, concerns Jesuits in Japan.

Since being engrossed in the theatricality of church ritual, Scorsese seems to have been ruminating on the difference between good and evil for his entire career. ‘Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane,’ writes Stratton in his accompanying film notes.King of Comedy 1

A less familiar Scorsese character will be Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in King of Comedy, another film that belies Scorsese’s reputation for gangsters. In this film from 1983, Pupkin (not Pumpkin!), a mama’s boy who re-enacts interviews in his basement with life-size cut-outs, tries to kidnap his idol, a celebrity talk-show host played by Jerry Lewis. Billed as a comedy that is ‘no laughing matter’, this off-kilter caper is a weird and singular experience.

Scorsese is also held in high regard for his treatment of music, as audio to his vision or the subject of his work. A significant number of his films are about music makers. He is responsible for one of the best-ever rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, a doco on the last concert given by The Band, along with some of their famous friends. Other terrific muso documentaries include the more recent Shine A Light, a Rolling Stones concert plus interviews, George Harrison: Material World, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.

Cate Blanchett is said to have asked Scorsese when he was going to make another film with a woman in the centre. Undoubtedly others have asked the same question.

Liza Minelli made music with Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s New York New York and Ellen Burstyn invited Scorsese to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but the lavish and subtle Scorsese film about a 19th century socialite, played by Michelle Pfeiffer opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, was a revelation that we haven’t yet seen repeated.

The Age of Innocence of 1993 turns on obsessive, repressed desire.  It explores the dilemma of a lawyer, destined for a socially approved match, who becomes infatuated with another woman. Their affair shakes New York society to its foundations. It is great to see this film has a spot in Stratton’s ‘top ten’ personal Scorsese favourites.Age of Innocence

Scorsese shot to prominence in 1974 with Mean Streets. He had made it for $550,000, premiered it at Cannes, then showed it at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney. ‘The rest,’ notes Stratton, ‘is history.’

The NFSA, in association with the Sydney Film Festival and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is screening this season of Martin Scorsese films (including ten of David Stratton’s favourites) at Arc Cinema during July.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times:


HotDocs in Oz in 2016

A version of this article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 June 2016

© Jane Freebury

Ingrid bergman in her own words

Ask anyone, who you don’t expect will know the answer, for the name of the highest earning documentary of all time. There’s a good chance they’d nominate Fahrenheit 9/11. And they’d be right.

Michael Moore’s controversial, polemical doco of 2004 screened in more than 40 countries, even in parts of the Middle East. Although ineligible for the Oscars it was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Palme d’Or, the first documentary to win the coveted award in over 50 years. Maybe it changed the world, like the leap in public awareness of global warming after the release of An Inconvenient Truth just two years later. It certainly showed documentary filmmakers everywhere what was possible.

In general, docos don’t usually do quite so well, though there have been some recent superb breakthroughs into general theatrical exhibition like Man on Wire, Inside Job, Grizzly Man, The Gleaners and I, Touching the Void, and Waltz With Bashir.

You can count the number of Australian docos that passed the $1 million threshold at the local box office on one hand, but they include two released over the last 16 months. Sherpa and That Sugar Film.

There’s plenty more where these films come from, here and around the world. With the demise of grand narratives, the rise of citizen activism and the proliferation of affordable high-definition technology it is possible to shoot a film that can look great in cinemas, let alone streamed to TV or tablet. Could it be that the more incredible the comic book superhero exploits become and despite more accomplished and astonishing CGI, the more we yearn for the touchstone of reality of real people and situations?

In its first year here, HotDocs takes place at Palace Cinemas this month in three cities only, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.The 24 films selected for the program are recent releases and sourced from 15 countries. They are drawn from the program of the annual Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, the largest doco fest in North America.

I asked Richard Moore, the artistic director for HotDocs in Australia and a former documentary filmmaker himself (as well as a very experienced festival programmer), what assistance documentaries need to screen in front of audiences in cinemas? ‘Screen space in the right cinema that will support them, that won’t drop them after …’

‘A week!’, I suggest.

‘No, four days! I’ve seen that happen.’

And what did he think the best docos had to offer in this ‘golden age’ where anyone can be a documentary filmmaker? ‘A story about a part of life that you would never in your wildest dreams have access to. That’s what docos do, they take you into another world. Something you would never have dreamt of.’

How do you decide on 24 documentary films from the hundreds of contenders from around the world available on the HotDocs program in Canada? ‘I try to be as diverse as possible… as fresh as possible.’

Diving into the Unknown

HotDocs offers great access into rarely accessed worlds. The program includes I Am the Blues, a musical travelogue through Mississippi, from front porches to church halls, that pays a visit to living legends of the blues. Diving into the Unknown follows an attempt to explore a 5-kilometre long and 130-metre deep cave in Norway, when things go horribly wrong halfway for the five Finnish divers.

152x215xhot16whattomorrowbrings.poster.jpg.pagespeed.ic.YSxjoFvCsb What Tomorrow Brings enters the first girls’ school in a  small Afghan village where fathers have not previously allowed their daughters to be educated, and even now are not sure about it. Raving Iran visits a group of young people active in the illegal underground techno scene.

Intimate journeys include Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, with material from the Swedish legend’s private screen tests and her own private movies—she carried a camera everywhere, like Mia Wasikowska does. Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth) narrates. There are also docos on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prodigious filmmaker who died at 37 with 42 films to his name, and the fiery surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo. Jim: the James Foley Story has been made by a close childhood friend of the American photojournalist, kidnapped in Syria, whose public execution introduced the world to ISIS.

A timely study of the use of medical marihuana, A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana is receiving its world premiere at the festival with the other Australian doco featured. Motorkite Dreaming, in which young microlight adventurers journey across the continent, led by two Aboriginal guides, provides the ultimate bird’s eye perspective on our island continent. Every doco is, as they say, a passion project.


HotDocs is screening at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from 14 June to 3 July 2016.

The Big Steal – retrospective published in Metro


My detailed study of The Big Steal (1990), an Australian classic from director Nadia Tass and cinematographer, writer and producer David Parker, is published in the latest issue, Issue188, of Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine.;dn=043748660739850;res=IELAPA


inaugural American indie film festival

Also published in the Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald (online) on 11 May 2016


Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now

by © Jane Freebury

            Jane Got A Gun







Natalie Portman in Jane Got A Gun



Who would claim that Hollywood deserves what it earns at the box office? It gets much more than its fair share, has had a hold on popular culture forever, and it speaks to 16-34 year-olds everywhere.

Even in France and China it gets a massive box office despite the language barrier. Last year Furious 7, and the Avengers and Jurassic World sequels were in the top six in both countries. And lo and behold, Stars Wars: the Force Awakens, Minions and Spectre were alongside them the top six  in France and the francophone countries.

So how do you pitch a festival of American independent cinema to the sceptical punter who doesn’t think they need to see more American movies? Or who doesn’t hold Hollywood in high regard?

A mention of relatively recent indie greats like Lost in Translation, Memento, Donnie Darko, or Reservoir Dogs, the film that announced Quentin Tarantino, or Waking Life won’t go astray. The best indies are often as adventurous in form as they are in content.

Established mainstream actors return to the indie sector and sometimes accomplish some of their best work there. Richard Gere, whose career has at times been indifferent, makes an appearance as a homeless man in the film Time Out of Mind. Set in a New York captured naturalistically in deep focus and described by the trade magazine Variety as a ‘haunting piece of urban poetry’, it is due to open a new festival of American independent film at Palace cinema during May.

Time Out of Mind directed by Oren Moverman is the first film off the block at the inaugural festival of American indie cinema, Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now, opening this month.

A couple of indie westerns on the program also disclose a star presence or two. Sam Worthington took time off from Avatar for The Keeping Room and Natalie Portman appears alongside her Star Wars co-star Ewan McGregor in Jane Got a Gun.

Despite these actors opting for a low profile here, the indie is of course not about stars of high concepts or expensive special effects and the commercial bottom line.  It’s about message, sensibility and the adventurousness in form and content that is to be seen in films like The Fits, Machine Gun or Typewriter? and Sixty Six, a labour of love that took 13 years to make.

The FitsArtistic director of the Essential Independents festival, Richard Sowada, has curated a fine combination of American indies both current and classic, fiction feature and documentary, that should go some distance towards establishing a point of difference between Hollywood and the independent tradition. His program also includes documentaries like the last film made by the great American documentarian Albert Maysles and a doco revisiting country music icon Johnny Cash.

So what is distinctive about the American indie film? It is vibrant, urgent and honest, says Sowada, and has a unique level of awareness of the creative tradition in which it is embedded. A respect for films that have gone before, is what he really likes about American independent cinema. ‘It’s what’s so good about films from a strong filmic culture. […] They do look back, and they do take the lessons that the masters and incorporate them into their works.’

Economy is another trait. In terms of running time, American indies are usually ‘brief and to the point’, he observes.  ‘Even the longest in the program is only two hours long. Everything else, even including from the 1970s and the 60s, clocks in at 90 minutes or less. […]And that comes from the commercial tradition… You just hit the audience with everything you’ve got, there’s half a dozen knock-out blows in there… And then you say goodbye.’

Like the short film, the indie can often be the brave and ambitious calling card for the aspiring creative.

It can kick-start acting careers. Since appearing in Donnie Darko in 2001, actor Jake Gyllenhaal can take his pick of roles. It was a film from the indie sector that also launched the careers of Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst. They had both been around a while before they became big names, thanks to the impact of Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, respectively. Both, as it happens, directed by Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides screens in the ‘essential originals’ section of the festival.

Other definitive indies curated represent a defining career moment from some of today’s  top filmmakers. The Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple was their first ever film, a first-time filmmaker statement if ever there was one. Stranger Than Paradise, also released in 1984, that was a huge boost to the reputation of Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog) and vampire horror Near Dark, the first solo feature from Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Slacker, an early feature from Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater also appears. Linklater brought us the recent coming of age  Boyhood and sublime relationship Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy.

Sowada groups the American indie sector into three strands: films of New York, Austin (Texas) and San Francisco. Films from New York feature on this occasion, under the rubric ‘ Essential New York’. Cruising, a harshly realistic thriller with Al Pacino as an officer of the NYPD on the trail of a serial killer. I recall this William Friedkin piece being confronting in its authenticity. A different kind of grittiness characterises The French Connection with Gene Hackman, also by Friedkin. Its chase sequence remains one of the best of all time.

An indispensable classic of the great American independent tradition, Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger), will also screen. A small-time hustler (Dustin Hoffman) and a male prostitute (Jon Voight) drift together and become friends who look after each other on the mean streets of New York. It is immensely moving, unforgettable really. It won the Oscar for best film in 1969 and, despite this mainstream endorsement, is still one of the most iconic indies ever.

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now screens between 19 May and 1 June at Palace Electric, New Acton, ACT.


Spanish Film Festival 2016

Also published in the Canberra Times on 9 April 2016 at:


embrace of the serpent

© Jane Freebury

It wasn’t that long ago, well maybe it was 20 years, when for  many of us moviegoers the Spanish cinema was synonymous with the work of Pedro Almodovar. And vice versa.

His films were irreverent, often dark, sexy and funny, and he was prolific. There were gender-bending, taboo-breaking melodramas like High Heels and Live Flesh that seemed to lead the way out of the last vestiges of the political repression and social conformity of Spain’s post-fascist era. Audiences loved him for it.

Since then, it has become clear that exuberance and stylistic panache is widespread among Spanish language films in Spain as well as South and Central America. Think Pan’s Labyrinth, Blancanieves, The Orphanage, Open Your Eyes,  Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Wild Tales, a favourite of mine last year.

The Spanish Film Festival this year offers plenty of this distinct film culture, with 41 films (32 features and 9 shorts). They hail from Spain, from Argentina and Chile, and there are a number of coproductions.

There is even a Spanish-Australian coproduction, A Ticket to Your Life, a documentary about recent immigrants here, fleeing the impact of the GFC in their homeland, and some Spanish immigrants who settled here in the 1960s.

Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina teamed up to make Embrace of the Serpent. It was one of five finalists nominated for a foreign language Oscar earlier this year and it won the Art Cinema award at Cannes. Filmed in black-and-white—not as one might expect—and in colour, it promises to be a thoughtful, stunning odyssey through the Amazon. It will be getting a release here, but the SFF represents the only opportunity to see most of the rest of the films, notes Genevieve Kelly, producer of the festival.

Fresh from January’s Sundance festival and the Berlinale comes the drama Much Ado About Nothing. It is based on a true story, a hit-and-run in which an attempt is made to frame one of the occupants of the car involved in the crime. Filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras has the Chilean upper class in his sights.

thin yellow line 3

The Thin Yellow Line by talented first-time feature director Celso Garcia was voted best Latin American film by the public at last year’s Montreal Film Festival. A comedy-drama, it is set among a group of men whose job it is in these uncertain economic times to paint the yellow stripe down the centre of Mexican state highway. It sounds promising.

This year’s festival guest is Daniel Guzman, director of Nothing in Return. His first feature has won him the best new director award at the Goyas, or Spanish Oscars. As I’ve previewed this one, I can report that Guzman’s coming-of-age drama is definitely worth a look. It is about a disaffected teenager who runs away and builds a surrogate family one summer. For Guzman, a filmmaker with an original eye, the story is close to home, and the tough talking old lady who scavenges discarded furniture and takes him under her wing is actually his grandmother.

Reflecting the diversity of what it means to be Spanish today, a Spanish Affair returns to the SFF this year in its second iteration. Spanish Affair 2 opens the festival with the young man from southern Spain who had won the heart of a Basque girl now out in the cold. To make sense of the first movie, you would need to have an appreciation of the Sevillian stereotype, that is, extrovert, quick-witted and inclined to use hair gel.

This time round all you need to know is that the stereotype of a Catalan hipster is even worse for the girl’s fiercely nationalistic family. Expect lots of hipster jokes. A high energy, oddball rom-com, by the sound of things, in which everyone gets a serve. ‘The jokes are thrown both ways,’ says Kelly.

spanish affair 2

Both Spanish Affair films have been among the biggest Spanish-made box office hits of all time. I have been intrigued to discover that The Impossible, also a Spanish film, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, about a couple and their family on holiday in Thailand when the tsunami hit, is also right up there with them. It was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who debuted with the mystery-thriller The Orphanage, the film that turned him into a director of repute beyond his native Spain.

Other directors of international repute who have emerged in recent decades from Spanish-speaking South and Central America, are Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Amenabar and Alejandro Inarritu. Indeed Cuaron and Inarritu, both born in Mexico City, won the last three best director Oscars between them.

Since the 1990s, a distinctive group of screen actors has emerged, like Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro. Some have seemed to fit right in to Hollywood, while others haven’t fared quite so well, unaccountably. It has been said that Hollywood simply hasn’t known what to do with Penelope Cruz, how best to use her talents, though the gorgeous star remains a favourite of Almodovar.

For those who follow the Spanish-speaking stars, there will be a world premiere for the uncut version of Ma Ma, with Penelope Cruz.  And fans of Gael Garcia Bernal won’t be surprised to find that he appears in another film with strong political themes. Eva Doesn’t Sleep, an Argentinian film about an embalmed Eva Peron, the other half in the country’s infamous dictatorship.

Maribel Verdu who played a woman of the world opposite Bernal way back when in Y Tu Mama Tambien makes another spirited appearance in No Kids, about a mismatched couple who can’t agree on parenting.

Another festival angle is the ‘Short Film from the Heart’ event. It has been curated thematically around key moments of romance and heartache, rather like the recent compendium films Paris, je t’aime and New York, I love You. It affords an excellent opportunity to spot new talent. Today there is an abundance of chutzpah and energy in Spanish-language cinema, and we still hear occasionally from Almodovar.

This year’s SFF is the 19th mounted. It is curated especially for Australian audiences, and this year will also travel to New Zealand.


The Spanish Film Festival 2016 screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton in Canberra from Tuesday 19 April to Sunday 8 May.

Tentmakers of Cairo

Published in the Canberra Times on 26 March 2016 at:


© Jane Freebury

Something tells me that the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead would have enjoyed hearing that a documentary award in her name had gone to a film about men who sew. Mead became famous in the 1920s-30s for her books based on research in Oceania supporting the view that gender behaviour, including the work that men and women do, is culturally determined.

Needlework is a craft that we might tend to associate with women. However, a group of male artisans in Cairo known as the tentmakers have been stitching fabulously detailed cloth in traditional arabesque and geometrical patterns and lotus and papyrus designs for generations, handing down their skills from father to son. Evidence suggests that these traditional cloths have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times.

Historically, the decorative khayamiya textiles formed part of capacious pavilions or ‘travelling palaces’ seen across the Arab world. Today they are still conspicuous in daily life as celebratory backdrops at events like weddings, graduations, feasts, receptions and funerals.

In 2015, the American Museum of Natural History announced that Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish had won the Margaret Mead Film festival  for The Tentmakers of Cairo. He shared the prize with Iiris Harma, director of Leaving Africa: A story of friendship and empowerment. Last year The Tentmakers also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll prize at Visions du Réel, Switzerland, and the El Ray Award for Excellence in Documentary Narrative Filmmaking at the Barcelona Film Festival. And it screened at the Canberra International Film Festival as well.

Beamish and his young family arrived in Cairo in January 2011 when his wife took up a position there. He was introduced to the tentmakers and found himself so taken with them and their work that he began to film. He soon realised that politics and current affairs was just about all they talked about, with huge demonstrations erupting in Tahrir Square, and continued to film them over the next three years.

The tentmakers ply their craft in a covered market, Chareh El Kiamiah, in the Old Islamic area of the city, a destination that has found its way onto the itinerary of the intrepid international visitor. The men hand-stitch colourful appliqué onto backing cloths at lightning speed, wielding large needles and a hefty pair of tailor’s shears. Thimbles are worn and that’s about it for tools of trade. Sewing machines are only used in order to join large panels together.

TheTentmakersOfCairo poster 2

Beamish had found himself in Egypt at a liminal moment, when events that became known as the ‘Arab spring’ were taking place. The microcosm of Egyptian life that he observed within the covered souk near the old city gate of Bab Zuweila was inevitably swept up in it. ‘What is the world coming to?’ someone asks.

The filmmaker has used an observational or verité style, letting his subjects tell their story in their own words as he maintains a minimal presence. It is beautifully constructed and persuasive viewing even though there is no explanatory voiceover, no music except at the final credits. The images are accompanied by the rich ambient sound recorded on location.

The tentmakers are observed going about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks, the conversation as they work, most often about what is being reported on television, always on as they work, and the delicate art of making a sale. In no time at all, we develop a sense of the distinct personalities of the five artisans the film follows and how they stand on things.

The film narrative itself begins in 2012, after civil unrest had seen the demise or Hosni Mubarak and when it looks like Mohamed Morsi could be installed as president. It closes with the election of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in 2014, a point which happened to provide a kind of closure and coincided with the moment that Beamish and his family returned home.

On occasion, we step outside to negotiate our way through the winding alleys. Past the cyclist who works a fresh bread delivery service, loaves balanced on a wide rack on his head, past the men sharing a hookah at the street corner and other intriguing views in the barely contained chaos of an Egyptian street. When things are really hotting up, we spend a stint in Tahrir Square.

At one point, the film follows two of the men on a trip overseas. Hosam and Tarek were invited to demonstrate their skills at an American Quilter’s Society exhibition in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, reflecting the close association that has developed between the tentmakers of Cairo and international quilters societies, and the parallels between both practices. In recent years, there have been visits to Australia as well, Canberra included, as guests of quilters societies here.

The Tentmakers of Cairo is a subtle and thoroughly engaging doco account of the tentmakers from their own point-of-view. Without voiceover and with few intertitles only at top and tail, it allows the men to tell their story virtually unmediated, and it’s fascinating. Director and producer Beamish made his film in collaboration with an entity called Non’D’Script. It’s a light touch that says it all.




Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2016

Published in The Canberra Times on 27 February 2016, and in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald online.


© Jane Freebury

The Measure of a ManA snippet of film that ran for under one minute was projected at a trendy cafe in Paris in 1895 and the rest is history. The film of workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon at the end of their shift was made with a portable technology that encouraged the razzmatazz of moving pictures to take hold across the world in Tunisia, Russia, Persia, India, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. Hollywood was getting going too, however France, where cinema as such was born, has always had something different to offer. Vive la différence.

In keeping with its ongoing role as something of a champion of things cultural today, France celebrates writers and artists by inviting them into its prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Writers, artists and other creatives are invited to become members of the Order each year. The recipients of the award are not all French nor are they all from the older, more traditional arts. A large contingent of people in the film industry like Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, Taiwanese director Ang Lee, and actors Donald Sutherland, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett have received this honour.

The respected veteran critic David Stratton is a member and so is that rare Australian who has given the international blockbuster an Australian twang, director George Miller (the Mad Max and Happy Feet films). It has been announced that Miller will be president of the jury at Cannes International Film Festival this year.

Stratton and Miller are both patrons of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival this year, which the organisers describe as the biggest French film festival after Cannes. It grows year by year. The percentage increase of seats filled nationally in 2015 on the previous year was more than 20%. In Canberra, it was 27%.

This year’s AFFFF, the 27th, opens across seven Australian cities from early March with a massive array of 42 films, and includes for the first time some choice samples of French television.

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What have we got to choose from this year? The impact of world affairs offers itself as a theme at this year’s festival in a film like All Three of US, a comedy about a spirited Iranian family that leaves its turbulent homeland in the 1970s to begin life anew in suburban Paris. It is directed by Tehran-born, French stand-up comic Kheiron.

One of this year’s highlights is Dheepan, winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or at Cannes. A new film from the consistently masterful Jacques Audiard (A Prophet; Rust and Bone; Read My Lips) who has hit his stride in recent years directing his own screenplays. Never one to shy away from controversial themes, Audiard here explores the predicament of a former Tamil fighter re-building his life in France.

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The White Knights explores how, when an organisation tries rescuing young orphans from Africa, altruism can become tainted by corruption. Actor Vincent Lindon appears in this and also in The Measure of a Man, in the role for which he won the award for best actor at Cannes in 2015. In The Measure Lindon plays a decent family man, head of security at a supermarket, who also becomes enmeshed in moral compromise. This year ‘David’s picks’ of the festival include both these films with Lindon. Other picks are Courted, Microbe & Gasoline, and Taj Mahal.

In Taj Mahal an 18-year-old French expat in Mumbai with her parents is left alone watching DVDs at their hotel one evening when the terrorists attack. It is 2008. The experience is not so much the horror, mostly out of frame, so much as the terror and confusion as a young woman faced the nightmare alone.

Microbe & Gasoline, from Michel Gondry who made the unforgettable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is also in its way about adolescent search for meaning beyond family and school. A sweet on-road adventure.

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The search for a better moral compass also underpins The Brand New Testament from writer/director Jaco Van Dormael, the creator of that hit comedy of 1991, Toto the Hero. In his new film, God, who is apparently a grumpy, middle-aged man living in a shabby Brussels apartment, has to search for his 10-year-old daughter who has run away in search of six new Apostles.

Reminding us of the French New Wave filmmakers who shook things up some 60 years ago there is a special screening on closing night in Canberra of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mepris) when its star the ‘sex kitten’ Brigitte Bardot was at her sultriest. Although there are some sensational shots of Bardot, you can expect Godard to be having a go at Hollywood and its commercial values.

Director Claude Lelouch, a contemporary of Godard though not a New Wave insider, returns with an elegant romance entitled Un plus une. Lelouch is irreversibly connected with one of the greatest screen romances ever, A Man and a Woman, and here his romantic couple, including male lead played by Jean Dujardin (The Artist) meet and fall in love in India.

It is romance gone wrong in Philippe Garrel’s new film, In the Shadow of Women, about a filmmaking couple of filmmakers who fall out of love and into affairs against the backdrop of the city they are shooting, Paris, a mighty monument of living history. It opened the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes International Film Festival last year.

It is never possible to have enough of Isabelle Huppert or Gerard Depardieu which means that Valley of Love is a double treat. In Guillaume Nicloux’s film they are on screen together as a couple reunited in Death Valley on a bizarre mission of discovery directed by their dead son. Like a number of films screening at the AFFFF, it was in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival last year. Huppert also appears in Macadam Stories.

Juliette Binoche is in the line-up too, as a mother, awaiting or grieving her absent son when his girlfriend comes to visit. Set in Sicily, The Wait is an Italian-French coproduction. And Julie Delpy makes an appearance too, directing herself and popular comedic actor Danny Boon in her new film Lolo.

There is some intriguing critical opinion on Mon Roi, which I haven’t yet seen, from writer-director Maiwenn (Polisse) in which a woman hospitalised after a skiing accident is forced to reflect on her former husband the jerk. It has received the AFFFF critics’ award for 2016, but not everyone is a fan. This is definitely good enough reason in itself to go along and find out for yourself.


Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2016 is screening until 29 March at Palace Cinema, New Acton, ACT.







Are we tabloid voyeurs?

First published in Anne Summers Reports in August 2015

Amy poster

Are we all tabloid voyeurs?

By © Jane Freebury

The brilliant and eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog clearly thought long and hard about what to reveal in his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, a postmortem about Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist and amateur conservationist, who attained some celebrity status over the many summers he spent camped among wild bears on an Alaskan reserve. Intending to demonstrate that it was possible to get close to the grizzlies once trust was established, Treadwell had set up a camera to record his experiences. The man believed he was bonding with the bears. Instead one of them killed both him and his girlfriend, while the camera was recording, but audio only as the lens cap was still on.

Herzog withheld the recorded sound of the killing. It was his view that the audio was too terrible for audiences to witness, but he retained instead footage of himself listening to it and the impact it had on him. In the current cinema environment where violence has become a commonplace for a significant proportion of the audience, how many other filmmakers would have made a decision like Herzog’s? It was compassionate and respectful.

On the other hand, there are occasions when the ghastly details have their place. Even when you want to look away, as well you might in Joshua Oppenheimer’s fine documentary, The Act of Killing, during the re-enactment of murder. Oppenheimer had invited members of death squads that took part in the purges in 1960s Indonesia to show how they had eliminated fellow citizens, dissidents or perceived dissidents. Fifty years on, the men remain unrepentantly proud of their role in anti-communist purges that preceded the establishment of Indonesia’s New Order under President Suharto. The film shows that there are perpetrators of the 1965–66 killing spree who need not conceal their role in it, and even enjoy positions of political influence today. Anwar Congo, a black-market gangster and former perpetrator, shows precisely how he strangled his victims. Then he dances the cha-cha.

One commentator felt sufficiently strongly to label the film a “snuff movie”, though he misses the point: viewer revulsion is critical to the film’s impact. The political assassins condemn themselves with their own honesty and hubris. The Act of Killing was nominated for an Academy Award, and won a BAFTA.

The revelations we expect to find in documentary can turn us into voyeurs, without a doubt. If we as moviegoers are voyeurs anyway and the desire to watch others, is integral to our experience of film, what is the issue? Whether to hold a shot or to edit disturbing vision and audio is not about the rights or wrongs of it, but about whether there is a sound reason for making very private and personal information public. This is something one hopes doco film directors struggle with every day.

How much exposure do we need to the details of human suffering? Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ classic 1955 meditation on the Nazi concentration camps, is an immensely powerful document on an intractable topic. Rather than use the filmed evidence of atrocity he had at his disposal, Resnais devotes significant screen time to postwar footage of the camps, empty and desolate, but heavy with memory. It was a moment when, in a postwar world saturated with images of the dead, that the deserted camps and the absence of life would be more powerful.

Films regularly cited on 2015’s best ever documentary list by prestigious Sight & Sound magazine reveal a diversity of creative treatments of reality.

Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a dynamic snapshot of 1920s Stalinist Russia, harnesses reality for political purposes. The Thin Blue Line (1989) Errol Morris’ investigation of the miscarriage of justice in the 1970s when a man was wrongly convicted of the shooting of a Texas policeman is replete with dramatic re-enactment. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a record of the Nuremberg rallies in 1934, is notorious for its glorification of Nazi ideals and is clearly political propaganda, but it is one of the docos on the Sight & Sound list nonetheless.

The documentary about an individual life carries with it special responsibilities. The Up Series, once known as 7Up!, has famously been documenting the lives of a group of British people since they were seven, while weathering some of the controversy that goes with opening up private lives to public inspection along the way.

Series director Michael Apted has returned to interview his subjects at seven-year intervals since 1964. The next instalment is due in 2019, when the participants are 63. Although Apted’s documentary, which also features on the Sight & Sound’s ‘best ever’ list, began with the hypothesis that a person’s life path was determined early by social class, it has evolved into a gentler exploration of people and how life unfolded for them. Apted has acknowledged in an interview with influential film critic, the late Roger Ebert, that there is an inevitable ‘tendency to play God’ in documenting people’s lives, like falling into the trap of predicting his subject’s life choices (like declaring when he anticipated someone would enter a life of crime).

On the other hand, Australian director Gillian Armstrong seems to have developed a very collaborative and friendly relationship with the three Adelaide women whose lives she has tracked since she made Smokes and Lollies in 1976.

One of Australia’s most respected documentary filmmakers, the late Dennis O’Rourke, was criticised for his The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991) about a Thai sex worker he was living with. Critics of the film argued that the filmmaker had relentlessly objectified her and while the filmmaker’s own role was unacknowledged. O’Rourke is heard asking questions but never appears in the frame and the woman is sometimes clearly uncomfortable about having the camera pointed at her continuously. Ultimately the film is less about the woman than the man who filmed her. There are moments when we feel like an intruder, watching when we shouldn’t be watching, and the power play sometimes makes us squirm.

O’Rourke also ran into trouble in 2000 with his small-town portrait Cunnamulla. Although made at the invitation of the Cunnamulla community, the ABC reported widespread dissatisfaction with the film’s focus on its unrepresentative “seedy underbelly”. It also prompted legal proceedings from the parents of two underage Indigenous girls, one as young as thirteen, who had spoken to O’Rourke openly about their sex lives and then felt compelled to leave town over the resulting controversy. The filmmaker won the defamation suit in 2007, and his film has remained an important interrogation of the wholesome image of outback town life.

The recent Asif Kapadia doco on Amy Winehouse, Amy, is thoughtfully and skilfully made from widely sourced archival material, including studio recording sessions, her auditions and TV appearances, intimate material from mobile phones and family home videos, and substantial paparazzi footage. The director never had the opportunity to get Winehouse, who died in 2011, into frame himself.

Audiences have surged to see it, the critics have responded very positively and it is sure to attract major awards. It is a joy to see Winehouse as a slightly awkward mid-teen discovering herself and her musical endowment, before substance abuse and relationship dependency took hold. We knew she could sing up a sultry storm, but to see her lyrics onscreen, her abilities as a songwriter come through, as they take on a new, acerbic meaning in the context of her relationships.

Kapadia’s film documents Winehouse’s sudden and spectacular rise as a performer and her equally spectacular decline. Even some of the critics have found the last act hard going. John McDonald, who in the Australian Financial Review described the second half of the film as “a cross between a disaster movie and a murder mystery”, also observed that: “One almost wishes Kapadia’s own commitment to the truth was a little less exacting”. Others note that midway “the film becomes gruelling” (Sight & Sound), that it “is often uncomfortable to watch” (Chicago Sun-Times) and “torturous but endlessly hypnotic” (New York Observer).

Kapadia is a young British man of Indian descent whose portfolio includes an award-winning fiction feature The Warrior, about a Rajasthani warrior who tries to give up the sword, and the British academy best documentary Senna, about Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna who died in a crash at 34. Kapadia’s treatment of Winehouse is similar to that of Senna’s, another high-profile subject the director never met.
In Amy, Kapadia explores the reasons for the singer’s death from alcohol poisoning, and we spend a lot of time looking at Winehouse in very bad shape. But what made her a focus of public interest in the first place was her talent, the gifts that Tony Bennett compared with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

The film has had to juggle the two Amy Winehouses that were in the public domain. The first, up to when she made her first album, Frank, when she was full of promise, and gave the performances on which her reputation was built. The second is from around 2006, when she made Back to Black, when her drunken and druggie behaviour made her the object of lurid fascination and the butt of late-night chat-show jokes.
In conversation with online indie film news site Indiewire, Kapadia has said that making Amy was in part an exploration of his own and the community’s role in the tragedy.

“It’s very much a film about London and a city that I live in, but also a lot of media-related cultural places. You’re going, ‘Whoa, I was kind of a part of that? I shared that. I saw that, and I laughed at that’.”

He may be right. We may all be implicated. Amy Winehouse was a sensational jazz performer who squandered her talents and could not manage her fame. Kapadia’s film reveals “the real” Amy who was once funny, intelligent, healthy and lovable before she became a gaunt, tottering stick-figure, with extravagant beehive and Nefertiti eyeliner, running the gauntlet of the ravening paparazzi.

In Indiewire, Kapadia described her demise as a slow and drawn out death, in which everyone feels complicit. And so it is. You feel angry. You feel like a voyeur, and that’s a reaction he wanted. Even as they pander to our hunger for sensation, the paparazzi feed us with the images that make tabloid voyeurs of us all.

Gillian Armstrong and her latest – Women He’s Undressed

© Jane Freebury

The story of Orry-Kelly, a gifted designer who created costumes for the Hollywood stars over three decades, would be tantalising fantasy were it not anchored in fact.

Here’s this young man from Kiama on the south coast of NSW who leaves for America, never to return, or at least only for visits. He makes the long sea and land journey to New York and works on Broadway for a while. Then he moves to Hollywood where he chalks up credits in some 285 movies, along with three Oscars for costume design in Some Like It Hot, Les Girls and An American in Paris. He was the most successful Australian in Academy Award history until costume and production designer, Catherine Martin, won her third and fourth Oscars last year for her work on The Great Gatsby. As thumbnails go, this is hard to beat.

The Orry-Kelly story is incredible, and someone had to tell it. Fortunately, a highly-regarded Australian filmmaker has made it the subject of her lively new documentary, Women He’s Undressed, and is bringing the legend home.

Film director Gillian Armstrong has been in the public eye since she directed emerging actors Judy Davis and Sam Neill in My Brilliant Career in 1979. She was the first women to direct a feature film in Australia in over 40 years. Other fiction features include Oscar and Lucinda, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Little Women, films with some of the finest female actors in the frame. In between, Armstrong has also directed well-received documentaries like the candid series, similar in conception to Michael Apted’s ‘The Up Series’, that has followed the lives of three Adelaide women since they were 14 years old.

Although Armstrong is associated with films that focus on women, an impression has lingered since early work based on books by feminist writers that she does resist. She prefers to characterise her particular interest as the relationships between people. ‘I would always say that I’m really interested in human behaviour,’ she said in a phoner before she was due to visit Canberra for a preview and Q&A.

Orry-Kelly is a fascinating subject for a director who explores relationships. He was famously and outrageously frank, mercurial, funny, uncompromising, held in high professional regard, and on intimate terms with many of the celebrities of yesteryear. Was he a celebrity in his own right in Australia too, in his day? ‘Oh my goodness, he was huge! They interviewed him like they would Hugh Jackman.’

Research for the doco turned up a great deal of fascinating material, including correspondence and a newspaper column he wrote. ‘Also we found other articles, you know, occasionally in the Sydney Morning Herald. We think his mother wrote to the editor letting everyone know what he was currently doing. That’s how we got the idea that his mother was very important in his life, and enjoyed promoting her son.’

Women He’s Undressed includes a dramatisation that threads its way through the rich vein of interviews with scenes between letter-writer Orry-Kelly (Darren Gilshenan) in America and his mum back home in Kiama (Deborah Kennedy). Armstrong collaborated with playwright and ‘co-conspirator’ Katherine Thomson on these cheeky, quirky interludes.

Orry-Kelly, a kid from Kiama, dressed the stars at the height of the studio system in Hollywood 1930s-1950s. Actors like Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley MacLaine, and Angela Lansbury and the young Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda, early in their careers frocked up in his creations. There is some great footage of Fonda and Lansbury here, along with a wealth of interviews with other designers, industry observers and costume design experts like the wonderful Deborah Nadoolman Landis. Interwoven with extracts from the films that feature the costumes, they are a trove of movie history in themselves.

Catherine Martin appears. She has also had an incredible career. Will someone make a doco about her? And other costume designers working in the international film industry appear like Michael Wilkinson, another Australian, whose credits include 300 and American Hustle.

Although he passed away in 1964, Orry-Kelly is still remembered in the US, says Armstrong. ‘In America he’s still very well known’ — still regarded today as one of the top costume designers of all time — ‘but a lot of people don’t realise he’s Australian.’ However, ‘he did have a big mouth.’ Armstrong thinks his sense of humour — Australian humour is not always readily understood overseas, much less in the middle of last century — got him into trouble from time to time, as he was a bit of a loud mouth when he drank.

Why was he hired by Warner Brothers early in the 1930s, the studio with a reputation for making gritty gangster films, and not by MGM with its fondness for lavish production? ‘Well they had a complete change when Jack Warner poached three new leading ladies (one of whom was Barbara Stanwyck). They weren’t just going to be doing gangster stories [and] Jack Warner wanted his new designer to bring class.’

What was the hallmark of an Orry-Kelly gown? ‘The first thing people think of when they think “costume” is frills and fuss, but Orry-Kelly had a really great sense of line and style. His costumes were about telling the story, what would this character really wear? […] Other studios just wanted their leading ladies to walk in (dressed) in the latest fashion.’

‘For other designers who came from fashion it was about the frock, making the frock stand out. Orry had a different way of looking at things.’

Orry-Kelly moved with the times, from his designs for Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street in 1933 to the classic simplicity of the clothes he put on the young Jane Fonda in the 1960s. ‘He also had a great sense of humour and could do completely over the top. He could push design if he needed to and pull it back as well.’

His work is enshrined in so many Hollywood classics, from Jezebel and Dark Victory in black and white to Irma la Douce and Oklahoma in vivid technicolour, but Orry-Kelly can be equally well remembered for one of the greatest of all time. ‘He did beautiful work on Casablanca where Ingrid Bergman’s clothes were so understated but they said so much about her character. That she had such inner strength and integrity’. Clothes reveal character. It was his secret.

Published in the Canberra Times on 6 July 2015

Bushranger Ben Hall to step out of Ned’s shadow

© Jane Freebury

Bushranger movies did a brisk business early last century until the authorities put a stop to them. What influence were they having on an impressionable populace? The burgeoning genre included films about Ben Hall, Dan Morgan, Frank Gardiner, Captain Starlight, John Vane and Ned Kelly, who of course featured in the first film Australia ever made. The effects of these bans in 1911-12 across NSW, Victoria and South Australia lingered for decades.

The idea of men on horseback roaming the wilderness, beyond the law, has had an irresistible attraction for Matthew Holmes, a young filmmaker from Warburton, Victoria. ‘I’ve always thought there was an Australian version of the “wild west”, but it has been untapped,’ he says.

Perhaps he has a point. There has been a smattering of films. However Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly and John Hillcoat’s excellent The Proposition don’t a local western genre make.

Becoming a film director and making a movie about bushranger Ned Kelly went hand-in-hand for Holmes until Heath Ledger’s swaggered onto the screen as the bewhiskered outlaw in 2003. It put paid to his aspirations until he heard there were other bushrangers who could also carry a feature film, and realised he didn’t have to drop the idea at all.

Ben Hall came into focus. In the mid-19th century Hall and his gang conducted robberies under arms from Bathurst to Forbes and from Gundagai to Goulburn until he was shot dead by police in 1865. It was quite a fall from grace for a young man who once had a squatting run and a home with wife and child.

When The Legend of Ben Hall is released later this year or early in 2016, expect a film that steers close to the facts. ‘I wanted to make a movie that presents a real story,’ Holmes says. ‘A lot of films based on history tend to waver or wander away from the facts […] I wanted to do something that stuck as closely to the history as it could.’

He feels that the true story of Ben Hall can’t be bettered. ‘It’s not that difficult. It probably sounds more difficult than it really is.’ Author of books on Ben Hall and descendant of the bushranger’s brother, Peter Bradley, is an historical advisor on the project. He and the director have a shared perspective of the outlaw, that of a decent man ‘striving to be doing good, even though he was doing bad’.

Historical records have provided the best inspiration. Authenticity of detail has been observed, right down to what the gang were wearing when they committed a robbery! Each member of the huge cast represents a real person of the time. The more closely an actor resembled their historical counterpart, the more likely they were to be selected.

So did you try to get into Ben Hall’s mind? ‘Oh, absolutely. We tried to get into his mind in a very big way. It’s very much a character study of him […] and what he was going through and the things that were driving him…’

Although Ned Kelly had a limited education, he could apparently read and write. Hall was, on the other hand, illiterate and there was no one on hand to tell his story his way at the end. No Jerilderie letter like Kelly’s with which to make one’s voice heard, or to justify one’s actions in light of the treatment the authorities meted out to Irish Catholics.

Why does Ned Kelly continue to have such a hold on our collective imagination, but not other bushrangers? ‘I think Kelly has overshadowed Hall because he was political.’

The Legend of Ben Hall will focus on the last nine months of the bushranger’s life, when everything was at its ‘most chaotic, and most conflicted’. Holmes explains: ‘We don’t explore why he became a bushranger, we explore the effects, what happened to him as a consequence of being a bushranger.’

People who knew Hall were apparently surprised when he turned to crime. Something snapped? ‘Yes, he had a breakdown and his life spiralled out of control and it wasn’t long before he was being hunted. I call him a reluctant bushranger.’

When Hall was active, in his mid-twenties, was older than most. ‘Most bushrangers were under 21. […] They weren’t old and bearded, they were wild colonial boys. They were kids. Mischievous teenagers out and about doing what they wanted.’

More than $100,000 was raised for the production of The Legend of Ben Hall through the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. On release it will tour Ben Hall country—Goulburn, Bathurst, Grenfell, Forbes, Young, Parkes and other towns.

Published in the Canberra Times 27 June 2015

The Kid Stakes gets the Jan Preston treatment

© Jane Freebury

Boogie woogie and blues pianist Jan Preston often has a twinkle in her eye. When she accompanies the early Australian silent comedy classic, The Kid Stakes, her music definitely means mischief. She has composed a score for this 1927 black and white film, and taken it on tour to appreciative audiences in Australia and New Zealand.

The Kids Stakes tells the exploits of comic strip characters Fatty Finn, his gang of pint-sized street urchins, and Hector the ‘champeen gote’ that is let loose before he can be entered in the goat derby, and finds his way into a garden of prize plants. All the while, the scruffy, brawling kids act out their own brand of dockland ‘gangster’ culture, in irreverent slapstick style.

This classic Australian silent film was a faithful adaptation of the Fatty Finn comic strip drawn by Syd Nicholls originally published in 1923. Nicholls was a prolific cartoonist and the designer of art titles for many Australian silent films, including The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection. He appears in person in The Kid Stakes’ opening scene, drawing a sketch of Fatty that comes to life line by line, until the boy asks ‘What sort of job do you have for me to do today, Mr Nicholls?’.

Six-year-old Robin (Pop) Ordell, son of writer-director Tal Ordell, has the role of the lead character in this live-action comedy. In the peculiar tradition of Australian nicknaming, Fatty is called Fatty simply ‘because he isn’t’.

The film’s intertitles are also the work of Nicholls. With expressions like ‘right oil’, ‘bonzer’, ‘wireless’ and ‘loop the loop’, they are a record of an Australian vernacular that has almost disappeared, and may need some explaining to the youngest members of the audience.

The Kids Stakes was Ordell senior’s one and only feature, though he was otherwise extensively involved in the entertainment industry, notably as an actor (Ginger Mick, and The Sentimental Bloke). He also plays a small part in his film, as the race commentator in the big finale.

Scenes were mostly shot on location around Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. One location in particular, the McElhone Stairs, features on several occasions. Its hundred or so stone steps once connected the grand mansions of Potts Point to the Woolloomooloo slums, but today the ‘Loo is not what is used to be in the 1920s. On one level, The Kids Stakes is a wonderful document of a Sydney dockland suburb, its people and the way they used to live.

The final goat-cart derby was filmed in Rockhampton, Queensland, as goat racing was (surprisingly) prohibited in NSW at the time. Hector the very plump goat that demonstrated prodigious appetite chomping his way through clothes on the line, posters on the fence, and hundreds of prize orchids and roses, makes a surprising dash for it.

There’s more than a touch of class consciousness in The Kid Stakes. The word ‘comrade’ appears in the intertitles and Hector’s escapade in the fine gardens of Mr Twirt’s Potts Point home extracts a bit of fun at the expense of privilege. It’s not that surprising to read that cartoonist Nicholls was a radical in his day who drew cartoons for the International Socialist, The Australian Worker and The Australian Seamen’s Journal.

Preston feels ‘a great responsibility’ to be true to the spirit of the The Kids Stakes, its setting in suburban Sydney, its characters and its irreverent, breezy comedy. Indeed, she has a portfolio of silent film live music compositions, including Raymond Longford’s On Our Selection, another class comedy of the Australian silent era.

As she plays her piano accompaniment, Preston is joined by percussionist Mike Pullman on a range of traditional instruments, including kazoo, tin drum, snare and plastic bags, as they bring Fatty, his friends and enemies, and the residents of the historic waterfront suburb back to life.

Published in the Canberra Times 13 June 2015

Introductory remarks: on Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker

My introduction to Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker that screened as part of a special program at the National Film and Sound Archive during Reconciliation Week in Canberra, 28 May 2015

It is a very great pleasure to introduce The Tracker during Reconciliation Week 2015. It is powerful and polemical film.

Whether you are watching The Tracker for the first time or have seen it before, I think it will appear as vibrant and urgent as it seemed on release in 2002.

For a start, the visuals are beautiful. The Tracker captures the desert mauves, the purples and ochres and pitiless bright blue sky of our interior landscapes. The ‘look’ of thrusting granite ranges, twisted scrub and majestic white-trunked ghost gums recalls (intentionally, I understand) the watercolours of the Central Australian desert painted by Albert Namatjira in the 1930s.

The ballad soundtrack is haunting. And the presence of David Gulpilil is, as always, immensely compelling.

Let’s not overlook the fact that there are some moments when The Tracker is also funny, in a dark, ascerbic kind of way. Gallows humour seems absolutely apposite.

It came about in response to reading about the violence perpetrated against Indigenous people on Australia’s frontier, the intersection between Aboriginals and white settlers. In the early 1990s it was not widely known. Rolf will fill you in on the details, however his reading on ‘the frontier’, I believe the writing of historian Henry Reynolds, was a revelation that angered him deeply. So much so that it drove him to craft a blistering treatment in less than a day: ‘Twelve pages. Double spaced.’ Though it was subsequently set aside.

Around a decade later the Adelaide Festival of Arts approached him with a request for a socially conscious film preferably with a strong Indigenous theme for its Shedding Light program. The rest is history.

The Tracker portrays events that took place less than a hundred years ago, within the lifetime of some Australians still living. It was the first film to deal directly with massacres of Aboriginal peoples by white settlers in Australia. I see it was in a sense a protest, that an aspect of our history had been hidden, and a conscious bit of activism. And I think the film retains its original campaigning zeal.

In the Australian industry, films that constitute such a strong challenge to mainstream thinking are rare. In my view, Rolf tells powerful stories with unconventional protagonists who interrogate the status quo. Filmgoers are generally not allowed to sit on the fence. In The Tracker, the mainstream is in my view represented by the taciturn, amiable presence of the Veteran (Grant Page). A fence-sitter if ever there was one, despatched nonetheless.

That said, Rolf’s powerful narrative cinema, frequently accompanied by a social critique, simultaneously argues that we recognise the marginalised in our society and offers an inclusive social vision as it does so.

Stepping back to the 1970s for a moment, when the local film industry was revived, there were in amongst everything else going on two defining Indigenous themed films.

Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), the film in which Gulpilil first appeared on screen, and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), in which a young Aboriginal man, no longer able to tolerate the abuse of his white employers and family, snaps violently and turns outlaw. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, though based on the writing of Thomas Keneally and also fact-based, was harshly criticised for its graphic violence at the time.

The Tracker on release did not find favour with everyone. Rolf has run the gauntlet for it, even been spat at, but he was also hugged! Although violence is out of frame, and it is located in time six years prior to the Coniston Massacre, The Tracker still appears as a challenge for us today.

Happily, it was made at a more propitious moment than the earlier films. Public consciousness had somewhat altered from when Rolf wrote his treatment and put it away in a drawer.

By the time the shoot for The Tracker finally began in early 2001, the Australian community had had more exposure to some of the more intractable issues of our colonial history with events such as the Mabo decision (1992), and the Bringing Them Home report (1994).
Also National Sorry Day in 1998, the Sydney Olympics, and the national Walk for Reconciliation in 2000.

A clustering of films about Indigenous-settler relations came out around then too: One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins), Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen), Black and White (Craig Lahiff). Like Phillip Noyce’s $6 million Rabbit-Proof Fence (made with a budget that was three times its size), The Tracker was also a bold and timely recognition of the stolen generations, and of our collective hidden history. Gulpilil was of course in both films, in the role of tracker.

It is astonishing to realise that Aboriginal trackers have had a place in Australian cinema since the beginning. Even more astonishing to realise how it was done. They were often played by white actors in ‘blackface’, and it my understanding that this practice continued to as late as the 1960s (e.g. James Trainor’s Journey Out of Darkness).

A striking and highly successful feature of The Tracker is the integration of still images into the narrative flow. Instead of shrinking from the violence, we stand in silent witness to the horror and reflect on what has passed. These are paintings by artist Peter Coad, 14 in all. They commence, advance and close the narrative with one last slow dissolve.

The artwork Rolf commissioned solved problems, including a resistance to portraying violence on screen. It was also an inventive solution to financial constraint. The paintings have since moved beyond solving practical issues to occupying an integral role in the film’s aesthetic system.

They are a great example of bricolage. Of bricolage that’s not about tinkering or ‘making do’ with what’s at hand, but about refusing to accept limitations and forging a new creative opportunity.

(Like all those originating ideas of Rolf’s – out of date filmstock (Dr Plonk); cheap video (Alexandra’s Project); 31 or so casual cinematographers (Bad Boy Bubby); non-actors (The Quiet Room); moving house (The King is Dead!) – that, while eventually modified, propel his films into existence.)

Over the years, the limitations of budget – and some self-imposed challenges – have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from Rolf’s practice and rejuvenated his authorial signature. It is a distinctive aspect of his work.

We can count on Rolf to deliver a strong narrative with an intriguing central character – think Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, The Quiet Room, Alexandra’s Project, Charlie’s Country. In my view, these narratives frequently overturn the traditional Hollywood narrative that have re-established consensus and order, with a questing outsider whose vision for a different, better kind of world prevails.

Gulpilil’s character is an enigma, an agent provocateur, a clown, a leader in waiting. He becomes a towering figure of authority, as white settler ignorance grows and as their legitimacy diminishes.

By films end, an intense interpersonal struggle is resolved in a reversal of roles in his favour – and justice is delivered.

In its demands for honesty in the historical account of what happened on the frontier, this boldly polemical film was made to persuade Australia to take responsibility for its past. It is dominated by one of the most intriguing and charismatic lead characters in Australian cinema, and played out against the magnificent Australian wilderness. It was a bold beginning to what has become an ‘accidental trilogy’ of great significance. That has evolved out of the personal and professional relationship between David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer.

In time this unique trilogy is likely to be recognised for its cultural significance.

Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Ten Canoes, The Tracker won multiple awards including a clean sweep at the AFI, IF and FCCA awards for best Australian feature film in 2002. It won the SIGNIS award at Venice film festival and was also nominated for the Golden Lion, the Press Award at the Paris film festival (a tie with La Fleuve) and the Special Jury Prize at the Vallodolid International film festival. Critic and academic Adrian Martin, a contributor to the BFI’s prestigious Sight and Sound magazine declared it the best Australian film of the decade 2000-2010.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best films by an unorthodox, bold and unpredictable filmmaker.

German Film Festival 2015

© Jane Freebury

Curators had plenty to choose from when they decided what to showcase at the German Film Festival this year. They always do. Well over 200 films, around 75 percent fiction features, are produced in Germany each year, though few of these land on Australian screens.

Every few years, we expect something wonderful to arrive from veteran filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But what is behind the surges of creativity in breakthrough films like the superb political dramas Downfall and The Lives of Others, the crowd-pleasers Goodbye, Lenin! and Run Lola Run, or recent multicultural features like Head-On and Soul Kitchen?

GFF organisers, including Dr Arpad Solter, Director of Goethe Institute Australia, hope the festival will reflect Germany’s vibrant and culturally diverse ‘multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and creativity’. Anyone who has visited Berlin, Munich or Hamburg of late will know exactly what that means.

A key driver of the new directions in German film in recent years has been from filmmakers of migrant background. ‘Making their way in modern Germany, trying to find a future for themselves […] The guest-worker, the down-trodden if you like, have emerged as people who are really now a part of society with something to say. Now they have developed the confidence to examine the past in interesting ways,’ says Richard Kuipers, a curatorial advisor to the festival for the last decade.

The work of writer-director Fatih Akin is a compelling example of this dynamic trend with his powerful psychodrama Head-On, the fun-loving homage to Hamburg cuisine in Soul Kitchen and nostalgia for homeland in The Edge of Heaven. His latest feature, The Cut, set against the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during World War I, is a slow and considered saga that is a new direction for Akin. It stars Tahar Rahim (The Prophet, Samba) and it is in English.

Fatih Akin himself can be seen in interview in the documentary From Caligari to Hitler. This title will resonate with cineastes who may have encountered the famous book of the same name by writer and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. It promises to be a compelling excursion into the socio-cultural climate in Germany that produced the Weimar Republic of 1918-33.

For my money the prize for best title at the GFF this year goes to Suck Me Shakespeer, written and directed by another filmmaker of Turkish background, Bora Dagtekin. The comedy turns on an ex-con who tries to pass himself off as a teacher in front of an unruly rabble, just so he can get at some buried loot under the school gymnasium. You can forget what they say sometimes about German comedy, suggests Kuipers. ‘This is very funny.’

Checking out the program for the German Film Festival later this month, eagle eyes may notice that a high proportion of films have a single writer-director credit. A special guest of the festival, popular young actor Florian Stetter, who I interviewed over skype from Berlin, considers this a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary German cinema. ‘In Germany, the film industry is not like in England or France. It is based more on directors writing their own scripts, looking for new forms of radical expression, trying to find their own distinctive styles.’

Stetter has leading roles in three of the films due to screen at the festival, Stations of the Cross, Nanga Parbat (2009) and Beloved Sisters, the latter due to open the festival in Sydney and Melbourne. Beloved Sisters, a writer-director piece of course, explores a menage-a-trois in the 18th century involving playwright/philosopher Friedrich Schiller (Stetter) and two beautiful sisters, one his wife. Even though the times were relatively enlightened, the love triangle would have been a major scandal were it public knowledge.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but mention to Stetter that I have noticed it described as an ‘unusually brainy costume drama’ by one of the Variety critics. ‘Well, the love between them was very interesting […] It was not only erotic, it was also intellectual.’ It sounds like Schiller’s reputation is safe.

Opening night film at other festival location — Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Byron Bay and Hobart — will be the cyber thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, directed by Swiss-born Baran bo Odar. Foregrounding a socially inept young man who enters the politically subversive world of computer hackers, it promises to be slick, fast paced and edgy.

Stations of the Cross, about a young girl in today’s Germany whose only desire is to dedicate her life to religion, will be a significant film of the festival. There are just fourteen shots throughout and the camera moves only three times in this unwavering study of fanatical religious devotion. It won the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlin Film Festival.

Stetter has a critical role as the young priest who calls on the 14-year-old and his other young and impressionable students to become ‘warriors’ for Jesus. While he is charismatic and engaging, he is advocating a pitiless intolerance in life, a paradox that seems to present no barriers to the recruitment of young religious radicals anywhere.

Expect to experience some powerful contrasts in mood at the festival and a feeling for the surging creative energies and contradictions of the present-day.

The 14th Audi German Film Festival screened in cities across Australia during May 2015.

Published in the Canberra Times 16 May 2015

Rolf de Heer: Dancing to His Song reveals man of vision

Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, launched on 11 March at Griffith Film School, Brisbane, is published as an advanced eBook, with film clips, by Currency Press.

The first time I watched a Rolf de Heer film was in the late 1980s while writing a column for Australian Society, a national affairs monthly. It was my first gig in film journalism, writing reviews of new Australian cinema that took into account the industry and the cultural context of the time.

After nearly a decade away in the UK, I was back home. As it turned out, the UK had been a vantage point from which to watch the Australian film industry grow in stature. I can remember being chuffed by the reaction of English friends to Newsfront and My Brilliant Career, and was proud to watch Gallipoli with fellow film studies students in London.

And there was a lot happening locally besides. The Year My Voice Broke, Dogs in Space and Dead Calm were to make a splash. Smaller and riskier films like Shame and Rikky and Pete were not being completely swamped by the likes of Croc Dundee II and Man From Snowy River II.
New talent announced itself with Sweetie (Jane Campion) and with Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat).

Amongst all of this activity, Incident at Raven’s Gate appeared, part science fiction, part domestic drama, part supernatural thriller, directed by a virtually unknown Rolf de Heer. It was championed by David Stratton in Variety and the Sydney Morning Herald and by Tina Kaufman at FilmNews. An impressive mixture of genre it was handled with flair, but did not achieve the recognition it deserved.

Unfortunately, it did not get the release it deserved either. Had it done so, one wonders how de Heer’s profile as a director might have developed subsequently.

Not wanting to make too much of this, and hindsight is a factor, it did announce an interesting new talent. Incident at Raven’s Gate was so assured, so distinctive and told with verve and panache and imaginative use of sound.

Incident was written by collaborator Marc Rosenberg and in 1989 it was too early to talk about the qualities that become apparent over de Heer’s body of work, but re-reading my review reminds me how exciting it seemed then. It was of a piece, authored by a single vision.
Based on the Rolf de Heer we have come to know, this should surprise no one.

It wasn’t until much later—after Ten Canoes—that the idea of writing a sustained study of de Heer’s work took hold.
Some years before, I’d run with the idea of researching a study of Dingo and a group of other international coproductions. (Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Rolf.) But it was that glorious poster with Jamie Gulpilil standing in a canoe in the swamp that prompted me to begin writing a book.

Now was the time to talk about an auteur and his body of work.

Inspired by the challenge, I got in touch, flew over to Adelaide after he agreed to an interview. I was yet to write a word. Most interviews weren’t face-to-face but over the phone when I rang with my list of questions. There were around 30 such interviews, always lengthy.

A couple of years in, an Australia Council grant let me take time off work speechwriting to focus on developing the book.
It was agreed I could watch him on set during the shoot for The King is Dead! At times it was ‘excruciating’ (his word) for him, as he hates to be observed. Moreover, the set happened to be his home, so it was an intrusion on two counts.
The question that guided my research was finding the common ground among de Heer’s very diverse oeuvre. Chercher l’auteur and his authorial signature.

Where would I find it amongst the silent slapstick comedy, the Indigenous stories set in the wilderness, or the upheavals inside the home between husbands and wives, between children and parents and women with disability and their carers? Where amongst the stories of aliens in the outback, or dingo trappers with a passion for jazz, or old men hooked on romance novels in the Amazonian jungle?
De Heer’s penchant for unconventional protagonists and surprising genre choices has created an apparently disparate body of work. In this and other ways, he has made creative risk attractive.
The films frequently tell powerful stories about outsiders who interrogate the status quo, incorporate a strong moral position, and impatience with moral ambiguity and timidity. We were reminded of it only last week with the way he strode into a controversy over political language (‘lifestyle choices’).

And yet the stringent social critique is at the same time an argument for an inclusive community vision.

Despite some self-deprecatory remarks over the years and understandable reluctance to acknowledge his status as auteur, there is no doubt about the single organising vision that organises de Heer’s work. His team collaborate with him to maintain that vision.

The high standing his films have achieved internationally, especially Europe, is a major achievement for any filmmaker, let alone one working on modest budget. One of his most successful films, The Quiet Room, sold in 44 countries on the back of a budget just under $600,000.

De Heer’s singular films have found audiences around the world, sometimes in surprising places. Dr Plonk opened in Russia. Bad Boy Bubby was a big hit in Norway. Dingo went on release, intriguingly, in Sweden, and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, not well received here, grossed more than €1.3 million in Spain. Dance Me to My Song screened in at least 23 international festivals outside Australia, more festivals that Ten Canoes.

Over the years, the limitations of budget have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from his practice and rejuvenated his distinctive authorial signature.

Few filmmakers set themselves a challenge in the way that this filmmaker does. Yet he hasn’t sought to solve the self-imposed challenges with more generous finance, but with ingenuity, and therein lies a key to the distinctive, innovative aspect of his work.
The book is written from the perspective of an observer of Australian cinema over some 30 years. There is a chapter covering each of de Heer’s 14 theatrical features, with sections within each on the production and reception context. It’s my firm view that the context of a film is as important as textual analysis and viewer response.

Some biographical detail is woven in as well. It wasn’t until much later in the process that I began to ask Rolf about himself. A film stands on its own merits, of course, but it’s not as though the personal history of the filmmaker is entirely irrelevant either, and throws light on the person behind a significant body of work and his vision.

This article was published in The Canberra Times and on the Fairfax website in March 2015.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2015

© Jane Freebury

Allons au cinéma, cinéphiles! There are 49 films to choose from at the French Film Festival this year. Even more options than last year. As the season unfolds during March-April in eight locations across the country, the easy part will be savouring the menu, the hard part will be making the choices.

French films have long had an enviable share of the domestic box office and a standing in world cinema to die for. UniFrance reported 111 million admissions for French films abroad last year. Within France, home-grown films wrested back some of Hollywood’s share of the box office, making 2014 the ‘second best year’ since The Intouchables were an immense hit in 2012.

It’s hard to get a handle on so much choice on offer at the AFFFF, but if popularity at home works for you, then The Belier Family, a movie that contributed magnificently to French box office last year, will screen be screening. French audiences also loved Asterix: the Mansions of the Gods and Samba. The pint-sized Gallic hero needs no introduction, but it will be interesting to see what we have in Samba. It is from the same writing team as The Intouchables, and features Omar Sy as one of the leads.

Gemma Bovery will open the festival. It’s Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary by way of Posy Simmonds and her graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, which can be said to be parody, stand-alone story and modern adaptation. The Anne Fontaine movie is set in a small town in Normandy, with British actors Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemyng in the lead roles as husband and wife. Fabrice Luchini (Cycling with Moliere and In the House) has a key part as the local baker who knows his Flaubert.

As festival guest in 2013, director Benoit Jacquot made an impression with his moody period piece, Farewell, My Queen, on the last days of Marie Antoinette at Versailles before her imprisonment in the Bastille. His new film centres on three women, a mother, with two daughters who have unwittingly become involved with the one man. The delicacy of the entanglement is heightened by the casting. Catherine Deneuve is the mother, Charlotte Gainsbourg one of the daughters, and Chiara Mastroianni the other. Mastroianni is Deneuve’s own daughter and how she looks like both Deneuve and her father Marcelo Mastroianni in equal measure!

Festival patrons this year are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who have made a selection of their critics picks. As to be expected, they have each drawn up a list of different films.

Jacquot’s new film Three Hearts gets a special mention from Margaret. She has also singled out the award-winning drama Far From Men, an existential survival tale about a French teacher (Viggo Mortensen) who helps a villager accused of murder escape the authorities in 1950s colonial Algeria. It is based on a short story by Albert Camus.

David’s picks include one of the greatest films ever, the 1937 anti-war classic La Grand Illusion. He has also chosen the latest from the great Volker Schlondorff who has continued to make fine films with a strong political flavour since his landmark films of the 1970s—TheTin Drum, Germany in Autumn and The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum. Schlondorff’s Diplomacy, is a historical drama with Niels Arestrup set in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Checking out the acting talent is another way in to the vast array on the AFFFF program. In French Riviera during the casino wars of the 1970s, Catherine Deneuve takes part in her seventh collaboration—remember her in Thieves and My Favourite Season?—with director Andre Techine. Breathe, about adolescent friendship on the verge, directed by actor Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) will also screen.

Other French actors with international profile such as Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Jean Reno (Leon: The Professional; Ronin) and Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace; The Grand Budapest Hotel) also appear. Amalric appears in The Blue Room, adapted from Georges Simenon’s crime fiction, a film he also directed. Romain Duris appears in The New Girlfriend, a psychological drama that ventures into comedy and thriller, as one might expect from the very interesting Francois Ozon (In the House, Swimming Pool).

Yet another film about Yves Saint Laurent appears, the second of two about the grand master of style to appear in 2014, though this one, Saint Laurent, was in competition at Cannes. However, if you prefer documentary in the area of haute-couture, there’s Handmade with Love in France that explores the work and lives of artisans behind the scenes.

The options are open, as always, at the French Film Festival.

British Film Festival 2014

© Jane Freebury

No fledgling event this, even if it only began a year ago. The British Film Festival has come to town with an impressive line-up just when Canberra filmgoers thought the frenzied festival season was drawing to a close.

The inaugural BFF breezed in around this time last year and held its own. Festival publicist Bettina Richter reports that ticket sales for the event in Canberra were the best in the country. Why so, we wonder? Any tongue-in-cheek conclusions about residual affection for the old country or closet monarchists, might be hard to square with the ACT’s rousing support for a republic in the 1999 referendum. And then the French film festival tends to do very well here too. But we digress.

British cinema may translate for many punters into films with reliably solid, articulate scripts and fine character acting, with a penchant for mad-cap comedy, political thriller and grungy social realist or period drama underwritten by high production values. This may well still be true, but nowadays a British film might have a French or Cambodian-born director attached, an American or a Swedish star, an Australian narrator, or benefit from other countries pooling their funding resources and making a coproduction together. Border creep is happening everywhere and like many other national film industries around the world, the British film industry rubs shoulders with the international industry as well.

Testament of Youth, and likely to impress, is a case in point. It explores the life of the British writer Vera Brittain, whose harrowing experiences during the First World War saw her become a deeply committed pacifist. She is played by the Alicia Vikander, the radiant young Swedish actress who was in A Royal Affair, to some rapturous reviews.

American actress Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty) appears opposite Colin Farrell in the latest adaptation of the Strindberg play Miss Julie. They are directed by the grand dame of Swedish cinema, Liv Ullmann. Australian Toni Collette can be seen in the nervy role she usually aces in A Long Way Down, Pascal Chaumeil’s uncertain comedy about four people who bond after they meet by chance while attempting suicide from the same high-rise tower.

A British film that is easier to place, Mr. Turner, is a quintessentially British study in eccentricity and genius, that comes from the inimitable Mike Leigh. His portrait of the great Romantic landscape artist J. M. W. Turner with the lead role occupied by Timothy Spall is getting plaudits from the critics and has picked up a best actor gong at Cannes. Going by the trailer, Mr. Turner looks great, as so it should. While the director’s work has always observed character foible in forensic detail, with disarming decency and humour, it has most usually taken a socially realist approach. Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan story, Topsy-Turvy, took a more flamboyant turn which no doubt Mr.Turner will too.

The terrific British actor Rosamund Pike seems to be just about everywhere at the moment. For those who want to see even more, she appears alongside Billy Connolly in What We Did on Our Holiday. A Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton film that has solid comedic credentials.

For an intriguing perspective on Australia in the mid 20th century there’s the Australian-UK coproduction narrated by Bert Newton, When the Queen Came to Town, a doco of the monarch’s visit in the early 1950s. A ‘high tea’ special event will accompany one of the screenings.
Elsewhere in the program is a debut feature, Lilting, from Hong Khaoh that explores the connection between a grieving mother and a stranger (played by Ben Whishaw) who shares her grief. It has struck critics as affecting and intelligent and has picked up a cinematography award at Sundance. Another film with Sundance festival cred is God Help the Girl, winner of a special jury prize there this year.
Snow in Paradise, another first-time-director feature, premiered at Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year. It concerns a petty criminal who turns to Islam and finds peace, for a while at least.

The latest film from esteemed socialist filmmaker Ken Loach – which may be the last from the 78 year old director, but surely isn’t – is set in violent 1920s Ireland. Jimmy’s Hall also went to Cannes this year. With its particular idiosyncratic style and set piece political argument, it will strike aficionados as vintage Loach. For another perspective on Ireland’s troubles, see the debut feature from young Yann Demange, born in Paris and raised in London, set in a later convulsive decade.

Woven into the BFF program of new releases there are six superb classic titles from the swinging sixties, like Darling the film that made Julie Christie a star, A Hard Day’s Night with a cast that needs absolutely no introduction, and If…, a brilliant, chilling vision of social revolution set in an elite public school. The other three are excellent too.

A blend of quality new releases and esteemed classics worked well at last year’s festival. That was done incorporating the British Film Institute’s ‘top five’ British films of all time. It’s fascinating that the survey of 1000 industry practitioners voted three very fine films from director David Lean–Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations–into the ‘top five’. Once Lean seemed to epitomise British cinema, and the fact that Hitchcock was British should not be forgotten, but it feels like Danny Boyle, Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom may have taken over now.

Alliance Française French Film Festival 2014

© Jane Freebury

It may be an accident of history that we’re not francophone. Had the French navigator La Perouse sailed in a few days earlier and pipped Captain Phillip and his mob at the post, had the revolution not been gathering pace back home, who knows where things may have ended up.

Today, of course, what happens in France doesn’t tend to stay in France. The international community is interested, sometimes utterly fascinated by events. A robust engagement with French culture and society is not restricted to France, and is no accident beyond it.

Of course, cinema is a cornerstone of contemporary French culture. Films from the country that was the cradle of early cinema and gave birth to a ‘new wave’ of filmmaker cineastes who shook up the system mid-century, maintain an enviable capacity to draw people in.

Upwards of 200 theatrical features are made in France each year. Compare that with the seventeen produced in Australia last year. Moreover, the local product accounts for around one third of French box office. It’s an enviable result for national film industry and one would imagine that the generous government investment would be reckoned money well spent.

This year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival marks its 25th year in Australia, and is the biggest such event outside France. Last year more than 133,000 Australian filmgoers took part.

The festival will run in all mainland capital cities over six weeks. Byron Bay also gets to see it. Canberra’s rendez-vous with new French cinema will begin on 6 March.

The festival program reflects the diversity of French production with over 40 features to choose from, including several documentaries and children’s movies. Some classics of French film history also grace the screen, like Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows from the auteur Francois Truffaut, foundation member of cinema’s original ‘new wave’. The director’s less well known last film, Finally, Sunday! can also be seen.

Films to check out include Quai d’Orsay, a sharply observed, fast paced, and witty take on the political scene from veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. It will surely resonate here in the nation’s capital. Set in the ministry of foreign affairs, the day-to-day shenanigans are seen through the eyes of an idealistic and guileless new starter, hired to write speeches. Everyone except him understands how to play the game, including Niels Arestrup’s wily, world-weary chief-of-staff and a slinky mini-skirted advisor played by one Julie Gayet.

Another film to look out for is Suzanne from young writer-director Katell Quillevéré. It’s about of a rebellious young woman with a lust for life who falls in love with a criminal. Developing the script involved a lot of background research among women who’d been unable to break this vicious cycle themselves, Quillevéré told me when I interviewed her in Paris last November. It is only her second feature, but a mature and impressive work. Going Away, directed by Nicole Garcia, is another good film that could be overlooked in a program with names like Roman Polanski, Juliette Binoche and Jean-Pierre Bacri.

Then there’s the enigmatically titled 11.6. A smoothly executed, smart and understated heist movie about a folk hero that is based on real-life events in 2009, when the reputation of the French banking system was at a low ebb. Another working class hero emerges in handsome black-and-white in Our Heroes Died Tonight. It is set in the professional wrestling milieu of the 1960s. I was informed in interviews with the filmmakers that the world of pro wrestling, although popularised on American television, actually emerged in France.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen appears as a surprisingly enlightened 16th century trader in Michael Kohlhaas, caught up in one of those complex moral dilemmas for which he is perfectly suited. It is a powerful atmospheric drama. In much the same vein, Cycling with Molière with Fabrice Luchini presents a moral dilemma of a very different contemporary kind. It’s not necessary to be acquainted with the plays of Molière to enjoy its subtle, sometimes uneasy pleasures.

On My Way with Catherine Deneuve has had a recent season here. A more substantial film on the subject of an older woman finding a new lease of life, Bright Days Ahead, screens during the festival. Fanny Ardant’s smokey performance as a retired married dentist can be compared with her turn in the Truffaut classic The Woman Next Door in 1981. IT Boy and A Castle in Italy, also touch on similar themes. It may be of passing interest that A Castle in Italy, in which an establishment family is vivisected, is directed by and stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, older sister of Carla.

The very interesting actor Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) can be found in two disparate films. In Just a Sigh she has a fleeting encounter with a man (Gabriel Byrne, unaccountably uncomfortable) who is passing through. Violette is a different proposition, a lengthy but rewarding drama about novelist Violette Leduc, a contemporary and friend of Simone de Beauvoir and her clique in 1940s Paris.

In recent years, there have been some very high profile French exports like the rollicking, populist The Intouchables, a major hit. And of course it was extraordinaire that a French film jumped the barricades that kept foreign film separate and made off with the Best Film Oscar in 2012. The Artist, a homage to Hollywood in transition from the silent era to sound, was the first French film (admittedly silent) to win a Best Film award. It happened again last year when Michael Haneke’s Amour was nominated.

The contrast between the Hollywood studio film and the rest is pretty pronounced in these times of CGI spectacle in 3D. However, it also seems that there are audiences for film and television who don’t mind subtitles that much and want to see more character-driven dramas. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.

2014 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival will screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton between 6 – 25 March. Website:

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2013

© Jane Freebury

All you need to make a film, Jean-Luc Godard once said, is a gun and a girl. The French filmmaker, radical in practice while others were still thinking about it, had a way with words and he hasn’t been proven wrong. It’s hard to imagine a time when sex and violence won’t be mainstays of popular entertainment on the big screen.

The 24th Alliance Française French Film Festival with its repertoire of very human stories offers an escape from this formula for mainstream success. Audiences, always on the lookout for something different, clearly appreciate a different approach. Last year, 126,000 people attended the festival in Australia. In 2012, 80 per cent of the audience at the FFF was Australian, according to Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, who is French cultural attaché as well as festival creative director.

Screen sex and violence don’t arrive via Hollywood alone, however. In recent years, a language of ‘extremism’ has expressed itself in French cinema too. In the films of Catherine Breillat like Romance with its pornographic actuality, and her devastating portrait of sibling rivalry, A ma soeur! Gaspar Noé is another unafraid to shock with films like Irreversible in which revenge is sought for a brutal rape.

However Godard, who had a bit of a thing for the gun and the girl himself, forgot to mention comedy. French cinema is full of great comedies like the immortal Mr Hulot series. In 2011, The Intouchables was the box office hit of the year in France, second only to Welcome to the Sticks, a huge hit in 2008 and none too politically correct either.

France is intensely proud of its cinema heritage and the French are hungry for movies. France has among the highest number of screens per person in the world, and is one of the biggest film markets. And the French show enviable loyalty towards their own cinema too. During March it is possible to explore why this continues to be so.

The FFF will be an opportunity to see what the French stars have been up to lately. Sophie Marceau, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Seigner, Cecile de France, Mathieu Kassovitz, Juliette Binoche, can be seen on screen. Gerard Depardieu, star and now tax fugitive en route to Russia, reprises Obelix, Asterix’s right hand man.

Niels Arestrup, the chilling, heartless father in You Will Be My Son, appears in another family drama, Our Children. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, the father in Mia Hansen-Love’s Father of my Children, appears in In a Rush, which he also directed. It’s never quite clear whether French-speaking Kristin Scott-Thomas counts as French or English these days, but she’s there too. And for those who have loved the Francois Truffaut classic Jules and Jim, the appearance of Jeanne Moreau may be the piece de resistance.

This year’s festival screens 43 fiction features and documentaries, including a new film, The Field of Enchantment, from the makers of that enchanting study of unseen worlds in a grassy field, Microcosmos. A subtle, skilful doco about an earlier generation of gay couples, The Invisibles, is very fine. They are the pioneers, living in villages and towns beyond the anonymity that cities afford, whose youth preceded the civil rights movements that has helped younger generations come out. Last year’s best doco at the Cesars, Leadersheep, with vision of sheep herding beneath the Eiffel Tower, covers protests over the reclamation of farming land for a military camp.

Certain fiction features document social issues. Louise Wimmer explores the plight of an older woman who left her husband and is trying to get her life together as she struggles with menial jobs and homelessness. Fairly strong stuff, with a fine central performance from Corinne Masiero that has opened doors for her. Juliette Binoche is also known for strong stuff, but she can play a deft hand at comedy, and has lighter work to do in her story of second chances, the romantic comedy Another Woman’s Life.

Film production in France sees a large proportion of first-time filmmakers each year, sometimes making more than one third of new work. They are represented at the festival as are female directors, including Noemie Lvovsky, whose film Camille Rewinds won festival awards at Locarno and Cannes and Ursula Meier whose Sister won awards at the Berlin and Chicago in 2012. Sister is one of the films that festival curator, Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, thinks will challenge audiences. She thinks Louise Wimmer, Our Children and The Invisibles will too.

It is great to see that some of the grand old masters of French cinema are still standing. Among them Alain Resnais whose Last Year at Marienbad has presented a maze of meaning for film students for decades. And now, his You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! from a 90-year-old has a certain cache. Resnais directed Emmanuelle Riva, recently Oscar-nominated for her role in Amour, in the late 1950s in Hiroshima Mon Amour. The synopsis suggests that Resnais’ new film also concerns the past in the present, or vice versa, though on this occasion he is assisted by digital technology.

Unfortunately there’s nothing from Godard, now 82 years old, but there again, he is still active. We await his latest, due for release this year.

A new film from Olivier Assayas, After May, will be shown. The acclaimed director’s work is quite varied. He did well recently with a gentle contemplative film about family, Summer Hours, but has also made Carlos, a biopic of the political assassin, and Irma Vep, a meditation on the state of French film in which Maggie Cheung spends most of her screen time in tight black latex. The impact of May ’68 on the lives of the young is explored in Assayas’ After May.

Another big name director, Francois Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool), is represented with In the House, in which a talented student writes openly of his fascination for the mother of his friend. And there are more revelations, which may or may not be true…

Benoit Jacquot, the filmmaker behind another festival highlight, Farewell, my Queen, will be a festival guest and do a Q&A on Sunday 17 March. His film, based on a prize-winning feminist novel, opened the Berlin Film Festival last year. Diane Kruger plays the doomed Marie Antoinette, while the role of her lectrice or reader, is occupied Lea Seydoux, a young French actor, also to be seen in Sister, who seems to be going places. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was not that long ago, however, but her spirited attempt to meld pop culture kitsch with history did not hold appeal for everyone.

Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, in digitally remastered form, concludes the festival. It opened on Wednesday with Haute Cuisine, about a chef from Perigord suddenly appointed personal chef to the President in the Elysee Palace. As films this year are being shown more than once, there is still an opportunity to see it.




Diverging Australian cinematic futures (1991)

© Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine September 1991

The Sydney season of the 1991 Australian Film Festival opened with the striking juxtaposition of Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof and Rolf de Heer’s Dingo. Both nominated for best feature in the Australian Film Institute awards, they represent the wildly different directions filmmaking in this country is taking towards an uncertain future.

Proof is already well known. It opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes recently and has been sold extensively in Europe. An art-house success seems assured and it could well crossover to the mainstream. Dingo is the commercial vehicle made to a formula with a certain precedent — local yokel tries his luck overseas, which on this occasion is Paris, and is graciously received. As it is an international coproduction, its makers are undoubtedly expecting to find an audience in France as well.

Proof, it has been pointed out, is a European-style piece, with an inclination towards interior settings and the inner life. At its centre is the anomaly of a blind photographer (played by Hugo Weaving) whose spirit has atrophied in distrust of others. He needs to have a picture record of the world he moves in to lay claim to the perceptions which sight cannot support. What he doesn’t know is that there is someone who is taking pictures of him and covering the walls of her home with them so as to capture a presence she loves but cannot have…

Unlike the films of Paul Cox, which also have appear for the European art-house circuit, Proof has an artiness which isn’t so insistent, a certain lightness of tone and a sense of drollery which disguises the process and allows the basic contrivance to look uncontrived. The skill which Jocelyn Moorhouse invests in Proof is quite outstanding.

And on the other hand there is Dingo. Amiable enough, with Colin Friels and Helen Buday in the central roles, this film seems badly misjudged, despite the involvement of people whose work I have previously admired. De Heer and Marc Rosenberg collaborated on Incident at Raven’s Gate, a sadly underrated film.

Dingo is the story of John ‘Dingo’ Anderson, a dingo trapper who has yet to outfox a wily three-legged dog he is baiting. Husband (to Buday’s Jane) and father of daughters, he scratches away at a living in the dust of Poona Flat. Aspirations and ambitions are no burden, with the exception of one overreaching desire which he has had since he was twelve — to play trumpet with jazz musician Billy Cross, played by the enigmatic Miles Davis himself. This passion dates back to the occasion when Billy, on tour with his band, dropped out of the sky onto Poona Flat because their plane had to make a forced landing. With the entire population of the township standing agog at the runway, what else was there to do but a musical number for this improvised audience — and it was this moment which was to take root in John’s consciousness and grow into an obsession.

You might have thought that young John would want to become a pilot, considering the way the camera caresses the TNT jet along its gleaming length. Dingo is marked by rather florid camerawork: lots of crane shots, swoops, pans and 360-degree movements which seem rather ill-conceived and indulgent. The lazy curve of a languid camera movement is meant to give shape to the soundtrack and support the musical mood, but the over-developed style looks flowery. Were it not for the long sequences of jazz trumpet by Davis, or for the compositions which he wrote with Michel Legrand, the film would be as ricketty as that three-legged dingo that couldn’t be caught.

Dingo is too long, too improbable (more improbable than a blind photographer), too dependent on dusty mythology about the Australian character — and too costly. Why is there still the expectation that the big-budget production feature (co-production, vehicle for overseas actor, or whatever) will prevail, when the local low-budget production area is consistently more interesting?

Dingo was five times more expensive to make than Proof, which was made for a little over a million dollars. The government agency investment money that went into Dingo (the Film Finance Corporation’s contribution was over $3 million) could have got a cluster of films off the ground more engaging for home audiences. And the French will prefer Proof, anyway.