Category Archives: Film Features

The Wolf in Australian Art

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2016

Wolf in Australian Art

© by Jane Freebury

In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, young Danila Vassilieff, a trained engineer and former White Army soldier, left his homeland behind. After extensive travels in Asia, he made his way to Australia with his wife, also a Russian refugee. He became an Australian citizen, and began to paint but the wanderlust returned and he set off around the world. When he eventually returned, he became a key figure in the development of figurative expressionism in Australia. Prominent painters influenced by him during the 1940s include Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman.

For all this, the legacy of painter and sculptor Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff has been overlooked, says Richard Moore whose new documentary film explores his legacy. Moore, a former head of the Melbourne International Film Festival, has extensive experience as a director and producer in film and television.

The Wolf in Australian Art is based on research by Moore’s mother, Felicity St John Moore, with contributions from his brother and his sister. Felicity features as the gallery guide through the Vassilieff collection at the National Gallery of Australia, that holds the biggest collection of his work in the country. Around 300 works are shown in the film.

It was the sculptures by Vassilieff, wrought in marble found in Lilydale that was the artist’s eventual home, that first caught Felicity’s eye.

‘The film is based on Felicity’s book, Vassilieff and His Arts. I directed and produced the film, my brother Tim (Moore), who is head of exhibition design at National Portrait Gallery. He designed the major exhibition of Vassilieff’s work where sections of the film are shot, and my sister Lisa (Moore) plays the majority of the music.’ Lisa, a professional pianist, lives in the US.

‘A bit of a family affair’, Moore says, who I interviewed from Melbourne this week. ‘And we’re still talking!’

Art historian, author and curator, Felicity St John Moore, was formerly head of Education at the NGA, training guides and giving public lectures. Her book on Vassilieff, first published in 1982, is in its second edition.

While in London in the 1930s, Vassilieff encountered the Ballets Russes and the Russian moderns, and from this point his work was underpinned by the traditions of the figurative tradition from Russian folk art and the modernist avant-garde, as he sought to paint life as it is lived. When back in Australia, he established his reputation through a confident confrontation with fine art, insisting that it was the visceral response and the message in art that mattered, rather than the aesthetics.

‘Vassilieff was a colourful, eccentric, unusual character,’ says Moore. An outsider who didn’t really fit in? A restless intelligence? Yes, and yes. ‘He changed styles constantly. He was a shape shifter.’ He had a liberating effect on young Australian artists who felt emboldened to trust their own vision. However, unfortunately, he only sold five of his own paintings during his lifetime.

The ‘Wolf’, where does that come from? It’s a playful label, says Moore, derived in part from Vassilieff’s Peter and the Wolf watercolours, held in the NGA. ‘And he was also a voracious lover’, who had many affairs.

The Wolf in Australian Art is an opportunity to re-evaluate the contribution of Vassilieff, considered a father figure to the generation of Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker known as the Angry Penguins, helping them to find their voice.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/the-wolf-in-australian-art-at-the-national-gallery–danila-vassilieff-20160717-gq7uft.html

 

The Wolf in Australian Art screened at the National Gallery of Australia in July, introduced by director, Richard Moore, and followed by a Q&A.

 

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.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/like-a-shot-of-vodka-the-scandinavian-film-festival-2016-comes-to-canberra-20160705-gpz1fq.html

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:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/scorsese-by-stratton-at-the-national-film-and-sound-archive-celebrates-the-great-movie-director-20160627-gpsjtx.html

 

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.

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.

LINKS:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/new-film-festival-on-this-month-at-palace-electric-in-canberra-celebrates-the-great-tradition-of-independent-american-cinema-20160510-goqkok.html

http://www.smh.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/new-film-festival-on-this-month-at-palace-electric-in-canberra-celebrates-the-great-tradition-of-independent-american-cinema-20160510-goqkok

Spanish Film Festival 2016

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

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/whats-on-at-the-spanish-film-festival-2016-in-canberra-20160404-gnxrrr.html

 

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:

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/canberra-filmmakers-the-tentmakers-of-cairo-shows-artisans-during-arab-spring-20160322-gnoebd.html

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© 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.

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/french-film-festival-2016-vive-la-difference-20160223-gmycel.html

 

© 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.