I enjoyed all of the documentaries I saw at MIFF 2018, giving five stars to these four. I’m including my contemporaneous tweets to show my immediate responses. They were all on a par really but if I had to order them by preference I’d put them this way:

The Eulogy
This lets Geoffrey Tozer’s talent blaze. Different theories about his decine. Janine Hosking doesn’t try to provide definitive answers. Her deft touch leaves it to us to decide. Richard Gill’s guidance balances Paul Keating’s righteous fury

This film was funded by the MIFF Premiere Fund and certainly demonstrates the value of that fund. Paul Keating strongly supported the career of classical pianist Geoffrey Tozer who he discovered working as a music teacher at his son’t Canberra school. Subsequently Tozer became one of the first recipients of what were disparagingly called the Keatings; scholarships for artists who were mid career and working at an internationally recognised level of excellence. At Tozer’s funeral Keating delivered a searing eulogy condemning the Australian music elite for ignoring this musical genius.

The film interrogates whether there is any substance to Keating’s claims. The former Prime Minister agreed to re-create his famous speech and so the film commences with the immaculately clad Keating striding down the aisle of an empty St Patricks Cathedral and taking his position at the lectern. The film concludes with him striding back down the aisle and out of the Cathedral. In between we learn much about Geoffrey Tozer’s life, from child prodigy through to international stardom and concluding alone in a dilapidated rental house in suburban Melbourne.

The film-makers, in an inspired move, use the much admired music teacher and conductor Richard Gills to guide us. One of the most amazing things the film uncovers, along with quite a few others, is that Richard barely knew anything about Tozer when he came on board the project beyond the fact that he was regarded as difficult. That fact alone substantiates Keating’s charge that the local classical music scene ignored a genius in its midst. One of the most moving scenes is when Gills replicates the circumstances in which Tozer first listened to a recording he had made for Chandos of a piano concerto by Nikolai Medtner, a notoriously difficult Russian composer. Its in a bare, candle-lit room in an ex-convent in Sydney that Tozer once owned. Its incredible watching Gills face as he listens to, and appreciates the genius of the pianist. Tozer went on to record all of Medtner’s work. It’s available on Spotify and worth listening to.

There are excerpts of Tozer’s playing throughout including from when he was very young and from a few years before his death, when, despite being regarded as too difficult to be engaged by Australian symphony orchestras he was touring China with a full schedule of orchestral concerts. More evidence of the rightness of Keating’s claims. That was my view anyway. The film itself, admirably, draws no conclusions. It presents the facts and the views of the people involved including spokespeople from the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony orchestras.

I particularly liked the way the film gradually reveals the different issues that arose in Tozer’s life. First, it establishes, beyond doubt, in my view, his musical genius. Then it unfolds the life which is tragic in its way. A domineering mother; a father not prepared to recognise him; retreat from the international music scene; the political furore over the Keating awards of which he received two; his difficulties dealing with day to day life; a late sexual awakening and finally the dreaded drink. A great story about a person who, I think, like Keating, deserved much better. Its great that this film will go some way to having him recognised in Australia. Do see it if you can. Here’s the trailer.

Chris The Swiss
So pleased a MIFF2018 tweeter recommended this. Innovative use of animation, ultimately very moving. Interrogated the role of journalists in wars. A strong and timely message about how easy it is to stir up hatred and start another ‘dirty war’.

This was a late addition to my program because I had a gap between films and it was recommended in a tweet that I saw at a screening. I’m so pleased I did. I thought it was going to be a straight animation but it was much more. A young Swiss woman, Anja Kofmel tells the story of her cousin, Chris, who got caught up in the war between Serbians and Croats in the early 1990s. Initially a war reporter, he joined an international mercenary brigade in Croatia.

The film mixes up interviews with journalists who knew and worked with Chris, footage of him speaking on camera during news reports and also directly to camera behind the scenes, film of Anja and others returning to the places that Chris has referred to in his diaries and beautiful black and white animations of some of the things he has written about, some of which are gruelling and best told in this way than any other. She also speaks to her aunt and uncle, Chris’s parents and his brother which gives a very personal perspective on this death.

The journalists she speaks to are very articulate; both about the general business of war reporting and of the circumstances surrounding Chris’ death. He was strangled and those who knew him have a firm view about who was responsible but this person died some years later in Central America. A photographer friend of Chris went to investigate his death when it became known and was killed by a sniper. How easy it is to murder someone in the midst of war. The woman German journalist tells Anja that the rest of them left the city that same night.

There are incredibly interesting insights into what makes a person join a mercenary brigade and what is expected of them when they do. It’s not nice. The journalists were appalled that Chris did so. And were appalled that he was open about writing about the experience, which they believe led to his death. Very innovative film-making. And ultimately very moving. Here’s the trailer

The Other Side of Everything
A wonderful homage from a daughter, Mila Turajilic, to her mother. And what an inspiring character that mother, Srbijanka, is. Uncompromising in her commitment to personal honesty and responsibility. Beautifully done.

This was another late addition to my program. This time I was given a taste of the Serbian side of the Balkan war; but not the familiar one of belligerent support for Slobodan Milosevic. Srbijanka Turajlic is a pro-democracy activist who played a key role in opposing the Milosevic regime. Her family were keen supporters of the creation of the Yugoslav state before it became a totalitarian state under Tito; her grandfather was a parliamentarian who strongly supported the breaking down of borders between the different countries that came to constitute Yougoslavia.

They owned a splendid building in Belgrade and lived in one of the fine apartments contained therein. She describes the day, after Tito has come to power, when a woman in a black uniform turned up at the door and declared the flat was to be divided so that the proletariat could be accommodated. The film opens with her polishing the handles of the door that has been closed ever since. Later the old lady who has lived in the two rooms taken from the family is asked by a census taker whether she has any land. She laughs and says, Oh no I’m part of the landless proletariat. Another census question ask people to declare their nationality; the sensitivity of this question is recognised by making it optional. It’s an emotive questions for Srbijanka who has always considered herself a Yugoslav.

The film is made by her daughter which gives it a wonderful intimacy. At another point as her mother polishes some silverware, part of the family’s bourgeoise inheritance, she says to her daughter if you don’t include me cleaning the silver in your film I will kill you! She’s a wonderful subject; very articulate and open about her feelings and actions during Belgrade’s turbulent past. She’s scrupulously honest, about her own actions. But adamant that people need to take responsibility and to take action when necessary. To her it is inconceivable that you would do nothing; how could she face her children if she had done nothing? She got involved when students came to her and wanted to demonstrate against the regime but were fearful of putting their names to the request to the police. So she put her name to it. She expresses disappointment that when she was finally sacked from her position at the university, professor of engineering, none of her colleagues protested. They just took over her classes.

There’s footage of her addressing enormous crowds during the people’s movement to overturn the regime; she admits to shaky legs. But her voice is strong and direct. Later she self critiques a television interview from the period; I talked too much, I should have been much briefer . After watching footage of the burning and looting of parliament when the previous regime fell, she remarks drily; I should have known my history better; all revolutions fail.

The film includes some remarkable historical footage that Srbijanka says shows the start of the break up of the old Yugoslavia. In grainy black and white you see some sort of parliamentary session at which a vote is about to be taken denying Kosova a measure of self determination. An old man, a supporter of the joining up of the separate entities that made up Yugoslavia, walks slowly to the microphone and points his finger at Slobodan Milosevic and says words to the effect this is a very significant moment, an historic moment. And Srbijanka and her friends, agree, this vote was the start of the end of their country. The whole film demonstrated my parlous lack of knowledge about what has been happening in this part of the world over the past twenty years. Srbijanka is quietly scathing about the West noting that initially it welcomed Milosevic until, almost overnight she says, he became the Butcher of the Balkans.

There are poignant moments that reveal the cost of turbulent political times on longstanding friendships. When the war began Srbijanka says of her friendship group; That’s when we started playing cards because some of her closest friends supported the war. She did not. The film takes us right up to recent elections where the progressive parties lose and one of Milosevic’s supporters becomes President. Srbijanka is now being called a traitor and has even been caught up in legal proceedings given her role in the overthrow of the old regime. It ends with the family reclaiming the partitioned off rooms and then opening the door onto a piece of the past. Here’s the trailer.

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
A joyful celebration of young womanhood. From the Beatles through One Direction and beyond. Great.

This was beautifully done and quite joyous. The film follows four women over a number of years talking about their boy band fandom. There is one Melbourne woman in her 60s who reflects on the importance of The Beatles in her life; especially remembering how cloistered that life was in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs! There are photos of the Fab Four at the Southern Cross and their fan memorabilia that I remember clearly.

There is another woman in Sydney who was / is a fan of Take That and two young women in America who are mad about The Backstreet Boys and One Direction. I know nothing about the latter three bands but it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t. The film is interested in the women.

They are all wonderfully articulate about what they want out of their fandom. Interviews with the three younger women are taken over a number of years which allows us to witness a progression in their understanding of the relevance of the boybands they have loved and why they responded the way they did. These young women are navigating their way through parental expectations, college, careers and finding life partners. It’s a tough time! They all have great fun diving into boxes of old memorabilia.

Interspersed with the interviews we see archival footage of the bands and a terrific whiteboard exercise looking at various theories about boybands by the Take That fan. Every boyband had to have a serious one, a cute one, one that can play music etc. There’s a particularly awful boat cruise with one of the bands. That seems to me a bit beyond the pale. The young woman who went on it thought so too.

The film’s message is that these bands play an important role in the lives of young women; that the fans themselves are not to be taken as foolish but know exactly what they want from the experience, which overall is to have an outlet for their self expression at a particular time in their lives. You don’t have to be a boring music nerd to be treated seriously. So let’s hear it for pop music and boy bands! Here’s the trailer.


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