When I started going to MIFF many years ago, and even when I returned after a long absence, it was documentaries that I sought out because you often didn’t get to see them elsewhere. Nowadays they’re more readily available on SBS, Netflix etc. so I don’t focus on them as much during the festival. I do enjoy a good one, and this year there were quite a few to choose from. In addition to the five star ones, here are my next best. Given four instead of five four stars because they were straight documentaries, interesting because of the subject matter rather than for being very innovative or inventive in their story telling. I recommend them all. I’ve included my contemporaneous tweet at the top of each review.

Speak Up
There seems to be one at every other MIFF; but this was a great doco about disadvantaged French kids lifting themselves up a notch to succeed in competition.This one on speech-making. Heartwarming.

I have seen lots of this type of documentary at MIFF over the years; about kids on the wrong side of the tracks getting an opportunity to excel and succeeding. And this one was up there with the best. I didn’t use the the term heartwarming very often this festival, but this really deserves the description. We’re at the St Denis High School; a very disadvantaged area on the outskirts of Paris. Joe and I went there to look at the Cathedral which is home to the tombs of most French Kings and Queens. Its very impressive – and full of French school children learning their history. But that aspect of the place doesn’t get a look in here. We start in a classroom of students being tutored in how to make a speech. The lecturers are great, and its worth seeing for their advice if nothing else. But the heart of the film is the students. We get to see different activities that involve the whole class and we get to see lots of them do different bits of exercises. We then get to follow a few of them in more depth; learning about their home lives as well as their thoughts about the competition. There’s a young man who was for a time homeless in Paris and he takes us around to the places where he used to sleep on the streets and telling us what it was like to do so. There’s a young Muslim woman who we see with her family as well as hearing why the competition is so important for her; I wanted her to win. Another boy lives on a village on the outskirts of town meaning he has a long walk to and from the bus. His father appears a bit crazy when we first meet him and it emerges he has cancer but he is a great influence on his son. Over time we come to focus on fewer students seeing them prepare for and eventually participate in the final competition. It was terrific. Here’s the trailer.

Yellow Is Forbidden
Wonderful. Especially if you saw the Guo Pei dresses at the NGV Triennial. And great to hear directly from director Pietro Brettkelly who was so articulate about her film-making.

Having seen her work at the NGV Triennial I was really pleased to see this; especially given that those dresses are the ones featured in this documentary. This is one of the ones I saw.

It’s very much fly on the wall film-making. We were told by Pietro that she basically just follows her subject around to see what happens; there is only her and the cameraman. She has a script written that she keeps to herself, where she hopes for something dramatic to happen – in this case perhaps the failure of Guo Pei’s first Paris fashion show! That doesn’t happen; it’s a resounding success. In the lead up we get to see how much work goes into making sure that happens. The attention to detail is something else. Also the struggle to get the materials and the work to the quality desired. We are taken into the designers home where she does most of her designing; into her salon where she explains to her clients that a Chinese designer must be so much better to make it in the West. We go with her to some A-list functions; one in the company of Wendy Murdoch who was an early champion of Guo Pei. We also go to Paris with her where she has to impress the fashionistas before getting to first base in terms of a Paris fashion show. We also meet her parents in a quite moving scene; they continue to live in modest circumstances. We get a glimpse into how tricky life was for this family during the cultural revolution. Her mother is losing her sight. We also go into the workshops where Guo Pei overseas, and makes huge demands on the skilled seamstresses who perform the amazing embroidery that makes her gowns so stunning. The director tells a story that in the workshop they witnesses a loud and intense argument and she wondered what it was about – maybe the drama the documentary required? But no; when she got it translated it turned out they were arguing about what to get for lunch! A nice story. The film covers a long period of time; over a couple of years I think. The designer made the director a dress as a memento and she wore it to MIFF. Here it is. A great overview of the fashion industry in general and a celebration of an extraordinary woman. Here is the trailer.

A Woman Captured
Proof that films can change lives.

This is a story of modern day slavery somewhere in Hungary. I still find it hard to work out how the subject of this documentary, 53 year old Marish, came to get into her situation. Acting as an unpaid servant for a woman called Etta who we only see glimpses of; a silhouette there, a hand holding a cigarette here. Marish gets up at the crack of dawn to feed ducks, makes breakfast for the family and then goes to work in a factory all day before coming home to clean up the house, make the beds, make afternoon tea for the kids and their friends, then making and cleaning up after dinner, before sliding into bed exhausted. For some reason she’s sleeping on a couch. All of this is captured by the film-maker who has managed to get Etta to agree to her filming it in exchange for money. The money Marish earns from her factory work goes directly to Etta. Marish has a daughter but she left the house some years ago and is now in a welfare hostel. Marish is quite beaten down by her situation and sees no way of getting out of it. She’s completely on her own and years of being treated so badly have completely undermined her confidence. Over time the film-maker manages to convince her to leave and seeing her do so is quite thrilling. She moves to another city and takes very little time to get a job and an apartment. She reunites with her daughter. When we first see her after some time out of the clutches of Etta the change in her appearance is stunning. She is wearing make up and nice clothes and looks years younger. Amazing. Here’s the trailer.

Kusume: Infinity
Loved this. Case study in how the world ignores women artists. She had such courage, such self belief. Incredibly she wasn’t crushed by the apathy and plagiarism.
How courageous Yayoi Kusama had to be to pursue her art. And what beautiful art it is. Pleased to see her finally getting the recognition she deserved along with the Warhol’s and Rothko’s in the 1960s.

Two tweets about this film; I think because I forgot I’d already done one! Anyway, it’s true that I loved this documentary. And was outraged by the treatment of this amazing woman. Yayoi Kusama was an important part of the avant-garde art movement of the 1960s but her contribution was almost completely ignored. Andy Warhol stole her ideas as did other male artists of the period. She must have had amazing self belief and resilience because through it all she kept making her very distinctive art. She took herself off to the Venice Biennale in 1966 and set up an installation without approval which the organisers shut down. So it was very satisfying when in 1993 she became the first solo artist to represent Japan at the same event. This was so successful she has finally been recognised around the world. Even so the documentary lays bare a sad life of an artist cruelly misused. Her family were disdainful of her artistic ambitions. She was so brave and must have had such self belief when she travelled to New York alone in 1958 where she continued to make her own distinctive art. Only to see it misappropriated by male artists while she was ignored and living in poverty. She turned to creating happenings which were out door performances often involving nudity. She also used these to protest against the Vietnam war. Eventually she was forced, by poverty and ill-health, to return to Japan in 1973 where she finally admitted herself to a hospital for the mentally ill. She continues to live in the same place near which she has a studio where she continues to produce great works of art that are now much in demand. It’s great to see her finally recognised. Her home town of Matsumoto now has a gallery devoted to her work. Most of us now recognise her Yellow Pumpkin on Noshima, the so-called Art Island, in Japan I was really pleased to see her Flower Obsession at the NGV Triennial. These pictures don’t do it justice.

The documentary contains quite a lot of the work but I’d have loved to see more. Her paintings are so joyful, so full of colour and wonderful shapes. It’s great to see Yayoi Kusame finally recognised for the great artist that she is. Here’s the trailer.

The King
This made me weep all over again for Elvis. How beautiful he was and how quick was his fall. Interesting seeing this after I Used To Be Normal. All the old feelings were there. Interesting juxtaposition to present day America.

Indeed this did documentary had me recalling how wonderful Elvis was. God he was handsome! The schtick with this movie was a road trip across America in the Rolls-Royce once owned by Elvis; travelling to key places in his life starting with Tupelo in Mississippi where he was born, Memphis where his family lived and where he first recorded. I didn’t think it worked that well. Best thing was when people looking on were told it was Elvis’ car; great reactions to that. Different people hop into the car and say how important Elvis was to them; it all seems a bit random who gets a guernsey. The singers make sense; Mary Gauthier, Emmy-Lou Harris but others not so much; Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers. I loved the flash backs to Elvis himself – as I said, so handsome, such an innocence about him in the early days. He was used and abused really by those around him. His career was so short. 1956, Heartbreak Hotel was released, military service in 1958, 1960 back to recording some of his greatest songs. When he came back from Germany he said he wanted to tour the world but the Colonel took him to Hollywood instead where he made those awful movies all through the 1960s. It’s revealed here that the Colonel didn’t have an American passport which is why the international travel never took place. We’re reminded here about how popular Elvis was; television appearances resulted in off off the charts ratings; his movie deal was the biggest ever signed in Hollywood. After those awful movies – ten of them – Elvis said he wanted perform his songs on television. Just to show he could still do it. And do it he did. I think I remember the show; a special called Elvis in 1968. He was dressed in black leather and so lean and gorgeous. He performed all the hits and seemed to be having fun with lots of self deprecating humour. Then the Colonel took him to Las Vegas and it was all over within a decade. Shocking to see that last concert in 1973, Aloha From Hawaii. He was dead four years later in 1977, aged 42. Shocking still. The movie recounts all that and intersperses some thoughts on American politics, the road trip is happening during the Trump election. Alec Baldwin famously says Trump will never be elected. There is also a bit of debate about cultural appropriation that doesn’t really gel with the rest of it. Great seeing Elvis though. Here’s the trailer.


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