We’re watching all of our MIFF films online this year. The title of this year’s festival is MIFF 681/2 This was meant to be the 69th MIFF but we’re only getting half a festival due to Covid 19. The hashtag on twitter remains #MIFF2020. Opening night was Thursday 6 August. I’ll be writing my reviews contemporaneously and updating this blog as I do so – which is proving hard! Stars are out of five; which is how they always were at MIFF until last year when they changed them to ten. I prefer the original method; and I may change my star allocations on the way through as I compare films against each other.
First Cow **
I was disappointed to be honest. I loved Certain Women by the same director, Kelly Reichardt as you can read here. So I had high expectations; maybe too high. I tweeted immediately after seeing it: A slow, atmospheric, account of early frontier life in Oregon. Engaging, sympathetic characters let down by its opaque ending. But it wasn’t just the ending that felt under-done, rather there was not enough story to engage me. Beautiful cinematography. But I needed more. We’re in the American North-West (not that I knew that watching it). Where men behave brutishly. Except our protagonist, Cookie, who is sensitive and caring. When he’s left behind by the violent gang of beaver trappers at the local settlement he falls in with another outsider; a Chinese man, more cultured and canny than the rest. The whole period is well done; beautiful natural world in which white settlers struggle to eke out a rough and ready existence in crudely built shelters, threadbare clothes and where second hand boots are coveted. They do so alongside local Indigenous folk who are more at home in this environment. Our two mates make a killing selling cakes made with milk they steal from the first cow of the title. You sense it will end badly. And in fact you’ve already seen how the two main characters end up, in the first scene which is set in modern times. After which we go back in time. Later, in a conversation between administrators there is a hint of violence to come. There is tension towards the end, but I thought it amounted to false manipulation of the audience. And I didn’t really care enough about the characters. So just two stars from me. The trailer is here
Since writing this, it seems a long time ago, I’ve found reviews from MIFF Critics Campus participants (a great initiative, another way MIFF adds to our cinema culture here in Melbourne) on the MIFF blog. There are four of them and they’re all good. You can find them here.
Farewell Amor ***
I really enjoyed this film. Here’s my tweet: Beautifully paced drama about a family reconnecting after years apart. Different perspectives sensitively portrayed. Great performances. Very moving. They’ve been apart for seventeen years – which is a long time during which the father has been in New York battling immigration authorities to get wife and daughter over from Tanzania. They’re originally from Angola. It’s very nicely done. After polite greetings on the first day we get to hear from each of them directly about how they are dealing with their new situation. All are affected differently, but it’s hard for all of them. This is a first film for the director and is really well done. Builds to a very affecting, and moving conclusion. Three stars from me. I couldn’t find a trailer but and interview with the director, with the three actors, is here.
Prayer For A Lost Mitten **
Fantastic camera work – haunting black and white cinematography. And some terrific bits where people speak directly to camera bout what loss means to them. But the focus on lost articles slowly dissipates which is a pity. And there were some disarmingly frank conversations between friends that were amusing and enlightening. So much food for thought. It was filmed in Montreal and started out at the railway or public transport lost property office. All sorts of people, young, old, black, white, well-heeled and not. It’s the middle of winter and is worth seeing for the imagery alone – beautiful shots of people – walking, skating, tobogganing, working and just hanging out – and of nature – wonderful shots of trees swaying in the wind and of snow falling. Incredibly clear photography focussed on peoples’ faces and evocative when panning over the landscape. But it did lose focus in the end and there were too many unexplained and uninteresting interludes. Two stars from me. The trailer, which only includes one of the bits from the lost property office, is here. A conversation with the director and one of the MIFF Campus Critics gives a better idea about the film. I think it confirms that he got distracted by his love of night-time cinematography. It’s here.
I said in my tweet: I recommend Kuessipan. Two girls from Quebec’s Innu community, best friends, follow different paths into adulthood. Amazing scenery and a look into a little known (by me) community – its strengths and weaknesses. A moving but hopeful finale. It’s from a well known book by a person called Naomi Fontaine and there is a voice -over which works here. Mikuen’s way out of the reserve is to become a writer and she reads out some beautiful pieces during the film. It’s a warts and all look at the community and also at the prejudice that the Innu face from other Canadians. This is lightly – but effectively done. Incredibly beautiful scenery. The two girls were fantastic in their roles. As was everybody. Really worth seeing. Four stars from me. The trailer is here.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Part 1 *****
This is going to be a marathon – there are fourteen hours in total in this epic project which is directed by Mark Cousins . He directed a similar project The Story of Film: An Odyssey which we liked so much we bought the video. As indicated in the title, this one focuses on women directors. The whole thing is being shown as five separate movies at MIFF this year. We’ve now watched the Part One and it was terrific. Narrated by Tilda Swinton it was effectively a lesson in film-making using clips from little known, and grossly under-rated, films by women directors. These excerpts are used to explore how film-makers achieve the effect they want. For example how they open movies to grab your attention, how they set the tone of a movie, how they ensure the believability of the actions portrayed, the different way they frame scenes, introduce characters and film conversations and much more. It’s a great approach that shows you the skills of these film makers. It’s telling that I haven’t seen many of the films referenced although I’ve seen the work of some of the directors – Ida Lupino, Elaine May, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis. Many of the films shown have won prestigious awards – including at Cannes – but have not received the ongoing praise accorded to their male counterparts. Some of the clips are amazing and it’s frustrating getting such a tiny look at some of the films. I’m looking forward to the next instalment. Five stars from me. A very short, and inadequate trailer is here.
Paper Champions *
I always seek out Australian films at MIFF and over the years I’ve seen lots of terrific ones. It upsets me that so few get long runs in our cinemas. Then there is the occasional one that doesn’t speak to me at all. Which was the case here. It’s a comedy and I do think that people can have very different responses to humour. Mine are not great I would have to say. For example, I was never a great fan of Kath and Kim which had a great following. On the other hand I loved The Office, and having been instructed in the ways of film-making in Women Make Film, I think perhaps the director here was trying for a tone similar to Ricky Gervaise. But that’s a hard one to strike successfully. Cross a line and you’re in danger of slipping into caricatures and laughing at, not with, people. And I’m a bit over the story-line – complete dork meets attractive, well grounded girl and she immediately falls for him. When there’s not a scrap of evidence to show why!! Anyway I was not keen on this and give it one star reluctantly. The trailer is here.
Shiva Baby ****
A four star movie. I really enjoyed it, especially after watching Women Make Film which made me very conscious of how the director was framing shots, filming conversations, having the camera reflect the the key character’s state of mind. We start with two people interrupted in flagranté. Their relationship is ambiguous, he’s older, money changes hands. Next she is with her parents whose expectations about academic and career advancement are not being met. They take her to the Shiva of the title. I’m not familiar with that ritual but it reminded me of big Irish- Catholic family get togethers, including after funerals, of which we had a lot, and also gatherings of our small rural community. Where older people, who’ve known you all your life, feel free to comment on everything about you – looks, body shape, health status. And where questions about academic progress, love life and life ambitions arouse increasing anxiety. Not to mention the efforts of your parents to seek to use their contacts to assist your life course. Our young woman’s anxiety is exacerbated when the man we saw her having sex with enters the scene. These characters are hemmed in on all sides and the camera follows people pushing through groups. They have secrets and there are lots of glances across crowded rooms, over people’s shoulders. It’s all very believable; especially thanks to the baby of the title (well there might be a few babies present) but this one in particular behaved like a real baby, howling its head off for a lot of the time. It all came together very well and is highly enjoyable. That sense of being enmeshed in other people’s lives is drawn vividly in the final shot where the father, oblivious, as all fathers are, to the undercurrents that swirl around him, insists on giving everyone a ride home. We leave them crushed together in the confines of the car; unable to escape their relationships with each other; but there’s a hint of hopefulness for our heroine. Four stars. The trailer is here.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Part 2 *****
The road trip continues and this time I was prepared for the lesson – I took notes. Tilda Swinton started off narrating, and then we moved on to Jane Fonda’s distinctive voice before changing to Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t find this movie as compelling as the first, maybe because I was used to the format. Or maybe because I wasn’t so keen on the excerpts shown. And maybe because the topics covered were a bit harder to illustrate successfully with short extracts. They were: Staging, the Journey, Discovery, the Adult-Child relationship, Economy (spare imagery, visual haiku, fragments of the whole, efficient back stories), Editing (time is the oxygen of film), Point of View, Close-ups, Surrealism and Dreams. It’s nothing if not ambitious. I recognised more films, and more directors this time: Proof, Certain Women, Beguiled, Farewell To Europe. I’m confirmed in my view that Kathryn Bigelow’s movies are not for me- I couldn’t stand the tension; although obviously she is a major talent. I feel the same about Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho – amazing looking film, but so gory!! I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to see this series. It’s terrific. Five stars.
Black Bear ****
I didn’t know what to expect with this and it remained a mystery even after viewing. But in a good way. It’s another four star film for me, but if you like a story with a beginning, middle and end it won’t be for you. It starts and finishes with a woman in a red bathing suit sitting overlooking a steel grey lake. An arresting image. There are two quite distinct parts to the film – both involving the same actors and the same fictional characters. The woman in the red bathers is played by the actress Aubrey Plaza who I’ve seen before in the film Ingrid Goes West and in episodes of Parks and Recreation. She likes playing edgy characters; and boy, is she an edgy character in this film. It’s hard to say anything about it without giving away significant plot points. The director said it’s about the creative process. A black bear plays a pivotal role in both parts and Joe says the bear represents our inner psyche – when we try and avoid our sense of self we self-destruct, when we come to terms with ourselves, the black bear is harmless. Worth thinking about – that’s the beauty of this film. Very thought provoking. I wondered what the trailer would show, avoiding spoilers, and I couldn’t find one. But this is an interview at Sundance with the actors.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets ***
I’d read about this film before the festival, so was pleased to get the opportunity to see it. And while I watched it, I’d forgotten what I read, which didn’t matter, but if you want to know the story of how the film came to be made it is in this article. We’re in a bar which is closing down and the regulars are all here to celebrate the demise. The jovial bartender, the homeless alcoholic – who gets the best lines – and other bar habitués who come and go over the duration of the very long evening. Last drinks are called sometime around 4.40am. It’s hard to avoid thinking about the election of Donald Trump while watching this – it makes his election understandable. There are a couple of tvs on throughout and one of them briefly shows an election talk show – that would be the 2016 election. The people don’t seem to have much going for them and by movie’s end you feel for them. The homeless guy pleads with a young musician to stop going to bars; There is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more because he’s in a bar. There are funny bits and sad bits and everything in between. One of the patrons is an Australian and there is a rough rendition of Waltzing Matilda at one stage. There’s lots of mumbling and whispers which for the hearing challenged, and I suspect other, might be a problem. But it doesn’t really matter. You get the picture without having to hear all of the mumbled conversations. Three stars from me. The trailer is here. And here is an interesting interview with the two brothers who made it, describing how it was done.
Some Kind Of Heaven **
This was a strange mix. I thought it was going to be a fun look at what has been called Disneyland for adults; a very large retirement complex in Florida called The Villages. There was lots of vision of old people, mostly pretty fit and tanned, but lots of wrinkles – and lots of make-up and jewellery on the women – engaged in all sorts of wholesome activities. Golf, dancing, rowing, drama class, single nights in bars, evangelical church services. Racing around in nippy golf carts. We get a tiny bit of history about the place – built to imitate the old time towns in which these baby boomers were brought up. We follow three people for whom heaven has not been delivered. An incorrigible bachelor, who at 81 is down on his luck but still seeking a life untrammelled by responsibility. He wants a rich widow to deliver him from living in his van. There’s a couple having a hard time because he’s off on a journey of self discovery including a bit of drug taking that gets him into trouble with the law. And there’s a sad widow who hasn’t the means to get back to where she’d prefer to be. The film didn’t settle on a consistent tone throughout. It all felt a bit manipulative and exploitative at the end. Two stars. In the absence of a trailer an interview with the director, that explains what he was trying to do is here.
Rose Plays Julie ****
I thought this was a bit overwrought at the start but it grew on me; intrusive soundtrack nothwithstanding. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers so I won’t outline the plot. It’s sumptuously filmed; beautiful imagery throughout both outdoors and interiors. The pacing is just right. Compelling performances without which it wouldn’t have worked. It could easily have slipped into melodrama but doesn’t. It’s a pretty amazing story and at times could have strained credibility. A great achievement that the action all rang true. I was going to give it three stars, but having thought about it a lot afterwards, am giving it four. Worth looking out for if it gets a commercial release. I was interested to see how the film makers depicted it, without giving anything away. I’m giving it four stars. They do a good job in the trailer which cleverly puts together different bits, I warn you, in different order, and which is here.
Corpus Christi *****
I was anxious that this might be a bit grim; we start and end in juvi; that’s slang by the inmates for juvenile justice centre. Which is a grim place indeed. So our protagonist takes the opportunity, when it unexpectedly presents itself, to act as a relief priest in a small village. This all comes together quite realistically which is quite an achievement. It’s anchored by a fantastic performance from the extraordinary looking Bartosz Bielenia, who, assisted by deft lighting and framing, looks angelic and evil by turn. He doesn’t just attempt to follow the formal procedures which he hurriedly researches on his phone; but sets them aside and speaks from the heart; encouraging the parishioners to look closely into their own. He’s seen this model of preaching in the priest at the centre he’s fleeing from. So what could have stretched credulity comes across as completely authentic. Uncovering a secret poisoning relationships in this small community he takes steps to resolve it. In this and later he is depicted Christ-like. Throughout, like him, we are expecting him to be rumbled any time. It all comes to a crescendo in the final stages of the film which left me almost speechless. I could only tweet: Wow, just finished watching Corpus Christi. What an emotional roller coaster. Great film. And it was. Five stars from me. Here’s the trailer.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Part 3 *****
We’re watching these movies in the mornings or early afternoon, because you have to concentrate. They have all been terrific. We start off with Jane Fonda narrating again. I love her voice, it is so dynamic and full of expression. And, for the hearing impaired, so clear! She took us through how directors film bodies; focussing on gender, age and class as well as religious faith. And depicting bodies being disruptive or not, shedding inhibitions or repressing them. Depicting the consolation of touch. The phrase is indicative of how the narration itself is beautiful and often poetic. Then we moved onto Kerry Fox narrating; nice to hear an Australian voice, although to date only a couple of Australian films. She took us through the tricky subject of sex which I think is mostly badly filmed; the sex scene between Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo in Jane Campion’s In The Cut remains the best that I’ve ever seen, but doesn’t get a mention here. We’re shown the different aspects that are filmed: doing which can be impressionistic, realistic or cubist which gives us snippets, glimpses of bodies. Then whether sex is for pleasure or control or submission (I closed my eyes for bits of that section). Then back to Sharmila Tagore for the various ways home is depicted in films; idealised, destroyed, dream homes, future homes. Then through religion, work and politics which can be about idealism, symbolism or propaganda; we get lots of extracts from Leni Rienfenstahl in that last section, amazing director, a pity she did it for the Nazis. Then on to gear changes in film; but I’m not keen on these because they usually presage something awful is going to happen; but the extracts show that this is not not necessarily the case. Some beautiful clips as with all of the subjects covered. We finished on comedy as one of the genres to be explored. I was pleased to see excerpts from Elaine May’s A New Leaf. Great film, as was her much, and unfairly, maligned Ishtar – see both if you can. This is a great series. See it if you can. Five stars.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale ****
After concentrating through Women in Film we always want something light. I’d heard good things about this and wasn’t disappointed. It’s a French / Romanian production with French dialogue. The director, Anca Damian is a Romanian; I’m going to check out her other films. I like to see at least one animation per MIFF and there have been some great ones. A dog’s life flashes before her eyes as she lies dying on a busy street; traffic flashing past, a young girl lying next to her. Beautifully told and very moving at times. A life from dog’s perspective – both comic and tragic. At the same time we become invested in the lives of her humans, as she calls them. It’s all done with with great economy. Above all the illustrations are extraordinary; vivid and inventive, creating completely different worlds to accompany the different households Marona in which Marona finds herself. She starts life as Nine, but her name changes with each owner; one of the ongoing comic gags, another is how everyone calls her ‘boy’. She’s a wonderful character. We get her back story; a very brief and comic partnering between a pure-bred and a mixed breed. After she’s foisted on to her father’s aristocratic household she’s quickly dumped, only to be picked up and thrown into the demi-monde world of an acrobat. Fantastic animations in the true sense of the word mixing planets and trapezes. But it’s a precarious existence and the dog must needs move on. This time to be found by a construction worker. New graphics, new colours; great images of buildings being built. He’s kind and loving but his wife isn’t. Finally our cute little dog is taken into the lives of a little girl and her single Mum and her grumpy grandfather. We gradually get to know all three which turn out not to be as we thought. Finally we follow the dog as she runs after a bus; and back to the start of the movie. We’ve seen three separate human situations in all their complexity and a lesson in how to treat a dog. I’m giving it four stars. The trailer is here.
Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky ***
This was terrific. Narrated by Steven Oliver, as the MIFF promo says, it invites you to experience the Captain Cook story through First Nations eyes and the music of Indigenous singers and performers. Informative and entertaining as it does so. I loved some of the music and am going to seek it out – especially Alice Skye and Mo’Ju. Beautiful cinematography in some spectacular locations around Australia. Made me enraged all over again about the hysteria about Cook amongst right-wingers, notably the Murdoch hacks when anyone says anything apart from the official line about Cook. And about how little we were taught in school. We’re reminded here that he was a great navigator, but missed a lot, and made plenty of mistakes, when he first came to Australia. And that the impact of his coming was resisted and has had devastating consequences for Aboriginal Australians. As the title indicates there’s lots of humour and plenty of joy along with another version of our history which needs to be told; good to see that it finally is. It also reminded me of Warwick Thornton’s We Don’t Need A Map which is about the Southern Cross but has a little bit about Cook, in a very inventive way as this trailer shows. I couldn’t find a trailer but an overview of Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky which doesn’t quite reflect the vibrancy of the music, is here. And a great review of the film is here. It’s very short, so I’m giving it three stars.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Part 4 *****
On to part four of this wonderful documentary, although this one was a bit more challenging for me. We start with Melodrama’s heightened emotions and this section showed how directors achieve it through repetition, short shots, push and pull, slowing down, speeding up, flickering light – all building up tension and escalating the action. We move to Thandie Newton narrating for sci-fi which I’m not keen on but there were some very imaginative excerpts that almost convince me to try at least some of it. But not the sort depicted in the short, violent clip from the Handmaids Tale. Then came the section during which I kept my eyes closed: Hell and Horror. I had Joe next to me making expressive noises and the occasional don’t look, about which I needed no encouragement. Even he was shocked at some of the scenes. Then we moved on to other film-making techniques: how to build tension and the importance of its opposite, stasis. The importance of what directors leave out and then how they depict the reveal. Which can be anything – a place, a story, love, death, God, a parent, even time itself. Then depictions of memory – the traditional dissolve, but also other more inventive techniques. Individual memory and mythic memory; the latter leading to more Leni Rienfenstahl – extraordinary footage. On to time and all the ways that directors can play with our sense of it: when nothing happens we’re very aware of it but when the screen is packed with action we’re unaware of time passing. There is real time and movie magic time. A lifetime can pass in seconds, time concertinaed; but movies can also extend time, filming in slow motion. There’s also mythic time as depicted in Sally Potter’s Orlando. This documentary is so stimulating! I’ve learned so much, and enjoyed each of the four movies so far. Despite the horror section, five stars.
Maddy The Model ***
A documentary directed by Jane Magnussen about Madeline Stuart, a young woman born with Down Syndrome who has successfully become a model, working the runways in New York, London and Paris. Amazing story. Her mother, Roseanne, is a force of nature, adamant about her daughter’s right to be treated equally. Incredible strength and commitment. Maddy, meanwhile, takes everything in her stride – a force of nature too. She has none of the reserve one expects; happy to initiate conversations, hugs, dances, with strangers. She looks terrific on the catwalks. Despite an awkwardness in her body she exudes confidence and joie de vivre. In her early modelling days she high fives the strait-laced fashionistas who line the stage, sometimes to their horror but mostly to delighted smiles. She laughs and clowns around striking the familiar hands on hips pose in front of the wall of flashing cameras trained on her. And she looks fantastic – wonderful clothes, make-up, hair-dos. In the film at least, models and designers accept her in their stride. But Roseanne bridles at the discrimination she perceives, especially in the modelling offers that come Maddy’s way – or don’t. At one stage she reads out derogatory comments from fashion professionals left on facebook or twitter. Later she explains that in New York Maddy’s free-wheeling behaviour is celebrated whereas in London it’s frowned upon. In the film’s final catwalk, in London, we see Maddy conforming to modelling conventions and I felt sad that she did so. In between the modelling we see her at school, at the gym, at the beach and at events encouraging disability inclusion. The latter included an amazing week in Uganda. We hear from Roseanne’s mother who worries about the load her daughter had to carry. Roseanne herself tells us how people have urged her to abandon Maddy, right from the time of her birth. Heartbreaking. But she does carry a heavy load and we don’t meet anyone who shares it with her although she talks about supportive friends. We meet Maddy’s boyfriend Robbie, who has a different disability but who is able to communicate clearly. Something that Maddie herself is not able to do very well. Late in the piece we see her practice a speech she has to give thanking an American Down Syndrome organisation for an award. When the time comes we share her anxiety and later pleasure that she managed it. Very moving. We are told at movie’s end that Maddy and Roseanne continue to work in both modelling and disability advocacy. Four stars. The trailer is here.
Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Part 5 *****
The final movie in this series; just two hours instead of three. This time Debra Winger is narrating; although she’s sitting in the back street and not driving as all the other narrators have been. This being a road movie, in each film we’re in a car driving along very scenic routes, through mountains, beside the sea; long winding roads. Apt imagery for this review of under recognised directors. In this final section we look at how movies depict lives; how they show people thinking, what’s inside their heads. We see a clip from Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky which I’ve seen – great movie – Peter Falk moving from impatience to frustration to anger. Another from Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table and Kerry Fox experiencing sadness, anxiety, fear; folding into herself. The narration, for the first time includes the actors as important co-producers of these scenes along with the director. On to how movies can indicate life itself – the meaning of lives. Another film that I’ve seen, but didn’t know was directed by a woman (Valeska Grisebach), Western. Also terrific. A conversation between strangers; talking about what gives life meaning. We move on to Love; the biggest chapter in the whole documentary. And more films that I’ve seen: On Body And Soul, very appropriate because it has a moving love story (and that rarety, a good sex scene – focussed on the woman’s enjoyment!). Directed by a woman, the Hungarian Ildikó Enyedi who also wrote it. Tales directed by the Iranian Rakhshan Banietemad; seven vignettes including a woman talking to a bus driver; she’s behind him, questioning. His answers conceal rather than reveal. A potential relationship explored and rejected in the shortest time. Scenes from The Piano, An Education, A Simple Life. Love and romance is a rich vein for film-makers. Then, Death which included some striking images from films that I’ve not seen. One from another animation by Anca Damian who made the lovely Marona’s Fantastic Tale; this one in black and white and much darker. Two final sections; Endings. Easier I think in films than books. The narration describes them as a sacrament, a revelation. A beautiful black and white Sri Lankan film ends with a striking shot of a question mark inscribed within a round mirror. But Mark Cousins, director and producer of this documentary series, wants to end on a high note. So we move on to Song and Dance; through which films take theatre and opera and add movement and where musical numbers aspire to the floating world . Where lots of people dance as though no-one is watching – the loveliest of dance scenes. But the clips we’re shown are much more nuanced, and darker, than those of the Gene Kelly variety. Chinese and Russian operas, a drunkard singing in a bar, a man dancing around a room and every time he passes a tree he moves on to a different woman, a boatload of women singing about having abortions. Not so much lightness there. There’s a terrific clip of the actress Maureen O’Hara lecturing a room full of mostly men about the humiliation experienced by women dancers. It’s in the film Dance, Girl Dance directed by Dorothy Arzner in 1940. We end with Beyoncé in her video Lemonade; dancing and smashing things in the street – unspoken but there’s plenty of rage here. And so ends our ride.
And what a ride it’s been. We’re warned at the end against making generalisations about the subjects women directors choose to make films about, despite there being fewer battle scenes and car chases. The narration claims only one difference: that is that in these films there are many more women protagonists and more women at the centre of the stories told. Another thing that comes through the whole series, loud and clear, is that these directors have filmed everything and filmed them to the highest creative and technical standards of the times in which they were working. That has been the revelation throughout, without hammering the point home, but by simply showing their work. It’s inevitable I suppose that some directors have been shown multiple times and some that I would have thought would have been included. And it has been true from the very start of cinema. We started with a clip from the first woman film director, Alice Guy-Blache, and fittingly we end at her grave. Do try and get to see this series wherever and whenever it is shown. A comprehensive overview of the whole fourteen hours, that names some the directors and some notable absences, (Agnieszka Holland and Lina Wertmüller should definitely have been included) is here.
This Wikipedia page lists all the films shown in the series.
Martin Margiela: In His Own Words ***
I’ve never had much interest in fashion, but since returning to MIFF full-time which I started doing in 2009, I’ve always tried to watch one of the fashion films they have on offer. They’re fascinating insights into the whole fashionista vibe; the designers, the army of people who actually produce the garments, the shows, the customers, the media and above all else the fantastic clothes! I’ve seen some great documentaries over the years and this one is also very good. I’d never heard of Martin Margiela but a woman, who’s described as a forecaster, tells us that he is up there with the greats. The interesting thing about him is that he refused to be seen; that is he didn’t ever appear after his runway shows as is traditional and nor did he participate in any media coverage of his house which was Maison Margiela. He’s described in the Miff promo for this film as a reclusive Belgian avant-garde couturier and this documentary is him breaking his long silence in an intensely personal story. He’s the main interviewee and we hear his voice and see his hands opening archive boxes full of costume designs and objects from his past as he talks but we never see his face. There is, as usual, lots of footage from his shows and interviews with journalists and other trade people, including his former boss Jean Paul Gaultier. The clothes are pretty grungy but there are some that I liked, especially those he designed for Hermès. The narrative is familiar; great designer works hard, gets his own house, takes in partners for the capital, finds a formal corporate structure uncongenial and leaves. The director is Reiner Holzemer and I’ve seen his previous documentary, Dries, about the designer Dries Van Noten, whose clothes are much lusher than Martin Margielas, but find I haven’t written about it so the trailer for that one, so to remind myself I’m including it here. Like that earlier documentary, this is interesting and well done if you like peering into the fashion world from a distance. Three stars. The trailer is here.
Dark City Beneath The Beat ***
This was a loud, vibrant, colourful look at Baltimore’s music scene. And the MIFF promo is spot on when it calls it a life-affirming, joyous, get-up-and-dance film. The music is not the sort that I’d usually gravitate to, it’s known as Bmore club, and is described as a pulse-pounding mix of hip-hop, breakbeat and choppy house sounds. The dancing was amazing, no other word for it. Lots of oohs and aahs and how did they did that! on our couch. I was really pleased to see lots of women both doing the dancing and talking about it. Also lots of shots of Baltimore which looks to be full of colour. It doesn’t gloss over Baltimore’s reputation for violence and there’s some discussion of the projects, that were depicted so vividly in The Wire, but that’s put into perspective by the dancing. My only reservation was that there was not quite enough context; it was hard to follow who was who, for those of us not up to date with the music scene that it was depicting. Three stars. The trailer is here.
Bombay Rose ****
Another animation, and another terrific one. You sensed as you watched it that it was saying a lot more to people with better knowledge of India’s cultural and political landscape. We start in Bollywood with larger than life characters acting out a familiar trope – woman rescued from a forced sexual encounter by romantic hero – the crowd’s enthralled but leave the cinema in disgust that the final lovers kiss has been censored. Then onto a bustling street; our two lovers quickly identified – Hindu Kamala and Muslim Salim. As they interact they fantasise about a past India of Mughal emperors with their extravagant, and beautiful palaces and gardens and clothes; the animation is exquisite. Back in Bombay another English character remembers her glory days and as she the animation becomes monochrome and Bombay is transformed back to the 1950s. She also has a Bollywood connection. We get to see life in contemporary India; how hard it is to make a living; child workers, sexual exploitation, religious division. Salim comes from Kashmir which adds another layer. The significance of the title being Bombay rather than Mumbai, along with lots of other historical and contemporary references are explained by Shaheen Ahmed who is one of MIFF’s Critics Campus participants, speaking on Radio National’s The Screen Show. Bombay being the heart of India’s cosmopolitan past, Bollywood’s high point in the 1950s and a melting pot for different religions and secularism. A far cry from where India is at the moment. She also points out that the flashbacks to Mughal times is portrayed in Mughal miniature style. Beautiful. You can listen to her discussion here. There was so much going on in this film! Makes me want to see it again to get all the references. Four stars. The trailer, which refers to Mumbai, is here.
Paris Calligrammes ***
Given we couldn’t get to Paris this year, this might be the next best thing. It’s a wonderful look back at Paris in the nineteen sixties. We’re taken there by Ulrike Ottinger who is described as a radical artist and pioneer of lesbian cinema in the MIFF promo. Born in southern Germany she hitched a ride to Paris in 1962 and was soon enmeshed in the cultural life of the city. A German bookshop called Calligrammes gives the film its title. Lots of now famous artists feature in one way or another. There is a lot of archival footage of Paris at the time; coffee shops, gardens, sidewalks, gallery openings, book launches. I liked seeing Sartre and de Beauvoir a couple of times in the background. I also like Ottinger’s Pop paintings; colourful and full of life and with a political message. Here’s a picture of one of them – that is constructed as a jigsaw.
I thought we weren’t going to get to 1968, but we did just at the end. She has a different take on it than most; not nostalgic about it at all. Three stars from me. The trailer is here.
This was a claustrophobic film about being an outsider. The way it’s shot mirrors our protagonists paranoia; very dark, lots of long corridors closing in on him, lots of corners to be navigated. He’s from Kosova with a name that is hard for the local Germans to pronounce. He speaks Albanian and is having a work affair with the Albanian cleaner who he also helps translate official immigration documents – only when no-one is looking. He thinks he’s being excluded from work emails, humiliated by questions in departmental meetings, left out of staff get togethers. They’re out to get him. The question is; is he / are they? He has a phobia about rats, as do I, which made it very hard for me to look at some scenes. He has a very comfortable home, attractive wife – but is she cheating on him? You wonder, given his level of paranoia how he got all that. The only time you see him relaxed is when he is playing with his children. It’s all very well done, but extremely discomforting to watch. Great performances from both main characters. Sandra Hüller who was in Toni Erdman and is the reason I was keen to see it is the wife. Mišel Matičevič played the man sinking into paranoia and was familiar to us as the Armenian in Babylon Berlin. Here is a review that’s good and an interview with the director. I’m giving it three stars which is a bit mean, it probably deserves four, but I found it’s grimness unrelenting. The trailer is here.
The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror ***
I knew this was going to be a strange one, and so it is. But worth seeing if you’re a cinephile. It’s an unfinished debut film by the famous surrealist Chilean film director Paül Ruiz. He fled Pinochet’s Chile and the footage of this film was lost until 2016 when it was found and finished by his life partner and long-time artistic collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento. It’s beautifully shot in black and white; lots of close ups, lots of shadows, stairs, windows and mirrors. We glimpse a woman’s body on a bathroom floor and quickly move on to meet a widower and his nephew. They mention a she who has suicided – the body on the floor, the widower’s wife. We follow him through various encounters; browsing in a bookshop, at a friend’s house, talking to a woman. And having nightmares; wigs (his wife’s) moving around the floor. Then everything stops and we see what we’ve just seen in reverse. Now there is talk of the woman having been killed. What does it all mean? It doesn’t really matter. The camera work is brilliant. This review explains the mechanics of the cinematography better and includes a picture of the widower. Although I liked it better than this reviewer. Three stars from me, the trailer is here.
Sweet Thing ****
I thought this film was going to be unrelentingly grim during the opening scenes. Filmed in black and white, we’re in an American city – Chicago? Detroit? It doesn’t matter. A city and a family down and out. Two children living with their father in a house that looks to be made of balsa wood, walls held together by wallpaper. He’s loving but also an alcoholic. The kids are basically supporting themselves via various hustling jobs – puncturing tyres at the behest of a tyre seller, collecting junk for the rag and bone man. All beautifully shot. Mum has gone, living under the thumb of the owner of the place where she works – is it a bar or a brothel? Dad finally hits rock bottom and the kids are sent to live with Mum and boyfriend, which goes as you might expect except at a tangent. They meet up with another kid and live as gangsters for a while. There are some lovely scene with the three of them together. Makes you wonder about America. The girl is called Billy, and the cinematography changes to soft colours when she is having a good time, and we see imaginary shots of Billy and hear snippets of her singing. Very affecting. Great performances from everyone, but especially the two main children, whose father is the director. I liked it a lot. The trailer is here.
Wet Season ****
I really liked an earlier film, Ilo Ilo, by this director, Anthony Chen, and I really liked this one. They are very gentle films that take their time telling simple stories of individual loneliness resulting in random connections. In this case and illicit one. Our main character is a forty something teacher of Chinese in a secondary school where neither pupils nor fellow teachers set much store by this subject. There’s a fascinating insight into the competitiveness of Singapore’s school environment. At home she is increasingly distant from her husband with whom she is undergoing the quotidian horror, deftly portrayed, of IVF treatment. She’s also caring for his disabled father. We follow her daily routines with increasing sympathy. She’s drawn to one of the pupils in her remedial classes. Another lonely figure; absent parents, a fridge with nothing in it. It’s clear where all this is going but the film-maker doesn’t milk the expected scenes. It continues, quickly, but quite gently, to its inevitable conclusion, which, unexpectedly is one of hope. And throughout we’re clearly in the wet season in Singapore – it rains a lot! And, a bonus for Joe, there are some pretty spectacular kung fu scenes. Here’s the trailer.
Mogul Mowgli ****
A British born son of Pakistani parents is a rapper (which the actor is, in real life) on the threshold of a career defining world tour when he starts having trouble making his legs work. We go from the New York music scene to home – with all the past history, extended family connections, old friends and increasing tensions that such a move entails. This change of environment is quickly and effectively drawn. Then we’re in hospital and sharing with him the confusion and anxiety about his condition; frustration about the medical lingo he has to interpret and helplessness in communicating with his mother and father about their different approaches to his predicament. Having experienced something similar over the last couple of years I found the hospital scenes really resonated – very authentic! Overlaying it all are references back to his Pakistani culture, and in particular his family’s experience of partition; which we see in his dreams and nightmares. There’s a monstrous figure whose face is obscured by a floral head dress. Who is he? What does he signify? The director half answers that in this interesting interview. Some reviews have found that aspect of the film too opaque, but I thought it was well done; providing insights into the British/ Pakistani experience, and also British / Muslim culture. We also see divisions between different black communities and between different rappers. I’m not a fan of the music but the drama takes centre stage and is really about what artists need to do to support and protect their creativity. This very short clip is the only trailer I could find; it gives a very incomplete picture.
The State Funeral **
Footage of crowds mourning Stalin. Very interesting. Incredible, given what we now know, and which many knew then, about the horror of his rule, that so many ordinary Soviet citizens – from across all the different regions – came out and wept for him. You look at the faces and wonder why they are there; whether out of true sympathy or under compulsion or fear of ostracism if they didn’t, or the desire to know that he was really dead. The references to the Central Committee are funny, except of course, the consequences of Central Committee decisions were often deadly. We see crowds gather at the announcement of his death, crowds moving slowly up the stairs and past his open coffin, dignitaries – local and international – doing likewise. Then the funeral itself with members of the aforesaid Central Committee making their anodyne, boring speeches – Kruschev who would denounce Stalin in a few years time; Beria, who would be murdered before the year was out. I was pleased to have seen the movie The Death of Stalin, ostensibly a comedy, which I found disconcerting, but which was surprisingly informative about the manoeuvring that took place at that time. The film moves on to the placing of the casket inside Lenin’s mausoleum outside the Kremlin. I’ve been inside that austere place where you could see the awful mummified body of Lenin, complete with dyed red hair and beard. Crazy, weird. By that time – 1990 – Stalin was long gone. Which the film explains at the end, along with the statistics outlining Stalin’s hideous legacy. Interesting from an historical perspective; but not really a Saturday night entertainment. Here’s the trailer.
Loosely described as one man’t fight against development this film doesn’t go in any of the directions that you think it might. Cranky old man, living on a mountainside earmarked for inclusion in a massive open cut coal mine; spends his time collecting walnuts, encouraging his chooks to lay and every so often hurling himself into hostile encounters with company officials. Berating them for causing the mudslides that threaten his ramshackle house, for cutting down trees that he has nurtured for years. They’re trying to buy him out. Villagers are torn between co-operating with the monster as they call it or standing up for their traditional, subsistence lifestyle. There’s not much else going on in the place. Our man’s life is interrupted by the intrusion of a long-lost son. Mother and babe left Dad on his hillside years ago. What will the young man will do; side with Dad or the monster? There’s no love lost between them. The film goes off in different directions; a lightly foreshadowed stand off between locals on different sides of the fence doesn’t eventuate. Our young man fits in; there’s a love interest. No fights between him and the locals. Older villagers argue about selling out but end up all Zorba the Greek instead of fisticuffs. Nor does the father / son conflict go as expected. Fantastic cinematography throughout – beautiful forested hills and valleys – you don’t want to see this landscape bull-dozed. Contrasted with an industrial landscape that is also cinematic – an underground explosion rippling through the side of a mountain, giant machinery eating into the soft earth. And characters speaking in softly lit, Caravaggio coloured interiors. The most striking visual image – a giant mechanical digger ‘s cup hovering over a man caught in quicksand. Incredible. A very open ending – what comes next? The young man casually picks up a Not For Sale sign; but will they? A great conclusion to a film that defies expectations and delivers life in all its complexity. Here’s the trailer.
The Fever ****
Another terrific film. This one is set in Brazil where our protagonist, an Indigenous man, works as a security officer at the docks; where we meet him, struggling to stay awake, standing ‘midst massive stacks of containers. Beautiful industrial cinematography. The cranes move silently overhead, against a clear blue sky or against bright night lights, picking up and depositing the enormous cubes – most with Hamburg stencilled on them – with unexpected delicacy. Beautiful pacing takes us into our man’s daily life; taking his uniform off, catching the bus, walking up the hill to a makeshift house in the poorer part of town, where people like him live. His daughter works as a nurse but is about to move to the capital to train as a doctor. Unusual for an Indigenous Brazilian, he’s proud of her. His brother and wife, when they visit from their home village, not so much. They value their traditional way of life. Our man has a fever but the doctor’s prescription isn’t helping. There are hints that traditional medicine would heal him better. He’s under pressure at work; moved to the night shift. The nightly news is full of sightings of a prowling creature killing animals around the city. Our man is asked to investigate an incursion in a section of the docks. It’s all very tense at the end but moves on to an unexpectedly positive conclusion. He’s a wonderfully charismatic presence on screen; not talkative but expresses a lot in his posture and facial expressions. Insights into traditional culture. Some lovely family moments around the dinner table. Our man sleeps in a hammock. The heart of the film is about the tension between modernity and traditional village life. Quite beautiful. Here’s the trailer.
This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection *****
Another wonderful film. Five stars from me. This is touted as Lesotho’s first feature film. A beautiful mediation on the conflict between modernity and tradition. We start with a story teller; beautifully lit. He’s playing a traditional instrument and tells us the story of a village that has been drowned to make a dam. We return to him from time to time, but mostly we are in the village of Nazaretha and its inhabitants – who are all thanked in the end credits. We follow one in particular, a widow, who we meet when the body of her son is returned to her from the mines in South Africa. She is a compelling narrator, telling us of the history of the village. Particularly resonant at this time in Melbourne, is that during the great plague people taking sick relatives for treatment stopped in this valley to bury their dead, and so created this village. It was named Nazaretha when the missionaries came. There is some cutting dialogue between the widow and the current priest. We learn that the church bell has been forged from the spears of the village men. A whole history is imparted here, and a culture. All done with great economy and with some visually arresting images. The widow is a great character; compelling on the screen. We see the villagers debate whether to support the flooding of their homes; about which, as one of them says, they will have no say whatsoever. Despite the protestations of their political representative, and their Head Man. Great film; a real festival film said Joe. The trailer, which gives the barest of hints of the riches in store is here.
Last And First Men *
This was one of the films spotlighted in the festival but I was not so keen on it. It was narrated by Tilda Swinton who has a lovely voice for this sort of thing. A vision of our species and our planet two billion years from now. It was directed by the composer of the music accompanying the cinematography; Jôhann Jôhannsson. While it had some arresting visual imagery – Soviet era monuments and buildings – it didn’t hold my attention for very long. The trailer is here.
Another terrific film; made so by the compelling performance of the lead character, Lara. A difficult part; a difficult woman! She has been an aspiring musician in her past but had a career in education. This back story is told with great economy as we see her visiting her old workplace and her former music teacher. Seeing how she’s treated by these former colleagues tells us all that we need to know. She’s not an easy person to get on with. To say she’s bitter and twisted is an understatement. Her musician son has moved out of home and in with his maternal grandmother. The relationship between mother and son has fractured; we guess because of her attitude to his calling. The movie takes place over the course of a day. The son is performing his own composition for the first time in a concert in the evening. It’s the mother’s birthday; not that she seems to want to celebrate it in any way. She keeps calling her son who doesn’t respond. She buys tickets to the concert and hands them out to the people from her past mentioned above. She buys a dress. Meets, unexpectedly, her son’s girlfriend about whom she knows nothing, She visits her mother, has a conversation with her son. Not acrimonious but deadly all the same. Then we are at the concert. The build up is terrific, the tension almost unbearable. All comes together nicely. We understand what made her like this. A film all about the artistic endeavour; and what you need to succeed. The former music teacher says about talent; but what has that got to do with me? He has to pass on to his pupils something other than technique. The trailer is here.
Kill It And Leave This Town
This is the only movie I walked out of this festival. Something I rarely do these days, though I have done it in the past. Walking out in this instance meant turning off. It’s an animation. I didn’t stay long enough to understand what it was about. Gothic, horrible illustrations. I didn’t want to see any more and I’m not going to include them here.