The Melbourne International Film Festival is now so sizeable – it runs for 17 days with over 400 titles screenings across a range of cinemas – that there’s usually one unforeseen malfunction each year. In 2012, however, it befell the documentary program, with the first screening of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, an examination of a death row inmate’s crime and the lives of those impacted by it, instead projecting two episodes of the German filmmaker’s complementary television documentary series, On Death Row. If you go by the Meatloaf Theory – that two out of three ain’t bad – then MIFF had the right director and the right subject, just the wrong documentary.
The problem, which had a particularly Herzog-like outcome in that the majority of the audience saw the wrong title but loved it, stemmed from the increasing usage of Digital Content Projection. The work in question arrived in Melbourne on a hard drive, labeled Into the Abyss, and the use of a digital key by the international distributor meant that the file couldn’t be opened and checked until the night before the MIFF session.
It all ended well, with a rescheduled session, but the idea of unexpected problems from advancements of the modern age felt connected to MIFF’s documentary program, which featured works such as Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice (glacial melting due to climate change) and Raymond Depardon’s Journal de France (imagery of a France disappearing before the march of modernism).
Elsewhere there was strong audience reaction to the likes of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, which stringently examined the realities in America’s war on drugs, and Mads Brugger’s The Ambassador, a nightmarishly surreal immersion in state-sanctioned African corruption, but often it felt as if all roads lead to China.
Not only was Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry screening, which looked at the intermingling of politics and performance in the curious life of the famous Chinese artist who has become increasingly identified as a dissident, but a selection of fascinating and unencumbered digital works – Street Level Visions: Chinese Independent Docos – shed new light on the Asian powerhouse.
The seven films provided a counterpoint to the China concurrently seen by the world competing in the London Olympics and holding the trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of the purged senior politician Bo Xilai. The idea of the monolithic Chinese state was reduced to intimate human parts, often on the periphery of power and economic might, in these documentaries. The metaphorical power of a work such as Wang Juiliang’s Beijing Besieged by Waste, which looked at the environmental crisis literally ringing Beijing due to unregulated waste disposal, was obvious.
The standout work, and one that was initially unassuming, was Zhou Hao’s The Transition Period. A fly on the wall record of politics in a one-party state, the filmmakers sat in on the meetings and dinners held by Guo Yongchang, party secretary for county of Gushi in the Henan province during his final months before transferring away. Jocular and pragmatic, to say the least, Guo guarantees funding, hosts foreign investors and advises property developers to change the plans of apartment developments to reflect lucky numbers.
With a district that encompasses approximately 1.6 million people, Guo is both individually powerful and yet a tiny cog in the Chinese Communist Party, and his openness is remarkable, and probably misguided. He’s since been charged with corruption, but what the film establishes is that in enabling economic growth Guo’s essentially a businessman of sorts, a curious notion made bizarre when he drunkenly sings revolutionary ballads at a karaoke party with grateful Taiwanese investors. Virtually withdrawn in its focus, forsaking narration and exposition so it wouldn’t call attention to itself, The Transition Period was nonetheless revelatory.
About this writer
Patrick Lindsay's book shows that to understand the Anzac spirit we must first understand the spirit of Gallipoli.
The untold story of Australian soldiers caught up in war and revolution during the invasion of Russia in 1918-1919.
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