You could be forgiven for thinking this year Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) had renamed itself the International Uighur Festival. That's if your sole knowledge of the event was derived from the avalanche of media coverage given to failed Chinese protests, including illegal hacking of the festival website, aimed at getting a local documentary on Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, The 10 Conditions of Love, withdrawn from the program.
It should not be forgotten however that this was also the Anna Karina Career Celebration, the Balkan Cinema Festival, the New Discoveries Film Festival, the Family Film Festival and the Punk Nostalgia Film Festival – among several other things.
If the Uighur hoo-hah had any effect – other than short-term disruption, wider awareness of the issue and the unfortunate withdrawal of seven Chinese films from the program – it was an increased audience for the festival across the board. MIFF executive director Richard Moore told SBS on the closing weekend the festival had exceeded all previous ticket sales, with the final figures likely to come in somewhere between 180-190,000 attendances.
Sold-out sessions increased from 90 last year to more than 150, not all of which could be attributed to a slight drop in venue capacity caused by the unavailability of usual venue the RMIT Capitol. (Moore estimates that roughly $50-60,000 worth more tickets would have been sold had the website not been brought down during peak periods - a whopping 75% of MIFF's tickets are sold on the net).
Moore doesn't credit these results entirely to the Uighur affair, reporting that strong ticket sales were obvious as soon as the box office opened. “There's no such thing as the Global Financial Crisis as far as the film festival business is concerned,” he said. I'm not making disparaging comments about Sydney Film Festival, but I thought their decision (this year) to cut back by a week was extraordinary.”
Nonetheless he acknowledges the huge media interest – on the final Saturday further Chinese pressure made the front-page lead story of The Age - helped to catapult the festival into the broader public consciousness. “Being able to get out of the arts pages and into the news pages. even though it's caused us huge organisational hassles, has made a huge difference, it's become part of the Melbourne conversation,” says Moore. “We all feel we're part of something important and relevant and topical.”
In the four days I attended during the final days a number of items stood out. I always hope to be surprised by at least one film leaping out of nowhere and this year one of those frissons was provided by Zift (pictured), an extraordinarily confident debut for Bulgarian writer-director Javor Gardev (a festival guest) shot in strikingly black and white - bleakness has rarely looked so appealing.
While Romanian cinema has shown abundant creative energy following the collapse of the Iron Curtain (evident in the superb portmanteau comedy, Tales of the Golden Age, which screened earlier in the program) , Bulgaria has no globally-known cinematic tradition, nor an upsurge of younger talent making itself felt on the film festival circuit. But maybe that's about to change.
With its tongue-in-cheek narrative – a shaggy dog story full of multiple flashbacks and absurdist leaps – and puerile references to farts and faeces, Zift's debt to fellow MIFF guest Quentin Tarantino (here to launch Inglourious Basterds) was clear. Yet a certain world-weariness to the black humour and a barrage of jabs at the expense of Communism made it impossible to mistake as anything other than Eastern European. Gardev is already being pursued by Hollywood but I hope he makes more films at home.
Another standout in the final days was Everyone Else from young German writer-director Maren Ade. It was obvious from her startling 2004 debut, The Forest for the Trees, that Ade had a serious filmmaking career ahead of her and the major prizes awarded this second feature at this year's Berlin Film Festival suggest the film world is starting to notice. Ade's acute perceptiveness concerning human interaction were displayed in this story of a couple on holiday in Sardinia – an uptight architect and a freewheeling record company publicist locked hopelessly into a co-dependent relationship. Ade's delicacy of touch marks her as an atypical German drama director and if the film was a little baggy at two hours this was a minor flaw.
Co-scripted by Jacques Prevert, Paul Grimault's 1980 French animation of the Hans Christian Anderson story The King and the Bird was a joy to experience in the relatively new Next Gen program for families and children. Encouragingly there were a fair few children in the audience, something sadly missing from the one screening in this section I attended last year, and they seemed to be enjoying it.
The chance to attend a screening of Fassbinder's 1976 melodrama Chinese Roulette - part of the Anna Karina season – was welcome, though sadly the actress was not present, having already left town. The audience laughed uproariously at the many instances of campiness (has there been a film more stuffed with lingeringly meaningful looks?) - perhaps only some intended as such.
While noting that the protestors failed completely in stopping the screening of the Uighur film, Moore says he's worried about what the withdrawal of seven Chinese and Hong Kong titles means for next year. Not only does it raise questions over whether the festival can secure future Chinese and Hong Kong films, it raises questions over the screening contracts signed by some international sales agents and producers. It didn't help that one of the titles, Miaio Miao, was withdrawn by Fortissimo, one of the most influential sales agents on the global festival circuit.
At one point during the media fire storm I received an inquiry from a German TV producer reporting on The Ten Conditions of Love – a sign of just how far interest in this story had spread. But if there's any lessons here, it's that the bullying campaign totally failed and that Moore's principled stand has surely increased the festival's global standing No such thing as bad publicity? In this case, perhaps not.