Whatever you say about Melbourne International Film Festival's marketing this year, the continued growth of the festival's audience continues to impress. As this year's event hit its final weekend and retiring executive director Richard Moore came to the end of his four year tenure he told SBS Film that ticketing revenue had grown this year by 6 percent of which only 2.5 percent could be explained by increased prices.
Moore effectively confirmed rumours that he was less than happy about the festival's management changes when he added that it was "ironic to have an improvement in all fronts, including an increase in box office averaging seven per cent per year, and the structure that has achieved that is being changed." MIFF's board had announced his job as executive director was to be split in two – a general manager and an artistic director – and then invited him to apply for one of the positions (meaning he would have been competing with other candidates for a job that carried less responsibility than he had previously had). Moore responded by revealing in February that he was moving onto a job in August as head of screen culture at Screen Queensland, where he would be in charge of the Brisbane International Film Festival. MIFF has yet to appoint a new artistic director, a position that will be initially be contracted for 12 months only.
If last year's record attendances were partly a result of the festival becoming a front page major news item thanks to Chinese hackers, this year's results show that local audiences remain remarkably loyal. I doubt if any of this can be explained by a trailer featuring battling popcorn tub and ice cream that – horrors – mispronounces the names of Fassbinder, Godard and Coppola, falsely suggests that famous directors or their fans see each other as bitter enemies, and is enacted without cleverness or wit. It projects not so much a populist as an extravagantly dumbed down image that thankfully fails to reflect the event's reality. (Why was it screened before every session, as if we might otherwise mistake this for the Alice Springs or Woop Woop filmfest?) Moore has brought to the festival a greater attention to cult and genre cinema without – to his credit – genuflecting towards crass commercialism.
Regarding the 2010 festival as whole, the best I can hope to offer is a personal snapshot. Trying to give a sense of an event with 477 individual sessions from only 10 screenings during its final weekend is obviously impossible, and that would only be marginally less true for someone who's sat through 40 or 50 features spread over this 17-day marathon. Take a group of audience members at random and their experiences will prove completely different.
Moore has previously suggested the festival is too big and sprawling, but while attendances remain so healthy – partly a reflection of the strength of the city's film and arts culture in general as well as the strength and diversity of the festival for several years – there would appear to be no financial incentive for his successor to cut back. Think “ticket revenue”. Perhaps calling the event “too big“ – navigating a program guide this packed inevitably takes huge effort – is ultimately meaningless if the audience is voting otherwise with its wallets.
Now to the films. Haunting Iranian drama The Hunter (pictured), the follow-up to It's Winter for Rafi Pitts, has something in common with Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold in offering a powerful portrait of an alienated male (in this case played by the director) turning to a disastrous act of violence – here a random shooting of a cop car on the freeway in a sequence with strong echoes of Peter Bogdanovich's debut feature, Targets. Set against the backdrop of last year's post-election protests and crackdown, the film refers to the repression of the Iranian regime in a way that is both carefully calibrated and hard to miss. How could I forget to add that this is the first Iranian film I've ever seen to feature a car chase – an exciting one at that, though Pitts is ultimately less interested in the pursuit than what happens afterwards. This means a wonderfully tense, dramatic and cuttingly ironic final act when the hunted becomes the captive and his hunters fall out over what to do with him. This film is going to live a long while in the memory.
A regular in a queue on Friday suggested this had been the strongest MIFF in the last three years, with documentaries especially outstanding. None of the handful I saw blew me away though most were worth seeing. Chile's Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman) and Italy's The Mouth of the Wolf (Pietro Marcello) were meditative, experimental documentaries that created their own calm space for contemplation, with the former making wild leaps from a consideration of the cosmos (seen from an observatory in the Atacama desert) to human memory and forgetting as it pertains to recent Chilean history, ie. the bitterly repressive Pinochet years. The film is built around a slender metaphorical conceit – space-time as it differs in the heavens and on earth, and for this viewer there was too much of the latter and not enough of the cosmic. Still, overall the film's blend off sadness and wonder created a memorable sense of enchantment.
The Italian film centred on the strangely touching relationship between a hardened ex-con of senior years and the transvestite prostitute whose protector he became in gaol, pivoting between this and low-grade archive footage of the industrial renewal of their home city of Genoa. The booking guide's comparison with Terence Davies's film on post-war Liverpool, Of Time and the City, was slightly misleading – there was nothing here to compare with that film's stunning archive footage and inspired musical juxtapositions and the whole appeared under-developed.
Nearly 400 people turned out on a Friday afternoon to see an Australian documentary on Indonesian repression in West Papua (known officially by its colonizing power as Irian Jaya), an impressive turnout by any measure. Strange Birds in Paradise – a West Papuan Story (Charlie Hill-Smith) is not without flaws but the fact of its existence at all is significant. After watching the stories of massacres and rapes by the alleged 50,000 troops in West Papua and learning of the economic importance of the Freeport gold mine and the environmental and economic degradation it has brought the local population, it becomes hard to understand why the Australian media has turned such a blind eye to this issue. A valuable eye-opener.
Waking Sleeping Beauty: the inside story of Disney animation's corporate revival perfunctorily went over well-dug turf -– the ego clashes between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But it suffered from a frustrating lack of insight into what made films like The Lion King so successful while pre-Katzenberg films like The Black Cauldron had failed.
Of the fiction films I greatly admired Flickan (Frederik Edfeldt), a lyrical, sensitive Swedish tale of a nine-year old girl spending the summer alone after being abandoned by her parents and irresponsible young aunt. Beautifully observed, it was filled with the gorgeous melancholy of a golden European summer that must soon end (see Bergman's Summer With Monika, Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love). It's odd to see how few children attend the sessions in MIFF's Next Gen section aimed at family audiences though – I didn't see one at this screening.
Kosmos, the follow-up to the stunning Times and Winds from Turkey's Reha Erdem, began in visually breathtaking fashion. The director seems to owe much to his compatriate Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates) when it comes to framing a startling shot, especially in wintery landscapes. In the first few minutes a stranger runs into a snow-encased mountain town and saves a child from drowning. He appears to have magic restorative powers and quickly emerges as a Holy Fool who bamboozles the crudely worldly and small-minded townfolk who take him in.
All is set up for a powerful fable loosely in the tradition of Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser but the film quickly becomes exasperatingly rambling. Erdem seems more interested in setting up characters as symbols (eg. woman = animal, her husband = butcher) than interesting or believable characterisation, and there's a limit to how many gorgeous shots of a man walking through the snow a film can take when nothing of note happens at his destination.
Also underwhelming: The Blacks: an oblique Croatian war crimes drama, set up as a mystery that the film then flashes back to try to explain in a fashion that isn't so much subtle as irksomely elusive. My Dog Tulip, a UK animation about a man and his dog, I left early, irritated by its overload of whimsy, over-dependence on narration, and lack of narrative structure.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a bio-pic of Cockney novelty rocker Ian Dury, initially looked a weak choice for gala Closing Night feature (actually screened on the penultimate night, Saturday). Director Mat Whitecross deploys fast cutting and shaky-cam for the wrong reasons – that is, out of an apparent neurotic desire to inject “energy” and “chaos” while achieving disengagement.
Thankfully the film overcomes this problem to deliver an entertaining ride. On one level it's (deliberately) cartoon-like, yet is still filled with a real pain and pathos as it flips through Dury's troubled childhood as a polio kid at a school for the handicapped, his haphazard parenting, belligerent egotism and cruelty to the women who love him. Screenwriter Paul Viragh's dialogue is consistently witty and inspired, though in the lead role Andy Serkis, while generally a force of nature, never quite captures the man's sheer amiability as a performer. Something else crucial is missing. We gain no inkling of how such an apparently poorly schooled kid developed such an obvious love of words and art. But yes, it has undeniable energy – no quotation marks this time.