The most striking thing about the Sydney Film Festival as it powers through the June long weekend is the way some of the brightest younger directors are trying to shoot their films with documentary-style immediacy (and partially failing) while the finest documentaries are aspiring to the formal perfection of serious art cinema (and succeeding magnificently).
In the case of filmmakers like Australia's Cate Shortland (Lore) and the US's Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), documentary-style immediacy seems to mean shaking the hand-held camera as violently as possible throughout the entire film, regardless of the emotional needs of the scene.
The critic David Stratton has become famous for his dislike of hand-held camera. I've often
found myself in disagreement, since the technique can produce rich rewards when applied with rigour. Yet the style is being pushed so far and so discriminately that now I find myself crying “enough wobblycam already!”
These two features (see here for full-length reviews by SBS's critics) are in so many ways inspired and deeply felt. Despite their flaws, they are clear highlights of this year's SFF competition.
Shortland's long-awaited follow-up to Somersault, adapted from Rachel Seiffert's novel and performed in German language, focuses on a group of German children struggling to survive amid social collapse in the days immediately following the collapse of the Nazi regime. It's essentially a road movie, as the siblings make their way across country to find refuge with their grandmother near Hamburg, and features especially fine performance by the child performers. It also benefits from Shortland's sharp eye for composition. So why do even the more quiet moments wobble like a drunken uncle's table-top dancing?
The same goes for Beasts, a clear audience favourite for competition winner so far. Again, it's a story of apocalyptic events seen from a child's point of view – this time an African-American girl living with her father in a poor and isolated Bayou community partly destroyed by flooding in the wake of a ferocious storm (echoes of Hurricane Katrina, though the film doesn't specifically reference that event).
The film is remarkable in so many ways, from its central performance and Days of Heaven-like voiceover narration to Zeitlin's feel for place and gift for vivid, sometimes magical and surrealistic imagery. But again, watching the film nearly gave me a headache. The camera doesn't just move when it's capturing movement, it even wobbles maniacally during the still or relatively static moments.
This is bullshit. These directors couldn't afford to buy a tripod? Even the most basic movie editing program, iMovie, which comes free on every Apple computer these days, has a feature that helps to counteract camera shake. No, it's obvious these directors are effectively sabotaging their own otherwise superb work in the mistaken belief that they are creating a greater sense of immediacy.
Doubtless they'd argue the instability of the style matches the emotional state of the characters. In which case, they must believe their characters are on remarkably monotonous emotional journeys. The camera language never changes. Perhaps they should dig out Godard's Breathless one more time to study Raoul Coutard's remarkably disciplined shoulder-held camera work, which captures a great sense of spontaneity but is always disciplined and superbly controlled.
The irony is that actual documentarists strive to keep their cameras steady, to remove the unsettling shakiness that comes from using hand-held. So far in the festival I've seen several great examples of non-fiction filmmakers deploying a more disciplined, formal style to hugely satisfying effect.
The first is Whore's Glory, the latest doco about extreme jobs from Austria's Michael Glawogger (Workingman's Death), this time about sex workers in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico. Glawogger manages to obtain remarkably candid interviews with the women and their customers. Yet his shots – often evocatively lit – never vibrate like a demonic sex toy. His use of the camera to locate people in their environments is exemplary.
The same goes for veteran documentary Fredrick Wiseman's Crazy Horse (pictured), about a renowned Parisian burlesque revue (which I review in full here), and Russian director's Victor Kossakovsky's !Vivan Las Antipodas! The latter is, for me, one of the major discoveries of the event so far – a film of sublime, formally composed images capturing people and landscapes on opposite sides of the earth to one another – from the Argentinian desert to the urban mayhem of Shanghai, for example.
It's yet another example of how the artificial divide between documentary and fictional features makes no sense, with the former supplying some of the most aesthetically satisfying cinema on the festival circuit.
To my mind, !Vivan Las Antipodas! should be competing for the Sydney Film Prize, which the festival website tells us is for a film that “truly moves the art form forward”. It certainly has more right to the slot than Walter Salles' film of Kerouac's beat classic, On the Road, which I quite enjoyed watching – it is energetic and superbly crafted recreation of late 1940s and early '50s US youth subculture – but only a few hours later I had all but forgotten. I doubt if even Salles would claim the film advances the cinematic art form.
Despite its strengths, the film suffers from shallow characterisations, and while there are plenty of literal journeys here as Sal (Sam Riley) and his pal Dean (Garrett Hedlund) crisscross the States in search of thrills, there's insufficient sense of an emotional journey; of any point beyond a vibrant but ultimately empty hedonism.