Documentary and music films are a long-standing tradition at the Sydney Film Festival and its interstate peers but I can’t recall an example of either ever occupying the prestigious opening night slot in this event. Both those omissions were plugged in one go with the unfurling on the Wednesday opening night of 20,000 Days on Earth, a stylised, very finely wrought and insightful documentary about Nick Cave – not only an outstanding film but also a suitable choice for the gala opening night slot.
To explain what I mean, imagine a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film in the opening night slot. His films are magnificent (his recently Cannes-winning Winter Sleep is a late addition to this year’s program), but also long, slow, demanding and in all likelihood alienating for the honourable worthies and glitzy crowd who gain entry via sponsor tickets and who tend not to be cineastes. The opening night to a festival is what the shop window is to a store like David Jones: it catches the attention of a broader crowd than those who normally shop there, projecting an image to the world.
Cave’s thoughts on the creative process and the creative chutzpah and burnished production values used by UK directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard give the film broader appeal than a simple description might lead anyone to imagine. (See my full review here.)
At the other end of the scale was the premiere the following evening of Jimi: All is By My Side, written and directed by US novelist, screenwriter and playwright John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and part-funded by Irish money. It arrived with the massive disadvantage of being denied access to Hendrix’s music by the late musician’s estate, as well as an accusation of shameful distortion in depicting the famously shy and gentle guitarist viciously beating and hospitalising former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham (played indifferently by Hayley Atwell). Nothing like it ever happened, according to the real Etchingham, and why would anyone disbelieve her?
Apart from its troubling ethical issue, the film is a weird bucket of biopic clichés, sloppy editing and the plainly naff. If it’s more watchable than I’ve just made it sound, thanks are due to the extraordinarily uncanny performance of Hendrix-lookalike Andre Benjamin, best known as rap artist André 3000 from Outkast. He gets the musician almost totally: voice, looks, manner and winning grin (though not the singing voice). Imogen Poots is equally impressive as Etchingham’s romantic rival, Linda Keith. With a stronger creative team behind them, plus some actual Hendrix music as opposed to merely good impersonations by session guitarist Waddy Wachtel, they could have been unstoppable.
Sydney Filmfest has a long relationship with US documentary maker Errol Morris. I remember vividly being knocked out by his 1988 breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line, at its SFF premiere, but his most recent film The Unknown Known, whose first screening came on Thursday, made me wonder whether his heavily stylised approach, so bracing when first unfurled, might have become stale. The film is based around a series of interviews with former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tracing his history right back to the Nixon administration and probing him on his famous evasions, contentious decisions and glib statements over the Iraq invasion, of which he was a prime architect.
Reading reviews from overseas festivals I’d gained the impression that Morris lets the warmonger off the hook but that’s not really true. On three separate occasions, he exposes his subject as a blatant liar. Yet these revelations and the film in general seem oddly hollow. Morris has made previous films around interviews with flawed individuals: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter (about an electric chair designer and Holocaust denier); and more successfully, The Fog of War, revolving around the Vietnam war’s chief architect Robert McNamara.
That last title worked so well because its subject had already decided to open up and muse philosophically about his mistakes, recasting history in a different light. But this approach was never going to yield much about the slippery Rumsfeld that we didn’t know or at least suspect already. He’s a liar? Gee, you don’t say. There’s also the problem that Morris’s fizzy visual approach, once so refreshing and always thematically linked to the film’s content, has become emptily flashy and often meaningless. There’s possibly a great film to be made about the war crimes of Rumsfeld and his fellow Neo-Cons but this isn’t it.
Another documentary approach that’s been making an impact on the festival circuit for quite a few years now is the wordless essay film: all startling images, music and no verbal commentary. Think Koyaanisqatsi without the time lapse editing.
Watermark, themed around the human dependence on water, is an impressive film in this tradition (its directors Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky made 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes) featuring, among other things, stunning helicopter shots of dried up Colorado river beds, a sprawling Chinese abalone farm, huge crowds of Indians cleansing their sins in the Ganges, and most startling of all, a humungous Chinese dam project. What the filmmakers failed to factor is the soporific effect of gentle editing rhythms and lulling ambient music in a slightly overheated cinema. I didn’t drop off but it was a heroic struggle there for a while. (Pat on the back, please.)
My only feature film without a music theme in the first two days was For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, a recreation of the experiences of Australian performer, Kym Vercoe, who visited visiting Bosnia for a holiday and upon arriving back in Sydney discovered a hotel where she had stayed had been one of the notorious ‘rape camps’ in the civil wars of the 1990s. She returns to ask some questions (Vercoe is the star and co-writer, Bosnian Jasmila Zbanic of Grbavica renown, directs). The moment where she found out about the hotel is not dramatised and neither is her decision to return, leaving odd-feeling holes in the narrative. The audience gets what is happening, but doesn’t get the chance to feel it.
I also struggled to understand how an Australian who appears intelligent and engaged with the world could have initially holidayed in Bosnia without a clue as to its bloodstained recent history. It was only 20-odd years ago, and while Vercoe is relatively young (perhaps in her 30s?), these events are not infrequently discussed in current affairs programs and news bulletins about war crimes trials.
But on the plus side, when Vercoe returns to the town where she stayed, the film creates a vivid sense of her vulnerability as both a woman and an outsider, questioned and sometimes followed by unhappy locals including the police. This is an inward-looking town, intent on forgetting or lying about its past and suspicious of people from elsewhere with a different agenda. Long-held shots of the beautiful old bridge where many townsfolk were raped and murdered are deeply haunting. Despite its flaws, I suspect this will be a difficult film to forget.
Lynden Barber is a former Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival.