AFI | AACTA staff go to MIFF: Part 2

We love our films here at AFI | AACTA, and for those in our Melbourne office the culmination of this cinephilia comes during the Melbourne International Film Festival – a three-week feast of film from around the globe taking place tantalizingly close to our South Melbourne office.

Attempting to weave as many film sessions as possible in amongst our regular work is a challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that we embrace with open arms and bleary eyes. In this second of a two-part blog mini-series, three of AFI | AACTA’s staff and one of our treasured volunteers recount their experiences at MIFF 2012. [You can read Part 1 here.]

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – a standout favourite at MIFF this year.

Rochelle Siemienowicz – AFI | AACTA Editor

Reading, writing, thinking and talking about Australian film and television, I’m editor at the AFI | AACTA, a role I’ve had for the past four years. I write the fortnightly e-News, manage this blog, update our social media, and on the ‘night of nights’ when the Award winners come off stage, I have the privilege of interviewing them while they hold their newly minted statuettes. One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet and write about the achievements of the many talented behind-the-scenes professionals involved in our screen industry, as well as helping to spread the word about new Australian screen productions . I also love films of all kinds from around the world, and for the last 12 years I’ve been the Film Editor at The Big Issue magazine – a role I’ve just passed on in order to make a little more time to actually go the cinema, without a pen and paper in hand! 

MIFF is always an incredibly exciting time, but also quite stressful and conflicted, as I’m intensely aware of what I’m missing out on, and how little I’ll actually be able to fit in. It’s a bonus, however, to follow friends and fellow film lovers through their blogs and social media, creating a wonderful sense of community around the festival.

My highlights this year included opening night film The Sapphires, a visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying story that made me feel like dancing out of the cinema and into the the afterparty. A real thrill of the night was seeing Jessica Mauboy take to the stage for a live performance at the Plaza Ballroom of the Regent Theatre. The energy and love in the room was palpable, and that voice sent shivers down my spine! Interviewing the film’s director Wayne Blair the morning after was also a buzz. You can read the interview over here.

The trials and tribulations of beautiful young dancers. The ultimate ballet documentary, FIRST POSITION.

Another standout this year was ballet documentary First Position. Directed by first time filmmaker and former dancer Bess Kargman, the film follows the journey of six talented young dancers of different nationalities, competing in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest and most prestigious ballet competition for dancers aged nine to 19. Prizes include scholarships and positions in the world’s best ballet companies. These are especially sought in the present tough times of unemployment for many dancers. Beautifully shot and perfectly paced, First Position manages to convey both the small and large moments in the dancer’s extraordinarily tough lives – often with great humour and pathos. It’s been a while since I’ve been quite so emotionally moved by a film’s finale – even as it was almost inevitably and predictably upflifting. Winner of the 2011 DOCNYC Audience Award and San Francisco Documentary Festival Jury Prize, First Position deserves every bit of positive buzz it’s generated so far. Look out for it in release down the track through Hopscotch.

This year I was lucky enough to write program notes for several of the documentaries in the festival. These proved to be highlights and you can click through to my personal blog if you’re interested in thoughts on:

  • Lasseter’s Bones: Documentary filmmaker Luke Walker (Beyond Our Ken) spent three years sifting through the facts to uncover what really happened to the legendary explorer Harold Bell Lasseter, a man who claimed to have sited a 7-mile gold reef in central Australia and died in the desert trying to find it again. Was he deluded, a liar or a genius? A fascinating portrait of obsession, packed with uniquely Aussie ‘characters’.
  • The AmbassadorOutrageous, gutsy and potentially offensive, it’s no surprise that Danish documentary The Ambassador is produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Films. Journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger won the 2010 Sundance World Cinema jury prize with The Red Chapel, in which he posed as a communist theatre director visiting, and covertly filming, in North Korea. With The Ambassador, Brügger again risks imprisonment, or more likely assassination, by putting himself squarely at the centre of a project that’s jaw-droppingly funny but deadly serious in its intent – posing as a corrupt diplomat in the Central African Republic.

Mads Brugger’s THE AMBASSADOR

  • We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists Is it cyber terrorism, vandalism or legitimate political protest when a loosely organised bunch of computer geeks brings down an official website in order to make a point? Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion is a fascinating glimpse behind the handsome, leering Guy Fawkes mask that has become the Anonymous movement’s logo. Who are these people? What do they want, and how do they think? Are they cowardly bullies working from their bedrooms or courageous activists who are the last bastion of freedom of speech in an age of almost total Internet surveillance?
  • Golden Slumbers: As a passionate believer in the importance of national film industries – and the sacredness of all kinds of film archives – the idea that a country’s entire cinematic output could be wilfully destroyed seems horrific. Unthinkable, even. Yet as Davy Chou’s intensely personal and poetic documentary Golden Slumbers recounts, that’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

Vanessa McKeddie – AFI |AACTA Awards Coordinator

Vanessa McKeddie

I’m the Awards Coordinator at the AFI | AACTA.Remove the word ‘Holly’ and replace it with ‘Aussie’ to form the word ‘Aussiewood’…a name I like to refer to as the AFI | AACTA office. [Editor’s note: Our name for Vanessa is ‘little ray of sunshine’ as she’s always quick with a smile and a joke despite her enormous workload and the rather sobering job of compiling the annual In Memoriam section of the Awards each year!]

This year I attended eight MIFF screenings, with two stand outs.

The term ‘Side By Side’ is generally used by my husband, when referring to his beloved Collingwood Football Club, although this time, Side By Side represented the film by documentarian Chris Kenneally.

I was completely captivated by Side by Side’s engaging debate regarding 35mm film production versus digital technology and the interviews with renowned directors and cinematographers.  On-screen interviewer Keanu Reeves poignant summing up statement of the new situation, “Immediatelies versus Dailies”, rang true to me, having previously worked in a post production company (in London) managing the movement of dailies, compared to the current ease of arranging digital film movements. Australian cinematographers Don McAlpine and Dion Beebe’s contributions to this topical discussion, proved to be the icing on the cake!

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in SIDE BY SIDE

CRAZY HORSE

Having visited Moulin Rouge a decade ago, I have always been intrigued by Paris’s legendary Crazy Horse cabaret show.  Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Crazy Horse explored choreographer Phillipe Decoufle’s vision to produce a cabaret show that would “impress the intellectuals” and in doing so, exposes all the frustrations he experiences along the way.  The stage routines were elaborate, technically refined, titillating (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist) and left me wanting to visit the 61-year-old establishment!

Jane Carracher – AFI | AACTA Finance Manager

Jane Carracher

I have been Finance Manager at the AFI for almost 7 years. I’ve always loved watching movies, and although I have not studied film (apart from the odd film for English in High School!), I’ve learnt a lot about the filmmaking process whilst working at the AFI. This has given me a greater understanding of film as a whole, and has only intensified my passion for sitting in a dark room watching stories unfold on the big screen.

My MIFF wrap-up will be brief, as I (like many) have suffered MIFF-fatigue and am currently under the weather. I saw 35 films, of which three stood way above the rest of the pack.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Despite its shaky-cam-style cinematography, I was completely engrossed by the story of the little girl, Hushpuppy, and her father, living in a shanty-like Bayou town in Louisiana. The film looks incredible, with amazing performances from the cast, especially Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is surely up for awards come Oscar season.  Even more amazing is the fact that all the actors are in their first ever role, and many actually lived through Hurricane Katrina, as told in the fascinating Q&A session with the writer/director, Benh Zeitlin.

Undefeated: This documentary of a southern US football team, who had been struggling for years to get some wins on the board, is one of the most moving films I have seen in quite some time. It follows the coach and three players with extraordinary stories, which we watch unfold in a season where the team finally finds it feet and starts having some success. A film that reduced me to tears many times, this is one not to be missed.

UNDEFEATED

Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present: More crying!! Performance art isn’t really my ‘thing’, but this fascinating documentary on the life of artist and filmmaker Marina Abramovic, and her retrospective season at MOMA in 2010, was a great insight into the art world for the uninitiated. The film traces her early beginnings in performance art, and the relationships that blossomed out of her collaborations. The second half of the film focuses on her MOMA piece, where she sat in silence for 3 months (736.5 hours) and patrons visiting the gallery could sit with her, also in silence.

Other films I enjoyed immensely and highly recommend you see: Holy Motors, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Save Your Legs, The Sound of My Voice, Damsels in Distress, Sightseers, First Position and Charles Bradley: Soul of America.

 Suzanne Steinbruckner – Volunteer

Suzanne Steinbruckner

I volunteer at the AFI | AACTA’s South Melbourne office and usually share my time between Communications and Membership. This could see me researching upcoming titles, uploading and checking blog or website content, or helping with membership overflow and posting out Giveaways. Away from the AFI, I’ve returned to study this year which I’m loving, paying some bills by working in a record store, and fulfilling the remainder of my volunteering bug by hanging out at radio station 3RRR.

MIFF is the start of my favourite time of year in Melbourne and I love the fact that as a city we come out en masse, line up in the wet and cold to see films in the middle of winter, every two and a half hours for two and a half weeks! That said this is my first MIFF in over a decade where my ‘real-life’ timetable has dictated my MIFF schedule, resulting in a lowly 13 sessions. I was still able to squeeze in MIFF volunteering again this year – something I highly encourage as it’s lots of fun!

The middle weekend saw two of my highlights; Holy Motors and Paranorman. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors was already praised by Bradley Dixon in the Part 1 of this piece. The wondrous absurdity of this film still has me questioning my interpretation of each or any of Monsieur Oscar’s (Denis Lavant) “appointments” – a good week and a half after seeing this film. Brilliant.

Paranorman is a new stop-motion animation comedy thriller for kids. It centres on Norman Babcock (voiced by Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is the town freak because he communicates with the dead. I absolutely loved this film. Not only were there fantastic animated zombies, but it recalled the kids’ adventure films of my childhood like The Goonies, except this time in awesome animation.

ParaNorman

Another highlight was Michael Haneke’s Amour – one of the most devastating yet compassionate films I experienced during the festival. With real-time shots, long takes, silent opening credits and the limited music being diegetic, the viewer is left with little room but to feel the emotional struggle and suffocation that the on- screen characters are experiencing. A remarkable and affecting film.

And that’s it for another MIFF. We’ll be back next year with staff wraps. Feel free to comment below and tell us about your festival picks.

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