AFI | AACTA staff go to MIFF: Part 1

It may come as no surprise that there are more than a few cineastes among the staff 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 first of a two-part blog mini-series, three of AFI | AACTA’s staff recount their experiences at MIFF 2012.

Lia McCrae-Moore

AFI | AACTA Membership Coordinator Lia McCrae-Moore.

I am an avid cinema-goer and Australian film enthusiast. I completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Cinema Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2009 and have been working as the Membership Co-ordinator at AFI | AACTA for just over two years. I love voicing my own opinion and engaging in vigorous debates about life, cinema and politics.

What I love most about MIFF is its energy. You can see the dynamism spilling out onto the street as cinephiles and black-clad hipsters queue in groups out the front of Greater Union and The Forum. Unlike some of my committed colleagues, who have attended over 20 screenings, I have seen just nine films in total. Of these nine, two have been outstanding, five good-to-great, and two mediocre.

Not including MIFF’s opening night film The Sapphires, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the documentary Chasing Ice and the Chilean feature NO have been my two highlights of the festival. Chasing Ice is a stunningly beautiful but bone-chilling account of the retreating glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska. It charts the rapid degradation of these extraordinary ice fields through time-lapse photography and real time footage. Director Jeff Orlowski follows National Geographic photographer James Bolag and his team as they conquer unforgiving weather conditions to implement Bolag’s Extreme Ice Survey, which is the first of its kind and provides constant visual documentation of these changing landscapes over an extended period of time. Bolag claims that these exquisite photographs are physical proof of climate change in action. He uses his images to create a tangible pictorial presentation of how quickly global warming is transforming our natural world. It is utterly fascinating and horrifying. I left the cinema feeling bereft but also inspired. I must see these freezing expansive horizons before they disappear completely.

Chasing Ice

NO recreates the successful “NO” campaign against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1988. Renee Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hip young advertising man, decides to join the NO campaign to the chagrin of his conservative boss. Saavedra and his socialist compatriots cleverly counteract Pinochet’s YES campaign with catchy jingles, bright colours, intelligent slogans, warmth and humour. After weeks of dodging death threats, surveillance and impending violence, the NO team wins the vote with 55 per cent, and Pinochet is removed from power. NO is filmed on two rebuilt U-matic cameras giving it a grainy, washed out effect. Initially I felt a little assaulted by the images’ lack of clarity, but as I got sucked into the film’s intriguing storyline, the more I appreciated its unrefined aesthetic. Interwoven into the film is actual footage from the period. This matching of aesthetic styles means that the integration of footage and film is practically seamless. NO is a rousing film that is filled with hope, ingenuity and passion.

As usual though, the festival has come and gone with a whirl. I have barely stopped for breath and already it is over. Now, I must eagerly await what next year has to offer.

Bradley J. Dixon

AFI | AACTA Web Coordinator Bradley Dixon.

One of the newest additions to the AFI | AACTA clan, I am a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of my film writings at my seldom updated blog Cinema Quest or follow me on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.

My festival got off to a great start with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, a film belonging to the “mumblecore” school of new American cinema and the first of 33 sessions I managed to catch. As a person with a big family, it was refreshing to see a film explore sibling relationships that actually felt real – in all their depth and contradictions – and test those relationships with an irreverent sense of humour but with a grounding in truth. Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass each play their character with a relaxed naturalism which at times makes the dialogue feel entirely improvised. Before MIFF I hadn’t even heard of Mark Duplass, but between Your Sister’s Sister and his turn in the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed he’s shot directly into my “people to watch” list – which, curiously, seems to grow longer every year around MIFF time.

Other highlights included the devastating and lyrical Amour, the Swedish comedy Flicker (a quirky blend of Falling Down and Office Space featuring the only sex scene I can recall taking place under the very real threat of static shock), and the Romanian drama Beyond the Hills, which at first glance seems like a hard slog – 150 minutes of Romanian-language drama set in a convent, anyone? … Anyone? – but has one of the most comically disarming and entirely unexpected finales of any film I’ve seen in years.

On the home front, I was pleasantly surprised by The Sapphires – which is a crowd pleaser if ever there was one – and the Age Critics Award-winning Hail, an ambitious collaboration between Amiel Courtin-Wilson and ex-criminal Daniel P. Jones which threads Brakhage-esque abstraction into an intensely realist rumination on love and death.

Holy Motors

But by far the best film I saw was the weird and wonderful Holy Motors from French veteran Leos Carax, his first feature in 13 years. A must-see for any student of cinematic form, Holy Motors is a sublime pronouncement of the vitality of cinema as we steamroll ever closer to a future where artistic creation is as much a product of technology as it is of the spirit. Probably not for the casual viewer, but film buffs and those with open minds will love its demented genius – in particular, an incongruous but delightful interval featuring a lavish piano accordion musical number.

Simon Elchlepp

AFI | AACTA Office and Project Coordinator Simon Elchlepp.

I am the AFI’s Office and Project Coordinator, a role that sees me researching the AFI’s history, processing AACTA Awards entries, writing about upcoming TV and DVD highlights, and many other things.

There are some things that you look forward to every year. There are the usual suspects: Christmas, Easter, and so on. And then there’s the cinematic equivalent of all these joyous occasions wrapped into one, at least if you’re a Melbourne cinephile: MIFF’s program launch. Anticipation over what treasures the festival program will unearth leads into intense study of the program upon release in mid-July. Highlighter in hand, everything that looks interesting / curious / unmisseable is noted down, ordered, and in a complex process of torturous decision-making, finally whittled down to a Mini Pass-compatible list of ten films. After comparing film choices with colleagues (“No one else is going to watch five-and-a-half hours of Bollywood gangster cinema? Fair enough.”), it’s off into the festival’s two weeks.

Even before the launch of the MIFF program, I had already picked my first movie to watch: Takeshi Miike’s adaptation of video game Ace Attorney (yes, I hereby confess to having spent way too much of my youth on video games, so this was pretty exciting news). Since Miike has proven that he can pretty much direct any genre and infuse it with his trademark off-the-wall sensibilities, he seemed like the perfect choice to capture the game’s Anime aesthetic… and maybe even create the best video game adaptation to date! Small praise for a genre that’s given us several Uwe Boll movies and Wing Commander, but Ace Attorney actually does end up a very entertaining film that happily embraces its game and Anime roots and has tons of fun transplanting them the real life setting of a wacky court room/crime thriller movie. Ace Attorney doesn’t have enough madcap energy to turn all of its 130+mins into the wild rollercoaster ride you’d hope for – given the source material and Miike’s pedigree – but I’m happy to pronounce it the new king of the video game movie sub-genre.

Ace Attorney

Just as wild – only even longer – is Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 & 2, each one running at a whopping 160 minutes. Screening back-to-back at MIFF, it makes for a slightly butt-numbing Bollywood bonanza, but once I leave the cinema after a whole Sunday afternoon has passed, I’m actually glad I watched the whole thing in one go. Gangs of Wasseypur is a gangster film that paints its story on a huge canvas, charting a crime war between several warring factions in the coal mining city of Wasseypur over the course of more than 70 years. There are several dozen characters to keep track of, and the amount of double-crossing and backstabbing (well, shooting) everybody is involved with is head-spinning. Miraculously enough though, it all comes together as one coherent narrative that effortlessly juggles enough storylines for five regular-sized gangster movies, all shot with a keen sense of style that takes inspiration from spaghetti westerns, Peckinpah, and Tarantino-style theatrics. It’s dazzling, ambitious and exhausting.

A different kind of headiness awaits in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), part of a retrospective of French surrealist Jean Epstein’s oeuvre and my personal “wow” moment at this year’s MIFF. Epstein’s brand of surrealism is a subtle undermining of reality to create an eerie, spectral demi-world that is the perfect visual equation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. It’s a silent film with only a handful of intertitles to tell the skeletal story of Roderick Usher and his dying wife (or is she?), so it’s up to the visuals to fill in the space between the lines. And Epstein proves a master, building a dream-like, otherworldly mood by making full use of the young medium’s range of possibilities. His combined use of slow-motion, superimpositions and deliberate use of improper focus is mesmerising and leaves an indelible mark – one of the many things to take away from MIFF 2012.

Look out for Part 2 of AFI | AACTA Staff go to MIFF, coming shortly.