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.

Australian films at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Sapphires

The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.

And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.

Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.

There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.

Features

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.

One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.

Being Venice

Being Venice

The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.

Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.

Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.

Errors of the Human Body

Errors of the Human Body

Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.

A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.

Hail

Hail

Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.

Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.

Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.

Last Dance

Last Dance

David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.

Mental

Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.

Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.

Save Your Legs!

Save Your Legs!

A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.

The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.

Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Documentaries

Coniston

Coniston

In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.

One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.

Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus

Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.

First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.

The First Fagin

The First Fagin

Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.

Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.

Lasseter’s Bones

Lasseter’s Bones

Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.

His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.

With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.

Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.

Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.