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.

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.