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In keeping with the non-stop, cultural festivals in this city, MIFF has taken up residence– the Melbourne International Film Festival.  Its gala premiere was held on July 24 and the wrap night will be on August 9.  I haven’t gone to the trouble to count all the films, but there must be at least three hundred features from 53 different countries on hand.  This year the entertainment factory aspect has taken a back seat to politics.  The standout in this regard is an innocuous sounding documentary called “The 10 Conditions of Love.”  It is an Australian-made film about Rebiya Kadeer, the outspoken advocate for a Uigher homeland who is currently living in the United States.

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The Chinese authorities have made a very big deal about the inclusion of the film and the decision to invite Kadeer to the Festival.  After failing to bully Richard Moore, the festival director, into dropping the documentary, the Chinese yanked three films in protest.  Even though Kadeer was once one of the richest women in China and a member of the Chinese government, she is now considered an enemy of the people– an instrumental figure who helped incite the recent riots in Xinjiang.

Of course, the film promptly sold out.  The trouble over Kadeer followed the announcement that Ken Loach, the British director, was withdrawing his film in protest at the acceptance by another filmmaker of sponsorship money from Israel.  The festival directors are bracing themselves for protests over yet another documentary, “Stolen,” about alleged slavery practices in the Western Sahara.

Opening night featured “Balibo”, a feature film about the execution of five journalists during Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975.  Anthony LaPaglia plays Roger East, an Australian journalist who ventures into East Timor to investigate the truth of the deaths of the five men at the urging of Jose Ramos-Horta, who was very nearly assassinated himself just last year.  The murder of the journalists (who supposedly died in cross-fire) was covered up by both the Australian and and Indonesian governments.   Horta, the current president of East Timor, is here for the festival and Kadeer is on her way.  Quentin Tarantino’s coming as well, so maybe he’s bringing the bodyguards.  Security must be a concern.

I don’t know if all this controversy has boosted ticket sales, but I’m sure it hasn’t hurt.  Two of the sessions I’ve attended have been full houses or very close to it.  And I would not have expected those numbers for the particular films I had picked.  The first was a charming memoir by Agnes Varda called “The Beaches of Agnes.”  Agnes Varda, the first female director to be associated with the “Novelle Vague” is now eighty, but her wit and vision and imagination are very much in evidence in this film. Highly recommended.

The second feature was far less successful, a Polish film called “Sweet Rush” by Andrez Wajda, about an actress whose real-life partner died during the production of the movie.  It was a solemn, somewhat claustrophobic film about grieving and acting.  Not exactly what I had expected but there is a certain amount of risk involved in attending any film fest.

The French are very well represented this year, with nearly fifty films from various directors. Anna Karina, Jean Luc Godard’s favourite actress, is on hand to talk about her films, the ones she made with him as well as those she directed.  The other evening she went to a Melbourne restaurant to try out a pizza that had been named for her.  Like Agnes, she seems to have aged well.

Claire Denis, another female French director, is a guest of the Festival. She has a new film out about a father and daughter living in the suburbs of Paris called “35 Shots of Rum.”  “Tea with Madame Clos,” an Australian documentary about a century-old woman who lives in a small French village was sold out before I had a chance to get a booking.  Go figure.

The categories that the movies have been slotted into offer some idea of the selection– New Balkan Cinema, Young Blood, Night Shift, Eros + Massacre, Neighborhood Watch, Next Gen, Vengeance is Mine, Docos, States of Dissent, Arts and Minds, the Primal Screen, Animation, Backbeat, Punk Becomes Pop and Shorts.   The films seem to lean pretty heavily toward sex and violence.  Perhaps it is a reflection on the state of the industry, the obsessions of the  current crop of filmmakers, or the audience the Festival is targeting.  It doesn’t seem to be catering to baby boomers.

The third film I saw blew me away.  It was an American documentary by a filmmaker from my home state of Montana.  “Prodigal Sons” is billed as a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ tale about a transsexual who returns for her high school reunion.  She/he was the star quarterback of the football team in high school.  He/she was voted most likely to succeed.  That is just the beginning.  It is a mind boggling, but touching story of sibling rivalry, adoption troubles, head trauma and family resentments writ large.  One of the revelations about the adoptee’s parentage almost defies belief.

I’m hoping to see “Balibo” and “The 10 Conditions of Love” and in a theater at some point, but I’m just as happy to let most of the sex and violence films entertain other moviegoers.  I’m a popcorn kind of guy.  Stay tuned.

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Our Melbourne flat looked pretty desolate early Sunday morning  when the surly taxi driver dropped us off, refusing to touch a single suitcase.  He informed us at the airport that he thought we needed a station wagon, but we had already loaded our bags in his car and there was still room for another passenger in the front seat. After a sixteen hour flight in the back row of a 747, neither of us was inclined to indulge the driver, no matter how disinclined he was to take our fare.  Our place is only ten minutes from the airport.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe we smelled bad.  Who knows?  Who cares?

When we got inside, our cat let out a long wail that seemed to sum up our six week absence.  Where were you guys?  Two house sitters taking care of her needs while we were in North America was simply not enough. It is winter in Melbourne and the weather can be cold, wet and miserable, although it is so changeable that it sometimes seems like spring.  This time of year, Tibbey spends much of her time indoors, nursing grievances.

I happened on a piece in the Sunday supplement that was all about complaining.  The author of the article had come across a book suggesting that we all do too much of it.  Most complaints fall on deaf ears and sour us to life’s pleasures.  The writer had attempted to go for 21 days without one complaint.  The trick is to notice and keep track, and the secret weapon seems to be a purple rubber band.   I doubt if our cat would go for that. Purple is just not her color.

In a last-ditch attempt to hold on to some of the fragile summer sun in Nova Scotia, we did get out on the ocean for one afternoon of sea kayaking before we left.  It was windy, but wonderful.  At the end of the afternoon the cheap sunscreen seeped into my eyes and stung like anything.   I complained, of course, cursing myself for buying stuff that did that.

The day we left, we got up much too early and headed to the airport for our flight west.  Our trajectory back to Australia took us through Portland, once again.  We arrived in time to help my son celebrate his 37th birthday, to enjoy a delicious cheesecake baked by his talented wife, and to marvel at the verbal skills of Lucas, who has just turned three.  And meet his new sister, Zooey Marie.  She is beautiful, of course, but shows no signs of being a docile, quiet child.  I wouldn’t have expected as much, but these new Halbrooks are going to be handful.

I was able to get in a good bike ride in that bike-friendly city.  I saw the art museum and one small section of Powell’s huge book store.  While my son was at work, the rest of us went for a long walk into Mount Tabor park.  Lucas and I pretended to be airplanes beneath the towering pine trees.  He is absolutely obsessed with planes and helicopters of all descriptions.  Needless to say, I don’t share his enthusiasm.  As one of my favorite cartoons puts it, if man had been meant to fly, the Creator would have given him shorter legs and narrower shoulders.

It was a long, long walk for Lucas and I’m happy to say he made it home without having to water someone’s garden on the way.  Now that we are back in Oz, the heat of summer and the bright sun in North America at this time of year seems very far away.  At night, Tibbey curls up between our heads.  Sometimes I wake up to find that she has managed to displace my head on the pillow.  She pretends ignorance, of course.  “Oh, was this your pillow?”  Occasionally, she snores.  It is a peculiar sound, almost musical.  Who’s complaining?  We are all just fine.


Despite the attractions of the Supreme Court clerks’ reunion (written up in a previous post), one of the clerks in my wife’s year failed to make it.  We decided to catch up with him in Prince Edward Island.  He had just returned from Nunavut, Canada’s youngest territory, attending the graduation of the first 21 women to earn graduate degrees there.   The University of PEI had put together a program that helped bring higher education to the Far North.

Despite his busy agenda, he welcomed us when we broached the subject of an actual visit.  Neither my wife nor I had been to to the island for years.  My wife’s last visit was over fifty years ago, when she was a child.

You can actually drive all the way now, which seems strange when you are going to a  large island that is nearly thirteen kilometers (eight miles) away from the mainland of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  The Confederation Bridge, which opened twelve years ago, is the longest bridge in the world over salt water that ices up in winter.  It is long, but it isn’t high enough to be scary and they only charge for the return trip to the mainland.  We took the ferry back.

For years, PEI has been known for three things– potatoes, the  “Anne of Green Gables”  books by L.M Montgomery, and its place in history as the birthplace of Canada.  The potatoes are still there in abundance, but PEI’s historical significance has been eclipsed by Anne,  the lovable orphan who wormed her way into so many hearts through books and television.

We had the chance to meet the  artistic director of the Montgomery Theater (now housed in L.M. Montgomery’s old church) and  dropped into Avonlea for a brief visit.  The grounds are chock full of historic buildings that have been moved to the site as well as reproductions of old buildings and new shops that simply look old.  It is a tiny, rural Disneyland drawn from the Anne books and stories.

In the summer, PEI does its best to take advantage of the tourist trade, luring big name artists to Charlottetown and staging musicals that have little to do with the rural landscape or the sensibility of Montgomery’s day.  In a way, I think I blamed Montgomery herself for the “tourist trap” aspect to PEI, but this visit made me think a little deeper about my flip reaction.

Montgomery was no Disney, manufacturing dreams of childhood; she was a highly accomplished, complex woman, dealing with the challenge of forging an independent position in Victorian times, which was not particularly favorable to smart, strong women.  As my wife once wrote in a college paper, Montgomery was dealing with profound human issues of belonging and dislocation, with the metaphors of orphans and islands (which are orphans, in geographical terms).

In a very quick trip, we attended the opening of a new art gallery, visited a talented artist, saw the set of a theatrical venue in progress, a farm market, a university campus, two fine restaurants, and the mesmerizing, rolling  countryside of red earth and green leaves.  We got rained on and fell asleep under a gibbous moon.

The “bedrock” of P.E.I. is coarse, red sandstone.  The early settlers built homes and dykes from this easily hewn stone.  Its erosion over the eons have created endless, beautiful beaches.  The gulf stream does its part to make the beaches idyllic, bringing up warm seawater from the Carolinas.

Even with the dismal summer weather that followed us to the Island, we could not resist a visit to the beach.  There were rare, spectacular, parabolic  dunes and sand and sky that seemed to reach forever.  It was magical.


It is appropriate that I should be posting this on Canada Day, because it is about our recent visit to this nation’s capital.  Canadians are not known for their patriotic fervor, but on this particular day they revel in whatever feelings they may have for this vast land mass they call a country.   Many years ago I was in Ottawa on July 1.  The fireworks were spectacular.

Once upon a time (this will be hard to believe for any readers under thirty) there were no personal computers. Every single written communication of any kind had to be written out by hand or punched out on a reluctant piece of machinery called a typewriter.  All mistakes had to be corrected with something called white out.  This is within living memory, within my lifetime as a grown up.

Way back BBG (before Bill Gates) and BSJ (Steve Jobs) my wife was selected to be a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada.  That year, there were ten clerks.  The Chief Justice had two; the others had to make do with one.  Most clerks worked like galley slaves just to keep up.  This was BBG, remember.

The judge my wife worked for was smart, hard-working, very diligent and exacting.  He left a legacy at the Court that people still talk about; he is  regarded as one of the best judges the court ever had.  My wife admired him, but he was not an easy boss.

Ever in search of the perfect clerk, the judge would always choose someone completely different from the previous worker bee. We know this because of the reunions that were held at his estate on his birthday every year until he retired.  The assembled individuals seemed to belong to the same species, but that was about it.  Aside from brains, a willingness to work very hard and a good legal education, they had little else in common.

Every five years there is a reunion of clerks for the entire court.  I had never been to one before, but this year we not far away and I had my good suit.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to put in an appearance.  We could catch up with my brother-in-law, see a good friend who lives and works in Ottawa, and hobnob with the high and mighty.

Now that each judge has three clerks, the numbers have ballooned.  The atrium of the Supreme Court itself was large enough for the cocktail party, but seating six or seven hundred for dinner requires a very special venue.

Capital cities are not my favorite places.  They tend to attract people who like power, as well as multitudes of civil servants, interns and secretaries. I spent one summer in Ottawa and three years in Washington D.C.  I found  both cities excruciatingly dull.  In Ottawa, at least, it is easy to get out into some lovely country very quickly, and a handful of the buildings are beautiful.

The architecture of The Parliament Buildings, the National Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Civilization are worth a trip to the city. I can’t say the same for the exterior of the new War Museum. but it does have room for a sit-down dinner for seven hundred.  As long as you don’t mind tanks.

I had never thought of Canada as being a particularly militaristic country, but for many years this country was part of Britain, and the same cannot be said of the U.K.  There were the never ending wars between England and France that finally came to a head on the Plains of Abraham.  In one half hour battle, years of warfare in North America was finally resolved.

Then there was the Boer War, the War of 1812, the horrendous trench warfare of World War I, the battles in France, Italy and Africa of  WW II.  Canadians paid a huge price for their European heritage.  And then all the Peacekeeping, which is another form of war.  And now, Afghanistan.

Our venue for the grand evening of the reunion was an extraordinary space.  It was a cavernous room of concrete and glass, big enough to hold a full-size fighter plane overhead and a football field of tanks.  And not just tanks, field artillery and armored vehicles of very description.  What made this disconcerting was that all the enormous guns were pointed directly at us.

If I hadn’t had my Brioni, 007 suit on, I might have considered a quiet exit, but the discrete flak jacket sewn inside comes in handy on just these kinds of occasions.  What with the interesting company, the food, the wine and the extraordinarily injudicious entertainment, we had a very good time indeed.

Stay tuned.

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