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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