Established in 1952, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is one of the oldest film festivals in the world and the most significant screen event in Australia. An iconic Melbourne event, the festival takes place annually in the heart of the city, presenting an acclaimed screening program alongside industry and celebratory events.
MIFF showcases the best in current cinema from around the world as well as retrospectives, tributes and discussion programs. Since its inception, MIFF has also been committed to local film: it is Australia’s largest showcase of new Australian cinema and is the country’s most vocal champion of emerging and established local filmmaking talent. The festival also hosts many celebratory world premieres of local films.
The festival runs from July 30 through until August 16, screening a diverse range of Australian and international features, documentaries, and retrospectives. The opening night film is Paul Cox’s Force of Destiny, a very personal story inspired by his own battle with ill health and undergoing a life saving liver transplant. The film stars David Wenham. Closing night film is Mistress America, the new comedy from Noah Baumbach.
Below are reviews of films screening at MIFF 2015.
For a long time local filmmaker Lawrence Johnston (Fallout) has been fascinated with neon, and he even managed to include images of neon lights into his documentaries Eternity and the whimsical Night. But now he has made a carefully researched feature length documentary exploring the heritage, design and history of neon and neon lighting. While a documentary about the history of neon lighting may sound a rather dry subject, this actually is quite fascinating and revealing. Johnston uses a deftly edited mix of archival footage and interviews to trace the history of neon lighting, which was supposedly first demonstrated at the World’s Fair in 1894, where it turned night into day and gave off a festive air.
Famous inventor Nikola Tesla virtually invented the neon light, but he never capitalised on its potential, unlike the litigious and entrepreneurial Georges Claude, who perfected the electrode and saw the possibilities of it as an advertising medium. He would readily sue people for patent infringements. Since then cities like New York with its garish Times Square and lights of Broadway, Las Vegas with its strip, and Los Angeles have all used neon lighting in advertising to attract the tourist dollar and enhance the exciting atmosphere. According to one of the experts interviewed throughout the documentary, neon signs reflect our hopes and dreams and aspirations. Hong Kong and even pre-revolutionary Cuba used the neon signage. Tokyo has also employed neon light advertising, but its sensory overload even puts Las Vegas to shame. We even get a glimpse of Melbourne’s iconic Skipping Girl vinegar sign to give it a local flavour.
Johnston eschews traditional voice over narration, instead he relies on the interviewees and a wealth of beautifully evocative black and white archival footage to tell the colourful history of the neon light. His interview subjects include architects, historians, authors and artists. Johnston has also used a few carefully chosen clips from Hollywood musicals like 1934’s Dames and Busby Berkeley’s The Gold Diggers Of 1937 to showcase the sometimes inventive and clever use of neon to create memorable cinematic images. The music accompanying the documentary is evocative of the jazz era, and Eron Sheehan’s cinematography is also very good. But while it may be informative Neon lacks the same broad appeal and commercial appeal of Johnson’s previous documentary Fallout, which looked at the making of On The Beach.
Another Country is a documentary that looks at the impact that the white man’s culture has had on thousands of years of aboriginal culture. “Our culture doesn’t fit your culture,” says narrator David Gulpilil. The film is the result of a collaboration between filmmaker Rolf de Heer , his partner Molly Reynolds and Gulpilil, who have previously collaborated on the features Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country. Like Ivan Sen’s fictional Toomelah, Another Country takes us inside an aboriginal community to witness their daily lives but gives us a first hand account of a lifestyle that is slowly being eradicated. Essentially a nomadic people who would hunt for food they have little use for houses, cars or even supermarkets to buy their food from.
The film has been shaped by Gulpilil’s own observations of aboriginal life on the settlements and isolated communities established by the seemingly benevolent government. The sale of alcohol was banned, and all the residents were issued with food cards which could be used at the local supermarket. Gulpilil acts as the narrator and his dry, droll narration and rich, warm tones draw us into this deeply personal and reflective exploration of the consequences of the government’s well-meaning policy of self-determination. His tone is informative rather than confronting and he tries to break down some cultural barriers between white culture and indigenous culture. Gulpilil slowly elucidates some of the problems facing these communities that have been established by white politicians who have little understanding of the their traditions or culture. He also elaborates on the concept of obligation, in which if someone asks to borrow a car they cannot be refused. More often than not the car is returned broken and virtually unuseable.
Another Country takes audiences on an eye-opening journey through the small and remote community of Raminging, where he was raised. Raminging is situated some 400 kms from the nearest town and is accessible only by a dirt road that gets flooded out during rainy season. We get a potted history of the town, and we observe the inhabitants going about their lives and get a sense of their disrupted lifestyle and the rhythms of life in this remote community. The biggest worry is that the younger generation are losing touch with their history and centuries of tradition. There is one scene where a number of local youths perform a dance, but rather than the traditional music of their culture the background is hip hop music. But ultimately the film is optimistic in its outlook.
Charlie’s Country is Rolf De Heer’s 14th feature film, and the third film in his unofficial trilogy exploring aboriginal issues – Ten Canoes dealt with the past and ancient traditional aboriginal ways and their dreamtime; The Tracker dealt with the cruel treatment of aboriginals in the 19th century by the white settlers; and this film is a confronting look at contemporary problems facing Australia’s indigenous population. David Gulpilil, who has worked with De Heer on several of his films, plays Charlie, an elderly aboriginal who lives on a remote aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. Once a celebrated dancer who even performed for the Queen at the opening ceremony for the Sydney Opera House, he is now bitter and disappointed at what has happened to the spirit of his people. Charlie and the aboriginal people have to live with some fairly restrictive laws that he doesn’t fully comprehend. He thinks that his people have lost their traditional ways and their dignity and beliefs, and seem content to live off the government purse. He decides to go walkabout, hoping to reconnect with the land and the old traditional ways, which has devastating consequences.
The film deals with themes of isolation, displacement, identity, prejudice, the patronising attitudes of whites and bureaucracy to the needs and history of the indigenous population. De Heer wrote the film in conjunction with Gulpilil, who has drawn upon his own experiences, his battles with alcoholism and his imprisonment to shape the screenplay.
Gulpilil shot the film while out on parole, and his personal experiences have shaped his poignant performance. Gulpilil, who has starred in films like Walkabout, The Last Wave and de Heer’s The Tracker, is front and centre for much of the film and his performance won the Best Actor award at the Une Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes. He delivers a powerful performance as the troubled, deeply flawed Charlie whose health and mental state have deteriorated. His grizzled, weathered face bears the hard years of experience, which adds to the authenticity of his soulful performance.
As with Ivan Sen’s Toomelah, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson And Delilah, Charlie’s Country is a raw and insightful film that doesn’t offer a romanticised or sanitised picture of life for indigenous communities. De Heer is an intelligent and passionate filmmaker, and his films are often driven by a powerful sense of social injustice. It is obvious that this material is also close to his heart, as Charlie’s Country is obviously something of a labour of love for both the veteran director and his star.
The film has been beautifully shot by De Heer’s regular cinematographer Ian Jones, who brings the remote outback of Arnhem Land to life. He often works in close-up, with the shots of Gulpilil’s weary and expressive face conveying so much more about his thoughts and inner pain than mere words ever could. Graham Tardif’s minimalist piano-driven score adds a melancholy note to the drama.
Rabbit Proof Fence
After several big budget Hollywood thrillers (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, etc), Phillip Noyce returned home for this rather small scale but very topical film exploring one of the more controversial chapters of Australia’s recent history – the issue of the stolen children. Set in 1931, the film follows the adventures of three young girls as they travel 1200 miles across some of the most inhospitable country in Australia to return home to their family. Molly, Daisy and Gracie (Everlyn Sampri, Tianna Sansbury, and Laura Monaghan) are three half caste girls, who are taken from their mother and sent to the Moore River detention centre, where they are to be assimilated into the religion and culture of the white man.
But after a few days they run away and try to make their way home, against enormous odds. They decide to follow the wire fence that stretches across the state, followed by an aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil), who comes to admire them for their courage and determination, and half the police force of the state. Rabbit Proof Fence seems unduly manipulative in its treatment of this story, and it seems that many commentators have chosen to follow a politically correct line when talking about the film, overpraising it for its political correctness rather than its content and quality. The film has been beautifully shot in widescreen by Christopher Doyle.
Another Country, Charlie’s Country and Rabbit Proof Fence all screen as part of the David Gulpillil retrospective during MIFF.
It’s rare to see women in the testosterone fueled world of racing cars, and even rarer to find females in the world of car racing in the patriarchal Arab world. But this fascinating documentary from first time feature director Amber Fares introduces us to four fast and furious females from Palestine who feel the need for speed and who live their passion as drift racers. Marah, Noor, Mona and Betty are the Middle East’s first female team of drivers, and their manager is the equally formidable Maysoon. They had to overcome a lot of prejudice and entrenched tradition and societal expectations when they set out to prove themselves as race car drivers. Racing opened up a new world for them and their families and provided them with a number of opportunities they may otherwise not have had.
Breaking down barriers, they are regarded as local heroes by some. They race under the auspices of the Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Federation, which was founded in 2005. Despite being the reigning champion, Marah is the more hot headed of the four and often clashes with the head of the Arab racing federation and has numerous problems with their rules.
But the four also retain touches of their femininity through regular manicures, retail therapy and dreams of marriage and raising a family. Although they are friends, there is also a keen sense of rivalry amongst them as they compete to see who is the fastest. But Fares also takes us for a more intimate look at their personal lives and their families, who are supportive of the girls and their ambitions, and gives us some insights into Palestinian culture that we rarely see. Not just a sports documentary, Speed Sisters is also an exploration of gender roles, changing attitudes and society in the Arab world where some freedoms are curtailed.
Revheads will enjoy the adrenaline charged car racing action, the smell of burning rubber. There is some beautiful cinematography from Fares herself and Lucy Martens, that gives us a strong sense of place. We get a glimpse of life in Palestine itself, a troubled city with its military checkpoints, its hideous wall that divides it, the regular patrols of soldiers, and the constant threat of attack and shelling from Israel.
This grim but atmospheric drama about guilt, grief, redemption and revenge, and dysfunctional families marks the feature film directorial debut for Grant Scicluna, whose short film The Wilding has been racking up awards at film festivals around the globe. The film centres around James (played by Reef Ireland, from Scicluna’s The Wilding), who has been incarcerated in juvenile remand centre for his involvement in the drowning death of a young boy ten years earlier. Mystery still surrounds the incident though as the body has never been found and wild rumours circulate about the nature of the crime. Released on parole, James returns to the small town where he lived intent on finding closure. But his presence is not exactly welcomed, and there are some in the town who would prefer the ghosts of the past are never raised again. Downriver is at times a confronting film and there is a strong homoerotic tone to much of the drama. Scicluna avoids the neat resolution, leaving it up to audiences to interpret what happens to some of the characters.
In a role written with him in mind, Ireland has a strong presence, and brings a mix of emotions to his complex and nuanced performance. His character is not that far removed from the one he played in The Wilding. Tom Green (Camp) is also strong as Anthony, a local bad boy and James’ former childhood friend who has his own secrets, while Charles Grounds brings a hint of vulnerability and naivete to his role as Damien, the local gay boy who lives in the same caravan park as James. Veterans Kerry Fox, Robert Taylor and Helen Morse, making a rare film appearance, round out the cast.
The river is a potent metaphor for Scicluna, and has become a metaphor for the destructive power of both nature and man in a number of films from the classic Deliverance through to The River Wild, and here the river has a palpable presence that overshadows events. The film was shot on location around the Warrandyte area in regional Victoria, and Laszlo Baranyai’s evocative cinematography enriches the downbeat material.
MIFF 2015 screens until 16 August 2015. Full schedule and screening times are at the MIFF website
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television