Moviehole at the BIFF
13 years ago, our man in LA covered the inaugural Australian film festival, the Brisbane International Film Festival. Now based in LA, he may cover the more glamorous Toronto and Sundance, but on a brief return home, he stopped by the Festival and checked out its highlights during its closing weekend.
It’s been 13 years since the Brisbane International Film Festival was launched here in sunny northern Australia. For those reading this who are geographically challenged, Brisbane is Australia’s third largest capital city, capital of Queensland, the state that houses the likes of the Great Barrier Reef and the Gold Coast. The complete antithesis of Los Angeles which I have called home for the past five years, Brisbane is laid back, relaxed and so much less concerned with the business of film. As much as I love Toronto and Sundance, here, there are no deals being brokered and cell phones in obvious abundance. This is a festival of cinema, from mainstream treasures such as The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, to films from Argentina, Japan, the Czech Republic and beyond, and of course my native Australia, which is strongly represented at this year’s BIFF. Screenings here are packed with die hard film buffs and not an industry rep to b e found, while the films reflect the true multi-culturalism of cinema. Many of the films I’m seeing here have never seen the light of day outside of the Festival circuit, while it is my hope that others will eventually find an audience.
I came from Brisbane’s airport to a gloriously warm winter’s morning, and my first screening was part of BIFF’s children’s series. It was The Flying Classroom from Germany, an endearing look at teachers, friendship and parents. Wonderfully exuberant and sentimental, here is a masterful family film that never insults its audience, captivating adults in the process. A terrifically entertaining work under the imaginative direction of Tony Wigand, from classic author Erich Kastner, who wrote Emil and the Detectives. This story about a troubled and isolated boy who discovers friendship and first love while at a boarding school is a must-see film that deserves a worldwide audience. Touching, funny and gloriously sentimental, films like this are a rarity.
Less likely to be seen as broadly is The Traitors, part of this festival’s Argentinean retrospective and made in 1972. A covert docudrama about trade unionism and politics, the film’s interest is heightened by the disappearance in the late 70s, of its director Raymundo Gleyzer, . A chilling portrait of Central American politics and power, its confusing narrative and lack of clear sense of character, make it relatively inaccessible to mainstream audiences, but those interested in the disturbing history of Argentina during this period, will find the film of interest, though not easy to find.
The Last Life in the Universe from Japan and Thailand, is quietly compelling, if not flawed, as it deals with a suicide-obsessed Japanese man in Thailand, who may or may not have connections with the Yakuza underworld. His tentative relationship with the beautiful Thai girl Noi, herself trying to deal with the tragic death of her sister, changes these characters’ outlook on life. Exquisitely crafted and fascinating as it builds up an intricate portrait of two isolated and nihilistic characters. Both an indelible and subtle love story, and a look at Japanese gangsterism, this is a great film for lovers of stunning, Asian cinema.
But so far, the major highlight of this Festival and the year in general, is the Australian film Somersault. The true definition of great cinema, is the ability of a film to linger with one hours after its conclusion, and this is certainly a film that falls into that category. Set in the NSW wintry town of Jindabyne, the film’s central character is 16-year old Heidi, who runs away from home after her mother catches her in a passionate embrace with the latter’s boyfriend. Alone and desperate for love, Heidi is an adolescent attempting to discover the differences between love and sex, in a world that is perpetually misogynistic and cruel. At its heart, Somersault is an engrossing, powerful human drama, a work of magnificent maturity from first-time feature director Cate Shortland. Remember that name: Hollywood will discover her in the foreseeable future. But it’s actress Abbie Cornish whom audiences, critics and Hollywood insiders will soon discover and be awed by. The 21-year old plays the troubled Heidi with subtle sexuality and emotional richness. She is nothing short of extraordinary in one of the top female performances of 2004. Abbie Cornish is well and truly a star in the making. Combined with a haunting musical score by Norman Parkhill and the lush blue hues of rural Australia as captured by brilliant cinematographer Robert Humphries, Somersault is a magnificent and captivating work, that every US distributor reading this should see when it screens at next month’s Toronto Film Festival. For me, this is one of the year’s very best.
Also from Australia and just an impressive is Alkinos Tsilimidos’ exquisitely poetic and all-too-real Tom White. In his bravest performance to date, Colin Friels plays the titular central character, a middle-aged suburban husband and father and modestly successful draughtsman, who suddenly finds himself at an emotional precipice, suffering a severe nervous breakdown. In the process, he abandons his wife and two children and heads for the streets, the very underbelly of society. Along the way he meets an assortment of characters with their own tragic back stories, who collectively help him to reconnect with what he had lost. Not a cheery, escapist film by any means, yet director Tsilimidos, peppers his film with liberal, well-observed pieces of humour, amidst the darkness which pervades Tom White’s existence. Through it all, however, it is the powerful and uncompromising performance of Friels, that remains the heart and soul of this masterwork. American audiences may remember his fleeting Hollywood career, as the villain in Darkman, amongst others, but here in Australia, Colin has carved out a respectable career on stage and screen, but this is the performance of a lifetime, and one bound to garner him every award and accolade available. Friels’ supporting cast is also a reminder of the pool of talent available here, from the beautiful and haunting presence of Loene Carmen [The Year my Voice Broke] as an ex-drug addict and fair worker who falls in love with the enigmatic Tom, to the magnificent Bill Hunter [Muriel’s Wedding] astonishing here, as another homeless character who befriends Tom. Tom White is an emotionally truthful film about one man’s journey of self-discovery, beautifully realised and impeccably acted. While there are no release plans outside of Australia at time of writing, watch out for this original and deeply affecting work.
The Netherlands’ Shouf Shouf Habibi, was the first film to successfully topple the last Lord of the Rings as number one at the box office, and understandably so. A classic tale of second generation adolescents at odds with conventional culture, is nothing new, except in this case, we see the often comic complications of Moroccan teens, living in Holland, trying to escape family tradition. From the second son, an aspiring actor and some time failed criminal, to the beautiful daughter interested in fashion, through to the youngest son, who consistently bribes his brazen sister. Only the eldest son, a ;policeman, appears to be fully respectable, so the old Moroccan father thinks. Combining farce with family drama, Shouf Shouf Habibi, is a very commercial, fun-filled pic, containing appealing performances. It’s a conventional, old-fashioned work, but aimlessly and sporadically entertaining.
The final film in BIFF’s children film series, was Canada’s The Blue Butterfly, gracefully directed by the often wonderful Lea Pool. Based on a true story, the film tells of a terminally ill young boy who persuades a very reluctant etymologist [a nice turn by William Hurt] to take him to the South American jungles in search of a magical blue butterfly. This is a simple, very mainstream but charming and touching tale, brought cinematically to life by a talented director, who has crafted an old-fashioned fable on fulfilling your dreams and the search within for a magical existence. Highly sentimental, The Blue Butterfly has every potential to gain a wide, commercial release prior to its release on cable and DVD. Hauntingly eloquent and visually lush, this is lovely, finely executed piece of entertainment for kids of all ages.
I was prepared for instant depression when it came to my final screening at the Festival. Again from Australia, this time a truly magnificent documentary: The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face, which won Best Documentary at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Films that deal with rape fall into the trap of being polemic and narrow focussed, but not this extraordinary film. Essentially, the film follows director Cathy Henkel’s mother’s painful process of recovery from a vicious sexual attack by someone who ‘looked such a nice boy’, an attack that took place in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve in the late 1980s. We also witness her filmmaker daughter’s dangerous mission, seeking justice for her mother many years after the alleged cover-up of the attack. The mother, Laura Henkel, suffered both ghastly physical injuries, which damaged her face virtually beyond recognition, and deep psychological scars that involved her becoming introverted and severely traumatised. One telling factor was that people had accused her at the time of ‘bringing it on herself’. Henkel’s masterful film is one that takes the audience on a mesmerising journey faced by these two indomitable women craving justice and apologies. It also explores the horrendous sexual abuse plague that continues to sweep through post-Apartheid South Africa. Both men and women cannot help but be moved and infuriated by the events of Cathy’s often searing, harrowing and personal masterpiece. The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face is not a film that you expect. It is a courageous, optimistic and powerfully uplifting film. Australians can see it soon on ABC television, while Americans can soon catch it on the Sundance Channel or a future film festival. This was a stunning finale to my BIFF experience.
While it is prestigious to cover festivals such as Toronto and Sundance, returning to Brisbane after 7 years, reminded me of why I became a film journalist in the first place: for the sheer love of movies. Small ones, big ones, comedy or drama, the cinema is a reflection of our wants and ideals. The Brisbane International Film Festival is all about the movies, and it remains a casual, relaxed event, where audiences passionately argue and applaud. So if you happen to be in Australia late July or early August, come on by, they’d love to have you. As I prepare to wing my way back to Los Angeles, preparing for the hustle and bustle of Toronto, I will look forward to returning to BIFF.