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All the right moves

Dan Edwards


Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways
As I spent a week moving between the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) and the Adelaide Film Festival, the contrast between the 2 events became stark. While AIDC was all money, funding structures, frenzied networking and industry talk, the AFF was unabashedly a cultural event, complete with gala opening, premieres and international guests. In initiating the festival in 2003, SA Premier Mike Rann set out to differentiate the event from others here and overseas with a film investment fund, allowing the AFF to help produce as well as screen new works. This lent an extra charge to opening night, as the festival unveiled the first feature film made partly with AFF money.

Look Both Ways

Look Both Ways is the debut feature from Sarah Watt, previously known for her darkly original animated shorts. Set in Port Adelaide, the film revolves around the mysterious death of a young man under a train. Rather than constructing a tight linear narrative, Watt’s story follows various characters as they orbit around the man’s death, creating a snapshot of life in an Australian suburban milieu. The camera lingers on the streets, parks and wastelands that characterise the edge of all Australian cities, capturing the sense of Port Adelaide as an in-between zone that’s neither white picket fence suburbia nor dense urban space. The characters also convey a sense of being caught ‘in-between’, trapped in a position of stasis in their private lives and careers.

Look Both Ways is also notable for a degree of formal innovation, with Watt’s background evident in brief passages of animated watercolour fantasies bursting forth from the mind of one of the protagonists. The meditative pace is further punctuated by sequences of rapid fire editing unleashing impressionistic flashbacks. Watt’s mixed approach to film form, the nuanced performances and wholly convincing dialogue make for a quietly evocative film that manages to depict contemporary Australians without ever lapsing into crudely drawn stereotypes.

Documentary

The opening night of the AFF also saw Australian documentary auteur Dennis O’Rourke presented with the Don Dunstan Award for his outstanding contribution to the Australian film industry. Landmines–A Love Story, his latest account of a personal encounter with the world’s dispossessed, premiered at the festival (see p25). The AFF’s other key documentary debut was Cathy Henkel’s I Told You I was Ill: Spike Milligan. As one of the AFF Investment Fund recipients, Henkel’s film received considerable hype and the premiere was a festive affair, with Mike Rann and members of Milligan’s family on hand to introduce the film before a capacity crowd.

I Told You I was Ill was an enjoyable and intimate portrait of the Milligan clan, but I was less convinced it fulfilled Henkel’s promise to "show us a side of Milligan we have never seen before." The extensive home movie footage was fascinating, but the film as a whole revealed little about the comic that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and the use of animated characters drifting across screen during interviews came over as twee rather than Milliganesque. In the midst of festival fever it was hard to judge the extent to which the film suffered from over-promotion; one of the dangers of an investment fund is the enormous weight of expectation placed on the festival products. In fairness to Henkel, it must also be said that an unfortunate technical problem meant only part of the soundtrack was audible at the debut.

On the international documentary front, one of the most remarkable films was Kim Dong-won’s 3 hour epic Repatriation, detailing the fate of "unconverted" North Korean spies living in South Korea. The film’s subjects were imprisoned in the early 1960s and endured harsh conditions until released in the early 1990s during South Korea’s transition to a civilian government. With no access to support or medical services, and cut off from their homeland, the North Koreans eked out an existence performing menial jobs. When one of them moved into Kim Dong-won’s neighbourhood, the filmmaker began recording their interactions, and the ex-spy introduced him to a wide network of comrades trapped south of the border.

Repatriation is part verité study of individuals caught in the currents of history and part cinematic essay on the tragic history of modern Korea. Having been raised on a diet of rabid anti-communism, Kim initially finds the ex-spies’ devotion to North Korea simultaneously puzzling, endearing and disturbing. Their refusal to countenance talk of North Korean atrocities is troubling, but their treatment by South Korea is hardly an advertisement for capitalist ‘freedom.’ In extended interviews they detail the brutal torture they endured in prison as authorities tried to forcibly convert them. Kim tracks down ex-prisoners who did renounce communism, and in contrast to the proud "yet-to-be-converted" (South Korea’s term for recalcitrant prisoners), finds them deeply traumatised by their betrayal of the socialist cause. Ironically, Kim also finds himself persecuted by South Korean police for talking to the former spies; at one point his office is raided and all footage is confiscated.

Far from being brainwashed ideologues, the ex-spies come across as men of principle, deeply committed to socialist ideals and genuinely distressed by the selfish competitiveness of South Korean society. Their desire to return home was so strong that I found myself dreading the deep disappointment, disillusionment and possible persecution that they would surely endure if repatriated. Eventually they are allowed to return home during a brief period of détente at the turn of the decade, and Kim attempts to visit North Korea to report on their fate. An opportunity to visit Pyongyang as part of a delegation covering official celebrations does arise, but he is prevented from leaving Seoul by South Korean authorities–he is still under investigation for his contact with the North Koreans. A friend is able to make the journey and bumps into the ex-spies as they are being transported to partake in the celebrations. They appear radiantly happy and in markedly better health than the aged, harassed figures we see earlier in the film. The work’s most poignant moment sees one of the men speaking directly to camera, declaring Kim Dong-won to be like a son. "I miss you" he says. In this one scene the entire tragedy of the Korean peninsular falls into focus; like Kim, we feel the yawning chasm of political, cultural, and military barriers separating us from men we have come to know. Repatriation achieves a compassionate humanism without ever sidestepping the complex cultural and ideological divisions that plague post-war Korea.

Machuca

An historical theme was also evident in one of the festival’s feature film highlights: Andres Wood’s Machuca. Dramatising life in Chile’s capital in the months leading up to, and immediately following, the bloody coup of September 11 1973 that deposed Salvador Allende’s elected government, Machuca captured the sense of unrest that characterised the period, and the disquiet Allende’s empowerment of the poor caused Chile’s middle-class. It also doesn’t shy away from portraying the middle class’ complicity in fostering the air of reaction that led to the coup.

Machuca does not, however, demonise the wealthy, nor canonise the poor. One of the film’s most revealing aspects is the middle-class horror at the brutality of the military crackdown when it finally happens, and the extent to which all Chileans suffered under the repression. The film’s portrayal of military violence was a surprise given the still-contested nature of the period in Chile itself. Machuca was Chile’s biggest ever domestic box office hit, perhaps signifying the country is ready to begin exorcising the lingering trauma of the Pinochet years.

Café Lumiere

Finally, on a more peaceful note, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere provided a centre of calm in the festival. A young woman attempts to locate the spaces inhabited by a Tokyo jazz musician of the 1920s which have long since been erased by bombs and redevelopment. Her friend obsessively travels the Tokyo subway, recording its sounds in order to find the system’s ‘essence.’ Hou constructs a beautiful film about space with minimal dialogue and narrative development, and obsessive framing of the highly urbanised environment through which the characters move. Tokyo becomes a network without beginning or end, in which people’s lives casually intersect and move apart in an endless, seemingly random pattern. An intertitle dedicates the work to Japan’s master of on-screen spatial relations, Yasujiro Ozu.

Festival identity

There were many other gems among the sample of films I caught at the AFF; space precludes mentioning all of them. Director Katrina Sedgwick created an innovative program and has worked hard to give the AFF all the trappings of an international festival. It was deeply refreshing to see Premier Rann not only providing financial backing for an Australian cultural event and the making of films under the festival’s aegis, but also lending support through his enthusiastic presence. However, the fact the festival is so closely identified with Rann raises the question of its fate when the Premier eventually leaves office. If the AFF is to succeed in becoming an important date on the international film calendar it needs the kind of sustained support and investment that has seen Pusan become Asia’s key film festival.


Adelaide Film Festival 2005, Feb 18-March 3

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 21

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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