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try this at home

maija howe welcomes the destination film festival

Maija Howe is working on a PhD on mid-century home movies in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at UNSW.

Two Cars One Night Two Cars One Night
FOR FILM CRITIC AND UBER-CINEPHILE MEGAN SPENCER THERE’S A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HER RECENTLY ESTABLISHED DESTINATION FILM FESTIVAL AND THE FESTIVALS TYPICALLY FRONTING THE NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL CIRCUITS. IT’S A DISTINCTION THAT CAN BE TRACED TO COMPETING PHILOSOPHIES AND CONTRARY AGENDAS, BUT IT IS DESTFEST’S DIVERGENT FOCUS THAT RENDERS THE DIVISION MOST VISIBLE.

Whereas what Spencer refers to as the “big brand film festival” tends—like the cineplex—to favour feature length, industry fashioned and government subsidised films, DestFest opens itself up to audio-visual material that falls outside this somewhat limited scope. The inaugural program turned the spotlight on fields of activity outside industry-dominated spheres of production and distribution, treating Sydney-based cineastes to three afternoons of innovative cinema and engaging panel discussions.

The first two screenings in the festival’s tripartite program were dedicated to the feature film’s less prominent counterpart, the short, with the focus divided between international and Australian works respectively. Given DestFest’s stated predilection for audio-visual material that pushes the envelope, it was fitting that for the International program Spencer showed a collection of shorts from the fourth volume of the pioneering Wholphin series: a quarterly DVD compilation of curios and cutting edge shorts produced by enterprising publishing house McSweeney’s [RT81, p30].

Two Cars, One Night by up and coming New Zealand director Taiki Waititi was entrusted with the dual responsibility of opening the program and charming the pants off festival patrons. Set in the car park of a small town pub, the film revolves around an exchange between three kids left to amuse themselves in their respective family cars while their parents knock a few back in the adjacent pub. What starts as a volley of inquisitive looks between the youngsters escalates fairly quickly into an amusing crossfire of insults between the cars in which they’re housed. Boredom eventually dissolves the de rigueur childhood displays of bravado and boy-girl antagonism though, giving rise to a curious rapport between the film’s central figures.

Two Cars is beautifully shot on monochromatic stock, but arguably what most distinguishes Waititi’s film is that it doesn’t lean on narrative structure, nor a hackneyed punchline format, in order to engage the viewer. What takes centrestage instead is the absorbing dynamic between the film’s three young characters, and it is this peculiarly fraught but nonetheless endearing screen relationship that gives Two Cars its strength.

Heavy Metal Jr Heavy Metal Jr
Chris Waitt’s Heavy Metal Jr. similarly turns the camera on preadolescent subjects, tracking Hatred—a Scottish hard metal band composed of 10 to 15-year-old boys—over the four weeks leading up to their first public performance. Like Two Cars, the strength of Heavy Metal Jr. lies in its intriguing characters and their thoroughly engaging dynamic. What is so compelling about the film is the band’s utter, and highly humorous, incongruity: with their musical genre, their ideal image and their immediate surrounds.

For all their satanic salutes, demonic lyrics and hard core posturing, Hatred’s rosy-cheeked members can’t seem to shed their prepubescent awkwardness nor their innocuousness. It’s a graphic discord aptly captured in the film’s closing scenes when the group finally makes its highly anticipated debut, not to a crowd of rocking thousands as promised by their manager, but to a handful of perturbed pensioners, unimpressed mothers and idol struck pre-teen girls at what turns out to be the local family fun day.

Waitt’s and Waititi’s superb offerings were two of the many in the robust International program that also included works such as the tense High Falls starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, and Lynne Hershman Leeson’s decidedly more sombre Strange Culture, a documentary inquiry into the FBI’s questionable biochemical investigation of artist Steve Kurtz. Cumulatively these distinctive shorts offered a promising start for the newest kid on the festival block, and if post-screening discussions were any indication, the subsequent instalment only lifted the bar.

The second session shifted the festival’s focus to short works produced on Australian shores, and this screening allowed Spencer to flex her curatorial muscle a little more visibly. The result was an incredibly strong and diverse program that surveyed contemporary short film and video production as well as giving a number of older shorts a second life.

One of the more recent works and festival standouts was Nathan Lewis, Jeremy Hyland and Aaron Kiernan’s Hands Hyland, the shamelessly charismatic account of one lad’s attempt to win the affections of his long-time muse. When news of her imminent departure reaches the enamoured suitor—the eponymous Hyland——he sets out on a marathon cross-city quest to intercept his belle.

Hyland’s narrative of longing confers upon it something of a neo-romantic disposition, but it is the piece’s stylistic execution that perhaps most strongly lends the film its particularly heady brand of romanticism. Part of the film’s charm lies in its use of old school devices like trick photography and stop motion animation; techniques that contribute to Hyland’s playful tone and fanciful diegetic world. Together with the film’s low-fi aesthetic and self-reflexive nature, this stylistic playfulness lends Hyland an informality and intimacy that, like Hyland himself, take aim straight at the heart.

Alex Bryant offered a similarly charming and irreverent contribution to the program in Songs in the Key of Death, his epic musical rendering of one man’s existential crisis. Having been informed by his GP that his death is imminent the film’s protagonist is advised to resign himself to the discouraging prognosis; such resolution is necessary, his GP rather curiously opines, in order “to ensure a successful death.” What is prompted by this “final notice”—as Bryant’s ill-fated character describes it—is a reckoning process largely rendered in song in which the damned protagonist attempts to reconcile himself with his impending curtain call.

While it may broach a solemn subject, Songs in the Key of Death refuses to adopt an entirely sombre posture, opting instead to lace its morbid tone with a none-too-subtle dash of the ludicrous. Bryant’s character shimmies and shakes to his pre-mortem meditations on life and death against psychedelic animated backgrounds,as both he and the film express train through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grieving to a soundtrack of folk, avant-garde metal and acid rock.

This peculiar mix of earnestness and jocularity both contributes to the charisma of Bryant’s film and stands as symptomatic of the film’s more general play with, and fusion of, aesthetics, genres, media and moods. Like Hyland, Songs in the Key of Death takes liberties with its representational strategies, and the result is an intriguing and darkly humorous cinematic swan song.

Rather aptly, one of the recurring subjects in the well-represented forums accompanying both of these sessions was the experimental licence afforded by short format works. For many panellists one of the key attractions of the short was precisely the escape it provided from strictures generally associated with subsidised feature length industry productions.

In stark contrast to the advice offered by the founder of one of Sydney’s ‘biggest brand’ short film festivals, quoted as saying of his event “if you want to experiment…it’s better to do that at home”, DestFest’s first two sessions capitalised on the short’s capacity for greater abandon, bringing experimentation forefront and centre stage. Judging by the sizeable crowds in attendance at CarriageWorks it was a move that was both welcome and well-received, suggesting that with Spencer at the helm Destination Film Festival is indeed, if you’ll excuse the pun, going places.


Destination Film Festival, director Megan Spencer, CarriageWorks, Nov 4, Dec 1, 2007

Maija Howe is working on a PhD on mid-century home movies in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at UNSW.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 21

© Maija Howe; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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