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Sydney Film Festival

A diminishing vision

Hamish Ford

According to its recently replaced board of directors, the 52nd Sydney Film Festival was a financial improvement with more sold-out sessions than last year. And the festival did well in procuring new public funding at a time when NSW Government investment in screen culture is conspicuously lacking in preserving Sydney’s arthouse cinemas. Nevertheless, it is clear that of Australia’s major film festivals, Sydney’s is now completely dwarfed not only by Melbourne but also Brisbane and even the new Adelaide event. Its reduced menu (170 films) this year of largely unadventurous fare made clear the festival’s efforts to both cut costs and reduce ‘risky’ selections. Such conservatism not only undermines the cultural capital and historical prestige of the event, it also gives patrons the impression they are seeing the latest in cutting edge world cinema while in fact exponentially lowering both the expectation and the ability of audiences to deal with challenging films. (Audible disapproval greeted some of the more unconventional work this year, mindlessly echoed in the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, with the French film Innocence being jeered for having all its credits at the start—how pretentious!)

A telling sign this year was the lack of a substantial retrospective, which many people saw as a surprise for Lyndon Barber’s first festival as artistic director. I had hoped that the buzz of the extensive Michelangelo Antonioni package last year (most screenings were sold out, and there was a very well attended and lengthy panel session) finally put paid to the theory that Sydney audiences are not interested in large retrospectives of historically influential and demanding filmmakers. Instead, this year we had the latest desperate attempt to pull in a new audience with a series of mainly ‘cult’ music films at the newly sequestered George Street multiplex. This was partially offset by a program of CAAMA (Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association) films at the Dendy Opera Quays featuring substantial follow-up Q&A sessions with key CAAMA figures, making for a fine addition to the festival (see RT 67, p19). Irrespective of merit, such sessions as these should occur in addition to, not as replacements for, big historical retrospectives of key world cinema practitioners.

There were naturally some real gems in the program. The Vietnamese film Bride of Silence (Doan Minh Phuong & Doan Thanh Nghia) was probably my pick of the festival, starting with Rashomon-style multiple accounts of a young woman’s fate after refusing to name the father of her illegitimate child, this before an extraordinary opening out of time and space in the film’s richly symbolic second half. The first-time German feature The Forest for the Trees (Maren Ade) was a compelling low-budget DV-shot film about a young school teacher who tries too hard to fit into a small town (ending up spying on another woman whom she desperately wants to befriend), before a remarkable ending that casts the drama in much starker philosophical terms of responsibility and freedom.

In the Battlefields (Danielle Arbid) was a fascinating account of the effect of Lebanon’s civil war from inside a dysfunctional family, the camera relentlessly but poetically charting social and material decay. While Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) was derided as much for its openly mysterious set up—a series of country mansions in a large, walled park in which young girls are benignly kept prisoner—as for its credits, I greatly enjoyed the film’s formal bravura and thematic meditation on power, complicity, cultural indoctrination and ‘safe’ enclosure. Even worse treatment was handed out to another French film, almost a third of the audience loudly tramping out of Half-Price (Isild Le Besco) which, despite its untutored DV aesthetic, is really an anti-realist piece about identity and consciousness, relaying the escapades of 3 children left home alone in Paris. A highlight of the documentaries on offer for me was Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond for its light-yet-profound Germanic meditations on sublime nature and colonial Europe as we follow the travails of an English scientist-inventor determined to use his re-designed airship to float through the last earthly frontier, the canopies of Central America.

While enjoying these and other films, I was far from alone in my general disappointment with the festival, even taking into account the myriad pressures involved in keeping the event afloat. There has never been a bleaker time for the screening of non-Hollywood cinema in Sydney, with the Valhalla in Glebe and the Chauvel in Paddington (which housed Sydney’s cinematheque) now closed; and for once, Melbourne cannot be smug, with the demise of the Astor and Lumiere cinemas. While the new cinematheque venue in Brisbane and ACMI in Melbourne couldn’t survive without guaranteed public funding, in cosmopolitan Sydney (where the traditional ‘high’ arts receive consistent government assistance) the exhibition side of film culture is left to sink or swim in the hostile waters of the market.

Considering this bleak climate, and its success in snaring rare additional government funding, the Sydney Film Festival now assumes even more responsibility for bringing local filmgoers the most important and celebrated international filmmaking. On any real account the festival is seriously reneging on this crucial role. For years now Sydney has been consistently denied internationally lauded cinema from Asia (this year again commercial Hong Kong action films dominated), or the most important work from Iran—according to substantial critical consensus the most important filmmaking nation of the last decade or more. If you asked the average subscriber relying on the festival to keep up to date with internationally celebrated ‘art cinema’ what they thought of Abbas Kiarostami, many patrons would understandably be unable to answer. To my knowledge, none of his films since Taste of Cherry in 1998 have been shown—something akin to a film festival in the 60s continually ignoring the work of Antonioni, Godard or Bergman. Judging by the festival over recent years, one would never know Kiarostami is critically regarded as the most important filmmaker working today (a 2000 poll of international critics voted him ‘best director’ of the 1990s). The comparison with Melbourne here is stark: when the festival had a mini-Kiarostami retrospective last year (the director himself was present, introducing screenings and participating in an excellent, packed forum) some audience members complained of over familiarity!

In addition to alienating serious film viewers (who are increasingly resorting to other festivals and DVDs to keep up to date), and giving regular subscribers a skewed sense of cutting-edge world cinema, the Sydney festival seems to presume that a perennially sought ‘new audience’ is incapable of engaging with challenging films. Having participated in screenings of very challenging cinema beyond the official film culture circuit which are extremely well attended by an under-35 audience, as well as teaching undergraduate film studies for 10 years, it seems to me that the festival’s conservativism reflects the populist and middlebrow assumptions and/or mellowing tastes of the demographic that makes up its management, rather than any insight into what appeals to younger film lovers. Its misguided efforts to lure a new generation notwithstanding, the Sydney Film Festival remains a middle-aged and middle-of-the-road event indeed.

See for Ford’s detailed response to SIFF.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 22

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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