Bob Ellis’ Rough Cut: An excellent Syd Film Fest

We are forbidden urination after a three-hour film and herded bursting out into the rain and pushed in front of speeding traffic by big Tongan guardians of the Red Carpet while inside, in the ever-gorgeous art-deco foyer, barmen and pie vendors gazed on its lovely emptiness planning their bankruptcies and other careers and cursing, like all of us, the Clare Stewart Effect on world cinema.

Audiences entering successive sessions without hellish incident these last 113 years have not educated this woman; clamour, ticketless offices, caffeine deprivation, pissed trousers and lack of a chance to chat between sessions (or even sit on the marble steps) have characterised her Cromwellian rule for years now and several deaths, I calculate, from the pelting rain and it is wrong for her to preen her ghastly dress sense in golden spotlight just because certain films from overseas arrived in her projection box on time and in focus once a year. It is no great shakes as an achievement; the Dendy does it once a week and admits without incident its festival mobs with eased bladders into its masterpieces without riot, affray or altercation while up at the State incensed multitudes baying for coffee, admission and conversation push like revolutionaries at the gate of the Bastille in vain, always in vain.

As usual, though, many films were excellent and some great. A documentary on Glenn Gould, chronicling his growing cantankerous madness in public, private and self-directed footage heretofore unseen. A documentary on Joan Rivers and her efforts to find work as a foul-mouthed cabaret strumpet-comic in her seventy-fifth year. A documentary on Dan Ellsberg, the principled Washington bureaucrat whose revelation of the Pentagon Papers drove Nixon out of office and wrecked forever America’s trust in its rulers, including an audiotape of Nixon proposing to nuke Vietnam and Kissinger wincing. ‘Think big, Henry,’ the drunken First Magistrate raucously jokes, or does he.

An extraordinary warfront film called Restrepo which follows a platoon of young American soldiers into eastern Afghanistan where some of them die in battle in front of us and the others grieve and carry on. Most telling is a conversation between a young officer and ten saurine centenarians with knee-length beards he is promising ‘progress’, ‘development’ and ‘modern improvements’ to an Old Testament way of life they are not keen to change. And an even more astonishing chronicle, Mugabe and the White African, of the old monster’s persecution and murder of white farmers and the efforts of one of them, seventy-five-year-old Michael Campbell, to challenge this unfairness in African courts while thugs wreck his property and beat to a pulp his lawyers and relatives.

Cane Toads - The ConquestThis brings me to Cane Toads: The Conquest, Mark Lewis’s 3D revisiting of his wellbeloved squat bogeymen whom he teaches us to love, abhor and fear as elsewhere we do the Gremlins, Frankenstein’s monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. His comic sensibility, like that of John Clarke, is both tender and sadistic: thus the toad is sometimes a loveable visitant like ET, and sometimes a noisome pestilence rightly gassed in wriggling sugarbags and laid out in thousands for mass burial. Somehow it all works – as Chaplin comedy, Hitchcock suspense, ecological paranoia and Homeric 3D odyssey from Cairns to Broome. This is a master of world cinema, preposterously underemployed.

I missed many of the red-carpet features through my own foolishness and Clare’s punitive prohibitions (no entry on rainy nights before the celebrities, no Festival Bar before five, no refreshment upstairs or seating downstairs, no buzz, no joy), yet managed, in a tumbling abundance, to see good films. Cairo Time, a holiday-near-romance film about a diplomat’s wife (the ever splendid Patricia Clarkson) awaiting her husband’s return from strife-torn Gaza and amusing herself (and researching an article or two) in the mannerly company of Tarek, a handsome, thoughtful younger aide (Alexander Siddig) who shows her a beautiful sombre city and scares her now and then (as she yearns for his touch) with his Muslim chauvinist sensibility.

Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, by contrast, explores with love and wit the Catholic sensibility among pilgrims and their faith-managers in a town of rumoured miracles wondering why it is not their turn this time. A terminal blonde quadriplegic in a wheelchair, Christine (Sylvie Testud), meets many shades of faith and suffers, to her companions’ chagrin, what seems for a time a genuine miracle. The amused but respectful delicacy with which all this Disneyfied superstition is portrayed and somehow applauded is a small, blithe wonder of modern French cinema.

Moloch Tropical by Raoul Peck is, like Act 5 of Richard III, a guess at the blood-drenched lineaments of crumbling dictatorship. It is Haiti, 2005, and Jean de Dieu, a mocked and tottering leader based half on Jean-Bertrand Aristide and half on former Haitian mobster Henri-Christophe, is having a bad day. The invited ambassadors to the national celebration are sending their regrets. The female staff are rejecting his advances. The chancellery is bankrupt. His old mentor, under torture, is refusing to confess his treachery and goes to his flaming necklace sneering. The end of the world may be near, a world that will not hail him as Messiah. Like Ionescu’s Exit the King and Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui the film has preposterous, farcical ingredients that do not always succeed; or fail. The result is a not-unimpressive, but half-cocked thing. One could say I suppose that once Downfall, a perfect, factual film on the selfsame subject has been made, one would be foolish to attempt the subject fictionally. A game try nonetheless, and an impressive act of vengeance by Aristide’s former Minister for Culture; the Paris-based ex-President’s opinion is not known.

A different kind of ignorant brutality is explored in Lebanon, a war film as impressive as The Hurt Locker, set inside a tank. Based on Samuel Maoz’s own deeds as a soldier during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it uses the wonderful device of the tank gunner’s periscope to show us no more than the soldiers know as they enter a blitzed village, kill civilians, get lost, blow up the wrong targets, quarrel, sweat and pray in their confined, grimy hell not knowing which minute will be their last. Made with German, French and Israeli money, it will remain like Platoon and Pork Chop Hill a classic small sample of a particular war.

Another war film, Home by Christmas, is as good as its Australian equivalent Newsfront. Newsreel, reinactment and reinacted reminiscence by an old soldier mingle beautifully in Gaylene Preston’s fond memoir of her father Ed who left Greymouth, New Zealand, for a bigger world, the Desert War and a year as a POW and an escapee on the run from pursuing Nazis while his wife Tui had his baby and then went off with another bloke, and came home and somehow sorted things out. Gaylene’s daughter Chelsea plays her grandmother Tui and Tony Barry her grandfather Ed in a performance as great as any I have seen in cinema.

Ed’s decency, evasiveness, physical courage, male chauvinism, provincial deviousness, low-level racism and generous humanity are kept in perfect balance in what I understand were improvised monologues based on research and coaching. Here we have, as we did with Bill Hunter in Newsfront, Antipodean Man, impeccably distilled in his early twentieth century incarnation, and we may not see his like again. That he looks exactly like my father struck me, if not others, powerfully, and his channelling of a generation almost gone from us now.

The film over-emphasised the Home Front perhaps, for budget reasons no doubt (there is a good deal of baby-minding, postcard-reading, and washed nappies on the Hill’s Hoist, and fewer tank battles in the desert, escapes from shipwreck and journeys through the Alps than we might prefer), but it will go in New Zealand’s photo album as the story of a white tribe in a heroic decade, told for all time.

A further story of wrestling with the past is Wang Quanan’s Apart Together which concerns the momentous reunion of a married couple parted by the Taiwan-Beijing civil war and their vacillating desire to remarry with her complaisant second husband’s kind permission. A sullen Chekhovian aftertaste attends her ‘modern’ children’s fury at his capitalist wealth and selfish presumption (‘Now his wife is dead, of course he wants another’), the bureaucratic farce of a swift divorce, the tug of loyalty (and habit) she feels for the stoic second husband quite prepared to let her go, the fuming resentment of the middle-aged son her first husband left behind, and the catastrophic demolition of an old neighbourhood way of life by the ‘modernising’ skyscraper-builders of Shanghai.

A new Ozon film, The Refuge, maintains his usual impressive standard and concerns an enigmatic young woman, Mousse (Isabel Belle Carré), who survives a heroin overdose that kills her lover, finds herself pregnant, refuses his wealthy mother’s offer of an abortion, dries out and in a stone cottage in the country pensively awaits the birth. Her dead lover’s brother, hitherto unknown to her but resembling the dead man in some ways, turns up to visit her and for various reasons, one of them poverty, stays. She is warming to their inevitable close contact and marriage to him perhaps when he proves to be homosexual and noisily thumping rough trade in the spare room. And the pregnancy grows.

Funny and moving and toying with tragedy, it never leaves the real world or flirts with fantasy (as some lesser Ozon fables do) or a sentimental rom-com ending. In a less rich age it would be a classic.

So too (almost) would Creation, John Collee’s and John Amiel’s meditation on Charles Darwin’s private life in the years he took to write his world-changing book. A religious wife, a beloved, brilliant, dead little daughter, persistent illness, laudanum, quarrels with his vicar (an unrelenting Jeremy Northam), guilt at a near- incestuous marriage to his first cousin (counting three dead children thus far, perhaps for this obvious genetic reason) all plague his sensitive, self-doubting middle age. Paul Bettany and his wife Jennifer Connelly play the unhappy couple with tremendous marital feeling and Martha West his dead daughter Annie, a glad ghost who haunts and perkily questions him.

And here lies the film’s narrow failure. Annie is an acceptable figment of Darwin’s laudanum-nourished imagination, but in the very last shot of the film we see her back on following her parents across the fields towards the house. She has become at last an objective being, a visitant from the very afterlife Charles Darwin has just, along with God, disproved. This decision by the director, bitterly contested by his writer, dismantles in a single shot the historical reality we are in (is this about the man who changed the world? or a presumptuous little ghost?), and it’s a pity.

Another film more comprehensively destroyed is Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a documentary account, with retrieved footage, of the ego-trip that brought on the great French auteur’s heart attack and professional ruin three weeks into the wasteful shoot of a story still chaotic in his mind. He had an unlimited budget, fantasy elements, an obsessed jealous-husband storyline, a tempestuous actor on the brink of resignation and worse, a scenic lake that was due to be drained –forever — in twenty-eight days’ time.

Surviving actors and crew members recount the mounting panic as Clouzot (not unlike his Pink Panther namesake) grows madder and madder and his gorgeous star Romy Schneider (first seen manacled nude to a railway track while a big steam train, a real one, approaches her with steam-squirting menace) more pissed off. Like Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Baz’s Australia it shows the foolishness of unlimited budgets on far locations and the sleepless paranoia that waits on even the mildest-mannered auteurs when the planets line up against them.

Not quite as good as Divided We Fall but in the league, Jon Hrebek’s new meditation on tyranny’s backwash Kawasaki’s Rose (inspired, it is said, by The Lives of Others) explores the tangled conscience of Pavel, an eminent Czech psychiatrist who is getting a prize for his brave work in the anti-Stalinist resistance. His despised mediocre son-in-law Ludek is making a documentary about him and uncovers plausible evidence of his betrayal to the authorities of a friend (now in exile in Sweden) and the theft of his woman. A rounded portrayal of all the characters and a pilgrimage to Sweden of mother and daughter to make amends to the wronged exile for his ill-lost years impel a moving conclusion after the honour ceremonies when the old friends meet: to understand is to forgive, as Ben Chifley used to say. But in the wake of a police state, there is always too much to forgive.

Forgiveness is not a big priority of The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island, an autumnal portrait of the old age on a beautiful island of the young idealists who once, on the Rainbow Warrior, faced down and ended nuclear testing in the Pacific, though the French secret service blew up their ship and killed one of them, long ago. Film of their heroic maritime courage when young and their settled gloom when old, making jam and growing vegetables in a solemn, saddened afterlife, has an Ancient Mariner feel to it, and moves us more than we would expect.

The Oath, about Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard Abu Jandal and his various trials and eventual release from Gitmo and his current after-life, is a remarkable picture of US notions of justice. For betraying al-Qaeda and speeding the victory in Afghanistan he is released from Gitmo and faces, now, mortal danger at home. And so it goes. His story is very sympathetic and Laura Poitros’s access to him remarkable, and perilous to her survival too.

A Graham Shirley retrospective of the work of the esteemed documentarist Cecil Holmes showed, alas, how dreadful his two feature films were: Captain Thunderbolt (drawn from the life of my fifth cousin, Fred Ward), whose mutilated celluloid remnants look like a lesser Randolph Scott western, and Three In One whose final episode, The City, is as misjudged a piece of saccharine pretension as I’ve seen. A grave disappointment, best kept unrevealed.

Much I missed I’m told was very good – Ordinary People about a firing squad, Red Hill an Australian western, Exit Through The Gift Shop, a meditation on street artists, Shirley Barrett’s new film South Solitary and Murnau’s aged Nosferatu and Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. One I did see, Mammuth, with Gerard Depardieu, obese and unbelievably ugly as a retired slaughterhouse worker attempting to satisfy the French bureaucracy with a road trip on a shuddering motorbike to his former places of employment and his former girlfriends (and boyfriends), has resonances of both Easy Rider and Little Miss Sunshine and is very good indeed.

The film I liked most at the Festival, though, and one I now judge as the best war film I’ve ever seen, was City of Life and Death about the Nanking massacre of 1937. In that best of narrative media, widescreen black and white, we see people we have come to know well before firing squads or machine guns or falling in heaps before open graves or bargaining to save their loved ones and sometimes succeeding. In its most moving sequence, girls put up their hands to become Comfort Women and go off to this vile, disgusting, uniquely female martyrdom to save their relatives from execution. We see their naked corpses in wheelbarrows later, coming home.

This is an astounding film, its hero John Rabe, a sensitive elderly Nazi diplomat who declared for a time a ‘security zone’ for sick and female refugees and saved many lives. The writer-director-producer Lu Chuan must now take his place alongside Eisenstein and Kurosawa and Jeremy Sims on cinema’s war film Olympus.

So: an excellent Film Festival in a way, I suppose. But God curse Clare Stewart and all who sail in her.


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