It’s been almost three weeks since the festival closed. Over the course of eleven days I took in twenty-seven movies. I’ve allowed the experience to distill. I miss it, like returning from a holiday. Of course, it was a holiday. The number of times I had to remind myself, “It’s okay, I’m on vacation!”
It feels like another life since I was lost in the rain, searching for Temperance Lane and Grasshopper Bar. In eleven days I immersed myself in stories of poverty, war, prostitution, rape, childhood, dance, pollution, philosophy, death, song, religion, crime, murder, infidelity, love, freedom, time travel. I laughed, cried, got bored, enthralled, frustrated, captivated, frightened, tickled, angry.
What was it all about – this crazy adventure? I think I did this primarily for my own education. This wasn’t conscious – I simply wanted to have fun, and more importantly, relax. The idea of sitting in the dark five hours a day for a couple of weeks, phone OFF, problems ignored – was absolutely the incentive. Yes, cinema is an escape. But what form of escape? To hide from my life? Or to wrap myself up in other people’s lives? And what is this thing called ‘entertainment’?
The films I saw, in order, were:
Whores’ Glory, Killing Anna, Utopia, Mabo, Just the Wind, Play it Like Godard, Where Do We Go Now?, Moonrise Kingdom, Before the Revolution, The Spider’s Strategem, Lore, Rampart, Last Tango in Paris, Valley of Saints, Crazy Horse, Woody Allen: A Documentary, Bachelor Mountain, Marley, On the Road, Barbara, Dead Europe, The Loneliest Planet, Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You…, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Side By Side, Safety Not Guaranteed.
I began the adventure thinking I could handle three or four movies a day. And then of course I had my Saturday night meltdown during Rampart and thought it best to stick to perhaps two a day. A movie should be given an afterglow – time to allow it to linger in one’s spirit for hours after. Some captivated me more than others, but I can honestly say I saw nothing that I hated. And believe me, I can hate a film.
As I figure out now what to do with my life, and how to get the time off to devour the Melbourne Film Festival this month, let me leave you with the top five films that resonated for me at the Sydney Film Festival 2012.
5. Valley of Saints (India) Dir: Musa Syeed
Such a simple, beautiful and touching story. Sublime. And the stand-out lead performance of the entire festival from Gulzar Ahmed Bhat. This man had never acted before. Not only that – he has never seen a movie in a cinema! But his gentle, peaceful nature, and an underlying resolve shone through. This is testament to the director, Musa Syeed, with his background in documentaries, who clearly understands what acting on screen is about.
4. Barbara (Germany) Dir: Christian Petzold
This movie is textbook film-making. Pure, pure, pure. Every directing student should study this movie and learn from it. Every shot, every line of dialogue, every moment serves the story. I’m not saying all films should be made like this, but if you want to follow the rules before you break them, here they are, masterfully executed. And a cracking yarn to boot.
3. The Loneliest Planet (USA, Germany) Dir: Julia Loktev
Everything I said about the movie Barbara you can throw out the window here. This breaks all the rules. There’s no story for the first hour. Or should I say, no Robert McKee inciting incident. It looks like it’s shot on a handicam. There’s sequences of twenty minutes with no dialogue. People absolutely loathe this movie. But to say this is a bad movie is a mistake. To each his own, of course. But you have to ask yourself – why watch a sunset when you can watch TV? Is a sunset intrinsically boring? It can be a profound experience. Or if you can’t sit still for five minutes, sunsets suck. So what’s so good about this movie? It’s real. I can’t remember the last time I felt inside of a movie. I sat in the second row of the State Theatre (the screen couldn’t fit in my frame of vision) and I had no expectation of what was going to happen. I wanted to be there, on those mountains, camping, hiking, breathing in that air, being in love. What happens? An engaged couple go on a hiking trip and something goes wrong. The aesthetic of the film is in the natural behaviour of the acting – spontaneous, unselfconscious, banal at times. But faultless. Story must honour aesthetic and vice versa. When behaviour is depicted this authentically, any semblance of plot will smack of contrivance. It is refreshing when a filmmaker has the balls to be hated for the best possible reason – to put humanity and nature at its purest on the screen. Ignore the naysayers and decide for yourself.
2. The Sheltering Sky (UK) Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
On the final day I took myself back to the Art Gallery for a morning screening of Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. I think epics are meant to be seen in the daytime. I remember over the years taking in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Lawrence of Arabia on Sunday afternoons at the Cremorne Orpheum. Coffee in hand, there’s nothing better than to get out of the sun – or hopefully, the rain – and kick off three hours from 2 to 5pm. This is what epics were made for – a throwback to the matinees of the 1950s. But this was ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. There is a feeling in your body at this hour – a little hung over, maybe. It’s snuggle time. And so this is the state of mind and body I was in, looking forward to The Sheltering Sky, and concluding my Bertolucci retrospective. And how was it? Cinema fucking heaven.
OK, let me talk for a minute about The Sheltering Sky. I think it’s Bertolucci’s masterpiece. I had watched over the festival Before the Revolution, The Spider’s Strategem, Last Tango in Paris, and The Last Emperor. I found the early films a little disjointed or in places heavy-handed or self-conscious, but certainly fascinating, as I could see his experimentation and the evolution of his screen voice. The Sheltering Sky was the culmination. It’s the most conventional of his films. He seemed to have done with his experimenting, and was now the assured hand. I sat there transfixed as one perfect scene unfolded to the next. The acting was sublime, script tight, and funny! A delight also to see the young Malkovich. And Debra Winger is wonderful. Ah, Debra Winger, where are you? And then, just when I thought the movie was coming to a satisfying conclusion, it went all weird! We go off on an extra hour-long odyssey into the desert! It becomes The Loneliest Planet. Ha! Bertolucci, you crazy man – conventional mastery changes gears into experimental genius. But so right!
1. Where Do We Go Now? (Lebanon) Dir: Nadine Labaki
This was the film of the festival. A musical comedy that takes on religion and war.
A poor, small village is inhabited by Muslims and Christians. They live together in relative peace. But the men can tend to squabble. And beyond the village there is bloody conflict. The women have all lost either a husband or a son. And they are fed up. Fed up with all the suffering and madness. So they devise an elaborate, and perhaps foolhardy, scheme to deceive the men from fighting once and for all.
Men can be such fools. That is the message of this film. And I take delight in that. We are. Overgrown boys, grasping our pride and conceit, led by our penis and ego.
The whole time watching it, I wondered what country this was. It was pleasing to read later that, although shot and produced in Lebanon, the setting is fictional. There is a fantastical element to this movie. It presents this tone in the stunning opening sequence of the bereaved women engaged in a mesmerising ritualistic dance/march. This film does not denounce religion. Religion and culture and tradition give this movie (and life) such wonderful texture and meaning.
This is an anti-war film. Or rather, a pro-love, pro-life, pro-dance, pro-joy, pro-food, pro-song film. It is unashamedly brash. Its message is loud and clear. And it’s funny as hell. Humour is the biggest weapon there is. And I don’t mean jokes. This is not black comedy. This isn’t M*A*S*H, or Dr Strangelove, or Catch-22. It’s not trying to be ironic. It reminded me more of No Man’s Land and even Life is Beautiful. Black comedy tends to avoid pathos, relying on its wit and edginess. But this movie is all heart. It’s a feminine movie. It’s a scream for peace on earth.
I’m so impressed with what Nadine Labaki has achieved here. It’s brazenly ambitious – to take on such important themes and pull it off with such panache. Magnificent stuff. Makes me cry with joy just thinking about it.
Where Do We Go Now? is in cinemas now.
What was it about these films? There is a human richness, there is a life. There was a zest and humour married to the worlds that they came out of. Almost an inevitability. Maybe this is why Australian films still so often flounder. We too often comment on our culture, and not express that which is born from it. We’ll get there. The rest of the world has a few centuries on us.