Give us the flicks

Aus­tralian film fes­ti­vals are about art rather than busi­ness, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Mark Jud­dery

EVER since the Lu­miere brothers staged the first one in Monaco in 1898, film fes­ti­vals have been a mixed bag. At their best they show­case new di­rec­tions in cin­e­matic art. But Europe’s big three fes­ti­vals — Cannes, Venice and Ber­lin — have be­come in­dus­try events where mem­bers of the pub­lic visit just to gawk at the Hol­ly­wood stars.

The Cannes film fes­ti­val, which brought the world’s at­ten­tion to such gems as La Dolce Vita and The Wages of Fear , now wins its head­lines for pre­mieres ( and cam­paign launches) of Hol­ly­wood block­busters such as Star Wars: Episode III and The Da Vinci Code . Net­work­ing is done, con­tracts are signed, and peo­ple walk out of films they like so they can sign up the lead­ing lady be­fore some­one beats them to it.

In con­trast, the main rea­son for go­ing to one of Aus­tralia’s film fes­ti­vals is for the pe­cu­liar prac­tice — are you ready for this? — of watch­ing movies. Our fes­ti­vals are about art rather than busi­ness.

For­get the stargaz­ing. While Cannes may have Natalie Port­man or Tom Hanks, last month’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val had the emerg­ing Dutch di­rec­tor Nanouk Leopold and Egyp­tian screen­writer Wahid Hamed. ( OK, Cate Blanchett showed up, but she goes to ev­ery­thing in Syd­ney.) The up­com­ing Melbourne and Bris­bane fes­ti­vals will have a sim­i­lar dearth of Hol­ly­wood stars.

And fair enough. Our fes­ti­vals are an an­ti­dote to all those Hol­ly­wood movies. The Melbourne pro­gram, for ex­am­ple, has more than 200 new fea­ture films. As only 300 films are given gen­eral re­lease in Aus­tralia each year, that’s a lot to pack into 19 days.

But un­like the pro­gram at your lo­cal Hoyts, th­ese films come from ev­ery­where: Ice­land, Pales­tine, Paraguay, even a few from Aus­tralia.

In this writer’s ex­pe­ri­ence, it helps to read care­fully through each film syn­op­sis. If you’re plan­ning your fes­ti­val around pro­found films about the hu­man con­di­tion, you may be sur­prised by The Ad­ven­ture of Iron Pussy, a Thai spy movie about a kick­box­ing drag queen; or Kidz in da Hood, a Swedish rap mu­si­cal for chil­dren. There’s a world of film out there, and just be­cause it’s not in English doesn’t mean it’s art- house.

Don’t limit your­self to new films. The au­di­ence favourite of Syd­ney 2004 was a re­stored ver­sion of The Sen­ti­men­tal Bloke ( 1919), with live mu­sic. Oldies ( with a few hi- tech bonuses, such as dig­i­tal restora­tion and stereo) are of­ten fes­ti­val high­lights. That’s why they’re called clas­sics.

What­ever you watch, savour the mo­ment. Of the 500 films shown in Syd­ney this year, only 44 have Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tors. The rest may never be seen here again, at least on the big screen.

The best fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ences are those in which you are so ab­sorbed in a movie that you don’t even no­tice your sur­round­ings, es­pe­cially at Syd­ney’s State Theatre, where the seats are fa­mously un­com­fort­able and some­one usu­ally for­gets to turn on the heat­ing.

Bring a woollen coat, you could be there for a while. With an all- ses­sions fes­ti­val pass, you can tech­ni­cally watch up to six fea­ture films a day, pro­vided you ar­rive early enough to start queu­ing. To stay awake, it helps to drink plenty of cof­fee be­tween screen­ings.

If Cannes and other in­dus­try fes­ti­vals are about net­work­ing, Aus­tralia’s are about so­cial­is­ing. Go­ing to the movies has long been one of the most over­rated so­cial out­ings, as ideally it means be­ing very an­ti­so­cial and fo­cus­ing on the screen. Be­tween screen­ings, how­ever, nearby cafes do well, as buffs rush to find a seat so they can dis­cuss films that in­spire more com­men­tary than sim­ply ‘‘ Wow! Awe­some ef­fects!’’.

Fes­ti­val- go­ers will hap­pily chat with strangers who go to the same movies. If you find your­self in this sit­u­a­tion, re­mem­ber that ded­i­cated at­ten­dees are true con­nois­seurs. It’s best not to make com­ments such as, ‘‘ Gee, I didn’t re­alise the French made so many good films.’’ Th­ese peo­ple are ob­ses­sives who are not only familiar with the work of Malian di­rec­tor Ab­der­rah­mane Sis­sako, they can even pro­nounce his name. And you never know who you will meet at a fes­ti­val: Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco at Cannes in 1955.

There can be more on the pro­gram than just films. Syd­ney of­fered Bol­ly­wood dance lessons, a hula party ( os­ten­si­bly to link with the Ja­panese fea­ture Hula Girls , though that was prob­a­bly just an ex­cuse) and other theme par­ties. When not par­ty­ing, pa­trons could at­tend panel dis­cus­sions and live in­ter­views with Leopold.

Most film fes­ti­vals fin­ish with an awards cer­e­mony. Cin­ema is the most over- awarded busi­ness on the planet, and the plethora of film fes­ti­val tro­phies — from the cov­eted Palm d’Or at Cannes to Syd­ney’s Dendy Awards — are among the worst of­fend­ers.

Last week, at the Karlovy Vary In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in the Czech Repub­lic, Danny DeVito re­ceived a spe­cial award for his out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to world cin­ema. Such an award might be­long on the man­tel­piece of Werner Her­zog or Peter Weir, or even Ge­orge Clooney ( if we’re feel­ing gen­er­ous). But DeVito? Hey, we like the guy, but is there any­one left who doesn’t have one of th­ese awards?

Still, as in any awards cer­e­mony, fes­ti­val­go­ers tend to get caught up in the glitz, cheer­ing for ob­scure film­mak­ers as they ac­cept awards for films that no­body can un­der­stand. On clos­ing night in al­most ev­ery fes­ti­val, things sud­denly turn very Hol­ly­wood. Deep down, ev­ery fes­ti­val wants to be Cannes.

Pic­ture: Bob Fin­layson

No Cannes do: Cate Blanchett and Joan Chen at the open­ing of this year’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val

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