Give us the flicks
Australian film festivals are about art rather than business, writes
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.
No Cannes do: Cate Blanchett and Joan Chen at the opening of this year’s Sydney Film Festival