So far my Sydney Film Festival viewing has taken me to foreign places - Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, and now Portugal (with flashbacks to Mozambique) and the Philippines. The places have been 'foreign' at a deep level. Not only are these films about places other than Australia, but they've been non-Anglophone films about marginalised or otherwise non-mainstream groups within those countries - high-security prisoners in Italy, shepherds in Switzerland, the Romani in Hungary, the Portuguese colonisers in Angola and Muslim separatists in the Philippines. So the festival is providing what I prize most - glimpses of other cultures from unexpected viewpoints. None of the films I've seen has been brilliant (with the possible exception of the Italian 'Caesar Must Die') but all have been made by directors who passionately wish to tell us something, rather than produce a formulaic block-buster.
Monday's program included the Portuguese film, Tabu, which is part of the official competition program. The film begins in modern-day Lisbon with an imperious elderly woman who has lost her money at the casino, a dedicated though uncommunicative black maid and a kindly, concerned neighbour. When the old woman dies, a letter is discovered to a lover from her past, and the now elderly ex-lover attends her funeral and tells the story of their adulterous love for one another (tabu) while colonists in Mozambique. Rather disingenuously, the director said in introducing the film that he discovered only after completing it that he had made a film about memory and forgetting. Given my interest in the aftermath of colonisation, and the whole theme of the chanciness of memory I would have liked this film to be much better. The director used too many distancing techniques to make the film easily appealing - the rather fuzzy black-and-white filming; lots of voice-over recounting; sections like a silent movie with no sound at all (a bit puzzling as even the flashbacks weren't set in the silent movie era); and some stagily wooden acting. In summary, the content has great potential; the realisation was disappointing. 2.5 out of 5.
Then there was Captive, Brillante Mendoza's film of kidnap and ransom and Muslim separatists in the Philippines. I like this film a great deal, though I note it has received some luke-warm reviews elsewhere. The film is a French-Philippines co-production. This is a very straight-forward film based, often literally, on a real event in 2001 - 2002. A group of tourists is captured from a tourist resort in Palawan and then taken a vast distance by small boat to Mindanao - the southern island of the Philippines where there is a long-standing war between the Philippines government and Muslim separatists. Gradually some members of the group are released for ransoms, and others held for more than a year as the governments of their country do not allow the payment of ransom. The group is moved constantly around the hinterland, hiding from the Philippine military and other local militias, and at one stage coming under siege while hiding in a local hospital alongside horrified patients. Everybody in the Philippines will tell you that in such situations you have to fear rescue by the Philippine military, which has a dreadful record of civilian deaths in such situations, as much as you fear your captors, who also can be merciless. This film has few depths, but the situation itself provides drama and tension, and it never falls into stereotypes of either the captors or the captives. My son's partner comes from this area of the Philippines and my son has recently spent time there as well. Kidnap is a real fear, so perhaps I have a special emotional investment in this film. 3.5 out of 5.