It's that time of year. The Sydney Film Festival.
The SFF gives me such pleasure. It's an opportunity to immerse myself in films for 10 days or so, indiscriminately overloading on ideas and images and world views. It's rather like visiting the great museums of the world and having the opportunity to 'get your eye in'; to see relationships and trends and influences and begin to make judgements about what's good and what's less satisfying.
I'm more than halfway through the Festival and have seen about a dozen films. Choosing the films to see is always a bit chaotic, determined by convenience and availability as well as what appeals from the brief introductions and descriptions. This year the choices have been so much easier because I've not had to fit my film-going around work commitments, though I think I rather miss the rush and bustle of previous years as I fitted film viewing around the busyness of my work life. I'm already wondering how I managed it!
For the past few years I've written posts with brief reviews of the films I've seen. For whatever reasons, this year I decided not to do so. It's not that the films have been less interesting or stimulating, and I am rather regretting my decision because writing about a film, however briefly, does push me to think more deeply about my responses. However, there are a couple of films I do want to mention. I'm mainly a fiction reader and a 'fiction' film viewer, but this year at the Festival I've chosen to see quite a few documentaries and two of them, in particular, have so far provided my best viewing experiences.
Long-term British film-maker Ken Loach has made The Spirit of 45 - a film about the hopes and realities of achieving a more equitable society in Britain in the aftermath of World War II. Loach has no intention of disguising his left-wing political affiliation, and in this documentary he is (as ever) brilliantly empathic and able to evoke the emotional impact of political choices. The film intercuts evocative and apposite historical documentary footage with interviews. Loach is served so well by the people he has chosen to interview, mainly articulate working class people now in their 80s and 90s. Some of the most moving parts of the film are recollections of people who survived the horrors of childhood in pre-war slums in Britain, and then strove, passionately, to better their world after fighting in the second world war. The political achievements of the 1950s in creating a welfare state are celebrated - education, safe working conditions, and health (also noted in the popular UK television series Call the Midwife). The film goes on to document the unravelling of these achievements through the Thatcher years and implicitly is a reproach to those of us who have allowed such hopes for improvement to be dashed. I was weeping by the end of this film. Though it's about Britain, its relevance to Australia is clear.
Another sort-of documentary The Act Of Killing, by US/Danish director Joshua Oppenheimer, is just as politically committed as Loach's film, but very different - and more modern - in its method of story-telling. Oppenheimer has made a film about the horrors of the 'anti-communist' killings in Indonesia in 1965 when around three million people were killed by gangs of thugs sanctioned by the Indonesian government, and by Western governments in countries such as the USA and Australia. Many of the politicians who are currently in power either directly participated in encouraging these murders or now collaborate with or benefit from the acts of the killers. Oppenheimer initially decided to interview victims of the 1965 purge, but they felt unsafe in collaborating. He then chose the even more powerful path of allowing the killers, who boast openly of their actions, to tell the story and even gave them access to his film-making resources to tell their tale in film. So, as well as the most bizarrely self-incriminating interviews with the killers, there is a film within the film - an even more bizarre pastiche of musicals and film noir that the central character uses to tell his story. At about two and a half hours I would think the film is far too long for successful commercial distribution, but the story itself and the method of story-telling are so convoluted that it would suffer from being too compressed.
I also went to hear Joshua Oppenheimer talk about his film with DH Lawrence's advice to 'never trust the teller, trust the tale' in the forefront of my mind. Sometimes film-makers, like writers, are not the best people to tell you about their creations. But Oppenheimer was excellent. He didn't try to interpret his film for his audience, but rather gave background and information on his methods of film-making. Like Loach, he wears his political heart on his sleeve, though his 'message' is a very complex one about moral choices within a global community.
Today I'm off to see a French movie about a mother/son relationship with a score by Nick Cave(?) and an Indian thriller called 'Monsoon Shootout'. You can see why I love the SFF. So many opportunities to view the world.