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Small armies

28 June 2012

A Sydney Film Festival postscript from Sylvia Lawson


An Afghanistan we don’t get from the TV news: Dr Sarmast’s Music School (above).

An Afghanistan we don’t get from the TV news: Dr Sarmast’s Music School (above).

ONCE film festivals were small, embattled enterprises for groups of enthusiasts, who had trouble convincing local authorities that cinema might have claims to serious attention. Now they are sizeable institutions with social cachet, permanent staffs, small armies of volunteers and interns; there’s buzz and sparkle, with visiting directors, red-carpet opening and closing nights. Size clearly matters; it’s the basis for the enabling patronage of state and local governments, agencies of culture and commerce. In Sydney between June 6 and June 17 there were sometimes five programs running concurrently, more than 150 films altogether. The institution becomes almost labyrinthine; the cinephile will debate her choices with friends; and with six people each buying a pass of ten tickets, they’ll end up seeing five or six different festivals. That pass costs $137; one for thirty, for those with both cash and stamina, costs $347; and if you want the razzle of the opening night, film plus party afterwards, that’s another $100. One friend of mine used to say that the festival is really always there at the State Theatre in the middle of town, a wonderfully cacophonous village of sound and vision; we go trooping there, ceremonially, every winter.

Now, however, the Sydney event is rather exhaustingly dispersed, playing at the State and also, at some distance, in two and three venues at the ugly, raucous Events complex in George Street, the Dendy at Circular Quay and the excellent Domain Theatre at the state art gallery. You need serious planning, and some kind of cinematic compass. Attention to the festival’s program notes will show you that a good many features have local distributors, and are therefore likely to make the commercial circuits. Those should include, before long, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar; these will be looked at again. Nikolaj Arcel’s much-praised A Royal Affair is in wide circulation already; so is the remarkable documentary Marley (if you didn’t like his music, it’s still a terrific movie). So too is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, discussed earlier, and not to be missed at any price. Maϊwenn’s electric Polisse has opened around Sydney, and it’s worth your attention – razor-sharp, horrifically funny and infuriating by turns, it should turn anyone off entrusting kids or grandkids to interrogation by a child protection agency.

That list suggests the developing interdependence of commercial and non-commercial circuits; while once the exhibition traders regarded the festivals with suspicion, they’re now seen as promotional, even collaborative, in sustaining a climate. Your compass might well direct you to those festival offerings which are less likely to reappear. Mine didn’t work as well as it should have; I greatly regret missing Alexander Sokurov’s Faust and Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, among others. The needle swung toward documentaries, and I found several of the best. Dr Sarmast’s Music School follows the doctor named back from Melbourne to his home city, Kabul, to establish an institute of music in which both traditional Afghani forms and instruments are taught beside the music of the wider world, and for the benefit of children whose lives have been stunted by poverty and war. Directed by Polly Watkins, this one should get around as widely as possible; among much else, it takes us some way into an Afghanistan we don’t get from the TV news.

Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’Or), a brave French-Cambodian co-production, retrieves fragments of a vanished national cinema, one that was largely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975. In Phnom Penh the director, Davy Chou, finds a few survivors, assembles memories, scraps of sound and vision, faded posters, the sites of ruined movie-houses and sets. It appears that Pol Pot deeply hated the cinema – a popular, song-and-dance cinema at that; it’s worth thinking about the special kinds of threat he and his cohorts discerned in it. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a highly engaging portrait of the activist Chinese artist, who denies that he should be labelled a dissident; he says that the regime is rather “a dissident government.” Since this one is being distributed by Madman, it should make it to local TV, if not to bigger screens. From India, The Sound of Old Rooms, a real-life comedy directed by Sandeep Ray, tracks the way a part-time poet called Sarthak struggles against the fates; he has a wife, a child and a mother, and his house, crammed with books, is falling apart. The film observes all of them, kindly and at close quarters. Its director is the son of Satyajit Ray; thinking back to the older Ray’s superbly crafted dramas, from Pather Panchali onwards, and looking now at this amiably plotless essay in which several stories are caught on the run, we’re looking at changes in the whole cinema landscape; India’s, but the world’s and ours as well. Among the Indian features, Valley of Saints was especially rewarding, its story – very like that in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide – moving into Kashmir, its lake, and the idea that water pollution in such a place might be worth even more worry than endemic civil strife.

With every film festival, I want the retrospective; there’s always too much of the past of cinema, the recent past included, that goes perennially unseen. The work of Bernardo Bertolucci was a great and extravagant choice. Before the Revolution, the rebellious melodrama he made at the age of 23, was worth revisiting if only for its flowing style and energy; but the great treat was 1900 (1976), the five-hour chronicle of political struggle and change in Italy. It was a short five hours, with the eloquent presences of the younger Robert de Niro and Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Alida Valli, and Donald Sutherland as the deeply sadistic Attila, the property manager committed to fascist politics and personal cruelty at every turn. La Luna (1979) turned out to be wonderfully wild Oedipal opera, almost but not quite falling over the brink of absurdity; The Dreamers (2003), in which Bertolucci tried to work with May ’68 in Paris, did fall over quite catastrophically. But The Sheltering Sky (1990) from Paul Bowles’s novel, is splendid, with dialogue in English, French and Arabic. Paul Bowles himself sits around, a knowing seer; Debra Winger and John Malkovich are finely instrumental, knowing their places in the epic.

ONE question for this film festival had to do with the place in it of the Aboriginal and other Indigenous films which in earlier years have made up the special program called Message Sticks, run at the Opera House each May. This time the program has been made part of the festival’s documentary strand. Perhaps Message Sticks has gained, in the sense that the films – most notably Coniston Massacre and Croker Island Exodus – have probably been seen by wider audiences; but there is arguably loss as well, in that the distinctiveness of the program, in both storytelling and politics, has been lost in the huge extent of the festival’s range. To these two films especially, as to others named here, I hope to return. •

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