Monday, August 11, 2008

Sydney Film Festival 2007 - More Films

Originally posted 16th June, 2007 at

It was a triple header at the Sydney Film Festival last night on a rainy, stormy Sydney Friday. My wish for rainy weather for the film festival has been amply rewarded - and it can stop now. Please. Sorry to anyone inconvenienced by the storms - I'll be more careful with what i wish for in future.

Before I get to last night's films, here are some more notes on films seen and half a real review.

Two films I omitted from my first report were The Dead - John Huston's last film, and All In this Tea. The latter is a moderately interesting documentary about Californian Tea enthusiast David Lee Hoffman. I was expecting a more general documentary on tea in China (and no price jokes) so to me this was a slightly lazy effort - telling Hoffman's story without any further research or perspective. Maybe my disappointed expectations were the fault of the promoters. The other notable point (again, made in the publicity) was that it was shot exclusively digitally. Unfortunately that equated to washed out and blurry on the large screen at the State Theatre. Hopefully that won't be such a problem on television, which is where it really belongs. As filmmaker Les Blank was a guest after the presentation i feel like a bad host to be critical of his work - so sorry Les.

The Dead, on the other hand, surprised and moved me - a gentle, small scale film, shot almost exclusively at a genteel dinner party in Dublin at the turn of the century (19th to 20th that is) and based on a story from Joyce's The Dubliners. Although the setting represented a fast disappearing world, and Irish politics (the film is set only a decade before 1916) rate the barest of mentions, the final scenes pack a powerful punch and the entire film was engrossing. The Dead was only released in 1987 but its languid pace is from another era altogether.

I was apprehensive about Half Moon (Niwemang) as Iranian films have not exactly been my cup of tea. After a hard day's work and a hard week's film watching I was worried I'd get an attack of the nods, no matter how stunning the scenery and unusual the story. I needn't have worried though - the only people suffering attacks of the nods in the theatre were characters in the film itself - a beautifully filmed road movie, with impressive performances from mostly non-actors. Half Moon is about a family of Kurdish Iranian musicians travelling to newly liberated Kurdish Iraq for a music festival. Being a road-trip you won't be surprised that we barely get to see the destination, but on the way we are treated to a fascinating insight into life in those parts, more than a few laughs, as well as a serious story. Although the realities of the political situation were ever-present in the story (the film is set on the Iraqi/Turkish/Iranian border) they never get in the way of the human story being told.

Kiwi cinematographer Nigel Bluck was presented before the film (as an Australian - much to his displeasure !) and told us how director Bahman Ghobadi wanted an outsider as cinematographer in order to get a different perspective on the Iranian landscape. What Bluck couldn't admit was that his cinematography was inspired by Iranian cinema, and thus he was not ideally suited to deliver to Bahman's vision. Thankfully he still got the job as it is beautiful looking film, on top of everything else.

Life Is All About Friends has a pretty twee title that seems to have been chosen just for this Festival - it's known as Unni in IMDB. The story of four primary school boy friends set entirely in their school and surrounding village, it is a mostly light-hearted look at childhood in rural India, with darker themes such as the caste system and alcoholism lurking in the background. It's a very funny film, with beautiful scenery and endearing characters, so it's hard not to like this film (although the 'festival virgins' sitting next to me weren't so impressed!)

The first film in the Friday trifecta was from Spain - Mallorca to be precise. Yo was classic festival fare – dark, complicated and slightly obscure ; basically about melding/losing identity. At some stage during the film it really annoyed me but it was certainly original, and by the end of the film i was converted. First time director Rafa Cortes was there and spoke afterwards. He's quite a charmer and even resorted to a self-contained Q&A when questions from the (slightly bemused) audience dried up.

Next film was pure pop, a great English comedy – Death at a Funeral, which will definitely be a mainstream hit. Despite it being completely predictable and somewhat derivative, I haven’t laughed so much in ages. Perfect for a rainy Friday night and a great antidote to the seriousness of Yo.

The last film of the night was Shut Up and Sing, the Dixie Chicks film. I’ve never been a fan, but those girls are pretty cool – especially the lead singer – Natalie Maines – who is feisty-ness personified. I have to admit it’s always fun to laugh at rednecks and GWB as well, and there's plenty of that on offer here. A well made and surprisingly interesting documentary, Shut Up and Sing following the girls from the fall out over their Bush/Texas comments to the release of the recent album, Taking The Long Way. Am I tempted to listed to more Dixie Chicks ? Almost !

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