Serious cinemagoers in the capital cities can hardly fail to have noticed the burgeoning number of film festivals dedicated to a single nation (Russia, France et al) or region (Scandinavia, Latin America).
If there’s a downside to this largely happy state of affairs it’s the creeping feeling of overload, and the sense that when the number of international titles becomes a flood curating standards are being diluted. Many fine films are screened at these festivals among many, alas, of lesser interest, which means working out what to see can be alarmingly hit-and-miss.
While the same applies to a degree to larger events such as Melbourne and Sydney film festivals, these institutions’ curating standards tend to be more rigorous, wide-ranging and likely to include work of aesthetic ambition. More commercial work isn’t excluded, indeed it’s an important festival role to preview and provide a forum for discussion of some of the more significant independent releases of the coming year. But these items – already owned by local distributors – are also balanced by riskier programming including features by rising new talents and documentaries on esoteric-sounding but fascinating subjects.
This year’s Sydney Film Festival, for example, features strands devoted to emerging women filmmakers, contemporary Italian cinema, documentaries on art and film, and (an annual feature) a number of recently restored classics: Gillian Armstrong’s glorious My Brilliant Career, RW Fassbinder’s post-World War II German classic The Marriage of Maria Braun, and from Hungary, the strikingly unique My 20th Century.
3 Days in Quiberon
The main retrospective section, again curated and presented by film critic David Stratton, is devoted to the deadpan Finn, Aki Kaurismäki – a dull choice after previous presentations of such undeniable greats as Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, though I can’t deny the director has his fans.
At the time of writing, I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the program, but I’ll draw attention here to some of the titles I’m keenest to see and which are likely to appeal to many Limelight readers, including a couple of interesting pairings.
There are, for example, two films devoted to the final days of German-speaking artistic women, one a documentary about the former Warhol “superstar” Nico (Nico 1988), best known now as a fleeting member of influential 1960s art-rock band The Velvet Underground. Meanwhile, 3 Days in Quiberon, is a fictionalised version of three days towards the end of the tragically short life of Austrian-born actor Romy Schneider, focusing on an interview with Stern magazine that prodded and picked at the vulnerable European star’s tragic personal life (including a second husband who committed suicide and a son who chose to live with his step family). Filmed in burnished monochrome, this touching film features a remarkably affecting lead performance by Marie Bäumer, who bears an extraordinary resemblance to the late screen beauty.
3 Days in Quiberon
There is another intriguing pairing of two films about wildlife that feature no voiceovers as such but only close camera observation and detailed sound recordings. The Pure Necessity is a reconstruction of the Disney adaptation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book (surprising given Disney is notorious for obsessively tight control of its intellectual property), with “man cub” Mowgli and all dialogue and songs removed and natural sounds of the jungle inserted.
It sounds a close companion to Lithuanian experimental documentary The Ancient Woods, which captures the sounds and sights of forest wildlife, like, perhaps, an Attenborough doco without the voiceover – just the magic of nature.
In the arts programming, a number of films look worth investigating, including Kusama – Infinity, a documentary on the 88-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, known for her dot paintings and kaleidoscopic installations like Infinity Mirrors, which attracted huge ticket queues wherever it showed.
Prominent among the music docos is another film with a Japanese subject, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, about the composer who started out as an electronic pop musician, earned a wider audience with his film soundtracks (including The Last Emperor) before moving into a rewarding area of contemporary minimalism halfway between the classical and the pop worlds.
Kusama – Infinity
Another fascinating sounding film with a musical theme is Looking for Oum Kulthum, following an exiled Iranian woman artist and filmmaker as she tries to capture the life and art of renowned Egyptian singer Kulthum.
Half the Picture is a timely documentary that asks women film directors to explore why so few of them are working in Hollywood. The film was made before the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted and could have been more incisive at times, but it includes many telling anecdotes about the way female creative talent is sidelined in the US studio system in a practice amounting to gross discrimination.
Finally, 24 Frames is a must for fans of the late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016 aged 76 after completing this final exploration of minimalist aesthetics, described in the official publicity as a non narrative film with no dialogue, “showcasing 24 four-and-a-half minute segments making statements about love, cinema, death, technology and the 21st century.” If that description doesn’t quite let you know what to expect, chalk it down to the grand adventure of film festivals.
Sydney Film Festival runs June 6 – 17 at the State Theatre and cinemas in the CBD, Newtown, Cremorne and Western Sydney. Lynden Barber is a former artistic director of Sydney Film Festival