Sydney Film Festival: a handful of high/lowlights

Simon Enticknap

David Field, Syd Brisbane, Silent Partn

David Field, Syd Brisbane, Silent Partn

Divided We Fall

Following on from last year’s festival favourite, Cosy Dens, Jan Hrebejik’s latest comedy is another play on everyday responses to a repressive totalitarian regime; the pressures of maintaining an appearance of ‘normality’ in the face of state-inspired terror, the thin line between resistance and compliance, often measured in tiny increments, and the constant need to watch oneself, and others, for any tell-tale signs of guilt or betrayal.

The catalyst in this instance is David, a member of a Jewish family dispatched to the camps, who returns to his home town in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in order to seek shelter. Taken in by friends and stashed away in the closet, his hidden presence soon begins to infect and inflect the behaviour and relationships of everybody around him. On the one hand, he must be protected and kept alive, like a forsaken reminder of an earlier age, but equally he is someone to be loathed and reviled, even by his protectors who are unable to let him go once they have taken him in for fear of detection. Indeed, roused from an uneasy inertia, this act of resistance ultimately forces them to act the part of collaborators in order to divert suspicion. And when the moment of liberation finally comes, the harbouring of a Jew assumes just as much importance for the same life or death reasons.

Not unexpectedly, ironies and a particular brand of blackish farcical humour flourish in these circumstances where the Nazis act as stand-ins for other traditional authority figures (the outraged father or bad-tempered boss) albeit with extra added evil. Hrebejik imbues the film with a late-summer lightness and warmth which belies the ever-present terror and compounds the comedy; an utterly contemporary film in look and sensibility.

Time for Drunken Horses

This was easily the most numbing cinematic experience of the festival, and not just for its scenes of freezing weather and constant trekking through thigh-high snow. Filmed in Iranian Kurdistan, the film shows the influence of recent Iranian cinema with a specific focus on the desperate, dangerous lives of Kurds sandwiched between Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Here, political struggle is expressed in the sinew-straining work involved in simply trying to stay alive. Whether it’s chopping down trees or hauling contraband over mountains, the hard labour required is a direct consequence of the Kurds’ stateless condition.

The final task, as it eventuates, verges on insanity; a young Kurdish boy, Ayoub, must leave his young sisters and take his crippled brother on a mule across the mountains from Iran into Iraq, risking minefields and ambushes (their father has already been killed attempting to smuggle goods across the border) in order to sell the mule (his only means to a livelihood) in order to pay for an operation for his brother in the knowledge that this will only prolong his life by a few months.

The unasked question is ‘is it worth it?’ and, in other hands, the film would have been about just such a dilemma, tracing Ayoub’s inner struggle to overcome his doubts and fears, followed by an epiphany in which he realises where his duty lies and heads off once more into the snow. There is none of this. No questioning, no wrestling with conscience. The children are not passive agents but they never acknowledge the types of choices being forced upon them and which seem so apparent to the audience. There’s never any doubt about what Ayoub will do.

This is a film about the correctness of ethical action, not so much deciding what is right or wrong, but in knowing what to do and following through regardless of the circumstances. It doesn’t make sense, it’s crazy, but in encapsulating the madness of the Kurds’ situation—they have no choice in being who they are—the logic is lacerating.

The Werckmeister Harmonies

It suggests celestial spheres and the music thereof, a feeling reinforced in the beginning by the spectacle of late-night drunks acting out heavenly movements, rotating and spinning like a stumble-bum universe about to collapse in a heap. Go home, says the barman, and they do, moving slowly off into the darkness.

Bela Tarr’s meticulous monochrome can be read as a dissertation on what is usually referred to as ‘the collapse of communism’ but the forces that he delineates in a single town could apply to any society beset by moral panics and an overwhelming sense of breakdown. The arrival in town of a circus hauling a dead whale, Nature reduced to a putrid hulk, heralds the start of a communal madness in which the thin veneer of civil order is quickly erased.

The fastidiousness of the set-pieces make you ache all over, particularly the scenes of walking men—alone, in pairs or en masse—in which the camera is allowed to run far longer than we expect, and then keeps on going, and going, and going until the thought occurs that it might not end at all and something quite meditative and resonant develops.

There are others as well—2 boys misbehaving, a middle-aged couple dancing, a whirling helicopter—which linger like an after-image on the retina, gently abraded onto the brain, but this unblinking stare extends to all everyday activity—getting ready for bed, cooking a meal—so that the different spheres of civil unrest, personal disarray and private moments gradually intersect and collide with the same slow force of planets falling out of orbit. There is an order in the disorder after all, an irresistible pathos that derives from the carefully observed actions of humans.

Silent Partner

A firm favourite, this one. Good starter, runs on strongly, sure to attract local interest.

A tight 2-hander (and 4-pawer, as every man and his dog will tell you) about a couple of ordinary joes, Bill and John, who get caught up in a dodgy dog racing scheme involving a ‘colourful Sydney identity’ and a greyhound, Silent Partner.

The dependence of the men on the invisible Alex Silver and the focus on just 2 main characters inevitably suggests comparisons with Waiting for Godot but the similarities are more apparent than real. Bill and John are not tramps, although they are just a whisker away from hitting rock bottom. The fact that they are barely holding it together is what makes the drama so acute; and the scenes in which hope does flicker briefly and, for an instant, they imagine a better life, are amongst the most poignant. At heart, it’s a film about people who lack any real power (ie money) but who nevertheless strive to stay in the game, keep on turning up, even though nobody else is playing by the same rules. Bill and John’s relationship with their silent, malevolent partner is symbolic of a wider breakdown in the social contract.

Filmed in just 7 days, it’s a remarkable achievement from director Alkinos Tsilimidos and crew. Two terrific performances from actors David Field and Syd Brisbane manage to make Bill and John instantly recognisable.

Zero points and a copy of Tony Abbott’s memoirs to the questioner from the mezzanine level who wanted to know how 2 such losers could afford to spend so much money on beer and cigarettes.

A One and a Two

It ain’t exactly Reality TV but there’s something about the manner in which this Taiwanese family is filmed—almost always in the middle distance, out of the room, in the street, the office, in corridors, in cars, in the open—which hints at such a voyeuristic impulse. It starts with a wedding, ends with a funeral and nothing quite so momentous seems to happen in between, although there is love and murder and a near-death experience or two.

It could be melodrama, except that it is so well grounded, set against the deliberate blandness of a trans-global decor and mass-produced modernity. The living spaces hum (when they’re not pinging or chiming or beeping) with a suffocating white noise and there is a constant rumble of traffic and buzz of human activity that renders all the emotional turmoil somehow muted, unable to find any satisfactory release.

There’s a sense in which mistakes are repeated across generations with the possibility of atonement, but this is set against the impossibility of anybody ever being truly present in their own lives. There is still ritual to cling to, somewhat debased, but in between the ceremonies life is a string of empty apartments and fractured relationships.

The studied neutrality of Edward Yang’s direction makes this a lot less depressing than it sounds.

Maelstrom

Like when you get sucked into a whirlpool of emotions and it goes round and round for no real reason other than that’s what it does. Like what happens when you take a Drink-Drive Bloody Idiot ad and keep extending it all directions—for no real reason other than you can—and because it looks slick, smart, sassy and sexy.

A young woman driving home drunk runs over a middle-aged man who works in a fish market—and drives on. Armed with this secret guilt (which seems to be associated, disturbingly, with a terminated pregnancy), the film chases down connections and parallels with a gleeful persistence bordering on paranoia. For instance, while having lunch, the woman’s friend complains about the quality of a seafood dish in a restaurant which, as it turns out, buys its fish from the market where…and so on.

It’s a form of hyper-extenuation in which the man’s death becomes the means to the woman’s rebirth, suggesting that on a certain level all the chaos of contemporary life is coherent and meaningful, not socially or politically but merely coincidentally.

Visually stimulating, like watching a car commercial, and equally profound.

Lost and Delirious

Tasteful and Prudish, maybe, Well-mannered and Predictable, but not enough losing it or delirium. The premise shows promise, following the familiar private-school-secret-love-thwarted-by-social-propriety trajectory and setting it down in a Canadian girls’ school, but that’s the only original stroke of the whole enterprise. Superficially the film’s about burgeoning adolescent sexuality and gender identity, as always, but pretty soon it bails out and opts for a heightened notion of romantic passion and a ‘why can’t two individuals just love each other’ approach which flops around rather ridiculously. It’s as if the film is embarrassed by its own lesbianism, but still persists with the notion that it’s everybody else who has a problem. So a lot of Shakespeare gets shouted and there’s a bird of prey that is used quite gratuitously to symbolise a free spirit. Are there any filmgoers left who don’t yet know how to rehabilitate an injured hawk?

Song of Tibet

Curious to observe in this film how Tibet figures in the contemporary Chinese psyche as a kind of aged relative, clinging to its charming folkloric traditions while Young China jets in and logs onto the internet. Old Tibet dies but not before rediscovering its history and culture which it then passes on to Young China.

This is seriously bucolic. Tibet looks ravishing—gotta getaway there—and the Chinese occupation is tastefully kept out of sight. In fact, you’d hardly know that it had ever happened. The local landowner leaves in the night as if going on an extended business trip and there’s a brief reference to how life improved after the serfs were set free. So that’s alright then—let’s all go to the Olympics.

Perhaps we expect Chinese films to be implicitly critical of the authorities, so such a blatant historical elision leave us feeling cheated—this is not the Tibet we want to see! In this case though, what we don’t see is probably more significant than what we do.

Divided We Fall, director Jan Hrebejk, writer Petr Jarcjovsky, Czech Republic; A Time for Drunken Horses, writer/director Bahman Ghobadi, Iran/France; Maelstrom, writer/director Denis Villeneuve, Canada; Lost and Delirious, director Lea Pool, writer Judith Thompson, Canada; Song of Tibet, writer/director Xie Fei, writer Xhaxidawa, China.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 21

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001
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