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oliver downes: sydney film festival 2012

Not Suitable for Children

Not Suitable for Children


not suitable for children

“Infinite Stories” was the tagline chosen by this year’s festival marketing department, however opening night saw the reiteration of one much closer to home, with Peter Templeman’s debut feature Not Suitable For Children. With his 20s passing in a blur of parties and casual sex, Jonah (Ryan Kwanten) is sublimely unprepared to discover that he not only has testicular cancer, but also only a month of fertility remaining. Antics ensue as Jonah, suddenly desperate to father a child, attempts to cajole, beg or bribe any and all women in the vicinity to help him out.

Filmed amid the terraces and cafes of Sydney’s inner west, the film is a smoothly shot, mildly off-beat and unrelentingly facile romantic comedy, crafted with commercial considerations apparently overriding all others. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se—dependent both on one’s sense of humour and relative enjoyment at the sight of Kwanten’s sweaty torso—the film’s inclusion on opening night at the country’s most eminent film festival is questionable. The urge to broaden the festival’s appeal by supporting that rarest of species, an Australian film that celebrates urban life, is understandable, as is the reaction against the wilfully obscure Sleeping Beauty, which filled the slot last year. To give such a prestigious platform to a film that so determinedly mistakes the myopic for the local and the formulaic for accessibility seems to simply highlight how few quality Australian film comedies there have been in recent years, particularly considering the strength of the comedy scene in general.




Cate Shortland’s second feature since 2004’s Somersault, and the first Australian entry in the official competition, was a quietly absorbing drama, Lore. Adapted from Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room, it delves into the barely contained anarchy of Germany immediately post-WWII through the eyes of 16-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), abandoned by her SS Officer father and neurotic mother and left to guide her four younger siblings halfway across the country to their grandmother’s house. The situation is dire, Lore trading her mother’s earrings for breast milk to feed her baby brother and ratting the corpses of the occasional suicide victim while navigating her way through a population either contemptuous and apathetic towards her situation or disturbingly gripped by denial at Hitler’s defeat. Haunted by the photographs of concentration camp victims posted throughout the countryside by the Allies, Lore is forced to face her own unthinking complicity in the Nazi project in the person of a young Jewish escapee, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina).

Shortland’s characteristic handheld style is extremely effective here, conjuring an almost documentary sense of historical reality. Symbolically laden imagery proliferates, lingering close-ups of a face, arm, nose, mouth, seem to suggest cultural displacement and fragmentation; shots of black, dripping water or eels writhing at the bottom of a bucket suggest darker motifs. Rosendahl is excellent, quietly sympathetic as the young protagonist, making her occasional anti-semitic outbursts the more confronting. A measured study of the consequences of fascist ideology on the psychology of children, Shortland’s film seems to suggest that political and social change is only made possible through the transformation and expansion of individual consciousness.

dr sarmast’s music school

Dr. Sarmast’s Music School

Dr. Sarmast’s Music School

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Polly Watkin and Beth Frey’s excellent entry for the Australian Documentary Prize (won by Paul Gallasch’s Killing Anna). After the invasion of Afghanistan, Melbourne-based musicologist Dr Ahmad Sarmast decided to return to Kabul with the plan of opening the country’s first national institute of music (ANIM) and the dream of growing an Afghani national orchestra from scratch. Tracing the development of the school over a period of four years, Watkin’s documentary vividly captures the apparently insurmountable problems—bombed-out and decaying infrastructure, incompetent building contractors, international indifference, lack of instruments, widespread sexism (including amongst the teaching staff), residual religious discrimination against the “loose practice” of music as well as the constant threat of violence—arrayed against the cheerfully unflappable Sarmast, who remains driven by the unshakeable belief that “music is nutrition for the soul.”

The documentary’s brilliance lies in its depiction of how this belief unfolds amongst the orphans and street kids whom Sarmast makes a point of teaching. Children such as Waheed—whose days are spent selling plastic bags on the street being relieved by evenings at his brother’s miniature Casio—is transformed by the end of the film into a quietly assured young pianist. Or there’s Sonam—prevailing attitudes towards girls and music not preventing her from gradually blossoming into a smiling young violinist. Though at times confusing to follow (perhaps reflecting real conditions in post-war Kabul), Dr. Sarmast’s Music School aptly illustrates the potential of music as a vehicle of self-expression—also demonstrated in the ongoing project of Skateistan—and the utility of that old adage, make music not war.

dead europe

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The second Australian film in the official competition also provided a response to the effects of war and genocide on succeeding generations. Adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ novel by Louise Fox, Tony Krawitz’ version of Dead Europe is a darkly compelling meditation on anti-semitism, inter-generational responsibility and the economic and social state of modern Europe. Keen to escape the casual intolerance of his family after his father’s death (“It’s only Jews and Muslims that go to hell,” his mother tells a young relative), Melbourne photographer Isaac (Ewan Leslie) travels to his parent’s homeland of Greece to scatter his father’s ashes. Disturbed by stories about his father’s activities during WWII and haunted by visions of Joseph (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young refugee he encounters in Athens, his journey takes him to the slums of Paris before finally leading him to Budapest and his estranged brother Nico.

Shot on location with a skeleton crew, Krawitz’ decisions to liaise with refugee groups for featured extras, as well as incorporate footage of recent demonstrations against government austerity measures, provides a bedrock of reality on which the genuinely unsettling supernatural elements of the story unfold. Although Fox’s script truncates Tsiolkas’ novel at the halfway mark, it nonetheless follows the disturbing logic of the story through to its conclusion. Europe is depicted as a spiritual venus flytrap, linking the historical injustice of the Holocaust, resurgent anti-semitism sapping various characters’ moral authority, a supernatural curse that demands blood for blood, and the similarly vampiric economic forces that are suggested as lying at the heart of the modern EU. Though the film could benefit from further polishing, particularly in its third act (the screened cut was only completed 10 days prior to its premiere at the festival), Dead Europe is nonetheless a gripping and original take on the horror genre.

2012 Sydney Film Festival: Not Suitable For Children, director Peter Templeman, screenwriter Michael Lucas, producer Jodi Matterson, Icon Film Distribution; Lore, director Cate Shortland, screenwriters Robin Mukherjee, Cate Shortland, Rachel Seiffert; distributor Transmission Films; Dr. Sarmast’s Music School, director Polly Watkins, producer Beth Frey, Circe Films; (screened on Artscapes, ABC1, July 10 & 17); Dead Europe, director Tony Krawitz, screenwriter Louise Fox, producers Iain Canning, Liz Watts, Emile Sherman, distributor Transmission Films; Sydney Film Festival, June 6-17

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 26

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 August 2012