Disputed models for better films

Hamish Ford at the IndiVision Screenings 06

Forgiveness

Forgiveness

“International cinema that kicks against the mundane—films that will blow your mind but didn’t blow their budgets.” So spruiks curator James Hewison on the cover of the program for this year’s IndiVision screenings.

Complementing the AFC’s production schedule, which currently has 12 films at various stages in the pipeline, this public component of IndiVision seeks to showcase quality low-budget cinema, inspiring local filmmakers and audiences alike in the much anticipated upturn in the quality of local features.

The idea of showcasing cutting-edge low-budget international films is a positive one. Considering the liberating, creative potential of filmmaking at the lower end of the economic scale, such screenings might ideally contribute to remedying what I consider the key problem with much Australian cinema, irrespective of budget: aesthetic impoverishment. By this I mean a lack of innovative or classically imbued formal layers and richness when it comes to what mid-20th century film theorists used to consider cinema’s ‘essence’—not narrative or character development, but mise en scène, framing and editing as the means by which a film’s meaning is generated and ‘read’ by the viewer.

Identifying the problem

Australian feature films are commonly either realist works—the ‘gritty’ or more classical surfaces of which render a very traditional narrative—or middlebrow ‘art films’ filled with often laboured images of a calendar-like, clichéd beauty or the sterile hipness common to advertising iconography. For me at least, Little Fish, though not without its merits, combines both tendencies with seemingly arbitrary framing and cutting dominating in its realist sequences while the flashbacks and more ‘interior’ shots feature very tired imagery indeed (notably the sun-spot marked seaside sequences). Yet rather than aesthetic problems, the most common complaint about local cinema is the quality of Australian scripts. The IndiVision production program clearly emphasises this area, including a very US-style approach to workshopping, drafting and input from multiple writers over a long period. This attempt at renovation ultimately reinforces the old idea of film ‘content’ as literary, with cinematic form merely the successful communication of this material. Even if we do come to see an improvement in narrative and character elements, the result will likely be determinedly narrative-centred, conventional films featuring a continuation of aesthetically uninteresting form. Australian films would hence remain stuck in a middle space—too slow and superficially ‘arty’ to satisfy Hollywood-inclined viewers, and too conceptually unambitious and stylistically conservative to cut much weight as internationally relevant art cinema.

Which brings me to the question of what the IndiVision screening program means by “international cinema.” I am not alone in thinking that the most interesting lowish-budget films of recent years come from Northern and Central Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East. So it was disappointing that 3 of the 6 films in this showcase were from the US. While none of the films screened is actually bad, both the US emphasis and their relative mediocrity are instructive. However, as many of the problems are also those that characterise local productions, this tends to work against the aim of the program.

Down to the Bone

Down to the Bone (director Debra Granik US, 2004, budget AUD$665,000) is a quintessential US indie flick part-financed (and then later duly celebrated) by Sundance, featuring straight (non-ironic) naturalistic performances commonly offered by independent films as the necessary corrective to Hollywood’s realist aesthetic—all the while further entrenching (a more convincing perhaps) dramatic realism as the proper goal of serious feature-filmmaking. The economically depressed industrial area of Ulster in upstate New York, complete with snow-covered spaces of suburban alienation, provides some cultural grit to this story of drug addiction and attempted rehabilitation amongst the ennui-ridden white working class. But this reasonable enough ‘slice-of-life-in-fucked-up-provincial-USA’ never seems able to deepen its account beyond the myopic concerns of drug addiction. The film’s determinedly non-political address means that the national pride of the characters—all of whom are treated with generous humanism—is never dealt with beyond highlighted shots of ubiquitous US flags the characters fly despite clearly being on the losing end of their country’s role in globalisation. A very predictable narrative arc towards existential empowerment and autonomy for the central character as suggested in the film’s final shot is matched by very familiar doco-style realism in the form of hand-held DV images that (like the good but slightly over-studied performances) are asserted as a stylistic means to convince us of the material and cultural veracity of the on-screen milieu.

Close to Home

Close to Home (Vidi Bilua and Dalia Hager, Israel, 2005, AUD$875,000) exhibits a convincing cultural snapshot in the form of a semi-autobiographical account of the young directors’ experience of army service on the streets of Jerusalem. The film is very strong on conveying these young female conscripts’ boredom and growing sense of the absurd as they are forced to arbitrarily check the ID of people who “look like Arabs.” But while interesting, all this authenticity (perennially lacking in bigger-budget productions) ultimately serves a very traditional, modest coming-of-age narrative. As with so many first-time films, good social or cultural autobiography is accompanied by thematic tentativeness. Just as thematic penetration without a convincing cultural setting can be problematic, the film exemplifies the idea that knowing a particular milieu well does not guarantee satisfying cinema if there isn’t matching conceptual insight or analysis. As is so often the case, this lack of boldness is matched by similarly unadventurous formal elements, with DV used in the name of transparency-seeking sterile TV realism.

Allegro

Certainly much more formally and aesthetically extravagant is Christoffer Pfeiffer’s new film, Allegro (Denmark, 2005, AUD$2.1m). In this film a mysterious ‘zone’ of Copenhagen cut off from the rest of the city houses the repressed memories of the central character concerning a past ‘mistake’ he made with his girlfriend (supermodel Helena Christensen), that needs to be put right. Like much other recent ‘neo-baroque’ cinema, fancy spatio-temporal confusions ultimately provide the scaffolding for hackneyed, sentimental romanticism. And the potentially challenging stylistic aspects are seriously short-changed by a fairy tale voice-over that stitches the film’s themes onto the images for us, often unnecessarily concretizing what is fairly clear already. This ensures we’re never lost in the aesthetic and conceptual labyrinth—thereby denying us any potential pleasure and creative possibility beyond the schematically designated story and ideas.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel, South Africa, 2004, AUD$1.3 m) is perhaps a necessarily worthy and dour account of an anguished white former South African policeman’s seeking of forgiveness from the family of a black student and ANC ‘terrorist’/freedom-fighter he killed in prison. The film’s aesthetic elements—notably a desaturated DV image and manipulated pixellation—are seamlessly integrated into its conceptual terrain and strong affective impact (though an excessive musical score worked against these well-conceived stylistics). Potentially controversial in some quarters vis-a-vis the particular outcome of its apparent critique of both Apartheid-era injustice and hard-line black refusal of post-Apartheid reconciliation, the film leaves a complex taste in the mouth. Even though its basic message is reconciliatory, this journey is shown to be far from easy or attainable once a schematic process has been set in train—and neither is watching or thinking through a film that exposes a whole host of class and race politics beyond the Apartheid divide. By comparison, the thematic treatment in the final scene of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (a film I otherwise admire)—when David Gulpilil walks off into the desert a hero—seems highly schematic in its liberal left framing of reconciliation.

The nature of the medium

If the aesthetic impoverishment of Australian films is to be reversed, industry initiatives and screening showcases such as IndiVision need to emphasise that film is an audio-visual medium (something the current script emphasis overlooks). It is, then, a pity that the progam this year didn’t feature the daring, even controversial work advertised by the pamphlet tag line. Of course there are issues with getting particular films for a small program such as this. However, the question is whether it was really easier to get this particular (US-weighted) collection, or rather whether a limited or even conservative vision of cutting-edge low-budget filmmaking prevails within the walls of the AFC, the apparently progressive language of their recent bureaucratic and advertising communiqués notwithstanding. I hesitate to highlight Hewison’s curatorial role, his programs at the Melbourne Film festival over recent years have been much more challenging than Sydney’s.

Only Forgiveness, while still a traditional narrative film, through its combination of affective aesthetic strategies as allied with difficult conceptual material, stayed with me for some time. The necessary formal and thematic rigour needed to generate this global holy grail of film-going has been seldom witnessed and experienced by this viewer when attending Australian films—at least since the high-point of Head On (Anna Kokkinos, 1998) and, in terms of low-budget cinema, the more modest The Finished People (Koah Do, 2003). Here’s hoping the IndiVision production program, its excessive emphasis on scripts notwithstanding, does genuinely invigorate the low-budget end of the feature-filmmaking spectrum in this country—diversification would be most welcome. However, in terms of exhibiting supposedly innovative international low-budget independent cinema, this year’s screening program won’t, I think, assist in this regard. Apparently contradicting the aim of the program, its value lies rather in merely highlighting familiar problems.

IndiVision Screenings 06; Dendy Newtown, Sydney, Feb 17-19; Kino Dendy, Melbourne, Feb 24-26

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 18

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006