OnScreen editorial: the film festival as cultural communique

Kirsten Krauth

I’m recovering from the excesses of a film festival opening. Beginning to understand the appeal. Free grog and food. Everyone re-created equal. Well-lubricated vultures picking at the red carpet. Sometimes the films seem less important than the glass in your hand, the silver plate parading past too fast.

The community film festival scene in Sydney and Melbourne (and around Australia as festivals are increasingly touring nationally) is just too vibrant. Every week a new one is announced. In the past month we’ve had European, Spanish and a taste of Greek and earlier, Arabic and French. Coming up at the Sydney Opera House is the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander celebration of film and music Blak Sounds/Blak Screen. Last year brought us Sydney Asia Pacific, Hong Kong, China, Italian at Goat Island and a sold out Tibetan festival. Films clash. Festival guests parade. It’s feverish.

I’m sitting in Cinema Paris. A chorus of “que tal?” echoes. A Hoyts executive makes a well-rehearsed attempt at a new language and all-round talent Monica Trapaga’s Spanish is guttural and grand. Her mother Catalan, her father Basque, she recounts San Fermin fiesta recreations (including the bulls) in a suburban backyard, to the surprise of the local Seventh Day Adventists. Her passion for the cultures of Spain and Latin America extend well beyond the music she’s famous for, as she cites Spanish shoes (I look lovingly at my San Sebastian boots), Picasso’s Guernica and Almodovar amongst her inspirations. As she walks out, elegantly wrapped in a floral shawl, she says to the crowd: this is the quietest Spanish theatre I’ve ever been in.

Soon I become a part of the screen, swallowed up by the Spanish film festival’s opening night flick, Carlos Saura’s Goya en Burdeos (Goya in Bordeaux), a rich play on subconscious desires where (as with the impressive Love is the Devil about Francis Bacon), Goya’s paintings begin to live, confronting him too with the fear and joy they inspire at close view. As Goya recounts memories with a younger self, I drift into weary-legged days at the Prado in Madrid, tongue-tied attempts at ordering a Rioja—increasingly easy as the night wears on—and the intensity of Dali in Cadaquez, Picasso in Barcelona, El Greco in Toledo. Watching Goya my body breathes within his paintings, like wandering into the water lily pond at Giverny, breathlessly stunned. I surface from this bold and beautiful film into a swarming sea of hands reaching for Freixenet and tapas trays. But I remain in Spain.

Maybe this is the secret to the popularity of film festivals that revolve around specific communities. If I was only in Spain a few months, imagine the experience of such films on people who were born there, spent most of their lives there, speak the language. Film helps re-inflect and recreate our own memories, the intense ones of travel, too.

At the Greek film festival in Norton St I bum out completely. Of course, I’m paranoid that all the films I miss will be really good, but Cheap Smokes and Female Company look like they might have been made 20 years ago. Cheap Smokes is full of quirky characters spouting poetry and men talking about why they want to date supermodels and a woman in a neckbrace. Horrendous. Female Company deals with 5 women who, tired of their husbands’ affairs, hire a room to get off with local hunks. Meanwhile, their amorous activities are being filmed and broadcast on the internet (via a surveillance camera). A pretty interesting topic considering Big Brother but this film reeks of hypocrisy and, let’s face it, misogyny. It’s all apparently about women reclaiming their sexuality by finding a room of their own, but in every conflict situation the tension is resolved by a man beating a woman. And, worst of all, this is not questioned, the women get beaten and the men keep beating.

I’m sitting in the gorgeous old Roxy Theatre. The Arabic community is the largest ethnic community in Parramatta (and NSW) but their representation on our screens and in the arts is limited, summed up in 3 words: the bad guys. Doris Younane, a popular face on Australian TV from Sea Change and Heartbreak High, opened the proceedings. Born in Parramatta, she spoke of her experience as an actor with an Arabic background: “we do not exist in Australian TV/film.” In 15 years she has only played one Lebanese character. She supported the Arabic film festival as a chance for Arabic-Australians to challenge negative stereotypes and question a lack of representation: “I hope many of the future storytellers will come from this room.” An interesting selection of shorts featured on the opening night including Paula Abood’s satire on “image distortion disorder”, a reconsideration of the media’s portrayal of young Arabic men in gangs in Western Sydney—Of Middle Eastern Appearance—as a threat, as racialised ‘other’; and The Wall, starring an expanse of virgin-white wall, a canvas in action, framed so we can’t see the top, the characters choreographed in a gritty Les Ballet C de la B style. Funny, frightening vignettes: a paranoid man yells “what are you staring at”; two kids draw around each other, frozen in time; a chicken squawks; a man lets loose with a pickaxe; another dangles bleeding. A truck arrives and whitewashes all traces of the everyday away. An effective portrait of a community struggling to have its voice(s) and culture(s) heard.

The popularity of such film festivals reflects the gaps in popular culture—TV, Hollywood film—offering a chance to hear new voices. Although SBS regularly screens films from around the globe, even here there is a great deal of repeated programming and a degree of sameness in content (also reflected on cable Tv’s World Movies). Lots of old men ogling nubile wenches. Saucy and schlock horror seems to be the current fad. It can be hard to get a fix on contemporary cinema outside the English-speaking world. In Sydney, there’s surprisingly little choice between the mainstream and ‘alternative’ cinemas. Dendy and Palace appear to be playing pretty much what’s on at Hoyts. In some ways this is good because it means that challenging cinema has hit the mainstream in the past year. Just look at Traffic or Memento. On the other hand, this infiltration by defined ‘independent’ cinema (which really isn’t) has meant fewer and fewer foreign language films. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is an obvious exception but it’s a Hollywood-style film, a Mills and Boon action story. The Chauvel and revived Valhalla are important because they screen older films that deserve to be re-aired and promote smaller Australian offerings like Cunnamulla. However, they too seem more reliant on English language films, usually with a sexy edge to get the punters in.

Film festivals can have a political edge and this spices things up, a reaction against the dominant culture, and a bid for communities to reclaim their own portrayals. They’re also a good chance to screen the works of a range of filmmakers from Australia exploring notions of identity within these communities. Hopefully more of the festivals, taking the lead of the Arabic and Sydney Asia Pacific festivals, will open the floor to discussions about place and hybridity, and encourage us all to get out of our armchairs and turn on new worlds.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 14

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001