Week 250 – winter escapism

It has been a bitter grey wintery week (indeed, we experienced Melbourne’s coldest day in 19 years – a low of 3 degrees, a high of just 9 degrees!). Therefore it was perfect weather for the Melbourne International Film Festival (which started on Thursday). I had to light-touch it this year as it mainly clashes with my trip to the UK – but I did manage 9 films on the opening weekend!

I started on Friday with ‘Yourself and Yours’, a new film by the Korean director, Hong Sang-soo. It was a sweet and charming relationship comedy with a unique angle. A young artist is passionately in love with a mysterious girl who rejects him. She is sweet and demure, but also, a drunken serial seducer, and the subject of much neighbourhood gossip. She picks up men in bars most nights but seems to instantly erase them from her memory. The film never clarifies whether she suffers from amnesia or is a pathological liar. But the lovelorn artist is determined to come up with a new way of being in order to win her back.

Next was ‘Felicite’, by Franco-Senegalese film-maker Alain Gomis. It was a compelling tale of a talented Congolese bar-singer (the music was fantastic!) whose fragile, hard-won, independence is crushed when her son is badly injured in a motorbike accident. To raise funds for his treatment she has to resort to increasingly desperate measures, which drag her down into the darkest recesses of Kinshasa street-life. But she survives, and her son survives, and their lives are rebuilt in an unexpected, and hopeful, new way.

Saturday started with the first of Maisie’s two weekend birthday parties. The first was a whole-class affair, but happily the girl’s parents had booked the Gym Bus, so while the kids bounced around in the old double-decker outside, us parents spent a quiet morning inside chatting over sophisticated entrees and champagne! It was hard to tear myself away, but I had 4 films to see that day!

The first was a fascinating documentary, made by Australian director Claire Jager, entitled ‘Guardians of the Strait’. It was about the Bosphorous Strait that runs through Istanbul. This incredibly narrow, winding (and densely populated) channel that links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean sees more than 50,000 container ships (and thousands more smaller craft) pass through it every year. Every day and a half a potentially catastrophic accident is averted by the coast guard, maritime controllers and pilots who bravely operate in an entirely unregulated environment. Local activists, environmentalists, journalists and fishermen also work tirelessly to protect this unique (and beautiful) stretch of water.

Next was ‘Loveless’, the latest by Russian director Andrey Zvagintsev. In the crumbling ruins of a splintering middle-class relationship, the parents both eaten up with their hatred and disgust for each other (and their selfish lust for their new partners), their disregarded 12-year-old son is emotionally lost, and then one day he literally disappears. In the ensuing days of an increasingly hopeless man-hunt, the consequences of the parents loveless lives and marriage are measured out to brutal effect. Brilliantly scripted, acted and devastating.

‘Sami Blood’, by Swedish director Amanda Kernell, was a beautiful and affecting, but slightly pedestrian, tale of a young Sami girl’s mid-C20th coming of age in the north of Sweden. Rejecting her traditional reindeer-farming culture, yearning for the arts and literature and education of the Swedes (denied her as an inferior indigenous girl), yet facing daily persecution, she nevertheless pursues her dreams with great energy and courage.

‘City of Ghosts’ was the American director Matthew Heineman’s remarkable documentary about the anonymous activists and citizen journalists of Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Isis. Risking death every day – wherever they may be in the world – they continue to report on the horrific atrocities committed by the world’s most brutal terrorist group. Hard to watch but an astonishing, vital film about bravery and the crucial importance of objective journalism in these dangerous times.

Sunday started with ‘I am not a witch’, Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s clever, confronting satire about Zambian witch camps. A young orphan turns up in a drought-racked village one day and the locals don’t like the look of her, and brand her a witch. Sent off to a community of elderly witches, all tethered to long cotton leashes (so they don’t ‘fly off’) she is given the choice of joining them or being turned into a goat. Gawped at by tourists, used as a mascot by a pompous local government official in order to solve petty crimes/disputes, she makes her bewildered way through each day.

Next was ‘Lemon’, a highly stylised and arch ‘cringe comedy’ about an unlovely failing Jewish drama teacher, made by US director Janicza Bravo. Sadly it wasn’t more than the sum of its quirks. There were some great set pieces – a hellish family Passover meal was brilliantly absurd, and a cameo by Michael Cera, as a highly affected actor, hilarious – but the main protagonist was too limp and off-key to engage with on any level.

Happily the last film of my day (which I watched with my friend Natalia) was wonderful. ‘My Happy Family’, by Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, was about a 52-year-old mother of grown-up children, who one day ups and leaves her family home. In a deeply traditional, patriarchal society, her relatives (parents, husband, children & spouses – they all live in the same poky apartment), are incensed, horrified that she isn’t fulfilling her prescribed role any more. She relishes her freedom but her emotions continue to be tested as life continues its messy daily course. A beautiful, wise, melancholy and wry film, further enlivened by some wonderful spontaneous musical performances.

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