In Short:

the 45th Sydney Film Festival
5-19th June 1998

If you are serious about cinema, you should be at the film festival. The festival caretakers acknowledge the educational role these festivals play in cultivating the next generation of filmmakers. Outgoing festival director, Paul Byrnes, stated that his greatest concern after ten years at the helm was that the festival attract more young people to renew its aging membership base. Consequently, there were special discounted subscriptions available to students, on top of the Flexipass system, which at $21 for 3 movies, provides fairly good value. Subscribing to the festival is advised, because it encourages you to watch a more comprehensive range of films for the simple reason that you feel you have to get your money's worth. With an "all you can eat in two weeks" mindset, one's horizons are exploded to include fresh new vistas and a greater awareness of historicity and intertextuality, especially in the blurring of distinctions between documentary and fiction forms. Being immersed in screen culture for two weeks inevitably sparks a concentrated growth in cinema knowledge and ideas. I learnt as much from this festival as I have in a year of film studies, through sheer exposure to films and filmmakers otherwise inaccessible to the average Australian suburbanite. The international scope of the program introduces cultures and aesthetics so rich and yet so alien to Australian popular culture it highlights just how much American films dominate our conception of what cinema is, and limits what it can be.

Below: D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus
The festival serves a vital cultural role in providing the opportunity to see foreign films that will never be released commercially in Australia, and rarely on SBS. They also play an important role in the discovery of new talent, showcasing new directors and films from impoverished countries, as well as renewing awareness of cinema history and influences through retrospectives on influential film personalities. This year the retrospectives focused on famous partnerships - between the pioneer of 'direct cinema' D.A. Pennebaker and his long-time editor Chris Hegedus (above); and between the legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra and his leading lady Barbara Stanwyck. Special attention was also given to new media in the form of, a digital film, computer animation compilation and four German experimental video art programs, examining the possibilities of the image in the electronic age.

In addition, specialist forums and 'Meet the Filmmaker' sessions incited lively debate amongst filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors and spectators - foregrounding the dynamics between art-commerce, screen-spectator and filmmaker-subject - essential knowledge for both filmcritics and filmmakers. This year's forums tackled subjects such as 'Is film high-art or low?', and why are more and more people saying 'I don't do subtitles', exacerbating a depressed market for foreign films in Australia. It was interesting to note how distributors like the Dendy play down a film's origins, only using the English title, with the exception of La Haine which was deemed too confronting when translated to Hate. Criticised for not distributing less mainstream films to the suburban complexes, the Greater Union spokesman argued that the audience isn't there, and that Pitt St. Centre is the "premiere arthouse exhibitor in Sydney". It was announced that The Boys won't be released in the Western suburbs where it was made because no-one came to see Idiot Box last year, an excellent film that couldn't find an audience outside of the inner-city. The economic clout of the American studios was emphasised in the Australian publicity budget for Godzilla costing more than the entire production costs for the film Kiss or Kill. Others pointed out that using the word 'arthouse' to promote a film in today's market is to sign one's own death warrant. It is sad to note that such an old, middle-of-the-road film asLike Water for Chocolate is still the most successful foreign film according to the Australian box-office.

Below: Wong-Kar Wai's 'Happy Together'
It is exactly because of this cash-driven culture that film festivals are vital. They remind us that cinema is more than candy-bars and bums-on-seats, that films constitute our cultural memory and mythology, and that it is essential we do not let economics or censorship limit the master narratives by which we live our lives. As a sort of cultural tour film festivals nurture a more holistic understanding of cinema and the world, screening stories from Africa, Asia, Canada, Wales and Eastern Europe, introducing peoples and destinations ignored by Hollywood navel-gazing and outside the jurisdiction of the Nouveau Vague. Hence the festival is almost revelatory to students conditioned by film school canons and American popular culture. It was enlightening to see films from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Tunisia and Senegal, at the same time as it was damning to realise how much Africa is still the 'dark continent'. How many of us can pinpoint these countries on the map? How many have even heard of them before? Do you know who Wong-Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai-Ming Liang are? And is it not regrettable that film students can't even begin to discuss the work of these filmmakers without reference to Tarantino, Godard or Scorsese?

Personal highlights of the festival included the Taiwanese feature Blue Moon (Lan Yue). Consisting of five reels shown in a different order each time it is screened, it is a web of 120 (factorial 5) different atmospheres, shifting subtexts, contexts and conclusions. Shot entirely through a blue filter, director Ko Yi-Cheng turns this rather unwieldy hypertext concept into a sublime cinema experience of four lovers, lost and found, found and lost. Instead of incoherency, the elusive narrative threads entice the viewer to forget conventions and just enjoy the moment. At the same time it emphasises how much audience desire influences the screen experience, how much we bring to the films we watch, and shows us that we love cinema when we feel we have gained understanding. The delicious paradox is that Lan Yue teaches this by making the audience realise that understanding is but the reorganisation of desires within ourselves. In this way Lan Yue is both an intellectual experiment as well as a highly personal film. It bridges art, entertainment and criticism through a celebration of subjectivity.

Hyena's Journey (Touki Bouki), a Senegalese film made in 1973 was so ahead of its time, even in 1998 most national cinemas have not caught up to its mastery of nuanced disaffectation. A film about two youths who dream of escaping poverty by migrating to France. With rich colours, a surreal majesty and nonchalant ambiguity, Touki Bouki is a serene ride through texture and tone, poverty and pride. Its elliptical plot conveys with full subtlety, the platitude: "Everyone wants to be somewhere, not everyone wants to get there." Even after 25 years, it is a film that resonates with timeless images, dreamy interludes and bloody punctuations. A goat is killed and bled for a meal. A wild European who lives in the boab trees steals a motorbike and crashes it. About thirty people walked out during the screening. The remainder gave it thunderous applause.

In all, attending the film festival is a timely inspirational boost for those like me, who dream of one day entering the film industry. "Lights, Camera, Unemployment!" is the well-worn cliché of film studies, and it is through attending festivals that these ambitions are injected with new vitality, about what is important in cinema, the dreams and stories, the feelings they arouse; and whether or not you can be a part of it. Whilst the pretensiousness of a few festival-goers occasionally rears its ugly head, the atmosphere for the most part is convivial and intimate. The State Theatre is an unforgettably grand venue to watch films in, seating the largest film audiences in Australia. The shame of it all, is that these films remain the privilege of the cultural elite. They should be seen by the majority, to which even the fullest State Theatre audience is but a few.

eugene chew
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Above: Tony Leung and Chang Chen in 'Happy Together'