Sunday, August 16, 2009

Balibo: Tense East Timor Testament

Robert Connolly’s Balibo is a compelling political thriller. It “is a true story” based on Jill Jolliffe’s book, Cover-Up.

It is in fact four stories:
  • The story of five Australian journalists who were murdered at Balibo by the Indonesian forces that invaded East Timor in 1975.
  • Of Roger East, an Australian journalist who sought the truth about their deaths.
  • Of Juliana who testifies as an adult to her experiences in Dili as an eight year old.
  • Of the spirit of the East Timorese people as embodied in their current President José Ramos Horta.
Connolly and playwright David Williamson have constructed a script that has avoided potential pitfalls associated with layers of flashbacks. At times the pace faltered as the context or the suspense was being established.

There is little attempt to present detailed characterisations of the Balibo 5. Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton is the focus of the group. His re-enactment of Shackleton’s famous TV report from the frontline is impressive. You can compare the two on the website. The rivalry between the Channel 9 and Channel 7 crews continues today, though in a less friendly way.

Anthony LaPaglia gives a very convincing performance as Roger East. He has enough weight both figuratively and literally to carry off the role of a seedy, disillusioned journo.

Oscar Isaac manages the difficult job of the young José Ramos Horta. Fortunately he does not try imitating this distinctive and well-known personality.

Gyton Grantley (Gary Cunningham), Nathan Phillips (Malcolm Rennie), Mark Winter (Tony Stewart) and Thomas Wright (Brian Peters) show the depth of Australian acting talent. As does Simon Stone as ABC journalist Tony Maniaty.

The East Timorese cast are exceptional. Anamaria Barreto meets the high expectations of child actors these days as young Juliana. Her parents are Timorese and she lives in Darwin. Bea Viegas gives an intense, moving portrayal of the adult Juliana. Osme Gonsalves also impresses as Ximenes, a Fretlin soldier. It is difficult to find out the names of many of the actors as they are not listed on the website or IMDb.

The film raises many questions about the political responsibility for what happened and the need for justice to be done. This is a dark part of both Indonesian and Australian history. It does not attempt any definitive answers. That would be another movie. The historical background is analysed in depth and can be accessed through the official website.

Balibo works very effectively as both a political statement and a personal drama.

See it!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bastards: all in a day's work

Melbourne International Film Festival

The Bastards (Los bastardos) is an award winning Mexican film. It’s mostly Spanish language though it’s set in the United States. Fausto (Rubén Sosa) and Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) are illegal day labourers. They have been hired to murder someone. We follow them on their mission.

In only his second feature length movie, writer/director Amat Escalante clearly worked at using his limited budget by the use of unconventional techniques:
Basically I was looking for a feeling of overwhelming fear. Something that is bigger than us but you cannot define.
Los Bastardos blog
Nina Zavarin gives a disturbing performance as Karen, a lost soul in LA suburbia. Trevor Glen Campbell as her son Trevor does a convincing job of alienated teenager.

The strengths of this very experimental piece are also the roots of its weaknesses:
  • Long takes with little or no panning or use of zoom. Characters occasionally move in and out of frame and there is the odd dolly shot. The lack of variety is irritating and hard to justify in many of the scenes.
  • Action taking place off-camera, sometimes “behind” the camera. It's trite and ineffective.
  • Long silences, that cause us to lose interest as the story does not progress.
  • Sparse dialogue. The characters’ motivation or psychological states remain too clouded.
  • The use of actors with no experience. (Nina Zaravin was an exception.) There are few intense verbal clashes between characters.
It was shot in “five intensive weeks” of filming. A redeeming feature is the absence of the shaky hand-held photography that has been so trendy but is rarely used effectively. Unfortunately the cinematic style adopted does not lead to increased drama.

It would be wrong to classify this as an action movie. Very little happens. Nor does it quite hit the mark as horror or thriller. There is some suspense but it doesn’t provide the tingling tension or build-up we associate with these genre.

It isn’t very nail-biting. You just wish they would get on with it. It’s certainly edgy at times but the snail pace is frustrating. The only surprise is not what happens but when.

Going by the awards The Bastards has received, there is a keen audience for this film. This gives some hope to independent filmmakers with little money. Unfortunately it is unlikely to reach the cult status of films like Robert Rodriguez's el cheapo El mariachi.

There are many other measures of success. A last word from Amat Escalante:
I think the most interesting and amazing thing that I've done with my second feature, on a personal level, is working with two people who are not actors who at first could not believe that they were going to be in a movie and then get to the Cannes festival ... a movie with them is an experience that changes your life, both they and myself.
Los Bastardos blog

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Amreeka: Fresh Off The Boat

Melbourne International Film Festival

Amreeka presents the experiences of Palestinians living in the West Bank and those who migrate to the United States. The word is Arabic for America. It’s about their everyday lives rather than the political situation, though this dictates many aspects of their existence at home and abroad. The impact of 9/11 on work, school, family relationships and normal social interactions underlies this very human story.

Two sisters from Bethlehem of all places are reunited in Illinois: Muna (Nisreen Faour) the optimist who wants a better life for her 16 year old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) and Raghda (Hiam Abbass) the hardened pessimist who wants her husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda) to take them back to Palestine.

Adjusting to American culture is hard enough without the added burdens of prejudice against migrants and the anti-Arab feelings generated by the war on terrorism.

In many ways writer/director Cherien Dabis has created a soft-sell movie. It’s about understanding not retribution and it's executed with lots of humour. We do not see the worst of the occupation. It mostly presents the small humiliations and day-to-day abuse of their rights.

The wall dominates their lives. Its graffiti calls not too subtly to the audience: “ICH BIN EIN BERLINER!” and “BEEN THERE DONE THAT!”

Of course, the anti-Islamic feelings are misdirected as Muna’s family are not Muslims. This is not the first use of this trite device in a film about Middle Eastern migrants. Among others the Lebanese in The Combination are Christians but experience the same kind of racial profiling.

The first two people to befriend Muna are outsiders themselves. Her workmate Matt (Brodie Sanderson) is a high school dropout. Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), a teacher from Fadi’s school, is a Polish American Jew.

The rest of Muna’s extended family are well portrayed by the strong cast including her three nieces Salma (Alia Shawkat), Rana (Jenna Kawar) and Lamis (Selena Haddad) and her mother.

Amreeka is a gentle persuader that is well worth seeing.

Bran Nue Dae Blazes

Melbourne International Film Festival

The film of Bran Nue Dae premiered to enthusiastic audiences at MIFF 09. Director Rachel Perkins* and a first class Australian cast have brought the musical to life with energy and fun. Rachel has described the process of bringing this much loved stage musical to the screen as frightening and fun. This indigenous Shakespearean-style comedy is all fun.

Young, star-cross'd lovers are separated. Willie is an aborigine at boarding school in Perth in 1969. He dreams of reuniting with his sweetheart Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) who is back in Broome. He is played by Broome schoolboy, the angel-faced Phillip "Rocky" McKenzie. Geoffrey Rush is the wicked Father Benedictus who wants him to follow in his footsteps into the priesthood. He is determined to stop Willie from getting back home. Willie's unlikely saviour is Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) a drunk, a conman but a charmer.

Along the way we meet two hippies in a combi wagon (Missy Higgins plays Alice with style), Roadhouse Betty (Magda Szubanski) and the raunchy Roxanne (Deborah Mailman, also stylish).

As befits a classic comedy, many complex relationships are revealed at the finale on the famous Cable Beach. In the words of its theme song:
There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine

* Rachel Perkins directed the indigenous musical film One Night The Moon, which has been turned into a stage production opening in Melbourne’s Malthouse soon.

(Official website is under construction)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Zift Happens

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Zift is film noir set in post-war Bulgaria. Its black and white format works for this historical piece, creating a very appropriate mood. It is gloomy and seedy. It also moderates the ample blood associated with the inevitable violence. The magnificent settings reflect both the pre-war architectural grandeur of Sofia and the grey totalitarianism of the communist state.

The film has many of the classic noir stock features. Following release from prison in the 1960s, the protagonist Moth (Zahary Baharov) narrates his story taking us back to 1944. The mystery revolves around a diamond missing from the original crime scene. The femme fatale Ada or Mantis (Tanya Ilieva) is his school sweetheart. There is lots of suspense and a protracted chase. We meet a range of oddball characters during his one-night fight for life.

Betrayal is an essential part of this genus. The “villain” is his old partner in crime Slug (Vladimir Penev), now a powerful apparatchik who has thrived under the brutal, repressive Stalinist regime. Moth knows that he should trust no one.

This is an entertaining and at times troubling look at what people will do to survive. In keeping with the genre, it has an underlying layer of misogynism. There is little challenge to the view of women as men destroyers. The praying mantis metaphor is indulged both verbally and visually.

Both Baharov and Ilieva have very strong screen presences. He’s a man’s man, muscular and square-jawed. She’s lean and lithe with enticing eyes. The pair ooze sensuality, especially when working off each other.

According to Moth, “zift” means "bitumen" and was used as chewing gum. It’s also slang for “shit”. Very fitting for this dark movie. However, it’s tempered with some humour. Moth’s scrambles through the women’s section of a large bathhouse. He dives into a pool to retrieve a false eye that belonged to Grater (Tzvetan Alexiev) a prison friend. It’s worth seeing just for the gallery of tattoos. There is a sample in the trailer.

Director Javor Gardev and novelist/screenwriter Vladislav Todorov have crafted a tight script within an ample 92 minutes. Lots of other filmmakers could follow this example of brevity.Zift is definitely worth a look.

(The sub-titles on the copy shown at MIFF were less than satisfactory at times, which is very disappointing given its release was nearly a year ago.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Silent Wedding: no laughing matter

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Silent Wedding (Nunta muta) is three films in one. A search for the para-normal. A romantic comedy. A political drama. It’s one too many.

There are many truly comic moments in its village that at times feels like sixteenth century rural Europe. The peasants are struggling to come to terms with the realities of Stalinist Romania in 1953. They treat their small local party cadre with ridicule. The modern day ruins of the giant factory are the legacy of this clash with brutal authoritarianism.

The characters and settings are pure Bruegel. Mara (Meda Andreea Victor) and Iancu (Alexandru Potocean) are a courting couple full of the joy and pleasures of youth. Their feuding families are finally united when a wedding is planned. Three upcoming events determine the date of the celebration and set their fate.

Firstly, the circus is coming. Coincidentally Iancu’s best friend is a dwarf, a seemingly essential element in stories of the supernatural. Secondly, the communist party has arranged a propaganda film night, a challenge in a place without electricity. Finally, Lent is approaching, with its deep significance for these religious people.

Silent Wedding has lots of entertaining and funny parts. There is a very effective three Stooges slapstick routine, a very difficult task at any time. The silent wedding scene is very amusing for the most part. Unfortunately, like the movie itself, it is too long with just too many visual gags and unnecessary detail.

The modern day TV crew’s search for a para-normal story could easily have been omitted to tighten up this production. The supernatural elements could also have been left out.

The unfolding tragedy is apparently based on a true story. If so it doesn't quite do its subject complete justice.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Walter Murch: cinema diamond cutter

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Walter Murch's CV as a filmmaker reads like a Who's Who entry of American cinema: The Conversation, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and many more.

In Murch - Walter Murch on Editing he talks about his role as film editor on some of the best known movies of the last forty years. He's a talking head with a difference.

Edie Ichioka and David Ichioka's documentary is not about the technicalities of editing. There is little jargon or complex technique. Its strength is in the exploration of how film is created, in particular the collaboration that brings image, sound and story together.

If you're into filmmaking, put this one high on your list of must sees.

In the Loop: war of 4-letter words

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

In the Loop is a very enjoyable, well made spin off from the British TV series The Thick of It. Like most top British comedy it relies primarily for its humour on dialogue rather than visual gags.

Leader in this arena is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker the U.K. government's Head of Communications. He is a foul-mouthed bully whose spew of offensive, sarcastic invective is unparalleled. He's a bully who harasses all around him.

The diminutive British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is another Pythonesque character whose droll one liners seem lost on his underlings. His new press officer Toby Wright (Chris Addison) has more than a professional interest in his U.S. opposite number Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and slides down a steep learning curve on his first visit to Washington D.C.

It's a simple plot. U.S.President and U.K. PM want to go to war in the Middle East. The man to deliver this is master spinner Assistant Secretary Linton Barwick. David Rasche as Linton gives us some wonderful Donald Rumsfeld moments. In a War Committee meeting he asks the participants to imagine that a glass of water is a shoe. Mimi Kennedy as Karen Clarke does a competent job as his foil.

James Gandolfini, of Sopranos fame, adds his considerable weight to the anti-war forces in the role of General Miller.

When the film was introduced at MIFF 09 it was described as a mixture of Monty Python, The Office and Yes Minister. It certainly lived up to this accolade with lots of laughs throughout.

Blessed : facing our worst nightmares

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

According to the producers, Blessed “is a film about mothers and children, about love and beauty, about being lost and finding your way home.” Director Ana Kokkinos, of Head On fame, has given us another disturbing exploration of surviving in the twenty-first century.

It is a very grim, gloomy look at ordinary lives in Melbourne’s western suburbs. They are outsiders: single parent families, migrants, indigenous stolen generation, the old to the very young. A lot of it is not a pretty picture: shoplifting, burglary, child abuse, poker machine addiction, clothing outworkers.

It’s the underclass, the working class who are unemployed or underemployed and exploited. Alienation is a sad, everyday fact of life. they are desperate people in a society that is failing them.

The story uses dual timeframes of a single day. Firstly we see the children’s crises unfold from their perspectives. Later the day is repeated using the parents’ experiences as the focus. The threads are tied together by the use of characters that link the narrative both directly and indirectly.

There are haunting scenes:

Two mothers visit the mortuary. One regains some hope, as the other screams unforgettably in despair.

A mother and father sit in a hospital emergency waiting room, separated by an empty seat and a crowded past.

A man cries for his stolen youth and his lost mother.

A woman cradles the unborn child in her womb, both facing a seemingly hopeless future.

The cast is outstanding, showing the depth of both experienced (Miranda Otto, William McInnes, Frances O’Connor, Deborra-Lee Furness, Monica Maughan, Wayne Blair) and new (Eamon Farren, Sophie Lowe, Harrison Gilbertson, Eva Lazzaro, Reef Ireland ) talent in Australian cinema.

McInnes plays the only father in this patchwork of relationships. He convincingly captures the essence of this lost soul, who is petrified, in both senses of the word, by life. Otto and O’Connor each leaves us with a lasting image as she dances, one of hope and the other of desperation.

Blessed is a dark drama that should touch you to the core.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Endgame: finishing off apartheid

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller) is the invisible man who brings together white South Africa and the African National Congress in the early ‘90s. Endgame is a film about talk. It’s the dying days of apartheid. The government condones clandestine discussions in England as a stalling tactic to try to divide the ANC leadership.

Academic Professor Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt) and future SA President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lead the two sides. Separate overtures are being made to Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) by Dr. Niel Barnard (Mark Strong) head of the SA National Intelligence Service. Esterhuyse becomes an unlikely double agent as his friendship with Mbeki grows.

It’s a chess game whose result is famous so the macro-political level is not the focus of this treatment. Mandela is not the central character of this story. Nor do the director Pete Travis and writer Paula Milne spend much time on the brutality perpetrated by both sides. Two short bombing incidents and a fairly tame car chase will not satisfy action movie fans. Silences and stillness are as important as the dialogue, dramatic as it is. It’s a tight script with few wasted shots.

The extraordinary cast includes Derek Jacobi as the boss of Consolidated Goldfields who are the secret sponsors of the talks and Timothy West as President P.W. Botha. The actors manage the Afrikaans accent extremely well. The decision to cast Clarke Peters as Mandela plays out quite well as he captures the spiritual stature of the man without having his physical size.

The filmmakers also resist the temptation to use clichéd fades into the real people at the end. It's a pity that neither the official website nor IMDb give John Kani a credit for his role as ANC President Oliver Tambo. He is among the profiles on Channel4 which showed the film earlier in the year. Its website has lots of additional information about the end of apartheid as well as the film itself.

Engame proves that talking heads can be much more compelling than computer enhanced action flicks.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pardon My French: going through the motions

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Pardon My French is a puzzling title for this colourless film. Un chat un chat is the French name of this disappointing comedy/drama.

To call a cat a cat (or spade), Pardon My French is a dud. Célimène aka Nathalie (Chiara Mastroianni) says that she is “unstitching herself” though she denies having depression. She is a well-known novelist, who sometimes refuses to speak even to her psychiatrist. Apart from writer’s block the causes of her emptiness and identity crisis are unclear. Her lack of passion quickly becomes tiresome.

There are four people in her life who are trying to help her overcome her listlessness. Her seven year old son Adam (Mateo Julio Cedron) is suitably precocious but not enough to redeem the movie’s flaws. They are staying with her mother (Dominique Valadié ) while her apartment is renovated. It’s wrapped in plastic like a Christo Art project. Mum regularly interrupts her sleep baking habit.

Her last partner Viorel (Philippe Rebbot) is even less charismatic than his estranged lover.

A seventeen year old girl Anaïs (Agathe Bonitzer) is stalking her in a “friendly” way. She wants to write about her. Their interactions are sometimes bizarre but ultimately boring.

Célimène’s transition back to some kind of normality is so nuanced, it appears seamless. Apart from a not-so-surprising birthday party, there is no dramatic climax. She just floats back into life.

Pardon My French is not comic enough nor does it explore deeply into Célimène’s inner life. Its competent cast had little to work with.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Breathless: a stunning nether world

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Breathless (Ddongpari) is a stunning film, in both senses of the word. It leaves you feeling battered around the head and awed by the boldness of its themes.

An unlikely group share a Korean barbeque: a girl in senior High School; a divorce woman and her young son; her father; and a former gangster. Missing is the man who brought them together, Sang-hoon, a gangster who worked as a loan shark debt collector.

So are the schoolgirl’s brother and Vietnam War veteran father. They are just two of the many dysfunctional characters we meet in this broken society.

Yang Ik-june, who stars as hard-man Sang-hoon, also served as the film’s screenwriter, editor and producer. It’s a low budget movie that has won a number of awards. Like its anti-hero, it pulls no punches with large serving of graphic violence and “offensive” language. It must set a record for the most four letters words in two hours of film.

Perhaps the most confronting issue raised in this film is the prevalence of domestic violence with wife bashing a recurring theme. The relentless brutality leaves us breathless and disgusted. There is none of the glamour of action movies such as Chocolate. Sang-hoon routinely bashes people indiscriminately. He’s from the “what are you looking at” school of thuggery.

However, his relationship with schoolgirl Yeon-Hue (Kot-bi Kim) is warm and tender, more sensual rather than sexual. Their arguments bring humour and humanity to their otherwise joyless lives. Kim has a natural gift for the comic moment but also handles fury and fear like a seasoned professional. She has plenty of opportunity to exercise the latter talent.

This dark and gloomy story ends with some hope. However, it is hope tempered with a very large dose of despair.

A Mother's Nightmare

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Madeo (Mother) is a very challenging film from South Korea. Hye-ja Kim as Hye-ja, the over-protective mother of the film’s title, gives an outstanding performance. Director Joon-ho Bong takes us on a tortuous journey that is murder mystery and suspense drama. But most of all it is the tale of a mother-son bond that is stretched beyond the limits.

When her mentally disabled son Do-joon (Won Bin) is jailed, Hye-ja sets out to find the real perpetrator. Her quest brings much more than she could ever have anticipated.

Mom is an unlicenced acupuncturist who believes that she knows a secret point that will help you to forget your worst memories. If only…

There is no classic happy ending. The audience is left to decide if any kind of justice has prevailed.

The touches of humour help to soften an otherwise disturbing look at what happens when a mother goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her vulnerable son.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Flame and Citron: when the Nazis arrived

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Ole Christian Madsen’s Flame and Citron presents two riveting characters who are fighting for the motherland in Copenhagen, 1944. Their job is assassination, ruthless and usually cold-blooded. Their usual targets, who are chosen for them, are Danish collaborators with the Nazis.

This is a violent, bloody story based on real people and events. The rules, if there are any, do not preclude collateral damage. Women and children are among the innocent victims of their deadly resistance to the occupation. Not shooting first is a dangerous manoeuvre as Flame discovers.

Thure Lindhardt plays Bent Faurschou-Hviid, the red-haired young assassin of the duo, with style and control. His love interest is the brooding Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade ), a worthy femme fatale and Mata Hari.

Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the very troubled Jørgen Haagen Schmith, the car mechanic and driver, is superb. The worse his marriage becomes, the more Jørgen becomes involved with the killing, culminating in a colossal Hollywood style confrontation with the German army.

Their network, based on the Holger Danske resistance group, leads a charmed life for the first half of the movie. They meet openly in front of the local Gestapo.

This is a powerful exploration of the lives of these tow national heroes, as personal morality is discarded for patriotism. We are often reminded that this is war. As well as the Nazi war and intelligence machines, they also face divisions, intrigues, political expediency and betrayal in their ranks.

The film’s main weakness is its implausibility. Bent and Jørgen seem invisible to their enemies for most of the story. They are virtually bullet-proof as well. The pair makes several undetected trips to Stockholm for high level resistance meetings. The Nazis can’t have been that stupid or ineffective, though truth is often stranger...

Flame and Citron is part psychological suspense and part action movie. The former works more convincingly than the latter.

Monday, August 3, 2009

No winner in Thrilla in Manila

John Dower's Thrilla in Manila is an anti-climax in many ways.

If it weren’t for rhyme and Muhammad Ali’s love of taunting his opponents, this film might not have been made. Without the racial slur of “gorilla” that is at the centre of their personal feud, it would have lacked punch except in the literal sense.

The documentary has historical significance although little is added to our understanding of Ali’s complex and at times contradictory personality. Smoking Joe believes that his former opponent’s current illness is a punishment from god.

The fight itself is heralded as the greatest of all time. It was close and extremely brutal. It is beyond dispute that both men did themselves irreparable physical harm. Their two previous encounters were one a piece. This treatment of their bitter rivalry, shown from Joe Frazier’s point of view, leaves a bitter taste that the classic When We Were Kings (Rumble in the Jungle) did not. Neither the duelling duo or the world of professional boxing comes out looking pretty. Suffice it to say that Joe had lost the sight in one eye in 1964, eleven years before this match. It had gone undetected by the authorities or perhaps was just overlooked.

It is hard not to compare Thrilla with the Rumble, Leon Gast’s 1996 documentary about Ali regaining the title from George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Dower had to rely on limited original footage and resorted to a lot of repetition of the clips available. Gast had extensive footage of both the fight and the long weeks beforehand. They seemed to be having a three month long concert with James Brown and company while Foreman’s hand recovered from injury.

Dower used a similar narrative structure. Both films examine the choice of a third world dictatorship as the location and the odd hour chosen to meet television commitments in the U.S.

Much is made of Ali’s political involvement with the Nation Of Islam, most of it covering the same ground as the earlier film.

If Frazier had given up his bitterness, this film would have lost much of its sting. Sadly there was no real winner in the Thrilla in Manila.

Defamation: in search of anti-semitism

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

“It’s time to live in the present and look to the future,” is a seemingly trite assessment of the issues facing Israel today. Yet writer/director Yoav Shamir’s documentary Defamation (Hahmatsa) is a refreshing and original take on anti-Semitism. Not only is it a Jewish perspective but also Shamir is a Gen X Israeli. He is wicked in the very modern meaning of the word. His occasionally mocking tone contrasts with the extreme seriousness of his overall examination of this vexed topic.

His journey takes him to the United States in search of causes and instances of anti-Semitism. It leads him to heated debates about anti-Zionism:
  • Is it a mask for anti-Semitism?
  • Is supporting the cause of the Palestinians or criticism of the actions of the State of Israel a form of anti-Semitism?
  • Is the holocaust used as an excuse or rationalisation for Zionist excesses?
  • Are Israeli's interests being undermined by the U.S. Israel lobby?
His access to people and situations is remarkable. Who could refuse an Israeli Jew who is researching anti-Semitism? He goes inside the U.S. based Anti-Defamation League, including extensive interviews with its leader Abe Foxman and coverage of his trips overseas proselytising to some of the world’s political elite.

Shamir accompanies a group of Israeli students on a ‘March of the Living’ to Auschwitz. It’s an historical pilgrimage with a highly political agenda.

This passionate, personal piece of journalism is also remarkably balanced. We hear the ideas, concerns and opinions of a wide range of people:
  • Yoav’s 92 year-old zionist grandmother who thinks that overseas Jews are more interested in money than religion;
  • African Americans who believe that there is some truth to the long discredited Protocols of Zion;
  • well-off secular American Jews who believe that Israel is an “insurance policy” against future genocide;
  • the bitter and extremely frank Professor Norman Finkelstein who sees conspiracies by pro-Zionists as the problem;
  • academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt whose book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy argues that "the lobby's impact has been unintentionally harmful to Israel as well";
  • a teacher and students during their Polish excursion.
Yoav Shamr was accused of being anti-Semitic following his 2003 documentary Checkpoint that criticised Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Defamation gives us a chance to judge for ourselves.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Inferno: Clouzot's classic cut short

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

It’s a compliment to Henri-Georges Clouzot that his unfinished film L’enfer (The Inferno) has an entry on IMDb. The recent French documentary L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot explores the reasons for its abrupt termination. It also pays homage to a potentially great classic, alongside his other films such as Les diaboliques.

Romy Schneider, who starred as Odette, was at the height of her career and her onscreen presence. Serge Reggiani, who was the catalyst for the film’s abandonment, played her psychotic husband Marcel. Clouzot’s uncharacteristic lack of focus and on-set heart attack were also culprits, it seems.

Salvador Dali’s surreal contributions to Hitchcock’s dream sequence in Spellbound have nothing on the special effects created for Marcel’s nightmares of jealousy. It is worth seeing just for these alone.

Unfortunately all the sound has been lost. Some script-readings and voiceovers, plus some discreet sound effects, help to enhance the extensive original footage.

This is one for movie buffs: a documentary about a film that was never finished.

Chocolate: Kill Bill 3 Thai Style

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Director Prachya Pinkaew, a martial arts specialist, gives us a kickboxing movie with attitude: Chocolate. The hero is a teenage girl Zen played by 24 year old Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda. The thin plot involves her fund raising efforts for her ill mother Zin (Ammara Siripong). A case of Zin and Zen.

This movie has everything: Yakuza gangsters; glitzy transvestite Thai mobsters; autism; samurai sword duels; novel fight sets. Not to mention hundreds of fights and an ample sufficiency of blood. Some of it's real as the closing credits include a black and white montage of accident clips from the shooting of these extravaganza clashes. Pinkaew doesn’t just rely on computer graphics. Stars and stunts alike share the scars. He also pays homage to Tarantino with a Kill Bill 3 scene to die for. There is even an allusion to Indiana Jones. (No animals were hurt in the making of this film.)

Not my usual genre but it surpasses the little I’ve seen of Jackie, Charlie and Jet over the years. Its popularity is evident in the 600,000 + views, plus 500 comments, that the YouTube video above has received.

A must for all the action fans who enjoy a good fantasy. There is no shortage of movies about genocide at the festival if you want real violence.

Snow: Bosnia's complicated peace

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Snow (Snijeg) is another movie that explores the dark side of humanity but offers hope to those who survive the worst that modern society can serve up to them. It’s Bosnia 1997 and the Slavno village is trying to cope without the men who were taken away during the war. Their fate is still unknown. There are only two males remaining, Dedo (Mir Hadžihafizbegović) the grandpa who leads prayer at their wrecked mosque and Ali (Benjamin Đip) a young boy who is totally traumatised by his personal horror.

Young widow Alma (Zana Marjanović) struggles to bring her husband’s dream to life by making the area a viable farming community. When two Serbs come offering to buy their land for developers, past and future clash as they search their souls for a way forward.

The cast have a mixed background of theatre, film and television. The children are all first-timers. It doesn’t show in their performances that are excellent given the dramatic nature of their parts.

Zana Marjanović gives a very controlled portrayal. Writer/director Aida Begic captures the rhythms of her life in close detail. Alma’s relationship with her mother-in-law Safija (Vesna Mašić) is skilfully realised and nuanced. It is Aida’s first feature-length venture, after directing short films.

As religion plays a central role in their community, the couple of supernatural elements are forgivable.

If you get a chance, don’t miss Snow. In Aida Begic words:
War is one of the most essential situations one can experience because of the constant closeness of death. If death follows you in peacetime, then peace continues to be as essential as the war was. Peacetime is sometimes more complicated than the war.

… This relationship between life and death, war and peace, past and future creates a lot of absurdities in the lives of people in my country. It creates a lot of questions but gives no answers. Pain and joy, love and hate, east and west are all happening and clashing at the same time.

… it may sound overly romantic to insist that the struggle for truth and freedom is worthwhile. But maybe we just need to be reminded. If art is not there to remind us, then what is?
Director’s Note