Small Tales and True: Short Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival, 2007

Simon Sellars: Melbourne International Film Festival

Still from The Boy Who Loved Rain.

by Simon Sellars


Originally published in RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007.

Recently in RealTime and elsewhere I’ve been critical of Australian short film and animation, so much so I’m beginning to bore myself (and doubtless others) with the old refrain.

Still, I voice these criticisms from a position of respect for the Australian independent scene and its unrealised potential, which is why it was so refreshing to attend the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Australian short stories session.

These weren’t shorts made by superhero writer-directors who think they can do it all, insulting the audience’s intelligence with woeful scripts, lame punch lines, toilet humour and clichéd narrative tricks, and they weren’t shot in such a hyperaware glossy. fashion that I was forced to wonder whether the director wouldn’t be happier making ads. Instead we were presented with genuine, lived-in dramas rooted in experience and a sense of worldly self-awareness. These were films made by people who actually have something to say about their immediate environment, rather than by filmmakers who appear to have little motive other than adding another notch to their showreel by aping overseas trends (trends that are stale by the time they reach these shores anyway).


Indigenous short film


Australian Stories, a showcase for Indigenous film, included four animation shorts produced as part of the 12-strong Dust Echoes series that collects Dream Time stories from Arnhem Land, produced by the ABC in association with Deakin University and the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation. Of these, Mermaid Story (James Calvert, 5mins) was told entirely through music and sound—no narration, no dialogue. Mixing cut-outs, silhouettes and traditional drawing styles, the simple story, about a man who chooses to live with mermaids, thus forsaking his family, was achingly poignant. The Bat and the Butterfly (Dave Jones, 5mins) was perhaps the most impressive. Its characters looked like a cross between gingerbread men, stone carvings and claymation, and the story was told through snatched whisperings and ambient desert sounds, culminating in a powerful tale of cowardice and lack of responsibility versus courage and redemption. Dust Echoes was stunning, with every element in synch, creating a rich, sensory experience—visualising the Dream Time by melding the techniques of the future with the raw emotion of the very distant past.

The live action in Australian Stories was also impressive. Pauline Whyman avoided sentimentality in Back Seat (5mins), a film seen mostly through the blurred POV of the child protagonist, aimed at the Aboriginal family she sees at the end receding through the window of the car driven by her white foster parents. Stark emotional dynamics told the story: close-ups of car locks and windows; a simple Polaroid frame left lingering in the memory.

The hilarious Nana (Warwick Thornton, 5mins) featured a young girl’s comments on the titular oldie, an ancient lady whose good works include beating up alcohol smugglers who threaten the sanctity of her community. In her down time Nana paints, delighting the little girl with her off-the-cuff remark that “I paint the same painting every time. White people wouldn’t know the difference anyway.”

Adrian Wills’ Jackie Jackie (5mins) is a completely warped film about an Aboriginal girl who has to put up with the ghastly prejudices of her white boss at the supermarket where she works. All around her, the robots who work at this place are represented in hypergarish style: blue plastic wigs, clothes in colours that would do Howard Arkley proud. In the end, the boss gets his and the message is clear: stick up for yourself, because self-respect is often all you’ve got. Back Seat, Nana and Jackie Jackie are from the AFC Indigenous Branch’s latest initiative, Bit of Black Business (see page 23).

Darlene Johnson’s Crocodile Dreaming (26mins) starred David Gulpilil as an elder with the power of magic. When his clan’s sacred stone is stolen and thrown into the river, Gulpilil must defy totemic crocodiles to retrieve it. He’s the perfect choice for such an ‘aqua man’, with his ultra-smooth skin and pitch-dark eyes like portals to another dimension. The film is a tour de force, including all the performances (Tom E Lewis is the antagonist); Darlene Johnson is one hell of a filmmaker—the disturbing scene of a crocodile’s revenge and another where one swims quietly above Gulpilil are testimony to that.

When the Natives Get Restless (28min), also from Adrian Wills, is a raw look at an Aboriginal housing estate in Dubbo, a lawless non-place. One resident says, “My life’s not worth living”; another despairs, “I hate Dubbo, hate the estate, hate what it’s done to me.” The point is made that in the city people only hear media versions of what goes on, like a recent riot depicted here. The film takes us beyond that. An interviewee says that ever since settlement black people have not been allowed to work. After you see how subtly and insidiously hardwired this attitude is, you realise this country hasn’t come very far. Here, aggressors come to seem more like victims and we are left shaken with the sense that people are still left to live like this in the 21st century.


Animation


The animation component of MIFF 2007 also contained some impressive Australian work. Thomas Fraser’s The Boy Who Loved the Rain (7mins) was a wonderful, impressionistic and atmospheric short, blending all sorts of morphing effects with nature’s rain and the unnatural snow of a TV set, while Susan Danta’s The Bronze Mirror (7mins), based on a Korean folk tale, related with wit, style and grace the story of simple folk bamboozled by their reflection in a mirror. The absence of these two films from the 2007 Melbourne International Animation Festival’s disappointing Australian Panorama, supposedly a showcase of our best recent local talent, is puzzling.

Of the internationals, The Adventures of John & John (William Bishop-Stevens, UK, 7mins) told the story of a couple of geeks who invent a machine that projects thoughts onto a screen. With its fearless crosscutting of variegated animation styles aligned to fierce, black humour and a self-deprecating tone, this one was a cut above. However it was matched by Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow (India, 16mins), about an elderly Indian lady living in a grey present-day dystopia dreaming of her former life via the multicoloured, psychedelic hues of her matchbox collection, souvenirs of the old country. Taking her cat along for a ride through inner space, she steps into the ultravivid matchbox scenes, perhaps never to return, willing a better life in a transcendental, beautifully rendered testament to the power of the imagination.

Lapsus (Juan Pablo Zaramella, Argentina, 4mins) was loads of fun, its blocky, black-and-white style milking maximum coverage from a nun whose body changes shape and form seemingly against her will. Yours Truly (Osbert Parker, UK, 7mins) was an outstanding noir: found objects from old films and magazines reanimate to provide twisted thrills (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid with a Blood Simple sensibility). Spain’s The Lady on the Threshold (Jorge Dayas, 14mins) was disturbing, an unearthly combination of secret sects and voluntary amputation enhanced by the deceptively passive quality of the animation.


Experimental


I also caught MIFF’s Experimental Shorts program. Nothing matched the highlight of last year’s session, in which two fat Germans wanked to Mozart. Instead we had Silver Poem (Cristiana Miranda, Brazil, 4mins), a riot of monochrome textures, scratchy film and a great soundtrack. Order-Re-Order (Barbara Doser, Hotstetter Kurt, Austria, 7mins) used video feedback to form all sorts of shapes from cellular blobs of light. It was like diving into a dissected brain to the accompaniment of phased, symphonic, loop-locked music. Stuart Gurden’s Harmonium (UK, 9mins) also played perceptual games, using visual and aural tape loops to create complex inter-rhythms that slowly resolved themselves into a Terry Riley piece overlaid with spoken text by Kurt Vonnegut. Harrachov (Matt Hulse, Joost Van Veen, P Esther Urlus, UK & Netherlands, 10mins) was old school, visually reminiscent of Nosferatu, all stop motion and time lapses, with its depiction of a machine assembling itself. That’s a clichéd theme, but the addition of shots of nature also assembling itself—clouds moving, water rippling—lent the film a timeless quality that was beguiling.

Finally, I’d like to note Paul Winkler’s Popkitsch (Australia, 17mins), a hellish mishmash of the tackiest cultural refuse: a midi soundtrack of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” set to flipbook-style animations of kewpie dolls, photos of Hawaiian muscle hunks endlessly replayed, coagulating into a poptrash, shapeless blur…This film sums up the maddening quality of MIFF’s experimental shorts: that thrill of recognition tempered by utter, infuriating banality that makes you question your very will to live with the crushing, yet sometimes bizarrely uplifting, boredom of it all.

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 25-Aug 12, www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 19