Postcards from the Sydney Film Festival

First published in Metro Magazine.

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Monique Hohnberg and Miles Merrill report back on four unique films from Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and China that showcase the depth of this year’s festival program.

sydney film festival 08 by monique hohnbergThis year Sydney Film Festival director Clare Stewart’s ambition to increase the festival’s international standing was realized with the introduction of the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize. Two Australian films, The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008) and Three Blind Mice (Matthew Newton, 2008) were among the twelve films in official competition, with the so-named ‘Blue Pavlova’ awarded to Britain’s Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). Stewart had created a buzz at the Cannes Film Festival in May by announcing the jury for this year’s SFF, which included the formidable Gillian Armstrong. There were sixteen world premieres at the festival, not including the Australian ones. This is all good news for the Australian film industry and the extra attention will hopefully attract overseas interest and finance. Also of note were the number of Australian films that were made overseas.

The program included such works as The Choir (Michael Davie, 2007), which follows the story of South African prisoners singing in the national choir competition; Children of the Silk Road (Roger Spottiswoode, 2008), which was made in China and is the first Australian-Chinese co-production; and Son of a Lion (Benjamin Gilmour, 2007) which focuses on a village boy in Iran hoping for a better life. It’s commendable to see filmmakers thinking outside the box when the local industry is at an all-time low. Going global can only help to revive the industry, make use of its talents and consolidate our international reputation.

The popular categories Kids’ Films and Sounds on Screen remained part of the festival, as did the films on disability. With the Beijing Olympics looming, it made sense to have a special section devoted to China; even more so since the country is slowly but surely letting filmmakers make films that fall outside the propaganda restrictions.

The festival is not about box office appeal, although there were undoubtedly crowd pleasing films.

The selection criteria for the Sydney Film Prize shortlist states that all films must ‘have emotional power and resonance; be audacious, cutting edge and courageous; and go beyond the usual treatment of their subject matter’. The same can be said of many films across the program that weren’t shortlisted, and four are reviewed here. The festival is not about box office appeal, although there were undoubtedly crowd-pleasing films – it is a chance to see humanity in all of its glory and sadness, to tell all kinds of stories. Monique Hohnberg

Wonderful Town

The languorous feel of Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat, 2007) reflects the small sleepy Thai town that it is set in. Don’t be fooled by this, however: still waters run deep here. Wonderful Town has picked up major prizes at both the Pusan and Rotterdam festivals and Aditya is definitely a talent to watch.

Ton (Supphasit Kansen) arrives to supervise the building of a resort in a town that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. He books into a small hotel run by the beautiful Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn). A quiet romance blossoms between them. In one scene, Na steadily moves down the washing line as she removes each item, while Ton follows her, getting neither closer nor further away from her at any point. She throws him sweet glances as she answers his questions. This gives him the confidence to move forward, but never too close. The scene epitomizes the eternal romantic dance that exists between men and women, and displays Aditya’s sly sense of wit.

Our first hint that something sinister is afoot is in the cinematography. We begin to peer through fences, bars and latticed windows to the action happening beyond the ‘superimposed jail’. We then find out that our lovers are not all they seem. Na keeps loneliness at bay with never-ending chores and laundry, while Ton is escaping a destructive rock’n’roll lifestyle in Bangkok. There is a lack of wide-angled shots of scenery – much is enclosed. What seemed languorous now feels hemmed in and suffocating. Aditya deftly allows this to creep up on the viewer in a systematic fashion.

Conversation turns to the tsunami and its consequences. No tourists have returned to the beaches, which means business is too slow. Meanwhile, Na is still ‘drowning’ in all the past destruction and loss of loved ones.

Na’s gangster brother swings between approving of Ton and behaving threateningly towards Na. However, the sleepiness of daily life makes the undercurrent of violence and despair seem muted and childish. Ton and Na ignore this at their peril. Their relationship starts to crumble, and it ends in Ton’s bashing and murder.

The ending of the film seems inexplicable, as it shows Na happy and a separate shot of children (perhaps hers?). The fact that the plot cannot be easily resolved forces the viewer to think about the major theme of the film. Ton and Na are struggling with their problems, yet neither seems to have the courage to make the final commmitment to overcome the past. Instead, more destruction and loss ensues. Anchalee Saisoontorn’s acting is superb; she has an innate ability to convey each situation with vividness, and this adds greater depth to the storyline. The message is that one cannot hope to just become happy: sometimes we must strive towards a better life and be bold. Monique Hohnberg

Little Moth

Little Moth (2007) is a surprising Chinese film by Peng Tao, who directed, produced and edited it and wrote the screenplay. (He was nominated for Best Screenwriter at the Asia Film Awards.) It seems that everyone in Little Moth is trying to find happiness the best way they know, but is failing miserably.

Xiao Ezi (Zhao Huihui) cannot walk, and her poverty stricken family sells her to Guihua (Han Dequn) and Luo (Hong Qifa). Guihua and Luo pretend Xiao Ezi is their child and compel her to become a professional beggar. The local gangsters take exception to Ziao Ezi working in their territory. One evening she teams up with another beggar and they escape their captives. Meanwhile, her new ‘mum’ has grown to love her and will do anything to find her. Guihua teams up with some underworld characters and takes their offer of help at face value. In fact, they are plotting to steal a kidney from her. So, while Guihua is chasing Xiao Ezi, husband Luo is desperately trying to locate and save her.

A woman mourning her own lost child befriends Xiao Ezi. The woman takes her into her home, only to find out that Xiao Ezi’s legs need amputating. She is abandoned on the pavement, unable to walk and with no money or food. All this misery makes one fear that the film will descend into farce, but instead we empathize with each character’s plight. The acting is straightforward and lines are delivered with aplomb. Much is portrayed through gesture and action. The usual technique of close-ups of faces to express emotion and thought processes is rarely used. The nuanced characterization of the father, Luo, is particularly noteworthy. Initially, it seems that he is patriarchal and something of a bully, but then we realize that he does it to protect Guihua from her soft- hearted, naive self. When it seems that he has lost his wife he completely falls apart. In Western storytelling we usually have a good idea of what is going to happen next. Not so in this film: the twists and turns remarkable and unfathomable, and the viewer is always caught by surprise.

is that one single camera take is regularly used for each scene. In addition, it is all hand held camera work. It does look a little like a student film, but despite this, the camera is handled with considerable skill. Using one or two long shots for an entire scene requires careful choreography and camera placement. All of these aspects work to Peng’s advantage. We feel that we are watching real life in progress, rather than a film. These strange and disturbing events are believable. Monique Hohnberg

Monique Hohnberg has worked as a digital media specialist (NSWFTO & WIFT Australia) and now works as a professional writer/actor. Her writing includes plays, films, poetry, reviews and feature articles.

Rain of the Children

It’s 1978. Vincent Ward is twenty-two and living with Puhi and Niki. Puhi, a Maori from the Tuhoe iwi (clan), is in her eighties.
She takes care of Niki, her forty-year-old son. Both of Ward’s housemates are possessed: Niki by a child spirit and Puhi by an exorcist. Puhi mumbles prayers obsessively and her son, essentially a ninety-kilogram baby, tears shelves off the walls and throws furniture at demons.

Ward tries to remain an objective observer while hunched little Puhi chops wood, plants vegetables, cooks and clears the debris from Niki’s emotional hurricanes. Ward lives with them for almost two years and
becomes Puhi’s honorary grandson. He films everything but doesn’t discover much about the history of the pair. The eerie,
meticulous short film, In Spring One Plants Alone (Vincent Ward, 1981), set in the New Zealand North Island’s lush green Urewera
Ranges, uses imagery and very little dialogue to expose these subsistence Tuhoe lives, but doesn’t dig into the cemetery of memories buried in their heads.

Ward has obviously been haunted by this anthropological document from his youth. Thirty years on he has his own demons. He feels guilty over missing both Niki and Puhi’s funerals, and he has no idea what became
of Niki when Puhi died. How did schizophrenic Niki survive another fifteen years without his mother? Ward must go back.

This fresh look is provided in Rain of the Children (Vincent Ward, 2008), an investigation into Tuhoe iwi culture that uses Puhi’s life as a lynchpin. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a prophet, Rua Kenana, saves the iwi from starvation and leads them to build a town at Mt Maungapohatu. Shortly after settling into their idyllic community, Rua chooses twelve-year-old Puhi to be his son’s
wife. In 1916 the New Zealand constabulary invade the community, arrest Rua and shoot several leaders. Puhi escapes and has her first child in the snow atop the sacred mountain. Thus begins a journey of tragedies for Puhi and her children, which eventually explains her constant praying.

Ward films himself narrating as he goes through the ruins of the house he shared with Puhi and Niki. Ward’s personal pakeha (whitefella) story is part of the power of this film. He’s our Western eye into the ‘other’ world, and carries a trunk full of filmmaking power and his own love for Puhi. He mixes current footage with footage from the 1970s documentary, dramatized vignettes in black and white portraying Puhi’s early life, and straight-to-camera interviews with Puhi’s extended famWard’s other films also are also referenced in Rain of the Children. He uses green screen effects à la What Dreams May Come (1998) and the gritty black-and-white cinematography that worked in The Navigator (1988). Not only does it add up to a story worthy of audience tears but, with participation from descendants of Rua, Ward creates an epic testament to Tuhoe culture as it struggles against the crowbar of Anglo-European influence. Puhi’s life story is rich glue for their woes and triumphs. MM


Who is Peter Norman? He is, as far as history is concerned, the white guy sharing the medal-winning platform in the protest by two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. You know the image – two men with fists in the air symbolizing black power. It initially appears as though Peter Norman, who didn’t raise his fist, is not participating in this statement. However, the film Salute (2008), written, directed and produced by Matt Norman (Peter’s nephew), gives us an inside view of how Australia’s fastest runner made a quieter protest and took on the consequences.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists and were sent home, never allowed to compete in the Olympics again. Peter wore a button advertising his support for human rights. He wasn’t sent home, but this Australian record holder, who ran 200 metres in twenty seconds (a record yet to be beaten) was pilloried by the sections of the Australian media and the public. His track-and-field career never recovered.

Salute is a terrific analysis of the circumstances surrounding and leading up to this moment of notoriety. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated. In Australia, the Aboriginal right to citizenship was won in 1967 after a decade of ‘freedom rides’. Images of this injustice seem to have given Peter Norman an empathy with his black fellow athletes.

If Salute was only about Peter Norman, it wouldn’t feel complete. This classic-style documentary explores the protest from many different angles. Peter Norman is the Australian conduit into the controversy. Matt Norman’s use of archive newsreels of civil rights abuses against both African-Americans and Indigenous Australians, along with segments documenting riots in Mexico during the Olympics (2000 protesters were killed, according to the film), prevent this film from just being a biopic.

However, this is also one of the film’s flaws. We don’t hear much about what these three men did after their heroic plummet from the podium. How were their lives reinjected with passion? Matt Norman consistently works the political angle, but we never get the complete humans – just the heroes. Peter Norman, who died of a heart attack during the making of this film, is formally interviewed. The three athletes (now in their sixties) chat in a meeting room. Carlos and Smith make speeches at Norman’s funeral. It’s all very public.

During the Q&A after the Sydney Film Festival premiere, Matt Norman revealed that his uncle was estranged from his family and worked for the Victorian State Government housing athletes visiting from overseas. The real Peter Norman, and for that matter the real John Carlos and Tommie Smith, remain hidden from the screen. We are inspired by their gesture, but details of their suffering or lack thereof would have made a more balanced story. It will be interesting to see what Matt Norman, an obviously adroit filmmaker, creates when the family ties aren’t so close. MM

First published in Metro Magazine