Archive for April, 2009

Lars Henrik Gass essay in new ROUGE

April 30, 2009

An important and provocative recent intervention into ongoing debates about the role of film festivals has been offered by Lars Henrik Gass, Director of the esteemed Oberhausen Film Festival. The essay, titled “Trade Market or Trademark? The Future of Film Festivals” has so far appeared in German in Schnitt magazine (for which Gass has also edited an invaluable dossier on the topic), and in Spanish in Cahiers du cinema Espana.  Now a revised version of the English translation done for Schnitt is available in the current issue 13 of Rouge, at http://rouge.com.au/13/trade.html

Interviews with Festival Programmers: Venice, Rotterdam

April 28, 2009

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

While the Singapore International Film Festival appears to target its local audience very effectively, a clue to SIFF’s status as an international market for regional films might be the producer and distributor contacts listed in the back of the catalogue, and especially, the long list of foreign guests, including festival programmers from Venice, Pusan, Rotterdam, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I asked two major international programmers, Gertjan Zuilhof, from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Paolo Bertolin, a member of the selecting committee for the Venice Film Festival, about their experiences at SIFF, and how they would feel about screening small, localised films for an international audience.

Q: What was your major purpose in coming to the Singapore International Film Festival?

Gertjan Zuilhof: I come to SIFF every year to pick up some titles and new contacts from Singapore and the region. They always have a nice mix of new films from the region and some good international films for the local audience.

Paolo Bertolin: I have been wanting to visit SIFF for a few years now. I always heard it was a key event in the panorama of international film festivals in Asia, and certainly the oldest and most well-established film event in Southeast Asia. I would say then that the major purpose of coming to SIFF this year was for me to experience and discover the festival itself. Added to this, obviously, attending a film festival is always very important for me, in my work as film festival programmer, as a way to discover new films and to establish contacts with local directors and producers, also in order to get to know about upcoming productions.

Q: How do you generally come across films for your festival? Do you use other festivals for research?

GZ: I visit other festivals, especially Pusan International Film Festival, and I just go around the world to meet filmmakers and see films.

PB: In the case of a major film festival like Venice a great deal of the films are directly submitted to our attention by film producers, sales companies and directors themselves (especially in the case of smaller, indie productions). However, it is sometimes possible (albeit rare) that films that premiered at other festivals could be included in our line up. But that only applies to films that screened at national festivals (i.e. a Singaporean film that premieres at SIFF). Other festivals still could prove a useful tool to discover films though; sometimes you get to know about upcoming local projects or local films that might be in the final stages of post-production and so did not make it to the festival itself because they were not ready.

Q: How would you compare the programming of your film festival to the Singapore festival?

PB: Venice and Singapore are very different. For one thing, Venice Film Festival, along with Cannes and Berlin, is one festival where all films invited have to be world and international premieres. This is a key discriminating factor. While a festival like Singapore Film Festival (as well as many others around the world) includes in its mission the aim of bringing important and acclaimed international films to local audiences (who might not get to see them otherwise), festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin cater to the whole international film community and have to secure themselves absolute premieres and discoveries, in order to fulfil their mission and maintain their pre-eminence in the international film festival circuit. For the rest, specifically in terms of programming, festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin work through a system of very selective programming (the number of films submitted is huge, around 2000) and don’t include thematic programs and focuses (although there might be retrospective sessions).

Q: Would you program a foreign film which required the audience to have a considerable amount of background knowledge?

GZ: If the film is difficult I show it anyway, but there are ways you can help the audience. Inviting the filmmaker to explain his film a bit is one way. I program a film when I think it is good, like Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, which is difficult for its length and the way it refers to local history. [Melancholia, screening at SIFF, was programmed by Zuilhof for Rotterdam in January; the film also won the Orizzonti Grand Prize at last year’s Venice Festival. It’s an 8-hour meditation on the sadness of three characters in the Philippines, who change their identities several times, becoming pimps, prostitutes and nuns in the process.]

PB: This is a thorny issue. But let me state something first off. In the case of festivals like Venice or Cannes, no one can really claim to “program” something because of his or her own choice, if they are not the Artistic Director himself. Technically speaking, I am not a “programmer”, but a “member of the selecting committee”. This means that I am one of the people who choose the films for Venice, but I alone cannot choose anything. The films I might see and find recommend for the festival have to be watched by my colleagues as well, and our Artistic Director has to validate each and every choice (he basically has the final say over any film).

Having said all of this, there have always been films in Venice, Cannes or Berlin where cultural, political, social or other elements of background knowledge could certainly play a key part in enhancing the understanding and appreciation of the films themselves. However, their inclusion in the festival line-up generally might have been dictated by aesthetic choices in the first place. Let me make myself more clear with some actual examples. If a film from some corner of the world proves to be an “important” film in its local context because of the political or social issues it tackles, perhaps even in a very brave manner – political and social issues with which audiences from the rest of the world might not be so familiar with – but its narrative and its visual style respond to very conventional and predictable concerns, it would be highly unlikely for this film to make it to a festival like Venice. On the other hand, films which make statements about a very local political or social situation, and which include cultural references that might be obscure to foreigners, still have a strong chance to make it to the major festivals (and perhaps might even have a higher chance to get into them) if they convey that political, social or cultural meaning through an engaging, inventive or even provocative cinematic presentation. Eventually, issues engendered by “background knowledge” are always overcome by the sheer artistic/narrative/visual quality of the film. If the “issues” or “content” count more than the cinematic presentation, well then, the film’s chances are reduced. But then again, one should draw a more distinct line between different kinds of “background knowledge” required by a film. This is obviously a general answer that cannot enter into too much detail, and as such cannot be taken as a statement written in stone.

Q: Any particular elements of programming you liked at SIFF, or standout films?

PB: I would mention as the real standouts of this year’s competition, Yang Ik-June’s Breathless and Yeo Joon Han’s Sell Out! They are indeed very different films, but in their own terms they both are great achievements, and really one-of-a-kind: Breathless is a very hard-hitting and deeply touching drama about the inescapable heritage of violence featuring unforgettable performances, Sell-Out! is an irresistibly clever and hilarious musical comedy plus anti-capitalist satire. I also very much liked the festival’s closing film, Semih Kaplanoglu’s enchantingly poetic Milk (which premiered last year in competition at Venice), and the marvellous and politically subtle Agrarian Utopia by Uruphong Raksasad from Thailand – indeed a good example of a film that might require some “background knowledge” to be fully appreciated, but that still, thanks to its artistic quality, would deserve to be programmed anywhere.

What’s That “German-ness”?

April 26, 2009

By Nienke Huitenga

Submerged in visual entertainment, and having a close encounter of the German kind, I feel it’s time to reflect on that intuitive idea of German culture and how it engages the attending audience. In a piece describing the status of the 8th edition of AFGF (in an interview by Dagmar Pysik on the Goethe Institut festival blog), Klaus Krischok stated that “it smiles at the Australian audience and looks forward to new and vibrant exchanges with our cool and young-ish viewers.” I think I fit the young-ish viewer profile, and therefore would like to summarise my impressions of how this festival has communicated its ‘identity’ to me.

The Audi Festival of German Films appears to be a delicately balanced composition of films that appeals to a heterogeneous audience. I have attended screenings where I joined a 60 to 70-something audience (Clara, Effie Briest), but equally enjoyed films with a 20 to 30 year old audience (Dr Aleman, Berlin Calling), or younger (Lippel’s Dream, Krabat). Festival related activities like Berlin Sessions – an event where prominent German DJs present their latest electronic remixes – and GDRetro (East German film side-program), give an opportunity to enjoy this festival just the way you like it: an exposition of German cinema (through the available panel discussions and Q&A’s) or a cultural immersion through the variety of identities presented in the films.

Actually, when I read between the lines of the festival’s presentation and program, I find there is something of a gentle juxtaposition: a reunion of a differing generational viewpoints belonging to an intuitive idea of what German cinema embodies. An illustrative example is the documentary Eye to Eye: All About German Film by Michael Althen and Hans Helmut Prinzler (2008). Presented as a ‘celebration of 100 years of German cinema’, this topically reconstructed overview of cinematic history is built on the memories and personal ‘ideas’ of German cinema of ten eminent German filmmakers, including Tom Tykwer, Doris Dörrie, Wim Wenders, Caroline Link, Christian Petzold and Michael Ballhaus. The interview fragments (with the experts) are alternated with thematic sequences of film clips from the most conspicuous (historical) scenes, and edited together as though we are watching one long take on all the (universally) connected (‘German’) themes through time. Characteristic films like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Heimat (Edgar Reitz 1919-2000), M (Frits Lang, 1931), Rocker (Klaus Lemke, 1972) and Fassbinder’s Martha (1974) are nostalgically associated to childhood memories or genius inventions which influenced the artistic view of some of the experts in this documentary.

Festival director Krischok (who was present in the audience during the screening) rightly pointed out that this documentary is not a history lesson, but an emotional journey through cinematic history. This is exactly what makes it both successful and unsuccessful. It is extremely successful for the thematic chain of clips, which take you on a journey through all the different manifestations of German cinema. However, these drifting-along clips and memories leave the less German cine-savvy spectator empty handed at ‘The End’.

The tableau that Eye to Eye sketches lacks accessibility, for it pertains mainly to a more proficient German cinema cinephile. Therefore it conjured up enough questions for the panel discussion following the screening. Most of the questions from the audience were in the spirit of ‘why are there mostly male directors in de the documentary’ (besides Dorris Dörrie and Caroline Link), or ‘why isn’t there any attention to the New German cinema’? A question I personally had in mind is why the more recent episode from the 1990s till the 21st century is not represented, but someone from the audience covered that interest by commenting that she totally did not relate to the presented view on German cinema, because the invoked perspective comes off a bit antiquated to a younger audience. I assumed she felt just as much a bystander to this phenomenon as me: something of a different generation.

The film critics present at the panel discussion, following this screening, tried to take in the criticism and give a satisfactory answer. Panel member Christian Buss (film critic for Der Spiegel) largely agreed with the audience that his favourites were missing too. Adrian Martin (Film critic and Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies at Monash University, Melbourne) tried to give a more film theoretical approach to this inspection of German film culture. Inspired by the suggested ‘German-ness’ (a neologism suggested in the documentary), Adrian Martin raised the question: what does this idea of a national cinema actually lead to? He commented on this nostalgic (canonical) view on German cinema that it falls in the trap of a narrow interpretation of what such a cinema is. In a similar way, Wim Wenders underlines Martin’s point by saying (in the film) that he actually fled from his German roots to America, so he could free himself of a particular predilection what German film should be. Unfortunately, he could not escape and embraced his film culture later on in his career.

The overall impression I have of this festival is that the perspective given on German cinema gravitates to a national, and perhaps self referential, presentation, rather than placing it in a larger, international context. However, the festival convincingly offers an interesting display of the successes of contemporary German film culture. Yet, as I have stated earlier in my first contribution to the blog (‘The Festival as a Cultural Meeting Point’), I am not convinced that the Audi Festival of German Films will disclose its nature, persona or innate ‘Germaness’ as effectively to an audience non-related to Germany’s (cinematic) identity.

On with the Adventure!

April 25, 2009

Adrian here:

Phase 1 of this collective blog project – the ‘residencies’ of four Monash University students at two Film Festivals since mid-May – is coming to a close, although more posts related to these events will appear soon. But this is only the beginning of the WORLD FILM FESTIVALS grand project! This site will remain up indefinitely, and other contributors (not only from Monash itself) will enter the dialogue. Many Festival events will eventually be covered – not from the usual journalistic perspective, but in the analytical ways explored here. Soon, for instance, I will be posting reports and materials from the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea.

I would like to congratulate my four students for their sterling work. I would also like to acknowledge not only the writing, but also the ‘invisible’ editorial work carried out by the students for each other, in the revision of their texts: Lesley Chow performed this role for Farah Azalea, and Alida Tomaszewski did the same for Nienke Huitenga. It is good to see such student-to-student mentoring in action.

I would also like to thank the supportive and interested individuals who took the time to add comments on the site, or helped promote this project on their own websites. Your comments will be followed up on very soon.

Finally, a big thank-you to Prof. Dina Iordanova of St Andrews in Scotland, who encouraged this project from its inception, and included it within the structure of her exciting DYNAMICS OF WORLD CINEMA site. Like me, Dina is keen to keep the ball rolling, and the dialogue growing in a global fashion … so please check back here soon!

Centrality and Sidebars

April 25, 2009

by Lesley Chow

Even though its world premieres are generally limited to Singaporean films, the Singapore International Film Festival presents itself as a platform for discovering Southeast Asian cinema and launching the careers of regional directors: showing, for instance, the first retrospective of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Film festival theorists have often been critical of the way that festivals seek to individualise themselves through claims of specialist programming, while marketing all films in terms of a global humanist focus, as SIFF does in its publicity, asking us to “understand and appreciate life in its many facets” through films. However, in his work on European festivals, the critic Thomas Elsaesser (in the book European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood) refuses to glory in cynicism over the patterns and progressions that make up a festival’s identity. Unusually, Elsaesser is an undisturbed witness of paradoxes – tolerant of the way that an organisation might be led to articulate its own “uniqueness” in conventional terms, without an awareness of going through the motions. Elsaesser underplays, or evenly plays, the revelation of structural contradictions within the system: the tendency for festivals to “set different accents to maintain their profile and identity” whilst taking their cues from Cannes. Why wouldn’t a festival vigorously promote itself in contrast to existing alternatives – and also make a bid for international status?

In any case, SIFF has had frequent retrospectives on Filipino, Thai and Singaporean filmmakers rarely seen elsewhere, such as the ‘60s Singaporean director Hussein Haniff. In lieu of an Asian director retrospective this year, SIFF has elected to screen films that would be very unlikely to get a showing overseas: a selection from Thailand’s national cinema archive, including the oldest surviving Thai film, The King of the White Elephant (1940), notable mainly for its depiction of a leisurely, English-speaking kingdom of Siam and an elephant can-can. When I asked Rotterdam International Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof about his perception of SIFF’s demographics, he felt that international films were being programmed for the Singaporean audience, while local and regional films were targeted towards visiting cinephiles like himself. However, I assume that he didn’t mean slight, albeit charming Thai films like this!

In addition, SIFF has several enthusiastically attended programs of homegrown shorts, and one venue, the Sinema (which usually functions as a resource for independent filmmakers), exclusively screening Singapore films. However, one of this year’s much-anticipated local features, Sherman Ong’s Hashi, was a little disappointing; it was a series of women’s conversations about relationships and infidelity filmed in long takes. Judging from its bleached-out look and the recurring subject of dreams, I’m guessing Ong was going for an Altmanesque rumination on female consciousness, with identities drifting and merging into each other. It doesn‘t quite work, as a result of the self-conscious performances and the dialogue repetitions which come across as unfocused and hesitant rather than hypnotic. The film needed some kind of dislocation: a blotting, or darkening, of its themes and immaculately tasteful locations.

That brooding feeling was present in another local film, Kan Lume’s amazing Female Games, unfortunately censored and withdrawn from SIFF – let‘s hope it turns up elsewhere. After hearing a positive report from my colleague Farah Azalea – and imagining a glorious film from her descriptions – I watched a DVD copy in the festival lounge. With its synthesised sound and a camera which implies curious attitudes towards bodies – hovering just under the eyeline, or cutting off a speaker’s head to show the line of his leg – there is an odd tone to this story of two actresses trying to make it in Kuala Lumpur. One is Eurasian, the other Chinese, and in the contrast of their appearances, the film seems to be working off the frisson of two physical types, similar to the dynamic between blonde and brunette in Mulholland Drive (2001) or Femme Fatale (2002). However, while the Eurasian girl is immediately perceived as privileged and personable by casting agents, the Chinese one is neglected, resulting in the latter’s breakdown of identity. Meanwhile, the two women appear to be the subjects of a placid but voyeuristic gaze, which turns their smallest actions into a narrative of mystery, desire and loss of boundaries. I can’t think of another film which creates such a mood of eroticised amnesia, although possible reference points might be Mulholland Drive, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) and the softcore of Tom Lazarus. The final, luxuriously slow scene casts the rest of the film as a sensual “game”.

For me, SIFF’s other major highlight was the delicious Malaysian farce Sell Out!. Yeo Joon Han’s feature begins by explicitly referencing the world of film festivals, with ever-more obscure events handing out awards in tiny areas of specialisation, and journalists trying to get quotes out of intractable auteurs. I can think of a dozen directors who might be satirised in the scene where a filmmaker insists that cinema “should reflect the boredom of real life” and hence tries to create authentically dull films. Even before its characters break into song, Sell Out! is a kind of “musical”, with its choreographed moments between a cast of entertainment reporters, arts workers and ruthless media moguls.† Characters move in and out of TV screens and theatrical scenarios; I haven’t seen such space-expanding possibilities in a musical, or any film, since Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007).

I loved this joyous film, especially its old-school pairing of a boyish hero with a fast-talking newswoman, and its utterly personal and unusual humour (Yeo says he “didn’t make the film for people outside Malaysia, except maybe Singapore” and wanted it to come across as “a slightly confused work.”) The film’s budget and publicity were so low-key that extras often failed to turn up, and ended up being replaced by, say, the cameraman’s wife. But Yeo made improvisation a virtue on set; apparently he raised the pitch of the songs every week, and constantly changed dialogue to weave a coherent world out of singular encounters. Everything harmonises.

The most lively venue of the festival was the Substation, its lounge a buzz of viewing stations and filmmakers discussing projects in a kind of mess-hall environment. The sense that this was an existing community being expanded to include international participants was appropriate given that one of SIFF’s two festival directors, Zhang Wenjie, is a former programmer for the Substation’s Moving Images, an invaluable program which provides exposure and mentoring for local directors of documentaries, shorts and experimental films. Screenings at the Substation came across as less of a cultural spectacle than at the National Museum or Arts House. The place seemed an extension of the local filmmaking environment, but with the feeling that via SIFF, an experimental scene was being pulled from the periphery onto centre stage.

The Substation was rowdy during a panel session for the Malaysian director Amir Muhammad, who has had several films banned in his home country, but enjoys critical support at SIFF. The informal, chatty atmosphere lent itself to a discussion of Muhammad’s work, especially since his films question the consensus on political events – this year’s Malaysian Gods investigated the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim – and make use of diverse voices to explore surrounding issues, such as the dissemination of information and the way in which people’s memories converge on certain details. Muhammad commented that he finds Singapore’s censors to be less restrictive than those in Malaysia, which is why he chose SIFF for his premiere.

That said, programmers in Singapore continue to face problems with censorship, particularly in relation to sexuality. Before the festival opened, several films I was looking forward to had already been withdrawn after cuts from censors, for reasons of “homosexual content” – for instance, the scenes of lesbian intimacy in Female Games. One film with “homosexual content” which did get a screening was Filipino director Francis Xavier Pasion’s debut Jay, about a gay male teacher who is murdered. Initially I was disturbed that one of the few remaining gay-themed films in the program featured its eponymous character only as a blood-spattered corpse, but this is a wild film with unpredictable shifts in tone. It has a stunning central performance from Baron Geisler as a suave reality TV producer covering the case, who is also gay. His machinations and wit leave everyone – including himself – unable to reflect on their social relation to the crime.

As with Sell Out!, Jay shows us emotion and extroversion ironised by the context of reality TV, while subjecting us to extreme bouts of humor and charisma. The film is too broad to make us question our reactions to the psychological conflicts generated by television, but it’s possible the director has another agenda in mind. Pasion may be mimicking the media presentation of homosexuality, in that a narrative which begins with a gay hate crime turns into an all too effective camp comedy. That the perverse transition is seamless is due to Geisler, who is as memorably glittering and smarmy as Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). SIFF deserves credit for picking up this debut work, which starts off as a sledgehammer satire in its first third, before morphing into a rather more mysterious film on the nature of performance and beguilement. Overall this has been an adventurously programmed festival, with four outstanding mixed-genre, multi-language films – Sell Out!, Female Games, Jay and Malaysian Gods – defining its hybrid character for me.

† As the film shows us, there are many creative ways to sell out, such as hiring a medium to exorcise your idealism, or through a director’s selection of actors. By featuring the half-English Peter Davis as the male lead, the film addresses the issue of “pan-Asian” casting; as in Female Games, Eurasianness is seen as a commercial signifier, satisfying the public’s desire for “fusion” products in the form of multiracial actors and models.

Where is the Sex?

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Up until my last day in Singapore, I was still preoccupied with the idea of the films which had been banned. I wanted to see for myself how offensive a sex scene could be for a film to be taken out of a festival filled with sexual themes. I was trying to see if I could spot any double standards in regard to homosexuality, race and religion. From viewing Melancholia, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Boy, I felt the reasons for banning could be justified given their over-the-top sex scenes.

But Female Games was an exception. I was so grateful that I decided to persist in viewing this film, since it was totally booked out at the festival lounge the day before. It’s easily the best film I saw at this festival and it totally changed my perception of Singaporean films, which I found mediocre up to now. Not only did I fail to understand the reasons for the ban, I felt sorry for SIFF audiences who were denied such a pleasure.

As was the case with the other withdrawn films, this film is said to have prolonged and explicit homosexual scenes. However, the only lesbian scene in this film didn’t happen until the last ten minutes or so, and it showed two women in a candle-lit room dancing romantically and making out semi-naked with Mozart in the background. It barely lasted two minutes, and was supposed to depict a romantic loving relationship. The very few other “sex” scenes were merely suggestive (as was the case with the short films I saw at SIFF) and hardly had a lasting impact, unlike the ones in the other banned films.

What left an impact was how incredibly brilliant the entire film was, from start to finish. The plot wasn’t uncommon but incredibly realistic. What stood out for me was the style. The locations were outdoors, with dialogue drowned out by the ambient noise, as though we were witnessing a real life conversation. The shot compositions were carefully choreographed and each one carried a specific message. When a character revealed a secret to the protagonist, his figure was in half frame and his face could not be seen although his words were loud and clear. The protagonist then looked sideways towards the camera, as if responding to us watching from the other side.

Director Kan Lume breaks many Hollywood codes. Often the camera was placed on a tripod and the subject would move in and out of frame. The pace was slow but not painful, every step filmed without seeming redundant. The dialogue sounded free-flowing and natural – it was hard to imagine it being scripted.

Often the scenes were interspersed with a video interview of the protagonist, but this wasn’t cheesy or predictable. If anything, this technique threw the film off-balance a little, making it more intriguing. At the very end of the film, I was so taken aback by the progression of the plot that some minor details escaped me; I had to re-watch it to satisfy my doubts. Many plot points listed in the blurb never occurred – the director later told me to disregard the blurb, as he had no say in its wording. The film leaves you intrigued, hungry for more but at the same time completely satisfied. It was the best way to conclude the festival.

The Musical Experience at the Audi Festival of German Films

April 25, 2009

By Nienke Huitenga

Amongst the various thematic ties that link film to film in this festival, the one that stands out for me most is music. Within the selection of films that I managed to attend, I have found three films that caught my attention for their portrayal of various German music-cultural scenes. Together as a group they diachronically represent three major moments in German music history: Clara, Hilde and Berlin Calling.

A film that refers to the hedonistic life of a specific music cult of my generation is Berlin Calling. Electronic music composer DJ Ickarus travels the world to play his music on festivals and in clubs, and eventually gets lured down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. In his hometown of Berlin he works on his new album, but the pressure of delivering the album he dreams of, paired with the temptation of drugs, initiates a downward spiral from which we wonder whether he will ever return. Watching this film, I was comfortably submerged in an ambient spectacle. Paul Kalkbrenner, in the role of DJ Ickarus, performed very au naturel although this is his acting debut, for in real life he is a fulltime musician like his character. Thanks to the flowy electronic music, the film is a nice ‘trip’ through the psychotic episodes of DJ Ickarus. However, without it, the story might come off too placid.

Next is Clara, a film by Helma Sanders-Brahms (a distant relative of Johannes Brahms) exposes the struggle Clara Schumann undergoes when her deep love and passion for music conflicts with her duties as wife to Robert Schumann. Young Johannes Brahms, who admires Clara’s talent, touches Clara with his brilliant and entrancing compositions. His charming personality brings him close to the family circle of the Schumann family. Robert Schumann respects him for his virtuoso compositions, and later, Clara finds herself torn between feelings for charming Johannes, and her duties to the care of the mental health of her husband.

Naturally, the film zones in on the music composed by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and these moments are by far the most powerful in the film. The art department and set design give the mise-en-scène a sense of historic truth, however, the characterizations by the actors feel a little beyond the historic period. Pascal Greggory, who plays Robert Schumann, looks a bit uncomfortable in the role of the German composer. It may partly be because, as a French actor, Greggory has to tackle the German language as well as the flamboyant character of Schumann. In fact, part of Greggory’s downfall is in his larger-than-life portrayal of his character, which brings colour to the film but lacks truth. As it happens, the film loses me on several occasions because of the strange camera angles, and jarring transitions. On the other hand, the film captivates me again in its calmer scenes where the pleasure, love and passion of Robert Schumann’s and Johannes Brahms’ compositions are given the time and focus that they deserve. I was both bored and moved watching this film, but in the end I loved it for the justice it did to the talent and artistry of these passionate musicians.

Hilde, my second favourite thus far, is a biopic about Germany’s multitalented Hildegard Knef, beginning with her youthful years. She fearlessly and cheekily auditions for an acting school (at age 14), and without hesitating exclaims that she has talent. Her determined spirit comes through in one of the songs she writes later on in her career – ‘Fur mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ (It Shall Rain Red Roses for Me). She puts down her fist by singing ‘I want everything or nothing!’ It marks the persevering spirit she has in making her dreams come true. Hildegard shakes up 1950s Germany with the first nude scene in Die Sünderin (1951), and tries to make it in Hollywood as an actress in film productions by David Selznick, further signs of her strength and ambition.

For me, the phrases of song-text, rhythmically intercut at various moments of the film, reveal much about Hilde’s life journey. Set between different ‘chapters’ of her career, the poetic motif culminates in a full performance at the end of film. The songs we hear during the film act as commentary, shedding light not only on the atmosphere of her home, Berlin (‘Mein Zuhause’- My Home), but also on her state of mind, as she finds herself as an artist. The jazzy ‘best singer without a voice’ (as Ella Fitzgerald called her) is convincing when the film reaches the last chapter, where Heike Makatsch (Hilde) performs ‘Fur Mich Soll’s Rote Rosen Regnen’ both skilfully and seductively.

Digging Up The Trash

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Unlike some blurbs which appear to have been written by an advertising agency, the descriptions of films in the Singapore International Film Festival catalogue were reasonably good. They were mostly brief but succinct, highlighting potential events of interest in the film, and how the film came to be selected for its particular section. I would say that the catalogue blurbs played a large part in my selection of films: that, and the director, country of origin, and the programming strand (as in, Singapore Panorama, Asian Feature Film Competition, etc.)

My colleague and I made our selections before heading to Singapore, but a few days before the festival started, the website announced that six of the films in the list had been withdrawn. To my disappointment, three of my film choices had been taken out. For the most part, these films were disallowed or passed with edits as they contained “prolonged” and illicit sexual scenes. I was lucky to be able to watch four of these films at the festival lounge, and as I ended up loving most of them. It frustrated me that the festival audience didn’t get to see such great films, particularly Female Games, which I will discuss in a later entry.

If anything, the bans just made people more curious, and I had to queue to see the withdrawn films. Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly, a young Indonesian director’s attempt at combining identity politics with pop culture, and marital issues with homosexual fetishes, would have intrigued anyone who read the blurb. My guess was that the film was withdrawn partly for religious and race issues, since Indonesia and Singapore have a similar mix of ethnicities and religions, but apply different concerns and approaches to them. But ultimately, it was a terribly uncomfortable and disturbing 11 minute ménage a trois (witnessed by a daughter of one of the participants) between grown men with fetishes for army gear that I believe was the reason behind the ban. It’s unfortunate, since a scene that could have easily been cut out prevented SIFF audiences from viewing an honest portrayal of citizens who feel foreign in their own land. The director explained the significance of a Chinese-Indonesian girl eating firecrackers as a citizen who is constantly waiting for something to blow up. He represented the fear, paranoia and confusion of minority Chinese-Indonesians who do not know how to be themselves and are constantly searching for answers. He used non-linear storytelling and built up his stories in segments, offering audiences a total panoramic experience, rather than just a beginning, a conflict and an end.

Next I moved to Boy, a Filipino story of lip-synching drag queens and dancing rent boys. The reasons for the ban of this film were not stated, but if I were to judge it by its ten minute sex scene between a young boy and a rented dancer, I would say that the reasons were similar to the other banned films. Aside from that, full frontal nudity, foul language and the continuous discussion of penis sizes and hard-ons might have seemed inappropriate for a festival like SIFF. Yet if all those scenes were taken out, it would severely affect the plot of the film. Although there isn’t anything extraordinary in a story of a boy who falls in love with a stripper, the performances were convincing and the film’s witty poetry was something to remember.

When the notes on Melancholia stated that it was 450 minutes long, I was almost certain that it was an error in the program (as was the case with a few other films), but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Shot in digital black and white, the film sounded promising from its blurb: the story of a prostitute, a pimp and a nun in the provincial town of Sagada in the Philippines. And judging from some unexpectedly amazing Filipino films I’ve seen at SIFF, I decided to give it a go. But I found the film incredibly painful, with endlessly drawn-out shots à la Andy Warhol’s Sleep. The eight hours turned out only to contain a few scenes. A character would light three cigarettes in turn, with the scene still not ending when the third one had been put out. The two sex scenes were also interminable – fifteen minutes each. Prolonged and illicit indeed.

The Fight for Visibility – Promotional Woes at the Audi Festival of German Films (AFGF)

April 24, 2009

By Alida Tomaszewski

Beyond the walls of the Kino and the Como cinemas lies a desolate urban landscape. All signs point to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, yet I see none representing the festival from which I just emerged. “It’s true, advertising is weak here in Melbourne” says Klaus Krischok, festival director. “That’s the problem with being based in Sydney, you can’t run everything on remote control. In Sydney we have huge City of Sydney banners, because they are our partners, so we have over 200 banners all over the city. But there is no visibility here in Melbourne.” Film festivals are an expensive pleasure and their promotion an expensive necessity. Festival organizers need the help of sponsors and partners to gain decent visibility in their city of choice.

Exiting the Como cinema to enter the greater area of the Como shopping complex, there is a jarring shift, a spontaneous combustion of celebratory atmosphere, an instantaneous disappearance of an entire festival! (You get the idea). “Well, it comes down to contractual obligations by the cinemas” says Krischok with a puff of his cigarette. “If Palace buys the rights for the commercial prints of a film [non AFGF], they’re buying all the paraphernalia with it, so Palace has to put a big poster up outside for their films, and thus we can’t [put ours up].”

In an effort to gain higher visibility and better sponsorship, the festival recently moved beyond Melbourne’s City of Bayside to it’s new South Yarra and CBD locations. Krischok pushed the move to inner-city Melbourne with the intention of securing the City of Melbourne as a partner, thus increasing advertising potential. Krischok is still keen to cure the festival’s promotional anemia, but to date the City of Melbourne hasn’t signed. As the AFGF approaches it’s 10th anniversary, the challenge continues, “I’ve realized there’s a weakness here, but whether we can do it [secure the City of Melbourne as a sponsor]…I’m not sure.”

The festival is almost entirely run by Klaus Krischok and Claudia Kühn of the Goethe Institute. “Basically, it’s a two person enterprise. There are a lot of volunteers and people helping out during the festival, but basically everything from choosing the films, talking to sponsors, writing the program, putting it all together, doing the magazine, inviting the guests, is done by me and Claudia. So it’s hard work and there will always be shortcomings.”

Under-staffing and uncooperative exhibitors do put pressure on the already strained promotional corners of the festival, but Krischok feels the real key to better promotion is being able to utilize media opportunities more wisely, “you’ve got to have a story to give them”. Krischok sits up a little straighter to tell me this one. It is in regards to the GDR retrospective, the first retrospective to ever be held by the festival. “A retrospective is always special, this is the first time we’re doing it, and, this is me talking as a ‘cultural person’, I’m really trying to get some content over. It has got to be done for the cultural/political side, which is what I’m doing, not for the commercial side, but it has a certain advantage as a spin off for the media.”

The retrospective being held is one of rarely seen films of the surprisingly prolific film production of the “other”, the communist German state, the former German Democratic Republic. Screening films such as Carbide and Sorel, Coming Out, Jacob the Liar, The Legend of Paul and Paula, Solo Sunny and Traces of Stone. “Everyone I’ve talked to, and I’ve had about 40 radio interviews, all love that idea of the GDR Retro” he says with a smile. Krischok believes a “hook” can provide impetus for a festivals success. The AFGF made the retrospective easier on their pockets by not attempting to acquire the archival footage, but instead showing the films on DVD. “It’s a great spin off as a story…even though it may not necessarily be the stuff that sells well” – it gives people something to grab onto, brings them to the website and generates buzz.

As an Australian metropole, Melbourne matches Sydney, pace for pace, as the country’s financial and cultural hub, so the potential for growth and change during the Melbourne wing of the festival is vast.
Currently, the Goethe Institute and their festival organizers are playing catch up with an increasingly competitive national film festival circuit. For the AFGF to move beyond being an under-valued blip on Melbourne’s bursting cultural calendar, it looks like it’s going to be a steep (but not unachievable) climb.

Q&A with Robert Stadlober

April 24, 2009

Visiting German actor and star of Krabat, Robert Stadlober, talks to Susanna Guerocak of German Films.

Transcribed by Alida Tomaszewski

SG: Please welcome Robert Stadlober
RS: Hello. I am here on behalf of all the crew, all the actors, the director of photography…because none of them could come they sent me [laughs]. So I’m kind of the diplomat tonight.

SG: As you know Robert played Lyschko tonight, the rather evil character at the beginning of the movie…
RS: Yeah I guess that has to be said because a lot of people in foreign countries don’t really realize that I’m the guy with long, blonde hair.

SG: So how was it for you to play Lyschko in this film?
RS: Well. Quite nice [laughs]. I can give you some background information on this film. It is probably one of the most expensive productions in recent German film history. We shot most of it (especially the exterior stuff) in Romania. We were supposed to shoot for about 50 days, but Romania wasn’t quite as easy as we thought so we got stuck there for I think 3 months, even though we were only supposed to be there for 6 weeks, because Romanian productions are really, well… they promise a lot but they don’t really hold their promises. So most of the time we were just sitting around waiting for some people. Especially, you probably noticed all the snow in the film, they promised us that it would snow all winter in Romania. It didn’t at all. Not one day. So they had to have all this artificial snow and we had a crew from Bucharest doing that, and it took them 6 or 7 hours to do the whole area, and after they were finished, they were at the other end of the set and walked back through all the artificial snow to the catering truck. And we were like “ah, we’ve got footprints in the snow now…that’s not really what we wanted”, and they were like “oh sorry we forgot about that”, okay so we have to dress again. So, it took us another 3 hours to get rid of the footprints. Things like that happened all the time, which meant we ended up shooting for 94 days overall, which is really unusual for a German film. We ran out of money twice during the process. It’s quite a bit of luck that this film is on this screen, we all thought that it would never happen but it finally did. And it was very successful in Germany, we’ve had 1.6 million people watching it up to now which is, for a German film, very good.

SG: Did you get a chance to see some of the Romanian culture?
RS: Well we were in a kind of German style area in Romania – and they don’t have really that much culture there [laughs]. There are a lot of old German churches and apart from that, only strip clubs and bars. We’ve seen a lot of them! But I don’t know if that’s real, original Romanian culture [laughs].

SG: How did you get involved with the film Krabat?
RS: I’ve known the production company for more than 10 years now, and I’ve known since 1998 about the project because it had been the producer’s dream to bring this novel (his favourite as a teenager) onto screen. So I’ve known about it for a long time, and I’ve experienced with him all the struggles that he’s had in financing it, because it’s really not that usual to make genre fantasy movies in Germany, so it was quite a fight. So then, in the summer of 2006 he said he finally has the money together and he wants to start shooting in a month! I was like “What!?” I said “well I’m too old play Krabat”, and he said “yeah, you are”. “Okay, can I be somebody else?”, and he said “yeah just pick someone”, and so I said “I want to be Lyschko”, because I wanted to have long hair [laughs], no no because I wanted to be the villain.

SG: And it suited you really well!
RS: It wasn’t my hair, it was actually a wig. No hair extensions. I could grow hair that long, but it would take up to 3 years or something, and well, I don’t have the time for that [laughs].

SG: What were some of the differences between the book and the film?
RS: Well I must say that Krabat is a really popular novel in Germany, especially for young people, between the ages of 11 and 17/18. I read it when I was 12 and it really had a big impact on me. It was probably the turning point in my “reading career”. Up until 12 I was reading all these fantasy-adventure novels that boys read. After 12 I started reading stuff like J. D. Salinger and Hunter Thompson. The book that was in between the fantasy adventure and all those poets and serious grown-up adult literature was Krabat. So, it had quite an important place in my heart and still has.

The novel is a lot longer and it’s really difficult to put something like that on screen. The novel is 3 years (the length of time that Krabat is on the mill), the film only shows 2 years. Basically, what makes the novel really fascinating is repetition, that all this stuff is happening again and again, and every year one of the boys from the mill dies. We tried to do this in the film at first, but it didn’t really work, because repetition on film isn’t as interesting as it is in literature. That’s the main difference. Apart from the fact the Lyschko is a straight bad guy in the novel and here I’m actually the one who saves everyone in the end. Kind of. [Laughs].
People always ask if we did this because we want to be like a Hollywood movie, but I don’t think that’s the reason. The reason why we made this kind of ending and changed the character of Lyschko is that we believe that people aren’t wholly bad or wholly good. We wanted to have a real human being. As you go on in life things can happen to you that make you either bad or good in certain situations, I don’t think that anyone’s character is just purely bad. So that’s what we tried to do here. Lyschko is kind of the prince of the mill until Krabat arrives, and when Krabat arrives he tries to push him out of the way, and then he realizes that Krabat is stronger than him he has to form new alliances with Krabat and the others.

SG: You’ve been an actor for quite a long time now, did you want to tell us how you got into it. Did you need to take acting classes or…?
RS: …Well I might have needed to, but I never took them [laughs]. I started when I was 12, and that’s nearly 15 years now, so more than half my life I’ve been an actor. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but it’s a fact. A casting agent came to our school looking for a young boy to act in a television movie. I just acted from then on, mainly in a lot of bad television stuff, up to the age of 16. That’s when I quit school, and I needed to find a way to make a living, and I thought well I’ve always done this television crap, I can maybe go on doing that. But then fortunately I got a role in a feature film, and that was the first time I realized acting isn’t just reading lines and making easy money but that it’s really work and that it can be a really exciting and fruitful work that makes you think. You have to deal with a lot of psychological issues and philosophy…So it was when I was 16 that I decided to become a really serious actor, and I’m still struggling to become one at 26.

SG: For the students here, do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to become an actor.
RS: Oh, well, go through life with open eyes, that’s all I can give. I mean there are different kinds of ways to learn. There are people who learn in acting school, and there are people who don’t learn anything in acting school, they just get really messed up there. It depends. For me it’s just really important to experience stuff, I travel a lot, talk to everyone about everything, and try to remember as much as I can to use it for the next films. So, I’m exploiting humanity really [laughs].

SG: Ok unfortunately that’s all we have time for. Thank you for coming, and please thank Robert Stadlober.