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.

Philippe Grandrieux’s Acceptance Speech at Las Palmas Film Festival

April 22, 2009

At the Las Palmas International Film Festival in Spain last month (March 6-14), I had the honour and pleasure of accepting two awards (one for innovation, another for cinematography) on behalf of the great director Philippe Grandrieux and his new film Un Lac (A Lake, 2008) – and of reading the following speech (translation mine) which he sent to me via SMS! – Adrian Martin

“I thank the Grand Jury of the Las Palmas Film Festival for having awarded two prizes to Un Lac. And I am happy they will be delivered into Adrian’s good hands. I am also very happy that these awards come from a country that I especially love. Light and innovation: what a beautiful definition of cinema, of its vitality and greatest energy. I am unable to attend the Festival, because my film is being released in France in a few days – but, despite the distance that sadly separates me from you this evening, I joyfully accept these prizes at the very same instant that you give them to me, because they are coming from Las Palmas to Paris carried at the speed of light: the light of cinema, which is the light that illuminates all our lives. Thank you again, Philippe Grandrieux.”

Sprechen Ze Deutsche?

April 21, 2009

by Alida Tomaszewski

Opening night: back-dropped by a classy, chandelier supporting, antique mirror-toting Como Cinema complex, the schmoozy banter and fight for finger food begins. Hundreds of people gather in cordoned-off areas as polite conversation is made during the wait for opening night’s film of choice, The Baader-Meinhoff Complex. Whilst trying to observe the crowd I hover around the V.I.P area (much less subtly than intended it turns out), when a woman turns to me to strike up a friendly conversation – only she’s speaking in German, and my eyes are glazing over. I let her finish a seemingly long introduction before I apologize for my limited/non-existent knowledge of German. This revelation is met by marked surprise, which is then met by my marked surprise at her marked surprise. It begs the question as to what audience this festival is attracting, and are they attracting who they want to attract? Peter Krausz, Melbourne-based festival organizer believes “the real mandate the festival has is to promote German culture in Australia.” My question is, to whom? One would think not just to the Germanophones of Melbourne.

“From a cultural point of view our goal is to create an awareness of the variety of artistic expression, life-style and talent in Germany” says Klaus Krischok, AFGF festival director. “It’s to help German film find an audience abroad, in this case, Australia. One thing that irks me is that some Australians perceive the festival of German films as a community event, that it’s here for the Germans, and that’s definitely not the case. The questionnaires we took in 2007 told us this. It can seem like a community event because we have a lot of Germans, but we did a survey of 1000 people, 500 in Sydney, 500 in Melbourne and we found that 66% of the cinema goers have had no previous contact with Germany. So two thirds of festival goers have no German connection, and one third who do have that strong German connection. We also discovered the average age is 39 years, 60% female, a middle to upper income group, and mostly tertiary educated. Reasons to come are varied…” The man knows his numbers.

However, in comparison with my experiences, Krischok and I will have to agree to disagree, despite his miraculous statistics. Despite his test group of a thousand, perhaps Krischok is himself aware of the lack of targeted-presence at his festival. “Our target audience is not 55 year old Germans, our target audience is 33 year old Australians. The goal is to not necessarily grow [our numbers], but to find the right kind of audience, an appreciative audience. But I know from experience that the quality of the audience (be they German or otherwise, 55 or 21 years old) is very very good.” This is undoubtedly true, the audience is film literate and highly engaged, but from what I’ve experienced in six days of non-stop AFGF attendance, they have not managed to bring in Australians in a way that would make the festival feel less like the community celebration that so irks it’s director.

Admittedly, Opening Night’s audience might not be entirely indicative of the larger festival demographic. However, I find myself almost at the half way point of the AGFF, and my sense of the demographic has not changed. During panel discussions audience questions were laced with thickly-accented questions of East/West German issues and other socio-political queries specific to the nation – seemingly questions from the German community with answers for the German community. The Festival of German Films does not manage to resonate with the cultural interests of the general Australian public to the same extent as the French and Italian film festivals. “The French Film Festival is a bit of an exception because it’s older”, says Krischok. “It happens in more cities and has even more of an audience than ours”. Krischok feels that The French Film Festival is probably the benchmark, even if it currently feels like an unattainable goal. “One could say that we’d like to get to the level of the French Film Festival which won’t happen ’till…I don’t know when.”

In aiming to etch out a space for German traditions in the contemporary world’s ‘cult of culture’, the AFGF is trying to accomplish that which has not even been achieved by Germany itself. The Australian collective cultural consciousness has become ingrained over decades with multicultural elements. The German culture however does not yet pervade the international market or inhabit international consciousness to the extent of its French and Italian counterparts, whose cultures and traditions pervade our own through food, music, art, language and in this case, film.

Singapore Panorama

April 21, 2009

by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin

Almost all of the filmmakers I’ve met at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) agree that film festivals are a great starting point for new filmmakers and serve as a platform for films that wouldn’t have an opportunity to be screened commercially. Even the famous Amos Gitai feels that commercial cinema today is getting to be too commercialized and cookie cutter, which prevents the public from seeing some great art films. In SIFF, there seems to be a specific focus on local films as there are many Singaporean categories and awards. A section called Singapore Panorama, a highly anticipated section that was first introduced last year, is dedicated to discovering new and exciting Singaporean features and short films.

For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the direction that some of the seven short films took. Sexual themes seem to be prevalent in SIFF 2009, albeit with a few being censored or banned from screening altogether. The Singapore Panorama Shorts dealt with issues which are specifically Singaporean, such as the compulsory National Service in Blank Rounds, an experimental film by several directors, and common human attributes such as love, lust and longing.

Dirty Bitch, a semi-musical short film was an unexpected surprise, and not necessarily in a good way. Inspired by a badly censored VHS of Claire Denis’ Nenette et Boni found in the Singapore library, the entire 13 minute short revolved around a police constable’s sexual fantasy who was lusting over his “chubby” colleague, who unfortunately was in another relationship. He narrates distastefully his desires for her while the image cuts back and forth between him masturbating and her being in a sexualized state while doing everyday things. Strange sex, white bunnies, violence and polka music should make for a memorable film, but not in this case.

Five emerging local directors collaborated in a project called Infinity showing the never-ending cycle of certain elements of life. Still Life, a personal favorite of mine, was a compilation of ambient sounds taped by the sound recordist on various locations such as a bathroom, football field, closed room and bedroom. All the shots were still and we were able to see and hear what the man holding the boom was experiencing. What made this film striking was the use of static actors against a live background, as if the performers’ moves had been frozen and recorded in a similar way to the sound. A segment called “Untitled, 17th January 2009” showed a camera moving 360 degrees from the starting point of a Chinese calendar. As it panned across, the things in the room revealed that it belonged to an old Chinese woman. A shirt, box fan, talcum powder, back scratcher, satay fan and an old dresser appeared as the camera moved while a conversation between an old lady and what is presumed to be her granddaughter was heard in the background. As the camera returned to the starting point, the voices slowly faded and then disappeared. The camera’s 360 degree pan portrayed her life in full circle, and the cycle a woman goes through in a single day. Although it might seem long and mundane, I found the film absorbing and just when you think it’s ending, it starts all over again. Nothing is Forever had clever shots of a glass being filled to the brink but not spilling, toilet paper rolling down endlessly but never finishing, a chunk taken out of a piece of meat being immediately refilled, and a teller (presumably) quickly counting notes. The film finishes with the water level in the glass getting fuller; the person pouring eventually stops. The film suggests that the material things in life can constantly be refilled or replaced, but we should know when to stop when things have reached their limit.

Blank Rounds evoked a lot of emotions from the very start. Depicting the strict regime of the compulsory National Service that young male Singaporeans are required to participate in; the film tells the story of a participant who was belittled by his commanders and bullied by his platoon mates. Depressed and unhappy, Recruit Tien resorts to extreme measures to escape from the program. Desperately needing to “hang on to his sanity before losing it”, what happens next would churn anyone’s stomach as he consumes his own faeces. The unexpected twist in the final scene left me feeling uneasy and slightly disturbed. Tien’s facial expression when we find out that his insanity and depression is an act reminded me of the ending of Shock Corridor when the main character starts laughing hysterically.

In Garden Girls, a divorced and distressed photographer finds distraction in his female neighbour’s intimacy with her girlfriend. He is fascinated by them and follows them as he captures their pictures. Instead of being outraged when he is caught, one of the girls requests him to photograph her on a very sad day in her life. Somehow, this causes him to let go of his past and find closure. Garden Girls started with great potential, but a mix of unrealistic circumstances and poor acting made it mediocre.

Mosquitoes-Xiao Fu was described as a 10-minute gem, presumably because it was shot expressively using a Super-8 camera. This was the most technically accomplished film: striking in its use of colours, music, and hand-drawn images of flying creatures, but pretty and pleasant rather than ambitious.

Probably the hardest – and longest – film to watch was Love Lost. A man finding difficulty letting go of a relationship visits Taiwan where his former girlfriend resides. Painfully long shots and extremely stiff performances made the 45 minutes seem an eternity. If it wasn’t for the filmmaker who was sitting next to me, I would have walked out! His artistic attempts failed terribly and some were too cheesy. The director clearly wanted to depict the character’s loneliness, by showing that he would rather be amongst strangers than be alone. A scenario which would be simple enough to execute, without needing to have the man ‘stalk’ a Buddhist priest for hours, asking “is there still hope?” The climax of the film was when the former lovers momentarily reunited. Again, the director’s attempt at portraying emotions using still shots with complete silence was nothing but boring and lengthy. The stills lasted for 4 minutes. The film went on for 45.

Reconstructed Homelands

April 20, 2009

by Lesley Chow

With over 600,000 expats, Singapore has numerous cultural events tied to nationality, and festivals dedicated to German, Korean, Chinese, Italian, French and Japanese film, catering to cinephiles but also acquiring prestige for the city’s positioning as a global arts centre. Aside from the use of one cineplex, the majority of films at the Singapore International Film Festival are screened in hubs of high culture, locations which would otherwise showcase theatre, languages, literature and visual art: the Singapore Art Museum, Goethe Institut, National Museum, Arts House. Most venues are in Singapore’s colonial Arts and Heritage district. The National Museum has a somewhat grand ambience, with its formal gardens and white façade; visiting its cinémathèque, one has the sense of entering a rarefied atmosphere after dark (a magnificent exhibition of Christian Lacroix’s costumes for dance and opera was showing down the hallway.)

The exceptions are the free outdoor screenings held for the Singaporean comedies Kallang Roar and Money No Enough 2 (the latter a rare popular local success, not coincidentally featuring a mix of Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Singlish), clearly marked off from the rest, and a few broad aspirational comedies scattered within the program, such as the Australian film The Dish. Thus most films at SIFF are experienced in the context of a fine art institution, and in the case of certain screenings, take on the feeling and status of a diplomatic event.

That was the case with the appearance of this year’s international guest, Israeli director Amos Gitai. Gitai was the subject of a mini-retrospective presented, with some fanfare, in terms of understanding and contextualising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via his “persistent gaze.” Publicity for the program tended to focus on the political issues surrounding his films, with Gitai being asked to weigh in on the events of November 2008. The retrospective was conducted in the tradition of festivals shining a regional and topical “spotlight” on areas affected by controversy. (SIFF’s poster image this year is a hand-held camera in the centre of a thunder cloud, illuminating a backdrop of mountains – presumably indicating a vision of far-sightedness, glimpsed within a lightning-rod moment.)

The catalogue text did not acknowledge Gitai’s own strangeness as a director, although a publicly staged conversation referred to the architectural concepts which inform his depictions of death and violence. Specific examples were not discussed, but I thought they might include the scene where two men drive to a cemetery in Devarim (1995, not shown at the festival); the camera glides back and forth over a series of white tablet-like buildings, whose reflections then smear in the car window on the way home. The effect is echoed in the opening of One Day, You Will Understand (2008), when we scan walls inscribed with names of the dead. In Kippur (2000), a man walks through a deserted city before driving almost casually into a war zone (Gitai has said that he prefers to “construct a poetic representation” of violence so that it retains the “nightmarish quality it has in real life.”)

Several of the films screened, selected by Gitai, become cathartic by virtue of the star power of their lead actresses. Disengagement (2007) takes on the emotional sensibility of Juliette Binoche* – who resembles a classical tragedienne, with hair knotted – adding a further layer of ambiguity to style. I find Gitai a puzzling director, unsettling in some of his choices (the scenes of lovers writhing in paint in Kippur), and fascinating in the mixed meanings generated by his editing patterns, which alternate between impassive long takes and unconventionally “obvious” juxtapositions. Bertolucci has remarked that, while being filmed by Gitai, he sensed both danger and excitement around him, picking up on the director’s ability to draw the possibilities for violence into a scene.

* By the way, Binoche is quite amazing these days – no longer content with merely giving her face to camera (The Horseman on the Roof, The English Patient), she’s embarking on some wild experiments with her body. She’s silly and floppy when a film needs it (Dan in Real Life), adopts a slack-bellied pose to suggest coarseness (Summer Hours), and does an ingenious play on actorly mannerism in Disengagement. She combines the “mad” acting approach of Vanessa Redgrave with something much more elusive: she seems always changeable, driven by idiosyncrasy.

Interview with Amos Gitai

April 20, 2009

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

With his long and varied body of work, Israeli director Amos Gitai has had shorts, documentaries and fiction films programmed at numerous international festivals, including this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, where he was invited to present six of his films, including his latest, One Day, You Will Understand. We asked him to reflect on having his films shown in a range of countries and cultural contexts. In keeping with this theme and his concept of “hybridity”, we also asked him about his use of international stars and cross-cultural encounters.

Q: One of your subjects is how people of different origins change in reaction to new surroundings, how their identities and self-images adapt. What particularly interests you about that sort of encounter?

A: I think the world today is a kind of a composite environment. Every one of us has ancestors who come from one place and live somewhere else. Cultural identity is kind of like a “souvenir” because the reality we live in is shattered and it doesn’t exist anymore. I think this is the material that we filmmakers can use, this fragment.

Q: You’ve been the subject of many international retrospectives, so you’ve had the chance to see your work curated in different contexts. At SIFF and other festivals, your work has been framed in terms of understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you feel that’s an appropriate presentation of your work?

A: It’s a limited view. We are all born somewhere but it doesn’t mean that our mind and our work is limited just to where we were born. I definitely do have an interest in subjects relating to my country, but I also touch subjects that go beyond that. However, it is not for me to decide how my films are presented. If I have time I would gladly come and talk about the specifics of my work, but more often than not it is out of my hands. They (programmers) are the exclusive interpreter of my work.

Q: What kind of influence have film festivals had on your career?

A: It’s the main form of distribution, since commercial distribution is becoming even more strictly commercial. Festivals give people a platform to expose themselves, and works that they wouldn’t be able to show otherwise.

Q: How do you decide which festivals to show at?

A: At this stage I’m fortunate enough to have festivals come to me and propose to show my work, and I am able to be a little selective with where I present films.

Q: Do you worry about the sociopolitical context of your works being lost at international festivals?

A: No. I think people are intelligent enough that they can “read through” things. Even if I am, say, reading a Chinese poem of the 12th century, there are some parameters within which writers can achieve their effects. People from different cultures will have different readings and see things differently but I think that’s inevitable.

Q: When you use a foreign star like Natalie Portman or Juliette Binoche, do you have to take the audience’s special interest in them into account? Do you have make sure that they don’t unbalance the film’s tone?

A: Absolutely. You have to make sure you contextualise their effect.

Q: You’ve said before that film is not such an “intimate” art, that you have to translate “your idea through a lot of filters until you finally get the results. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: You have to work with other people. Filmmakers come to a stage where they have to consider many other factors. Usually people just think of the significance of producers, but the DOP, actors and sound recordist are just as important. My works wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for them. Film can’t be a work of a single person. The director is important as he or she gives a sense of what people need to do together, but still without a team they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goal.

Q: What kind of challenges does your style of long shots impose?

A: You definitely need to structure the shot and create a choreography with the actors.

Q: The siblings in in your recent film Disengagement had a very close, almost decadent relationship, like the one you see between characters in, say, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Can you tell me about the construction and significance of that relationship?

A: I wanted the great intimacy between the characters, but at the same time they had to be separated. In order to get that effect of separation I had to create the intimacy as contrast.

The Festival as a Cultural Meeting Point

April 20, 2009

by Nienke Huitenga

Take your seats and buckle up, the Audi Festival of German Films (AFGF) has taken off. Klaus Krischok, director of this cultural event was proud to announce The Baader Meinhof Complex (Oscar nominated film by Uli Edel, 2008) at the opening night, last Thursday in Melbourne. Holding my popcorn and coke, I was ready and eager to see whether all the excitement surrounding this film was justified. It is certainly an impressive film; however, this piece of art gushed over me like a history-flash, and I felt I did not get a better understanding of this particular moment in German history. In this condensed thriller, 1960s RAF-leader Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), his radical girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and idealistic journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) are the only consistent characters among the numerous fleeting accomplices. This film is not a lightly digestible blockbuster, far from it, and maybe therefore not quite as successful in sharing the story adequately with an audience less familiar with this complex intrigue. Exciting action sequences, punchy dialogues … however, this film is a real brain-drain because of its complexity. Nevertheless, ironically, it was a most appropriate opening film, considering that Lufthansa (one of the AFGF golden sponsors) was hijacked in the film, and it is highly probable that Andreas Baader stole an AUDI (golden sponsor), as Mr. Krischok confided in me in an interview.

This distinct cultural event is one of many in Melbourne. Being a very recent Melbournite, I have noticed that the French, Italian, Turkish and Spanish have done well in bringing their national cinemas to the Australian theatres. Melbourne seems to be a city that breaths and thrives on cultural celebrations. Krischok rightly states on the official festival blog that ‘film festivals like ours are the gateway for international films to Australia. Despite the rise of digital formats and individual viewing experiences there still seems to exist a strong appetite for a communal cinema experience in front of the big screen.’ I must say, although the AFGF is here to show the best of recent German cinema to the Australian audience, to lure the film savvy Melburnians out of their homes, there definitely is a strong ‘communal’ German-Australian attraction-value to this festival. I couldn’t help but notice how people comfortably addressed me in German (cued by my Goethe institut T-shirt, probably) at the opening night, and other screenings as well.

Interestingly, just before the screening of Lippel’s Dream (Friday morning 11am), the same specific audience was present. Lippel’s Dream is a children’s film about a boy (Lippel) whose father, a successful chef, has to leave him for a week with an austere nanny, because he’s invited to work in America. Lippel, a quirky cheerful boy with a vivid imagination, comforts himself with the Arabic 1001-night bedtime stories, and loses himself in an adventure that switches between his fantasy world and the horrible reality of the oppressive regime of the nanny. This film obviously appeals to the young audience escorted by their parents. They evidently had a German-Australian background as, again, I was addressed in German while I was representing the Goethe Institut at the Kino (cinema). Naturally the Institut hopes to promote itself through this festival, and it would be a logical place and premise to do it. However I wonder whether this cultural event will actually attract enough interested Australians (as distinct from German-Australians) to be successful in its objective to sell German culture (language courses etc). They unquestionably will succeed in showcasing their viewpoint on Germany’s edgy, experimental and political film culture to the larger audience. Exemplary for their success was last weekend, where several screenings were nearly sold out, and Q&A’s well received.

To conclude, the AFGF presents itself more like a German sanctuary than I had expected. Therefore, I would like to reflect in the coming days whether this particular festival might relate more to a cultural celebration (in all its facets) than a critical exposition of Germany’s film industry and culture.

Malaysian Gods

April 19, 2009

by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin

Controversial Malaysian independent director Amir Muhammad is no stranger to the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). He has screened most of his films here and this year he personally chose to premiere Malaysian Gods in Singapore over Rotterdam. Unlike his two previous films which were completely banned by the Malaysian censorship board, Malaysian Gods passed without cuts but was not allowed to screen. Muhammad is the first and only Malaysian to have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2006 he had the luxury of premiering two films in Berlinale. However, in his own words, Muhammad would choose an Asian premiere over a European one any time, and Singapore was the most obvious choice for him. When Malaysia banned his infamous Last Communist Standing in 2007, Singapore gladly screened it uncut, and from then on, Muhammad has often been featured at SIFF.

Muhammad challenges the norm in a conservative country like Malaysia. While most people in the arts would be very wary of addressing government controversies and political issues such as racial segregation and distribution of rights, Muhammad chooses these as his main themes. Malaysian Gods is a first for Malaysian cinema, in that Tamil is the main language featured in this film. The majority of the cast were from the ethnic Indian Tamil minority group (with the exception of a Tamil-speaking Chinese woman), who are barely represented in Malay films. The introduction of the film is a list of facts about ethnic Indian groups, which might confuse audiences expecting a film in Malay.

Prior to the screening, a panel member from the discussion led by Muhammad stated that Muhammad’s films are never to be judged based on their titles or descriptions. This film was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the biggest street demonstration in Malaysia as a result of the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister on corruption and sodomy charges. While the event was a serious one that left a huge impact on Malaysian history, the film explored peripheral and at times unrelated issues rather than just focusing on the event itself. Although Indians are a minority group who are often sidelined, their small and powerful voice in the Hindu Rights Action Movement (HINDRAF) gathering last year resulted in the worst election results the ruling government has seen in 50 years – therefore Muhammad refers to them as the Malaysian Gods.

The irony in this film extended to its soundtrack, which featured a popular Malay love song being played on an erhu (traditional Chinese stringed instrument) by an Indian man in Kuala Lumpur. The next thing we hear is upbeat Bhangra music in the background as we read details of historical events followed by live footage of the demonstration. The film ended with the statement: “we must not mistake perfection for progression”.


April 19, 2009

by Lesley Chow

Albert Serra’s Birdsong sits oddly within the Singapore International Film Festival’s programming mix. Even in a festival with several austere dramas, this Spanish director’s work is on another level of aesthetic minimalism. Although the stated aim of the festival founder, Geoffrey Malone, is seeing “another side of the human condition” and “transporting us into” other worlds where we may see “we are not so badly off after all” – some of Amos Gitai’s films certainly fit the bill on that count – Serra’s films don’t oblige.

While the program tells us that Sincerely Yours, a drama about poor immigrants in Taiwan, is “in essence about…the celebration of the human spirit”, Birdsong is by comparison unrevealing – less of a “window” on the world than a large tonalist canvas, a work of minimalist landscape art. I find Serra’s films to be textured like Constable’s paintings of clouds, with their shots of near-stillness and ghostly, evaporating atmospheres. Occasionally, his images seem to “lock” onscreen: to go from being part of a formal procession to an inability to budge, as if the impetus for action had suddenly been removed. Serra’s work has a kind of slow-pulling momentum which becomes hypnotic; however, some find the inertia frustrating – his previous film, Honor de Cavalleria (2006), a reworking of Don Quixote, sparked walkouts at the Melbourne International Film Festival when an image failed to shift for more than a minute.

Birdsong is a dried-out version of the tale of the three wise men, similar to Honor de Cavalleria’s extreme reduction of Don Quixote to a bare stage and faltering signs of heroism. The three men trudge around a landscape of mountains and rocky formations, the severity of which suggests that this is “all there is.” That they are kings we can tell from their broken crowns and the cloaks that balloon awkwardly around their bodies, but their bearing is far from regal. These are tentative old men, who occasionally work themselves up to hoarse whispers or exhalations; when they do confer, it’s generally to muse on their own stagnation and inability to come to a decision. Like Beckett, Serra shows ineffectual bodies set against stony landscapes; the men are seemingly directionless and grumbling in their search for the baby Jesus. Their attempts to read the blank, motionless sky and earth come to nothing; their figures are often reduced to dark buds bobbing above a white plain. When “transcendence” does arrive, it takes on a startlingly didactic form: a strange, intense woman pops up from nowhere, and bluntly tells us that Christian doctrine is unquestionable.

The three men lie around hoping for a plot to materialise, as attempts at sticking to the Biblical narrative fall off track. Even Mary and Joseph, who ostensibly have more defined roles to play, are not free from apathy; Joseph lazily asks the time of day, and wonders what Mary feels like doing. Clearly, character motivation is not something which communicates itself to these people, except in odd fits and starts. Nevertheless, even in this opaque world, a coup does occur (spoilers ahead.) During an idle moment, the men suddenly come across Jesus and plop down their offerings for him; in a rare instance of synchronicity, all three hail the infant and prostrate themselves, having apparently worked out a gestural code beforehand. However – in another nod to Beckett – once they lie down, they seem to have little inclination to get up, and may well have fallen asleep.

An interesting choice for SIFF: after seeing a number of determinedly small family and relationship dramas, it’s refreshing to encounter something on this scale of stylistic ambition. The SIFF promo screened before films urges us to make the most basic of character identifications: to empathise with “the fiancé that cannot say no…the girl who sits alone at lunch.” However, it may be that, as in so many film festivals, the use of generic marketing language is a red herring, leading us to expect a more conventional program than SIFF delivers. The sold-out session of Birdsong is evidence that local audiences know to read between the lines.