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BIFF Diary – Days 1 & 2

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Under new festival director Jennie Hughes, the Brisbane International Film Festival has shaped up as a somewhat more commercial answer to its previous few editions. Eschewing much of former director Richard Moore’s love of the weird and even abandoning its highly functional ticketing system (Ferve—same as at Sydney and Melbourne’s festivals) for…whatever Ticketek is, BIFF 2013 has been shaping up as an interesting proposition and a real test of its new management.

But what we care about here is this: are the films any good? This diary will contain reviews of each day’s films as I see them, including more in-depth analysis for anything particularly memorable, whether good or bad. Let’s begin with a film I saw on Monday as a curtain raiser for the festival.

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The Past

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is easily one of the best films of this young century. Its air-tight family drama calmly reflected Iranian society while also functioning as a knock-out melodrama, right up until that devastating final scene. With his follow-up, Farhadi has opted to shift his focus to Iranians abroad. Freed from the inherent story-telling restraints that country brings, Farhadi loses some of his finesse—both directorially and scripturally.

The film follows Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as he returns to France after four years in Iran to finalise divorce proceedings with his estranged wife Marie-Anne (Bérénice Bejo). She is now engaged to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife attempted suicide and is in a coma. Marie-Anne’s daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) strongly disapproves. Ahmad and Marie-Anne never had children; he instead cared for Lucie and Léa, and helps out with Samir’s son, Faoud. There’s a labyrinthine secret at the core of this unwieldy family, and relationships fray as they emerge.

Farhadi’s approach to the material is curiously indelicate. Perhaps it’s the shift to French language but his dialogue lacks spark and his characters were oddly flat. Ahmad functions mostly as a kind of Iranian analogue to the Mystical Black Man stereotype, while the film has odd attitudes to all of its female characters (all of whom are crazy, shrill, and/or extremely emotional).

Written and directed by who it was, though, it’s still a fine film, just not a great one. Bejo’s performance is commendable, but she is outshone by Pauline Burlet’s tremulous fragility. It’s still an affecting and compelling family melodrama, but here it feels so much more wrought, where in A Separation it was like its characters’ lives were falling out of the screen into your lap. The film’s issues are most evident in the strange, unearned final scene which feels tonally separate to what precedes it, complete with bizarrely overt symbolism alongside the constant repetition of the titular theme.

[rating=3]

The Missing Picture

An in-depth memoir written and directed by Rithy Panh documenting the atrocities committed by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in the last 1970s, The Missing Picture sets itself apart immediately with its disorienting, quick-cut attack on the camera by the ocean. Like a kind of cleansing of the soul, it then goes further by recreating scenes of abject horror using still clay figurines. This is not Claymation; the stillness of the figurines creating an extra layer of dissonance between reality and how it is remembered.

The details of Panh’s life are laid out almost excruciatingly in poetic, elegiac narration. Using a French actor—for all the world sounding like the narrator of Madeline—to recite his story, Panh manages to create a dark beauty in the communist slogans that destroyed a people. The film gives insight not only into the overarching history of the period, but also the day-to-day struggles of a Cambodian under the Kampuchean Empire.

With the clay locations frozen in the medusa-gaze of time, The Missing Picture explores its titular idea of memory versus recorded reality in great detail. Unfortunately, it revisits this theme a little strenuously, which causes it to drift into tedium on occasion. The score is beautiful, the visuals disarming, and the approach to the documentary form utterly unique. It’s not perfect, but it’s indelible.

[rating=4]

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The Killers

My first (and ultimately only) encounter with Andrei Tarkovsky as part of BIFF’s retrospective comprised two of his student films and a documentary on the end of his life and career. The first, The Killers, was adapted from a Hemingway short story, about two contract killers waiting in a lunch bar for the man who arrives each night at six o’clock. As an introduction to the director (for me at least), it didn’t work for me a whole lot. I daresay these might be the last Tarkovsky-directed films you’d want to tackle, rather than the first. The craft is sometimes haphazard, but also sometimes beautiful. It’s an interesting experiment.

[rating=2]

There Will Be No Leave Today

It’s strange when propaganda films are this good, but then the propaganda isn’t much at the forefront. It’s basically the story of a group of soldiers who have to remove thirty tons of stockpiled bombs unearthed near a school by civil works. Intended to be commercial enough for television, Tarkovsky and co-director Aleksandr Gordon prove masters of suspense. Your stomachs swoop with each slight shudder near a bomb.

[rating=3] and a half

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One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenivich

I stayed for this despite my lack of familiarity with Tarkovsky, and it did not work in my favour. Something to revisit once I’ve caught up on all of his stunning-looking features (I tried to fit Stalker into my schedule but alas). A lot of analysis of Tarkovsky’s framing and elemental fixation.

[rating=1] and a half

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Oh Boy

I semi-jokingly called this Mances Ha on Twitter, but it’s essentially true. This is a less focused, less funny cousin to Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s indie gem, but it’s still winning and surprisingly moving. Sharing the former’s choice to shoot in black and white, Oh Boy functions mostly as a series of vignettes in the life of Niko Fischer. A law school dropout, he breaks up with his girlfriend and finds himself purposeless. And while he doesn’t find purpose per se, he manages to secure a better grasp on meaning thanks to the sublime final sequence where he is accosted at a bar by a strange old man.

Despite trying to shake him off, Niko finds himself enraptured by this mysterious stranger whose shattered past is slowly revealed mostly in a long, gorgeous monologue. It provides the film with much-needed pathos and a more concrete sense of being; without it, it would have been a fitfully amusing, meandering trifle. Tom Schilling is terrific as Niko, making this oblivious asshole character weirdly charming.

[rating=3] and a half

Tomorrow: Wajma, Only Lovers Left Alive, Blue Ruin 

Laurence Barber – follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.

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