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Wednesday
Sep062017

WINDOW HORSES: THE ANN MARIE FLEMING INTERVIEW

Canadian multi-media artist Ann Marie Fleming has been on a three-decade journey with her creation, the indefatigable Stickgirl. The latest incarnation of the character is Rosie Ming, a mixed-race 20-something poetess who faces a new life experience when her fledgling work gains her entry into a poetry competition in Shiraz, Iran. Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming is Fleming’s debut feature, a beautifully humanistic journey of discovery bought to life by vibrant animation styles and the voices of Ellen Page, Shohreh Aghdashloo and, as Rosie, Sandra Oh, who calls the film, “Pro-girl, pro-tolerance, pro-diversity and pro-art.”

The softly-spoken Fleming (pictured, above) chatted to SCREEN-SPACE about poetry, Persia and the little stick girl that allows her a booming, creative voice…

SCREEN-SPACE: Where is your relationship at with Stickgirl? After decades together, how would you describe the life you and your creation share?

FLEMING: She’s very much who she has always been. She’s my avatar, sort of a braver, more together version of myself. She is somebody who is able to step into situations and not judge them. Having worked with her for thirty years, this is the first time she has this must exposure and the first time she has had someone els’e voice. A lot of people now associate her with Sandra’s voice, and not my own. So this is a time where she needs to go on a walkabout, reassess who she is, re-evaluate her goals.

SCREEN-SPACE: What does a ‘stick figure’ design allow you to explore about Rosie Ming?

FLEMING: Because she is just a stick character, you can put anything on her, allowing her to develop into anything you want her to be or that she wants to be. She’s an actor in this film; she’s not really Persian, her mother didn’t really die. Yet her experiences are more alive to so many people because so many people can understand and wonder about her. She is such an excellent way to enter different worlds.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was it easy to see this film to fruition? Was a humanistic portrait of Iran and its people as tough a sell as it sounds in today’s climate?

FLEMING: Many years ago, I did get development money for the film, working with my artistic collaborator Kevin Langdale, who did a great deal of the design for the film. Then, in 2009, the Iranian election happened and there was all that violence, leading to Canada cutting off ties with Iran. Suddenly, financiers and sales people were saying, “Wow, great project, but could you make it in China?” (laughs) But it was important to me to have Iran as the setting for her story, not just for political reasons but because this is a film about poetry. It is about being connected over millennia and about how deep and relevant this poetic tradition is. There aren’t too many countries where poetry is such a part of everyday life. (Pictured, above; Fleming, far-right, with voice actors Shohreh Aghdashloo and Sandra Oh).

SCREEN-SPACE: What are the benefits of animation as a platform for your narrative and the film’s message?

FLEMING: Animation is perfect for showing the imagination. So much a part of what this film is the representation of so many different points of view. Having so many different artists do the different poetry sections, coming with there own backgrounds, from different cultures, with their own skill sets, was so important. And setting the film in Iran was only possible through animation.

SCREEN-SPACE: In a world so divided by nationalism, and an administration in The White House setting such a divisive tone, are international audiences likely to be open to Rosie’s journey?

FLEMING: This story started 20 years ago, and has survived through many administrations (laughs). That’s part of the story, evolving through change. I don’t dwell on it too much in the film, but if you look at the lives of each of the poets, they each survived many different regimes or leaders or conflicts. That seems to be the story of so many artists; you are in or you are out, depending on what you say and who is willing to hear it. There have been so many wars and strifes yet through it all, poetry shows us we are still the same people, still looking at the same moon, still caring about the same things. Different software, same hardware, right?

SCREEN-SPACE: Window Horses is ultimately a film that transcends its setting, that goes beyond the borders of Iran…

FLEMING: For at least the last thirty years, most of what we hear in western society about Iranian culture is not positive. This is not a political film, but I did want to convey that point in every society where we come together as people. The poetry festival in the film is really just my experience at film festivals, where you get to listen to what artists from all over the world have to say, which is crucial if you want to converse with them. It is an environment where you can have respectful discussion, actually talk about ideas and be open to them. It is pretty special.

Thursday
Aug242017

PREVIEW: THE 2017 SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL

As in years past, the 2017 Sydney Underground Film Festival exhibits no half measures in presenting the latest in off-kilter international cinema. The 11th annual event launches September 14 with an ironic ode to 80s VHS kitsch before wrapping four days later with the film that Variety intriguingly labelled “insufferable mishmash…almost entirely concerned with bodily functions and bodily fluids.”

Opening night honours fall to The Found Footage Festival, a snarky, giggly takedown of the weirdest clips gleaned from that decade when the video cassette ruled the earth. US comedy writers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher (pictured, below) will front the audience at The Factory Theatre in Sydney’s inner-west and cast an irreverent eye over 90 minutes of PSA madness, regional news bloopers, TVC tastelessness and good ol’ Reagan era nationalism. The pair will also present a ‘Greatest Hits’-style show on Saturday 16th, chosen from footage collated since they launched their project in 2004.

The SUFF closer that so rattled the leading trade paper is Kuso, the directing debut of hip-hop artist Flying Lotus (aka Steve Ellison). An occasionally incomprehensible series of interwoven sketches set after a major Los Angeles earthquake, the film bowed at Sundance to an enraptured reception from the midnight movie crowd but suffered such critical brickbats as, “a noisy, lumpy collection of gross stuff” (rogerebert.com) and a “warm, clumpy bath of repugnant ickiness,” (The Hollywood Reporter); The Verge said, “Kuso finds new ways to test viewers’ fortitude.” You have been warned…

The 2017 line-up includes six Australian premieres amongst the 20 feature films on offer. These are Le Bing Giang’s Vietnamese cannibal shocker, KFC; the Japanese cyberpunk splatterfest Meatball Machine Kodoku, from Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police; Zombie TV); Mika Rättö’s Samurai Rauni, a Finnish Wildman odyssey that has drawn compariosns to Tarantino, Winding Refn and Kusturica; and Umbilical World, a collection of the twisted visions of UK animator David Firth. Genre buffs will find it hard to split which will be the most anticipated of the Australian premieres - the fully restored version of the late George A Romero’s 1973 bio-horror classic The Crazies, or the seventh instalment in the Chucky franchise, Cult of Chucky (pictured, below), from director Don Mancini.

Films landing in Sydney for the first time include Liam Gavin’s Irish black magic thriller A Dark Song; the bad taste romance Assholes, from Peter Vack; the crude, camp blast that is Josh ‘Sinbad’ Collins’ Fags in The Fast Lane; Polish director Bartosz Kowalski’s shattering study of violence and disaffected youth, Playground; Tyler MacIntyre’s giddy, gory coming-of-rage comedy, Tragedy Girls; and, Bill Waterson’s mind-bending Dave Made a Maze (pictured, top), one of the most buzzed-about films on the international genre scene.

Nine Australian premieres highlight the 15-strong feature-length documentary program, with a typically high percentage dealing with the creative struggle. Amongst them are Brad Abraham’s Love and Saucers, a profile of alien abductee artist David Huggins; Pretend We’re Dead, Sarah Price’s ode to 90s all-girl grunge pioneers L7; Belgian director Breckt Debackere’s recounting of underground cinema’s earliest gatherings, entitled Exprmntl; Kristoffer Borgli’s dark satire on consumer nihilism, Drib; and, Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen in Time, a breathtakingly cinematic journey into silent cinema lore made possible by the discovery of rare nitrate film spools.

Also worth noting amongst the factual films on offer are Italian director Federica Di Giacomo’s study of modern exorcism practitioners, Liberami; Freedom For The Wolf, German filmmaker Rupert Russell’s in-depth account of the dismantling of democracy; and, Ulrich Seidl’s Safari, a glimpse inside the psyches of big game hunters that is sure to enrage and disturb.

Returning are the traditional short film strands, often featuring works that are the most closely aligned with true underground film aesthetics. The romance-themed Love/Sick features eight films from five countries, include Australian Lucy McKendrick’s My Shepherd; LSD Factory contains 11 mind-bending, challenging shorts, including works from Brazil (Gurcius Gewdner’s Goodbye Carlos) and Poland (Renata Gasiorowska’s Pussy); 11 mini-movies comprise the locally-produced showcase, Ozploit!; real world oddities and out-there visions make up the short-doc session, Reality Bites; and, the truly bizarre and often deeply disturbing play for the bravest of audiences in the WTF! Shorts line-up, including Cop Dog, the latest from Oscar-nominated Bill Plympton’s ‘Guard Dog’ series (pictured, right).

The 2017 SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL runs September 14-17 at The Factory Theatre in Sydney. Session and ticket information can be found at the event’s official website.

Monday
Aug142017

McLAREN: THE ROGER DONALDSON INTERVIEW

Bruce McLaren remains one of New Zealand’s most beloved sons. A giant in the world of sport to this day, the driver died aged 32 doing what would define him – striving to better the sport he loved, while leading those around him with a rare integrity. “Like James Dean or Buddy Holly, he’s one of those icons who were cut down in their prime and yet their work still lives on,” says McLaren director Roger Donaldson, whose latest study in speed and obsession (the last was The World’s Fastest Indian in 2005) is a thrilling and deeply moving tribute to a national hero. Ahead of the film’s home viewing launch in its homeland, the director of Kiwi classics Smash Palace and Sleeping Dogs and Hollywood blockbusters Cocktail, Species, The Getaway, Dante’s Peak and Thirteen Days sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss the legacy and legend that is Bruce McLaren…                         (Photo credit: Chris McKeen)

SCREEN-SPACE: Hollywood lent on you to be ‘The Starmaker’. Gibson in The Bounty; Cruise in Cocktail; Costner in No Way Out. They were all actors on the cusp that the studios needed to be big stars. Good times?

DONALDSON: The people you get to be in your movies are your movies. If you’re lucky enough to make a good movie and you’ve got the right talent, the whole lot comes together and people turn up to see them. The 80s were definitely a good place for me to be making films in America.

SCREEN-SPACE: When did the young Roger Donaldson first become aware of Bruce McLaren?

DONALDSON: As a boy, I lived in Ballarat with a dad who was very keen on car racing. His father had been a doctor out in the Linton and Skipton region, 30 miles out of Ballarat, and he would drive the ambulance flat out to and from Ballarat. That was his excuse for driving fast and having fast cars all the time, ’34 V8s and a Vauxhall 3098. I remember going to see Bruce race at Sandown Park against Jack Brabham. I kept my diary from the day, so I know that Jack won and Bruce got third.

SCREEN-SPACE: The bond that the elite drivers shared from that period was a unique type of friendship…

DONALDSON: I think Jack was the reason Bruce got to the UK. When he’d return from Europe and visit New Zealand, Jack would leave his cars in the garage owned by Bruce’s father, who’d fix them up. Jack became a close friend of the McLaren family. He was 10 years older than Bruce and he became very much a mentor, someone who recognised how talented the young Bruce was and who encouraged him to come to England. It was a much more intimate group of people. They’d drive from race meet to race meet, the wives and families always being together. Jim Clark and Jack remained close friends of Bruce.

SCREEN-SPACE: From your very first film, Burt Munro: Offerings to The Gods of Speed (1971) to The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) to McLaren, you’ve had a filmic fascination with men obsessed with speed and danger…  

DONALDSON: Only in retrospect do I ask myself why am I so interested in this subject. Truth is I’m no more interested in car racing than I am in going to an art gallery or great concert. My true passion is filmmaking, and if you can embrace the things you’re most interested in you make better films. I have subjects in the world of art that I want to make films about, for example, but the projects that have gained traction are those set in the world of speed. Perhaps what fascinates me about people who do dangerous jobs as entertainment is that their choices pose the question, “What is your life worth?” I did some work with mountaineers, with Sir Edmund Hilary, these people who know what the negative odds are that they are up against but are still prepared to do it for the exhilaration and empowerment. If people were scared of consequences, nothing would go forward. Risk-taking should be a major element of anybody’s life. The risk I took is that it might not all work and I might be a complete failure, that I make movies that nobody showed up for; if you’re a race car driver and you fuck it up, you’re in much bigger trouble.

SCREEN-SPACE: You’ve mastered the craft of capturing the essence of speed on film. What are technicalities of conveying the experience of life threatening momentum?

DONALDSON: The technical side of capturing speed on film is not that easy. One of the first things I discovered was that you have to be going three times the actual speed to make it look fast. Real-time speed, especially without sound, doesn’t look fast. It requires many filmmaking elements, including the great pulsating score that David Long did for us on McLaren, for the essence of true speed to be conveyed.

SCREEN-SPACE: Your interviewees look directly into the lens, a method which imbues the film with a profoundly affecting, first-person perspective. The moment where the ‘fourth wall’ collapses and Phil Kerr addresses you before breaking down is heartbreaking

DONALDSON: Yes, I know. Phil knew Bruce since they were teenagers; they flatted together in Europe. Iknew this story was going to be deeply personal, so I wanted those on camera to talking directly to the audience and not me or my camera. I rigged a system so that they could look directly into the lens but were actually addressing a reflected image of me.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the themes of your film is the memory of loss, of time passing. Did Bruce’s late widow Patty ever see the film?

DONALDSON: No, she didn’t. Key people are acknowledged at the end of the film, like Phil and Patty, who never got to see it. Those that knew him and have seen the film got a charge out of how it honoured Bruce’s legacy and captured his spirit and contribution to the sport. And Bruce’s daughter Amanda was very helpful, providing access to family history and much of her Patty’s personal material. She went on film and provided some lovely thoughts on her dad, but she was so young when he died her recollections are largely those of others she’s spoken to over the years. It was hard to leave some material out of the film, that is for sure.

SCREEN-SPACE: What do you hope McLaren conveys about the legacy left by the man?

DONALDSON: I think genuinely he was quite an extraordinary person. Not many people come along like Bruce; he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He was an inspired, motivated leader of people, filled with innovation and bravery. The tragedy of a life like that cut short and the determination of the guys around him to preserve his legacy, to continue forging the company and brand reputation, speaks volumes.

Transmission Films presents McLAREN on home entertainment platforms in Australia on August 16 and New Zealand from August 30; check local distributors in other territories for release details.

Tuesday
Aug012017

MICHELLE CAREY ON MIFF: "I LOVE SEEING PEOPLE DISCOVER CINEMA"

2017 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Now in her seventh year as the Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Michelle Carey has established a reputation as one of the most astute film minds in festival programming worldwide. Her 2017 MIFF programme is vast and challenging, the kind of maze-like film buff's treasure trove for which she has become known since her debut line-up in 2011. In the festival's Collins St office in the heart of the city she now calls home, the Adelaide-born Carey chatted excitedly with SCREEN-SPACE about her early festival director days, MIFF’s newest initiatives and what film made the cut in 2017 because she demanded it be so… 

SCREEN-SPACE: When you walked through the MIFF office door in 2010, to begin preparing your first festival, what were your aims and ambitions for the years ahead?

CAREY: I wanted to put a stamp on it. Back then, it was very ‘cinephile’. It still is, of course, but by 2010 it was viewed as being auteur-driven. And I wanted that celebrated, not seen as pretentious. Particularly in the last four or five years, people have been responding to new films by directors that may have once been considered fringe, like Yorgos Lanthimos. That’s not all my doing, of course, but it is great to see that shift. I also wanted bigger, more accessible films in the mix. I understood that the role could be very managerial, but I didn’t know what to expect from that side of the job. I don’t want to sound vain, but I think I’ve always had good instincts and it was learning to trust those instincts in those early days that helped. I’m a very fight-or-flight person, so I just found strength in my intuition. (Pictured, below: The Killing of The Sacred Deer, by director Yorgos Lanthimos).

SCREEN-SPACE: Were you determined to redefine what the role of Artistic Director had come to represent?

CAREY: My predecessor Richard Moore, who I worked very closely with, and James Hewison before him and I are all very different personalities. When I first came into the role, I was quite shy, having always been the person who was happier in the background. I’ve overcome that, although I certainly don’t think that my personality is bigger than the festival. The challenge is to find the balance between shaping the festival through your personality without overwhelming the programme with your ego or arrogance. I’m not doing this to showcase my taste in film; I’m doing this because I love seeing people experience and discover cinema. And audiences today often know far more than I do about films.

SCREEN-SPACE: The two masters you have to serve are right there in the name, ‘Melbourne’ and ‘International’. How do you reconcile the relationship between the two?

CAREY: There’s space for both. It is always interesting to work out whether they are similar audiences or whether they are inherently different. Our Australian films are always massively popular, but are they the same people who are going to the latest films from Cannes? I honestly don’t know. I would like to see those audiences come closer together, and I think festivals like MIFF provide that bridge. And they also provide an opportunity for discourse, via initiatives like the Critic’s Campus programme, and insight into the industry, with the 37 South Market team and the Premiere Fund and Accelerator. I deal a lot in satisfying the audience side of the festival and I’m always considering how we can bridge those worlds even further.

SCREEN-SPACE: A decade in, what legacy has been shaped by the MIFF Premiere Fund?

CAREY: Well, it’s 55 films now, so it’s a huge legacy. It has a really strong documentary tradition, through relationships forged with particular filmmakers like Eddie Martin or Richard Lowenstein, directors who are interested in local characters. Then at the other end you have some big productions, like Bran Nue Dae or this years’ opening night film Jungle (pictured, right), which is one of the biggest budgeted films we’ve ever invested in. Then you have our commitment to the more arthouse film, such as Rabbit this year. The feedback we get from filmmakers is how grateful they are for the Premiere Fund, because without it their films wouldn’t have been made.

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the retro-strand Pioneering Women, featuring works from the last great era of Australian films directed by women, come in to focus?

CAREY: It’s not really thought of as an era as such. I was looking back through the programmes in preparation for the 65th festival and was shocked to find the lack of Australian women feature film directors until 1979, when My Brilliant Career came out. In that fascinating period following its release, they started to emerge and by the mid- to late-90s there was a kind of an explosion of talent. Obviously, still not in the kind of numbers that it should be; 16% of Australian features were directed by women, which is still to low. But in that period leading up to the md-90s, there was this kind of ‘first wave’ of women talent. There were pioneers, like the McDonagh sisters that Geoffrey (Rush) references in his programme notes, but it was this generation of talent like Gillian Armstrong, Anna Kokkinos, Jane Campion and Nadia Tass that redefined the sector. Plus I have a soft spot for the 80s, which was a really fun period and you can see that in films like Starstruck (pictured, below) and The Big Steal. Celia is one of my favourite films of the festival.

SCREEN-SPACE: You’ve always embraced new technology and artistry, and do so again in 2017 with the Virtual Reality section. Does the tech suggest a seismic shift in movie watching is imminent?

CAREY: I think the jury is out. We are still in the eye of the storm with VR, especially in Australia. The films are becoming more sophisticated, going beyond just the experiential and moving into more complex narrative forms, like that seen in Miyubi. As to where it goes, it is hard to tell. The reason we entered into VR is that a lot of filmmakers are in that space. Local filmmakers such as Matthew Bate and Amiel Courtin-Wilson have artistic ambitions within the medium, more than just creating an extension of a theme park ride. That said, I think a film festival has to defend what cinema is about at its core, which is that big screen experience, the telling of stories. Whether that’s in a narrative way, or a non-narrative way, in a visual way or via the more traditional three-act structure, we have to be mindful of opening (our programme) up too much. Audio-visual media today is so pervasive you need boundaries, otherwise it risks becoming a bit meaningless.

SCREEN-SPACE: You were in Cannes for the Netflix controversy. You have programmed television content in 2017. Clearly you’re open to inviting the small screen onto MIFF’s big screens…

CAREY: When you say ‘television’, you have to also ask, “What type of television?” We’re not going to be showing Yummy Mummies any time soon. It still has to have some kind of auteur’s bent. The television we are showing – Glitch and Top of The Lake: China Girl – are great ‘big screen’ experiences, beautifully shot works. We are not turning into a television festival, that much is true, but you have to be open to it when some of the best talent in the world is working in the medium.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was there a film in 2017 that you pulled rank on, that had you banging the table and saying, “I say it’s in!”?

CAREY: (Laughs) Oh, probably Out 1, the 13 hour, 1971 French film by Jacques Rivette. I think a lot of people may have said, “Are you mad?” (laughs) It is a 16mm print, subtitled in German, that we then had to get two people to tag-team subtitle in English live in the cinema. And there have been a couple of experimental works that I’m sure made some of our staff think, “But why?” But I think those films are the sort of works that festivals need to present.

The 2017 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL screens August 3 to 20. Full session and ticketing information at the event's official website.

Photo credit: Graham Denholm

Monday
Jul172017

GLOBAL DOC SECTOR FETED AT M.D.F.F. AWARDS NIGHT 

2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Top honours at the 2nd annual Melbourne Documentary Film Festival were bestowed upon Jedd and Todd Wider’s God Knows Where I Am at an informal closing ceremony at the southern capital’s arthouse venue Cinema Nova last night. In line with the festival's objectives, winners across the award categories hailed from The USA, Russia, Norway, New Zealand, The U.K. and, of course, Australia, in what became a true celebration of international factual filmmaking... 

Narrated by actress Lori Singer, the heartbreaking reconstruction of a woman’s life after her remains are found in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse earned jury honours in a competitive field that also featured international festival hits Miss Kiet’s Children and The Cinema Travellers. The Best International Documentary prize was shared between Charlie Tagget-Adams’ hard rock doc Placebo Alt Russia and Richard Wyllie’s refugee crisis account Five Days on Lesvos; the Best Australian Documentary was taken out by Mat de Koning’s Meal Tickets, a decade-long account of the fortunes of his high school mates and their musical dreams. (Pictured, top: a scene from God Knows Where I Am)

The points-based scoring formula used by the festival committee to determine winners meant that ties were not uncommon, but no one begrudged multiple trophies given the quality of factual filmmaking present at the 2017 event. The Meal Tickets filmmaker shared the Best Emerging Australian Director category with Ivan Hexler for his ‘people power’ protest work Tunnel Vision (also deemed the festival’s Best Melbourne Documentary). Stephanie Clattenberg’s fiery takedown of music sector sexism, Play Your Gender, and Ben Davis’ warm-hearted look at Nordic house beat history, Northern Disco Lights (pictured, right), were both deemed Best Music/Art Documentary. 

Best Environmental Documentary honours were shared by Heather White’s Complicit, a harrowing expose of production line worker abuse in China, and Johanna B Kelly’s alternative diet study, The Gateway Bug; White also shared the International Emerging Director gong, this time with J.J. Garvine for Film Hawk. Garvine’s biography of independent cinema giant Bob Hawk afforded organisers the opportunity to award their inaugural Heroes of Cinema honour to the film industry legend, whose influence has helped forge the careers of filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, Edward Burns and Oscar-winning documentarian, Rob Epstein (The Times of harvey Milk, 1984; Common Threads: Stories from The Quilt, 1989).

   

One Heart One Spirit, director John Pritchard’s first-hand account of the meeting between Native American rights advocate Kenneth Little Hawk and Australia’s indigenous elders, won the Best Indigenous Documentary. The rather lofty honour of Best Expanded Interdisciplinary Project went to The Road Movie, Dmitrii Kalshnikov’s ground breaking social essay constructed entirely from footage captured by Russian dashcams. New Zealand factual filmmaking great Costa Botes (pictured, below) rightfully earned the Best Editing award for Act of Kindness, a moving account of one young man’s odyssey through Rwanda cut together from over 30 hours of non-pro footage.

The Festival Audience Award went to Jewel’s Catch One, director C. Fitz’s rousing disco era celebration of LA nightclub icon, Jewel Thais-Williams. The study of a musical legacy also earned Patrick Buchanan the Wildcard/Avant Garde Award for Lunar Orbit, his intimate look at ambient house music giants, The Orb.

Festival Director Lyndon Stone acknowledged both the committed talent who fronted for their screenings (amongst them New York-based Mariah Wilson, who was present to collect the International Emerging Director honour for her short Eeya) and the passionate Melbourne documentary audiences. Attendance figures showed a year-to-year rise in patronage, including several sold-out events, despite chilly evenings that saw the temperature often dip into single digits.