Sydney Film Festival: Dispatch #2

At the halfway mark of the Sydney Film Festival, we review some of the best, worst and weirdest films on show.

At the halfway mark of the Sydney Film Festival, we review some of the best, worst and weirdest films on show.

The Tribe

Dominic Ellis reviews.

SEE for a gorgeously alienating visceral experience.

We’ve waited some time for Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe. It premiered at Cannes way back in May 2014, so could’ve easily nudged its way into last year’s SFF line-up. Alas, for whatever reason, it missed out, and there’s been an unparalleled amount of hype for the Ukrainian drama since.

Slaboshpytskiy trails the brutal social hierarchy, headed by the titular ‘tribe’, of a school for the deaf in Ukraine. Its players are categorically awful human beings, seemingly all complicit in running underage sex rings and co-opting the school’s resources and staff. We’re led into this brutal world when naive Serhiy enrols in the school and gradually starts to build a name for himself among the tribe’s kingpins—which is then jeopardised by his romantic entanglement with one of their profitable sex workers.

There’s an emphasis on alienation in The Tribe, in the sense that everything feels intentionally distant or barren. The language barrier—the dialogue is entirely in a Ukranian dialect of sign language with no subtitles—is the most obvious example of this (for most). But you very quickly adapt to the silence, gradually learning to decrypt the meaning of each scene, while revelling in the otherwise very unique sensory experience it incites.

The obscene degree of graphic violence serves a similar purpose. It’s there to emphasise the film’s ‘brutal honesty’, truly playing into the story’s gang-film roots, but occasionally feels counterintuitive, adding an unnecessary shock-factor to a film that already is, in so many ways, very inimitable. That’s barely an issue though, and there’s no denying how truly confronting some of the graphic scenes are.

Though you’ve likely heard plenty about one or both of those features—the silence and the violence—The Tribe’s most effective component is undoubtedly its very calculated aesthetic. The long, fluid tracking shots are energetic but carefully keep their distance from character’s faces. These unfriendly tracking shots purposely heighten that aforementioned sense of detachment, as we hover around the cold, blue-burned school, with little hope of a merciful cut-away when the violence escalates.

The few criticisms I’ve heard or read of The Tribe are usually levelled at its relatively simple story—a newcomer moving up a vicious Mafia-esque hierarchy through a process of hazing. It’s a criticism grounded in a belief that you must ‘look past’ the film’s conceit (or what they might call its ‘gimmick’), and it usually sustains itself on the question: why not just include subtitles? If you’re asking that question then you’ve quite fundamentally misunderstood Slaboshpytskiy film. It isn’t there to be easily engaged with, it’s there to be unravelled, and, like Serihy, we’re made to feel foreign, detached and largely helpless.

The Tribe succeeds. It’s a visceral experience like no other, with a brutality that commits the film wholeheartedly to a very striking, albeit alienating, idea.



A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence*

Jonathon Parker reviews.

DON’T SEE unless you’re patient enough to wait for the film’s belated profundity.

Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence has the most comically pretentious title featuring the word ‘pigeon’ since Sam Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. Andersson’s latest not-so-pigeon-oriented film is Beckett by way of sketch comedy, and unfortunately the final product is less than the sum of those otherwise intriguing parts.

Visually inspired by paintings, Pigeon plays like a tableau vivant, all framed through the static camera’s asymmetrically composed mid-shots. Locations, in particular a certain bar, recur, holding different characters and taking place across different times like a rotating set in a stage play. As Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy reaps diminishing returns, perhaps this final instalment would be better suited to the stage, with the greater immediacy and audience reactivity of drama perhaps preventing the film from plodding.

The film is made up of several vignettes, all ostensibly about the absurdity of existence. Lines are repeated across different characters, particularly the tiding “I’m happy to hear you’re doing well,” and the anthemic ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is sung by various characters with altered lyrics. This interweaving of marginal storylines suggests that these vignettes exist as part of some wider existential fabric. But, in an opening segment of text, Andersson establishes his central thematic focus as the nature of “being a human being.” Hence, intentionally ironic or not, Andersson struggles to ground his film in a decisive way.

The depravity of treating human suffering, and man’s own inhumanity to man, as a spectacle emerges as a binding concept at times. Some vignettes substantiate this framework, and others axiomatically do not, making some moments feel like the scattershot whims of a screenplay’s first draft, drifting around for no reason other than to be bizarre. There’s an indecision present, where Andersson seems unsure whether to strive for interconnectedness or total dislocation between his vignettes, ultimately achieving both and neither.

The laughter peaks early; an obvious stylistic choice which makes for some remarkably poignant reflections towards the film’s climax. However, Andersson’s deconstruction of clinical and isolating Swedish culture now seems rote and dull. Not only is Andersson due for a change in approach, but perhaps also a change in medium.


last cab to darwin

Last Cab to Darwin

Tim Jackson reviews.


Dusty roads and rusted metal fill most of the shots of Last Cab to Darwin, Jeremy Sim’s latest film about a man’s trip to Darwin to seek voluntary death from his cancer. While seemingly a pretty bleak premise, a lively script and an ebullient performance from Michael Caton (of The Castle fame) keep the film ticking along at a lively pace, seeming at times like a road trip film transplanted from the 1970’s and only dusted off today.

And at times this does feel like a period piece; the cars look different, the actors talk in a cadence that you don’t hear in the city much and the pubs all remind me of this one shitty bistro I stopped into after a night out in Dubbo. In particular the casual, ingrained racism felt shocking. Many of these characters had been beaten down, whether though a life of repetition or by the racism of a country that still views Indigenous as second class.

All this occurs while the camera luxuriates in the beauty of the outback, and the soundtrack from Ed Kuepper brings out an homely comfort that eases the viewer into the tough stuff. Most of the time, this feels like a movie made by really clever people who love movies; every shot is gorgeous and even the difficult scenes have a centerdness to them which is appealing.

The only bum note comes in the form of Jackie Weaver’s Nicole Farmer, the doctor and euthanasia advocate who is oddly intent on the death of her patient. The film seemed to signal her compassion, but we only got to see her trying to manage her charge towards his death in a deeply dubious fashion.

But ultimately, this is a movie with a heart. I came for the moral questions, but I stuck around for the relationships that were built.



99 Homes

Harry Welsh reviews.

SEE for a topical story and powerful performances.

“It’s like America, only upside down” observes young Connor Nash, as he rotates a giant globe and   manipulates the audience’s perspective of the landmass that is the United States. Connor’s father, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is one of the many victims of this upside down America that the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 caused, and hastily he drags his son away from the spinning globe to the “rocket docket” courtroom, to debate against the inevitable foreclosure of his family home.

Directed by American festival hero Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes focuses on the collapse of the American housing market, and the heart wrenching event of forcing a family out onto the street; literally kicking them to the curb.

In the aftermath of his house eviction, Dennis Nash finds work with the very man who kicked him out: the white suit wearing devil Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Carver lures Nash into the underbelly of rapid cash flow and strategic business thievery, always checking their shin holsters for the petite pistol that reminds them of the desperation that last-minute homeowners can turn to. Shannon portrays Carver with such humanity that you begin to question how twisted their morality really is: they are just surviving within the brackets of an inevitably corrupt system.

Bahrani directs with control and necessity, the stakes never raised too high, the dangers never too outlandish. He leads a cast who bring a necessary professionalism to the scene, delivering effortless performances that aim to both score empathy points with the audience and convey the internal struggle of individuals caught in the damage of the GFC. Laura Dern is as powerful and endearing as always, playing Nash’s mother and partner in justice, fully embodying the role of defensive lioness.

99 Homes directly shines light onto a corrupt and immovable system. Led by a commanding troupe of actors, and a director experienced in giving voice to a minority; it is necessary viewing for both recognising how fucked-up the system is and appreciating some exceptional filmmaking.



The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Joanita Wibowo reviews.

SEE for unapologetically honest depiction of a teenage girl’s perspective.

The debut film from writer/director Marielle Heller follows Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a sexually-curious 15-year-old who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).

To have a story which focuses on the sexual experience (and pleasure) of an adolescent woman, as opposed to the enjoyment or redemption of an older man, is always refreshing. Through its characters, from the 15-year-old Minnie to her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), Diary successfully promotes a sex-positive attitude. Heller takes a sensitive narrative approach to women’s sexuality and men’s sexual superiority (or insecurity), constructing a strong argument against the slut-shaming of young girls.

Minnie is written beautifully. A self-aware teenager with the right dose of indeterminacy, she is wise, independent and self-assured, but still remains relatable.

In the wrong hands, Minnie’s journey, which is ridden with difficult taboos and prone to stigmatization, might turn into a cautionary tale on female youth’s self-restraint and moderation. Heller’s sensible and honest scriptwriting instead reflects a great understanding of young women’s experience and a relevance to the reality.

The side characters, especially Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), might at times be a bit caricatural—nevertheless, they move the plot forward in shaping and redeveloping Minnie’s perspectives, and occasionally even manage to steal the thunder. Charlotte, played by Wiig, seemed underdeveloped, especially given her proximity to Minnie’s situation.

While the first half of the film is presented quite smoothly, the second half seems to be more draggy in pace and directionless in the problem resolution—the main characters seem to fall to the same mistake over and over again. In a way though, this unevenness reflects the life of teenagers—repeating and rebelling against the same rule over and over again until the greatest repercussion comes; all the while having little clue about where to go.

I haven’t read the book on which this film was based on, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner. But from watching the film, I can only assume it has done the book justice.



The Hunting Ground*

Xiaoran Shi reviews.

SEE and believe.

The Hunting Ground is, in no uncertain terms, an indictment of rape culture in US colleges and the concomitant administrative indifference to addressing the issue of campus sexual assault, or at least, the small percentage of cases that are reported. The documentary gives voice to several survivors who, after lengthy procedural and legal battles, are grappling with the pragmatics of pursuing their cases further, as well as many other survivors whose cases are terminally pending, or, by far the most likely consequence of reporting, cases which are rendered DOA from the moment a campus administrator asked them what they were wearing, if they were drunk, or to empathise with the wellbeing and livelihood of the undoubtedly bright, young man who assaulted them.

Following the trajectory of past collaborative work, director-producer duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have delivered another polemical exposé that seeks to enact change in real time. In fact, when The Hunting Ground is considered in tandem with its predecessor, The Invisible War, which uncovered the insidious rape culture endemic to the military, the two films form a Boschian diptych, drawing the viewer’s eye to the nightmarish landscape of institutionalised sexism in North America.

Like any film brave enough to tackle a so-called contemporary social “epidemic,” it has attracted a maelstrom of skepticism and dismissal from numerous outlets calling into question the veracity of its claims and the objectivity with which they are presented. However, it is the film’s veritable passion and pathos that lie at the heart of its success. Dick and Ziering have an immaculate sensibility for storytelling, subverting narrative conventions at every turn.

Visually slick and boasting a soundtrack featuring original material by Lady Gaga, the documentary betrays an intimate knowledge of both subject and audience. Scenes mimicking benign digital advertisements for various tertiary institutions take on a sinister, perturbing edge when, instead of listing campus amenities and academic achievements intended to entice the next cohort of freshmen, statistics laying bare the college’s neglect in addressing sexual violence flood the screen.

In this way, the film illuminates a bold, new vision for documentary filmmaking: one that is self-reflexive and hyperaware of the cultural space, and most importantly, one that makes no pains to disguise its advocacy. Defying the heated journalism versus propaganda debate that has dominated media discourse around the film, The Hunting Ground shows us the multiplicity of truths. A woman is a survivor even if she does not perform the role of the ‘perfect victim’. A film can be a documentary even if it advances a seemingly singular position, namely that rape culture is real and must end.
Lastly, what is perhaps most striking about this latest offering from Dick and Ziering is the film’s anti-capitalist thesis. The Hunting Ground dares to identify, albeit implicitly, the neoliberal paradigm, as manifested in the multi-billion dollar Greek fraternity network and the equally profitable institution of college football, as responsible for fostering a privatised higher education system that is overwhelmingly dependent on private donation and sponsorship; a higher education system that must ultimately supplicate for its own financial survival before attending to the welfare of its students.



Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon*

Ian Ferrington reviews.

A soft SEE.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is an enjoyable documentary. It follows the rise and development of National Lampoon from a satirical magazine to a broader comedic empire between the late sixties and early eighties. I’m deliberately not saying ‘rise and fall’—though National Lampoon hasn’t existed for nearly twenty years, or been relevant for thirty, this film manages to avoid talking about that, leaving us with a pleasant respect for the greatness of a movement in American Comedy.

The film is mostly told through interview snippets, as well as footage from Lampoon’s live and recorded output. The stories, from an impressive array of contributors, are accompanied by wonderfully rendered animations, both of original magazine cartoons brought to life, and illustrations of the history being recounted in a similar style. These bring to life both the shocking and ingenious comedy effectively for the screen, and being able to make the audience laugh at forty-year-old magazine gags is vital for what this film is trying to do.

It’s pretty blatantly hagiographic—no-one has a bad thing to say about the golden era of National Lampoon, or anything much to say about later on. I believe there are only four instances of conflict within the magazine team mentioned in ninety-three minutes; this incredibly positive narrative presumably aids in getting the talent on board to speak with the film-makers, but it does feel lacking somewhat.

There’s also no critical examination of the content—though it’s rarely described as ‘offensive’, ‘shocking’ appears to be a term of praise. Alongside its groundbreaking comedy, there were a lot of naked women—this increasing reliance on titillation is seen as a failure of comedy, but sexism isn’t examined at all, and we hear from only three women, out of several dozen interviewees.

It’s funny and inspiring, reminding a modern audience why the core team were seen as comedic heroes. But in addition to making you want to see more of National Lampoon’s content, it makes you want to hear a more balanced or challenging version of how it came together.


* Tickets courtesy of the University of Sydney Curiosity Season: