MIFF 68 ½ at home

By Annabel Brady-Brown

Films by Kelly Reichardt, Ulrike Ottinger, Ja’Tovia Gary and Djibril Diop Mambéty captivate, despite a radically different festival format

Still from Day in the Life by Karrabing Film Collective

Film critics love to complain that things are getting worse, but it truly has been a terrible year for the movies. As festivals started cancelling in March and theatres closed doors globally like a wave of falling dominos, stockpiles of new titles were promptly put on ice, productions were halted, and the whole notion of contemporary cinema was thrown into quotation marks. Instead of the new Sofia Coppola or Apichatpong Weerasethakul films we were promised, we got Tiger King. I think it’s fair to say it’s been a little miserable.  

Around now, the handwringing over Netflix and co jousting for space in the “fall festivals” – Venice, Toronto, Telluride and New York – would normally be in full swing, as the streaming services’ strategic erosion of the sacred “theatrical window” puts the already shaky industry at further risk. But this year streaming is the de facto option in many parts of the world, and the fact that these festivals are happening at all is of note. It’s a radically different landscape, with organisers putting aside their increasingly barefaced rivalries to “work together” and share films, catering to socially distanced regional audiences. Though, as seen in this week’s Venice’s Film Festival line-up announcement, the slate still appears rather light, with big studios and name arthouse directors hoarding forthcoming films, biding their time.

Thankfully for us, the Melbourne International Film Festival (6–23 August) had enough forewarning to regroup as a virtual festival. Though even its naming – MIFF 68 ½ – acknowledges the spectral space in which the event is occurring, as if taking a step sidewards out of time. It will be nothing like the usual whirlwind festival experience, but as these blank months stretch on it feels good to have something to mark in the calendar, an experience to share with someone else other than the cat. MIFF’s solid selection of more than 100 titles of the past year’s best cinema – leaning heavily on the output of a pre-COVID-shuttered world, with February’s Berlinale the last major industry festival – kicks off with the much-anticipated First Cow, by revered American director Kelly Reichardt.

Opening with a contemporary shot of the Columbia River (a nod to the landscape filmmaker Peter Hutton, to whom the movie is dedicated), First Cow then retreats two centuries, taking us to 1820s Oregon – disputed territory that gleams with potential to the fur trappers and miners who are congregating in fledgling riverside towns, drinking the frontier-era Kool Aid of bountiful profits (and beavers) there for the taking. (Also undeniably present: the local Chinook people, whose words are not subtitled, whose lives are glimpsed but never assumed.) One such dreamer is King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese prospector who strikes an immediate bond with the Maryland-born drifter Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro). The two gentle souls quickly fall into cohabitation and new enterprise, which eventually leads to stealthy nocturnal rendezvous with a very pretty jersey cow – the first to set hoof on this land, as Reichardt’s mocking title makes clear.

Cookie talks to said cow in a hushed tone, complimenting her milk and comforting her (“Sorry about your husband”), and the cow moons back at him with big, soulful eyes to rival Bette Davis. Like the movie as a whole, the glorious scene is imbued with, to borrow Jenny Odell’s term, “observational eros”. Reichardt’s latest anti-western is a carefully textured film attuned to the pleasures of friendship, nature and baking, which – as per Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, also a response to life under late capitalism – urges us to look and then to look again.

“It is always the first time,” muses Delphine Seyrig’s amateur anthropologist Lady Windermere in the 1989 ethnofiction epic Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, one of the many under-seen wonders from Ulrike Ottinger, the queer Jewish German artist who has spent a career narratively exploding official versions of history. A Pop-leaning painter during her twenties, Ottinger would take up filmmaking only after she left the Left Bank in 1969, going on to become one of the most influential directors attached to the New German Cinema movement. A gift for admirers and fresh initiates, Paris Calligrammes is her flâneur-styled account of the city’s artistic and intellectual life in the 1960s, told through fresh and evocative archival material and her own memories of the tumultuous period.

Like Reichardt, Ottinger crowbars open familiar stories from unexpected angles, though her penchant for devilish excess has been tempered in her later years. Here, she more slyly narrates and recreates. With a meandering gambit similar to Varda’s cine-memoir The Beaches of Agnès, she pays tribute to the people and places that radically shaped her ways of seeing the world: paintings at the Louvre, cinema at the Cinémathèque, and the Dada and Surrealist poets who read at Fritz Picard’s bookshop, whose influence reverberates through her exuberant Berlin Trilogy films. But it’s not all wide-eyed wonder. What delighted Ottinger – say, the bombastic comic-book frames of William Klein’s anti-imperialist farce Mr. Freedom – is imprinted just as fiercely as what repulsed. She describes “the conspiracy of silence around Algeria” that held the city after the Paris massacre of ’61, in which police murdered up to 400 Algerian protestors and the French government censored reports (the killings were only acknowledged in 1998). For her, it was an object lesson in the way history is written by the victors. In her film, the event sours the reverie, halting any golden-age nostalgia trip dead in its tracks.

Among the flurry of activity taking place around her, Ottinger makes mention of Jean Rouch’s regular presence in the famous cafes while devising his 1961 cinéma vérité–birthing Chronicle of a Summer, in which passers-by are asked: “Are you happy?” This simple yet infinitely unfolding question is reappropriated by Brooklyn’s Ja’Tovia Gary in her Locarno award-winning The Giverny Document – a 42-minute single-channel work (a three-channel version exists for the gallery) that sees Gary don a 1960s-inspired wig as she asks Black women on a Harlem corner: “Do you feel safe? In your body, and in the world?”

As Gary subversively takes on the canon, she creates a complicated object that centres Black women’s lived experience, both on the street and in the art world. Idyllic self-portrait images taken at the gardens at Giverny, the quasi-mythical site of Claude Monet’s waterlilies, are ruptured by a series of glitches – drone strikes; flower petals pasted directly onto the film stock recalling Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight; Diamond Reynolds’ recording of a police officer fatally shooting her boyfriend Philando Castile – which show up the façade. Woven into this collage are the voices of Black women, from those she vox pops on the street to legendary footage of Nina Simone storming through Morris Albert’s lounge ditty “Feelings” at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in a demonstration of sheer power.

A similar act of alchemy is involved in Day in the Life, the latest gallery-friendly offering from Karrabing Film Collective, an ever-ballooning “grassroots Indigenous media group” today said to comprise nearly 70 members from the Northern Territory’s Belyuen community and wider surrounding areas. Karrabing shoot with iPhones or handheld cameras, creating high-energy shorts that are marked by a cheeky intelligence. Here, five vignettes of globetrotting hijinks, run-ins with mischievous sprits and intrusive police are accompanied by a hip-hop soundscape. It samples white Australia, taking soundbites from postwar archives to former PM John Howard’s doddering poison tongue. A persistent lyrical refrain – “Something’s funny here / Someone’s making money here” – gets passed around, taking on new meanings and nuances with each member’s rendition.

At the other extreme stands the abject Dau: Natasha, just one part of the egomaniacal 15-year project conceived by Russian wunderkind Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Cut from 700 hours of footage, the film tracks a single character: a canteen waitress in a Soviet research facility who channels Jeanne Moreau’s chambermaid in her prim black-and-white uniform and her clear-eyed witnessing of human depravity. The descent into madness also rouses the cackling star of MIFF’s retrospective program, the restored classic Hyenas (1992). Landing two decades after Djibril Diop Mambéty unleashed 1973’s swaggering fantasia Touki Bouki, the Senegalese filmmaker’s belated follow-up loosely recasts the teen Anta – who, in Mambéty’s landmark debut feature boldly sails away for a new life in France – as Linguère Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), a brooding woman who returns to an economically depressed town on the outskirts of Dakar after being cruelly exiled 30 years earlier. Now she’s “as rich as the World Bank”, and is offering white goods to anyone who’ll do her bidding.

The film is an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, confidently twisting the revenge play into a giddy surrealist satire, tricked out with woozy symbolism and documentary shots of wild animals on the prowl. A treat both visually and sonically (the score by Mambéty’s brother Wasis Diop ignited the renowned musician’s career), Hyenas leaves a pessimistic aftertaste, as money corrupts and dreams hit dead ends. The violence brought about by foreign capital that is felt here still haunts, as seen in Atlantics, last year’s brilliant Dakar-set feature debut by Mambéty’s niece Mati Diop.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain can’t sustain the va-va-voom heights conjured early in MIFF’s closing night film, Ema, a mood symphony scored by club-favourite Nicolas Jaar about an entrancing, surly young dancer who wants to (literally) scorch the earth. A more appropriate end note would be Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the latest from Ohio-born documentary filmmakers Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV, about a scruffy Vegas bar on its final night before closing doors for good. Offering a Goodbye, Dragon Inn–style requiem for vanishing public spaces, the film is shot almost entirely inside the bar, observing as people from all walks of life come together, from 11am (“The best part of waking up is bourbon in your cup” sing-songs one drinker) through to the early morning, to send off their favourite watering hole in style. Key here is the joy of just hanging out – an experience that, thanks to COVID, has gained heightened emotional territory, but which has always exerted a pull (see: any stoner movie ever). The marathon boozing leads to laughter, tears and other provisional intimacies: karaoke, anti-millennial rants, flashed tits, fights and an Anglo-Australian man who takes off his pants.

As per the brothers’ freewheeling Tchoupitoulas, another nostalgic take on the wild night out, the film is an ingeniously put-together humanist drama. The bar is actually in New Orleans, and it’s still open, and none of the cast of mostly nonprofessional actors knew each other before the shoot. Rather, the set-up is too good to be true. Several fluffy layers of pure fantasy – a bar where everyone knows your name, in a city hallucinated up out of the desert in pursuit of the American dream – collide against the grittier realities of life lived on the margins. Even before the pandemic, cherished neighbourhood bars like this were being squeezed out by rising rents and health-food stores. That the film pretends the dream is over is perhaps the most real thing here.

Annabel Brady-Brown

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies magazine and film editor at The Big Issue. @annnabelbb

Still from Day in the Life by Karrabing Film Collective

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