The comedown each year after the Melbourne International Film Festival consists of a curious blend of relief that the onslaught of cinema has stopped and a sadness that the intensive four-films-a-day, dumplings-and-caffeine lifestyle has also come to a halt.
2017 was an exciting festival for me. For the last few years my presence has been in a primarily professional capacity as a film critic at Triple R’s Plato’s Cave programme, and last year as a mentor on MIFF’s excellent Critics Campus programme that fosters the talent and career aspirations of emerging young critics from around Australia.
Before that, I spent well over a decade as a punter. Although little more than a bum on a seat, I was just another soggy cinephile in the rainy outdoor queues; one of the charms of MIFF is the sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’ This may simply be the shared experience of uncomfortable seats at the Comedy Theatre, the feeling of community when seeing a film with an audience who shares your response (for better or for worse), or Melbourne’s signature rainy August weather, but MIFF’s magic for me at least is that it feels like Melbourne at its best: a place hungry for art, and hungry for different cultural experiences beyond our own.
This year, however, as an unexpected benefit of my Research Fellowship at the Australian Film Institute Research Collection (AFIRC), I found myself as co-curator of MIFF’s Pioneering Women program that celebrated Australian women filmmakers in the 1980s and early 1990s such as Tracey Moffatt, Ann Turner, Clara Law, Laurie McInnes, Nadia Tass, Gillian Armstrong, Ana Kokkinos, Mary Callaghan and Susan Lambert. In the spirit of transparency, it would be distinctly uncool for me not to note that many of the highlights of MIFF this year came from this program considering I played a role in their inclusion in the first place. But even with this in mind, the frisson of excitement at seeing many of these films on the big screen for the first time–Kokkinos’s Only The Brave, Turner’s Celia and Tass’s The Big Steal in particular–was outdone only by seeing a return to the cinema of films that have effectively vanished from our cultural memory. Until now, these films were left idol and forgotten at the National Film and Sound Archives (who also collaborated on the program). Of these, Susan Lambert’s lesbian feminist IVF heist film On Guard and Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway were absolute standouts.
Pioneering women of a less specific origin and location continued to dominate MIFF this year with new films from French grandes dames Claire Denis and Agnès Varda, and an entire retrospective dedicated to the career of significant British director Sally Potter. With a BAFTA-winning short film behind her, Welsh-Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut I Am Not a Witch might not have the brand-name clout of these peers, but for me, it comfortably earns the title of one of the best new films at the entire festival. Sharp, funny and tragic in equal measure, this story of a 9-year-old girl condemned to life wandering in a witch camp to avoid being turned into a goat explores profound and often darkly comic territory. Ultimately, Nyoni is interrogating identity, gender, superstition and power.
Men too apparently have tried their hand at filmmaking, and good on them for giving it a go. Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama triggered a strong split in the MIFF audience, but I found myself on the pro-side of this tale of young French people from different socio-economic backgrounds who attempt to take a stand through a series of terrorist attacks against the capitalist system they see as the cause of human suffering. Yet these character’s revel in the child-like fantasy of being stuck in a department store, revealing just how susceptible they are themselves to the lure of the very thing they seek to destroy.
A strikingly different film but no less powerful is Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness focuses on the experience of a young Jewish woman living in a Muslim region of The Caucasus who struggles with her family’s place in their broader community and her own role within that family, as well as dealing with the violence that seems imbedded in her Otherness as she experiments with her sexuality beyond her community’s borders.
The global strength of MIFF only continues with the unmissable Israeli documentary Death in the Terminal that retraces through surveillance footage and eyewitness interviews the terrifying mob mentality that took over the survivors of a terrorist attack in southern Israel in late 2015 that resulted in the murder of an innocent man the crowd believed to be guilty, despite the actual perpetrator having been shot. Nacho Vigalondo’s classic Spanish time-travel slasher film Timecrimes was played to commemorate its 10th anniversary, and other sci-fi retrospective highlights include two of the most unforgettable Japanese films ever made: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (1966) and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989).
It’d be disingenuous for me to not confess my bias towards genre cinema considering that is where the bulk of my long-form critical writing has been expended across four books on cult, horror and exploitation film. A good genre film for me feels like coming home, and none this year were more satisfying than Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless. With the directors also starring in the film as brothers who long ago escaped a cult, they find their life outside the compound sadly lacking and return to Camp Arcadia to get a reality check. What they find, however, is an extraordinary terrain where human stories are played out in looped cycles for the entertainment of some unseen yet omnipresent entity.
Neck-deep in MIFF’s endless narratives from all over the world–looping not only day to day and week to week, but year to year since it first began in 1952–there is something about The Endless that pinpoints the urgency and ritualism of our need to watch stories fold, unfold, collapse and re-emerge in myriad ways, from a range of historical moments and differing cultural contexts. We keep coming back for more, and show no sign of stopping.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a Melbourne-based film critic on Triple R radio and the author of four books on cult film, the most recent of which is on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 with Columbia University Press. She is an editor at the online film journal Senses of Cinema and was awarded the 2017 AFI Research Centre Research Fellowship. www.thebluelenses.com