MIFF 2013 recommendations part 3

24 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

Here is my final batch of MIFF 2013 recommendations before the festival kicks off. Don’t forget to check out part 1 and part 2, and I hope my thoughts on the films below are helpful. In fact, you could do a lot worse than seeing the first three films on this list, which make a sort of unofficial indie trilogy about 20-somethings adrift in three of the greatest cities in the world (after Melbourne of course):

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

This energetic celebration of friendship and the awkwardness of modern life provides one of the most  joyous cinema experiences in years. A feel-good film with substance and integrity.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters

A formally playful French indie about love, friendship and the dramas of life, which uses its self-awareness to draw in the viewer rather than distance them.

Oh Boy

The deadpan humour and mild absurdism of this film set over 24 hours in the life of an aimless young man living in Berlin, becomes a deeply moving film about collective memory.

A Touch of Sin

An expertly made and powerful commentary on social inequality in modern day China, told through four overlapping stories with violent resolutions.

Harmony Lessons

Harmony Lessons

An unsettling school drama set in Kazakhstan about a boy bullied by another student with ties to an organised extortion ring. This slow burn film undermines expectations, plays with audience sympathies and sparingly uses dream sequences to powerful effect.

A Hijacking

The realism in this film about a Danish boat captured by Somali pirates delivers a fascinating insight into hostage negotiations as well as delivering a tense thriller.

I Am Devine

A heartfelt, in-depth and entertaining documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead and his alter-ego Devine; muse to John Waters and counter-culture/queer icon.

These Final Hours

These Final Hours

An  end-of-the-world thriller/drama featuring a man attempting to get to a hedonistic party to spend his remaining time on the planet in a state of ignorant bliss. However, he discovers that there could be better ways to use what little time he has left in this constantly surprising and highly accomplished new Australian film.

Valentine Road

A sobering documentary about a hate crime murder committed in a classroom and the subsequent trial, which raises issues concerning community culpability, marginalisation of LGBTI youth, how intolerance escalates into violence and victim blaming.

Blackbird

Another film to examine school violence and persecution, but with the twist of having the main character – a bullied loner who foolishly publishes online a cathartic revenge story – getting falsely accused of planning a high school massacre.

From the films I’ve seen so far I also recommend people check out Ilo IloA World Not Ours and Twisted Trunk, Big Fat Body.  I also had a lot of fun watching I Declare WarPatrick, Lesson of the Evil and Rewind This! And I really urge people to go to at least one or two of the Short Film Packages.

Finally, there are a number of films I’m really hoping to see during the festival and some of those are Leviathan, 3x3D, Omar, Like Father, Like Son, Ginger and Rosa, The Dance of Reality, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Bastards, The Pervert‘s Guide to Ideology and pretty much everything in the Shining Violence: Italian Giallo section.

Have a great MIFF!

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 2

15 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

Here are some more of my recommendations for the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival based on what I’ve seen so far. Check out part 1 if you haven’t done so already and here are eight more feature films and two more short film packages that I recommend:

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants

A heartbreaking and beautiful film about a sensitive 11-year-old going through some pretty intense abandonment issues against the backdrop of news reports about missing children. As good an insight into the anguishes of childhood as I’ve seen and featuring a stunning lead performance from newcomer Demos Murphy as Adrian.

The Crash Reel

A fascinating documentary about the world of extreme sports, and the causalities it produces, through the experiences of snowboarder Kevin Pearce who acquired brain injuries from an accident in 2009. The film also exposes the almost addictive nature of extreme sports and the problem where the demand for thrills from the viewing public is compelling competitors to push themselves further than what is safe to do so.

Starlet

An understated yet surprisingly affecting story about an unlikely friendship between a young woman and an elderly lady. The film successfully holds back important character information so that all the reveals feel natural and startling at the same time.

Blackfish

An emotional expose on the history off orca attacks on their human trainers in sea parks. This is much more than a Save the Whales documentary as it reveals how the conditions in which orcas are captured and then kept at water-themed amusements parks is not only inhumane towards the animals, but puts the lives of the people who work with them at risk.

Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake

The single location – a beautiful lake and the surround forest used as a cruising spot in southern France – is used to its full potential to deliver a thriller, a love story and a story of platonic friendship. A mysterious film about ritualised behaviour and human connection.

The Spectacular Now

The generic conventions of the teen film are extremely well manipulated to make this into a sophisticated tragedy about a teenage boy throwing his life away and threatening to take down others with him. A surprising and extremely rewarding film.

Approved for Adoption

A beautifully animated memoir about the filmmaker’s experiences as a Korean boy growing up in Belgium as an adopted child. Avoids cliches and sentimentality to explore issues such as cultural identity, belonging and mental illness.

Capturing Dad

A droll and unstated film about two sisters attending their father’s funeral, despite never knowing him and feeling nothing towards him. Unexpectedly moving at times in the way it looks at family dynamics, while at other times containing wickedly dark humour.

International Shorts 1

Day Trip

The first package of international short films includes two films that screened at the Cannes International Film Festival: More Than Two Hours, a tense Iranian drama where a woman requiring medical attention is denied due to the ultra conservative laws, and Butter Lamp, a Tibetian-language film with a stunning final shot. Day Trip is the latest short film by Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong, and it is an odd yet sweet and compelling tribute to traditional Korean music.

International Shorts 2

Two films from Cannes are also in this package including Safe, which won the Short Film Palme d’Or. It is a claustrophobic thriller that gets increasing tense as the film builds to it alarming conclusion. Also nerve-wracking is that French film Just Before Losing Everything, which uses an everyday setting to construct a thriller out of an upsettingly commonplace situation. This collection of films also includes the experimental narrative film Beat starring Ben Whishaw as a man who dances through the streets of London to music only he can hear. It’s simultaneously amusing, confronting and melancholic.

Final recommendations next week…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 1

8 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

The full 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival program was announced last week so I thought I’d start sharing my recommendations from what I’ve seen so far. This list is by no means exhaustive, there’s no order or system to what I’m listing, I may repeat some of the films listed in my post about the Next Gen program, and there will be more to come as the festival gets closer. So for now, here are eight films and two short film packages that I recommend you get along to:

The Rocket

The Rocket

This is a wonderful Australian production, set in rural Laos about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is cursed and whose family is being forcibly relocated from their home. The critique of the way entire cultures are of secondary importance to the business interests of multinationals never overwhelms the film’s moving and dramatic story about childhood.

Mystery Road

Another sensational Australian film is the latest by Ivan Sen, which mixes many of the themes Sen has previously explored, regarding the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, with a slick and slow burn murder-mystery thriller narrative. Immediately after seeing this film I wanted to see it again.

The Act of Killing

This documentary about the Indonesian perpetrators of war crimes during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purges has to be seen to be believed. The participants happily speak about and reenact the horrors they inflicted on others in what is a fascinating and disturbing look at a recent example of the banality of evil.

Stoker

It is not that Park Chan-wook has toned down his approach to cinema in his first English-language film, but he has made the guilty-pleasure nastiness more psychological rather than visceral. And it works brilliantly, maintaining the filmmaker’s meticulous and bold approach to film style.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

We don’t fully understand why the protagonist is homeless, possibly mentally unstable and driven to kill a man just released from prison, but the economic storytelling in this low-key yet utterly gripping revenge thriller means that we are captivated the entire time.

Cheap Thrills 

This is what happens when a violent exploitation film with a dark-as-dark-can-be sense of humour is injected with a searing critique of class and capitalism. The build up to the extreme moments is plausible, the message of the film is never compromised, and watching it is disturbing and fun.

What Richard Did 

A  strong Irish drama that if transposed into an Australian context would contain the same amount of relevance and power in its examination of masculinity and personal responsibility. The first half of the film endears the audience to its Alpha-Male ‘good bloke’ protagonist and then the second half looks at the aftermath of an incident committed in the heat of the moment that changes everything.

The Day of the Crows 

A beautifully animated fantasy film that delves into some painful and dark themes concerning parental abuse, persecution and death. A great example of how animated films from non-English speaking backgrounds are capable of appealing to a wide range of age groups with sophistication.

Desire Shorts

Undress Me

For this collection of short films  about sex, sexuality and gender, the concept of desire seemed to be a suitably broad umbrella term to encompass them all. Protective parents have to accept that their children are sexual beings in For Dorian and The Gift, fidelity and sexuality are explored in Summer Vacation, Clay is a sensual film starring Édith Scob and Undress Me is a particularly arresting film featuring raw and honest performances from its actors.

Documentary Shorts

There are numerous great documentary shorts scattered throughout the MIFF program as pre-feature films, but the collection of films put together in this program showcase  how diverse documentary films can be. Not Anymore: A Story of a Revolution captures the immediacy of the Syrian civil war with confronting war footage and interviews from its two highly articulate subjects. Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head is a glorious blend of animation, experimental film and documentary that pays tribute to Jean Benoît, the final living member of the French Surrealist group. Ebb and Flow is a beautiful observational documentary on a Brazilian man who is poor, hearing impaired and a single father, yet continually finds joy in life.

More recommendations to come…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF 2013: Next Gen

13 May 2013
Next Gen 2013

Image from Day of the Crows

When not reviewing films I work for the Melbourne International Film Festival on the programming team. The first part of  the 2013 MIFF program was announced today and I’m very excited, as it is one of the sections that I worked on. The following is a presentation I gave last Friday to launch the Next Gen program for this year:

Next Gen is a program of entertaining and challenging cinema selected for a youth audience.

The program was established in 2007 to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, as well as stimulate discussion and social awareness. Encouraging students to become active viewers, who question and challenge the moving image, is essential in a media-saturated era. The films this year were selected for their diversity, innovation and high quality, as well as being relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages. Through drama, documentary and animation, issues such as family, prejudice, injustice, violence, rebellion, identity and overcoming hardship are explored with integrity and depth.

With a handful of exceptions, these are not films many people would traditionally classify as ‘kids’ or ‘family’ films. Instead, they are a diverse, innovative and high quality collection of films that will appeal to people of all ages.

Valentine Road

Valentine Road

The documentary Valentine Road is something that will resonate with very wide audiences. It is about the 2008 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence ‘Larry’ King by one of his classmates. It becomes apparent that the murder was a hate crime, committed in response to King’s sexuality and gender identification. Director Marta Cunningham, who will be a festival guest, allows the teachers, friends and legal experts involved in the subsequent trial to speak for themselves without overt judgment. By doing so Cunningham delivers an insight into how young people are affected by the environments they grow up in, especially ones that cultivate and even excuse violent crime, as a response to somebody deemed different.

Another film to confront the impact of violence is the Irish film What Richard Did, by director Lenny Abrahamson. This extremely sophisticated drama is about the kind of guy Australians would consider ‘a good bloke.’ Richard is charismatic, friendly, attractive and a high achiever. He’s a good friend, a respectful son and looks after others. He then does something in the heat of the moment that has an unexpectedly devastating effect. This film about culpability, masculinity and the dangers of alcohol is particularly relevant to Australian audiences, many of who will no doubt recognise how closely the events in this film reflect various stories in the news from the past twelve months.

An interesting contrast to Valentine Road and What Richard Did is the Canadian film Blackbird, about a teenage boy falsely accused of planning a school massacre. Evoking recent films such as The Hunt and West of Memphis, this is a film about persecution as a result of mob hysteria. Many will identify with the young protagonist who identifies as a goth resulting in an outsider status that sees him bullied at school and then falsely accused after he vents his frustration by writing a revenge fantasy short story that he then unwisely shares online. Director Jason Buxton shared the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral.

I Declare War

I Declare War

On a lighter note, the Canadian film I Declare War is a sort of updated Lord of the Flies with a touch of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is set in a forest on one summer’s day, where two groups of kids play an elaborate war game. The kids carry sticks and water bombs, but the film depicts their ‘weapons’ the way the kids see them – as machine guns and grenades. Constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, I Declare War is a parody of war film clichés, a kid-centric adventure film and at times a disturbing look at learned behaviour. However, it’s mostly a lot of fun.

Also fun is the South Korean supernatural romantic comedy/drama A Werewolf Boy, which is thankfully far closer in spirit to Edward Scissorhands than it is to the Twilight films. MIFF regulars may recognise the name of filmmaker Jo Sung-hee as the director of End of Animal from MIFF 2011. However, it is unlikely that audiences will detect any similarities between the two films, which are completely different from each other in terms of style, tone and pace.

Another regional film in Next Gen is Touch of the Light, a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-production featuring the young vision-impair pianist Huang Yu-siang playing himself in a fictionalised story of his experiences entering music school. This crowd-pleasure was a huge hit in Taiwan and has been supported by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Capturing Dad

Capturing Dad

Also close to home is the odd yet endearing Japanese comedy/drama Capturing Dad, about two sisters awkwardly attending the funeral of a father they never knew. It’s refreshing to see a film with such a strong and sophisticated focus on the relationship between sisters (and between mothers and daughters), and Capturing Dad manages to be extremely charming without ever resorting to sentimentality. In fact, a lot of the humour is surprising dark.

Other films that edge more into crowd-pleasuring/family film territory are the Kurdish-language film Bekas and the German film Patty’s Catchup. Based on the experiences of the films writer/director Karzan Kader, Bekas is a spirited adventure film about two orphaned brothers trying to flee Iraq during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. Tina von Traben’s Patty’s Catchup is a fun family drama about three sisters attempting to run a sausage stand, despite one of the sisters preferring to follow her dreams of being a renowned chef.

The film most suitable for very young audiences is the lovely animated film Moon Man by Stephan Schesch, based on Tomi Ungerer’s classic picture book of the same name. However, there are enough Monty Pythonesque and surreal visual gags to keep audiences of all ages entertained.  It is also nice to see a film that aligns scientific curiosity with childlike wonder while satirising governments that are obsessed with jingoism and aggression.

Another animation in the program is the stunning beautiful and moving Day of the Crows by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Although it is a French-language film, it contains more than a hint of influence from Studio Ghibli, not just visually, but with its blend of fantasy, humour and whimsy, with some very grounded themes concerning persecution and parental neglect. It also features voice acting by Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol.

Approved for Adoption

Approved for Adoption

The other impressive French-language animation in the program is Approved for Adoption, the Audience Award winner at last year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. A sort of animated memoir in the vein of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, it is about the childhood experiences of Jung, the film’s writer and co-director (with Laurent Boileau). After the Korean War Jung was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a Belgium family resulting in a childhood where he struggled with his cultural identity and sense of belonging.

The final film in the Next Gen program is English language, but by French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for his film The Class. The film is Foxfire, based on a 1993 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Featuring nearly all young female cast, the film is set in 1950s upstate New York and follows the misadventures of a group of teenage girls who begin to fight back against the patriarchy. The mixture of protofeminism, socialism and teen rebellion results in an exhilarating film that explores how criminality and organised resistance are regarded.

More information: miff.com.au/nextgen

School bookings and study guides: metromagazine.com.au/nextgen

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF 2012: Feature film picks

31 July 2012

The Melbourne International Film Festival opens this Thursday so I thought I’d share my festival picks, even though they are based on a somewhat random sampling of what I have just happened to have seen. Many of my favourite films in the festival are Shorts and the Next Gen films, but I’ve covered those two programs in detail already. Which brings me to the obligatory disclaimer that I work for MIFF in the programming department so have zero objectivity about the festival. Having said that, all the films discussed here are ones that I had nothing at all to do with selecting.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 

The textures and colour make this film a visual masterpiece, and when that is combined with an amazing performance by the film’s young star and an emotive coming-of-age tale that incorporates visions of prehistoric times with future climate change catastrophes, the result is a Magical Realist triumph. I cannot wait to see this film again.

Holy Motors

I am so thankful that films this playful, provocative and puzzling are still made. The latest by Leos Carax, who is the subject of a retrospective at the festival, is a fascinating exploration of dreams, film genres and the effect that technology is having on the way audiences experience cinema. At least that’s what I took from it.

Ernest & Celestine

As two of the three directors on this film are the geniuses behind the deliriously funny A Town Called Panic, I was not expecting it to be a traditional hand-drawn animation that would be so incredibly charming. This gorgeous parable about a mouse and a bear who become friends, despite being told that they should fear and hate each other, is not only funny but so sweet that at moments I was possibly a little misty eyed.

Tabu

Beautiful shot in black-and-white in 4:3, this mesmerising film set in Portugal and African uses selected techniques from early cinema to create a dreamlike story about illicit love, race, colonialism and melancholy.

[REC] Genesis

While not as strong as the original film, which is one of my favourite contemporary zombie films, this loose prequel is a lot of fun. It does abandon the found footage approach early on, but the resulting wedding-based flesh-eating mayhem is a lot of fun.

Side by Side

A really accessible,  in-depth and entertaining look at the way the film industry – on every level – is making the transition from film-based technology to digital. This documentary contains interviews with many of the major players in the film industry and gives voice to a wide range of viewpoints. It challenged and possibly even changed several of my opinions.

Maniac

A film shot in the first-person about a serial killer who scalps his victims after killing them gets points alone for audacity. This is a slickly made cinematic nasty that I really enjoyed being shocked and disturbed by. There is also some really impressive filmmaking on display, used to mimic the fractured way the delusional and deranged protagonist views the world.

Alois Nebel

The stunning black and white rotoscoping in this Czech animation perfectly complements the dark and sombre story about a loner train dispatcher whose experiences during World War II come back to haunt him. There is a remarkable sense of stillness in this film, which gives it a beautiful meditative quality.

Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self Portrait

Like its subject Serge Gainsbourg, this is a rambling film that is sometimes infuriating, something baffling, self-important, self-deprecating, all over the place and constantly fascinating. The combination of archival footage and audio recorded by Gainsbourg provides an impressionist portrait of the man, told out of chronological sequence and far more illuminating than the biopic about him that came out in 2010.

100 Bloody Acres

This horror/comedy is a tremendous amount of fun. As the two brothers with a creative solution to making fertiliser, Angus Sampson is wonderfully wicked while Damon Herriman is hilariously endearing.

Have a great MIFF everybody!

Thomas Caldwell
MIFF Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator

MIFF 2012: Short film picks

24 July 2012

Before launching into my short film picks for MIFF I’d better get the disclaimers out of the way: I’ve been the Shorts Coordinator for the festival since March so I was heavily involved in programming these films. I have zero objectivity about the shorts as I adore them all and think they all should be seen on the big screen. I should also note that the programming of these films was heavily dependant on the advice, expertise and work of my predecessor, the rest of the MIFF programming team and the invaluable shorts panellists. There are also some programs that were compiled completely independently of me.

Rather than going into every program in length I thought I’d pick the top five short films that I am the most excited by. These aren’t necessarily the best films, but the ones that I think I can use to convey my excitement for the program as a whole.

 

Narcocorrido

The standoff between an American cop and two Mexican men suspected of smuggling is as tense, thrilling and dramatic as anything I’ve seen on television or in feature films in the past few years. Over its short running time it delivers mystery, action, moral ambiguity and a ballad of intense anger and passion.

Screens in OUTSIDE THE LAW SHORTS along with two terrific Australian films exploring different aspects of criminality, a poetic Puerto Rican film about the drug trade and a heist film that stars Michael Fassbender.

 

Bobby Yeah

The expression Lynchian gets thrown around far too casually when discussing unconventional cinema, but in this case it is appropriate even though claymation animator Robert Morgan has created something quite unique. This film is grotesque, terrifying and hilarious all at the same time. The story is surreal, the imagery is nightmarish and it taps into a range of preverse primal anxieties. Like I said: Lynchian.

Screens in WTF SHORTS along with a range of other weird, terrifying and funny cinematic oddities including an erotic animation set on a tram, a very disturbing documentary using home videos, a strangely beautiful mockumentary about amusement park rides, an experiment reanimating a chicken, uncanny horror from Brazil, rape-revenge from Italy and an Australian film about a mutating Japanese salary man.

 

Kolona

Kolona

This is a powerful piece about a man fleeing from Kosovo with his family in 1999. The long car convoy out of the region, which is frequently stopped at Serbian checkpoints, is compared to the protagonist’s memory of happier times where a car convoy was used for a wedding.

Screens in INTERNATIONAL SHORTS 1, along with the Charlotte Rampling metafiction film The End and the visually stunning Trotteur.

 

Halfway There

Halfway There

Themes of ageing, memory, mortality and generational change are popular ones in a lot of the cinema that I have been interested in recently. This film captures those themes with amazing sincerity. It begins with carefree naturalism and builds to a deeply moving finale, using poetic cinematic techniques that perfectly suit the mood of the film.

Screens in INTERNATIONAL SHORTS 2. While all the programs I have mentioned include films that screened at Cannes, this program includes Silent, which won the Short Film Palme d’Or.

 

It’s Such A Beautiful Day

It’s Such A Beautiful Day

I haven’t seen the other two film that precede this film in animator Don Hertzfeldt’s trilogy so I wasn’t prepared for its emotional intensity. I remember first seeing Hertzfeldt’s early films at MIFF and adoring his wicked, anarchic and frequently violent sense of humour. However, this film combines his deceptively simple animated figures with a complex array of mixed media to create something very beautiful, sad and profound.

Screens in ANIMATION SHORTS along with new work by Atsushi Wada, Joseph Pierce and the Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as emerging new talent both locally and internationally.

 

Elsewhere in the festival there is the DOCUMENTARY SHORTS program, where you get to scale down skyscrapers in Chicago, climb mountains in Ecuador and get posture advice from an elderly former-Olympic gymnast. The doco program also includes I Kill, a frank and fascinating film about the work of a mobile slaughterman.

Fans of experimental films should be enjoy EXPERIMENTAL SHORTS, which contains three Australian films and new works by international experimental filmmakers such as Nicolas Provost, Ken Jacobs and Henry Hills, whose wonderful jazz-scored cut-up epic Arcana concludes the program.

I won’t say much specifically about the AUSTRALIAN SHORTS, ACCELERATOR 1 or ACCELERATOR 2 programs since I am probably too close to them. There are a bunch of excellent films across these three programs representing the latest work of established and emerging filmmakers, predominately from Australia (the MIFF Accelerator program also includes three New Zealand filmmakers and one Canadian filmmaker this year). The diversity in style, stories and themes is extremely encouraging and it’s exciting seeing these films knowing that many of the filmmakers will go on to make the next batch of major Australian feature films. Some of the best shorts in the festival are included across these three programs.

Otherwise, there are a couple of programs that I haven’t been involved in plus various other bits and pieces, including the shorts showing before features. These include Double or Nothing, a savage social satire written by Neil LaBute that once more sees him examining class, race and misogyny in American society. I also really like Brainy, a strange and beautiful New Zealand/Danish co-production about a boy who believes his dead grandfather has the power to bring animals back to life, and Barbie Blues, a very provocative and confronting film exploring adolescent sexuality and the male gaze that makes the audience complicit in its swift change from playfulness to something far more sinister.

Full list of all shorts at MIFF in 2012

Thomas Caldwell
MIFF Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator

MIFF 2012: Next Gen

17 July 2012

My coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival will be very different this year since I’ve been working for the festival since March. While I won’t be writing much, if anything at all, during the festival I thought I’d provide some thoughts on films I’ve already seen, in particular films from the two programs that I look after, starting with Next Gen. The obvious disclaimer to make is that I work for MIFF so there’s not even a remote chance of me writing objectively about any of the films in the program. Having said that, there’s a reason these films are screening and that’s because myself, my predecessor and the rest of the MIFF programming team are passionate about them. My other disclaimer is that a lot of the Next Gen program was locked in or being locked in when I came on board with the festival so the program reflects the work of a lot of people.

While the Next Gen films aren’t necessarily ‘youth’ or ‘family’ films, they have been identified as being suitable for a wider range of age groups, are pitched directly to schools before the general public can buy tickets and are specially classified so that under-18s can attend. (You can read what I wrote about the program from an education point-of-view on the About Next Gen page). As the program is now available for everybody to book, I’d like to approach the program as simply a collection of excellent films.

Absent parents

Kauwboy

Possibly my favourite film in the program is Kauwboy, a really impressive film from the Netherlands about a boy who befriends a baby jackdaw. With his mother gone and his father increasingly hostile, the boy fills the growing emotional void in his life by nurturing the bird resulting in a restrained bittersweet film about coming to terms with sorrow and loss.

Absent parents are a reoccurring theme in this year’s Next Gen program, which is not that unusual when you think about how many films about young are about children growing up with only one parent – a good chunk of Steven Spielberg’s family films explore this theme. In the Japanese animation A Letter to Momo and the Indonesian live action The Mirror Never Lies young girls without fathers are the protagonists. Both films explore the grieving process and how the girls now relate to their mothers and community, with bursts of magic to lighten proceedings. In A Letter to Momo there are three supposedly helpful goblins in the mix, while in The Mirror Never Lies there is the natural beauty of the sea and its mysteries. Despite the supernatural themes, A Letter to Momo probably has more in common with films such as Whisper of the Heart than something like My Neighbor Totoro (and it should be noted that A Letter to Momo is not a Studio Ghibli film). The Mirror Never Lies contains a strong ecological message since the community featured in the film are the Bajo who live directly off the sea in wooden houses on stilts. One of the joys of cinema is getting an insight into a way of life so removed from our own. I can’t wait to see The Mirror Never Lies on the big screen and take part in a Q&A with director and festival guest Kamila Andini after both screenings.

The other absent parent film in the Next Gen program contains a reluctant returning father in Wild Bill. The curious mix of the laddish English gangster genre with a warm family reconciliation theme somehow works. It is also the directorial début of Dexter Fletcher, whom I grew up watching in Press Gang, and it is a strong actor-turned-director film as any I’ve seen in recent years.

Animated adventures

Le Tableau

As well as A Letter to Momo, the Next Gen program contains three other great animated films. I’m yet to see ParaNorman, but the talent involved in terms of storytelling and animation makes it one of my must-see films during the festival. ParaNorman is one the festival’s 3D films as is A Monster in Paris, a really charming and fun misunderstood-monster film set in Paris in 1910 when parts of the city were flooded. The music is great, there are some great references to early cinema (which is a current trend in contemporary cinema) and a strong critique of the way people in power establish authority by manufacturing fear and paranoia through exaggeration and lies.

The other animated film in the program also contains a strong subtext while still being a film pitched at younger audiences. It’s the French animation Le Tableau where the elements of a painting come of life when they suspect that the Painter has abandoned them. A dictatorial hierarchy forms among the elements based on how ‘complete’ they all are resulting in a group of defiant elements going on a mission beyond the painting to find their creator. Only the French could make a beautiful film for children that contains references to fine art, adventure, existential musings, a search for identity and a strong condemnation of discrimination. There’s an anti-war theme too.

Coming-of-age through history

11 Flowers

Speaking of war, exploring history through the eyes of children is a very useful strategy for exploring periods of great political and social upheaval. Wunderkinderdoes this in regards to World War II and Nazism, while 11 Flowersdoes this to present the final year of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Both films have coming-of-age stories in the foreground while the political violence plays out in the background, usually literally in the distance or off-screen. What I found most interesting about Wunderkinder was its Ukrainian setting where German workers and Soviet ruled locals lived alongside each other before the Nazis broke the Non-Aggression Pact. When war is declared it is initially the Germans who have to go into hiding, aided by their Jewish Soviet friends, and then the situation is reversed once the Nazis invade. Wunderkinder represents political extremism as the enemy of humanity, not necessarily any particular side. 11 Flowers is a gentler film and contains the strong semi-autobiographic presence of director Wang Xiaoshuai, allowing the film to express how the turmoil of the era affected people on a personal level in terms of family, friendship and community.

Challenging perceptions through documentary

Only the Young

The film in the program that is likely to generate the most discussion is Bully, a documentary profiling five case studies of bullied children and teenagers that left me trembling with anger. Due to the minor controversy over its classification in the USA, it is worth mentioning that this is a film that should be seen by young people and the adults who are responsible for looking after them. What left me so angry is the prevalence of misunderstanding about the nature of bullying among adults as expressed by teachers and parents in the film. This film debunks all the damaging myths and excuses about bullying being part of growing up, only something that is physical and somehow part of child socialisation. This is a must-see film and worth seeing at the festival where director Lee Hirsch will be a guest (I’ll be doing at least one Q&A with him) plus representatives from local anti-bullying advocacy groups.

One a lighter noter, First Positionis also screening although it is extremely moving in it’s own way. It follows six very different young people in the build up to the Youth American Grand Prix ballet competition and is an engaging study of what it means to be a professional dancer at such a young age and what it means to dedicate yourself solely to one pursuit. There are some truly moving stories in the film including a Columbian boy living in poverty so that he can train in America and an adopted African girl who had been told that people with dark skin aren’t graceful enough to dance ballet.

However, I think my favourite documentary in the festival is the very low-key Only the Young about three American teenagers spending their days skating, talking about punk music and trying to navigate a potentially destructive love triangle. It’s a film that challenges perceptions about the kind of people the three teenagers are, as the film explores issues of faith and friendship in a relaxed and gentle manner. Beautifully shot and difficult not to like the three subjects, Only the Young along with Kauwboy are my picks of the program. On Thursday 9 August Only the Young screens with Inocente, another really impressive film that undermines perceptions of young people. In the case of Inocente, the film’s 15-year-old titular protagonist, she discusses her artistic aspirations and what it means to be homeless. Her story doesn’t conform to any of the myths or stereotypes of why people become homeless and what their day-to-day life is like.

Thomas Caldwell
MIFF Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator

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