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.
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.
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
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
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.