There have been a lot of films at this year’s festival with a focus on children, with I Am Eleven and Tomboy being the happier highlights. The darker side of the coin are films about child neglect and abuse with Michael and now Polisse most directly exploring the horrors of crimes against children. Focusing on the Child Protection Unit, a division of the police in Paris, Polisse adopts a documentary style to depict the professional and personal lives of the officers. There is a deliberately fragmented approach where various story threads flow in and out of the film to capture the essence of the unit’s day-to-day work rather than present a single grand narrative. We see celebrations over small victories, frustrations, breakdowns and the dark humour that is required for the officers to stay sane. While never exploitive, there are upsetting moments when the reality of what has happened to some children hits home. Of all the films I have seen this year Polisse is the one that most took me by surprise. It’s an extremely well crafted ensemble piece, constantly engaging and at times deeply moving.
[EDIT 3/7/2012: Read a full review of Polisse]
Until now I knew nothing about Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who created the gekiga genre of Japanese comics, which adopted a more realistic, serious and mature style of storytelling that was distinct from the popular children-oriented manga comics. Tatsumi not only explains the cultural context of gekiga comics, but adopts Tatsumi’s simple yet expressive cartooning style to depict his life and bring to life five of his short stories. The stories are remarkably angry and tragic pieces about the cruelty of fate and the failings of masculinity and I was slightly puzzled by the whimsical music used throughout the autobiographic sections of the film, which seemed so at odds with the serious social critique in the stories. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating autobiographical film of sorts with a very inventive approach to its subject matter.
The Swell Season
Like so many people who saw the glorious Once, I fell in love with the sweet story of musicians/stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová who became an off-screen couple during filming and went on to win an Academy Award. I remember seeing them in concert when they toured Melbourne and later being a bit sad when I heard that they had romantically split up. The Swell Season looks at their life on the road after their massive success and how the sudden fame, new expectations and new pressures affected their relationship. Hansard and Irglová are both extremely open people so they talk candidly about the tensions in their lives. The music is integrated to comment on the status of their relationship during the film and the result is a very sad yet sweet and insightful film.
The latest documentary by the master of observational filmmaking Frederick Wiseman is Boxing Gym. Similarly to the Paris Opera Ballet as seen in La danse, the gym in suburban Austin is filled with bodies in motion. Wiseman edits the sound and the visuals to represent the gym as something of a living organism, with its constant activity. A huge range of people attend the gym and the focus on people training, snippets of conversation and the logistics of running the gym makes for fascinating viewing.
How to Die in Oregon
The most emotional experience I have had at MIFF this year was seeing How to Die in Oregon, a remarkable documentary about people who have chosen to end their lives. The film does explore the issues and debates that physician-assisted suicide raises, but with only one real exception the people featured in the film are strong advocates of the need to be able to die with dignity. The main point of interest for me was getting an insight into what happens once people decide they want to end their lives. Gradually the film focuses on Cody Curtis, a terminally ill 52-year old woman, and she especially articulates the enormous amount of comfort, empowerment and peace that having such a choice brings to her and her family. Her story, in particular towards the end of the film, is documented with a respectful distance by the filmmakers that nevertheless contains a profound intimacy. It is extremely beautiful but also devastating. I think the entire audience were in tears by the end of the film and there were many of us who needed to sit still for several minutes after the credits finished rolling. I am so glad I saw this.
The entire festival is something of a MIFFhap right now as we’ve all entered its darkest phase. The rush, excitement and good will of the festival starting has faded and the celebratory camaraderie of it coming to an end has yet to occur. If MIFF were a dance party, we’d be in the hours between 3am and 5am. At the beginning it’s all euphoric as the experience begins. We’re not fussed if people jump two places ahead of the queue to stand with friends and we’ll happily shift seats to allow a couple arriving late to be able to sit together. We apologise if we think we’ve shuffled around too much during a film and be told not to worry about it. When things go wrong with a screening we laugh about how it’s all part of the festival experience. We merrily disagree with each other about what we’ve seen but respect where everybody is coming from.
It’s different now. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but the house lights are on and we can’t stand the sight of each other. Everything irritates us. Instead of saying, ‘Would you mind not talking, it’s a little bit distracting’, we’re screaming, ‘Shut up you thoughtless piece of trash and piss off back to the multiplexes’. We’re whipping out our phones and not giving a single damn about the people around us who are blinded by the glowing screens. When something goes wrong in a screening it feels like a personal attack designed to destroy our entire festival experience. Carrot sticks are replaced by Lord of the Fries – yeah, make it a box and extra gravy please. Our response to dissenting views is now: ‘You would think that because you’re a fascist who knows nothing about cinema!’ We’re recording podcasts where we repeatedly refer to The Kid with a Bike as The Kid on a Bike and bugger up details about the Dardenne brothers’ filmography.
However, we need to hold fast as the dawn is approaching. Soon this night will come to an end and we’ll be filled with a sense of relief, sadness that it’s all over and joy at having had such an amazing experience. In many ways, that is the best bit and it’s yet to come. So hang in their folks, find that second wind, rediscover the love and in the meantime just be very still and very quiet. We’re almost there.
Show us your MIFF
Having previously exchanged the occasional tweet with Rita Walsh (aka @rcwalsh) it was great to bump into her in person last week after a screening at the Forum. In fact, a general highlight of the festival for Rita, from over the ten years that she’s been attending, is seeing films in a packed house at the Forum. Natural Selection is so far her favourite film seen at this year’s festival, while Melancholia, A Separation, Life in a Day and Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure have all delivered too. Rita’s all-time favourite MIFF experience was the shared experience of seeing Old Boy in 2004 with a sold out audience when nobody knew quite where to look after the film’s shocking twist was revealed. Her MIFF survival tips are to bring coats and gloves for the queues and to pick a balance of films that you want to see combined with a few you know nothing about. Asking people with different tastes to you to recommend a few is also a good strategy. Rita doesn’t think it’s fair to commit to selecting her all-time favourite films so instead tells me which ones she could watch on repeat: Rear Window, The Fugitive, Thank You For Smoking, Notting Hill and Erin Brokovich. Rita works in film, TV and theatre as a producer and production freelancer.
Thomas Caldwell, 2011