Like many major city film festivals, Sydney’s objective is to collect what is deemed the year’s best films from around the globe and offer them to the locals, resulting in an eclectic line-up of films, but with a certain absence of a unifying identity. Just like at the London Film Festival, the venues are spread apart in a way that disperses the core of the festival, yet its spirit persists as each venue attracts an eager horde of the city’s film-going public, who queue for their next cinephilic hit. Rather than the premieres and international guests, it seems it is the keen public and their enthusiasm that keep the festival running, and my conversations waiting in line made it more than worthwhile attending, albeit regretfully only for the latter half of its schedule.
Béla Tarr’s newest, and allegedly his last, The Turin Horse (2011), retains the director’s singular style, albeit filtered into further minimalism and pathos. The story of Nietzsche’s last conscious act is its springboard: his defence of a beaten carriage horse before withdrawing into madness is adapted (or continued) into a tale of a horse, its owner and his daughter, who reside in a windswept wasteland where the harsh conditions render them immobile. The savage weather and setting are strongly reminiscent of The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), but the film’s closest neighbour is Kaneto Shindo’s Naked Island (1960). The gruelling monotony of daily routine is captured with deliberate pace and patience in both films, where the necessary cycle of everyday survival becomes transcendent, hinting at realms beyond the human condition. In both films, small events jaunt the rotational flow, and the haunting soundtrack becomes a motif that breaks the spell of endurance for a breath of relief. Yet in The Turin Horse, the soundtrack we’ll remember is the despondent gale that traps and silences its victims under its omnipresence.
Repetition is also explored in documentary Boxing Gym (2010), where Frederick Wiseman observes the training processes of boxers of all ages, races, sizes and gender at a Texas warehouse. The aural pulses of the space, with the boxers’ concentrated breaths, floorboard squeaks and punched vibrations, provide the soundtrack for the film and resonate with the visual rhythms of the boxers’ measured movements in a constant loop. Wiseman captures the boxers’ individual exercises with his characteristically observant and distant camera, which simultaneously intimates a fully involved gaze.
Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited Tree of Life (2011) is similarly made of visual pulsations, relying on intuitions for sensorial transition between the shots rather than any sense of an anchored narrative. The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes earlier this year, the film is epic in scope but finds it difficult to balance the microscopic tale of adolescence in suburban pre-Vietnam US with the colossal enormity of the birth of the universe. The juxtaposition jars; Malick’s trademark sense of touch and his ability to evoke emotion, imbedded here in the depiction of the family, have always been meaningful and tangible, but they lose their grip when Tree of Life enters the cosmos.
Family also takes centre stage and is placed under strain in the excellent A Separation (2011), winner of the Official Jury Competition at the festival. This Iranian drama depicts the moral and legal battle between and within two families when a chain of events leads to a maid’s miscarriage and her employer is blamed. The title of the film not only refers to the divorce application that opens the film, but also to the partitioning of social classes, generations and gender, a rift caused by the central accident. Intensity reaches boiling point and our sympathies swerve between the characters as the spiral narrative unveils the malleability of truth with each new revelation.
The festival joined many other international contemporaries in celebrating the work of Iranian filmmakers, specifically Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rausolof, a necessary and timely focus in light of their imprisonment and ban from exercising their professions. Heavily allegorical and resolutely political, The White Meadow (2009), directed by Rausolof and edited by Panahi, demonstrates their skills as storytellers in an environment where voices struggle to be heard. A travelling tear-collector visits different communities, who are all involved in ritual ceremonies that attempt to relieve the environmental hardships afflicting their members; for example, the most beautiful woman of one village is served as a martyr to mate with the sea in order to combat drought. The film becomes a road movie as the protagonist gathers the disowned outcasts and they journey on forward, Rausolof’s camera sinking its lens into the foggy air to capture the beauty of the landscapes.
Gesher (2010), produced by Rausolof and directed by Vahid Vakilifar, observes three workers who labour in a factory at a period of rapid industrialisation. The characters are silenced by the mechanical noises and are dwarfed by the enormity of the machinery, and such scenery is captured in long shots and long takes. Powerless individuals in overpowering situations were also found in Wang Bing’s first fiction-feature The Ditch (2010), a docu-drama about the camps where those who voiced their criticisms against Mao in the Hundred Flowers Campaign were sent. In the midst of a three-year famine, the detainees undergo an intense struggle for survival as one by one they reach exhaustion and starvation. The harrowing depiction of camp life never shies away from the gruesome details, and Wang’s camera perseveres in its realist mode of expression even when the depravity sinks beyond the imaginable.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem (2010) is a story of a lonely man who records causes of death and whose workload reaches previously unimagined heights on the day of the military coup against President Allende in 1973. Hints of civil distress suggested off-screen are forced into the on-screen narrative that meanders in the pivotal historical moment and our protagonist Mario seems silently confused at his newfound situation. Pablo Larrain’s contemplative pace never rushes the story forward despite the catastrophes that surround it and main actor Alfredo Castro, who plays the John Travolta obsessive in the director’s previous Tony Manero (2008), delivers volumes through an absence of expression.
Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) portrays another historical period, but this time, anchored in the distant West where three families journey on the Oregon trail, only to stray in the wilderness without their bearings. The camera positions itself with the women, who pace behind the male leaders to lead the group into the depths of nowhere, a unique point of view for the Western that questions masculine sovereignty. Despondence brews in the air and intensity levels rise, but such feelings are only revealed through momentary slips in the cycle of hopeless repetition and the sinking expressions that expose a gradual realisation that the odds may be against them. The epic landscape of the Western genre, which is often used to signal hope, is denied by the framing that squeezes its vastness into a 4×3 screen ratio.
A total loss of control reaches its absolute zenith in debut filmmaker Jo Sung-Hee’s imagined apocalypse End of Animal (2010), a low-budget Korean disaster film that taps into universal fears of global collapse. Although its menace deflates when it punctures its mysteries in semi-explanatory flashbacks at the end of the film, the film largely relies on a sense of disarray experienced by both audience and characters in their newfound situation of impending enigmatic doom. Jo’s storytelling is cold, introducing pregnant protagonist Soon-Yung to possible notes of redemption, only to throw her back into misanthropic despair as the camera follows her hopelessly wandering in circles as exhaustion looms.