Friday, August 5, 2011

MIFF Blogathon: Day 15 (Don't Be Afraid of A Tribe Called Sleeping Sickness)

This blogathon is an initiative of MIFF for their 60th anniversary year. I am one of six bloggers given the mission of seeing 60 films in 17 days and writing, reporting, reviewing and wrangling my way through the tiredness and hunger to bring the festival experience to your computer.

Bi, Don't Be Afraid
Dir. Dang Di Phan
Running Time: 92mins

A sumptuously detailed exploration of four different generations in Vietnam, Dang Di Phan's gorgeously lensed Bi, Don't Be Afraid [Bi, dung so!] slowly crept up on me and surprised me like another Vietnamese/French co-production from many years ago, The Scent of Green Papaya. Told generally from the point of view of Bi, a 9-year-old boy who live with his doting mother, alcoholic father, single aunt and dying grandfather. He associates with the lithe, teenage boys at a nearby factory more than kids his own age and watches curiously as they express their masculinity by stripping off in the turgid heat as much as possible. His aunt, meanwhile, develops a crush on a young student and his parents deal with their potentially crumbling marriage in the shadow of a dying patriarch.

The cinematography by Quang Pham Minh is divine, capturing the Vietnamese countryside in an assortment of lush greens, rustic golds and smoky greys while at the same time capturing great moments in picturesque ways. Two boys devouring a watermelon or the rain-soaked aunt cowering amongst reeds are just two that spring to mind as memorable, lasting images. The casual "slice of life" narrative drifts along in an almost dreamy manner and this debut film by Phan has a delicate balance that suckered me in. B+

Sleeping Sickness
Dir. Ulrich Köhler
Running Time: 91mins

A curious film is Ulrich Köhler's German/French co-production set in Cameroon. Split into two distinct halves, it always holds its cards very firmly to its chest. I was in constant thought of "where is this going?" and while it may not have gone somewhere I particularly understand, I appreciate it's ripe storytelling and visually arresting take on the tricky material.

Initially starring Pierre Bokma as a German doctor, Ebbo Velten, living in and running a treatment centre for the titular disease in Cameroon, Sleeping Sickness [Schlafkrankheit] takes a sudden detour and focuses of French doctor of Congolese descent, Jean-Christophe Folly as Alex Nzila, visiting Africa for the first time to conduct a report on Velten's study. The contrast of white man living in Africa and black man visiting for the first time is deftly handled by Köhler and the juxtaposition is never obvious. The final scenes, set amongst the deep black nighttime jungles, are mysterious and ambiguous. I was definitely perplexed by Sleeping Sickness, but found it constantly involving. B

Melbourne Shorts (Program 2)
Dir. Various
Running Time: 100mins (cume)

A much more entertaining batch of shorts than program 1 (although that may have to do with the fact that I was sitting with the incredible Mel Campbell, laughing our butts off!), this second collection of short films about Melbourne spans 1954 to 1979 and looks mostly at how the future (so, er, today) will look at the city of the past.

Beginning with Geoffrey Thompson's 1954 short Planning for Melbourne's Future (19mins) and the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority's (so no actual director?) Loop (14mins) from 1973, the two films provide laughs a-plenty for Melburnians who deal daily with public transport fiascoes. As narrators explain the daily, worsening struggle of transporters cramming into trains and trams like sardines on their way to work and talking about how they need to make changes for the future I couldn't help but laugh. You can watch it at The Department of Planning and Community Development. Loop is particularly well edited and photographed (despite the poor quality of the print) and despite a truly bizarre lapse into comedic narrative that had my howling with laughter, they're wonderfully made shorts that really do provide a history lesson of this amazing city.

The City Speaks from 1965 was next, produced by The Housing Commission of Victoria and it was just as dull as the title and production house would allude to. I drifted off at some point during this 21min film and can't even really remember much about what I did see. The score was terrible, too. Far better was Gil Brealey's Late Winter to Early Spring (12mins) from 1954. A black and white silent film that follows several people - a grandmother and two kids, two women of different class waiting for their dates and a homeless man - around the botanical gardens. It's lovingly lensed and surprisingly creative in its compositions that bristle with humour and style.

Peter McIntyre's Your House and Mine (23mins) is a 1958 short that was produced in tandem with a local architectural digest magazine. It's horrible dated - "In [the late 1800s] during the dying days of the Aborigine" !!! - and, subsequently, hilarious short that examines what Australia's defining style of architecture and where it fits into the development of our ever widening cities. It's got a charming style, brisk editing and ridiculously comical narration. The program unfortunately ended on a bit of a dud note with John Dunkley-Smith's Flinders Street (11mins) from 1979. It's not much more than a curiosity, a document of what this iconic Melbourne landmark and its surrounding areas looked like at the time. I had no idea there used to be a cinema next door to the Young & Jackson pub on the corner of Flinders and Swanston! For what it's worth, the cinema was playing Superman, The Jungle Book and Saturday Night Fever. What makes the film especially bizarre is the presentation where two boxy 16mm screens are presented side-by-side. One has sound and is in colour, the other does not. The two screens more or less film the same stuff - walking from corner to corner around the area - with one a minute or so behind. It's curious stuff and I'm not sure it worked, but it was certainly interesting to see the big skyscraper that was demolished and replaced by Federation Square or the way the train station itself and the famous clock facade has changed so little.

You can read more about Flinders Street at Senses of Cinema.

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Dir. Michael Rapaport
Running Time: 98mins

Warning: Beats Rhymes & Life is dangerous to your health!

I dare anybody who see this film, Michael Rapaport's debut as director after a career in acting, and not want to investigate the entire recording career of A Tribe Called Quest. The groundbreaking New York hip-hop group of the late 1980s and early 1990s is given 98 minutes of love and affection in this documentary that is unfortunately conventional, but never boring. The music of A Tribe Called Quest - as well as the other assorted artists who are featured as inspirations of or inspired by the band - is so infectious and each song a masterpiece of construction and craft that I can easily forgive Rapaport's lacklustre direction. As the twentysomething white girl down the aisle said during the credits: "That was dope!"

Dope, indeed.

It's hard to see documentaries being made out contemporary hip-hop artists that would allow them to be portrayed as such funny, interesting people as Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed and the especially touching Jarobi White. These were men that never particularly flaunted their success and sung about pertinent issues. The live musical sequences are energetically captured, but like the rest of the film, they're hardly mindblowing. Fantastic animation throughout is about as close as The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest gets to being truly cinematic, but the beats, the rhymes and the life of A Tribe Called Quest make this film a delightful experience. B

The awesomeness that is MIFF was exemplified today when, after leaving Sleeping Sickness at The Forum, I ended up running into not one or two, three or four, but five wonderful fellow MIFF-attending critfolks. I see these people pretty regularly - well, not Simon from Quickflix since he lives in Perth - but there's something so metropolitan about just turning around and spotting someone you know.

I should also point out that with two days left of the festival, the end is coming right at the perfect time. My legs appear to have not adapted well to their almost perma-bend-in-uncomfortable-seat position and my dickey knee has been acting up big time. I injured it years ago and it hadn't bothered me in a very long time, but I guess 54 films in 15 days (two more on Saturday, four on Sunday will bring me to the magic 60!) has not been the best for it.

Meanwhile, I love that the "closing night" festivities (Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive and an elaborate party with drinks, drinks, drinks and probably some celebrities who discuss how great it is to see Melbourne filmgoers out in force seeing films whilst probably not letting slip that they didn't see any apart from their own. I love how completely and utterly Australian it is to hold the closing night festivities on a Saturday night when the festival doesn't actually end until Sunday night. Certainly gives people who aren't filming it up on Sunday the chance to get completely shit-faced and not have to worry about work in the morning. Well done Australia, you rock!

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