Written by Jaymes Durante and Jeremy Elphick, with additional reporting from Conor Bateman.
MIFF artistic director Michelle Carey launched the festival’s 2017 program on Tuesday night at a packed Forum Theatre, introducing the biggest and best roster of local and international features and documentaries Australia will see this year — 358 films over 17 days and 590 sessions this August. While the recent Sydney Film Festival leaned heavily on underwhelming Venice and Berlinale selections, MIFF has the benefit taking place towards the end of a stacked calendar, shedding the dead weight from far-gone festivals and bringing Melbourne cinephiles the best of the year’s international cinema. Cannes and Locarno picks have a strong showing in this year’s program, with the latter festival’s bold programming last year paying off with one of the most enduring selections of arthouse features in recent memory. Three large retrospectives and several niche sidebars feature in the 2017 MIFF program, including strands focussing on music on film, true crime and, most peculiarly, animal documentaries.
Punters will once again chance the Comedy Theatre seating for MIFF’s Headliners strand, featuring titles deemed “festival blockbusters” — Robin Campillo’s Cannes Grand Prix-winner BPM, about AIDS activism in France in the 1990s, will join Ruben Östlund’s excoriating Palme d’Or recipient The Square, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (pictured above) and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s grim-sounding Leviathan follow-up, Loveless on this program of the year’s most anticipated. Luca Guadignino will visit Australia to present his fleshy and sumptuous love story Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer and based on the novel by André Aciman, alongside fellow Sundance hit Patti Cake$. And considering Josh and Benny Safdie’s relationship with the festival (MIFF screened the first ever retrospective of the brothers’ work in 2015) it’s unsurprising to see Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as a frenzied criminal on the run in New York City, on the cards this year. Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, meanwhile, an exquisitely crafted American production with an Oscar winner in the lead, does feel like something of an innocent and opulent outlier amongst such ragtag company.
Filmmaking stalwarts round out this young crowd: Agnes Varda’s Faces Places, a documentary made in collaboration with artist JR, Michael Haneke’s blacker-than-tar comedy Happy End and Claire Denis’ Francofied rom-com (you heard right) Let The Sunshine In add seniority and a touch of French irony to the mix. Though we could hardly call this slate of headliners disappointing, the non-appearance of Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, François Ozon’s Amant Double and Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here anywhere on the festival calendar this year might leave those with higher hopes slightly miffed. Also impossible to ignore: while the general diversity of this year’s program is commendable, the Headliners remain ubiquitously white and Eurocentric, a fact especially frustrating considering the strong showing of high-profile Asian, Middle Eastern and African films on the 2017 program.
Terrence Malick will transcend the corporeal entirely with Voyage of Time, his IMAX documentary about life, the universe and everything, narrated by Brad Pitt. An extension of The Tree of Life’s lengthy, earth-rattling metaphysical digression, Voyage of Time starts with the big bang and brings us into the present moment over the course of an hour, giving the reclusive auteur ample time to show off the pellucid cinematography, pristine special effects and spectacular sound mixing that make his films so interesting to watch. Whether there’s anything of substance beyond Voyage of Time’s expected beauty remains to be seen. Malick’s Song to Song, about the lives and loves of three freewheeling musicians and his strongest work since The Tree of Life, will also screen in the Headliners sidebar, making Malick (whose films were once all but guaranteed a theatrical release) one of a select few directors to have multiple films bow at MIFF 2017. Joining him: Russian director Sergei Loznitsa with A Gentle Creature, fresh from Cannes, and Austerlitz, his observational documentary about Nazi concentration camps, tourism and the ravages of collective memory. Australian filmmakers Kriv Stenders (Australia Day and The Go-Betweens: Right Here) and Greg McLean (The Belko Experiment and opening night film Jungle) will also both premiere two films.
Necessitated no doubt by his speedy output, MIFF have this year given South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo his own sidebar in which three new films will screen. Yourself and Yours, On the Beach at Night Alone and Claire’s Camera see Hong settling into his most comfortably prolific period, exploring complex social dynamics through his idiosyncratic implementation of fractured time frames, doppelgangers and, of course, messily executed zooms. Kim Min-hee appears in both On the Beach At Night Alone, for which she won the Silver Bear at Berlin, and Claire’s Camera, alongside Isabelle Huppert in her second collaboration with Hong after lost-in-translation comedy In Another Country. Hong, never one to take a breather, has since made yet another film, The Day After, which will not premiere at MIFF.
Sally Potter’s star-studded political farce The Party, also a Headliner, was filmed and edited in secret and unveiled at Berlin in February, but MIFF aren’t giving the British auteur’s latest an equally inconspicuous berth. The Party will be accompanied by a full retrospective of Potter’s film work, including a screening of experimental shorts — the only such director-driven retrospective at this year’s festival. Potter’s work as a filmmaker is more than deserving of reappraisal, but The Party is hardly the occasion for it — at barely 80 minutes it feels slight, and what it lacks in substance and self-awareness it more than makes up for in broad-strokes political humour and annoyingly high tensions. While some may relish the opportunity to see The Gold Diggers and Potter’s 1992 opus Orlando on the big screen, others may find themselves fed up with MIFF’s reticence to program director retrospectives from outside of the Anglo-speaking world.
Following from previous year’s celluloid-heavy psychedelic and Spanish New Wave programs comes a massive sci-fi retrospective featuring Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Japanese New Wave classic The Face of Another, Elio Petri’s Marcello Mastroianni starrer The 10th Victim and Luc Besson’s black-and-white feature debut Le Dernier Combat. The Astor Theatre makes its return as a MIFF venue with an all-night sci-fi marathon featuring seven films, including Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead-End Drive In, Colossal director Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. While the retrospective offers a look at some extremely rare sci-fi fare, like Jakov Protazanov’s Metropolis precursor Aelita, Queen of Mars and Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jindrich Polak’s Solaris-esque metaphysical quest Ikarie XB-1, perhaps obscure even to ardent fans of the genre, it isn’t the boldest theme to riff on — science fiction is one of the most ubiquitous genres in today’s cinema landscape, and though guaranteed to sell tickets, we’re not sure its positioning atop Australia’s biggest film festival is totally warranted. It’s also a notoriously male field, as reflected in this program, which is testosterone-heavy with the single exception of Kathryn Bigelow’s dazzling and (at the time) underrated Strange Days.
Enter the National Film and Sound Archive and co-curator Alex Heller-Nicholas, with canon revisionism in tow. Taking a cue from last year’s ‘Gaining Ground’ retrospective, which focused on female filmmakers working in and around New York in the 1970s and ’80s, and following the highly successful ‘Feminism & Film’ retrospective of Sydney-based female filmmakers of the ’70s and ’80s at the recent Sydney Film Festival, MIFF’s 2017 Australian retrospective, ‘Pioneering Women’, will look at feature works by Australian women made in the 1980s and early ’90s. Billed as “should-be classics”, the 10 films selected for screening represent a vibrant cross-section of an active community of filmmakers whose work remains largely undervalued. Gillian Armstrong, Tracey Moffatt and Ana Kokkinos might ring a bell, but films by unsung directors like Laurie McInnes, Clara Law and Nadia Tass are sitting in vaults waiting to be seen, discussed and rediscovered. ‘Pioneering Women’ performs its proper function as a retrospective: using sharp archival research and bold programming, it bends the selective narrative of local film history towards a more just representation of the work produced in the past, and, like all good retrospectives, in the direction of underseen, quality cinema. BeDevil (Tracey Moffatt), Broken Highway (Laurie McInnes), Floating Life (Clara Law), High Tide (Gillian Armstrong) and Tender Hooks (Mary Callaghan) will screen on 35mm; Only the Brave (Ana Kokkinos) and On Guard (Susan Lambert) will screen in 16mm; Starstruck (Armstrong again), The Big Steal (Nadia Tass) and Celia (Ann Turner) will screen on NFSA-restored DCPs.
The festival’s Asia Pacific selections are some of their strongest to date, with films from Locarno — in particular Katsuya Tomita’s brilliant Bangkok Nites — bolstering a strong and diverse pack of features. In addition to a program of Indonesian shorts showcasing our closest neighbour’s growing film industry, MIFF will screen Mouly Surya’s “feminist Indonesian Spaghetti Western” Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Ching Mong-Hong’s genre mashup Godspeed represents Taiwan, whilst Naomi Kawase’s Cannes Competition entry Radiance, Ghibli alumni Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World and Daigo Matsui’s follow up to audience favourite Our Huff and Puff Journey, Japanese Girls Never Die, showcase some of Japan’s best art cinema. Humanist drama Hotel Salvation and political satire Newton, which Virat Nehru says “makes a fiercely political statement not limited to just the Indian political landscape”, and Rotterdam favourite Sexy Durga showcase high profile Indian art cinema. One of the more interesting selections from India is immersive documentary Machines, which captures a modern factory using immersive documentary techniques championed by the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard in films like Leviathan and Manakamana. Kirsten Tan’s sweet and affecting Pop Aye and Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay traverse mainland southeast Asia in transnational productions. In terms of short films, two Chinese productions lead the pack: Qiu Yang’s Palme d’Or winner A Gentle Night and Jia Zhang-ke’s The Hedonists will screen amongst MIFF’s packages of international shorts.
American cinema is never underrepresented at Australian film festivals and it’s oddly refreshing to see MIFF cordon off a small series of them in a sidebar called New York Stories. From Sundance, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, a curious omission at SFF, is here alongside It Felt Like Love director Eliza Hittman’s prize-winner Beach Rats, and Dustin Guy Defa’s patchwork Person to Person. Ana Asensio’s tense immigration thriller Most Beautiful Island, which took out a Grand Jury prize at SXSW, also screens, along with Matías Piñeiro’s Shakesperian Hermia & Helena. When Piñeiro’s film premiered at Locarno last year, Annabel Brady-Brown called it “part Millennial riff, part po-mo excuse to toy with narrative devices… a freewheeling joyride through the Bard’s classic romance.” Another American films of note this year: John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, which was just announced to be in competition at Locarno, and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, his first film since 2014 festival favourite The Immigrant.
From Europe, The Ornithologist once again is at the forefront of our recommendations, along with Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, Valeska Grisebach’s Cannes competition film Western, Helene Hegemann’s rebellious Axolotl Overkill, pitch-black Bulgarian social comedy Glory and, naturally, Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day. In addition to this, we’re keen to see Teresa Villaverde’s family drama Colo, which seems to have flown under the radar since its competition berth at Berlin earlier this year.
Latin American films to look out for include SFF competition film The Untamed, Sebastián Lelio’s Berlinale screenplay winner A Fantastic Woman and Milagros Mumenthaler’s The Idea of a Lake, which had its premiere last year at Locarno. Mumenthaler’s film takes cues from a real story, of a woman whose father disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship. The Middle East and Africa sections of the program overlaps with Sydney a lot: Félicité, A Man of Integrity, I Am Not A Witch, The Nile Hilton Incident and The Wound make their Victorian debuts. With Kiarostami passing away little over a year ago, the presence of 24 Frames in the Middle East and Africa section comes as a bittersweet addition to this year’s program. The film, as the title might indicate, revolves around 24 frames – 23, photographs shot by the Iranian director, and a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Kiarostami questions the images we see in his final film: what happened immediately before – or after – it was taken? With 24 Frames, these images are put in motion and cut with sound. On paper it might sound like an overwhelmingly minimal work, though if the intimacy that defined Kiarostami’s cinema is any indication – it’s unlikely to disappoint.
Night Shift returns this year with a decidedly mixed bag of genre (and genre-adjacent) cinema. The emergence of Monster Fest as a veritable force within the Australian festival circuit and the growth of the Queensland Film Festival — a niche festival unafraid to dip its toes into murky horror waters if the content is worthy (see: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears and Philippe Grandrieux’s Despite the Night) — has left Australian genre audiences well-served, removing some of the allure of exclusivity that these sorts of films used to benefit from when SFF and MIFF were the only game in town. In fact, just under half of the titles featured in this year’s sidebar have already premiered on the Australian festival circuit. The inclusion of a film like the extremely underwhelming (but guaranteed ticket pushing) Psycho doc 78/52 is, then, somewhat disappointing.
In saying that, Night Shift still has its fair share of gems, with the clear highlight of the program being Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, an ultra-low budget, abstract indie sci-fi flick. The film — which follows two ex-members of a suicidal UFO cult as they return to the commune they fled 10 years prior — comes fresh from a run at Queensland Film Festival and is sure to impress and divide audiences in equal measure. MIFF are also bringing out the new Astron-6-affiliated flick, The Void, a practical effects heavy throwback to ’80s Lovecraftian sci-fi fare. Another feature generating serious buzz is My Friend Dahmer, Marc Meyers’ adaptation of the graphic novel by Derf which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Chronicling Jeffrey Dahmer’s high-school years — up until his first murder — with a script that made 2014’s Black List, it’s well-positioned to be a late-night festival favourite. Tragedy Girls has found similar acclaim out of its SXSW premiere; a critique of social media culture, the performativity it breeds and society’s obsession with murder and mayhem — it’s, at times, far too caught up in the trappings of its own ideas for its own good but it’s a vast improvement on Tyler MacIntyre’s previous film, Patchwork, and low-effort filler for anyone looking to fill out a multipass with a late-night screening.
Adding some diversity to the program are three titles from individuals approaching legacy director status in the cult film scene, albeit in very different pockets of the subculture: fresh from Sydney, MIFF are bringing out Takashi Miike’s 100th film, Blade of the Immortal, a samurai epic about a man who can regenerate his own limbs; Khavn De La Cruz’s extreme crime film Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember, which follows a gang of criminal youths before and after their imprisonment, and are hosting the Australian premiere of Wolf Creek helmer Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment, his second film at the festival. Written by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn — his return to low-budget, high-concept genre fare — the film underperformed at the US box-office but is sure to push tickets to curious festival-goers despite its less-than-stellar execution. Rounding out the Night Shift program are Bloodlands, a new film about blood feuds, witches and coming of age in Albania from Australian director Steven Kastrissios (of The Horseman fame), and Cannes’ midnighter A Prayer Before Dawn from Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, a kick-boxing epic set inside a Thai prison. There’s sure to be a few surprises, but this year’s Night Shift program (much like SFF’s Freak Me Out program before it) aptly demonstrates that it’s been a rough year for genre cinema on the festival circuit, lacking an It Follows, a Green Room or even a Don’t Tell, with no worthy mainstream crossover titles making the festival rounds.
A new sidebar, Experimentations, puts experimental features into context, featuring five bold, boundary-pushing films from Europe, Asia and the USA. Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark, which we called “a remarkably complete meditation on the unattainable”, stunned us in Locarno and Sydney. Utilising surrealist fragmentation, found footage and creative frustration as a source of creative inspiration, By the Time It Gets Dark edges towards transcendence in its free-associative dissection of Thailand’s past and present. Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path appears at MIFF in its Australian premiere. A highlight of Locarno last year, our writer dubbed it “a glorious existential sucker punch” where “the gestures of Schanelec’s lonely, aching bodies resonate far longer than any words.” Niles Atallah’s Rey takes a more playful tack, telling the story of a 19th-century French adventurer in multiple film formats. Shooting between 35mm, 15mm and Super-8 film, Atallah went on to bury footage that he shot for Rey in his own backyard in an effort to emphasise the fragility of history and memory, playing out through the degradation of the image on screen. Another Experimentations work involving the burial of celluloid: Dawson City: Frozen Time, from Decasia filmmaker Bill Morrison. Dawson City sees Morrison cut up 1920s nitrate film stock unearthed in a small Canadian city in 1978. This program is rounded out with Loznitsa’s aforementioned Austerlitz.
Outside of the MIFF Premiere Fund and Centrepiece events, the local fare on offer is most interesting when it departs from Sydney Film Festival’s program. There are, as to be expected, a lot of repeats: Ali’s Wedding (sure to be a crowd favourite outside the festival circuit), Australia Day, David Wenham’s Elipsis, twin comedy That’s Not Me and sci-fi Otherlife among others. The inclusion of works like Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy and Sera Davies’ Namatjira Project, an intimate documentary work in part about the legacy of Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, makes this program stand out. The closing night film, Gurrumul Elcho Dreaming, also asks us to reflect on Indigenous art; its portrait of singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
Another Australian work we’re keen to see comes from filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who made his first appearance at MIFF with his 2003 short, Adolescent, though 2008’s Bastardy – which screens as a retrospective this year – put him on the map. While 2011’s Hail further solidified Courtin-Wilson as one of Australia’s most impressive contemporary directors, his 2013 collaborative effort with Michael Cody in Ruin fell short with audiences and critics. His latest feature, The Silent Eye, looks like a return to form, assisted by the presence of free jazz heavyweight Cecil Taylor, who makes up the core of the film, alongside Japanese choreographer Min Tanaka. The feature grew out of a documentary on Taylor that Courtin-Wilson is currently working, but The Silent Eye is more concerned with exploring a more metaphysical side of performance.
Like Cannes, MIFF have been enticed into exhibiting works made primarily for television by by heavy-hitter auteurs and local producers. Jane Campion, still the only woman to ever win the Palme d’Or, will attend MIFF for the Australian premiere of Top of the Lake: China Girl, the second season of her acclaimed antipodean TV production starring Elizabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman. All episodes of the new season will screen consecutively at a single session at the Forum Theatre, and Campion, the subject of a retrospective at the Melbourne Cinematheque later in the year, will also be present to discuss the show at a ninety-minute talk at the Wheeler Centre the following morning alongside co-director Ariel Kleiman. The first two episodes of the ABC TV production Glitch will also screen at the festival.
Documentary highlights include Claire Simon’s The Graduation, a slice of cinema verite about the rigorous selection process at La Femis, the prestigious filmmaking academy whose alumni includes Arnaud Desplechin, François Ozon and Simon herself, and which stunned critics at Missouri’s True/False FIlm Festival and won a major documentary award at Venice. Simon’s film should fill a void left by the absence of a new Frederick Wiseman film this year, as should Jean-Stéphane Bron’s The Paris Opera, which was filmed over sixteen months at the venerated institution as they produced Schönberg’s Moses and Aaron under the guidance of a new company director. Step, which focusses on three members of the step-dancing team at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, was an audience favourite at both Sundance and Sydney, and is sure to be one of MIFF’s biggest crowd pleasers.
For those who prefer their facts alternative, MIFF once again offers a plenitude of experimental documentaries. Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s Railway Sleepers is a long-awaited debut feature from an increasingly prominent figure in Thailand’s cinema scene. Sompot was employed as an assistant to Apichatpong Weerasethakul before working as his 1st Assistant Director on Cemetery of Splendour. Elements of his mentor’s work flow into Railway Sleepers, though it is stylistically separate — a slower, more meditative film, less punctuated by fantasy, and with its lingering moments of observation offering up stunning images shot between trains in Thailand. Two documentaries observe the human world from a smaller perspective: Werner Herzog mentee Theo Anthony’s Rat Film shows Baltimore from the ground up, vivisecting the city’s social turmoil and racial tensions through the eyes of a brown rat, and Maud Alpi’s Still Life takes a tour of a slaughterhouse from the viewpoint of one of it’s workers’ dogs.
Of course, there is much more to explore in the full MIFF program this year, particularly in its short film and VR programming, which we will aim to cover in a feature piece during the festival. Of the short film screenings, one we wholeheartedly recommend (this year or any other), is the Experimental Shorts screening. Last year two shorts in this program — Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife and Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning — were among the most striking and original things shown all festival. This year, it’s sure to be another eclectic and form-bending complement to what is already a richly diverse festival program.
Disclosure: Our contributing editor, Luke Goodsell, is currently employed by the festival. As a result, he will not be contributing to our 2017 MIFF coverage.