BIFF 2009, Day One

Bergen International Film Festival tries to market itself as a documentary festival. However, the program sports plenty of fiction films as well. Some of these are the usual festival circuit films; i.e. independent films and foreign films with small chances of a wide distribution. And then there are early premieres of films that will see a regular distribution later on, normally Hollywood films or films directed by relatively big art house names.
I admit that I’m not a big fan of documentaries per se. In my experience, it’s seldom that a documentary manages to be original either in subject matter or in execution. And I’m so, so tired of Michael Moore. I have enjoyed some of the work of Errol Morris and the occasional other documentary, but films like Super Size Me just seems a dumbing down of subject matters best left for newspaper articles. Often documentaries struggle to escape their talking heads format and even more often they are extremely self important, seldom if never allowing competing realities in their narratives. This works in propaganda, but a good documentary would often be better with a bit of balance in its presentation. For some reason documentaries generally get better reviews than fiction films even though they can be just as trite in execution as well as in choice of topic.

the-imaginarium-of-doctor-parnassus I was initially disappointed upon glancing through this year’s program, but after some rumination, I have picked some 25 films that I plan to see. I don’t expect every one of these to be masterpieces, but it would be nice if at least 2 or 3 of them will cut the mustard.

Yesterday, day 1 of the festival, I started what will surely be a more or less exhausting cinematic week by catching Terry Gilliam’s latest personal project; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While overlong and probably plagued by the death of Heath Ledger towards the end of the filming, I liked this. It is certainly much better than the work for hire he did in the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps Gilliam could have needed some script revision from, say, a Tom Stoppard, who whipped Brazil into shape, as Gilliam left to his own devices can be a bit much whimsy. I hate to say it, but as much as unbridled imagination is what gives Gilliam’s films their particular qualities, a bit of streamlining on the plot-side of things would probably have helped the film. The risk is always that his films can lose some of their Gilliamness in this way, but perhaps that wouldn’t have to be an unqualified bad thing. There are scenes here, though, that make me excuse much of the meandering in the dialogue and the “real world”-segments, and the actors are all very fine. Just don’t expect a Twelve Monkeys kind of hit, as this is a more idiosyncratic feature.

The documentary Reporter, by Eric Daniel Metzgar follows the New York Times journalist/columnist Nicholas D. Kristof to Congo. It attempts three things: To be a kind of portrait of Kristof, to examine his methods of reporting atrocities/catastrophes and finally to question whether this kind of reporting has a future in the modern world of media with cut backs and less resources for this kind of journalistic enterprise. While it is impossible to remain unmoved by some of the things we witness in the film, I have to say that it misses all three of its aims. We learn little about the journalist; apart from a brief biographical sequence early on. The film seldom asks the eponymous reporter any illuminating questions and his reasons for which places to go, what cases to report, as well as his personal stance and reflections, never quite comes into focus. As for his methods, at one point the film maker says that he has begun to question Kristof’s insistence upon finding the worst cases in order for his readers to maximize their sympathy with the sufferers. That is the only critical question in the film, and it is not even put to the Kristof himself. Tellingly, the director never picks up this thread later on.Thirdly, the part of the future of journalism is kept to two sentences lasting about thirty seconds at the very end of the film, and are put there almost as an afterthought. Needless to say, in that time it would be impossible for anyone to say anything that would be news to most people. I’d suggest you see the last season of the Wire, flawed as that season is, for more insight into this matter.

In a way I found this film to represent many of the things I dislike about the documentary genre, particularly documentaries that try to say something about human rights, relief or third world problems: It is so easy to show us images of starving people and make us vicariously suffer. And certainly I found myself touched by the destinies we meet. However, I don’t know if this makes for a good film. Kristof has received much acclaim for being an insistent reporter; even though a crisis is out of vogue or has been reported upon many times before, he continues to press the matter home, reporting on many similar incidents that, by themselves, are perhaps not news in the hard news sense. In his quest to do so, he tries to find those special cases that can sum up the larger suffering of a people in the extreme suffering of single victims – of starvation, war or usually both. I would at least venture to suggest that this method is not without problems; perhaps even unethical both in a human and journalistic sense. Kristof claims that the end justifies the means: to activate “the people back home”, the readers of his articles. I won’t say that he’s wrong, but surely it would be worth looking into while making a documentary of this type! As it turns out, the film only serves as an extension of Kristof’s own methods and concerns, and as such it presents itself as something which it is not, which only makes the single line of objection in the film pathetic and dishonest.

3122 After the horrors of Kongo, I found myself in need of some escapism, and what better way than a celebration of some of the most tasteless films ever made? OK, I exaggerate for effect. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood charts the so called Ozploitation wave of the 70s and 80s. The Australian film industry was almost non-existent until the late 60s, when more or less shady characters began to produce B- or C- films with cheap titillation as its main effect and goal. After a while Australia got a reputation as a serious film industry with films like Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. Concurrent with these artsy and serious period films, there thrived a sub-industry based on lowbrow humour, tits, gore, ridiculous action and over the top car scenes. This, as you have guessed, is what Not Quite Hollywood is about.
As a documentary, the film is no great shakes. Various talking heads talk in 10 second snippets, offering the odd anecdote, but never any real reflection. This is interspersed with a generous offering of short scenes from the films mentioned. Quentin Tarantino is there, of course, Mad Max-director George Miller, Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean and most of the players of the time, including Brian Trenchard-Smith, perhaps the biggest name of Ozploitation. In a way I felt as if this could be the extra features on a DVD disc; any DVD of the films “discussed”. While never pretending to be more than a presentation of the type of films of the Australian exploitation scene, the film is pleasant enough and entertaining – at least for those with even a marginal interest in the subject matter.

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