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2014 columns, Film

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

by Rochelle Siemienowicz , August 14, 2014Leave a comment

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Earlier this year, I wrote about greed, cinephilia, and the fear of missing out – vowing to see fewer films, but to experience them more deeply. I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) in full swing right now, such anxieties arise again, and I find myself having to take a deep breath every time the #MIFF2014 hashtag on Twitter reminds me of another spectacular, brilliant, potentially life-changing cinematic event that I happen to be missing out on while I’m cooking dinner for my son, or reviewing another stupid (but fun) Hollywood blockbuster like Guardians of the Galaxy.

I have this fantasy of one year checking into a hotel in the centre of Melbourne (ten kilometres away from my house), and seeing films from morning till midnight for the duration of Australia’s oldest and biggest film festival. Sciatica and sleep deprivation be damned, because in this fantasy I’d clock up 130-odd MIFF screenings, as some of my more fanatical film friends manage to do each year.

In reality, I generally settle for a smattering of about 15 films spread across the two weeks of the festival, many of them chosen purely because they happen to fit around my schedule. For example, sombre Chinese social realist tragedy Fantasia, directed by Wang Chao, in which a family is torn apart when the father contracts leukaemia, may not seem an appealing prospect on paper, but it was screening at the right time, and it took me somewhere new (and yes, slow and sad). Convenience also pushed me into the cinema to see Ira Sachs’ gay marriage drama, Love is Strange. It stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an ageing New York couple who suddenly encounter homelessness when they make their relationship official. Molina plays a music teacher at a Catholic school, who loses his job when he signs the marriage certificate, despite the fact his employers had known he was gay for 30 years. A sweet, honest and funny film, its strength lies in its sensitive depiction of the ways in which the couple’s friends and relatives (especially a nervy niece, played by Marisa Tomei) struggle to deal with the elderly men sleeping in their spare rooms. I’m glad I caught the film (which will get a general release on 23 October) during a stolen Friday morning session.

That’s the thing about film festivals: they force us to take risks and challenge lazy preferences – or to explore more widely and adventurously within those preferences. Me, I’m drawn to films about love, sex and relationships – the ways they fire us up, or fumble and fail and leave us naked. During MIFF this year, I caught the strange indie marriage thriller, The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a couple who encounter their doppelgangers at a weekend retreat. Then there was the wry French splitting-up comedy, If You Don’t, I Will; and the fearless, funny and quite awesomely rude female coming-of-age story, Wetlands, which will surely never receive a general release in our prudish multiplexes (though it’s due for Cinema Nova release from 4 Sept).

It’s true that attending film festivals is exhausting. It’s so much easier to stay at home and watch films on DVD and download, and these days you can find almost anything you want that way. But for cinematic thrill-seekers (cultural bungee jumpers?), part of the pleasure lies in the gamble. Book a ticket, take a chance, and head out into the cold. Maybe you’ll meet like-minded adventurers and discover new worlds. Or maybe you’ll have a snooze in an uncomfortable seat next to a smelly stranger (it happens!). But while we’re talking about risks, here’s a shout-out for two of the bravest, newest and most interesting little film festivals in Australia, both poised to spring into action later this month: The 2nd Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia (Melb: 21 – 29 Aug and Syd: 2 – 7 Sept); and the Stranger With My Face horror film festival in Hobart (21 – 24 Aug). Now in its third year, this superb Tasmanian event is devoted to women working in horror and genre filmmaking. Now that will take you somewhere new.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor. 

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