SFF 2010, Day 4: Mugabe, bad art, prison riots and a bloody drill!

Great day at the festival today. It felt much more solid than the fail of yesterday. The lack of sleep is starting to take hold though. Not hallucinating yet... yet being the operative word here. So what did I see? What should you see? Here are some words to read...
Out of the blue pops a film that is probably the best thing I have seen so far at the festival. This is as strong as documentaries come. I left the theatre with very little objections and a sense of rage over how little the world is doing about Mugabe's blatant disregard for international law.
The film covers the story of Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth, his son-in-law. They are white farmers in Zimbabwe who are fighting the seizure of their farm under Mugabe's 2005 decree that basically eliminated any land titles. The law is designed to strip white farmers of their land. The film follows Mike and Ben as they fight the decree in an international court in Namibia while constantly being terrorised by militias determined to intimidate all white farmers out of the country.
There is some amazing footage in this film. A sequence early on escalates as well as any set piece in a suspense film when Mike gets word a militia is on the outskirts of his property. He calmly finishes his drink before grabbing his men and a bunch of guns and heading out into the pitch black fields. This is thrilling stuff. As the film progresses these moments get more and more dangerous as the militias step up their intimidation trying to get them off the property before the international court rules.
Another extraordinary moment occurs when Mike returns home one day to find the son of a government minister on his property. They have a heated argument where the minister's son tells Mike to his face that they want the white people out. It is claimed that the land redistribution act is designed to return property to poor black Africans but we are constantly shown that the land is actually only being given to the upper classes and members of industry.
I cannot speak highly enough of this film.  It's currently a strong front runner for my favorite film of the festival. Thrilling and powerful stuff. A must see!
I was trying to think of some amusing pun to open this review, something like Ordinary People is an Ordinary Film but I decided against it for two reasons. Firstly it simply wasn't funny and secondly it was because even if I called this film merely ordinary I would be overrating it. This is an incredibly weak film that tells us nothing we didn't already know and gives it to us in a package that is a bad combination of boring and unpleasant.
The film begins quite strongly to be honest. There is a great sense of artistry at work here and I had very high hopes. Telling the story in long, languorous shots we follow a soldier waking up and getting bused to an unknown location for an unknown job. The style is a good mix of naturalistic and dreamy. His unit eventually arrives at an old encampment and they then simply wait. What for? They don't know and neither do we. Finally a van shows up and 7 men get led out by soldiers. Our characters are then instructed to execute the men. Our central protagonist has a slight objection but ends up following orders. We don't know why these men are getting killed and neither do the soldiers. As van after van arrives we begin to infer that this is some mechanism of systematic genocide that is occurring.
I think the film is trying to show us the banality of genocide. This isn't some emotion-fueled scream of a film but rather men doing a job and not knowing exactly why they are doing it. I'm simplifying the concepts for sure but I'm also being truthful. Men that commit genocide are just following orders and yes, it does mess them up a little bit. Ordinary people commiting horrific acts all just in a day's work.
That's it! The whole film feels like it is building up towards something but it never goes anywhere. One could argue that this sense of deflation is the point of the film but I would counter with bullshit. The film has nothing surprising to say and it offers a build up of tension that goes nowhere leaving me with a completely unsatisfied feeling at the end. I thoroughly understood this film, I 'got' it, but I think its an absolute waste of time. Worst film of the festival so far.

CELL 211
The only note I wrote while watching this film was near the beginning. I wrote, “Die Hard in a Prison” and for the first half of the film it was exactly that. I should mention that my previous comment is actually a positive one. This film is a rollicking good time.
We open with our main character Juan getting a tour of a prison that he is about to commence working at the very next day. Midway through his introductory tour he gets knocked on the head by some plaster that has seemingly fallen from the roof. The men with him lay Juan down in a vacant cell while they get medics but this is disturbed by the eruption of a prison riot. The men with Juan escape leaving him in the middle of a cell block as the prison gets locked down and the inmates take over. Juan immediately realises his only chance for survival is to pretend to be an inmate. At this point you can kinda guess where the film is going. This initial predictability is fine though as the energy in the film making is rampant. This is a fun film to watch.
Half way through though the film begins to take some decidedly un-hollywood turns. While it was good before that point it becomes great after. Cell 211 becomes a decidedly unconventional film. It is unpredictable and incredibly well paced. One of the briskest two hours I have experienced so far at this festival.
I highly recommend Cell 211. See it before Hollywood remakes it and changes the ending. It's a fun, action packed and unpretentiously entertaining film.
This nice little demented film makes me proud of Australia. Sean Byrne's feature debut is a solid and creative little horror film that finds a perfect tone surfing the thin line between the horrific and the humorous.
The story is pretty straightforward but I am not going to mention any of it as the unfolding of the narrative is part of the fun. Try to avoid plot descriptions, the film will be more effective for it. Kasey Chambers fans whould be warned though, her song 'Not Pretty Enough' is now permanently bound to certain moments in this film.
I am a big fan of boundary pushing film making so I'm probably a little desensitised to the types of things that occur in The Loved Ones. It seemed to have a great effect on the rest of the audience though so I can assure you it will most likely shock. I am also happy to report that this film doesn't pull its punches either. It goes all the way in terms of brutality. Byrne balances this extreme horror by liberally dosing the film with comedy. It's a smart move. The comedy offsets the extremity of the violence well and certainly makes it more entertainingly palatable for general audiences. I confess I'm not the biggest fan of this kind of horror-comedy combination. I like my horror tense and anxious. I'm happy with a film ratcheting up tension without a comedic release. But I know I am in a minority on this.
Despite my own personal tastes, I have to say this is a very, very well realised film. Technically Byrne knows what he is doing, cutting and framing his horror set-pieces very well. He also has been smart in recruiting talented collaborators, specifically I am looking at Ollie Olsen whose work on the score is perfect. My only criticism is that the script could've been tightened a little. A sub-plot that follows a boy taking a goth-girl to the school dance felt a bit redundant for me in the end. It served very little purpose to the main part of the film and came across as a bit of padding to up the running time. Having said that, it was this comedic sub-plot that effectively lightened the heaviness of the rest of the film very well. Again, these are minor issues that only really bothered me and not the rest of the audience who were very vocally having and absolute ball!
In the end I can certainly recommend this film. I'm happy to say it is getting a general release in September which is great news! See this late at night with a bunch of friends and enjoy one of the most fun Australian horror films I can remember.
  • I know a local premiere can be exciting for cast and crew but the rest of audience is experiencing the film for the first time so please try to refrain from hooting and hollering when your friend appears on screen. It is distracting.
  • Ordinary People was not gripping and to the random stranger who was claiming people that didn't like it obviously didn't get it I say to you, stop being an elitist tool. I can understand a film and still dislike it.
  • 4 cab rides to two separate films at the Dendy. Bit annoying. I'm not gonna flog a dead horse but it is still annoying to not have all the venues within walking distance.
  • Heard there were some major projection problems at the screening of the Basquiat doco. It shouldn't take 6 minutes of a film playing without sound before someone thinks to stop it.
  • 3 great films out of 4 is a great ratio for a day at a film festival. Good work SFF!