Sydney Film Festival 2018

Thursday 7th June – Sunday 17th June 2018

While somewhat tiring given the schedule, this year’s film festival was a real joy. I saw 32 films altogether and can safely say I didn’t actively dislike anything. There was a really diverse range of films, in style, subject matter, and place. I saw films this year from places I don’t think I had ever seen a film from before, including Finland, the Arctic, Indonesia, Kosovo, Slovakia, and Paraguay among others. It’s always interesting, and a pleasure really, to see how people live in other places around the world, watching other cultures, and discovering the differences as well as how there are some experiences, love, loss, family for example, that bind us all together.

While there were a lot of films I really enjoyed just as films there were a couple that I found interesting in terms of my research. To start with there was a film called Transit (2018, Christian Petzold) which is about a German WWII refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), fleeing France by impersonating a writer who has been granted passage to Mexico through Marseille. Whilst in Marseille, he meets and falls in love with a woman who, naturally, turns out to be the wife of the writer he is impersonating. I didn’t think it was a super fascinating story but the notable thing about it is that it was actually set in modern day Marseille. This is not directly addressed in any way in the film nor is it overplayed, there aren’t smartphones or computers or anything like that. It is a much subtler approach, the most obvious nod to it being so modern are the contemporary cars. Otherwise, it becomes steadily clearer as the film progresses as you begin to realise that certain things seem out of place if we’re dealing with the beginning of the occupation of France by the Nazis. For one thing the soldiers we can assume are meant to be German are dressed almost like modern SWAT teams with high powered assault weapons. Also, once Georg reaches Marseille, the American embassy is guarded by American soldiers who are in modern American Army uniforms we’re used to seeing from films and news footage about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once I finally realised the setting was modern I was immediately a touch confused. I wondered whether I had misinterpreted the narrative and we were not dealing with events of 1940 but a hypothetical version of events happening now. As the film went on however, it was apparent this was not the case and that got me to think about why the filmmaker would choose to approach the story this way, displacing the narrative in time. I have thought about it a lot since the screening and the more I think about it the more I think that I might have been partly right when wondering whether it was a hypothetical version of events for now. Perhaps the filmmaker was, by setting a story about refugees fleeing perhaps the most infamous oppressive regime in history, making a point about history repeating itself. Maybe he was remarking on the political climate and the plight of refugees in Europe at present. I can’t answer these questions with any certainty, but it feels to me that if this was not the intention, then it’s definitely an interesting way to look at the film. The idea of using a historical narrative not just to obliquely examine modern issues but directly address them by setting the historical narrative within a contemporary time period is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before nor even considered.

Another film that was relentlessly thought provoking for me was a film called Bisbee ‘17 (2018, Robert Greene). This was described in the festival guide as “a hybrid film” in that it almost feels like a documentary and a narrative feature film rolled into one. The film is about the town of Bisbee in Arizona, on the Mexican border. Bisbee is a mining town and in 1917 there was a strike by the largely immigrant mining workforce. The result of this strike was that the mining company and the Sheriff’s department, who deputised most of the men in the town that were not miners (mostly white men), and, armed, they gathered the miners up and any civilians that were deemed to sympathise with them, herded them onto cattle cars and dumped them in the desert of New Mexico with nothing but a warning to never return to Bisbee. This has come to be known as the Bisbee Deportation. This is a history that lingers over the town but has seemingly not been addressed properly. It is often referred to as having been kept a secret but whilst the town does acknowledge that it happened, there are still very mixed feelings about how it went down. Bisbee is still a mining town, with generations having worked within the company, so there are some who feel a sympathy with the company and the Sheriff’s department who in their words “had no other choice.” Then there are artists and others community members who feel certain shame about what happened, one man even describing it as an ethnic cleansing, as it was mostly migrant workers who were “deported.” Others in the town are simply apathetic about the events, claiming to see both sides of the story.

The film is in part a documentary about the organisation of a centennial commemoration of the Deportation within the town, talking to various members of the community and following groups as they put events and activities together. It also follows the organisation of a reenactment that almost the entire town will participate in. This is where the narrative film element comes into play. Rather than having the typical dramatisation that one might expect from a historical documentary, this film has the community act in the dramatisation, with townspeople playing characters in the story, not just of the deportation itself but of all the events leading up to it. These scenes are shot like any other drama film and are added and mixed into the documentary. At one point, a scene between the young migrant miner the story focuses on and his mother is interrupted when the young man playing the miner, who is himself a second-generation Mexican immigrant, becomes emotional about the conversation which is akin to something he wished he’s said to his own mother. The lines between documentary and reenactment becomes slightly blurred throughout the film.

The film culminates in the community recreating the deportation on the day of the centennial anniversary, with half the town rounding up the other half. As this happens, we get slices of the real people discussing how they’re feeling about the situation and reflecting on some changing feelings and opinions about the event, having to go through it themselves in a sense. The man who is playing the Sheriff in the scenario had previously felt apathetic about the event but as he herds these people whilst armed, he remarks about how it feels wrong. The young man playing the migrant miner begins the film talking about how he doesn’t like to engage in political debate or discussion and over the course of the film, becomes more engaged and angry about the specific situation as well as more widely, lashing out at a white man for saying that Mexican migrants had previously “assimilated” to white culture, by reminding the man that Mexicans had been on that land for much longer.

What I was interested in with this film was the extent to which performance allowed a particular engagement with history. We often talk about how film allows an audience to engage with the history because of some kind of experiential connection – we have more of a connection because we can clearly imagine what it would have been like for these people because the film shows us. In Bisbee ‘17 however, the connection for the participants is like a more direct and intense version of this I imagine. They are literally going through what the men of 100 years earlier had gone through (though of course with the full knowledge that they are in a reenactment and their lives are not actually in danger). The fact that it altered the way people thought about their history was really powerful to me. Then I was thinking about the layers with it, in that as a viewing audience we’re somewhat experiencing their experience if that makes any sense. We’re learning about the history of the Deportation through the townspeople learning about it. I’m still not sure exactly how to properly conceptualise or articulate these ideas but I think it was utterly fascinating.

The last film I want to talk about in any detail is Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, which I am admittedly a bit enamored with. I was really taken with the film in part because of how painfully relevant it felt. Set in the early 1970s in Colorado, the film is the true story of an African-American undercover cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. With the help of a fellow cop and Jewish man, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Ron in person with the Klan whilst Ron interacts with them himself over the phone, they successfully gain the trust of the klansman. It’s so successful that he establishes a relationship with the ‘Grand master’ David Duke, a racist, anti-Semitic, politician who’s still spouting his ugly rhetoric today, and gets himself nominated as the new chapter leader. It’s a really funny film but its sense of humour is sometimes a really dark one and a lot of the jokes come from the pointed way that Lee connects this story with our contemporary political climate, aligning the 70s KKK with the Trump campaign and administration as well as pointing out the same apathy from the white characters that no doubt helped in Trump’s election and with white nationalists once again feeling empowered. The Black Liberation movement that appears in the film that our main character Ron has a slightly tense relationship with mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement and it has a real sense of feeling like a contemporary film even though it’s very clearly a period piece.

This idea that we have not learnt from our history or that history is repeating itself (perhaps a theme for this entry) is brutally compounded by the last ten or so minutes of the film in which there is a shift from the KKK burning a cross after Ron’s investigation has been halted by the police department, symbolising that despite Ron’s best efforts, the KKK are still free to do their evil thing, to a documentary montage of footage from the neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville in August 2017. We bear witness to white men chanting “Jews will not replace us” with Nazi paraphernalia, and violent clashes between these men and anti-fascist protesters. We watch Trump claim there were “bad people on both sides,” effectively refusing to denounce Nazis and suggesting that the anti-fascist protesters were just as bad, and Lee pays tribute to Heather Heyer who was murdered on August 12 by a violent car ramming attack on protesters by a white nationalist. It’s a sickening few minutes of film that left the audience I was in at least, in stunned silence.

I’m interested with this film in the way that Lee connects the true story of Ron Stallworth with our contemporary climate, first through humour and then through a brutal reminder that racist violence really is not remotely funny when it’s really happening. Again, perhaps it links a bit with the idea of the visceral experience because for me and for the people around me that I spoke to, the film almost lulled us into a false sense of comfort. We know what’s going on in the film is wrong, the racist tirades from the klansman and the heartbreaking story of a black man’s murder told by an old Harry Belafonte, making a powerful cameo. I imagine that any decent audience understands that all these things are sickening but that tension is broken with the humour and we can take comfort in the fact that it’s history, right? Right up until the last moment where Lee reminds us that it’s really happening now, Nazis think they have power again and people are dying. It feels like being kicked in the guts. It’s confronting and its important. (For some context maybe, here is Spike Lee’s powerful response at Cannes to the idea of the film being relevant to what’s going on in America at the moment and addressing his reasoning for ending the film as he did. Fair warning there is some heavy language).

Again, I don’t really know exactly how to conceptualise any of my feelings and impressions on these films, but they did make an impact on me and got me thinking about my research and different ways in which the relationship of film and history could manifest itself.

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