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My first days at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival have taught me something very important, something I hadn't realised before. Film festivals are typically seen by the public as semi-elitist fare, where industry types and the black skivvy crowd gather in smoky cinemas to watch impenetrable Bergmanesque black and white films that no ordinary person could enjoy.

Actually, it's the exact opposite. I find myself worn down a bit by the cynically-greenlighted garbage that's been pushed out by studios. Grip your chair, 'cos I'm gonna lay some shocking truth on you: many films are made simply to make money! I know, amazing, isn't it? But as I happily avoid, say, THE LOVE GURU, MEET DAVE and SEX IN THE CITY: THE MOTION PICTURE EXPERIENCE, I have time to ponder that so many supposedly mainstream films are not really made to be enjoyed. They're just made to be watched.

A good film festival is the polar opposite of elitism and cynical non-enjoyment. It will contain films that are not accepted because of an above-the-title star, or because it's based on a popular pre-existing property, or because a bloated marketing budget is forcing it in front of everyone's eyes. It contains films that are there purely because they are good. Country, style, genre, running time, none of these things matter a bit. Is it worth watching? Is it going to be surprising? Is it a film that people would otherwise not see? Yes? Then played it shall be.

Melbourne is a great town for a festival like this, because we're all so attuned to the arts. If you've never been, Melbourne is basically about sports, arts, and finding a good restaurant/cafe in between. It's impossible to go to a screening without running into at least a couple of people you know, who are doing exactly what you're doing: excitedly dashing from one film venue to another. They're all within walking distance here, and you can always recognise the mad dash of someone power walking from their 5pm screening at the Forum to their 7pm screening at the Capitol.

Though the festival began properly on Friday, multiple approaching deadlines forced me to begin my MIFF adventures on Sunday. Butt-Numb-A-Thon attendees will be utterly unimpressed by my effort, but I managed to watch five films consecutively on the day. For me, clearing time to see five films in a week is an impressive feat, so this was Christmas, Hannukah and sex all rolled into one.

And here's where it begins...


I of course knew of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten -- accused of communism by notorious witch hunter Joe McCarthy -- but I didn't know any of the individual stories. Donald Trumbo was one of the ten, and this film intersperses interviews with those who knew him, documentary footage from his life, and his works performed by actors such as Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas and Joan Allen. My big question at the end of the film was: why haven't I heard of this guy before? He is clearly one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, and the way he conducts words and phrases is masterful. Even something like a letter to the phone company (whi ch is, in fact, performed here) is incisive and hilarious. Paul Giamatti performs that one, and along with Nathan Lane (who performs a letter Trumbo wrote to his son regarding masturbation) provides some of the highlights of the piece. It's so many things at once; intriguing doco, captivating drama, hilarious comedy... it's amazing that it works as a whole. There's so much great stuff in here, I'm hoping that the eventual DVD release has at least another disc's worth of cut material. What a great film to kick off with.


Leaving TRUMBO and the Capitol, I bade temporary farewell to my three companions, and met another two a block away at ACMI for THE SUBSTITUTE, a Danish film about aliens that do not know love or empathy coming to steal it from humans. It's not perfect, but it's a terrific science fiction fantasy. A class of kids is tormented by their new substitute teacher, whom we know is an alien. There are some great child performances, and some very imaginative special effects. Directed by Ole Bornedal (who also made the Ewan Macgregor/Nick Nolte NIGHTWATCH, a remake of his own Danish film), the film's highlight is the performance of Papricka Steen (who many may recognise from a variety of Dogme 95 films) as the substitute. A lot of fun.


Another mix of companions, and we headed up Russell Street to the Greater Union to catch the doco on that whole Roman Polanski child rape controversy thing. As a film, it's not particularly great. It's a bit jumpy, and there's t oo much assumed knowledge. Yes, like most, I knew that Sharon Tate was killed by Charles Manson, but it's treated as a sidenote wedged into the middle of the film, rather than an important part of the narrative. The film works when it concentrates on Polanski's trial, and you realise what a farce the whole thing was. Between the parts of the story that aren't as well known as the sensationalist details, and the extensive clips and press from the time, the film is successful at filling in many of the subtleties that are frequently omitted. Good, not great. (Oh, and really bizarre hearing Clive James's voice opening the film. Fans of James may be equally disconcerted at hearing his familiar tones coming in over the title cards.)


As we lost one companion and gained one from the first film, our dash from the Greater Union back to the Capitol revealed a line that was already snaking around the block. There we stood for a good (good = cold) twenty minutes. We packed into the theatre, grabbing the last available seats in the nosebleed section. We were there for the doco on Tim Minchin, a Melbourne comedian that it seemed everyone but me knew all about. They'd played the trailer for the film at the MIFF media launch, and I'd gone from vague indifference to "Must see that now!". The doco is remarkable in that it's made by a friend of his who decided to document this starving comedian who was a few weeks away from packing it in and getting a full time "serious" job. This is a rare and fortuitous thing to happen: to document success as it takes place. Minchin throws everything into a show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which gets noticed by an Edinburgh producer, and it all takes off from there. In the two years the film covers, we see Minchin and his wife trying to start a family, and watch this guy go from obscure unsuccessful musician/comedian to international star. It's extraordinary to watch, and the film works by really just being in the right place at the right time. It's not a puff piece either, as some moments show him in a slightly unsympathetic light, but at the end it's hard not to be pleased by his success.


My girlfriend and I had planned to grab a quick dinner between ROCK 'N' ROLL NERD and MY WINNIPEG, but the latter started late and we really only had time to walk from the Capitol back to ACMI, where we met up with another two friends inside the cinema for our last session of the evening. Any list of the most underrated filmmakers in the world has got to include Guy Maddin. Actually, I'm not sure that's true. To be underrated, you need to be seen, and the few people I know who have seen Maddin's work all recognise his genius. So he's not so much underrated as underseen. Last year, his film BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! slid very easily into my top ten, and MY WINNIPEG is actually better. I am absolutely in love with this director. Somehow, he takes an impressionistic silent film aesthetic, uses it to make a film about what it was like growing up in largely unremarkable Winnipeg, and leaves you with a pure and total love of the city. What Woody Allen did for Manhattan, what Sufjan Stevens did for Illinois, Maddin does for Winnipeg. I have no idea whether this film is a documentary, a biopic (auto-biopic?), or complete fantasy, but this is a film I am headily anticipating seeing again. It's playing again on August 8, and I'm strongly considering a second viewing...

So, that's my first round of MIFF films. Three good films bookended by two that are easily amongst the best I've seen this year. It's a really exciting time, and I'm working very hard to knock over all my magazine and video deadlines ASAP so I can allow myself to be consumed by this glorious and perfectly overwhelming festival. See you in a couple of days...

Peace out,


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