Down Under came over in fairly significant ways at this year’s SBIFF, among the various global hot spots representing here. Australian accents, cinema, and her higher-flying film artists, filled screens and stages, from Oscar bidster tribute nights to Geoffrey (The King’s Speech) Rush and Nicole Kidman, riding high on her amazing, subtle but chilling performance in Rabbit Hole. Film-wise, two tasty items on the program demonstrated the power of low budget production, with the right determination, persuasive skills, and can-do achievement.
We saw a world premiere of the deliciously (but not hopelessly) odd neo-Spaghetti Western meets indie B film sexual archetype shoot-out Good for Nothing, a Leone-goes-New Zealand romp with a lavish John Barry-esque film score. That film was shot for around $65,000, before post-production, a budget much higher than the one for another festival favorite, Face to Face, which director Michael Rymer explained was possible because of advances in the extremely portable and shockingly high quality Canon DSLR camera and resourceful leanness of means. (The film was just named as the indie spirit award-winner of the fest.) It was also shot in 12 days for as-yet unpaid (and fine) actors, mostly in the one room where a plot-thickening “Restorative Justice” mediation session is taking place, peeling back layers of its characters with a steady, stealthy pace. (See an interview with Rymer here.)
In the real time, real star sighting in the room department, Kidman was her together, articulate and typically lovely herself, Saturday night at the Arlington, as the this-has-been-your-life-so-far proceedings unfolded. (Read a chat with the actress here.) For those who haven’t basked in her publicity efforts, it’s still strange to hear Kidman — so skillful adopting an accent to suit the role — in her natural tongue, laying out an Australian twang.
Late in the program, clips of two of her more intriguing roles, in To Die For and Eyes Wide Shut, were excerpted. She lobbied Gus Van Sant’s wonderful dark horse wonder To Die For, and it ended up announcing to the world that Kidman was, to coin a phrase, much more than a pretty face, with a deeper dimensionality than anyone knew. Stanley Kubrick knew, and cast her in his swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, and Kidman had glowing recall about her encounter with Kubrick. “He was so not what you would think,” she laughed. “He seemed to be very normal, which probably says something about me. He was incredibly knowledgeable and very willing to share. It was like being with a professor, of cinema and life.”
After strolling across the stage to accept her “Cinema Vanguard” award, the gracious Kidman said, “I hope I get to be a very old lady and am able to come back and do this again.” If not before.
One could head straight over from the Kidman night out to a late screening of Face to Face, which has been described as an Australian 12 Angry Men. As a film, adapted from a play and set in a single room, it starts out in its stripped-down state, with our assumptions locked into place as to which characters heeded which side of right and wrong. But — key to the dramatic success of the effort — nothing is so simple as it seems. Back stories, secret indulgences, behavioral ugliness, and infidelities emerge. There’s never a dull or morally black-and-white moment.
As director Rymer explained, he was attracted to the subject of this emerging form of contact sport mediation, and also to the dramatic aplomb of the play itself. “At the beginning,” he said, “you don’t want to know these people. By the end, you care deeply about them. That’s good storytelling.” Rymer, whose “day job” is mostly in television, with Battlestar Galactica and other dark-ish show biz ships, commented that, with this project, he was “excited to do a film that had a positive, progressive message.”
A very different corner of the globe also had its day out of the sun this year, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, as part of the rich and revealing “Eastern Bloc” segment of the program. We logically look for self-examination and coming to terms with a recent tragic past in a place like Bosnia, whose war-tormented state goes back only to the mid-‘90s. But the comic sexual escapade matrix of Just Between Us comes from the lighter side of the national ethos, a breezy if not uncomplicated snatch of life-going-on in the region.
It was another, more poignant and heat-tweaking story with The Abandoned, Croatian director Adis Backrac’s well-made and engaging story about an orphanage full of children affected by the war 15 years ago. Our brave and sometimes transgressing young protagonist has a tale of his own, a small story telling a larger story of the lingering agonies of war.
But the best, most inventive and haunting Bosnian film here was Belvedere, a kind of real world ghost story about war survivors, still searching for the bodies of loved ones in mass graves, and unable to put the horrors behind them. (It’s odd, for one thing, to see the actor Miki Manojlovic, who was also the philandering anti-hero of Just Between Us, playing a legless, drunk, and almost fatally embittered man in this film.) Most intriguingly, the film — certainly one of the strongest in the 2011 festival — finds its own creative voice with which to tell the story.
Writer-director Ahmed Imamović juxtaposes the post-traumatic-stressed lives of a torn family in the Belvedere refugee camp, in black and white, and the sickly candy-colored stock of a “reality show” from Sarajevo, where the family’s son is seemingly trapped in a mildly sadistic show biz scenario for all to see. It’s one of those films that sticks with you, for days and days, and screenings and screenings.
EYEING THE FINAL DAY: Smartly, the festival allocated many slots on its Sunday film menu for the proverbial TBA status, jostling and juggling some the best and most popular films of the fest into the program puzzle. The “A”s have arrived, and the prospects are good. Here’s a short list of recommended fare, from this reporter’s perspective: Exit from the Gift Shop, Good for Nothing, Face to Face, Crazy Wisdom, Darwin (my pick for best documentary of the fest), Patisserie, Pure , King’s Road (a slacker trailer park tale from Iceland. Why not?).