January 1, 1999

The 45th Sydney Film Festival

From Péter Forgács' <em>The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle</em>

It is a rare delight to attend a feature film festival, such as Sydney's (15-19 June 1998), that takes documentaries seriously. Nearly every program began with one, and received such unusual consideration that late comers were not allowed into the auditorium until the documentary had ended. This good order was characteristic of an event whose primary purpose is to offer Australians an opportunity to enjoy and catch up with world cinema. It is not trying to be a Cannes or even a Berlin.

There are no stars, no distributors and no prizes (except for Australian films). In summary, no "hype." What it does offer is a relaxed "Oz" atmosphere, with screenings of some 200 films from countries, and a variety of accessible and lively forums on subjects such as "censorship" and "film as art."

Despite the fact that the works came from cultures as disparate as Morocco, Hungary, Australia and Bosnia, there were some interesting common factors. For instance, three films were based on the use of archive material. In another three cases, the directors had plunged into filming with no way of knowing how long production might last—in one case the time turned out to be 22 years! Yet another factor was for some of the documentaries to include well-directed and skillfully acted fictional sequences. And a final commonality was that some makers were filming the life of communities to which they'd once belonged, and now had returned to observe, as sensitive outsiders.

Both The Maelstrom, by Hungarian Peter Forgacs, and Hephzibah, by Australian Curtis Levy, incorporate dozens of old family photographs and fascinating excerpts from "home movies." The Maelstrom recounts the life of a large Dutch Jewish family before and during the Second World War. We share joyous moments, such as birthdays and weddings, which at first appear innocently care free. Then the war comes and the same activities continue, but now the Nazis have occupied Holland, and superimposed are the sinister texts of savage anti-Semitic laws. The effect is extraordinarily moving, for we know what is to come, though the protagonists of The Maelstrom do not.

Forgács spent ten years researching his material, before editing it into the most straightforward way possible, to recount the painful histories of once happy people. Using the statement by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that "everything we can describe at all could be otherwise," he makes political statements through the recreation of personal histories. What emerges is good old fashioned documen­tary of the Griersonian school, and it is none the worse for that.

Hephzibar, by Curtis Levy, is the story of the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, who died in 1981. The film was made possible by access to her diaries, letters, family films and her still living relatives, including her brother, noted violinist bar Yehudi. Director Levy has specialized for more than 20 years in making documentaries that confront human dilemmas; he answered questions after the screening. His attraction to Hephzibah's story were the personal problems she faced as a child prodigy, and the strain resulting from the way her life was split between England and Australia. Married at 18, she abandoned a promising career as a concert pianist and went to live with her husband on a large isolated Australian sheep property. She had two sons before falling in love with a Viennese sociologist and returning to London. There she resumed her concert career, while devoting all her spare energy to setting up and supporting various human rights campaigns.

Unlike Maelstrom, where all the players were dead, Levy's film had to contend with the ambivalent feelings of Hephzibah's friends and relatives, not all of whom were keen on the project. So although her character comes across as truthful, Hephzibar feels not quite complete. On the one hand, Levy was helped by Hephzibah's biographer; on the other, her first husband (who had long ago re-married) preferred not to appear. Her now middle-aged sons, looking uncom­fortable when interviewed, said they felt her sense of fun and jollity were missing. The split in her personality between concert pianist and "social worker" seemed to make a clear interpretation of her character difficult, even for a documentarist as experienced as Curt Levy. However, he indisputably and brilliantly succeeds in evoking her restless spirit, and the way she overflowed with life.

Wittstock Wittstock, by Volker Koepp, follows the lives of three women employed in a vast textile factory in the town of Wittstock, not far from Berlin. The film starts in 1974 when the women were young girls, living in what was then East Germany; it ends in 1996, by which time the women have become mothers and grandmothers. As the film proceeds, we see them gossiping on the shop floor, at family gatherings, and dancing at discos where the boys get just a little drunk. Life, whether concerned with recreation, promotion, marriage, children or divorce, is boringly predictable. Then the Berlin Wall crumbles, the mill is "privatized", unemployment follows, and their lives, like thousands of others in Wittstock, begin to disintegrate.

This documentary is a fine example of the rewards from persistent, long-term observation, combined with sensitive and flexible use of the camera and carefully paced editing. Koepp never looks down on his subjects, often in fact giving a sense that they are in charge of the production. Questions sometimes come from his unseen figure behind the camera, but his comments are discrete. We are left to make up our own minds about the pros and cons of life before and after Germany's reunification. By the time the Menhuin film ends, one woman is living on minuscule unemployment pay, a second cleans in a hotel, and the third has gone searching for work in South Germany. One of them appears to summarize the feelings of all three when she shrugs and says "That's capitalism for you. It has good points and bad." But it is hard not to con-elude that they were better off before, in their former humdrum but secure situation.

It is normal for good documentarists to become submerged in their subjects and live them day in day out. However, Beverly Peterson went further when making The Andre Show, by even­tually deciding to adopt Andre, the ten year old boy at the heart of her film. Both Andre and his mother Vilma have positive HIV status, and when Vilma became too ill to look after him, Beverly adopted the child. The film records both Vilma and Andre's last two years, without a moment of senti­mentality, a remarkable achievement considering it contains the death of both its subjects. Andre overflowed with a puckish exuberance up to very near his end, though with wild swings of emotion, demanding to be left alone one moment, and cuddled the next. Sometimes he and his young friends film each other, providing an extra­ ordinary sense of closeness. There is a terrible, almost unbearable, horror as this small person declines into bed-ridden impotence. In spite of this, Peterson manages to suggest that life can still be joyously worth living, no matter how brief. In My Father's House, by Fatima Jebli Quazzani, skillfully interweaves re­-enactment with traditional documentary. It is a convincing illustration of how the styles of the documentary and the feature are increasingly overlapping, as more and more cineastes take advantage of the new technologies. It was also one of a number of films at Sydney where the makers, having lived abroad, returned to their countries of origin, to observe and question those who had stayed behind.

Quazzani was born in Morocco but has long lived in The Netherlands. She wanted to understand why the Arab tradition of virginity remains so important that defying it can lead to family break-up. She, herself , when she returned home to make her film was 34, unmarried and no longer a virgin; she had not seen or spoken to her father for 16 years. She boldly confronts the painful question of whether her decision to go her own way was worth the loss of her father. Consequently, this exploration-based on interviews with long lost friends and rela­tions-becomes highly personal. Some of the memories are illustrated in fictional scenes, integrating documentary and drama with consummate success.

There were screenings of seven film by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, from Pennebaker's early work with Drew Associates (Primary, 1966), up to the duo's recent Searching for Jimi Hendrix (1998). Pennebaker also chaired a relaxed seminar and answered the usual impossi­ble questions. On philosophy : "I'm always suspicious about the truth at the bottom of things." On his aim: "The need is to get an entire image as it happens—not stringing things together afterwards." On rules: 'I'm sure there are rules but we don't know what they are." Finally, he offered a quote that should reassure any aspiring filmmaker: "The reason you are put on earth as an artist is to fail." There was little failure at Sydney in what was offered, which may reflect the skill of the festival director: when asked how he decides what to accept, he replied, "With difficulty!"

 

HENRY LEWES has spent 30 years researching, scripting and directing documentary films for the BBC, CBC Canada, Film Australia and the United Nations.

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