What I learned from watching 50 films

Trends and reflections from the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival

It’s easy for audiences to become conditioned when all we digest are standard genre flicks for eleven months of the year. Instead of watching yet another Hollywood bromance or post-apocalyptic technology-clad blockbuster, film festivals offer an opportunity for viewing to become more than just the consumption of moving images. This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival revealed a number of challenging and engaging works, films with unexpected thematic and aesthetic explorations that asked audiences to look, contemplate and construct with more care.


A number of films this year asked the viewer to engage with their own gaze. One of the most striking examples is Austrian filmmaker Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley: Visions of Reality. The film is an exercise in visual expansion. Taking thirteen paintings from the 1930s to the 60s by American realist artist Edward Hopper as his departure point, Deutsch painstakingly recreated them as full-scale sets. The women in Hopper’s paintings become animated, disrupting their role as flat image. Through melancholic, stream-of-consciousness style monologues, a slightly different picture emerges of the pre- and post-Second World War American Dream.

French documentary Leviathan is an abrasive yet meditative experiment where beautiful boredom meets violent banality. It films a fishing vessel and its crew out at sea. Leviathan asks the viewer to think about how much of the cinema experience is about looking and how much is created through active cognitive participation.

Leviathan still

Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, a 180-degree departure from Shirley and Leviathan, uses the absence of an image to construct a picture. Where photographs do not exist, the creation of clay figurines and narration stand in for the ‘true picture’ of Pol Pot’s fascist regime in Cambodia in the late 1970s.


Not all narratives are straight up stories than can be definitively told to an audience. In fact, many of the best narratives are exercises in investigation that ask the viewer to engage with questions rather than answers. Grigris, a French-Chadian co-production, follows an aspiring dancer with a physical disability. His crimes, motivated by poverty, along with truths obscured by desperation, cloud potential character judgement from the audience.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a French-Canadian film about two ex-con female lovers trying to reconstruct their lives following incarceration for crimes never explained to the viewer. Stripped of context, director Denis Côté forces his audience to really think about their responses to the process of reintegration and the unethical nature of revenge violence – regardless of the nature of the original crime.


Monsoon Shootout, a structural exercise in moral questioning, asks the audience to consider how a character’s actions affect causal narrative outcome. A rookie cop has a perp bailed up in an alleyway, with a clear shot in sight. But what if it’s the wrong man? As each scenario plays out onscreen our ‘hero’ policeman finds himself forever condemned by the infinite loopholes of ‘justice’ and ‘the law’.

Meanwhile, Claire Denis’ Bastards asks its viewers to set aside feelings about sexual abuse and exploitation – not necessarily to understand or condone, but to entertain the idea that women might be complicit in their own exploitation. An intensely challenging and dark request, Bastards wasn’t particularly well received at MIFF or at Cannes but it certainly did spark conversation.


Each of the films above are, in their own way, also about family. The dynamics that hold us together or push us apart can be difficult to understand, especially when we fall upon hard times. Bastards sees families torn apart by cruel behaviour and Monsoon Shootout shows how families can bear each other’s burdens. This year’s festival revealed great fascination with the way in which we construct different family pictures, the strongest of which came from our neighbouring Asia, in the festival’s Accent on Asia program.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son tells the story of two young boys switched at birth (the families find out when the boys are aged six). The film muses over whether it is blood or built relationships that constitute our understanding of ‘family’.

In Bends, an affluent woman whose husband earns and whose child is at boarding school spends her days shopping and entertaining friends. Her greatest hardship is losing her wealth. Her poor chauffeur is desperate to cross the border into Hong Kong with his wife, who is pregnant with their second child in Shenzhen, Mainland China. Through this stark contrast, the film reveals the lengths to which some families will go to prise themselves apart and what others are willing to risk to stay together.

In homage to the great Yasujiro Ozu and his celebrated film, Tokyo Story (1953), is Tokyo Family. With all three of their children grown up and moved to Tokyo, Shukichi and Tomiko travel from a small traditional Japanese community to the big city to spend some time with their now disparate family. But soon the line between love and obligation gives way, allowing selfishness to creep in, and, ultimately, regret.


These depictions of family are beautiful and heartbreaking, asking audiences to think more about the ways in which ethics, morals and desires are often in conflict with one another.

It was the films in the festival’s special focus Juche Showtime: Films of the DPRK, though, that displayed best the importance of family in understanding and constructing communal rather than individual values.

Centre Forward shows how the individual could shine so long as the impetus and result is intended for the greater good. Using sports as a wider example of the nation state, Centre Forward (1978) clearly explicates how national pride is linked to familial love and obligation. Similarly, The Flower Girl (1972), through revealing the harsh conditions inflicted on the poor, shows again how the family unit can be the starting place for communal thought.

Although some viewers may have found the North Korean films problematic – even uncomfortable – for their strong pro-communist and overt anti-capitalist content, the context of seeing these incredibly rare films within a film festival is important. By bringing audiences together in a public environment, one divorced from simple consumption, the festival stages its own visual revolution, inviting audiences to look, contemplate and construct.


Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *