On Wednesday at MIFF I attended two screenings during the day and was glad to make them at all! While power-napping on trains is not an infrequent occurrence for yours truly, ordinarily it is on the way home from the city and I am so familiar with the number of stops that I have always been awake by the time the train approaches mine. I won’t deny that there have been some close shaves but I have never yet failed to get off at the right time. This time, heading into the city on a stopping all stations train (usually I catch one that runs express) I drifted off to a deeper than usual nap (okay, make that a sleep then) and awoke just as the train was leaving Flinders Street, on its way back out to Richmond. Not only had I missed getting off when the train stopped, it had docked for some time and was heading back the way I came. Oh well. I made it back into the city safely and was only 5 or so minutes late from the start. Thankfully the Forum Theatre is only a short distance from Flinders Street station.
Bye Bye Berlusconi! is an Italian faux-documentary (a mockumentary if you will) and a film-within-a-film. The documentary is about a group of actors who oppose (now former) Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi and make a film satirising the re-election attempt of their country’s leader. The terrorist cell in their film kidnap Berlusconi (played by actor Maurizio Antonini who really does look like Berlusconi and does a great job of being outraged) and then try him by popular opinion on the internet (he gets 90 years). A great line occurs after the terrorist playing defence counsel “dies” from choking on an apple, the judge tells Berlusconi that he can represent himself now, “it was good enough for Milosevic,” thereby equating the democratically elected prime minister with the Yugoslav fascist dictator.
This was an amusing tale that says as much about free speech as it does about the film-makers politics. There was obviously a high proportion of Italians in the audience who understood the subtlety of Berlusconi and Italian politics because they laughed a whole lot more than I did during the film, and not just because I missed the set-up of the first five minutes !
The second screening was the most fascinating : a collection of 8 documentary shorts ranging in time from 7 minutes up to 26 minutes. Two in particular were worthy of note. The first, Spitfire 944, told the tale of an American man who, upon his grandfather’s death, came across a treasure trove of WW2 16mm film footage shot by his grandfather while he served in the American air force as chief surgeon.
The filmmaker transferred the 16mm film to modern digital format with the most startling piece of footage in the collection, the crash landing of a Spitfire in an English paddock followed by a young pilot with a very sheepish and relieved look on his face. The documentarian tracked down this pilot by cross-referencing the plane number with military records and then asked the man, now 83 years old, if he would assist them in the documentary they were making. The old service-man gave them some background to some of their questions before they showed him the footage of the plane crash which up until that moment he did not realise that they had. He flew Spitfires over many German cities, including Berlin, with cameras fixed in place of guns as an early form of reconnaissance. One half of the screen showed him while the other half of the screen showed the footage he was watching. This man was suddenly transported back beyond 60 years. “There’s Jack. That’s Tom. This plane is a such-and-such.” He was then dumbstruck as he recognised his plane coming to land and watching it bounce off the turf with no landing gear down. As the documentary ended the old man was told that he could keep the DVD of this footage from another time and place so that he could show his kids. He said that they had heard the stories often enough but to actually be able to show it to them was more amazing than he could hope to believe. The power and emotion of the experience makes for potent cinema.
The other documentary, Veiled Ambition, was of a Melbourne, Muslim woman, Frida, a second generation Australian from Lebanese born parents, married to Sydney based builder, Albert. Frida is a driven, articulate young woman who wins some money in a radio contest and sets up her own shop in Sydney Road, Coburg with high ambitions of opening a chain of fashion shops around Australia. Her passion in particular is to provide fashionable dress options for Muslim women who, like her, wear the head scarf and maintain traditional Muslim customs. When her shop struggles after 6 months, she goes more mainstream, importing evening gowns from overseas and it is here that her business takes off. The appeal of this film is clearly the main character, Frida who is such a strong personality and credit must go to her husband Albert who, despite living in a different city and clearly wanting Frida to move up with him, still wants her to succeed on her own terms. The film more than touches on the racial and religious themes of Lebanese Muslims living in Australia with some perspectives from her mother and her parents in law too.
It does not matter whether the film type is documentary, fiction, animation, whatever. If the story is compelling and the characters real, then film has the power to relate, inspire and transform.