The Brisbane International Film Festival returns this year and I couldn’t be happier. There’s a wealth of thoughts and memories that I wanted to write about that I wouldn’t be surprised if these posts just become a jumbled mess. I met my wife at BIFF, I volunteered at BIFF, saw over 20 movies at one BIFF and my history with it is just a small part of a much larger tapestry. How can I do that justice? What should I include or omit? What is private and what is too interesting not to share? What you read here may or may not be the entire truth but I will try to evoke the wonder of having a hometown film festival.
The first Brisbane International Film Festival was in 1992 screening 43 films. I didn’t cross paths with the festival until 2003. Two of my oldest dearest friends and I went to see the movie Gerry at the festival that year at the Regent Cinemas. The Regent Theatre was built in the 1920s in the American style of the then popular picture palaces. A redevelopment in the 1970s broke the original theatre into 4 but much of the old grandeur remained when I passed through the lobby in the early part of this century. That lobby was heritage listed in 1992 and remains but the Regent as I knew it has been lost. Ahead of the lobby was Regent 1 and 1 and bar on the first floor. Alternatively up a grand staircase made of Queensland marble led to Regent 3 and 4 which had been built in the 1970s and looked it. In Melbourne a similar Regent cinema was remodelled into a live theatre complex and is doing very well as a grand venue. Sometimes we get things wrong. In 2009 I went to the Regent and purchased some post cards that were being sold and signed a petition for it not to be destroyed.
I went to see Gerry in a morning session on the weekend and subsequently fell asleep during a few minutes in the third act. It mattered little, I got it. It set the stage for my film festival going where not every film you see is a great one but they sure are trying. Also falling asleep would remain a tradition too. I had been brought along by my friend Mike. Mike who brought a DVD of The Station Agent, Dr Strangelove, Cube and Contestant 7 to my house. Mike who championed American History X and High Fidelity to me. Mike who dragged us to the west side of town to see Inception, the first feature from Christopher Nolan. Mike with whom I would go with or have come along with to see foreign films, documentaries and independent cinema while gushing over the new auteurs of blockbusters. The Fog of War at the Schonell, Sideways and The Secretary at Palace Centro, Bowling for Columbine and Napoleon Dynamite at Dendy George Street, Murderball at Indooroopilly. Mike, another friend Tim and I met each other at Scouts long ago but as that came to a close along with high school our friendship deepened. There are two men outside of my family that I admire deeply for their moral courage and loyalty. They are Mike and Tim. In a very real way they were my 20s along with another friend called Rachel. A year went past and Mike suggested that I go and volunteer at the film festival. I was getting 23 going on 24 and in the last year of my university studies in arts. I knew I had to start getting out there if I wanted to land a job so I put my hand up. Mike was steering me towards good things again.
I think I had to fill out a form from their website and submit it to their office. Things are so long ago it is hard to recall details but I ended up being a Volunteer at the Brisbane International Film Festival. There was a information session for the ‘Vollys’ as we were called run by the Operations Manager Debbie one evening. I went in and Debbie was an amazing manager of people, we were all unpaid staff who would be dealing with the public and receive little training. She made it something fun and informative. She’s been a Store Manager somewhere and knew how to run a crowd and the subsequent times I volunteered at BIFF her presence was missed.
I was a hospital wardsman and still a full time student so I set something myself up to do a few weekend sessions and that was it. Opening night Queen St Mall got locked down with a red carpet as Paul McDermott premiered a short film he directed and Geoffrey Rush came home for the Australian premiere of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and to pick up The Chauvel Award. I was not there on opening night 27 July 2004.
I did volunteer for a few shifts on each weekend wearing my BIFF 2004 T-Shirt which I still have and treasure. I was nervous of course but it quickly became obvious that especially on a Saturday morning things were relatively peaceful. You handed out survey forms (people could tear at the edge in line with a rating) which would be collected by us as they left to count up the scores and send up to the main staff. We also collected tickets from patrons as they entered. I got to meet the famous film critic David Stratton asking him tongue in cheek if he wanted a survey form to which he declined with a smile. I had conversation with my fellow Vollys once audiences were tucked inside. I quickly came to know some of the Front of House and Box Office staff, there were the twins Stephen and Daniel, Luis, Andre and Michelle. These guys seemed to go a way back, Michelle and Andre might have been volunteers back in the first BIFF. They were effectively our supervisors, if you didn’t know what was going on you got one of them to help you. They were paid staff and they knew their stuff but they always made it fun for us. I soon learnt we were allowed to sneak into the back row of a movie and watch it if we weren’t needed as long as we were the first to leave. A massive perk! I can’t remember if I bought any tickets or just got to see these films for free but I caught The Land Has Eyes, Repatriation, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Samaritan Girl.
BIFF 2004 ran from opening Tuesday night 27th July to Closing Night 8th of August. Looking back I know I was interested in other films, I really wanted to see Crimson Gold from Iran, I think I got to sit in on American Dreams by James Benning but I just mostly napped with that one.
S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE: Screened at 10am on Saturday 31st July in Regent Cinema 2 downstairs. It was probably a film I was allowed in to during my shift. It remains one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I can’t get over the Khmer Rouge and what they did. Most of the killing occurred due to starvation but there was direct murder and plenty of it. S21 is at the heart of a nation that wiped out a million of its people in 4 years. In Tuol Sleng, a former school was converted into a prison and there over 17,000 inmates were killed. Only six lived and two told their story in this powerful film. The film opens in a hut with a middle aged man clearly broken with a thousand yard stare and sunken shoulders. His mother talks to camera about how he is not the same. We see a victim and then it is revealed that he was a guard. The humanity of director Rithy Panh just blows me away with this choice. Panh himself and his family had suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge but he chose to open the film like this. Filmed at S21, the two survivors Chum Mey and Vann Nath bring two different personalities to the equation. Mey more openly discusses his emotions drawing out expression from the quietly dignified Nath. It is Nath who asks a confrontational questions to his former captors late in the film. Nath was kept alive because the warden liked his paintings and Nath recounts how in his mind many greater painters were murdered because of this warden’s preference. That random choice and its consequences are at the heart of the injustice of the prison and the trauma of the incredibly scarce number of survivors. I’ve never forgotten this film or what it told me. I saw some people leave throughout, why I do not know but perhaps because they found it just too upsetting and that is fair enough. Vann Nath has since passed on but his story that he shares with others should not be forgotten and thankfully this film will endure for a long time to come. One of the great experiences I’ve had at all the BIFFs I’ve attended.
THE LAND HAS EYES: screened at 4:20pm in Regent 2 on Sunday the 1st of August, 2004. The director was there and there was a Q&A afterwards. I went in with some interest but believe I was simply making use of the Volly privilege to view films if not needed. I’m really glad I got to see it. Set in the 1970s it was directed by Vilsoni Hereniko, the first feature film set and shot in the Fiji islands directed by an indigenous filmmaker. In one scene in a classroom the teacher turns to the class of all ages (probably all of Rotuma’s school going children) and tells them that only one of them will get to go to the capital of Fiji on a scholarship. I never forgot that scene, it put into perspective the privileges of my time and place and upbringing. There is something tranquil and beautiful in life on Rotuma that we envy but at least we have opportunities that those children did not. This is in the final years of British colonial rule of the island and has something to say about the joys and sorrows of small communal island life where religion holds sway. How lies and politics can turn the majority against the innocent and how brave and hard it is to stand up to such wrongs and bring forth the truth.
The story was based on Hereniko’s childhood but to overcome writer’s block he changed the gender of the character based on him and found it gave him a great deal of freedom and creativity. Above is his wife and producer of the film Jeannette Paulson Hereniko. Shot on Betacam with many performers who’d never seen a film let alone be in one, the natural beauty of the island added to the production values but it also had the feel of you being there walking along the tracks with this young girl. A beautiful film of a son who has travelled far and done well but wanted to come back and tell a story about his homeland with his people warts and all but with a native son’s love and reflection.
REPATRIATION: Saturday the 7th of August was a big day for me from the looks of it. I saw from South Korea Repatriation and Samaritan Girl. The former a documentary I enjoyed quite a bit more. Directed by Kim Dong-won, it was about North Korean soldiers who had been released from prison after decades in the South. Having not converted from communism and now elderly they are left out in the world to make their way with no pension or support. There is kindness shown to them from South Koreans including the filmmaker himself but little of their experiences convince them that democracy is a better way of life. The film goes deeper into the history of the conflict and the ongoing cold war between the two sides. There’s bright spots too with soccer. Another great thing about film festivals was present when I attended a Q&A with Repatriation director Kim Dong-won and director Solrun Hoaas.
Kim Dong-Won at the Q&A being nervously photographed by author in 2004 on his Nokia mobile phone. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
Kim Dong-won was a thoughtful and eloquent speaker which came as no surprise having watched his work. With a strong social vision he had also made a documentary about the clearing out of old housing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you believe this Q & A was free?
SAMARITAN GIRL: There were two sessions for Samaritan Girl, one on a Thursday 29JUL2004 at midday in Regent 1. The other on the final Saturday at 6pm in Regent 1 07AUG2017. This is more likely session I caught probably sneaking in as a Volly. I was captured by the striking photo featured in the BIFF booklet and I’ve long had an interest in visiting South Korea. I remember a medititive film with long quiet takes and characters slowly imploding. Directed by Kim Ki-duk it tells the story of two school girls who decide to prostitute one of themselves out while the friend is effectively the pimp. The latter has a father who is a detective. Things don’t go well and there’s strong themes about sexuality, parenthood, possessiveness, etc. Apparently themes of Buddhism is also at the heart of the film but I can’t remember much. It was probably not a good film and certainly not one that got its hooks into me but it was an opportunity to see another culture through their own eyes telling their stories and so for me there were positives to be drawn out of the experience.
That was it for the film I saw at BIFF in 2004. In terms of other interesting stories I’m not sure what to tell you. That night there was a scheduled late night screening of Phil The Alien, a fun weird movie from Canada but a legal battle had broken out about the music of the film. I was there the night a large midnight crowd was told Phil The Alien would not be screening. Nothing hair raising happened, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was stepping into the breach but it certainly put into my mind how disappointing such a moment could be for a film festival crowd. I was young at the time and I can tell you such films are usually the must sees at a festival. I was disappointed too.
Being a Volly was a unique experience that I enjoyed, you got to meet lots of different people, hang out and discuss film. I enjoyed handing tickets over to people and sharing in the joy of being able to attend a film festival. There were some odd moments, one night I was trying to look after an elderly man descending stairs and may have grabbed a younger guy who didn’t see him. I was still a wardsman at the time. I’m not sure I could be a Volly now but I have fond memories. That Saturday night I didn’t eat, I ran around up and down stairs excited like a kid at the fairground proudly wearing my BIFF T-shirt. Tim and Mike came to meet me in the middle of the night at the end of my shift so we could head on over to a regular haunt of our’s the Pancake Parlour. I felt headachey and vomited in the bathroom seeing some blood. Afterwards I felt relatively fine and went back to my friends. I guess this was the beginning of getting older and having to realise one needs to take better care of one’s self. I don’t know but I was electric. It was one of the best days of my life. I loved BIFF, I really did but such days are moments in time. You have to move on to the next one and the next one. I’m glad I still have Mike and Tim in my life but we’re not catching up like we did back then now and that’s a good thing as much as I long for yesterday.
The next night I went in for the Closing Night party for staff which was thrown in thanks to the unpaid volunteers. It would start after the last patron left. We would get fed at the bar outside Regent 1 & 2 and get some free drinks. I’m shy by nature but I was rather emboldened by how welcoming the staff had been at BIFF. I was going to miss going into the offices upstairs in the old building, miss Andre and Michelle, Danny and Steve and Luis. There was a volunteer I would miss too who had blonde hair and was studying foreign film over at the University of Queensland. I asked Executive Manager Gary how he felt the festival had gone. I asked everybody about films and life. We headed out to Jimmy’s on the Mall which one of the twins had worked at and knew the owner. This was the old one before the new one opened years later that was situated right outside the Regent. I didn’t want the night to end but it did. There was more drinking, some people got “real happy” and I couldn’t help but get a bit emotional myself. I was wondering how to say more to the girl from UQ with blonde hair. I wanted to stay with these people, I wanted to work a paying job for BIFF, I wanted the film festival to run all year round. Barely a year earlier I had not even known there was a film festival. A few weeks earlier I didn’t care much but now a whole world had opened up to me and it was ending. There was some comfort in knowing it would be back next year.