Film festival gems worth mining if you’re stuck on the couch

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Film festival gems worth mining if you’re stuck on the couch

By Stephanie Bunbury

The ever-unpredictable pandemic has a silver lining for those who prefer a couch and Oodie over a trip to the cinema. Last year, the Melbourne International Film Festival became a smaller, online event; this year, with cinema capacities restricted, it is offering MIFF Play, a selection of the festival’s films only a click-and-pay away.

And there are some real gems to be found.

A singular vision: <i>What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?<i>

A singular vision: What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Splendid fantasy

What a delight, for example, to find that one of the most singular and splendid films of the year, the rambling Georgian fantasy What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is on that list. Its world may be rather at odds with the quotidian reality of your loungeroom, but let’s jump through the looking glass into Kutaisi, an ancient city where dogs watch football on television and drainpipes converse in the night.

Lisa and Giorgi, our central couple, live under a curse that means they no longer recognise each other. That is the making of a tragedy, but director Alexandre Koberidze maintains a sunny mood. “With a romantic view of the world, things can happen which are out of the reasonable, out of the pragmatic,” says Koberidze. “And that’s something to cherish.”

<i>Herr Bachmann and his Class <i> grapples with racism.

Herr Bachmann and his Class grapples with racism.

Diverse history

Without question, Dieter Bachmann would agree. Maria Speth’s long observational documentary Herr Bachmann and his Class was shot over two years in Stadtallendorf, a provincial German town with a grisly history and diverse population of Gastarbeiter working the local factories. “The school was a culmination point for all the different movements I wanted to show, because you could see the demography reflected there,” says Speth. “But then Mr Bachmann took over, because he was such a special person.”

Some of the children are refugees who speak almost no German. Herr Bachmann charges the native speakers with helping them. He plays guitar; he joins them in woodwork; he grapples with racism in the classroom. He is also a hard marker; he may look like an old hippie, but he’s no pushover. “I love my class!” shouts one student gleefully, despite just having had a telling off. And so do we.

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The characters in <i>Ninjababy<i> act irrationally.

The characters in Ninjababy act irrationally.

Fleabag spirit

Ninjababy, by Norwegian director Yngvild Sve Flikke, is the raunchy, free-wheeling story of a young cartoonist who discovers that she is six months pregnant: too late to consider abortion. Rakun (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is 23. She likes party drugs and casual sex; as she keeps telling people, she has no desire to be a mother. Meanwhile, the infant invader goes rogue as a pencil drawing, materialising in 2D next to her to berate her for her chaotic lifestyle and poor choices in partners.

Based on a graphic novel by Inga Saetre, who is also responsible for the animation, it shares an abrasive spirit with Fleabag; Rakun is similarly flaky, but likeable with it. “I wanted the characters to act irrationally,” says Flikke. “Often in films, people really know what they’ll do and how they’ll feel. I think that being human is more about not knowing.” Nothing in Ninjababy turns out quite as you expect.

Untested actors brought <i>The Hill Where Lionesses Roar <i> to life.

Untested actors brought The Hill Where Lionesses Roar to life.

Youthful thrills

For girls who really behave badly, it’s over to Kosovo for The Hills Where Lionesses Roar, an astonishingly accomplished work from an 18-year-old director, Luana Bajrami. Based in France as an actor but a frequent visitor to her homeland, Bajrami rounded up inexperienced local actresses who convince completely as a trio of friends who see no realistic escape from their dull, provincial town and often violent families. One nabs a boyfriend; one is fascinated by a French girl, played by Bajrami herself, in town for one enervating summer. Then they discover the thrills of a life of crime: robbing shops at night. No one will ever suspect them, they reason, because who notices girls?

Recent years have seen some great films about teenage girls (Mustang, by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, was a stand-out). This is by no means perfect, but it has the raw vigour of an insider’s account. “I wanted to talk about youth without any filter, without any nostalgia, and without trying to be overly stylish,” says Bajrami. “It’s a fiction, but I felt as though I was discovering myself through the process.”

There is dignity and betrayal in Ballad of a White Cow.

There is dignity and betrayal in Ballad of a White Cow.

Widow’s dignity

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A very different kind of strength sustains Mina, lone mother of a deaf daughter, in the Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow. Despite the title there is nothing bucolic here; Mina is widowed when her husband is executed for a crime he did not commit and must deal with grief, looming poverty, the difficulties of raising a deaf daughter and family pressure to marry her brother-in-law. Through these trials – and the attentions of a man claiming to be a friend of her husband’s, Reza – she maintains dignity and determination. She will not be cowed.

Mina is played by Maryam Moghaddam, who also co-directed and co-wrote with her partner Behtash Sanaeeha; the core of the story is that of her own mother. Angry as it is, however, it is just as much about deception and betrayal. For much of the film, we know Reza is actually one of the judges who sentenced Mina’s husband to death. The truth, when it emerges, is devastating.

Improvised humour: <i>Language Lessons<i>.

Improvised humour: Language Lessons.

Webcam delight

There is lightness, however, at the end of the festival tunnel.

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Language Lessons, the closing-night film in the theatre, is actually ideal home viewing. Indie stalwart Mark Duplass and Nathalie Morales, who acts and directs, filmed this delightful two-hander using their webcams and Duplass’s house as a setting. Duplass plays Adam, a wealthy slacker whose partner presents him with the gift of weekly online Spanish lessons – clearly not a gift he wants – then suddenly dies. Adam’s new teacher Carina becomes a port in his lonely storm of lockdown and bereavement.

The largely improvised script is both funny and searching; although COVID-19 is never mentioned, this is a salutary example of how the best ideas can be forged from constraints. “We just took a bet it would be interesting to watch,” says Duplass. “But more importantly, we didn’t tell anyone we were making the movie. Because if it sucked, we could just bury it.” Fortunately, they didn’t.

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