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What to see at MIFF 68½

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Although us Melburnians may not be able to visit our local cinemas for a little while yet, we are still able to see the latest and greatest new films from around the world, thanks to the efforts of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) team, who have moved the entire festival online.

MIFF 68½ will be streaming across Australia from 6–23 August, showcasing a curated program of over 60 features alongside highlights by emerging filmmakers. The program also includes short films, awards, talks and more. To help you put together your MIFF watchlist, our film team have picked out their highlights from this year's program.

First Cow

(Directed by Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019)

Set in the wilds of Oregon at the start of the 19th century, First Cow is a quiet, majestic film that acts as a perfect balm for everything the world's throwing at us right now. 

It’s a companion film (of sorts) to Kelly Reichard’s 2006 film Old Joy, but this time we see a friendship in full flight; one that acts as a safe harbour to the outside world.

"The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship" – William Blake

Reichardt’s latest reunites her with longtime co-screenwriter Jon Raymond and together they deliver another thoughtful critique on capitalism and the colonisation of the American West. Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are outsiders in the harsh frontier country but with Cookie’s baking skills and King-Lu’s sense for business, they find a path toward a better life. But it’s not without its immediate dangers.

Dedicated to filmmaker Peter Hutton, the end credit card with his name acts like a final blow of emotion to the enduring legacy of friendship and connection. It also throws your brain into reverse – back to the stunning opening shot of a large ship making its passage slowly up a river.

As soon as First Cow ends you want it to start all over again. 

My other top picks are:
Anne at 13,000 Ft. (directed by Kazik Radwanski; Canada, US; 2019)
State Funeral (directed by Sergei Loznitsa; Netherlands, Lithuania; 2019)
Ema (directed by Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2019)

– Kristy Matheson, Director of Film Programs

Dark City Beneath the Beat, The Go-Gos and Mogul Mowgli

MIFF consistently offers the cream of the crop when it comes to music on film – see Miss Sharon Jones (MIFF 2016), MATANGI / Maya / M.I.A. (MIFF 2018) and the electrifying Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (MIFF 2019) for starters – and this year is no exception. I’m looking forward to The Go-Go’s (directed by Alison Ellwood; USA, UK; 2020) an overdue look at the pioneering all-female band that launched Belinda Carlisle. And Mogul Mowgli (directed by Bassam Tariq, UK, 2020), co-written and starring Riz Ahmed who has established a reputation as a musician/actor who always offers a vital take on identity politics through the lens of hip hop music. Dark City Beneath the Beat (USA, 2020) promises to be an electrifying look at the music scene in Baltimore, a “technicolour love letter” directed by local rapper and filmmaker TT The Artist and co-produced by Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure). The opportunity to see different perspectives beyond the lens of the news media feels particularly vital right now and doing so through music provides an avenue to be uplifted and inspired.

– Tiana Stefanic, Festivals and Events Coordinator

Atlantis 2009 - still

Atlantis

(Directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych, Ukraine, 2019)

A former soldier, bearing the scars of wartime trauma, takes on a job driving a truck through a war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine. His only occasional contact is with volunteers who comb the sodden landscape for buried corpses and landmines.  Despite his isolation, the warmth of humanity finds a way to creep its way back into his life.

Atlantis – directed by The Tribe Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych – is a film of stark contrasts. A stunning sequence in a steel mill aglow with molten metal sits alongside sequences of a cold and muddy Ukraine. And similarly, abandoned, uninhabitable landscapes are juxtaposed with moments of genuine human warmth and connection. Although Atlantis has a couple of moments that will shock audiences, most will be won over by its truly beautiful cinematography and unexpected humanism.

– Reece Goodwin, TV & Special Events Curator

Mayor - David Osit

Mayor

(Directed by David Osit; Palestine, USA, 2020)

A worthy winner of CPH:DOX’s NEXT:WAVE Award, David Osit's observational documentary, Mayor, offers an illuminating snapshot into the harried public life of Musa Hadid, the astute yet genial and refreshingly plain-speaking Christian mayor of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestine's administrative capital. With an ongoing geo-political stalemate in the Occupied Territories exacerbated by unhelpful pronouncements from the Trump Administration and as Israeli settlements continue to encroach onto contested territory, Hadid is called on to muster the wisdom of Solomon but must also engage with more prosaic aspects of civic life involving preparations for Christmas celebrations, a beautification project and a rebranding exercise that tests the limits of grammar. Highly recommended – Premier Daniel Andrews, this MIFF pick's for you – and yes, that is 2003 Sydney Peace Prize recipient, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, sitting next to Hadid at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  

– Roberta Ciabarra, Curator, Film

Songs of Repression - Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga

Songs of Repression

(Directed by Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga; Denmark, Netherlands; 2020)

This is not your average religious cult documentary – directors Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga gained an extraordinary level of trust with the subjects of Songs of Repression and have crafted a sensitive, and never sensationalised, portrait of collective trauma.

Winner of the main competition and critics’ award at CPH:DOX 2020, Songs of Repression follows the residents of the seemingly idyllic Villa Baviera, a village in the foothills of the Chilean Andes. Here, in 1961, a group of Germans, led by the brutal and oppressive Paul Schafer, formed the isolated religious community “Colony of Dignity”, where all members spied on each other and brutal group beatings were everyday practice. After 36 years, Schafer left the colony and many members moved away, but around 120 people remain – victims, victimisers and those who are both. 

Watching a film that documents the legacy of abuse and trauma might sound too heavy right now, however Songs of Repression is nuanced, compassionate and less harrowing than it sounds. The film is more interested in observing how people process trauma and grief than rehashing the awful events that caused them, and subjects are spared easy judgement, regardless of their astonishing revelations.

Other films I’m looking forward to:
Farewell Amor (directed by Ekwa Msangi, USA, 2020)
Suk Suk (directed by Ray Yeung, Hong Kong, 2019)
Identifying Features (directed by Fernanda Valadez, Mexico, 2020)

– Treise Armstrong, Program Coordinator, Film