MIFF 2019: ACMI staff recommend

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As always there are plenty of obvious standouts coming to Melbourne International Film Festival (1–18 August), including Adam Goodes' biography The Australian Dream on opening night, Lupita Ngong'o as a ukulele-playing, zombie-slaying kindergarten teacher, and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore reimagining the sound for Maya Deren.

To help you get deeper into the program and find the hidden gems, check out what our staff will be watching this festival.


Midnight Family

D Luke Lorentzen | Mexico (2019)

MIFF’s documentary field is as strong as ever, with the likes of Honeyland, Amazing Grace and What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? all generating strong buzz. Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family stands out from the pack, offering a mind-boggling insight into Mexico’s unique (to put it mildly) private ambulance industry. In a city of nine million people that are serviced by a mere 45 official ambulances, entrepreneurial citizens have stepped into the fray and become unregistered private operators. Lorentzen directed, shot and edited the chaotic footage of this doco’s titular family racing through the streets to medical emergencies for reasons both altruistic and financial. Midnight Family promises to be utterly compelling and completely unlike anything else at the festival this year.

Treise Armstrong, staff writer

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?

D Roberto Minervini | USA, France, Italy (2018)

In response to what he called “covert-yet-not-so-subtle nationalistic, reactionary” American filmmaking, documentary-maker Roberto Minervini offers his documentary insight into life in New Orleans. Minervini interests me because he talks about eschewing observational documentary style in favour of connection with , a Mardi Gras chief, a couple of New Black Panthers and a pair of young brothers. It looks like it'll be urgent filmmaking from one of contemporary cinema's most interesting directors.

Jessica Kemp, staff writer

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

D Heperi Mita | New Zealand (2018)

Another strong entry into the non-fiction field, this is a fascinating portrait of trailblazing Māori filmmaker Merata Mita (reportedly the first Indigenous woman to direct a feature), crafted with love by her youngest son, Heperi Mita. Merata Mita was certainly a pioneer in the field of First Nations representations on film, and Flight of the Conchords/Thor director Taika Waititi attests to this, calling her a mentor and reflecting on the space she carved for a generation of filmmakers. A very engaging film in which Heperi also draws poignant testimonies from his older siblings.

Roberta Ciabarra, staff writer

Present. Perfect.

D Shengze Zhu | USA, Hong Kong (2019)

More than 400 million Chinese regularly livestream footage of themselves: especially popular are videos of the bizarre. It's an industry worth billions of dollars, dwarfing the Western trend of vlogging and YouTubers. Zhu chooses not to follow the big stars but the marginal characters. I suspect I may not have been the demographic for this doco about 10-15 mins in but persevered and am glad I did. It isn't a comfortable or easy watch but it becomes more and more fascinating as particular characters recur and we find our initial assumptions about some of them challenged. Despite the surface artifice of some of the 'performers' their humanity emerges.

Roberta Ciabarra, staff writer

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

D Matt Wolf | USA (2019)

I love seeing films about obsessive collectors. In 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, Marion Stokes started recording American broadcast TV. She didn't stop until her death in 2012. Across 71,716 VHS and Betamax tapes, she meticulously archived over 30 years of American screen life, with a supportive team of family and staff willing to drop everything and swap over tapes to maintain 24-hour coverage. This documentary shares just some of the tantalizing elements which made up her fascinating life.

James Nolen, staff writer

Narrative features

Dirty God

D Sacha Polak | Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, UK (2019)

Although I think it’ll break my heart, I can’t wait to see Dirty God. Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak’s gritty English-language debut has earned glowing reviews and comparisons to Lynne Ramsey since premiering at Rotterdam earlier this year. Newcomer Vicky Knight delivers a powerful yet nuanced performance as Jade, an acid-attack survivor grappling with harsh reactions from family and strangers alike. Dirty God follows Jade through hospital wards, London nightclubs, and a desperate trip to a plastic surgeon in Morocco as she ferociously takes on the injustices thrown her way. With women calling the shots both behind and in front of the camera, Dirty God will be an unflinching but hopeful tale of resilience and should definitely be on your shortlist.

Treise Armstrong, staff writer

In Fabric

D Peter Strickland | UK, France (2018)

Giallo junkies, unite! Peter Strickland’s intoxicating foray into horror is so saturated in the essence of Dario Argento it’s practically dripping. Fatma Mohamed, Gwendoline Christie and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt give scene-stealing support in what might be the festival’s most stylish film.

Reece Goodwin, event coordinator & staff writer

Pain and Glory

D Pedro Almodóvar | Spain (2019)

The great Pedro Almodóvar is back in top form after a three-year break since his last film, Julieta. Starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderras (who took the Cannes Best Actor award for his performance), Pain and Glory seems to be an intensely personal project for Almodóvar, telling the story of an ageing director edging towards his twilight years and grieving the loss of his youth and feelings of purpose. It's somber but affirming; another beautiful film from a storyteller with a deep love for his characters.

Staff writer

Sorry We Missed You 

D Ken Loach | UK, France, Belgium (2019)

Ken Loach follows-up I, Daniel Blake with a film brimming with as much compassion and emotional potency as its Palme d’Or-winning predecessor. Calling into question the social impact of the gig economy on the UK’s working class, the film is at once an emotional phantom ride and a humanist call to action not to be ignored.

Reece Goodwin, event coordinator & staff writer

Spotlight on Scotland

Beats & Scheme Birds

Beats D Brian Welsh, Scotland (2019)

Scheme Birds D Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin | Scotland, Sweden (2019)

Immerse yourself in a Scottish double bill: Brian Welsh’s astonishing feature Beats is an intoxicating ode to the 90s rave revolution; Scheme Birds recently won the Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival for its intricate and devastating chronicle of a young girl’s life in place broken by the death of industry. Do not miss these two films, anchored by remarkable performances from their young leads, as the directors exquisitely paint a necessary panorama into the challenges the youth of Scotland have endured over the past 30 years.

Ben Haller, membership coordinator & staff writer