The Australian state of Queensland in the country’s north-east in many ways typifies all the national clichés so readily identifiable in the international imagination, its iconography saturated with bikini-clad women engaging in myriad ways with sun, sand, and surf. Unlike the larger and supposedly more urban cities of Melbourne and Sydney, however, Queensland’s capital city Brisbane boasts one of the most unique treasures in the country’s yearly film calendar. The Queensland Film Festival is an annual event that has run for the last four years which showcases some of the most innovative and daring programming in the country.
Running from the 19 – 29 July, the release of the 2018 program earlier this month contains an impressive and diverse range of films spanning both recent and retrospective features, documentaries, video art, short films, and streams focusing on specific themes of filmmakers. Aside from the quality of the films themselves, what reveals itself only upon closer inspection, however, is just how many of the films in this year’s program have been directed or co-directed by women or non-binary filmmakers. When I asked festival’s director Dr. John Edmond, the exact number was remarkable: 80% of the entire program.
Even more astonishingly, it was almost by accident. “I’m always queasy about quotas and film; art is a field that is particularly disciplined by bureaucracy into numbers”, said Edmond, “And yet I recognise the obvious hypocrisy of this position. What a coincidence that the one area I’m invested in, should be the one area that doesn’t need a quota at QFF this year.”
While consciously making a concerted effort to pay particular attention to new works by women filmmakers, Edmond argues that to be restricted by numbers or other bureaucratic systems alone is anathema to the passion for film that lead him to co-found the festival in 2015 in the first place. “Part of my approach to programming is to attempt to reconcile this”, he says. “I try and work through this by paying greater attention to new works by women filmmakers, while the other solution is to bend numbers back towards questions of art”
PASSION FOR FILM AND THEME-DRIVEN CURATORIAL FREEDOM
It is the latter that has allowed Edmond the curatorial freedom to find conceptual frameworks more open to many films made by women. “Rather than work to a quota, I ask thematic or research questions of the films being considered for what insights they offer to new forms of representation.” Accordingly, the theme “Aesthetics of Care” worked beyond quotas and other more regimented criteria, and instead opened up ways of thinking about movies that were more inclusive of themes of interest to both men and women filmmakers. “By focusing my programming research and publication commissioning around this question of domestic labour, caring, parenting – the politics and the aesthetics – I was able to identify and coordinate an array of significant new works by women filmmakers to present at the festival”.
Crucially, Edmond’s approach here by no means demands a reductive or essentialist vision of what kinds of film’s women can or should make, a fact supported nowhere more clearly than in the films themselves. The extremes to which this diversity can be seen are perhaps most immediately visible in a headlining retrospective of the work of Belgian-based filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani on back of the Australian premiere of their latest film, Let the Corpses Tan (2017). Unlike their previous two features – Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) – Let the Corpses Tan sees the collaborators moving away from their trademark experimentation with European genre cinema of the 1960s and 1970s from the Italian giallo film (made famous by directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava), and towards the Spaghetti Western. Along with an impressive selection of their earlier short films, the Cattet and Forzani retrospective (which will later visit the Melbourne International Film Festival in August) reveals filmmakers with no hesitations about the explicitness with which they present sex and violence and – at times – sexual violence, both against and executed by men and women. Offending as many critics and audience members as they attract, the films of Cattet and Forzani are regardless undeniably unique, and this retrospective is a long-overdue acknowledgement of their craft in Australia, where they have until now had little attention from festivals outside QFF itself who played The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears in 2013.
In contrast to the slick aesthetics of Cattet and Forzani lie the punk-inspired video mash-ups of New York based Australian video artists Soda_Jerk (sisters Dom and Dan Angeloro). In Australia, their 2018 work TERROR NULLIUS – the Queensland Film Festival’s opening night film – has in Australia become a work linked to great notoriety due to the irrational removal of support from one of the piece’s key funding bodies, the until-now highly regarded philanthropic organization the Ian Potter Foundation, just before its premiere at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Decrying the work as “UnAustralian”, this term in the contemporary national context is hugely political and reveals a strong, unambiguous association with a particularly nasty brand of political conservatism, as I outline in further depth in a recent Artlink Magazine essay about TERROR NULLIUS. With its very title a riff on the concept of terra nullius – the legal assumption that Australia was uninhabited when settled by Europeans, a claim that offensively denies the Indigenous owners of the land – TERROR NULLIUS turns a story of violent colonization into a funny, angry manifesto for change, cutting and pasting key moments from Australian film history into a new vision of the narrative where women, immigrants and refugees, Indigenous Australians and LGBTQI+ identifying are no longer subservient to dominant privileging of straight white men.
AND THEN, THE MAJORS…
There are, of course, a number of major films by internationally celebrated filmmakers – again who happen to be women, and again who also demonstrate the diversity of movies women can and have made. Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017) further solidifies the Argentine filmmakers place as one of the most reliably fascinating directors working in South America today, and Lynne Ramsey’s devastating You Were Never Really Here (2017) likewise continues the British directors close-to-unstoppable run of powerful, gut-wrenching, and exquisitely made movies. Valérie Massadian’s Nana (2011) is a welcome addition to the program with its sharp yet gentle focus on both the experience of parenting and – in particular – that of childhood itself with its focus on its eponymous four-year-old. Margaret Salmon’s Eglantine (2016) also follows the story of a young girl, this time one lost in a forest
FOCUS ON CHILDHOOD
This focus on childhood lies at the heart of one of the many highlights of QFF’s retrospective fare this year, a screening of Ann Turner’s 1989 film Celia, restored last year by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. Initially conceived as a historical drama film but finding a new audience when discovered by horror fans, Celia is an unforgettable plummet into the world of the childhood trauma of its title protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart. Another essential Australian film on the program is Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours, a riveting yet low-key family drama focused on the relationship between a woman and her father, set in an outback mining town.
Note that although 20% of this year’s films are directed by men, they too share an interest on the themes of the festival’s focus on the aesthetics and politics of parenting and genre, which are not, of course, exclusively the concerns of women filmmakers. After receiving extraordinary praise at Fantastic Fest in Austin last year, the Australian premiere of Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa (2017) highlights the festival’s theme. While superficially sharing key elements with Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015) in terms of the supernatural affiliations of their protagonists and their 15th century settings, German filmmaker Feigelfeld’s impressively accomplished student film embarks into distinctly new terrain with a particular focus on the relationship of its central witch character to her child and how that pertains to her sense of alienation from her broader community. Shocking at times, Hagazussa is also an unequivocally beautiful film with profound things to say about gender, identity, power and motherhood. To reiterate, if the festival’s themes were of interest only to women filmmakers, that would contradict the diversity, openness and inclusive policies that lie at the heart of the festival’s successful approach to programming. It’s not about excluding men, but including everyone.
VERA CHYTILOVA RETROSPECTIVE
As festival director John Edmond notes, however, if there was one stream that boosted the impressive gender statistics for this year’s Queensland Film Festival it is their retrospective of key Czech New Wave filmmaker Věra Chytilová, planned in collaboration with the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia. Like many of us, for Edmond “Chytilová was my gateway into Czechoslovakian film (Eastern European, even) and she’s one of the few masters who have been afforded the opportunity to demonstrate what a women filmmaker can achieve over a long-running career.” While her Daisies (1966) remains a benchmark in feminist experimental filmmaking, however, much of Chytilová’s other equally as important films have yet to hit quite the same level of popularity, even with self-identifying cinephiles. Chytilová’s other films playing at the festival include Something Different (1963), Fruit of Paradise (1969), The Apple Game (1976), Prefab Story (1979), Traps (1998), and a number of short films.
FESTIVALS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
While admittedly surprised that the gender statistics for this year’s Queensland Film Festival have learned so heavily against the norm, Edmond refuses to be restricted by the numbers in his future programming work. “I don’t think this can be repeated, it required a controlled coincidence of unrepeatable retrospectives and themed programming – but it points to something possible.” It is precisely this potential that makes this year’s Queensland Film Festival program so exciting, but Edmond is regardless a realist. “Fundamentally it’s hard for festivals to hit parity”, he says. “The problem is them, but the bigger problem is the simple lack of opportunity for women to make films. Depending on which area you look at, it’s between 5% and 15% of films. As a result, even if a festival bends it in the right direction, 30% or greater becomes difficult for large festivals to achieve without sacrificing quality or star power – and bigger budget films are less likely to be directed by women.”
But in practical terms, Edmond has clear advice for what others can learn from the Queensland Film Festival. “Where festivals can make a difference is not just in the films they screen, but how they present them – focusing on them, guest selection, and commissioning writing to contextualise them.”