The last time I wrote about the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, my attitude was one of scepticism. And, I’ll concede, a modicum of bitterness. You see, the birth of BAPFF meant the death of BIFF (the Brisbane International Film Festival), the latter cut down in its prime (at twenty-one years old!) to pave the way for this Asia Pacific-focused festival. Its successor is necessarily narrower, but my attitude has tempered with a few months to reflect upon the loss of BIFF and the birth of BAPFF.
The BAPFF’s inaugural line-up of films helps cushion the blow somewhat. It’s cinephile catnip, featuring 84 features, 17 shorts (and 1 animation compilation) from the likes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Sion Sono, Lav Diaz, Jean-Luc Godard and acting President of the APSA International Jury, Asghar Farhadi. If your first response is “Who?” …well, you’re probably not alone. The festival is squarely geared towards film festival aficionados who salivate at the likes of Diaz’s six hour Filipino epic, From What is Before or Godard’s confrontational 3D film-as-essay, Goodbye to Language 3D.
The festival isn’t going to appeal to everyone (and indeed, not everyone’s even heard of the festival – my non-cinephile friends invariably have no idea what I’m talking about when the topic comes up in conversation). But there’s an argument to be made that this is a feature, not a bug; last year’s BIFF may have attracted huge audiences with the likes of (eventual Best Picture winner) 12 Years a Slave, Blue is the Warmest Colour, All is Lost and The Railway Man – and plenty of more obscure arthouse flicks besides – but these four films all have something in common. They all saw cinematic release in Australia; the film festival allowed us to see them earlier, yes, and I won’t underrate that, especially with distributors who hold back Oscar contenders for Australian release by months. But the idea of approaching a film festival as something intended for a niche audience, rather than a preview of future multiplex fare, is something that’s worth embracing.
I can’t lie and say that I’m not disappointed that we won’t have an opportunity to see hotly anticated independent American films like, say, Inherent Vice or Foxcatcher a few months before their official Australian release. It’s frustrating as an Australian critic – or, heck, just an Aussie interested in cinema – to watch the inevitable debates frothing about divisive Oscar contenders that you’re not going to have the chance to see for months. But we’re going to get to see these films eventually; you’re never going to get to pop down to your local Event Cinemas to see a six hour film, whatever the subject matter. Perusing the BAPFF program reminds me of this year’s apparently never-ending debate about the box office performance of Australian films, which strikes me as the opposite of the critic’s purview, focusing on dollar value rather than artistic merit. Let the industry worry about their balance sheets; as long as they’re still producing great films like The Babadook or 52 Tuesdays, I couldn’t give a rats’. Similarly, while it seems unlikely that your Average Joe and Jane are going to flock to Palace and GOMA to attend the hundred-plus screenings mounted by BAPFF, the festival’s financial performance seems sort of besides the point, lest we find ourselves sliding down a slippery slope that sees the next festival launched by Avengers 2 because it’s ‘more profitable.’ Make no mistake, there’s a lot of great stuff to look forward to in the BAPFF program. Some of it, admittedly, isn’t entirely fresh: Japan’s enfant terrible Sion Sono (of Love Exposure and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) is unleashing his latest volley in the form of dystopian-gangster-hip-hop-music-video-slash-opera Tokyo Tribe, which recently screened down south at the Japanese Film Festival. The formally sumptuous Chinese neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice played at both the Melbourne and Sydney International Film Festivals, while Goodbye to Language 3D scared people out of its sold-out sessions at Melbourne. This year’s Palme d’Or recipient Winter Sleep received a limited national release a couple weeks ago (except not in Brisbane), while Aussie flick The Infinite Man screened months ago – except, again, not in Brisbane. Does this matter? Nope. Outside of masochistic movie maniacs like myself, very few Brisbanites would have made the trip down south for those film festivals, so the encore performances are more than welcome – and I’m particularly excited to catch the long-fermenting Hard to Be a God, which I missed in Melbourne.
The festival also features its fair share of Australian premieres. There’s confrontational, formally experimental doco Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (highly recommended, but light years from fun family entertainment); Palestine’s 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, Eyes of a Thief; the aforementioned Diaz film; and the crowd-pleasing opening night film from India, The Crow’s Egg …amongst many others.
There’s also a substantial contingent of female directors represented at the festival, with 20 women-directed features and six additional shorts in the program. On the surface 25% representation might not seem especially impressive, but in the modern (and forever) male-dominated film industry, one-in-four is actually an above-average bit of representation. There’s some fantastic films in the mix, too: Ana Lily Amirpour’s moody vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Talya Levie’s sharp-edged Israeli ‘workplace’ comedy Zero Motivation and Kitty Green’s startling documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel. And I haven’t even mentioned the Women in Film panel featuring actress Hiam Abbass, producer Zeynep Özbatur Atakan and producer/director Vivian Qu.
The festival is pretty light on the ground when it comes to panels – unsurprisingly, given film festivals tend to revolve around watching films more so than talking about them – but there’s a can’t-miss one lined up for Wednesday December 10, which features a conversation with Asghar Farhadi alongside a screening of A Separation and documentary From Iran, A Separation. Farhadi is one of the best filmmakers working today – his entire oeuvre is screening at the festival, including his more obscure early works – and the opportunity to see him in person is a real drawcard for BAPFF.
There are still some question marks hanging over the festival beyond “will anyone actually turn up?” (which, as I’ve already discussed, doesn’t really bother me one way or the other). The first is validity of the ‘AP’ in BAPFF – how ‘Asia Pacific’ is this festival? Well, not particularly. Even if you accept that Turkey or Iran fits into the broad definition of ‘Asia Pacific,’ a French production like Goodbye to Language 3D is unquestionably a stretch. Sticklers might get upset; personally I’m optimistic that it suggests future festivals will be even more flexible when it comes to allowable films. If ‘Asia Pacific’ comes to include the entirety of Europe, who am I to complain?
I’m less forgiving on the dearth of Australian features in the line-up, however. There must be a serious lack of clout behind the festival if it’s unable to even snatch up The Water Diviner a few weeks before its official release (though I can’t say I’m devastated about having to wait for Rusty’s opus). The Australian representation is nigh non-existent – a free screening of Paper Planes here, a short there – and the festival not accepting local submissions can’t have helped. Let’s hope this is only a G20-inspired blip than the festival’s modus operandi moving forward.
Anyway, the festival kicks of November 29, and you can look forward to regular coverage here at ccpopculture from about that date. My scepticism has now been replaced by enthusiasm – I’m looking forward to it! Perhaps I’ll see you there.