Sydney Film Festival 2011 – Memoirs of a Subscriber

by Preposition Joe

One of these cinemas is the spiritual home of the SFF...

It’s ten a.m. on a cold, wet Sunday, and indie film director Miranda July has stepped onto the stage of Sydney’s State Theatre to talk to us about her film The Future. But first, she gushes … I can’t believe, she says, so many people have come out in the cold and the rain on a Sunday morning! Thank you so much!

And I think, Miranda, have you met these people?

  • Number of films seen: 23 (of a possible 34)
  • Total hours of cinema: 40.383

There are really two festivals. In the evenings, Jack Black may be mugging his way down a red carpet premiering Kung Fu Panda 2, or Cate Blanchett in an Armani suit launching Hanna to a constellation of flashbulbs. At this festival, which starts as the sun sets, Bright Young Things talk knowingly about Murakami and Malick, relentlessly perky publicists herd gloomy Russian directors in and out of limousines, and serious academics chat about how the New Egyptian Cinema goes hand in hand with the Facebook Revolution.

But by day, a hardier, less glamorous breed of filmgoer is keeping the festival alive with their subscription tickets. Every April the call goes out, and every April we sign up, not just for a few films here and there, but for the duration. We see the films afforded to us, nine days of movie-going, from ten a.m. to five p.m.  every day, thirty or forty films in all. We get the same seat we had last year, and we know our neighbours.

Of course we’re here at ten a.m. on a bank holiday in the pouring rain, Miranda. It’s our job.

  • Number of films featuring ominous shots of swirling flocks of birds: 3
  • Number of films in which dogs or cats play a key role: 4
  • Number of films in which hippopotami play a key role: 1

The Sydney Film Festival’s subscribers, many of them retirees, are like those hardy Brits who Bill Bryson so admires in his “Notes from a Small Island”. They trudge up the Pennines in their kagoules, with their thermos of tea and their Bovril sandwiches in greaseproof paper, and they gaze out onto an impenetrable bank of fog and cheerily say “can’t complain!”.

… except for the bit about not complaining.

The festival is the last bastion of the civilised cinema audience. Woe betide you if you so much as glance at the screen of your mobile, and god forbid it should ring. People arriving late are tutted and whispered at. Nobody, but nobody, talks, although they might permit themselves a ruminative ‘hmm!’ or ‘oho!’ at a plot revelation. When films start late or there are projection problems, slow handclaps and the stamping of feet, along with a few self-conscious chuckles, are employed.

Things directors said to us while introducing their films:

  • “As you will see, one major influence was the Ministry of Silly Walks”
  • “There is some unexpected violence in my film”
  • “My hair isn’t normally like this”

What’s worse is, because of building work at the fabulously ornate State Theatre in Market street, the festival’s spiritual home, this year most of the films are being shown at the far less grand George Street cinema, which we have to share with the crowd who’ve come to see pirates and x-men and the amnesiac sufferers of hangovers. At some point the stars of Bridesmaids must have passed the stars of Cairo 678, an intense drama about the plight of women in the middle east, in the corridors of this vast sterile cineplex, with its uncomfortable foam-rubber seats and its floor at too shallow an angle. It seems not to have occurred to the organisers that if a film has subtitles, one needs to see the bottom five per cent of the screen, and one tall person in the seat in front of you can ruin your whole day.

  • Number of films in which a secretly-pregnant woman looks after a bedridden old man: 2
  • Number of films narrated by Werner Herzog: 1
  • Number of films narrated by a cat: 1

The subscribers refer to the festival’s current director simply as “Claire”. They speculate, not unkindly, about her private life, and make faintly catty remarks about her taste in clothes. Really Claire, those boots? And perhaps they’ve earned the right. The couple in front of me, Bill and Alice, have been coming since before Claire was born, when the Festival was just, they tell me, “rows of folding chairs, up at the University”. When the subject of the late Kerry Packer (1937 – 2005) comes up, Gwen in the row behind us speaks amusingly of his teenage years and his fondness for cream buns. She worked for him before she got married, you understand.

  • Films in English: 8
  • Danish films in Portuguese: 1
  • German films in French: 1

They’re not only a hardy bunch, with their soup and sandwiches and their “Daytime” maroon lanyards, but they’re hard to shock. Patrician women in their seventies or eighties sit through sex and violence that would make many a conventional movie audience gasp collectively in horror. They do not gasp. They might, however, harrumph, and the discussions between the film can get heated. We took a very dim view of Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, last year, I can tell you, my retired friends and I.

Things this festival has taught me:

  • If a women starts loudly weeping over a plate of uneaten food for no apparent reason she will be dead by the end of the film.
  • It’s illegal to be cremated in Greece
  • Murderous family feuds are an everyday thing in Albania
  • It’s really not a good thing for secretly-pregnant women to look after bedridden old men.

I never imagined I could enjoy myself so much hanging out with people twice my age or more. People who have not only parenting tips to share, but grand- and great-grand-parenting tips too. It’s great to have spent a week with any group of people who take going to the cinema this seriously.

Funniest films:

  • Tabloid (Errol Morris/USA)
  • Happy, Happy (Anne Sewitsky/Norway)

Most disturbing films:

  • Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols/USA)
  • Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín/Chile)

Highly recommended:

  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi/Iran)
  • The Forgiveness of Blood (Joshua Marston/USA-Albania)

Films which made me cry:

  • Senna (Asif Kapadia/UK)
  • Norwegian Wood (Tran Anh Hung/Japan)

Films which made my buttocks ache so much that I briefly reconsidered the wisdom of spending eight hours in the cinema, nine days in a row:

  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick/USA) – 140 minutes
  • Target (Alexander Zeldovich/Russia) – 154 minutes
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5 thoughts on “Sydney Film Festival 2011 – Memoirs of a Subscriber

  1. I feel your pain re inadequately raked cinema seating at festivals and subtitled films. Every time I see a subtitled film at the London Film Festival at the Odeon Leicester Sq or downstairs at the Odeon West End, I spend the whole film trying to peer around the head of the person in front of me. Which must be annoying for the person behind me. I sometimes wonder if you can see a head-waggling chain reaction reach all the way to the back row.

  2. A lot of the time, I was the tall person! We moved seats if possible, and I tend to slouch anyway so I just slouched a little more.

    I think some people are sending strongly worded letters to the festival organisers this year. And they’re people who not only buy subscription tickets, but support the festival directly via charitable donation.

  3. great review, only thing not mentioned was the total lack of graciouness on the part of the Event Cinemas staff. We only have 15 minutes between films to eat, let us get back to our seats and enjoy our food.

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