The 4th Commonwealth Film Festival

29 April – 8 May 2005

This, the fourth Commonwealth Film Festival, was, by all accounts, the most ambitious and wide-ranging. Launched in 2002 to coincide with the launch of the city’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, the festival prides itself on its showcasing, promoting and general cheerleading of film cultures and styles from across the Commonwealth. This year saw around 1200 submissions to the festival, and the final choice reflected the cutting edge of filmmaking from 71 different countries. Such breadth and diversity would be hard to find even at the more renowned and aggressively promoted national and international film jamborees, and so quietly and quickly, the CFC is responding to a niche market with a dynamism and refreshing inclusivity.

The programme was eclectic – drama, thriller, animation, documentary, short films, industry debates and Q&As. Best of all was the clear and lucid structuring policy by the festival programmers – sidebars included Contemporary Commonwealth Cinema, Crime Scenes, Queerscreeen and Moves (dance on film).

Opening the festival was Oyster Farmer (2004), an Australian gem from director Anna Reeves. With its uplifting narrative (Jack returns to an insular oyster-bay community to nurse his injured sister), meandering storyline and a fine collection of character actors, this crowd-pleaser was a worthy opener, and hints at a newfound ambition and scope in antipodean filmmaking. The pre-opening show, Millions (2004), was attended by director Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. Billed as a comic fantasy, it marked an abrupt change of pace for Boyle after the frenetic 28 Days Later (2002). While there is no denying the frequent audience-pleasing moments and lashings of Catholic doctrine played for laughs, the cumulative effect was somewhat saccharine; a kind of It’s A Wonderful Life for the C-beebies generation.

Equally popular, but no less disappointing, was the mockumentary It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), featuring Paul Kaye as an Ibiza DJ slowing losing his hearing. While it might offer an amusing storyline and a suitably predictable soundtrack, the film again revels in the kind of Brit-film stereotypes that do little to offer anything new or interesting to say about this dance and rave culture.

Other highlights included Olivier Assayas’s Clean (2004), starring Maggie Cheung as a junkie trying to make amends, and Frozen (2004), a Lancashire-shot thriller with Shirley Henderson tracking down her missing sister. Cheung won the Best Actress award at Cannes last year for her committed and convincing performance; Juliet McKoen’s hi-def debut, dubbed a ‘metaphysical ghost-story’ by the director in the post-screening interview should be guaranteed a nationwide release.

Best of all, though, and one of the festival’s biggest draws, was Vilsoni Hereniko’s The Land Has Eyes (2004). Remarkable for several reasons, not least that the film marks Fiji’s first-ever feature, it’s a mesmerising coming-of-age tale that recalls Whale Rider (2003) and The Thin Red Line (1999) in its exploration of nature and isolated cultures. Again, one would hope that such an encouraging reception will open distributors’ eyes to the potential of diaspora and colonial cinema in Britain.

In the Moves sidebar, Shadow Pleasures and Sunny Moves was a fun compendium of shorts exploring dance forms from ballet to hip-hop and contact dance. Tussle, an 18-minute DVC short from Gibraltar was kinetic and exciting, while Shadow Pleasures was billed a performance film narrated by Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje. With his hypnotic voiceover coupled with sensual choreography, there was a real sense of the powerful potential in fusing dance and words.

There was also a selection of Malaysian New Wave shorts that introduced a hitherto neglected film culture. Braving harsh censorship laws, limited industry infrastructure and non-existent support for independent production, there was a real guerrilla aesthetic to the shorts on show at the festival. Rough around the edges they may have been, but there was a sense of humanity, restrained atmosphere and progressively revealed relationships in many of the works presented. Most impressive was James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004), in which the purchase of said commodity by a bored office worker leads to the appearance of a nameless woman who becomes his live-in lover. The film flirts irreverently with themes like commodification of the young and the perils of consumerism, and Lee’s visual style recalls some of the urban ennui of Lynch and Tsai Ming-Liang.

Other highlights included the UK premiere of A Good Woman (2004), Mike Barker’s adaptation of Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, with Scarlett Johansson (fun and spikey, but rather production-designed to death), Hamlet X (2004), a video collage reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest play and Pink Ludoos (2004), part of the Diasporama sidebar that mixes Bend It Like Beckham and East is East in its exploration of an Indo-Canadian teenager’s struggle with tradition.

No report could conclude without mentioning Richard Jobson’s The Purifiers (2004), a bizarrely OTT story of rival street gangs in a futuristic Britain. Hailed as ‘Scotland’s first ever martial arts flick’, the film blatantly steals from Walter Hill’s The Warriors, and with its nocturnal urban setting, there’s more than a nod to A Clockwork Orange. Even more unsettling is the casting – a collection of Hollyoaks-style plasticine figures, Kevin McKidd as Moses (the leader to rule them all) and finally, Dominic Monaghan, lasting seen battling Orcs and looking longingly at Gandalf, as the rotten apple in the barrel. And yet – it all seems to work. Preposterously drawn-out Tae-Kwon-Do fights, movie references you can spot a mile off, and a hi-def aesthetic that shouts urban and gritty.

Ultimately, the Festival was very much a ‘pick-and-mix’ event, with people able to experiment with ease. It helps that most of the screenings take place on two close sites, although the cinemas themselves were often a little too cramped and crowded for maximum comfort. If there was a theme in this eclectic bunch, it was perhaps the growth of DV technology as the new method of choice for filmmakers. Cheap, easy to edit and visually interesting, the consensus seemed to be that for cinema industries starved of government support, the new technology was the first step in at least developing a sustainable film culture. A final aspect of the Festival is a political one – in a world feeling the effects of globalisation on grassroots cultural programmes, how can Commonwealth countries sustain their own individual identities, languages and outlooks? Diversity was the watchword of the ten days here – both celebrating it, and, more importantly, safeguarding it. Hollywood was nowhere to be seen here, and yet given the developing predilection for film festivals around the world to start premiering big-budget films, one would at least hope that the Commonwealth Film Festival remains true to its name, and eschews any more obvious crossover appeal.