Melbourne International Film Festival unveils MIFF 68½

MIFF-First-CowMelbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has unveiled the full line-up of films at MIFF 68½ – the inaugural online delivery of the country’s oldest film festival in August.

Encompassing 113 films – including 12 world premieres, 83 Australian premieres and 44 shorts – this year’s program comprises films from 56 countries, with 49% of all selected films having at least one female director attached to them.

Alongside this year’s suite of films, MIFF also announced its 2020 Festival Ambassadors – an extraordinary group of creatives from within and outside the world of film, who will provide their picks of the program and drop-in along the way to host special events with filmmakers throughout the festival.

MIFF is delighted to welcome: Gillian Armstrong; Fayssal Bazzi; Jack Charles; Mirrah Foulkes; Hannah Gadsby; Rachel Griffiths; Justin Kurzel; Steven Oliver; Chris Pang; Aaron Pedersen; Stanislava Pinchuk; Remi Kolawole; John Sheedy; and Ben Shewry.

“I’m delighted to say that, despite the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, MIFF’s ‘radical act’ is to keep going and continue on our mission to bring you the world through unforgettable screen experiences,” said MIFF Artistic Director, Al Cossar. “At MIFF, we are driven by a deep understanding that film has the ability to entertain, inspire, illuminate and empower audiences in a way that few other mediums can – qualities we welcome now more than ever.”

In an enormous coup for Australian audiences, MIFF 68½ presents the Australian premiere of revered auteur Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow as the festival’s Opening Night film. Once again training her perceptive and patient eye on America’s Pacific Northwest, First Cow is Reichardt’s unlikely story of friendship and free enterprise on the American frontier.

A taciturn loner and skilled cook (John Magaro) has travelled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) also seeking his fortune; soon the two collaborate on a successful business, although its longevity is reliant upon the clandestine participation of a nearby wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow.

From this simple premise Reichardt constructs an interrogation of foundational Americana that recalls her earlier triumph Old Joy in its sensitive depiction of male friendship, yet is driven by a mounting suspense all of its own. First Cow again shows Reichardt’s distinct talent for depicting the peculiar rhythms of daily living and further cements her reputation as one of the most brilliant directors working today.

Benh Zeitlin’s long-awaited follow-up to Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wendy, screens as the festival’s Centrepiece. A contemporary reimagining of Peter Pan set in the American south, the film sees Zeitlin focus his lens on Wendy (Devine France), as she follows Peter to a mysterious island to escape the monotony of her daily existence.

Much like Beasts before it, Wendy is infused with a singular vision of fantasy and Terrence Malick-inspired imagistic style. Propelled by a spellbinding lead performance and a dynamic storyline that is environmentally charged and concerned with the conflict between innocence and ignorance, abandon and avoidance, Wendy will beguile audiences all the way to Neverland.

One of contemporary cinema’s most exciting and awarded directors, the remarkable Pablo Larrain unites Gael Garcia Bernal with striking newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo in Ema for the festival’s Closing Night screening.

Set in the vibrant dance world of the port city of Valparaiso, Chile, Ema is a reggaeton-fuelled, delirium inducing dance-drama about a couple falling apart after a failed adoption. Set to a throbbing electro-synth score by lauded Chilean-American composer Nicolas Jaar, Oscar nominee Larrain beautifully captures the turmoil of a character for whom the body is both a creative outlet and pressure valve.

MIFF presents the winner of the 2020 Sundance US Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, Boys State. The Apple Original film chronicles an experiment in democracy as teenage boys from Texas compete in a large-scale re- enactment of representative government.

Follow four of the boys as they ride the highs and lows of their campaigns in this funny – but never facile – film that exposes the fault lines in the greater system and suggests that, even amid a cavalcade of dirty dealing, it may still be possible for each side to meet in the middle of the divide. Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (The Overnighters, MIFF 2014; Speedo, MIFF 2004), this political coming-of-age film presents the USA in microcosm; hopeful and disturbing alike.

Aubrey Plaza gives a career-best performance in Black Bear – a devious psychodrama about a creatively- blocked filmmaker who wedges herself between a squabbling couple. In search of inspiration, actor-turned-director Allison (Plaza) heads to the Upstate New York lakeside retreat owned by Gabe and Sarah.

There, she finds the couple beset with mutual resentment, and decides to exploit their bitterness to fuel her own dried-up creativity. Fuelled by an intriguing, intelligent narrative puzzle that unpacks the murky line between representation and real life, director Lawrence Michael Levine’s film unfolds a dark game of manipulation.

Directed by the late, prolific film composer Johann Johannsson, Last and First Men adapts Olaf Stapledon’s apocalyptic 1930 novel into a breathtaking docu-fiction film portending humanity’s march towards extinction. Narrated by Tilda Swinton and shot in high-contrast black-and-white 16mm, Johansson’s first and only film is a lucid meditation that undulates with contemplative foreboding, reframing vast Cold War-era brutalist sculptures as desolate, otherworldly landscapes from our distant future.

Taking love life advice from a beyond-the-grave-lesbian-activist-cupid begets some tricky situations in Monica Zanetti’s quirky and delightful Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt). Described by The Guardian as a “funny Australian teen queer rom-com exploring all of the awkwardness that comes with being a teenager,” Ellie & Abbie is feel-good story of coming out, coming-of-age and crushing hard.

In Guatemala City, where 98 percent of homicides go unprosecuted, German Cabrera has devoted his life to capturing crime footage for news outlets and police – no matter the risks. The Meddler is his story. Painstakingly filmed over seven years, Alex Roberts and Daniel Leclair’s documentary is a nerve-racking, warts-and-all study of an individual consumed by a desire for retribution, and the corruptive impact of his work on his relationships, his health and even his sense of self.

A collective of around 30 filmmakers, Karrabing Film Collective has established itself internationally as an extraordinary voice for Australia, and for cinema. Their latest work, Day in the Life is a hip-hop-infused visual kaleidoscope that blends together filmed footage, archival audio, music and media clips, as they chart a day in a remote Aboriginal community and the unrelenting experience of marginalisation. Uncompromising in its vision, the film further cements Karrabing Film Collective as some of Australia’s leading artists and filmmakers.

In the world premiere of Jo-Anne Brechin’s uplifting and uproariously funny rom-com Paper Champions, a mild- mannered photocopier salesman finds his life is as blank and meaningless as the A4 paper that logjams his days, and steps out to find love and reclaim his sense of self, in this Geelong-shot local highlight.

Directed by Australian expat Christopher King and Maia Lekow, The Letter is a moving, at times harrowing, documentary – investigating the interplay between cultural traditions, colonisation and religious beliefs – that bears witness to a 90-year-old Kenyan woman Margaret who stands accused of being a witch in East Africa by her own family.

In director Alison Chhorn’s The Plastic House, a young Cambodian-Australian woman copes with her parents’ death by retreating to the family greenhouse and tending to their plants. A masterful piece of experimental filmmaking, The Plastic House is minimalist in set-up and style, privileging atmosphere over action in its almost-wordless exploration of mourning, migration and the passage of time.

The winner of the Crystal Bear at this year’s Berlinale, Sweet Thing is indie auteur Alexandre Rockwell’s lucid, tender- hearted and arresting tale of childhood joy persisting amidst trauma. Filmed in luminous black-and-white, Rockwell directs his own children and their real-life mother, Karyn Parsons in this dreamy coming-of-age drama.

The winner of the LGBTQI-themed Teddy Award at this year’s Berlinale, No Hard Feelings is German director Faraz Shariat’s vibrant, vivid and energetic take on the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality and immigration, all bound up momentously in a love story between a German- born Iranian exile and a refugee.

The multi-award-winning documentary Welcome to Chechnya is a transfixing and eye-opening expose of the persecution of queer Chechens – and a testament to the courage of those who risk their lives to grant them safe passage to freedom. The country’s homophobic tyranny, and the immense bravery of those who resist it, is laid bare in this acclaimed film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker David France (The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson, MIFF 2017; How to Survive a Plague, MIFF 2012).

The Go-Go’s is Alison Ellwood’s definitive take on the trailblazing band who were the first all-female band to find huge success playing their own instruments and writing their own songs. With an editor’s gift for montage, Ellwood embeds this filmic valentine with archival footage that captures the band’s verve, while interviews with the band and those who followed them, including Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, celebrate their DIY defiance of music-industry sexism.

In Some Kind of Heaven, 23-year-old director Lance Oppenheim paints an alternatingly delightful, forthright and somewhat surreal portrait of those going grey and going large in a Florida retirement land designed as a “Disney World for retirees.” Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Oppenheim’s feature debut offers profound insights into our own mortality and what ends up mattering most to us, through the lens of this affluent elderly community.

Fresh from winning the 2020 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with American Factory, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar round out the documentary program with 9to5: The Story of a Movement – their inspiring paean to the forgotten women of the 9to5 movement whose actions to end gender discrimination in the workplace paved the way for generations to come. The film combines extraordinary archival footage and pop-culture reference points in a passionate call-to-action – and an equally vital document of a historical moment we’re still living with.

An epic and eclectic 14-hour journey through the vast, brilliant but all-too-often-neglected realm of female-directed cinema, Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film: A New Road Trip Through Cinema is a must-see for film lovers. Enlisting Adjoa Andoh, Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Tilda Swinton and Sharmila Tagore to narrate a deep dive into how 183 female filmmakers – hailing from six continents – have approached everything from the building blocks of visual composition and narrative to portrayals of bodies, dreams and memory. An expansive canvas that paints an alternative history of the artform.

In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, MIFF 68½ will host a virtual table read of Death in Brunswick directed by MIFF Accelerator Lab alumnus John Sheedy (who helmed MIFF Premiere Fund-supported H is for Happiness).

“MIFF has thrilled, challenged and delighted audiences through more than half a century of change, and this year will be no exception,” said Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley. “Congratulations to the team on yet another exceptional program of films – screening direct to our homes to keep us engaged and entertained when we most need it.”

A digital showcase of over 60 features, 44 shorts, talks, Q&As, events and activations, MIFF 68½ runs online from 6 to 23 August 2020. For more information and full program, visit: www.miff.com.au for details. Tickets on sale Friday 17 July 2020.

Image: First Cow (film still)

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