'An Honest MIFF-Take: Week one of a festival diary' by Eloise Grills

Preamble (preramble)

“I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful."
—Brett Ratner

“Movie commentary is no longer confined to ‘critics,’ and that might be a problem”
—Kaitlyn Lo, Pilcrow Magazine

“Everyone’s a critic!”
—Some guy

“A flaming, burning, dumpster fire. That’s how I’d describe the state of film criticism in America. It sucks, and there was a time when it didn’t.”
—Paul Allen Hunton, some guy on Medium

I’ve never really trusted film criticism, as in, I’m never really thought movies are things that people can formulate original opinions on.
 I participated in MIFF’s Critics Campus as a baby critic a few years ago and it seemed quite clear, given the way my mentor ripped my writing apart, day after day, that I didn’t have the intellectual rigor or inclination to be a critic, beyond writing about myself, beyond writing about movies in an unconventional sense. If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. I don’t even know how to keep cupboard doors shut (ask my mum) and at twenty-nine I’m not about to start learning.
 I wondered how to approach binding the films I watched this weekend together, at least well enough to sell a pitch to my editor. I thought a bit about the gaze (because the gaze is a great fallback for a cinema critic), about how it can be used to provide a window into a culture, to expose the body at its limit, or to enact a retro-kitsch sensibility—and what doing so, adding the spectacle of cinema, does to its subject. I thought about the power of gloss as opposed to grit, parody as opposed to an unflinching eye. About what position we need to be in to see one and not the other. I thought about these questions and addressed them, kind of, but I also came up with something smaller, and stranger, more honest maybe, or maybe just more deliberate.

So here is everything all at once, like a kid ate a bunch of movies and is throwing them up all over your backseat, in the order that it occurred to them to eat the movies. Or, like in a cartoon where a body is stripped away by some flesh-eating animal, like a piranha, to a skeleton, in reverse. Hold onto your sick-bag, hold onto your popcorn bag, because here we go.

Directed by Ben Russell

watercolour of jungle

A jungle shrouded in mist
A symbol, what does it mean?
A coin, to be flipped
Two halves of a whole
Or, two holes of a half
Or—a split lip barely healed

watercolour of jungle with bisected circle on top

My circle is hand-drawn (the one in the film was perfect) But you, my dear reader, get the general gist

watercolour with abstract figures

A deep crevasse
Old men in blue suits play a maudlin-happy slow moving song on brass as they march towards the camera
As they march way from the pit
A man's face grey and haunting and up close: “Everything went into the pit”

Copper mine with an electric blue interior like funky 80s jacket lining Men in an elevator go down down down into the ground

Things I know before I watch the movie:
  • Ben Russell is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker
  • He makes slow films
  • Using slow old film, 16mm
  • Spending months on location
Things I don’t know:
  • The purpose of ethnography
  • (other than to Other)

Perhaps rather than giving us a window, the form displays disconnection
I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Serbian copper miner
Smoking cigarettes beneath the surface with a coffee cup that says Coffee on it
Watching television on a rock wall: someone jokes: I can’t change the channel, someone rubbed out the remote control

blue watercolour with black square and word television

I’m trying to give myself an “in” to this
Deep deep into the pit
The elevator empties
The elevator empties
The men walk into the black distance hardhats and headlights
Light hearts and hard heads
Light bounces everywhere with the rhythm of footsteps
Like drunk lightning
Everything shrinking shrinking over the horizon though there is no horizon down here just rocks and earth
Small shafts of light prickle against too much dark

watercolour of a night sky and full moon

Maybe I will never get it
Men impassively avert their eyes to ignore the camera
Men drilling into rock
What is the purpose if not to understand?
How could I imagine the brutality of masculinity?
How could I know what it is like to plunge miles below daylight for months on end?
How would it be if I had to mine for my keep?
When all I do is mine my own life

Just because you've seen inside a pit doesn't mean you know what it's like inside

watercolour of an eye

Every few minutes
There is an interruption
A man’s face, a close-up
Andy Warhol screen test
Faces glowing silver like rocks in torchlight
Awkward, wide awake

watercolour of a miner

What if the point is to see the world as a series of alienations?
Some of these men have been here for twenty years
“What are you afraid of?”
The filmmaker, off-camera, asks again, again, again
“That Prime Minister Vučić will win the election"
They joke, they laugh

“I have been down here too long, I don't pay attention to dreams,” a man says.

 “What are you afraid of?”

watercolour of two miners, one saying nothing scares me

“He's afraid of his wife! 

Then the filmmaker asks: “What are you searching for?”
A man says: “For gold”
A man says: “I don't know, nothing special”
A man says: “For a better life”
A man plays “Heart of Gold” on accordion miles below the ground

watercolour of miner playing accordion

watercolour of bisected circle

Second half is filmed in Suriname
Men work outside in a sweltering goldmine
Tracking shots follow men through red dirt through mud
Mist and oppressive heat

watercolour of figure walking in red landscape

Rules of the jungle:

  • Women cannot work
  • Some people have bad luck, some people have good luck but it is bad luck to say who has what
  • You must respect the jungle or it will punish you
  • And you will perish

watercolour of two figures in red landscape

Reds and browns
Earth and mud
Scorched earth
Hard work

Men playing soccer

watercolour of figure in red landscape, some blue and green

The men seem young
Their youth
Wicking off them, such a shimmering

sketch of hand with words a hand digs through mud

The filmmaker asks the men: what would you say if your children wanted to work here?
Most say they want something better for the next generation
“To work in an office, to work with a pen”
Two of the men went to school but the war ended school

black and white image of a miner

They sing a song of gold
The song says that anyone can come here and find gold
That everyone is welcome
A weary-eyed man smiles at the camera when he explains this

A chance for everyone

black and white photo of author wearing head lamp

I think perhaps no man can understand another fully
Every person a lock with a different combination
The connection is that there is no connection

If I am just a shadow inside your shadow
Maybe we just cancel one another out

watercolour of jungle with bisected circle on top

Directed by Marta Prus

A film about a Russian woman training for the Rio Olympics
Her name is Margarita Mamun but to her trainers, when they scream at her, she is just Rita

watercolour of woman saying god help me

The documentary does not offer new questions, but poses powerful extensions of well-worn ones, that get more pertinent, beguiling with repetition:

Questions like—

  • At what point does love become obsession?
  • At what point does discipline become abuse?
  • At what point does perfection become torture?
  • At what point does beauty become pain?
  • At what point would this break you?
watercolour of two women, one in sunglasses saying she's not a fighter? Then why the fuck do we need her.

The pair of coaches abuse Rita relentlessly:
“Follow your heart not your body for fuck’s sake!”
As the Olympics approach it reaches a fever pitch
Collapsing in pain, Rita is accosted by her trainer who asks her why she cannot do it she says:
“Because I am a human being!”
And the coach replies: “You are not a human being you are an athlete!”
Not content with that cartoon-evil sound byte she adds: “Find your humanity!
Fix your eyebrows!”

The body in motion has a beauty that does not transfer to the still image
Since this film is about the pain of beauty I feel bad putting any dancing in this review
And so don’t

close watercolour portrait of woman's face

Performance as self-denial

Real life seems like an alternate universe
A room filled with trophies, relics from an alien planet when Rita is at home
She finds time to call her boyfriend while running on a treadmill

More questions—

  • What is the purpose of excellence?
  • What is the purpose of pain?
  • What is the purpose of excellent pain?
  • What is the cost of excellence?
  • What justifies sacrifice?

Her father’s cancer diagnosis revealed
She keeps on training
Maybe if I was good at sport, or enjoyed it, I would get her persistence a little more

When Rita is injured her coach says:
“Rita, there’s no such thing as a healthy professional athlete”

Hurtful words strung through the narrative like a demotivational pearl necklace

“Stupid cow!”

Quiet moments are most powerful

watercolour of woman in pool

I think, of how in millions of rooms, dance halls, ballrooms, studios, houses, workplaces around the world, people are suffering for beauty
I think of Tonya Harding, and her portrayal in that movie, of her cruel mother

painting of tonya harding

Ms. Irina, the head, scary coach, says to Rita and her other, comparatively less scary, coach: “Losers, both of you”

Why do we give so much power to objective judgement for subjective things? Why is art more valid if suffered for?
Ritual pain, pain as ritual
“It hurts here as well”

Being perfect is the loneliest suffering you could do

watercolour of woman smiling

Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzano

watercolour of woman with injured bare chest

Gun gun gun

A woman whipped
Tits out tits out
Spaghetti Western fever dream

still of jesse james

Blue sea
Gold bars
Woman and child

black and white still of cowboy shooting up

Who is shooting who? And why? I don’t care!

Men eat disgustingly
Corpses hang
Blood and guts and fucking

watercolour of a full moon

Ants crawling over dirt
Ants crawling over a moon
Ants crawling over a dead body
New day new grave
Dirt sweat tears
Sweat dirt tears
If you go looking for connection you will find it
A woman is tied to a cross and whipped
The whip wraps around her small hot waist
watercolour of abstract body in motion watercolour of bandaged waist

Intense eye contact
What’s the point of pastiche again?
What purpose is it supposed to have?
Throw together a bunch of old tropes
To make a new one
Like a bricoleur taking scraps of old shit fabric
To make something new
But still steeped in the shit of the old
There is nothing new under the sun
Is it supposed to be fun?
How come I’m not having any?

still from old cowboy film

“There’s something beautiful about being in nature”
Chintzy seventies mirror effect

watercolour of three faces

A woman painted gold
Neon guns

photograph of mountains
(image courtesy of Roy Luck)

Neon blood
Monochrome filter

watercolour of skull on a stick

GUn GUn Gun Gun end

Admittedly, I didn’t get to the end
This is one of the films I watched on my laptop
A screener with a watermark
Which is one of the things they don’t tell you about critics
Always waxing lyrical about the joy of the big screen
Red curtains
While they watch things huddled at home on a small, streaked monitor with the wrong resolution

It is much easier to walk away without an audience
Silently observing
Silently judging
And so I close my laptop

Sick and tired
Eyes dry

Close my ugly curtains
I make myself a cup of tea
And get into bed

watercolour of a gun on red background

Eloise Grills is an award-winning writer and comics artist specialising in hybrid visual-written form—she's like a more sexily literary Dr Moreau. She recently won the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Nonfiction. In 2018 she was awarded a Felix Meyer Travel Scholarship, was a finalist for the mid-year Walkleys, and is currently shortlisted for TheLifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. Her debut comics chapbook, Sexy Female Murderesses, will be published by Glom Press later this year. She tweets and grams as @grillzoid and edits memoir for Scum.