Film Studies student in conversation with film critic David Stratton

18 June 2018

Image: Aki Kaurismäki selected by David Stratton
Image: Aki Kaurismäki selected by David Stratton

Every year, the Sydney Film Festival screens classics in 35mm prints as part of the Retrospective strand at the cinema-sized Domain Theatre in the Art Gallery of New South Wales to celebrate the works of important filmmakers.

The strand features films from one chosen filmmaker based on the relevance of their body of works in today's film culture. This year, Retrospective Programmer and renowned film critic David Stratton chose to screen 10 films from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, who's works is relevant today with the deadpan sense of humour and hopeful cynicism. Before each screening, David Stratton appears on screen to reason his selection and provide some insightful background about each film.

Film Studies Honours student, Will Jeffery, who attended the Retrospective screening interviewed David Stratton before the festival to find out more about this year's retrospective program and the current state of film. Here's what he had to say.

Interview by Will Jeffrey, Film Studies honours student

1. Why have you chosen the works of Aki Kaurismäki for this year's retrospective program?

The last 2-3 years we've had some fairly big names: Kurosawa, Scorsese and Bergman. It just seemed a good opportunity in these troubling times we're living in to see the work of probably the most optimistic auteur director working in the cinema .The other thing is that he has this understated sense of humour which pervades all his films and which I find really appealing. So, I think it's probably time that we get the chance to see in a block the films of Kaurismäki and I hope people come along to see them and enjoy them.

W: I've heard some people say they don't like him for his cynicism but I personally think he's quite a humanist. I think he's important in the current climate of film.

D: I agree with you. He is a humanist and he loves ordinary people. Not the sort that are big and powerful, but people who just get on with it whatever their line of work is, or even if they're refugees, like in his most recent film that isn't a retrospective film - The Other Side of Hope (2017). So, that's something I find really appealing. I remember seeing his first film Crime and Punishment (1983) back in 1983 when I was writing for Variety in Berlin. I immediately thought that this was a very exciting newcomer. He took Dostoyevsky's weighty novel and completely transformed it into a contemporary film set in Helsinki today, or what it was then. I see now that it was absolutely of a piece really with all of the films that he's made since: that sort of deadpan style he adopted from the very beginning he's sort of refined but stayed with ever since.

2. Do you have a favourite Kaurismäki film?

D: Well, I love Drifting Clouds (1996), I think that's a beautiful film, I love The Man without a Past (2002), I love Ariel (1988).

W: So, it was quite easy to choose the 10 films then?

D: No, it was difficult, I had to leave out films like I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), Take Care of your Scarf, Tatiana (1994), Calamari Union (1985)…I mean there were films that I had to leave out which I would have loved to have been able to put in but I only had ten places to work with.

3. When choosing a filmmaker for the retrospective program, where do you start in the process when there are so many great directors to choose from?

D: Well it's hard. Part of it is, "are there copies available of the films?" The Sydney Film Festival tends to like accessing 35mm prints for their retrospective program. I don't know how long that's going to continue but they do now. We start off by looking for a filmmaker where we have access to 35mm prints of their films. The Fins who handle Kaurismäki's work were very helpful about all of that and all but one in the retrospective are on 35mm. The one exception is La Vie de Bohème (1992), which we're showing digitally but the rest will be seen as they were originally seen and intended to be seen I guess on 35mm.

W: Is that why La Vie de Bohème (1992) is being screened at Dendy Opera Quays instead?

D: Exactly, yes.

W: I remember last year when I saw some Akira Kurosawa films in the retrospective program being blown away by the 35mm prints that they were using.

4. You mentioned the comparison between 35mm and digital. How do you feel about screening films in their original format, do you think it's important?

D: To be perfectly honest, I think it can be overrated. It's the old Vinyl vs. CD argument, I suppose. I'm not a purist when it comes to this; I think Kaurismäki is, so he probably wouldn't like to hear me say this, but most films I see these days are of course digital and it looks pretty good to me. Although, there is of course a slightly different look when you're looking at 35mm print projected, and if you're a purist, which I am not, then I guess that's special, so I guess that's up to the individual. I mean I could never quite see why Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017) had to be shown in 70mm when the 35mm copy that I saw was perfectly fine, but as I've said I'm not precious on this.

W: Yes, they're re-releasing 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) in 70mm as well.

D: Well that might be an exception because 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) was made in Cinerama which was a very special system and to see a 70mm print of that, that is special.

5. Why do you think it's important to include a retrospective program in the festival? What role does it play in a film festival today?

D: I think retrospectives are always important. It's good to see all the new films, well as many of them as you can fit in, but from the very first festival I went to back in 1966 which was a long time ago, that was Venice Film Festival and they had an exciting array of new films and the retrospective was the work of Buster Keaton. That, from the very beginning confirmed to me the importance of retrospectives. These days you've got to make choices and it's much more difficult, but I do think retrospectives are important. We don't have a cinematheque in Sydney - well there are cinematheque screenings, but we don't have a permanent full-time cinematheque in the city like it exists in many cities in the world, it's great that the Sydney Film Festival keeps making some space for a retrospective.

W: I always recommend older films to my friends because you can learn a lot about today's films from them.

D: Well it's true that most of the filmmakers making films today learn from films made by the previous generation.

W: Yes, I absolutely agree.

D: I mean Kurosawa learnt from John Ford and it was people like John Ford that didn't learn from anyone because they were the ones that started it.

W: And then filmmakers like Sergio Leone who used ideas from Kurosawa but didn't credit him.

D: And Scorsese borrows from Leone and so on and so forth.

W: You've been to film festivals all around the world and you've even directed the Sydney Film Festival yourself. What role do you think film festivals play? Are they still relevant?

D: Well I think they are because there's been an awful lot of films that never get shown in our cinemas or even that we can access very easily in other ways. I think maybe, and again I'm not sure that the Sydney Film Festival would like me to say this but I think perhaps the program is a little too big.

W: Yes, I was a little overwhelmed myself.

D: I think there are too many films in the program that are going to get released, so I'd like to see somewhat fewer films but more films that are just maybe the only time we will ever have the chance to see them is at the festival, because that is to me what festivals are all about, to discover what's happening around the world in cinema at any given time. Having said that, when I used to run the Sydney Film Festival we used to show some American films that were going to get released so I'm not entirely being honest.

W: Do you think the diversity of the films shown from so many countries is because of current movements like '#MeToo'?

D: Oh, look I think all of that will be reflected in the films shown and it makes me think next year if we do another retrospective (I hope we do) that we should have a female director and I think that's the thing, the festival will reflect the films that are being made, and the films that are being made will reflect society as its happening in different parts of the world, so it's all going to be there for you to see.

6. What's your opinion on the state of film today?

D: Long pause *laughs*. I think the state of film in some ways is better than it's ever been. There are very exciting independent film productions around the world and its especially exciting coming from America that there's so many good independent films being made, especially when the major studios are making absolute trash these days. I mean, I don't care if I never see another superhero film no matter how good it's supposed to be. Having said that, I'm disappointed that there aren't better Australian films at the moment, I'm disappointed that there aren't better Italian films at the moment, I'm disappointed that there aren't better Swedish films at the moment. I mean, these are countries that made terrific films back in the 60s and 70s, and are just not doing much at all these days. I think the focus is shifting to Asia very much. There are many exciting films being made there, and also places like Turkey and Iran, but something has gone wrong with European cinema I think, and certainly at the moment something seems to have gone wrong here in Australia. We're not making the good films we once did.

W: Why do you think that is?

D: I think there's probably many reasons to be honest but that would take much longer than I have now to go into it. Last year we had Sweet Country (Thornton, 2017) which was a wonderful film.

W: Yes, that is a wonderful film.

D: There are exceptions but when you look back to the 70s when we made so many good films, it is disappointing now that good Australian films seem to be a bit few and far between, but hopefully that will change.

For more information about our partnership with the Festival, visit the USYD Sydney Film Festival website. The University of Sydney was an Education Partner of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.