“This country is still very young, and I think it’s still searching for an identity, and Cook is something that people cling to and use as a basis for their identity.
“But the Australian identity is stronger than people think, and it’s not going to crumble if we question the role of Cook.
Of course he has a major role to play in this country, but we need to examine that role and how that in turn affects our roles.”
In Looky Looky, which will have its world premiere at MIFF ahead of its small-screen debut on NITV, Oliver uses his trademark humour and renowned slam poetry skills to frame an alternative take on First Contact and its implications for the original inhabitants of this country. The hour-long documentary calls on indigenous musicians including Kev Carmody, Archie Roach, Daniel Rankine – aka Trials, one half of hip-hop duo AB Original – Mo’Ju and Alice Skye to help craft a “songline” telling that story.
“Songs are very important to Aboriginal people,” Oliver said. “They’re not about trying to get a number one record or making lots of money. They’re about teaching us creation stories.”
For MIFF artistic director Al Cossar, crafting an event that kept something of the flavour of Australia’s oldest film festival despite the restrictions on public gatherings has necessitated “a radical act” of reimagination.
“Moving into the online space is absolutely not a simple process of merely taking the films you would have presented in cinemas and uploading them,” he said. “There are all kinds of sensitivities and complications specific to the online space with filmmakers and rightsholders, and as a result, every film we hoped to play was a very specific conversation, and a very specific set of pressures and complications to work through.”
Among the challenges posed in putting together a program of close to 70 feature films and documentaries, plus 44 short films, was the possibility that by the time the festival opened on August 6 the restrictions on public gatherings might have lifted. MIFF’s decision to stick with an all-online offering now looks enormously prescient.
“With MIFF 68½ we take the opportunity to meet audiences where they are; to be a responsive, relevant and innovative force for positivity and reclaim connection to our audiences in 2020,” Cossar said.
The festival will open on August 6 with the Australian premiere of First Cow, acclaimed director Kelly Reichardt’s tale of friendship and free enterprise in the wilds of America’s Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. As with the other “spotlight” events throughout the festival, which runs until August 23, it will be a ticketed and time-limited screening, with patrons expected to book ahead, watch within a six-hour window and, if they so choose, to dress for the occasion.
The majority of the films will, however, be available to stream any time within the festival window, although viewers will have only 24 hours from first hitting play to watch any individual title.
Also in the line-up are new films from Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda, Jackie), and Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, Little Feet).
Among the documentaries is the latest offering from Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, makers of the Oscar-winning American Factory. Their 9 to5: The Story of a Movement tells the story of the campaign for gender parity in the workplace (a campaign that inspired the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton – and her song).
Other documentaries include Maddy the Model, a portrait of Madeline Stuart, a model with Down syndrome who has trod the catwalks from her hometown Brisbane to New York and beyond, and The Go-Gos, a celebration of the ground-breaking 1980s all-female band.
From the Australian corner come Jo-Anne Brechin’s Geelong-set rom-com Paper Champions, Kenya-set documentary The Letter, and The Plastic House, an experimental feature about a young Cambodian-Australian woman coming to terms with the death of her parents.
And in a treat for fans of early 1990s Australian filmmaking, there will be a live table reading of John Ruane’s Death in Brunswick and a special screening of a restored Dingo, Rolf de Heer’s tale of an Australian jazz musician desperate to meet his hero, played by the late, great Miles Davis in his only dramatic film role.
The full program for MIFF 68 ½ is available online at miff.com.au The Age is a MIFF media partner.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.