The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020

One of the many festivals to adapt to digital this year, the acclaimed Melbourne Documentary Film Festival has arrived in the digital realm with a loaded program filled with local and international delights, mixing world premieres with festival favourites arriving on our shores.

Frequently ranked in the top 2% of film festivals in the world throughout its past three year run, the MDFF begun as a small showcase of the types of documentaries that don’t usually receive theatrical distribution in Australia, swiftly growing into a major stepping stone for independent films and filmmakers to gain recognition and a larger audiences with their singular pieces of art.

On the advent of their 2020 program, which will run online from June 30th til July 15th, I’ve selected the top five films, both Australian and International, that I’ve had the pleasure of previewing (in no particular order): Strangers To The World, The Rise of the Synths, Keyboard Fantasies, Where Does a Body End? and Batman & Me.

1. Strangers To The World (Grant Fraser)

The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020
Strangers To The World (2020)- source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

Grant Fraser’s historical documentary Strangers to the World begins with the authoritative swagger of a History Channel daytime slot-filler, rendering the tragic tales of two seperate World War Two heroes, Franz Jaegerstaetter (played in reenactments by Oscar Redding) and Etty Hillesum (Rachel Griffiths), with an assured hand, but what sets this grave reflection apart is its meticulous dedication to it’s somber real-life dramatisations.

Franz Jaegerstaetter may be the more familiar figure of the two, as the Austrian farmer’s unflinching defiance of refusing to fight with the Nazis during World War 2 recently got the silver screen treatment through the galvanising vision of Terrence Malick in A Hidden Life. Forming unspoken lateral echoes to today’s (currently spiking) acts of political defiance, this Australian production’s classical framework publicises important history with clear consideration and clarity.

2. The Rise of the Synths (Iván Castell)

The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020
The Rise of the Synths (2020)- source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

The best way to describe Ivan Castell’s neon-soaked, globe-trotting documentary The Rise of the Synths, is if you flew the classic time-travelling Delorean from Back To The Future through every significant chapter of Synthwave history – making stops for those who kickstarted the musical movement in the 70’s to the beguiled generation it spawned – guided by the gruff but reliable voice of John Carpenter, whose minimalistic analog synths practically birthed the whole genre.

Touching base with dozens of the hottest Synthwave artists, this partially-crowdfunded project delves into the music’s recent revival with a vibrant slickness, principally focusing on the seismic rippling effect of the soundtracks of the nostalgic, 80’s-infused strands of pop culture that have emerged in the 2000s like the television series Stranger Things, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy score.

3. Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story (Posy Dixon)

The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020
Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story (2020)- source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

From the opening moments of Posy Dixon’s Keyboard Fantasies, the welcoming and warm nature of the titular musician, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, is instantly noticeable; guiding the camera crew into his personal work-station, the 76-year old Canadian-based musician unveils the “secret” cupboard which holds the remnants of ‘Keyboard Fantasies’, his cult 1986 electronic album that was only originally self-distributed via cassette tape. This heartwarming tribute picks up just after Glenn-Copeland’s late-career resurgence, which came about when a Japanese audiophile known contacted the singer-songwriter to send him copies of the album in 2015 which he then sold immediately, leading to a vinyl re-issue and a series of international tours (which were recently rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Similar to Iván Castell’s Synthwave chronicle, Dixon doesn’t focus on the technicalities of the music, but rather the person behind the keyboard; delivered within a succinct, immaculate 60-minute package, Keyboard Fantasies doesn’t condense the different facets of Glenn-Copeland’s prolific life into a generic, hagiographic illumination – this is a story of a singular artist that feels like a natural extension of his considerably influential body of work.

4. Where Does A Body End?  (Marco Porsia)

The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020
Where Does A Body End? (2020)- source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

Tracing the illustrious history of the New York band Swans through its central founder Michael Gira, Marco Porsia’s intimate rock documentary Where Does A Body End? serves as a welcome invitation to those who might not know the enduring musical group, as well as providing long-term fans with an in-depth peek behind the curtain through candid concert footage, talking heads and scholary meditations.

Swans’s rise to fame began in the early 1980s through their notorious reputation ear-deafening sound intensity at their live shows mixed with the anarchic content of their music. Detailing their volatile history – the unstable band lineup, the critical and commercial failure of their 1989 major label album The Burning World and their eventual 2010 reformation – Where Does A Body End? infuses bittersweet symphonies between high-octane rock and roll exploits and the trials and tribulations of those caught in-between.

5. Batman & Me (Michael Wayne)

The Top Five Picks of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020
Batman & Me (2020)- source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

As every new decade welcomes a new Batman film, every new Batman film welcomes new Batman merchandise. Not only did Tim Burton’s 1989 theatrical game-changer light a firecracker at the box office (kicking off the dominance of the superhero genre that has yet to cease), but the monumental amount of figurines, clothing and general bric-a-bric – anything that could have a Batman symbol slapped upon it or shaped into a black cowl – swarmed retail stores and soon filled the shelves and bedrooms of people across the globe.

Michael Wayne’s Batman & Me takes a light-hearted view on this phenomenon, as the director falls down a nostalgic rabbit hole when he considers purchasing a sealed pack of Batman slime, triggering a memory of a local Melbourne collector named Darren “Dags” Maxwell, whose immense Batman collection scored him brief television attention when Batman first dropped in cinemas. What follows is Wayne’s swift connection with Maxwell, who courteously invites him in and updates us on what happened between Michael Keaton’s Batman up to Affleck’s turn on the cape; this isn’t a feature of wild surprises or shocking twists as it casually unfolds into an engaging portrait of what it means to fill an entire room with the comic book character’s matte-black visage – or whatever you may choose to collect. 

Do any of these documentaries sound interesting to you? Let us know in the comments!

 The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020 will be streaming online from June 30th til July 15th, information about ticket prices and the full program is available here: http://mdff.org.au/

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