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Adelaide Film Festival melts bones with sound, purely for fun

David Tiley

Will you like Hotel Mumbai? Adelaide Film Festival road tests it with the Australian premiere.
Adelaide Film Festival melts bones with sound, purely for fun

Image: Tilda Cobham-Hervey in the pomp of the early scenes.

The Adelaide Film Festival opened with a literal bang last night with a brand new feature film and a double launch.

Over the last few years head inspirer Amanda Duthie has brought zest to the opening with imaginative ways to use space. This one kicked off with a lovely collection of production shots launched at the Samstag Gallery as the audience spilled between marquee, open forecourt and the moderne building itself. 

The film festival then migrated round the corner to the Greater Union Complex with its loggia-lite forecourt, there to face the classic opening night conundrum: how to make speeches to people in half a dozen different cinemas? 

The answer of course is to do the whole lot in the open space, which means nearly everyone stands up, but at least we are ceremonially concentrated. A hint of Indian dreamscape was added by the saris draped across the balconies. The Screenhub Seal of Approval goes to the collective desire to put on the nattiest duds without scandal or an unseemly obsession with youth. 

The opening night picture hit every button it possibly could for this festival. Hotel Mumbai was a) shot in the Adelaide studios, b) is the first major film by a local director, c) showcased the local sound experts, d) was partly funded by the Festival fund and e) featured a local actress busily building an international career and f) is a taut, broad appeal thriller with deeply humane leanings.

There was absolutely none of the ‘we know this is weird but its local and hey, the distributors let us have it’ feeling that has cropped up in other Australian festivals. 

I can’t say the audience danced in the forecourt on the way out because it is not that kind of film. Hotel Mumbai is beautifully made, builds intensely through its multiple strands, keeps you wriggling with terrified anticipation and creates a sense of evil that chills your heart until the valves freeze.

It is a bit schizophrenic in its core. It has all the hallmarks of a popular siege film, which invites the audience to take sides and cheer for the goodies, in which the baddies are slowly pushed back and vanquished across a piece of known terrain.  The enemy here is a group of demonic men commanded by a voice on their mobile phones, who wants them kept open so he can hear the screams of the dying. 

But the film is not a battle but an exterminating hunt. We move from group to group, floor to floor as people retreat, hide and burst out to escape. That is the point of the structure which leads us to the central metaphor of the film. 

For the first few minutes afterwards I sat with a subdued crowd trying to work out what I had seen and how I could recommend it. Then I realised it is a film about the dehumanised minds of terrorists and the way they have been manipulated in a cartoon world. Confronted by the instantaneous transformation of their lives, the victims are blindsided and recover. They clutch their sanity, surrender to their own personal tunnel, reach out to each other, try to take control over their own destinies, and work through simple acts of kindness between strangers. 

Courage is not violence, but a sense of proportion, the ability to put the survival of others over your own ravening fear. That is really worth saying and is embedded in the true stories which have been rearranged and moved between characters to create a structure and dignify life and death with meaning. 

Along the way its distinctive form reminds us that the conventional combat of most wide release films is pretty shabby and simplified. The evil in this film is enabled by the cartoon, and good lives in complexity.

So many people in this project deserve to be honoured. Dev Patel of course manages his subtle mixture of softness and strength, unobtrusive, loving but always standing against danger. Tilda Cobham-Hervey grabs her complex role as the terrified nanny and makes it stand for all of us, bringing her distinctive awkwardness to fine emotional focus. Natasha Liu Bordizzo is building a good career from her Chinese-Italian-Sydney heritage. 

Anthony Maras, who directed and co-wrote with John Collee, has blasted his career upwards through a trio of shorts over thirteen years, and emphatically made his point as an excellent director with a feel for limited resources. 

Adelaide has proved that it can support the evolution of a mainstream director from scratch, and service an ambitious film in the studios. The location is a six hundred bed hotel, a cross between a London railway station and the Taj Mahal and Maras works the same corridors, foyer and staircase over and over again, hunting angles and changing point of view. 

Gary Hamilton and Arclight Films have demonstrated they are a force to be reckoned with, who will rack up the risk on an unusual approach to a mainstream film without going to ground. 

Afterwards we plunged back into the event imagination of Amanda Duthie and her crew. Go to the street, turn right and then left and do a hollow square to get to the location because that is the safest said the volunteers handing out coloured maps. But that is a hollow square, thought everyone used to logistics or with sore feet, and took off up the simplest route. We found another wide alley between gaunt warehouses, decorated with slides to give it an Indian facade. At the gate was a ferocious Indian drumming group, pounding out the rhythms loud enough to make the elephants in the Adelaide zoo trumpet their ancestral memories. It was a wall of sound. 

Beaten, our bones shaking, we went into the same L shaped concrete hall that the AFF has used before to wave at each other through the walls of noise. There were a LOT of people and plenty of catching up and some trailing groups of reverent fans for some cultural heroes. Margaret Pomeranz, we will never forget you.

There is a meta-message to this event, as you would expect from the determined cultural populists who control it. This is a festival of the moving image and there is a lot more to it than a bunch of films. 

This year, try and see the Australian films because they have often done well in the other festivals. And dive into the increasingly impressive collection of VR productions. 

Also, there is underwater wheelchair dancing. Yup.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.