Controversy rocks Melbourne Film Fest

Event faces boycotts, sabotage and loss of funding

MELBOURNE — Documentaries often come accompanied with controversy, but the docs programmed at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival have caused an unprecedented amount of uproar.

Australia’s most prominent fest, which runs July 24-Aug. 9, has had six pics yanked by filmmakers objecting to programming choices by fest director Richard Moore.

The controversy extends from London to Israel, the Palestinian territories and China.

Pics and filmmaker visits are still being cancelled as a result of Chinese anger at the inclusion of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer; the festival has lost sponsorship from two international cultural bodies; and its website has endured sustained attacks by hackers with Chinese ISPs.

Organizers are working with police to add security for the Aug. 8 visit of Kadeer, who the Chinese say incited recent racial riots in Xinjiang province in which hundreds died.

Against the urging of the Chinese, the fest is screening an Australian-made documentary about Kadeer and her husband, “The 10 Conditions of Love.” The decision to go ahead with the documentary, a last-minute inclusion in the fest, has seen all but two Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong films pulled by their respective filmmakers, with the remaining two also expected to be pulled.

Actions are taking place against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between China and Australia over trade disagreements and the arrest of an Oz mining exec who’s being held without charge in China.

Moore is shaken by the savagery of the attacks but emboldened by support received from the film community and beyond.

Meanwhile, Brit director Ken Loach yanked two fest screenings of his Cannes entry “Looking for Eric” after the festival refused to reject funding from Israel for a fest visit by Tatia Rosenthal, helmer of Oz-Israel co- production “$9.99.”

In an ironic coincidence, the same distributor, Icon Films, is releasing both “$9.99” and “Looking for Eric” in September.

“MIFF this year has re-engaged the power of documentary and reinforced the importance of independent film,” says Moore.

Moore says that in the future, Chinese films and other controversial films or guests will be programmed in surprise slots with no promotion.

The fest has had to plug programming holes and has lost at least A$10,000 ($8,100) in funding from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The website team is working around the clock to counter cyber-attacks that have chronically stymied online ticket sales.

The fest has never been so politicized, but Moore admits his opening-night world preem, “Balibo,” set a controversial tone. Based on the true story of Oz journalists killed in 1975, the pic takes the controversial position that the Aussies were killed by Indonesian soldiers.

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