Love lights up the festival screen, makes magic happen

Digby Hildreth

Love. You may believe, a la John Lennon, that it’s all you need.

Or, you may think that a wad of cash comes in handy now and again too.

We need both, but it’s love that looms largest in popular culture, not least in the week around Valentines Day.

In the noblest spirit of St Vs Day, and disdaining its crassness, many of the works at this year’s Byron Bay Film Festival have love as their theme.

It eludes, looms, lingers or is comically frustrated in films from Australia to Serbia, the US to Afghanistan.

The human need for that special connection finds its most imaginative expression in Aspie Seeks Love, a documentary chronicling the romantic challenges faced by quirky Pennsylvanian David Matthews.

Pop culture

Matthews spent 20 years posting personal ads on telephone poles – advertisements for himself that doubled as art pieces featuring witty prose, pop culture references and flattering photos.

Then, aged 41, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, at which point his life changed, including his strategy for finding love. He signed up for online dating, joining 40 million of his fully digitised fellow Americans.

Filmmaker Julie Sokolow says she fell in love with Matthews’s fliers the moment she saw them.

‘I would have gone on a date with David, but instead I wanted to make a movie about him.

‘My favourite art has always been about love – the difficulty of finding it and holding onto it. I’m a hopeful cynic.’

Sokolow’s vérité approach to filming Matthews’s social and psychological struggles makes Aspie Seeks Love uniquely sincere.

Matthews’s journey is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure and expands the definition of what love really means. He’s funny, honest, sincere, but no matter where he goes, he can’t quite fit in.

A perennial outsider herself, Sokolow says: ‘I made this film because I profoundly relate to David’s story. I needed to see what would happen. If someone as unique as David can find love, there’s hope for everybody.’

Matthews has a comic talent, laced with pathos. More broadly funny is the dark Serbian fairytale Loveless Zoritsa.

In a village teeming with superstition and prejudice, Zoritsa (Ljuma Penov) carries an apparent curse: men around her die in extraordinary ways. The plot thickens when stubborn copper Mane investigates whether she’s a serial killer or just a woman looking for love.

It’s engaging, hilarious and bizarre – and beautifully shot.

From further east still, and more heart-breaking than hilarious, is Love Marriage in Kabul, a documentary following Mahboba Rawi – an Afghan-Australian woman who founded an orphanage in Kabul – as she attempts to help one of her young charges marry the girl of his dreams.

Rawi, the founder of Australian charity Mahboba’s Promise, has helped thousands of orphans, widows and vulnerable girls in Afghanistan.

One orphan, Abdul, is in love with Fatemeh, the girl next door. The two have been exchanging romantic letters and hope to marry. But Fatemeh’s father wants a large dowry.

Women’s rights

Devastated, Abdul is hoping that Mahboba will help him again when she arrives for her annual trip back home. But, she has one month and limited resources.

Mahboba is accompanied on her mission by Australian ABC journalist Virginia Haussegger, a campaigner for women’s rights in countries like Afghanistan.

From the sober and sublime to the smutty but basically sound Almost Married, which Cockney director Ben Cookson hopes has ‘something more to it’ than the average rom-com.

His Liverpudlian anti-hero Kyle, played by Philip McGinley (Prometheus, Game of Thrones), returns from his stag-do with an STD and so is unable to have sex with his fiancée Lydia (Emily Atack from The Inbetweeners, and the upcoming Dad’s Army).

Under the tutelage of his best man Jarvis, Kyle does everything he can to avoid sexual contact with his bride-to-be, making Lydia all the more suspicious.

It’s a bawdy buddy film, clever and very funny.

Since well before Shakespeare, the subject of love has been fertile ground for such humour, based on mistaken identity and erroneous conclusions, and the formula is wittily utilised in First Date.

Directed and co-produced by Australian Rob Innes, the film is about a simple, decent bloke, but a bit of a loser who’s looking to turn his life around.

Mark’s first step, of course: get a girlfriend.

So he signs up to an online dating site, as you do, where he meets Sue.

Despite not seeing her photo, he’s attracted and they arrange to meet at a cafe for the inevitable cup of coffee. She will be wearing red.

Mark shows up and sits down with a woman in red – who proceeds to grill him about his experience and relevant skills. She’ll be wanting him ‘on the floor’, she says, with three or four others, including women. The poor man can’t believe what he’s hearing.

It’s a simple tale, brilliantly told, with an excellent script and finely judged comic performances from Jimmy James Eaton and Cal Wilson. A complete delight.

But as the heart-sore of Byron Shire will readily attest, love is no laughing matter, and one of the festival highlights will appeal to those with a deeper romantic sensibility.

Conrad thriller

Secret Sharer, based on the Joseph Conrad story, is a thriller set on the South China Sea. A young sea captain is bribed by a ship owner to scuttle a rusting cargo ship for an insurance scam.

One night he spies a naked body floating in the sea, tangled up in the ship’s rope ladder. It’s a beautiful young Chinese woman – thankfully still alive.

Her only words are ‘hide me’, and against his better judgment, the captain allows Li (Zhu Zhu) to shelter in his cabin. Dawn comes a few hours later and so does a search party, looking for a murderer…

Written and directed by Peter Fudakowski, Secret Sharer stars Jack Laskey (Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows) as Konrad.

Intense, steamy, mysterious. The perfect date!

So remember, magic happens in the dark: love could await you at the 9th Byron Bay Film Festival.

It runs from March 6 to 15, in Byron and other towns

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