When Fantastic Fest Met The Brisbane IFF: Lars Goes Down Under

Fantastic Fest programmer Lars Nilsen headed down to Australia for the Brisbane International Film Festival, where HUMAN CENTIPEDE II was a subject of much controversy. Here's his report.

The Brisbane International Film Festival has been an established and highly respected entity for 20 years. It’s always well-attended, with the most sought after mainstream and arthouse titles presented for its appreciative audience, along with retrospectives, sidebars (including a raging program of Aussie surf films) and even a selection of films from the 50-year history of Critic’s Week at Cannes. It’s highbrow stuff, so why did they ask Fantastic Fest, our own celebration of bullets, bloodshed and cutting-edge genre fare, to curate a package of shows? According to Fest director Richard Moore, “Fantastic Fest has the expertise in that area. We don’t have that level of expertise in Brisbane and have always believed if you want a good product go to the experts.” So it’s official: we are the experts. We’re having our business cards changed as I write this.

One thing is certain, there’s a ravenous demand for such films in Australia and the audiences are very smart and receptive. For example, I harbored a secret, dark fear that The FP might not be able to surmount the dialect barrier. The dialogue is delivered in a rich, rapid, absurdist slang patois, highly stylized but decipherable by most Americans under the age of 60. Would Aussies get the drier aspects of The FP’s humor? I wasn’t certain at all but sure enough, they howled with laughter throughout, with special relish at all the right parts. It was one of the best filmgoing experiences I have ever had. The whole audience poured out after the screening exhausted from laughing. Many thanked me. I accepted the credit on account, which I now discharge to the Trost Brothers and their talented cohorts. Good job, and enjoy your worldwide renown. Don’t spend it all in one place.

On Saturday I was invited to conduct a panel at a convention called SUPANOVA, which I gathered was like Australia’s Comicon. When I arrived, Val Kilmer was just getting started. I asked him a question about Top Secret, which he seemed to enjoy but I later regretted not asking about Herzog’s Bad Lieutenent and Nicolas Cage. I also remembered how totally great Val Kilmer is, actually. My “panel” was just me and a very nice man talking about film festivals and the state of the art for 40 minutes or so, and arguing when he said that Ghostbusters is a better film than The Godfather. I’m not 100% certain we were a more interesting spectacle than the army of cosplayers in the adjoining hall, but we tried, and we kept our dignity, which was nice.

While I was in Brisbane, one subject was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, The Human Centipede II. Word on the street was that the screening might be shut down by the Queensland censors, the letters to the editor column in the newspaper was full of outraged taxpayers decrying the fact that public money was supporting such filth, and the festival fielded numerous strongly worded email complaints. Festival Director Richard Moore was a paragon of resolve in the face of all the complaints. He realizes that Queensland is not California and that when it’s all over, he’ll likely have to face the music, but in addition to his wise and progressive judgment he also possesses that necessary combination of nerve and daring we refer to in the Republic as cojones. Throughout the ordeal, and it must have truly been an ordeal for him at times, he continued to display calm and leadership to his team. Raise a glass of something cold and distilled to him, I raised many.

The screening of HCII was a madhouse. The audience stretched down the block and drew the attention of passersby. When I popped over to the convenience store , a couple asked me what was going on. I told them it was a controversial movie screening. They replied, we know but what is that? When I looked back across the street a line of 6 college students were making a human centipede on the sidewalk. I tried to explain, but I just sounded weirder and creepier the more I tried to explain. The screening atmosphere was tense. Richard read one of the complaint emails he had received and then I introduced the film and exhorted the crown not to meet these people halfway, because then you’re just halfway to shit. Not my most clever remark, but it met with wild applause. I sensed that Queensland has a reputation as being somewhat provincial (as does Texas, for that matter) but when it comes to enjoying movies about disgusting medical procedures they can party like Keith Richards after a visit to the blood bank. Only two people passed out at the screening, which is just about average.

In the midst of all the controversy and the drinking (and the controversial drinking) there were screenings. Manborg would perform well for any late-night festival crowd, but happily many representatives of this crowd were especially well acquainted with its ‘80s antecedents and a discussion of the work of David Allen, Tim Kincaid and Charles Band stretched deep into the night afterwards. I was across town conducting different screenings when the smart Israeli slasher film Rabies played but I don’t doubt that it played Hava Nagila up and down the spines of the Aussies just as effectively as it did in Austin. I was sorry that I had to travel back home (29 hours!) and had to miss the screenings of The Corridor, Penumbra and Revenge, A Love Story, but just as you can tell if a person is a good driver as soon as they touch the wheel, I could tell that the BIFF crowd was a great one and that these films we love so much and feel so attached to would deliver the goods just as effectively Down Under.