Written by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick. Additional reporting by Brad Mariano, Jessica Ellicott and Felix Hubble.
The first 26 teaser films for the 2016 Sydney Film Festival were announced this morning, an eclectic collection of features and documentaries that, along with the Martin Scorsese retrospective announced late last month, begin to form a clearer programming picture for the 63rd festival.
As per usual with the teaser program, the Sundance Film Festival is a point of reference, with six films that played Park City announced today. Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America seems the most Sundance-y of the pack, a story of cultural displacement and teenage life that won accolades for its script and the supporting turn from comic performer Craig Robinson.
The other big gets from Sundance are two prize winning documentaries. First, the Grand Jury Prize-winning Weiner, from directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the former of which served as Anthony Weiner’s chief of staff. After resigning from congress for sending sexually explicit tweets, Weiner’s mayoral campaign was framed as his political comeback. The documentary follows this – as well as the second scandal which saw the collapse of the campaign. Few politicians attempt to weather two sex scandals, and even fewer have their second attempt documented by their chief of staff – with this unprecedented access and intimacy likely to make Weiner one to catch. Sonita, which took a Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary, follows an Afghan would be-child bride, Sonita Alizadeh, who attempted to escape the oppressive custom through the mode of rap music, making a music video in contravention of Iranian law and vying for a scholarship to the United States.
There are some familiar directorial faces amongst this year’s teaser line-up. John Carney seems unable to stray from musically-oriented cinema with his latest, Sing Street. More Once than Begin Again (SFF 2014), though only slightly, as the comedic film follows a Dublin lad in the 1980s trying to make it in the London music scene. Rebecca Miller’s latest film (and the third of hers to play SFF) is Maggie’s Plan, a New York drama with a stacked cast including Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Greta Gerwig and Bill Hader.
The cinema of Terrence Davies returns to SFF after an eight-year absence with Sunset Song, his adaptation of the 1932 novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Russian Ark helmer Aleksandr Sokurov has his seventh film to play SFF in Francofonia, his docuhybrid set around The Louvre in Paris. It’s being labelled a companion piece to his widely acclaimed Russian Ark which, strangely, never played at the festival in Sydney (it had theatrical distribution).
On the point of theatrical distribution, two films destined for Australian theatres are Demolition, Jean-Marc Vallées’ (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) third prestige Hollywood film, which sees Jake Gyllenhaal demolishing his home in the wake of his wife’s sudden death (a logline which reads like someone wanted to remake Haneke’s The Seventh Continent for the masses), and Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, his spiritual sequel to 1993’s Dazed & Confused and sure-to-be one of the biggest crowdpleasers of this year’s festival.
Described by Shelley Kraicer – who programmed SFF’s solid China: Rebels, Ghosts, Romantics program in 2014, speaking to us in the same year – as “a passionate and troubled love story”, Pema Tseden’s Tharlo is the latest work out of China that traces the intersection of tradition and modernity.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s impressive Mustang finally gets a Sydney premiere after its run at MIFF and BAPFF last year. In our review of the film Matilda Surtees wrote that “one of Ergüven’s most impressive feats is her ability to tell a story that is essentially about the oppression and abuse of women by men, about patriarchal power that masquerades as morality, without committing fresh violence in representation.”
Seeing its Australian premiere in Sydney Film Festival’s Freak Me Out program is recent Netflix acquisition Under the Shadow. The first feature from Iranian director Babak Anvari – a haunted house thriller which sees a mother and daughter terrorised by a mysterious unknown presence in the climate of a post-revolution, war torn Tehran – Under the Shadow has garnered raves on the horror festival circuit, often likened to 2014’s The Babadook. Joining it is The Devil’s Candy, a US funded satanic shocker which sees Australian director Sean Byrne return to the fray after 2009’s fantastic The Loved Ones. The Devil’s Candy is actually the only Australian-related film in the teaser announcement, and only so because of its director, making this announcement unusually light on local talent and representation.
Tobias Lindholm scores a double in the festival (and this announcement), with a script for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (which in turn is based on a play by Vinterberg) and for his own Oscar-nominated A War. The Lindholm/Vinterberg pairing worked wonders for 2012’s The Hunt, though The Commune looks set to be a more familiar period piece than psychological thriller. A War sees Lindholm once again toy with distance and remove in human decision-making, following his Somali pirate thriller A Hijacking, which played at SFF in 2013.
We caught Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog at the Adelaide Film Festival last year, where Felix Hubble wrote that “the fact that Anderson manages to conjure a satisfying semblance of finality from the conclusion of her sprawling and joyfully messy narrative speaks volumes of the talent on display here.”
Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses marks his return to the festival after Faith Connections screened in 2014, with his latest effort a more politically-charged work. Following a story of two characters “driven by their own socio-economic chokeholds”, Salvador Del Solar’s Magallanes offers a similarly socio-political work.
Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas took out the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival with Desde allá (won last year by Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which was included in SFF’s Official Competition) offering a complex take on the power dynamics in an unlikely romance. Nominated for Best Film at the same festival, Joko Anwar’s A Copy of My Mind screens at SFF off the back of relatively strong showings at Busan Film Festival and Toronto; another work that hones in with a political message, whilst framing its narrative in take on a love story in Jakarta.
No Home Movie is a rare final film, serving as a perfect bookend to Chantal Akerman’s career. With the slow pacing of her most well-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the sense of self-reflection of her debut work Je, tu, il, elle, to a continued focus on Akerman’s relationship with her mother – again, something seen earlier in her career in News from Home. In the past, SFF have screened multiple directorial retrospectives – for instance, in 2014 where Robert Altman and James Benning’s works were shown; the former clearly geared as a crowdpleaser, the latter more focused on an arthouse audience – and here’s hoping that in 2016 the same approach is on the cards. Throughout No Home Movie, elements from Akerman’s extensive career as a filmmaker are on display, and in those reflections it’s clear that a retrospective on her work in the near future would make a lot of sense.
The first festival guests were also announced this morning, documentarians Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Geeta Gandbhir, whose A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, about a unit of female Muslim policewomen from Bangladesh sent by the UN to maintain peace in Haiti, will play in the festival this year alongside Obaid-Chinoy’s short A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.
Werner Herzog follows up his still-yet-to-be-released melodrama Queen of the Desert with a documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected, which sees the veteran filmmaker tackling the internet and its impact upon humanity on microcosmic level. Amy Berg’s biographical Janis: Little Girl Blue, and the Kickstarter-funded choreographically minded Mr. Gaga round out the other documentary offerings.
The first retrospective to be announced for the 2016 festival is a disappointment, despite (though perhaps because of) its high profile auteur of choice. The Essential Scorsese series brings some of the filmmaker’s more well-known work to Sydney on 35mm but it does so at the expense of a retrospective program specifically programmed for Sydney Film Festival. That is, whilst this screening series comes with the added bonus of David Stratton’s name and approval slapped on it, it is merely a shortened version of a retrospective that ran at Cinémathèque Française late last year and its presentation at this year’s Sydney Festival is one of three stops on a touring national exhibition (the others are Melbourne’s ACMI from late May and the NFSA in Canberra in July). The ‘Essential’ label alone is part of why this retrospective is underwhelming, ignoring some of his relatively lesser seen works (After Hours, Boxcar Bertha) for those which you can pick up on Blu-ray at your local JB Hi-Fi.
As a filmmaker who has made it his mission across decades to highlight obscure and undervalued international films it seems especially egregious to program a film like Goodfellas on 35mm at one of the major film festivals in this country. This isn’t only because the film plays on DCP at every single ‘Cult Movies’ program at any of the larger Australian cinema chains but also because Scorsese’s own retrospective programming work, like his 2014 Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series, is so much more interesting and important in terms of cinematic discovery and discussion than a re-tread of his more widely accessible work. With a city like Sydney, whose program of repertory cinema consists almost entirely of an irregular screening series at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, screening films firmly within the realm of familiarity stings.
That noted, we should not belie this as purely a programming decision. It’s also, perhaps, a necessary financial one. With reduced government funding and a greater focus on ticket sales over the past decade, a partnership with the NFSA and ACMI to program films assured of ticket sales makes sense, however disappointing it may be in terms of curation. The Festival has had to play this balancing act in recent years, programming a more conventional crowd-pleasing retrospective series to justify their vastly more interesting forays into the obscure (last year’s Destruction Cinema sidebar, for example). We look forward to the smaller, genre-based retrospective to be announced on May 11.
Full Teaser List
Demolition (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)
Maggie’s Plan (dir. Rebecca Miller)
Everybody Wants Some!! (dir. Richard Linklater)
Sing Street (dir. John Carney)
Sunset Song (dir. Terrence Davies)
The Commune (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
A Copy of My Mind (dir. Joko Anwar)
Angry Indian Goddesses (dir. Pan Nalin)
Desde allá (dir. Lorenzo Vigas)
Francofonia (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov)
A War (dir. Tobias Lindholm)
Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Tharlo (dir. Pema Tseden)
The Devil’s Candy (dir. Sean Byrne)
Magallandes (dir. Salvador del Sola)
Morris from America (dir. Chad Hartigan)
Under the Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari)
Weiner (dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers (dir. Geeta Gandbhir, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy)
Sonita (dir. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami)
Heart of a Dog (dir.Laurie Anderson)
Janis: Little Girl Blue (dir. Amy Berg)
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected (dir. Werner Herzog)
Mr. Gaga (dir. Tomer Heymann)
No Home Movie (dir. Chantal Akerman)
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (dir. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy)
Retrospective – Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets (1973)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Taxi Driver (1976)
New York, New York (1977)
Raging Bull (1980)
The King Of Comedy (1982)
The Age Of Innocence (1993)
The Aviator (2004)
You can read out extensive Sydney Film Festival coverage from last year here.