Written by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick. Additional reporting from Dominic Barlow.
This morning Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival, announced the full line-up of films that they will be screening across the city in June. This year there is a strong European focus, with a sidebar on female directors in Europe and Ireland as this year’s country focus, in addition to the return of Greek films to the program with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier and Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Suntan.
As always, the most interesting part of the festival is its Official Competition, something that sets Sydney Film Festival apart from its fellow Australian festivals. Ivan Sen’s Goldstone, which opens the festival on June 8th, is a vague sequel to his 2013 film Mystery Road, which also opened the festival that year. It looks to be a dark outback thriller, a genre the festival seems wedded to. Its inclusion in the competition is a return to the move in 2014 to include opener 20,000 Days on Earth in the Official Competition, which is exciting, suggesting once more that the competition should be at the forefront of the festival’s public face.
Singapore’s Boo Junfeng’s latest work Apprentice appears in the competition, after rising to prominence with the success of last year’ Eric Khoo-produced 7 Letters. One of the Cannes grabs of the Official Competition is the latest work from Kleber Mendoça Filho, Aquarius, which is screening in competition for the Palme d’Or. Filho made his mark as one of Brazil’s most captivating filmmakers with his 2012 feature Neighbouring Sounds.
Another competition title facing the task of following up previous success is Notes on Blindness from directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney, who have worked to turn their much-loved short of the same name from 2014’s SFF into a feature-length look at writer and theologian John Hull. The Childhood of a Leader, the feature debut from actor Brady Corbet (Simon Killer, Eden, Funny Games US), is a historical drama loosely adapted from the Jean-Paul Sartre story of the same name. Paddy Breathnach’s Viva is one of the many films from Ireland in the festival, but the only one to end up in the Official Competition; it was also Ireland’s choice for their nomination to the 88th Academy Awards.
Kelly Reichardt’s latest, the Sundance hit Certain Women, is a character study triptych based on the short stories of Maile Meloy and starring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and regular Reichardt collaborator Michelle Williams. Perhaps the biggest ‘get’ for the festival in competition is the latest from Xavier Dolan, who has two films play in the one festival in 2014. It’s Only The End of the World sees him return to stageplay adaptations (Tom at the Farm) with a tale of family and death starring Sydney Film Festival favourite Marion Cotillard.
Letters from War, which seems to share a stunning visual style with Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (and fittingly is from that film’s producers), is a visual realisation of a series of letters by writer Antonio Lobo Antunes about the 1971 Colonial War in East Angola. The most exciting competition selection, for my (note: Conor’s) money is the return of Anurag Kashyap to Sydney Film Festival, with his serial killer thriller Raman Raghav 2.0 (frustratingly re-titled to Psycho Raman for the festival, in the vein of the Tehran Taxi name change last year). Kashyap had his epic Gangs of Wasseypur in competition in the 2012 festival and looks to be back on form after a string of (arguable) misfires with Ugly and Bombay Velvet. This is exciting not only for the festival circuit but Indian cinema more broadly, as Kashyap’s features (for the most part) represent a reactionary artistic movement in the popular cinema of the country. Rounding off the competition selection are Danish-born Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, which looks at German prisoners of war who were used to disarm landmines after World War II, and The Endless River, a mysterious western from South Africa.
The other 232 films on offer are pretty impressive too. In the features sections, the festivals boasts Golden Lion-winner Desde Allá from Venezuela, decades-in-the-making What’s in the Darkness from China, the delightful and surprising The Treasure from Romania and new films from John Michael McDonagh (War on Everyone), Pedro Almodovar (Julieta) and Danis Tanović (Death in Sarajevo). Also exciting is the closing night film selection: Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation Love and Friendship, which sees The Last Days of Disco stars Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale reunited on screen.
Also of note is the fact that the festival screens its second ever film from Saudi Arabia this festival with Barakah Meets Barakah, a romantic comedy directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh.1 Another noteworthy achievement, though perhaps a baffling one, is that Steven Spielberg will mark his Sydney Film Festival debut in 2016 with The BFG, screening as part of the festival’s family focus section.
Local talent in features is a mixed bag, with the intriguing directorial debut of playwright Stephen Sewell with Embedded alongside Abe Forsythe’s ‘provocative’ follow-up to his juvenile 2003 feature Ned with the Cronulla Riots comedy (yes, you read that right and yes, that means that many people along the chains of production and distribution thought this was a good idea) Down Under. On a lighter note, it’s great to see the charming Aussie feature Girl Asleep, which we reviewed at the Adelaide Film Festival last year, in this festival line-up, as well as the latest short film from festival regular Dylan River, Black Chook, which screens alongside Goldstone in the festival’s Screen: Black program.
These are in addition to some of the impressive films announced in the festival’s teaser announcement last month, like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.
Some surprising omissions from the program include Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (though this might have been impossible to schedule, running 8-hours with no intervals) and De Palma, from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. The lack of Dardennes, Farhadi and Refn from the official competition alone is a shock considering they’re all past winners, though we still have time for the festival’s annual surprise announcements (mostly last-minute Cannes deals). The disappointing domestic box office return on the last film from each of these filmmakers – Two Days, One Night from the Dardennes, The Past from Farhadi and Only God Forgives from Refn – is likely giving local distributors pause.
On the documentary end, whilst SFF announced a few big titles in their teaser – Chantal Akerman’s final work No Home Movie, Josh Kriegman’s Weiner, and the look at the Nordic Noma chefs endeavour in Tokyo with Ants on a Shrimp – the full announcement brings the characteristic variety and breadth that have defined Jenny Neighbour’s selections in recent years.
This is on show through films like Zhang Zanbo’s independent Chinese documentary The Road, the latest film from Kazuhiro Soda (the two Campaign films) in Oyster Factory, a sobering account of US drone warfare in the Herzog and Errol Morris-produced National Bird, and the David Byrne-Ross Brothers collaboration Contemporary Color, which screens in the festival’s regular Sounds on Screen section.
There seems to be an informal focus on documentaries about cinema this year as well, with hybrid documentaries Kate Plays Christine (from director Robert Greene) and Europe, She Loves (from director Jan Gassmann) alongside odes to cinephilia in the Romanian Cinema, Mon Amour and Afghan-set A Flickering Truth.
There are also some European festival favourites from documentary heavy-hitters, like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, which picked up the Golden Bear in Berlin against Alex Gibney’s Zero Days (also screening at SFF) , and Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, which has its world premiere last year in Venice. Meanwhile, Jim Jarmusch’s influence and prominence in the USA’s punk scenes is likely to pay off in access with his Cannes-premiering Gimme Danger, the director’s reflection on Iggy Pop’s album of the same name.
The Documentary Australia Foundation Award, with ten films by local filmmakers competing, goes some way to correct the disappointing fact that only one film in the Official Competition is Australian. The films on show here don’t just reflect life in Australia, though, with films set in Brazil (In the Shadow of the Hill) and Papua New Guinea (The Opposition) also screening.
As mentioned above, the festival’s pivot to Europe is particularly felt in the exciting sidebar on female filmmakers from the continent and the relatively unexciting Focus on Ireland. The former, European Cinema: 10 Women Filmmakers to Watch, is a strong move from the festival, with the write-up highlighting industry disparities, whilst collating one of the strongest sections of the program. Beyond the aforementioned Chevalier is an audience favourite at Berlinale and Sundance – Sara Jordenö’s Kiki, which looks at the current state of New York City’s Ballroom scene. The presence of MikeQ – as both the founder of the Vogue label Qween Beat and as a resident DJ at the New York club night Vogue Nights – bringing a strong sense of legitimacy to the documentary. Polish mermaid thriller-cum-musical The Lure is another of the intriguing offerings in this set.
The festival’s country focus section seems to have peaked in 2014 with Shelly Kraicer’s marvelous Focus on China series; this year the Focus on Ireland has only five new feature films, all seemingly conventional documentaries bar John Carney’s crowd-pleasing fiction feature Sing Street.
Renowned UK filmmaker Ben Wheatley (Kill List) returns to Sydney Film Festival and once again in the festival’s Freak Me Out section with High-Rise, his Tom Hiddleston-starring adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel that reportedly rings with his bleak and surreal style, and will be the sole SFF film playing at the Blacktown Drive-In.2 Making his SFF debut is Australian comedic actor and director Craig Anderson (ABC series Double the Fist) with Red Christmas, a festive splatter horror and his first feature. It joins The Devil’s Candy, the metal-infused latest from The Loved Ones director Sean Byrne, to form the Australian contingent of the sidebar, and both directors will be appearing at the Festival. Female talent is also well represented here, through cult surrealist director Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s sophomore Sydney Film Festival effort Evolution and the female-centric casts of Babak Anvari’s (Netflix-distributed) Tehran chiller Under the Shadow, Nicolas Pesce’s grisly mood piece The Eyes of My Mother and Tyler MacIntyre’s bawdy Frankenstein riff Patchwork.
In addition to the Scorsese retrospective, the other restoration screenings this year balance Australian classics – Ray Lawrence’s Bliss and Rowan Woods’ The Boys – with an eclectic set of films that each play a defining role in their respective national cinemas: Lino Brocka’s Insiang from the Phillippines, the late Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and, as part of the festival’s Irish focus, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.
Seemingly inheriting the Destruction Cinema mantle from last year’s retrospective section is a sidebar titled Korea on the Verge, curated by British writer Tony Rayns.3 Taking the aftermath of the 1993 establishment of civil government in South Korea as its focus, Rayns’ picks run a gamut of genres but play with long-held conventions. The more attention-grabbing experiments include Jung Yoon-suk’s 2013 subversively amusing serial killer documentary Non-Fiction Diary, which we reviewed back in 2014, Park Hong-min’s 2011 neo-noir A Fish, which dabbles in home-made 3D, and Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu’s Love and…, a beguiling four-chapter journey that includes Borges passages read in Chinese and a clip from Memories of Murder.
Other experimental offerings on show at the festival include the return of the contemporary video art program at the Hub, which this year features 4:3 favourites Soda_Jerk, a virtual reality sidebar programmed by Mathieu Ravier which includes a work from Matthew Bate (Sam Klemke’s Time Machine), and partnerships with the University of New South Wales and Carriageworks to screen immersive cinematic works.
One of the best innovations in the 2015 Festival, the Animation Showcases curated by Malcolm Turner, makes a complete return this year. The three sessions (each running no more than 80 minutes) cover International, “After Dark” (adult) and Kids’ Animation, and are bolstered by continuous screenings at SFF installations in Pitt St Mall. You can read our round-up of last year’s showcase here.
Whilst we’ve attempted a thorough survey of the films announced this morning, there is so much more to explore in the festival’s expansive 2016 program, including the Dendy short film awards, an exciting collection of festival guests and an array of special presentation screenings. You can have a look through all of that and purchase tickets now on the festival’s website.