Written by Conor Bateman and Jeremy Elphick.
Today 290 days of restless speculation finds some partial relief as Sydney Film Festival announced 28 of the films screening in this year’s program, which runs from the 7th to the 18th of June. Making the relief just that much more slight is the fact that, unlike in previous years, the teaser announcement contains no mention of any retrospective program (though John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London will screen at the drive-in in Blacktown, a curious inclusion). These 28 films also give little indication of what might appear in program strands like Country in Focus and Freak Me Out.
On the upside, what has been announced is fairly strong. For our money, the most exciting film to be announced today is Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated portrait of writer James Baldwin told entirely through archival footage and voiceover narration from Samuel L. Jackson, who reads from Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House. Peck, whose work is unfailingly political (he was the Minister of Culture in Haiti for 17 months in the mid-’90s), has moved with ease between documentary and fiction filmmaking. He’s certainly got a fan in festival director Nashen Moodley, who has programmed his last two films: 2013’s Fatal Assistance, a documentary about reconstruction efforts in Haiti following the 2011 earthquake, and Murder in Pacot, which our contributor Jake Moody called a “meaningful statement about the contested politics of disaster relief”, in 2015. Peck visited the festival in 2010, when the festival was under the directorship of Clare Stewart (now heading up the BFI London Film Festival), as his satire Moloch Tropical screened in competition. Here’s hoping that the festival can double down on Peck in 2017; his newest film, The Young Karl Marx, starring August Diehl as the titular philosopher and socialist revolutionary, screened at the Berlinale earlier this year.
The other standout title is also a documentary, though the documentaries listed today are much more of a known quantity than their fiction feature counterparts. Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger made his name largely due to his stunning documentaries about people from all walks of life — from Workingman’s Death in 2005 to Whore’s Glory in 2011. Glawogger died after catching Malaria whilst shooting in Liberia in 2014, his editor Monika Willi pieced the existing footage — shot in the Balkans, Italy, and Northwest and West Africa — into Untitled, a rare, albeit fragmented glimpse into what Glawogger’s final work might have been. Untitled is a refreshing inclusion in the Sydney Film Festival program, particularly in light of that fact that Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, another experimental lyrical documentary pulled together from existing footage, did not screen last year.
Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left — one of the director’s shorter works, at just under four hours in length — is another clear highlight of the teaser program; it’s one of the strongest films we reviewed last year, and a brilliant entry point into his career (it took home the Golden Lion at Venice to boot).1 Writing on The Woman Who Left at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival late last year, Jeremy Elphick noted that:
“Diaz maps out an emotional cartography, using the protagonists of The Woman Who Left as microcosms to reflect a larger portrait of the downtrodden, underclass and outcast figures within the Philippines.”
As to be expected from SFF, Madman Films have a solid offering, with eight of the 28 films announced carrying their logo. Chief among those (I Am Not Your Negro aside) is the heavily hyped Sundance film A Ghost Story, the fourth feature from American critic-turned-director David Lowery. Shot in secret midway through last year, the film reunites actors Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who played opposite each other in Lowery’s 2011 film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Its title seems as muted as the film itself, which follows Mara as she grapples with the death of her husband (Affleck), who appears to her in the form of what amounts to a hastily organised Halloween ghost costume. From what we’ve read it’s a quiet, existential deconstruction of the ghost genre, though that could also be the logline for Assayas’ Personal Shopper (SFF 2016) which turned out to be far more than its premise.
Another Madman get is Spookers, which sees Kiwi documentarian Florian Habicht return to SFF for the third time. This film peels back the curtain on a horror theme park in Auckland, zeroing in on lives of various performers.2 Spookers is one of only four Australian productions among the teaser films, though that’s a step up from last year’s single local film — Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy. The other Australian films pegged by the festival as ones to watch out for are Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain, a seemingly straight-forward follow-up to her 2015 SFF competition entry Sherpa, Hollie Fifer’s Papua New Guinea property development documentary The Opposition, which has been plagued by legal battles involving one of the subjects of the film (it screened in a censored version at Hot Docs), and the Melbourne-set indie comedy That’s Not Me, which looks to be a comedy of errors involving twins (both played by actress Alice Foulcher, who also co-wrote the film).
It’s surprising to see Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation among the teaser films — and not only because it’s a characteristically dour Romanian character study that begins with an act of sexual assault. It’s because the film is a leftover from Cannes last year, where Mungiu shared the Best Director prize with Olivier Assayas (look, another Personal Shopper mention). Mungiu, whose Beyond the Hills screened in 2013 but whose Palme-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days did not, divided our writers with his latest; the champions of the film had quiet praise and the detractors called it an accidental parody of the Romanian New Wave (though neither side ended up penning a review at MIFF last year). One would hope that Graduation won’t be the only Romanian film in the program with Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts having emerged as one of our favourites out of Locarno — and his previous work, Aferim!, having screened at SFF — as well as Roxana Stroe’s A Night in Tokoriki, representing the strength of the country in the short film realm. If Cannes 2016 films are still up for grabs, here’s hoping Cristi Puiu’s 9/11 conspiracy theory-filled drama Sierranevada also gets a red hot go.
Graduation is not the only Eastern European film announced today. Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor, a Polish crime drama that played in competition at the Berlinale, sees her return to feature filmmaking after five years of straight TV work (among them Netflix’s House of Cards and work for HBO, including the miniseries Burning Bush, which screened as part of SFF’s The Box Set program strand in 2013). Out of other films in Eastern Europe that might emerge with the full SFF program, Ralitza Petrova’s Godless seems a probable option, after it was lauded throughout the European festival circuit.3 Another possible pick from Eastern Europe this year could be the Bulgarian film Slava, from Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov.
As expected, there are some international award winners among the teaser ranks, with two more films awarded at Venice. Mexican director Amat Escalante took home the Silver Lion for Best Director for The Untamed, a science fiction film centreing on a couple whose lives irrevocably change after they stumble upon a meteorite. Shubshashish Bhutiani’s Hotel Salvation, which stars Adil Hussain (Sunrise, SFF 2016), was awarded the Prix Enrico Fulchignoni in Venice last year by a UNESCO jury.
Other award winners include Wolf and Sheep, the debut from the first female Afghani feature film director, Shahrbanoo Sadat, which took home a Confédération Internationale des Cinémas d’Art et Essai Award at Cannes last year (films from last year’s SFF that took home an award from the CICAE: Mirjana Karanović’s A Good Wife, Lorenzo Vigas’ Desde Allá and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang).4 Another, a film which has rocketed to near top of our must see list, is Sexy Durga, an unscripted road movie from Sanal Kumar Sasidharan which took home the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. There’s also Nowhere to Hide, a documentary that captures life in Baghdad after American troops left in 2011, which took home the top prize at IDFA last year.
If there was going to be an animated film announced for the festival, it’s not especially surprising that it is the Oscar nominated My Life as a Zucchini, from Swiss illustrator Claude Barras. The film, adapted from a young adult novel by Girlhood director Celine Sciamma, has already screened at last year’s MIFF and looks to be a carefully measured family film, considering its subject matter (alcoholism and the death of a parent). It’s worth noting, though, that SFF has not specified whether the film will be screened in French (with subtitles), or in English (with its American celebrity cast — a staple for international dubs).
Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is only the second film of his in the last decade to not be produced with the Chicago-based non-profit Kartemquin Films (with whom he made the now-classic documentary Hoop Dreams) but the film’s focus, banking institutions, might go some way in explaining that. The premise, a documentary about the only American bank prosecuted following the financial crisis in the late-’00s (it’s a family owned one in Manhattan), sounds like a This American Life episode but the film’s overwhelmingly positive audience reception at the Toronto International Film Festival and James’ own track record suggest that the film will be more than just an easily relatable ‘American narrative’.
The small set of music docs in this teaser suggest that the Sounds on Screen program is back, with the North Korea-set concert documentary Liberation Day about Slovenian cult rock band Laibach; RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World, which looks at the oft-ignored history of Native Americans in American blues music; and, surprisingly, the new film from controversial British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, 2014’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper), which looks at the life and death of Whitney Houston. Broomfield, who co-directed the film with Rudi Dolezal, was denied access to many people within Houston’s orbit, with her estate declining any involvement.
Rounding out the rest of the films announced today are Mrs. K, a Malaysian action film directed by Yuhang Ho which boasts among its cast the Hong Kong director Fruit Chan and the Taiwanese singer Wu Bai; Waiting For Giraffes, a documentary about a zoo operating in Palestine; Motherhood, a hospital-set documentary from the Philippines that focuses on what is regarded as the busiest maternity ward in the world; God’s Own Country, a timely film from the UK about a farmer forming a relationship with a migrant worker from Romania; Pop Aye, an elephant-starring fiction feature about the search for a rural home amongst an increasingly industrialised Thailand; Maudie, a Canadian biopic of artist Maud Lewis starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke; and Winnie, Pascale Lamache’s documentary portrait of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an influential and controversial political figure in South Africa who was married to Nelson Mandela from 1958 to 1996.
The other big ticket news today is the addition of the Randwick Ritz to the festival’s screening venues, now at eight in total.5 It’s not yet clear whether the Ritz will be treated as a venue aimed at younger audience (a la the introduction of Dendy Newtown, which began hosting second screenings from the Freak Me Out program, in 2015) or a more family friendly venue (like the Orpheum, which began screening festival films again in 2013 after a 40-year absence from the SFF rotations) but our guess is the latter.
You can read our coverage of last year’s Sydney Film Festival here.
Disclosure: Several contributors and editors at 4:3 have worked or interned for Sydney Film Festival. Two editors, Conor Bateman and Jessica Ellicott, were on the Film Advisory Panel for the festival in 2017. A disclosure like this will appear at the end of each piece either of the two publish throughout the 2017 festival.
Sydney Film Festival 2017 — Teaser Films
A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)
Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Hotel Salvation (dir. Shubhashish Bhutiani)
Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)
Mrs K (dir. Yuhang Ho)
My Life As A Zucchini (dir. Claude Barras)
Pop Aye (dir. Kirsten Tan)
Sexy Durga (dir. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan)
Spoor (dir. Agnieszka Holland)
That’s Not Me (dir. Gregory Edrstein)
The Untamed (dir. Amat Escalante)
The Woman Who Left (dir. Lav Diaz)
Wolf and Sheep (dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail (dir. Steve James)
I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)
Liberation Day (dir. Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik)
Motherland (dir. Ramona S. Diaz)
Mountain (dir. Jennifer Peedom)
Nowhere To Hide (dir. Zaradasht Ahmed)
RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked The World (dir. Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana)
Spookers (dir. Florian Habicht)
The Opposition (dir. Hollie Fifer)
Untitled (dir. Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi)
Waiting for Giraffes (dir. Marco de Stefanis)
Whitney: Can I Be Me (dir. Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal)
Winnie (dir. Pascale Lamche)
An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis)